Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Movie: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant:  Successful sequels are the exception.  Typically, when a studio pops out a sequel, it is attempting to cash in on prior success but usually ends up tarnishing the brand.  This is the sixth time the creatures from Alien have appeared, excluding the two wasted films that combined the Alien and Predator franchises.  The original 1979 Alien was Ridley Scott’s creation.  I still remember being shocked when the creature appeared.  I don’t recall having jumped in my seat at a movie theatre before or since.  The three Alien films that followed the original were not directed by Scott and lacked that unique edge.  In 2012, Scott released Prometheus, a prequel.  If you watched Prometheus and enjoyed it, you’ll find Alien: Covenant to be a worthy successor.  However, if you did not like the original Alien, then stay away from this movie.  Ridley Scott recreates that intense edge from his original film.  This is due in part to a strong performance by the film’s female lead, Katherine Waterston.  No one is going to duplicate Sigourney Weaver’s performance in the original Alien, but Waterston, as Dany Branson, is excellent.  Most of the commentary on this film has focused on Michael Fassbender’s dual-role performance as the humanesque robots, David and Walter.  While Fassbender’s performance is superb, the film would be a failure without Waterson.  During the opening scenes of this 122 minute movie, we learn that Dany is married to Covenant’s airship captain, Jake Branson (James Franco).  Covenant is on a journey to a remote planet.  Jake is killed off very early in the film during an unexpected neutrino storm burst that damages the ship.  Following the storm, Covenant picks up a radio transmission from an unknown planet in the vicinity.  The new captain, Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate.  At this point, we meet David from Prometheus and are reintroduced to the aliens.  Unfortunately, to move the storyline forward, most of the film’s characters do stupid things, which is particularly true of the Captain Oram character.  The film makes a point of presenting Oram as a man of faith when, in actuality, faith clearly has nothing to do with his decisions.  Also, Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride), chief pilot of the Covenant, is not an endearing character.   Spock would be extremely disappointed with the decisions made by both Faris and Oram.    A number of the crew are married couples and this dynamic is intended to provide a rationale for some of the decision-making.  However, in reality, the crew would not have achieved their positions if their decisions had been so closely bound to their emotions.   The editing could have been tighter, and some of the characters could have been endowed with a bit more intelligence.  Despite my criticisms,  if Fassbender and Waterston are cast in a seventh film in this franchise and if the film is directed by Scott, I will buy a ticket.   Having been hooked in 1979,  I will sign up for another ride. For those of us intrigued by Scott’s original creation,  Alien: Covenant is a worthy successor.  Ridley Scott has kept me interested.


Steven Guttman

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Movie: The Dinner

The Dinner:  a family drama.  Despite its title, this is not a film for foodies nor is it a kin to My Dinner with Andre.  This movie is for mental health professionals who are jonesing for a challenge.  Two brothers, Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan), a former history teacher, and Stan Lohman (Richard Gere), a congressman now running for governor, meet for dinner at an elite restaurant.  The brothers are accompanied by their wives; Paul’s wife Claire (Laura Linney), and Stan’s young second wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall).  The performances by all four actors are excellent.  The premise of the film is that through the vehicle of the five course formal dinner, various elements of the family are revealed.  An incident has occurred and Stan has interrupted his campaign to meet with his brother and sister-in-law.  It is clear upon our introduction to Paul that he has issues, as noted by his running internal dialogue.  As the courses are served, someone is always getting up and walking away.  Each course is described by the presenters and, although each course sounds elaborate and expensive, most due not sound appetizing.  But the problem is not the food or the overly elegant and affected service.  Colored in part by my personal biases, I believe the problem rests with the film’s director and screenwriter, Oren Moverman.  Those of you who are longtime readers know I am not a fan of flashbacks.  In this particular film, the characters are discussing various family incidents and suddenly we are launched into a flashback.  This tactic is used far too frequently.   By the time you reach the halfway mark of this 120 minute movie, you start to question the point of this seemingly disjointed film and wonder where it is this going; the storyline feels to be aimlessly rambling.  Up to this point, the information has been sufficient to establish that this story has to do with three teenage boys who are connected to the two families.  Then you are smacked with the horrendous deed that two of the teenagers have committed.  The rest of the film deals with how the parents handle what their children have done.  Spoiler alert:  only Stan, the politician, takes the high ground.  A further Spoiler Alert:  because the film addresses a significant moral question, I will be discussing the deed involving two of the boysWhat do you do when your child commits a heinous crime, in this case firebombing a homeless person, and the police do not know the identity of the perpetrator?  Do you protect your child or do you report the truth?  Presumably, by making the crime so hideous, the viewer must also make a choice.  The film’s ending is ambiguous, including the action taken by Paul as to Stan’s second son, an adopted African-American teenager who did not participate in the crime but who did post the incident on-line.  Personally, I don’t know how one can truly hide such action.  It is clear that Paul’s son has psychological issues and, in light of the family’s history of mental issues, the decision should not be difficult.  Other questions are how is it possible for the mothers be so oblivious as to what’s going on with their children, and why?  This film presents a serious subject without any comic relief, with the possible exception of the restaurant’s absurd pretentiousness.  As noted, the acting throughout is excellent.  This film, based upon the 2009 novel by Dutch writer Herman Koch,  deserved a better script.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Movie: Their Finest

Their Finest:  a movie within a movie.  The year is 1940 and the place is Britain’s Ministry of Information following the British military disaster at Dunkirk.  The basic storyline of this 117-minute movie:  Britain’s propaganda office needs to create an uplifting film to boost the morale of the British people and, as it turns out, to also encourage the United States to join Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany.  The screenplay by Gaby Chiappe is based on Lissa Evans’ novel Their Finest Hour and a Half.  The film is directed by Lone Scherfig.  The story opens with Catrin Cole (Gemma Artenton) being summoned for an interview at the Ministry of Information.  She assumes the position is secretarial but, as she learns, her assignment is to write “the slop”,  a reference to women’s dialogue, for a Ministry sponsored war propaganda film.  Their Finest pointedly emphasizes the extent of sexism that was present in 1940’s work environments and personal relationships.  In fact, the role of Phyl (Rachael Stirling) appears to have been created specifically to offer a feminist viewpoint.  After being hired and following a run-in with actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin is assigned to research a news story about twin sisters who supposedly successfully sailed their father’s boat to Dunkirk to assist in the evacuation.  It turns out that the twins’ real story was not as presented in the newspaper, nevertheless, Catrin chooses to run with the newspaper’s version of the story and the film making beings.   As the tale unfolds, a love story, which was not obvious from the introduction of the primary characters, develops.  The English cast, including Jeremy Irons, Helen McCrory and Richard Grant, is excellent.  To amplify the film’s appeal to Americans, the Jeremy Irons character orders that a handsome American war hero pilot character be added to the film’s story.  The pilot is played by Jake Lacey, who is excellent in his role as a person having no acting ability.   Bill Nighy offers a star performance as Ambrose Hilliard, an elderly actor who has never grown beyond seeing himself as the young detective who starred in pre-WW II films.  The combination of an excellent script and actors giving superb performances make for a most enjoyable film.  There is more comedy, primarily through Nighy, and tenderness than you would have expected based on the film’s opening scenes.  The Artenton character, Catrin Cole, grows on you as do her co-workers.  Their Finest is an intelligent and fun film.