Film review – Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)

I have to lay out some home truths before we start. After five years, it appears the dust has settled and most of us have decided Prometheus was a pile of rubbish.

The Alien prequel was a return to the helm for Ridley Scott after a 33-year hiatus. Despite the anticipation, the disappointment amongst the hard-core fans stemmed from some convenient plot points that seemed to allow progression of the story despite not really making sense (“Why did she run in a straight line?”, “Why did the navigator guy get lost?”, “She’s just had a caesarean… how is she running?”).

I saw the film as a midnight screening and I remember coming out of the cinema buzzing with excitement. The film was, in my opinion, a return to form for the franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing Alien v Predator films (which worked better as a toy line than as a film). It wasn’t a patch on the first two – Alien and its sequel Aliens – but probably stood alongside or better than any of the other instalments.

Yes, that’s right. I am a fan of Prometheus.

I went into an early screening of Covenant with the same kind of excitement and anticipation as I had five years ago. The advertising campaign has been nothing if not relentless, so finally getting to see the film on the big screen felt as much a trip to the cinema as it was a way to quench my carefully manipulated thirst for a next instalment.

The film is set in 2104, ten years after the main events of Prometheus and around twenty years before the events of Alien. The opening sequence, which features a reprisal cameo from Guy Pearce as Peter Weyland, explores the themes of humanity’s desire to meet its creator. It could easily have been a part of the first instalment, but bridges the gap and reminds viewers of the unhinged nature of David, one of two robots played by Michael Fassbender.

The main body of the film focuses on a colonisation mission from Earth to to a remote planet Origae-6, aboard the titular spaceship Covenant. The main crew includes Captain Branson (James Franco) and third in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming expert and wife to Branson. Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith who is unexpectedly promoted to captain shortly into the mission. Michael Fassbender’s second character in the film is a synthetic android named Walter, a more advanced version of David. The crew also includes Chief Pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) and Karine Oram (Carmen Ejogo). Aboard their ship is around 2,000 human embryos, with the purpose of populating their destination planet upon arrival.

After a neutrino shockwave hits the ship, the main crew are woken up to deal with the repairs on the ship. They are seven years away from their destination planet but a matter of weeks away from an alternative planet that appears to offer the same prospects as Origae-6. New captain Oram makes the decision to land on the newly-found planet, which turns out to be the one Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David set sail for at the end of Prometheus. Needless to say, the story goes downhill from here for our crew, with disastrous consequences.

Given the popular misgivings about Prometheus, I couldn’t help but pick fault with a couple of major issues with the decision making of the crew of the Covenant. Most glaringly, none of them seem keen to wear masks when they leave the spaceship, even though there’s no obvious investigations into how viable to atmosphere is to breathe. It just seemed odd that they were so confident only minutes after being so worried. Surely that’s rule number one for space travel?

All the people on the ship have a partner on there, meaning everyone is at risk of losing a loved one at every turn. This falls down, however, when you throw a couple of red coats onto the first expedition. Where were the devastated husbands and wives grieving their loved ones? Do they not get to show emotion because their rank is too low? I’m looking at Ledward here. Surely he has a wife or girlfriend on board?

Aside from picking nits, the film is genuinely a great effort, probably a lot better than Prometheus. There are a number of great nods to previous films – the face-hugger makes its comeback – and it feels like Scott has set out to make a crowdpleaser. That’s definitely not a bad thing.

The partner element is an intelligent way to add depth to all of the characters. Shortly into the main plot, James Franco’s Captain Branson dies, immediately answering the question of why he wasn’t featured more prominently in the advertising campaign (a missed trick in my opinion). This plunges Katherine Waterston’s Daniels into immediate emotional turmoil, though she quickly rises out of it and continues with her mission objectives.

Waterston has some big Sigourney Weaver sized shoes to fill in terms of taking the female lead role. I’m sure she has felt the pressures of her predecessor, though it doesn’t show on screen. She does a fantastic job and at times carries the film, acting as the sensible decision maker, the natural leader and the only one with the will to fight back when everything goes pear shaped. Sure, the strong and intelligent female protagonist is becoming a bit of a broken record in modern cinema, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Signourney Weaver in Alien is probably the best early example of it being done so well, certainly in terms of Blockbuster films in genres usually associated with male audiences.

The final act is wholly worth of the Alien canon, rescuing a film that at times had threatened to go off the rails. It’s here that Scott ramps up the tension and action, paying off the setup over the previous 90-ish minutes.

If the final 30 minutes is great, then the final ten seconds is utter genius.

If you have any misgivings about the Alien franchise, Covenant is the film that will bring you back on track.

Film review – Headshot (Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, 2016)

Indonesian action film Headshot received its UK premiere on Thursday night at Mayhem Film Festival. It may have started late but the action came thick and fast, treating the audience to an experience typical of the directing duo.

The Mo Brothers – Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto – have carved out a unique blend of action-horror in their previous efforts Macabre (2009) and Killers (2014), both of which have received a lot of attention around the world. This film sees them casting Iko Uwais (The Raid) as a man who wakes up in hospital with memory loss and a past that is rapidly threatening to catch up with him.

It is a perhaps more Transporter than Bourne, with scant attention to the finer details of character development and more time spent with Uwais as he kicks, punches and shoots his way through an army of bad guys to get to the chief druglord Lee (Sunny Pang). It’s fun, albeit unrealistic – a fact underlined by the shooting ability of the henchmen (they really need some firing practice).

Headshot

Arguably this film isn’t really a horror, sitting more in the action thriller camp, but many of the scenes are littered with gruesome breaks and gory splats, from which a lot of the entertainment is derived. There were a few unfortunately humorous moments due to the over-zealous subtitles that often simply described what was happening on the screen, which broke up some of the more serious scenes.

It is a shallow film and one that probably won’t have much crossover appeal for people who don’t intentionally seek out non-mainstream Asian cinema. Those that do find it will be treated to a couple of hours of solid entertainment, though may struggle to remember any highlights shortly after the final credits roll.

Film review – The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has been carving out his own route to the forefront of spectacularly stylised cinema, oozing with what can only be described as Refnisms. His films all inhabit the same universe in a way that all great genre film makers do. So it is with his latest, The Neon Demon, which has all the hallmarks of a hedonistic night in a stae-of-the-art nightclub whilst not giving up on the brutal bloodbaths we’ve come to expect of Refn’s work.

The opening shot is breathtaking – a slow dolly-out on a female model who sits motionless with a sliced throat. That girl is Jesse (an initially unrecognisable Elle Fanning). We learn quite quickly that she is in the middle of her first photo shoot, but this shot lingers long enough to have us right in the palm of the hands of the storytellers. It is simple yet brilliant film making.

neondemonscreenshot1

Elle Fanning as Jesse

The film takes us on a journey with Jesse, an orphan who has moved to Los Angeles soon after her 16th birthday to pursue a modelling career. Bright eyed and innocent in every way, she has no time to learn who she can and can’t trust. As the focal point of a powerful story she is brilliant in the way she carries the film on her shoulders.

The supporting cast are excellent. Abbey Lee and Gigi Bella Heathcote put in a great turn as the jealous models Sarah and Gigi. Keanu Reeves’s Hank is reminiscent of his abusive husband Donnie in The Gift, full of brutality and intimidation. It is Jena Malone’s portrayal of doting makeup artist Ruby that really comes close to stealing the show, her face betraying everything she says throughout to brilliant effect.

The Cliff Martinez soundtrack feeds into the visuals perfectly. A frequent NWR collaborator, Martinez’s sparse electronic score blends the contemporary setting with the horrific events that are unfolding on screen. This is a work of art for which he won best soundtrack at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s easy to see why.

This is a sensational film with a powerful leading performance from a girl just seventeen at the time of filming. Pairing this with such bold film making and the result was never going to be anything but an overwhelming success.

Film review – A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino, 2016)

A Bigger Splash tells the story of Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), an ageing rock star taking a resting vacation on the remote Italian island Pantelleria with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a filmmaker. Their vacation is disrupted when Marriane’s larger-than-life ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

Watching A Bigger Splash is a little like watching a car crash in agonisingly slow motion. As the tensions rise and tempers are frayed, you see the action unfolding and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even though you want to look away you just can’t.

abiggersplashscreen.png

An interesting choice attributed to Swinton herself was that Marianne is recovering from an operation on her vocal folds. It means that her abundant acting abilities risk going to waste. This isn’t the case at all. Indeed, that she is able to command her scenes whilst not even speaking highlights her presence in front of a camera. Her frustration at not being able to shut Harry up is evident. This, mixed with Paul’s desire to not be drawn into arguments and Penelope’s apparent disinterest in just about everything, means Harry is able to be the centre of attention at all times, much to the bemusement of the three people whose lives he is engulfing.

It’s a tremendous performance from Fiennes. He is most certainly an annoying person to watch on screen, let along imagine being on holiday with. He’s a tragic man desperate to avoid the realisation that nobody cares anymore. We all know someone like Harry in our lives, but none of us like him. Unfortunately, whilst the performance is fantastic and it plays out beautifully, it doesn’t necessarily make for great cinema. Achieving a cinematic goal doesn’t justify it.

One thing this film shares with La Piscine, the 1969 French film on which this is based, is the gratuitous nudity. It didn’t really feel integral to the plot, and lacked any kind of eroticism that it may have been angling for, feeling instead to be overly sleazy.

The political setting didn’t really give any edge to the film either. Set amid a backdrop of illegal migrants landing on Pantelleria, it just felt like a shallow attempt to date the film without adding much to the plot. This could have been rectified if we’d seen the migrants sooner, but by the time they were first mentioned it felt like an irrelevant afterthought.

The film also feels about twenty minutes too long, with the action seeming to reach a climax only to drag  on far beyond the point it held my attention. As with all car crashes, it’s not very enjoyable to watch. The elements are all there – great acting, beautiful scenery, fantastic plot development – it’s just that the overall effect doesn’t deliver on its component parts.

A Bigger Splash is out at cinemas now.

Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Family Plot is the final film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, released four years before his death. Based on the book The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning, it is a shadow of his most celebrated works owing to a slow pace and a lack of chemistry between the lead characters.

The story concerns two couples. Fake psychic medium Blanche (Barbara Harris) and taxi-driver George (Bruce Dern) are petty criminals who find an opportunity to locate the son of an heiress called Edward Shoebridge and collect a £10,000 reward. In searching for this heir their lives become unexpectedly intertwined with professional criminals Fran (Karen Black) and jeweler Arthur (William Devane), who kidnap famous millionaires and return them in exchange for jewel-based ransoms.

Dern, Dern, Deeeeeeeern!

Dern, Dern, Deeeeeeeern!

Bruce Dern wasn’t the first choice for the lead role. Hitchcock’s preferred actor was Al Pacino, but his price was too high. Hitchcock went with Dern following his experience with him in Marnie and also in Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes Night Caller and Lonely Place. Of the four central characters, he is perhaps the most entertaining to watch. It’s a highly believable turn as a man controlled by his girlfriend and partner in crime and his comic abilities are put to great use. It’s hard to see Pacino improving on this, as talented as he is.

Roy Thinnes was originally cast as the Arthur / Edward character and five days of shooting were completed before the first choice William Devane became available and Thinnes was dismissed. Devane’s turn is one that doesn’t really deliver. The character calls for malice and terror, which never really comes to fruition; this in turn makes Black’s performance as his partner fall short as the coldness she tries hard to rescue never really comes to the forefront of their scenes.

Barbara Harris was in the middle of a career purple patch when this was released. Family Plot came sandwiched between two other career successes: Nashville and Freaky Friday. All three earned her Golden Globe nominations, though it is hard to see why her turn as Blanche was so celebrated at the time. True, there are moments of real hilarity in there, and she is clearly having fun with Dern with the relentless innuendos Hitchcock has littered throughout the script, but often she comes across as irritating and it feels like she is over-cooking her lines. The low point in the film is a scene where the pair lose control of the car they are travelling in when the brakes are cut. It goes on far too long and her reaction to the situation is at odds with her portrayal in the rest of the film. It came as no surprise to find out that Hitchcock was unable to be involved with these scenes due to his deteriorating health and this and other such scenes were filmed by a second unit headed up by Wayne A. Farlow and Howard G. Kazanjian. They do, unfortunately, lack the usual Hitchcock touch.

Many of Hitchcock’s films feel like they inhabit the same universe, but the same can’t be said of this film. It is a genuine disappointment. Coupled with a lazy transfer by Universal – one of the worst I’ve ever seen on the Blu-Ray format – this is overall a real disappointment. Steer clear unless you’re really desperate.

Family Plot is available as part of the Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection Blu-Ray boxset, or as an individual release.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Christopher Nolan’s space-exploration epic has transcended being merely a film and has become a kind of international event. With its sprawling starscapes, well-thought-out science, huge cast and mind-blowing visuals, this was always bound to get people talking. It’s a shame that I didn’t enjoy it very much at all.

IMG_9858.JPG

Before I start, I should say that I watched it an IMAX cinema. I’ve heard stories about different experiences depending on which cinema you’ve seen it at, but mine certainly wasn’t a pleasurable one. The film starts with a blasting soundtrack, so ear-piercing it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable. The discomfort never truly goes away throughout the film, but it is most pronounced in these scenes, and sort of lulls back and forth in the background for the rest of the film, making the spoken words more or less audible depending on how Zimmer and Nolan wanted to play it. To add to this, I had the joy of watching it in a busy screening so I was also fighting against the 100s of people who were eating rustly popcorn, chocolates and sweets, slurping drinks as big as their heads, or tucking into crunchy, pungent and hideously over-priced nachos [1].

As a visual experience, the film has many merits and if there is one area it should sweep up come awards season, it should be on the special effects. The distant planets are fully realised, tangible places and when we step off into a vast rocky, icy plane we feel completely like we on a place not of this planet but totally real. That probably benefited from being seen at an IMAX, and I was doubly pleased that it didn’t have to tart itself up with 3D visuals that weren’t required.

I didn’t think any of the lead actors were at the top of their game. Following last year’s Oscar winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club and a memorable appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street, Matthew McGonaughey was obviously on a high going into this. Bar a highly emotional scene where he starts to receive video messages from his eldest child (played, eventually, by Casey Affleck), the rest of his performance was merely adequate. Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine both did a great job playing the same role they usually play in Christopher Nolan films. It’s just a shame none of these performances blew me away.

IMG_9859.JPG

As the film has many opportunities to have the plot ruined by people, mostly people said to me “It’s good, but the last 40 minutes were completely pointless.” That annoyed me because I was expecting a slump at this point. As much as I resisted, they were wholly right. Up to this point we had a solid, thoughtful action film and in the last chapter it just descended into madness, tripping itself or the audience (or both) up with complicated 5D gravitational bleeding theory and scientific speculation. At one point I actually laughed out loud. I’m convinced the most cinema goers would have been completely lost by the end of the film. Maybe that was the idea. Following Nolan’s previous films, where we were challenged and surprised by the twists at the end (The Prestige is still one of my favourite films of all time, precisely because it has a great twist or three at the end), it was disappointing that the big reveal was so well thought out but yet so poorly communicated. Perhaps they needed to have a 30 minute lecture before the film introducing us all to the work of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Maybe an idea for the Blu-Ray release [2].

I’m not going to sit here and recommend you don’t see this film. It’s just an opinion, and seemingly one that goes completely against the grain of everyone I’ve spoken to. I just didn’t think it was as good as the hype, nor as good as Nolan’s previous efforts. All-in-all, a bit of a let down.

Interstellar is out now at cinemas worldwide.

[1] = Why-oh-why would you choose to do spend so much on food at a cinema. A cinema of all places? It’s so expensive and you annoy everyone else at the same time. Have we, as a nation, become so obese that we can’t make it through a three hours screening without doubling our calorie intake for the day? I think it’s a serious issue and indicative of where society has taken itself that we must consume unhealthy food every couple of hours. No wonder there’s an obesity problem. It reminds me of the guy in China who buys every single ticket to a screening at his local cinema for once a week, which is increasingly seeming like a good idea (though I don’t think I could justify the £2k spend each time to be honest).

IMG_9860.JPG

[2] There’s a great explanation of the science behind the film over at Screen Rant. It’s full of spoilers but if you’ve already seen the film and want a bit of a nudge on what was happening, that’s a great place to start.

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

“The closer you look, the darker it gets” declares the poster for Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler. And so it was. As I sat in the cinema wondering how far Jake Gyllenhaal’s character would take it, the answer tended to be “Oh, that far.”

The film is a bildungsroman tale of Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a young man driven by money and success, and willing to go to any lengths to achieve it. He gets hooked on the idea of freelance crime journalism, specifically filming violent crimes and accidents with a personal camcorder, with the plan to sell them on to local news station KWLA manager Nina (Rene Russo). However, as his business grows and the stakes are raised, he goes to great lengths to ensure he rises to the top of the pile and stays there, no matter what the consequences are.

IMG_9506.JPG

Gyllenhaal is a wonder to watch in a film like this. He has chosen his films wisely over the years and has a body of work he can already be very proud of, including Donnie Darko, Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac and Source Code. This is definitely amongst his best overall, and I’d go as far as say that Lou is his most defined character yet. He plays sinister very well and clearly knows how to make his audiences tick. At times it’s a real joy to watch, at times it made me want to cover my eyes; both responses indicative that I was hooked.

The plot works as a game of oneupmanship unto itself, and this operates across the board. The characters become fuller and more dislikable as the time progresses, the gore gets gorier, the action gets more explosive and by the final act the whole movie had me whipped up into a frenzy of disbelief. Well played Gilroy.

IMG_9507.JPG

The supporting cast includes a top-form Bill Paxton (whoopee-fuckin’-do) as a rival video journalist, and a further emerging Riz Ahmed, who Brits may remember from the excellent Four Lions. Ahmed is one of my favourite British actors and it was a nice surprise to see him with such a big role in an American blockbuster.

As the finale approached, I found myself getting increasingly engrossed by Lou’s actions. His morals become so loose by the end that there is nothing remaining. His actions are fuelled by a desire to earn money, which is only possible because the viewers of KWLA are hungry to see the gruesome truth of their city. It’s an intelligent method of storytelling that we are enticed in the same manner into Lou’s own story, and by the end I found myself questioning my own morals, sitting on the edge of my seat, watching in excited disbelief.

This is an excellent film and it’s well worth seeking out whilst it’s still in cinemas. Check it out!

Nightcrawler is in cinemas worldwide now.