Alien: Covenant

May 19, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup
Directed by: Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Prometheus”)
Written by: John Logan (“Spectre”) and Dante Harper (debut)

The slow-burning narrative that takes up most of the first half of filmmaker Ridley Scott’s prequel “Alien: Covenant” is as close to the tone of the original two films (Scott’s 1979 “Alien” and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel “Aliens”) as anything this franchise has conjured up in the last 30 years.

Scott’s last foray into the classic series, 2012’s “Prometheus,” was more ambitious than effective, and other Hollywood waste like the “Alien vs. Predator” crossover movies didn’t do the franchise’s mythology any favors. In “Covenant,” however, Scott is able to slow everything down to a crawl and get back to the roots of the story without trying so hard to be something it’s not. It might feel like déjà vu for some, but watching spaceship crewmembers exploring an uncharted planet is a lot more interesting than watching two iconic movie monsters drool all over each other for 90 minutes.

Actress Katherine Waterston (“Inherent Vice”) is wonderful and Sigourney Weaver-esque as Daniels, one of the crewmembers on a recolonization spacecraft (the Covenant) headed to a remote planet after their cryosleep is disturbed while on their way to a new planet they hoped to colonize. Instead of going back into hibernation for another seven years, the crew, which includes Tennessee (Danny McBride, who, fortunately, is not cast to play a cliché comic relief character); commanding officer Chris Oram (Billy Crudup); and android Walter (Michael Fassbender, who played android David in “Prometheus”).

Or course, when the crew lands, all hell breaks loose when two of them are infected with an alien parasite that uses them as a host before ripping through their flesh and causing havoc for the survivors. With the help of a lone inhabitant of the vicious planet, the remaining crew risk their lives to get back to their ship before their mission—and the fate of the thousands of human embryos on board—is destroyed.

With some solid performances and highly intense scenes, “Covenant” is entertaining albeit not nearly as inspiring as “Alien” and “Aliens,” two films many consider as the greatest contribution to the sci-fi genre ever. In the second half of the film, much of “Covenant” finds itself in familiar horror territory (that bloody shower sex scene is ridiculous), which overshadows some of the film’s more subtle moments. Plus, the last 20 minutes are so predictable and anti-climactic, you’ll wonder how screenwriters John Logan (“Spectre”) and Dante Harper, couldn’t avoid being so calculating with their decisions.

Nevertheless, “Covenant” is passable sci-fi fare. It won’t necessarily make anyone enthusiastic for whatever is next in the franchise, but at least Scott has the last word for now.

 

The Stanford Prison Experiment

September 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“C.O.G.”)
Written by: Tim Talbott (debut)

In 1971, psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted one of the most controversial psychological experiments in history. Bringing together a group of student volunteers to play both guards and prisoners, Zimbardo’s intentions were to simulate a prison environment and study the abusive behaviors within the prison system. What happened, however, was that everyone, including Zimbardo himself, become entrenched and absorbed into their roles and psychological degradation, humiliation, and empowerment began. Almost 45 years later, these events are brought to the big screen in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”

The cast is a veritable who’s who of young actors who have been in minor, but effective roles. Actors like Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller and Johnny Simmons are among a few of the actors who are great in their roles as prisoners. As each of the prisoners slowly unravel under the pressure from the guards, each actor gets to add more and more nuance and dramatic ability to their performance. On the guard side of things, Michael Angarano plays the sternest guard who takes satisfaction out of antagonizing everyone. At first as a joke, Angarano’s Christopher Archer invents an accent and swagger. As things progress, he starts to become this character and Angarano’s performance starts to get over the top. It is intentional and even necessary to show how far the guards, especially Archer, took it, but Angarano ends up feeling way too cartoonish to take seriously.

There’s a sense of real tension and discomfort that flows through “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” The film is at its best showing an unflinching portrayal of normal people who knew they only in an experiment becoming influenced, swept up in their designed roles and convinced that what they were experiencing was real. Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup in the film) himself served as a consultant on the film and most of the conversations are lifted from actual transcripts from the experiment itself, which adds to the unease. One of the most effective things about “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is how Alvarez  perfectly captures how good-natured and amusing the experiment seemed at first and how it turned on a dime. As a study of human behavior, it’s fascinating to watch the turn of simulation blending into reality and the effects on the psyche of everyone involved from the guards, to the prisoners, down to the designers of the experimenters themselves.

If there’s a complaint to be had, it is that the film could have used a little bit of condensing. Redundant scenes of abusive behavior are hammered a little too hard and a little tightening up in the editing bay could have made the film feel a lot shorter. Well-shot, designed and with a keen 70’s aesthetic, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a slickly made and accurate portrait of one of the most stunning social experiments ever done and will serve as a great conversation piece for psychology students and movie-goers alike.

Public Enemies

July 7, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Directed by: Michael Mann (“Collateral”)
Written by: Michael Mann (“Heat”), Ronan Bennett (“Lucky Break”), and Ann Biderman (“Primal Fear”)

The scintillating cast may be blinding at first glance in director Michael Mann’s new gangster flick “Public Enemies,” but even the star power of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale can’t save the era piece from making a surprisingly ordinary entrance into the genre.

While all the style and technical work is masterful, there a little something missing between the lines of the 140-minute tribute to Chicago’s crime wave of the 1930s that most people would notice if it wasn’t for all the intense shootouts. Who knew that when Johnny Depp says, “Let’s go to Chicago and make some money,” that’s really all they were going to do?

Set four years into the Great Depression, bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) has just broken out of prison with a group of men who will help him rob more banks. Dillinger starts off enigmatic and screenwriters Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett, and Ann Biderman make sure he stays that way for the entire film. As a matter of fact, all we really find out about Dillinger is that he leads a spontaneous life, can handle a Tommy gun with the best of them, and is extremely slick with the ladies. Dillinger might have been an icon, but “Public Enemies” seems fine in simply promoting his cool factor as the basis to which he is remembered the most. There a sense of the loneliness that director Mann should have been more capable of exposing, but that character trait is left undiscovered until the finale when there not much left to say.

Despite his character’s shortcomings, Depp is the center of this show and delivers as much as the script allows. The same can’t be said about Christian Bale and Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) whose characters, Agent Mevlin Purvis and Dillinger’s love interest Billie Frechette, are sorely underwritten. It’s not their fault. Their motivation to pursue Dillinger from a criminal and personal aspect never amounts to more than a few systematic scenes, which falls on the shoulders of screenwriters once again.

The writer’s biggest fault comes from skimming over the emotional impact in one of the most emotional times in U.S. history. And while the era and setting are very convincing (costume designer Collen Atwood should be getting some recognition by year’s end) nothing else develops around the picturesque scenes other than more bullet holes.

If you go into this film like Dillinger would – scene-by-scene without worrying about what is around the corner – “Public Enemies” could be a fairly interesting biopic minus the historical inaccuracies. But tie everything together and the film is deeply flawed and disappointing. Just when you’re hoping Mann will throw everything on the table, he folds without an ounce of expression.

Watchmen

March 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley
Directed by: Zach Snyder (“300”)
Written by: David Hayter (“X-Men”) and Alex Tse (debut)

There’s no denying the visual artistry and intensity of Zach Snyder’s film adaptation of the graphic novel “Watchmen.” While Snyder, who was recently named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the top 25 directors working today (surprisingly he landed at No. 16 ahead of auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar and Paul Thomas Anderson), has delivered one of the better horror remakes with 2004’s “Dawn of the Dead” and the highly-stylized war epic “300,” it hasn’t been until now that he’s had a such a storied narrative to work from.

Based on the graphic novel by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, “Watchmen,” a piece some considered un-adaptable for the big screen, takes the idea of comic-book mythology to another level by transporting our team of heroes into an alternate universe.

The story begins with the murder of a retired superhero. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gets a visit from a stranger one late evening and is tossed out of his apartment window. The crime causes other superheroes, who were once linked to him, to worry that there might be someone out there “picking off costumed heroes” one by one.

Through vivid flashbacks of these superheroes during their early years, we get a sense of where all these characters are coming from, what they have lived through, and how life as a vigilante has affected them emotionally. While many of these flashbacks work well, there are instances when too much reminiscing may have you wondering where Snyder and his screenwriters are actually on the timeline.

The superheroes themselves are the most memorable of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime, which doesn’t feel too long until the final 20 or so minutes when the story unfortunately transforms into an everyday end-of-the-world comic book yarn set on the backdrop of nuclear war. Overall, however, it’s not your typical genre-film.

Academy Award-nominated actor Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”) is spot-on as the masked Rorschach, and while actor Billy Crudup’s role as Dr. Manhattan is done mostly via special effects, his apathetic and sometimes poetic personality is evident through his glowing blue skin. Other Watchmen include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) whose mother (Carla Gugino) was part of the Watchmen herself and had a regrettable history with the Comedian, and the world’s smartest man, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode).

Rich in all its technical aspects, “Watchmen” is at its best when it breaks all the derivative superhero-movie rules and stands on its own. Through its sometimes shocking graphic nature and attention to detail, it’s a well-polished example of what fun mainstream comic-book films should be about.