cinema

Alien: Covenant

I was on the fence about this one, but in the end I decided to catch it before it disappeared from the cinemas. I can’t say I regret the decision and I’m glad I’ve watched the film, because no one shoots sci-fi like Ridley Scott, but the most damning thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s the first entry in the series that doesn’t offer anything new, and instead plays like the Alien: Greatest Hits. Even the runts of the franchise had some individuality about them, whether it was the director’s unique visual style or some new ideas, and even when these ideas were terrible, *cough* human/alien hybrid from Alien: Resurrection *cough*, at least they were still memorable. My biggest complaint about Alien: Covenant is how little of this adequate movie was truly memorable.

I liked the divisive Prometheus way more than many people did, and the ending of that film teased some intriguing possibilities, as its heroine Elizabeth Shaw packed the head of David the android in a duffel bag and set off towards the home planet of Engineers. While Covenant still acts as a direct sequel to Prometheus, it jumps ten years ahead and opens with the scenes aboard Covenant, a colony ship with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep, plus preserved embryos. When the ship is hit by a massive solar flare and suffers casualties, the crew pick up a strange transmission, human in origin, while doing repairs. The signal comes from a planet that’s much closer than their original destination and appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization. Ignoring the lessons of dozens of sci-fi movies where veering off course spells certain doom and death, the crew decide to stop by and investigate. If you thought that the scientists in Prometheus made some inexplicably dumb choices, this lot decide to explore an alien planet while not wearing any protective helmets whatsoever, presumably because they decided that hey, since this place looks a lot like Norway, it must be safe.

Visually, Covenant may not be as beautiful and striking as Prometheus, but it still delivers, with the majestic landscape shots and lived-in sets typical of Scott movies. It’s a pity then that the human characters don’t receive anywhere as much love and attention: this bunch is as nondescript and generic as they come, including the new Ripley-esque heroine Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other characters’ personalities, when they do have hints of any, can be summed up in a couple of words – this guy is quirky and wears a cowboy hat! This guy believes in God! The only two interesting characters are synthetic: David (Michael Fassbender), the inquisitive and amoral android who was the highlight of Prometheus, returns here as the sole inhabitant of the planet, and is rather more unhinged than the last time we’ve seen him. Then there’s Walter, the android crew member of Covenant, also played by Fassbender. Unlike the creative David, Walter’s generation of androids were made to be more machine-like and less creepily human, an upgrade David finds disappointing. The interactions between the two, with David teaching Walter to play the flute among other things, are weird, funny, philosophical, and make for the film’s best scenes.

Rather than answering the question posed by Prometheus – why did the Engineers wish to destroy the humankind? – Covenant instead chooses to focus on edging closer to the original Alien film and exploring the origins of the xenomorph. Which means that, at some point in the movie, it’s time for the usual: running down corridors, dark and drippy interiors, eggs, facehuggers, chestbursters and xenomorphs. While Covenant ramps up the gore and body horror, the problem is that a) it can’t muster the same level of tension as Alien, or the breakneck excitement of Aliens, and b) I can’t say I ever wondered about where the xenomorph came from. There’s no real point explaining something that was always effective simply as a horrifying, mysterious thing from outer space. So while Covenant is by no means a disaster and makes for a watchable, well-shot sci-fi thriller/horror, it’s short on new ideas and, unlike Prometheus, does nothing to stoke my excitement for a hinted-on sequel. Maybe it’s finally time to blow this franchise out of the airlock.

Things to Come

Our trip to the cinema to see this French film with the incomparable Isabelle Huppert started off with a bit of drama: as the room went dark and the opening credits rolled in, Mum and I realised we were in a wrong cinema and instead were watching a British war film, which explained the trailer for Dunkirk. Oops. We hurried across into the right theatre and luckily our session hasn’t started yet.

The film itself was in a way an anti-drama; we are so conditioned to constant dramatic developments and turns in the movies that it’s almost disorienting to watch something that’s actually much closer to real life. In a different film, a character suddenly bursting into tears would generally be followed by some shocking confession or revelation, but here it’s just a random burst from a new mother whose emotions run high after the birth and which doesn’t necessarily suggest a shift in the narrative.

Not to say that there wasn’t any drama period – Huppert plays Nathalie, a Parisian philosophy professor, who in the course of the film loses things and people most important in her life. The most devastating loss comes when her husband of 25 years, another philosophy teacher and fellow lover of books, leaves her for another woman. Not that Nathalie lets any of these losses unravel her – even though she doesn’t go through anywhere as much trauma as Huppert’s memorable character in Elle from last year, the two women respond to their misfortunes with a similar lack of self-pity. In the case of fiercely intellectual Nathalie, she leans on the tenets of philosophy to get her through hard times.

Huppert is brilliant and luminous, the gorgeous and serene shots of Paris and French countryside are francophile’s manna, and the movie is best seen as a collection of slice-of-life observations, rather than something that builds up to anything major. This is not How A Mature Philosophy Professor Got Her Groove Back, despite the presence of a younger man, Nathalie’s former student and now a fellow philosopher, who invites her to spend time at the commune-like rural house he shares with his anti-establishment friends. The film tantalises you with possibilities that their relationship might take a sexual turn, but like everything else this doesn’t play like your regular movie drama. In fact the most dramatic thing in the film might be Nathalie’s mother’s fickle black cat.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It’s been forever since I read Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel, but I can’t really remember Dracula giving the female heroine her sexual awakening. Nevermind, I do have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast trope and Gary Oldman as the monstrous yet tragic Dracula is captivating and sensual… well at least when he’s in his young human Gary Oldman form with the fabulous long hair. Not so much when he’s hanging from a ceiling as a hideous human-sized bat.

In this version, Vlad the Impaler turns to vampirism after the tragic death of his wife, who hurls herself off a parapet at the false news of his death. The priests tell him that a suicide will never enter heaven, which enrages Vlad; he renounces God and embraces the immortal life of a blood-sucking monster. Fast forward 400 years to the end of the 19th century, and Dracula sees a spitting image of his wife staring at him from a photograph belonging to a young attorney (Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. What the Heck Am I Doing In A Period Piece) who visits Dracula in his picturesquely sinister castle.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this adaptation is by no means perfect, but it’s a gloriously decadent feast for the eyes. I first watched this movie almost twenty years ago and its opulent imagery imprinted on my brain just from that one viewing. The imaginative production design, the sumptuous costumes, the unrestrained romanticism, the fantastic horror score are all a thing of beauty. There are billowing Victorian dresses, creepy shadows, long red cloaks, rooms full of candles, evil vampire succubi, bleeding crosses, and many many transitions between various circular shapes (like the eye of a peacock feather transforming into a railroad tunnel at the start of the film). The special effects and make-up still look good, other than a few decidedly cheesy shots of Dracula in his animal shapes. At the very least, even when the practical effects look dated and clunky you know that what you see onscreen is actually there.

The original novel was written as a series of documents, and the film largely preserves this episodic structure, switching between several protagonists and multiple narrators. This is somewhat to the detriment of the film, which feels like a succession of set pieces rather than a story with a real drive. The performances are a mixed bag; as mentioned before Gary Oldman is utterly magnetic and his line readings in the first half of the film as the bouffanted old Dracula (Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!) are just delicious. I couldn’t decide whether Winona Ryder is actually good as Mina, or whether it’s just that she has such a perfect look for the film with her huge dark eyes and her angelic beauty. Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top turn as the vampire hunter Van Helsing is hit-and-miss, sometimes it works and other times his wacky ways fall flat. Tom Waits is heaps of fun as the deranged bug-eating Renfield.

Keanu Reeves… ooh dear. I confess, I can never really hate Keanu Reeves even when his performance is like a walking wooden plank, but god he’s terrible here. Jonathan Harker is a pretty dull character to start with, and Reeves almost made me wish for Mina to dump her boring husband and go for the depraved immortality. Despite these shortcomings, there’s still plenty to love about the movie, especially from the visual standpoint, and it’s a fantastic take on the classic monster.

Get Out

My only regret with this film is that I already knew the big reveal beforehand from watching a spoiler-filled review. I’ve no idea why I did this to myself, I can’t even blame the reviewer who was thoughtful enough to include a spoiler warning – but I just kept on watching. The movie was still hugely enjoyable and suspenseful, and had other twists and surprises up its sleeve, I just wish I came into it knowing as little as possible.

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in an instantly sympathetic turn), a young black man who is about to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time in their affluent rural home. Rose never told her parents that her boyfriend is black, and Chris worries about their reception despite Rose’s assurances that her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. A different, simpler movie might have played it so that Rose’s parents are awful in an obvious racist way, but in Get Out Chris’s visit turns into a nightmare because Rose’s liberal neurosurgeon father and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist mother are just so hellbent on broadcasting how totally fine they are with Chris. But this awkwardness might be the least of his problems, as he gets increasingly creeped out by the very odd behaviour of the other two black people in the house, a groundsman and a housekeeper. They move around the place in a ghostly, silent manner, and when Chris tries to be friendly with them they’re cold and just plain unnerving.

If you briefly summarised the main mystery to someone who hasn’t watched the film it would sound incredibly silly, but it totally works in the context of the film, much like the potentially silly reveal of The Stepford Wives works in Ira Levin’s classic satirical thriller (Ira Levin I think would have enjoyed Get Out a lot). It takes care to lay the foundations for the reveal, so that when it happens it’s genuinely horrifying rather than inviting ridicule. There are certainly implausibilities, but you’re generally too busy being carried away by the film and its suburban-Gothic vibe to stop for nitpicking. It’s a superbly made thriller that juggles horror and humour, most of the latter coming from Chris’s lovable best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), TSA Officer whose natural inclinations to conspiracy theories come in handy.

One unexpected delight of the film for me was its score, which often sounds like it was lifted from the old-school horror movies with their shrieking violins, an interesting juxtaposition with the modern-day setting. My Mum who watched the film with me remarked that, just when you think that nothing new can be done anymore, a film like this comes along, and yes Get Out is the sort of fresh take on the genre you cherish.

P.S. The actor who plays Rose’s douchy brother looked naggingly familiar to me, and I only realised later that the same guy played the sweet-natured Banshee in X-Men: First Class. He’s certainly no sweetikins here!

The Witch

A very effective and disturbing exercise in slowly escalating dread, The Witch is the sort of movie where you sit on the edge expecting something really bad to happen any minute now. It doesn’t have many big jump scares but the claustrophobic setting, moody and muted visuals (the film is shot in natural light, with only candles providing the artificial one), spooky music and the unsettling implications of horrible things happening offscreen all work together to create a superb atmosphere of unease.

The setting is the 1630s New England, and in the opening scene a devout family of seven leaves their Puritan settlement over religious differences to reside on a farm by the edge of a forest, far away from human contact. I was glad to have subtitles while watching the movie, because everyone in it speaks in the archaic English based on the written records of the time, with thee and thou and dost and so on. It has a certain poetry to it and adds a lot to the authentic feel, but man would it have obscured the dialogue for me. One day, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy of the eerie wide-set eyes, seen most recently in Split and giving another strong performance here), the eldest child of the clan, takes her baby brother outside, where he vanishes into the thin air. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that, contrary to my expectations, the movie actually doesn’t toy with the audience regarding the existence of the titular witch – it shows upfront that yes she’s real, and what she does with the baby is not pleasant.

Thomasin and her family live in a world governed by faith and superstition where God, Devil and sin are a daily pre-occupation and the idea that the Devil might take on an animal shape is nothing out of the ordinary. It sure made me happy to live in the present day where I don’t have to think of myself as a born sinner and worry about hellfires all day long. When other strange and inexplicable things begin to happen, the family is slowly consumed with fear and paranoia that leads them to turn on each other with accusations of devilry. I thought that The Witch worked best as a quiet psychological thriller about the breakdown of the family – when it did attempt a few deliberately scary moments they mostly made me titter. They’re just too over-the-top compared to the overall subtle approach of the film.

Taylor-Joy is the standout in the cast, as The Witch is also an unconventional coming-of-age story of a young girl in the Puritan age, but Ralph Ineson and Katie Dickie (both seen on Game of Thrones), are also solid as the father who is sympathetic but too weak and prideful to admit he’s taken his family to ruin, and the brittle, emotionally damaged matriarch with a shade of Lysa Arryn. Without spoiling twists and turns, looking back it’s satisfying to spot all the clues the movie plants early on that hint on where the story will eventually go. It certainly has one of the most memorable endings in a film I can think of.

As a random aside, I wish I could think of ways to incorporate the line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” into my daily conversations somehow.

Apocalypto

I came across this one thanks to the most excellent History Buffs YouTube series, a show dedicated to reviewing historical movies run by a British guy called Nick Hodges. Nick is not a fan of Mel Gibson movies to put it mildly and he panned Apocalypto mercilessly for its many gross historical inaccuracies and the overall misrepresentation of the Mayan culture, with Gibson rolling his Mayans and his Aztecs into one. While his criticisms seemed legitimate, I’m way more forgiving towards the movies fudging historical facts for drama, and the film looked visually interesting at the very least. Besides, who else out there is making movies about a pre-Columbian civilisation shot exclusively in the Mayan dialect? I’ll take my Mayan movies where I can get them.

The story is very simple: Jaguar Paw, a young tribesman living in a jungle village with his little son and very pregnant wife, gets captured by the raiders from a nearby city, where he and his fellow villagers are due to be sacrificed to appease the angry gods. The collapse of the Mayan society is imminent, with the dying crops and strange diseases decimating the population, and nothing less than a constant waterfall of blood will do. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son in a pit cave before he’s taken, and he must escape and return to his family before it’s too late.

There’s some social commentary about the decline of a civilisation, with the scenes showing environmental degradation, the contrast between the pampered ruling elite and the sickly poor, and the cynical manipulation by the religious leaders. Some of it is as subtle as a brick, such as the creepy little girl prophesying the end of the Mayan world in a typical Creepy Child fashion. The movie really works best as a crazy, audacious, ultra-violent adventure story. Whatever else you can say about Mel Gibson, he knows how to pack a cinematic visceral punch and film a tense chase through the jungle, as the hunted becomes the hunter and picks off his pursuers one by one through the ingenious and often gory means. It’s like Home Alone, Mayan style.

The city scenes can be truly stomach-churning with the decapitations and cut out hearts galore, but they’re also visually stunning and feature the colourful body paint, eye-popping costumes and tribal decorations the likes of which I’ve never seen onscreen before (all that jade jewelry! The film is at least accurate about the Mayan upper class decorating their teeth with jade, as I got to learn on my recent trip to Mexico). I don’t know how historically accurate they really are, but they sure do look spectacular.┬áThe cinematography makes the most of the lush green jungle and other naturally beautiful locations. The indigenous cast, many of them first-time actors, do a fine job, especially Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, and there’s a surprising amount of humour in the scenes where we get to know our hero and his fellow tribesmen and women before everything goes to hell.

Winter’s Bone

winters-bone-2010-blu-ray-720p-mkv_snapshot_00-09-12_2010-11-29_23-48-50.jpgBleak and gritty drama set in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, featuring an outstanding breakout performance by the pre-Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence that actually deserved to win an Oscar (don’t get me wrong, she was good in Silver Linings Playbook, but I always thought that her win that year was about Hollywood crowning its new big bright star more than anything else).

Lawrence is Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl who is effectively the caretaking grown-up in her household, which includes two much younger siblings and mother who’s gone catatonic with depression. She gets by on welfare and kindness of neighbours (and squirrel hunting), until one day the local sheriff shows up at their ramshackle property. He informs Ree that unless her no-good father, who was busted for cooking meth, shows up at next week’s court date, she and her family will lose their house which he has put up to meet his bond. Determined to save the family home, Ree begins the search for her father and stirs up secrets everyone in her community, bound by its own code of silence, would rather keep down.

In this insular world of casual violence, which looks like modern-day rural Depression, almost everyone Ree turns to for help is involved in dodgy activities and is more or less related to her, the closest being her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). Her desperation is met with a mix of menace and reluctant empathy, as people would rather not have her ask questions yet still feel compelled to help out a blood kin. You never know whether the next person Ree meets is going to help or hurt her, and the finale, while never explicitly shown, is unbelievably cruel and gruesome. But Ree is more than strong enough to meet the challenges ahead of her, and Lawrence really brings to life her courage and her still yet fierce centre. Her heroism is the heroism of an ordinary person pushed into extreme circumstances, who goes on simply because they must – at one point, one of the women Ree visits asks her in disbelief if there isn’t a grown man around to sort out the father problem, and Ree’s simple answer is that no, there isn’t. At the same time, the movie doesn’t necessarily put Ree above her environment in Good Ree vs Horrible Rednecks sort of way; she’s very much a part of that world and the film lives among its people rather than looks down on them.