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Entries in aliens (4)

Monday
May082017

ALIEN: COVENANT

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Damien Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich and Guy Pearce.
Writers: John Logan and Dante Harper

Director: Ridley Scott 

Reviewed at the Sydney cast and crew screening, Hoyts Entertainment Quarter, on Sunday, May 7.

Rating: 3.5/5

Creation and identity, the duality of man and science vs spirituality are some of the high falutin’ themes that Ridley Scott wants you to consider in Alien: Covenant, his latest expansion of the ‘where did they come from?’ narrative through-line introduced in 2012’s plodding and regrettable Prometheus. However, like all the franchise instalments that have emerged in the 38 years since Scott’s lean and brilliant Alien, the oh-so-serious intellectualising of B-movie tropes only serves to get in the way of the what we pay to see – screeching monsters rip people apart.

Which is not to say that the vast reams of text afforded the sexual and maternal nightmare that is his 1979 masterpiece are not valid, but rather to acknowledge that the dissection of the nightmare came after it had been dreamt, not while the dreaming was happening. When the great craftsman Scott focuses in on why the film series has proved so enduring – the visceral, primal terror of associating with the prey, facing off against an alpha predator – his latest delivers bloody and bracing thrills and chills. When it waxes on (and on) about such lofty pretensions as the origin of the species and the identity of ‘The Creator’, there develops a sense of desperation, as if Alien: Covenant yearns for justification as more than the outer space splatter epic it just needs to be.

The opening credit sequence, in which aging scientist Weyland (an uncredited Guy Pearce) discusses origin mythology, art and classical music with his creation, ‘Walter’ (Michael Fassbender) in a sterile setting which may or may not be a memory implant of the android, establishes what most engages the director. The film finds a more familiar and pleasing groove when on-screen graphics introduce the crew of the settlement craft Covenant, spearheading the 2104 colonization of 2000 cryo-slumbering settlers on a new home on planet Origae-6.

Following a tragic (and spectacularly staged) mishap that demands the crew are awakened, they are sidetracked by a garbled signal that suggest life may exist on an uncharted planet just a few galactic clicks that way. These developments clearly harken back to the opening moments of Alien, although the cast’s game effort to recapture the chemistry of Scott’s original players is in vain; one must assume that camaraderie exists between the paired-off space travellers, rather than it being earned by good writing and great performances.

Leading the ground mission is newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of waivering self-confidence but strong religious faith, an aspect of his personality which one expects to have resonance but never does. Standing out from the crew is the recently widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston; pictured, above), a level headed ecologist who sees no value in putting the colonists at risk to explore a random radio single (she makes a good point), security tech Lope (Damian Bichir) and cowboy stereotype Tennessee (Danny McBride), left on board to pilot the Covenant.

Once the advance party set foot on the habitable planet (New Zealand exteriors doubling for lush interstellar greenery), they set forth into the unknown in a passage that recalls the marine’s first moments on LV-426 in James Cameron’s masterful sequel Aliens. To Scott’s credit, it is one of several nods to Cameron’s contribution to Alien lore and the role his skill and imagination played in establishing the franchise; would that Scott have also adopted some of Cameron’s brisk storytelling skill and aversion to pretence.

Soon, as is to be expected, the planet reveals its dangerous secrets, crew members are brought back on board in clear defiance of quarantine regulations and all hell breaks loose. The first alien reveal, the climax to a rivetting and truly terrifying sequence of events, reaffirms that Scott, for all his high-mindedness, is going to deliver the horror for which his series is known. By mid Act 2, however, plotting grinds to crawl with the re-emergence of Prometheus’ synthetic human ‘David’ (also Fassbender, in a performance edging dangerously close to camp) and the mystery behind the integral role he has played in the last decade of the planet’s lifecycle. True Scott fans will go weak-kneed at ‘easter egg’ moments, including a close-up of an eye and a verbal clue, that hint at the Alien saga's lineage between it's own synthetic humans and Scott’s other robo-villains, Blade Runner’s replicants.  

Working with A-list penman John Logan (Gladiator; The Aviator; Skyfall) and first-timer Dante Harper and a visionary tech team that craft some flawless deep space imagery, Ridley Scott essentially offers up the big-screen equivalent of an aging rock band’s mega-concert - a repackaged mix of the ‘Greatest Hits’ moments the fans came for intermingled with new stuff of interest to the band, but no one else. This leaves Alien: Covenant a frustratingly flawed, uneven work that rolls and pitches like a commercial space vessel navigating a solar storm. It is at times a thrilling, stomach-churning journey, but one that leaves those on board wondering if the disorientation and down time was worth the investment.

Tuesday
Oct182016

CURSE OF THE MAN WHO SEES UFOS

Featuring: Christo Roppolo, Dennis Deakin, Laurence Cefalu, Steve Cefalu, Jim Culcasi and Gregg Maldanado.
Director: Justin Gaar

Rating: 4/5

Despite a title that vividly conjures a 50’s B-movie aesthetic, Justin Gaar’s documentary feature provides a great deal more than the thrilling, occasionally giggly charms of an old-school alien invasion pic (though it supplies a little bit of that, too). Dissecting an ageing, eccentric UFOlogist’s obsession with lights in the sky along California’s central coast, Curse of The Man Who Sees UFOs deftly combines the joyous ‘I Want to Believe’ ethos of fan-favourite X-Files episodes with an unexpected and ingratiatingly warm human insight.

From a purely cinematic perspective, endearing UFO nut, synth-music composer and part-time horror effects designer Christo Roppolo possesses the kind of boisterous personality and towering physicality that makes him the ideal on-camera subject. When Gaar (holding the camera and narrating, though never revealed) first meets the slightly bedraggled but infectiously enthusiastic Roppolo, the disorientation that the director experiences in the presence of such a larger-than-life, left-of-centre force of nature is palpable.

When Roppolo unleashes the unbridled passion that drives his obsession, the impact is breathtaking (and often laced with salty adjectives). This is partly because of his storytelling skill, as in one graphic recounting of public defecation that may have been brought on by the UFO presence; less funny are memories of a childhood visitation, when he describes ‘Bullwinkle the Moose’ confronting him and his terrified younger sibling. But it is his hours of legitimate footage of unexplained phenomena in the skies over Monterey, Pebble Beach and Pacific Grove that legitimises and fuels his fixation.

The content is largely the shaky-cam, long-zoom blurred-focus variety, but there is no denying that much is ‘unidentifiable’, including pulsating colours, red orbs and triangular shapes, often flying in perfect unison and exhibiting non-linear trajectories. Gaar adopts the crucial role of sceptic, accompanying the viewer through stages from broad disbelief to a succinct revelation-of-sorts. The director acknowledges that there is a military base nearby, but does not give screen time to Air Force whistle blowers or weather experts eager to explain away Roppolo’s often compelling vision.

Where Garr’s film soars is not in its account of flying saucer worship but in a second-act refocusing on Roppolo’s past, encompassing such unexpected thematic developments as artistic dreams unfulfilled, family tragedy and betrayal and emotionally crippling grief. Gaar contends that his subject’s myopic enthusiasm for and unique bond with the sky visitors may have a great deal to do with a soul-crushing period of sorrow. The director’s observations are perfectly positioned to enliven the narrative; they spin a likable study of a UFO enthusiast who may be onto something into a dissection of a man haunted by memories and struggling with the melancholy of ageing emotions.

A terrific debut work, Gaar’s film exposes not the facts behind the UFO craze, but a man determined to leave a lasting legacy from the remnants of a life that promised a great deal more. In searching for the truth out there, Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs reveals that a more profound understanding of reality can be found in one man’s existence.

The film’s title, in fact, is perfectly appropriate, given that it captures the burden of Christo Roppolo’s misfortune in life, his proclivity for swearing when excited and the mixed blessing of being able to see what others can’t.

Thursday
Mar102016

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr and Suzanne Cryer.
Writers: Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle.
Director: Dan Trachtenberg.

Rating: 4.5/5

Twisting a tightly wound, detail-rich narrative into a superbly crafted, white-knuckle chamber piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane defies all genre expectations, including the generalisation that long overdue 'sequels' are inherently inferior to their source material.

Invoking both Hitchcock’s grasp of psychological drama and Spielberg’s genre storytelling precision, producer JJ Abrams and first-time director Dan Trachtenberg don’t so much forge a followup to but rather adopt as a reference point the 2008 found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. But by whatever measure, 10 Cloverfield Lane proves an entirely different and vastly superior vision; if Cloverfield was a product of its time, employing first person shaky-cam when it still felt fresh, Trachtenberg’s taut, slow-burn thriller is a glorious throwback to the days of 'serious' genre cinema.

The first of many decisions that Abrams’ production outfit Bad Robot gets right is the casting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Michelle, a young woman fleeing a failing engagement (the fiancé, revealed only via phone messages, is voiced by Bradley Cooper). Following an expertly-staged car crash, Michelle awakens in a bare concrete room, manacled and disoriented; Winstead conveys both the terror of this development while also exhibiting the survival instinct cunning that serves her so well as the plot progresses. After false starts in troubled productions (The Thing; Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter; A Good Day to Die Hard) and great work in little-seen pics (Death Proof; Smashed; Alex of Venice), the wait is over for patient fans that have known her A-list status was inevitable.

The room is part of an extensive bunker constructed by doomsday enthusiast Howard, a troubling, complex personality who purports to have rescued Michelle, both from her wrecked vehicle and some kind of extinction-level event that has made life above-ground impossible. As Howard, the great John Goodman creates one of the most chilling screen personalities in recent memory; having spent the last decade energising support parts in Argo, The Artist, Flight and Inside Llewellyn Davis, the actor gets to dominate a film with subtle, multi-tiered character work. Rounding out the claustrophobic dynamic is the terrific John Gallagher Jr as decent good ol’ boy Emmet, his fully fleshed-out performance elevating what could have been a mere ‘plot device’.

The confines of the underground world are slightly more elaborate than the four-wall environs in Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar-winner Room, yet the challenge to give the space a dramatic vastness is conquered with a similar mastery of craft. Cinematographer Jeff Cutter and production designer Ramsey Avery work wonders with space, maximising the dramatic and artistic potential of every bare wall, dark corner or glimpse of sunlight. Equally evocative is the film’s rich soundscape, including the pitch-perfect score by Bear McReary. By the time Trachtenberg’s remarkably assured direction draws a clear line between the sequel and its predecessor, all contributors have ensured audience involvement is peaking.

Many purists have refused to bestow the ‘new Spielberg’ tag onto J.J. Abrams, no matter how determined the multi-hyphenate is to wear the moniker. The mini-mogul cites ‘classic Spielberg’ - Jaws, Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Raiders of The Lost Ark, ET The Extra-terrestrial – as the defining creative influence on his career. But for too many, Abrams has mirrored the style yet failed to grasped the essence of Spielberg’s oeuvre; it is the reason a lot of people liked Super 8, his 2011 ode to Spielberg-ian wonder, but no one really loves it.

With 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abrams finally graduates from Spielberg wannabe to Spielberg protégé; it is an evocative reworking of B-movie beats that could have emerged from the darker-hued period that included A.I., War of The Worlds and Minority Report. Abrams and his team have delivered a thrilling tale of human endurance within the science-fiction milieu that would not be out of place amongst the legendary director’s filmography.

Sunday
Jul142013

PACIFIC RIM

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Diego Klattenhoff, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Robert Kazinsky, Clifton Collins Jr and Ron Perlman.
Writers: Travis Beacham and Guillermo de Toro.
Director: Guillermo de Toro.

Rating: 2.5/5


The niggling pre-release concern that Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-vs-robots action epic Pacific Rim was going to be his arty Euro take on Michael Bay’s Transformer series never really materialises; its an infinitely superior work to those travesties in every regard. What does surprise is that it still manages to carbon-copy one of Bay’s earlier ear-shattering works; essentially, Pacific Rim is Armaggeddon.

Once you substitute ‘undersea alien giants’ for ‘shards of meteorite’, the narrative comparison falls into place with startling detail. An ensemble of international types, each with a troubled past and under the command of a stoic leader with his own secret issues, must track threats to densely populated areas until the breadth of the enemy’s force dictates that the ultimate sacrifice will have to be made to protect mankind.

Also recalling the 1998 Bruce Willis blockbuster is a clunky plot and cheesy dialogue, the kind of shortcomings that genre fans were hoping del Toro would rein in for his first big summer entry (sorry fanboys, but Hellboy’s 1 & 2 were sleeper hits at best). Astonishingly, the harder one looks into the parallels, however minute, the more overtly obvious they become – Ron Perlman’s much-needed eccentric fronts up at about the same time as Peter Stormare’s crazy Russian did; a square-jawed Idris Elba, as the mission leader, has daddy-daughter issues with Rinko Kikuchi’s strong-willed heroine (ala Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler); Charlie Hunnam fulfils the scarred but solid hero role well, echoing the Ben Affleck part in Bay’s film.

Support players such as Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky as father/son Aussie hunks (sporting awful Down Under accents) and a visibly uncomfortable Clifton Collins Jr as the nerdy tech round out the trope-y caricatures. Several turning points rely far too heavily upon bickering nerdy scientists Charlie Day and Burn Giorman, whose contributions should have amounted to little more than comic relief but who are called on to plug plot holes, much to the story’s detriment.

The highly-touted effects work is photo-realistic (or as ‘realistic’ as acid-spitting behemoths and 6-storey high mechanic men can be). There is a genuine beauty in the detail, though it is frustratingly hard to make out at times. Australian audiences may appreciate the significant role a monster attack on Sydney plays in the unfolding plot, even if the details in the scene are nonsensical (a huge wall that fails to hold back the marauding beast runs down the middle of Sydney Harbour; pictured, right). That said, the rain-soaked clashes between machine and beast more than make up for some truly eye-rolling leaps in logic and coherence.

Guillermo de Toro’s film is not a total bust – let’s face it, it is probably the best sea-monsters-vs-giant-robots bash-‘em-up we’ll ever get - but the ‘bigger is better’ mantra he embraces overwhelms the genre intelligence and class for which he is revered. In an American summer season of less-than-stellar efforts so far, Pacific Rim is not the worst of the bunch but it is clearly the film that falls furthest from its inherent potential.