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Alien: Covenant

May 19, 2017
Alien: Covenant

Five years ago, I wrote a glowing review of Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel, Prometheus. Then I found out that the tide of public opinion was squarely against me. Well, I stand behind my opinion that while it may have diverged from the xenomorph-heavy sci-fi/horror thriller that the series’ audiences had come to expect, it was the thematic equal of Aliens‘ meditations on motherhood.

Still, public opinion can only be ignored for so long. It’s no surprise that Alien: Covenant pulls back towards the earlier entries’ style, down to the return of the classic egg/facehugger/chestburster/xenomorph lifecycle. And, of course the connection between Prometheus‘ “deacon” aliens and the classic forms is fleshed-out, so to speak.

But in returning to a plot- and action-heavy form, Alien: Covenant renders itself thematically weaker than its predecessor. Rather than break new ground, it digs deeper into the same creator/created tensions as Prometheus did, but specifically focused on the Luciferian tragedy of David (Michael Fassbender). Created by man, but disdainful of his creator, David saw something darkly beautiful in the bioweapon the Engineers had left in their ship. And humanity had its own misgivings, stripping the threateningly creative impulses out of later models, like Walter (Fassbender again, using his “American” accent).

Walter exists only to serve his masters’ purposes, like being the only one “awake” on a long-haul colonization mission. At least until an accident forces him to wake the crew. The captain (James Franco) doesn’t make it, leaving his wife, Dany (Katherine Waterston), distraught and depressed. The first mate, Christopher (Billy Crudup), takes command, though his reliance on his faith makes him an outlier in the group. He’s unsure of his position, and overcompensates in asserting his authority. When they pick up signals coming from a habitable planet mere weeks away — rather than the years it will take to reach their original destination — he decides to go with his gut and land there to check it out.

Of course, the planet is far from the paradise it seems. And by the time the crew come under attack, the mothership is held at bay by a huge storm. Not that chief pilot “Tennessee” (Danny McBride) will let that stop him forever. Fortunately, David shows up, having figured out how to survive the last ten years after the Engineers’ ship from the end of Prometheus landed here. Unfortunately, Dr. Shaw didn’t survive as well.

The dynamics here aren’t exactly difficult to suss out, and most of the turns are easy to predict. The biggest and most confusing flub comes with a flashback scene that only later is clarified as a memory of David’s rather than a story he’s telling the rest of the crew. If you want a haunted-house mystery like the first movie in the series was, this is no more the place to look than it is for philosophy.

In fairness, that’s not what it’s trying to deliver. What it wants to be is another thriller build around the lurid, Giger-inspired imagery that has defined the series since its inception. And in that effort it succeeds admirably. The alien world is gorgeously rendered, and the aliens themselves are fantastic. It may offer less to think about than other entries, but it’s no less a nightmare. And if that’s what you want out of an Alien movie, this may well satisfy you more than the one did.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

The Lovers

May 12, 2017
The Lovers

Tracy Letts is probably best known to film fans as a screenwriter, especially since he won a Pulitzer Prize for the stage version of the ensemble drama August: Osage County. His screen acting, on the other hand has been mostly small supporting parts, with the notable exceptions of one section of Todd Solondz’ Wiener-Dog and a two-year stint on Homeland. On stage, however, he’s had plenty of critical acclaim, including a Tony for his portrayal of George in the Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

His role in Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers isn’t too far off from that frustrated, embattled husband. But rather than elevating beyond minor skirmishes, Michael and his wife, Mary (Debra Winger), have settled into a cold war of a marriage. The hostilities may be below the surface lately, but they haven’t escaped the notice of their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), who warns his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula) before they visit. “They hate each other,” he says, “Watch them carefully, and if you ever see me acting like either of them, punch me in the face.”

The visit will bring more to a head than even Joel cynically expects. Both Michael and Mary have been having affairs, and both of their side pieces have been pressing for a commitment. Michael promises Lucy (Melora Walters) that he’ll tell Mary about her as soon as Joel leaves, so it doesn’t ruin their whole weekend. Mary promises Robert (Aiden Gillen) that she’ll tell Michael about him as soon as Joel arrives, so they can have their discussion out in the open, and face-to-face.

But the predictable train-wreck gets interesting when, a few weeks out from Joel’s visit, to their mutual surprise, Michael and Mary begin to have another affair, this time with each other. Soon they’re sneaking around, making excuses to their lovers to carve out time for a clandestine marital romp, each unaware that the other is in the same boat.

As with his previous feature, Terri and the television series Doll & Em he produced with stars Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells, Jacobs draws us into the sometimes weird and uncomfortable spaces where the lines between social roles get blurred. The story is less about surprising us with what we find, than in getting us to spend some time there with these characters at all. Characters who, in Michael and Mary’s case, are brought to life by a pair of consummate actors.

Letts and Winger are each capable of communicating volumes in silence, transmitted solely through shifting facial expressions and body language. Jacobs wisely gets out of their way, letting long stretches of screen time elapse without any dialogue at all. Watching either member of this couple sitting alone, turning over the latest developments in their mind can be as fascinating as any overwrought monologue. And when Jacobs gets them both doing it in the same shot, the superficial stillness masks truly turbulent depths.

I should point out that I say “stillness” here, rather than “silence”. The lulls in dialogue are filled with swells of the lush score by Jacobs regular Mandy Hoffman. The music can sometimes seem more appropriate to an old melodrama — or a Moody Blues album that Michael and Mary might have listened to during their first courtship — than this intimate indie. Still, it doesn’t take long for it to draw you into its own emotional rhythms, which reflect the characters’ own.

Is that manipulative? maybe. It’s at least the kind of manipulation that it’s hard to mind so much, since it’s such a nice ride. The same can be said for The Lovers as a whole. You may not be surprised where things end up, but it’s charmingly bittersweet to get there.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

3 Generations

May 12, 2017
3 Generations

At some point since its initial festival screenings, About Ray changed its title to 3 Generations. Which is probably for the best, since “Ray” is pretty much the last thing it’s about. For a movie trying to ride the crest of public — well, bourgeois liberal — awareness of trans stories, it’s all but uninterested in the actual experience of the trans character at its center.

That character being Ray (Elle Fanning), whose mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), struggles to refer to with male pronouns. But at least she tries more than her own mother, Dolly (Susan Sarandon), who doesn’t see why Ray can’t just stay “Ramona” and be a lesbian. If this were a 101-level story there might at least be some basic recap of gender theory to cover the difference between a lesbian — a cis woman who likes women — and a trans man who likes women.

Instead, it exists at the level of awareness achievable from a reflexive hatred of regressive Republican policies. Like, did you hear that trans youth have been forbidden from public bathrooms in their own schools? It’s an outrage! You should feel outraged and sad for Ray, who has to go to a nearby restaurant. Except that New York, where the movie is set, has a policy in place explicitly allowing students to use the bathroom that aligns with their own gender identity. But writer/director Gaby Dellal isn’t about to let facts like that get in the way of her sense of indignation. She clearly doesn’t need to do any research about the problems a trans boy like Ray would actually face.

And like I said, it’s not really about him anyway, as is clear from her comments about Ray being “a girl, presenting in an ineffectual way as a boy”, as if the validity of someone’s gender identity depends on how convincing their appearance is. The movie is far more concerned with Maggie’s conundrum: the permission forms she needs to sign also need the signature of the man listed as Ray’s father on the birth certificate (Tate Donovan), and Maggie is conflicted about seeing him again. And when she does track him down, he’s not sure if he’s on-board. All of this against the ticking clock of Ray wanting to get on testosterone therapy at least six months before transferring to a new school in the fall.

None of this holds together. First of all, if the father isn’t even paying child support anymore — she says as much when she has to track him down — why does his signature matter so much? Surely it’s just a legal formality to sever whatever claim he might have on paper. But that’s where the ticking clock comes in, which itself is artificial. The forms are not some secret that was sprung on them at the last minute, and realistically there was plenty of time to get all these ducks in a row, except that Dellal needs to inject drama and pressure on Maggie, her real protagonist.

Or maybe they just haven’t paid attention to the paperwork until this point? I don’t buy it. Sixteen-year-olds are practically paralegals when it comes to the ins and outs of what exactly is required to obtain a driver’s license. For something like gender dysphoria therapy, Ray certainly knows these forms backwards and forwards, inside and out. There are whole online communities and support groups; he must be in communication with them, or who is he making his transition progress videos — the only possibly interesting parts of the movie — for? He’s seen the line asking for his father’s signature, and yet has done nothing to make sure it won’t present a problem.

But Dellal isn’t interested in engaging with the sort of community young trans people might craft for themselves. Tumblr itself might be a bit hazy for a woman in her 50s, and it distracts from what she’s really interested in: the tribulations of their middle-aged mothers. Even there, the characterization is awkward; Maggie is a woman who is willing to have serious conversations about gender identity with her teenager, and yet is afraid to tell him about the legal complications with his father.

Which brings us back to Dellal’s true perspective: Dolly, played by Sarandon as a well-off, well-meaning, but clueless and outspoken bumbler who lets her ideals run roughshod over the lived experiences of people around her. She’s the one who changes her mind to earn the Woke Merit Badge, which is more important to Dellal than an accurate portrayal of a trans experience. Like Dolly, the script is mired in second-wave feminism as it is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern gender landscape. It even manages to get in a healthy dose of hetero-slut-shaming along the way: “don’t be loose with men, girls, or your own children will pay the price!”

And all of this misguided exploitation of trans experiences comes with one of the sloppiest executions I’ve seen outside of a student film. The acting is fine; Fanning does as well as any actress might, though I’m certain that a good casting director could have found an aspiring trans actor just beginning his transition. But the editing is a giant mess, patched over with truly awful ADR work to add or alter lines. To some extent this is the result of a hasty re-cutting a year ago, but there’s still no excuse for letting it get released in this form.

But the show must go on, as a monument to Dellal’s self-congratulation. If she didn’t push this out into the world, how else would everyone know how down with the trans struggle she is? Never mind the actual trans people saying there are huge problems with it; what would they know about their own lives that Dellal can’t explain to them better? That’s what they’re really here for: a target for well-off ladies to show just how open-minded and progressive and accepting they can be.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Chuck

May 12, 2017
Chuck

Hey, did you ever hear about Chuck Wepner? A working-class hero of Bayonne, New Jersey, he was the first boxer to fight Ali after the Rumble in the Jungle, and he came within nineteen seconds of going all fifteen rounds. That fight kinda sorta inspired the script of Rocky. Maybe. If you squint at it. Then he mostly tried cruising on that fame and screwed up his life before putting it back together and settling down to run a liquor store.

The challenge of Chuck is to draw that paragraph out into a hundred-minute feature. Because that’s really all there is to this guy. I’m sure that Wepner (herein played by Liev Schreiber) is a great guy who loves his wife, Linda (Naomi Watts, nearly unrecognizable in ’70s makeup and redhead wig), and surely treats her better than he did his long-suffering second wife, Phyllis (Elizabeth Moss). But honestly I just don’t really care about this guy, and making the audience care is job one for a biopic.

It’s not like this is a fantastic boxing movie. Wepner scorned the “sweet science”, and mostly achieved fame on his ability to take a punch and keep on lumbering. He may have hated it, but they didn’t call him the “Bayonne Bleeder” for nothing. So we get the one bout with Ali (Pooch Hall), in which he does little but survive, and that’s about it. There are flashes on his infamous pro-wrestling appearance with Andre the Giant, and that time — I hope the only time — when he got in the ring with a bear. And they’re good for a hit of absurdism, but don’t have much to offer Rocky fans.

Speaking of which, Chuck does manage to get in contact with a young Sly Stallone (Morgan Spector), who even offers him a bit part in Rocky II. He seems to be a fan of Chuck’s, or at least to be glad to meet the boxer, but it’s not clear how accurate that is. Co-writer Jeff Feuerzig told this same story in a documentary for ESPN in 2011, so he surely knows about the lawsuit between Wepner and Stallone, but it doesn’t seem to make an appearance here.

Instead, Chuck squanders his opportunity with his escalating cocaine habit, egged on by his sycophantic friends (Jason Jones and Jim Gaffigan, the latter playing marvelously against type). Abandoned by his wife and his manager (Ron Perlman), and failing to reconnect with his brother (Michael Rapaport), he hits bottom without even a blaze of glory to make a good climax.

It’s nice to see Schreiber get a leading role that still lets him work his character acting skills, but Chuck‘s story is just not that interesting. Director Philippe Falardeau and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc seem more interested in matching the grain of their film stock to the archival footage they cut it together with, and little if any effort goes into making this a movie worth watching.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 5, 2017
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each sub-series has its own role to play. The first installment of Guardians of the Galaxy is that, even more than the rest of them, its place was to have fun. And sure, even when the MCU is in “serious” mode with its Captain America movies it’s still easily more fun than the slogs that DC has been putting forward. But Guardians is in another realm altogether, and Volume 2 shows no sign of slowing up.

Writer/director James Gunn is back after doing a great job the first time around, and he’s already tapped for a future Volume 3, which he’s more than earned. But this time, in an uncommon move for sequels, he goes smaller, abandoning the travelogue form that introduced us to Peter “Star-Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel), the last of whom has recovered from the climax of the last movie as an adorable ten-inch seedling. Instead he goes smaller, with a character-focused entry that delves deeper into each non-vegetal team member’s story.

Of course the most prominent thread belongs to Peter, the question of whose parentage was left a mystery the last time around. When have daddy issues NOT been the go-to excuse for male characters’ emotions? Predictably enough, when the deadbeat dad from the ’70s does show up he’s some smarmy guy with Kurt Russell hair and a truly massive ego, likable on the surface as long as everything goes his way, but twisted and rotten deep down at his core. And despite the natural desire of an abandoned son to yearn for a connection with his father, the obvious lesson to be meted out is that sometimes family has little to do with parentage.

In terms of the larger-scale MCU structure, the more interesting arc belongs to Gamora, whose rivalry with adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) flares up. The two had been forced to fight each other as children by their adoptive father, Thanos —
the giant, purple, Josh Brolin-voiced guy who doesn’t show up in this installment but will be the big bad of the upcoming Infinity War. Gamora always got the upper hand back then, and now that they’re out from under their father’s thumb, Nebula is out for revenge.

Drax gets some of the best character work here, albeit with little in the way of an arc. His literal-mindedness could be a one-note joke in Vol. 1, but here he gets some depth and shading. He tends to pair off with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the saucer-eyed codependent empath that Peter’s dad has gaslit into doing all his emotional labor, and their complementary naïvetés play off of each other nicely.

And then there’s Rocket, the foul-tempered, genetically-engineered raccoon trapped in a world he never made — wait, no, that’s Howard the Duck, who has a couple more cameos this time. His selfish idiocy is what brings the wrath of the high Sovereign priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) down on the team, along with the outcast team of Ravagers led by Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) that first abducted Peter from Earth as a boy. Rocket, even more than the rest, embodies the bickering and infighting that almost defines the team, and yet he’s only just starting to realize that a fight is not necessarily the end of a relationship.

All of this is what makes Vol. 2 go, but what really makes it work is the same sense of off-beat fun that suffused Vol. 1. Gunn, along with cinematographer Henry Braham, creates some of the most gorgeous, colorful shots in the MCU. The Day-Glo rainbow puts to shame the grimdark, gunmetal-grey palette all too often taken as a stand-in for grown-up gravity. More than any other comic-book blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy refuses to apologize for its roots.

But of course what really sets it apart from the rest is something the comics themselves could never manage: the “Awesome Mix” needle-drop soundtrack, courtesy of Peter’s treasured mix tapes. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack album for about a week now, and I have to say it’s better than the first one. Glen Campbell, Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra, and Jay and the Americans provide sometimes surprisingly effective backdrops for action sequences. Cat Stevens may be a little on-the-nose for a wistful scene, but I can’t think of a better choice. And while I’ve always loved “Brandy”, I have to admit that it’s a natural fit for love-em-and-leave-em douchebags.

Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is light, frothy, and maybe even toned down a bit from Vol. 1. Still, it manages to deliver better than any of its peers is a sense of whiz-bang glee that “serious-minded” comic book adaptations dismiss as kids’ stuff. But yes, this is kids’ stuff, and what’s wrong with that? There are a lot of annoying things about being a kid, but the easy access to wonder and joy is not among them. When a movie like this comes along offering them, I’m not going to turn my nose up at it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but it doesn’t quite pass.

The Circle

April 28, 2017
The Circle

I was excited when I went to see The Circle. Based on the novel by McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers, directed by James Ponsoldt, and featuring a stellar cast in roles I just knew they could knock out of the park, I’d been looking forward to it for months.

I could definitely see how Eggers’ book would attract Ponsoldt, who has always told stories about people with unhealthy and sometimes destructive habits. His first three features all dealt with alcoholism, including Smashed, among the finest examples of the form. His most recent was The End of the Tour, adapting David Lipsky’s memoir about a road trip of sorts with David Foster Wallace, for the 10th anniversary edition of whose magnum opus Eggers wrote the forward in 2006. Even when I didn’t care for the movie itself, I could respect the craft that went into The Spectacular Now. This was bound to be good.

But then I started watching. And one scene landed awkwardly. And another one felt forced and rushed. And another one felt unmotivated and convenient. I tried to reassure myself, of course a two-hour movie has to cut something from a five-hundred-page novel. It might not have the wonderful character development, or the thematic resonances, or the unexpectedly perfect literary structures. But surely it would at least get the overall feel and idea of the novel, right? It might be flawed, but it must still be at least passable.

I held out hope as long as possible, but I slowly came to the realization: this is a bad movie. Yes, the basics of the story are in place — Mae Holland (Emma Watson), with help from her old friend Annie Allerton (Karen Gillan), gets a job in The Circle, a mashup of Google, Facebook, Apple, and every other utopian Silicon Valley behemoth you can think of — but the similarities run thin. Mae is at first skeptical of The Circle’s share-everything ethos, as in the novel, but the person she meets who shares her suspicions (John Boyega) quickly reveals his identity. In the original it was a mystery that dragged out much longer, and even if the reader could probably guess it earlier, the question helped drive much of Mae’s evolving opinions.

Speaking of which, there’s none to speak of. We slam right from Mae feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to participate in on-campus activities and online Circle interactions — which are far from mandatory, but from which her absence keeps raising questions — into her embracing the radical openness espoused by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the charismatic Steve Jobs-esque CEO.

In contrast, Eggars’ novel guides the reader through this evolution smoothly enough that even if you don’t personally buy Bailey’s arguments and Mae’s rationalizations, you can at least see their appeal. The adaptation lacks all this nuance, allowing The Circle to become yet another example of the superficially-happy dystopias that form the settings of so many young-adult-targeted movies.

And even as Eamon’s plans with his co-founder and COO, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), are revealed, life in The Circle never takes on a darker, more threatening, or even dystopian tone. It’s bad because well obviously they’re the bad guys, but we never feel trapped within a system that’s growing to encompass more and more of our lives, that scares us as much to leave it as to stay. This goes right down into the score, which opts for a poppy Danny Elfman vibe where it really needs something closer to Cliff Martinez’ queerly edgy sensibility.

We do at least get some sense of those who remain skeptical, in the form of Mae’s parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) and a childhood friend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). But again they feel poorly integrated into the central plot of Mae’s life at The Circle — not that we really get the feel of life at The Circle in this adaptation — and their arguments feel less like real misgivings and more like cheap knee-jerk Luddism. None of it jells into an effective statement, much less a serious attempt to wrestle with the real changes being wrought on our society by the rise of social media.

But the most galling change is the wholesale replacement of the dénouement. Everything after the climactic sequence — which of course is itself tweaked to take off its edge — is replaced by something far more pedestrian and audience-friendly than the thematic genius of Eggers’ novel. The only thing that surprised me more than the way his story was mangled was to see that he himself, along with Ponsoldt, did the mangling.

Maybe it’s not entirely fair to judge an adaptation that tries to squeeze a decently hefty novel into a single feature’s running time. But is is more than a mere abridgment; the whole texture of the work has been squeezed out, and the central ideas have been reduced almost to the point of self-parody. World-class actors struggle mightily with clunky, expositional monologues, which are all the script has time for anyway. And no matter how pretty cinematographer Matthew Libatique makes it look, it’s clear that the soul of The Circle did not survive the transition to the screen.

As a bit of a postscript: while most of the cast do at least a decent job, Paxton is the only one who is really fantastic, for as little as he’s given to do. It’s a shame for him to go out on this one, but he still manages to remind us here just how great his talent was.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but fail.

Grey Lady

April 28, 2017
Grey Lady

The title of Grey Lady is evidently a reference to Nantucket Island. I mean, I’ve never heard of it, but it shows up on the Wikipedia page, and I’m willing to concede that writer/director John Shea might know something I don’t. But that’s about as conciliatory as I’m feeling for what may number among the worst movies I’ve seen without the words “Lifetime Original” being involved somewhere.

We’re on Nantucket because Boston detective James Doyle (Eric Dane) is investigating a series of murders that have already claimed his sister and his girlfriend (Rebecca Gayheart). Who is, er was, also his partner. Oh, but the sister and girlfriend are two separate people, though the script isn’t terribly clear on that point and I wanted to at least do better on that count. Oh, and the girlfriend was also pregnant with Doyle’s baby, which I’m not entirely sure he could have known, but I think we’re also supposed to assume he knew because it adds that much more pathos to his back-story. Pathos is the name of the game here. Very, very pathetic.

Anyway, so he shows up in Nantucket despite being thrown off the case by his BPD captain — a case that since it started with his sister he shouldn’t have been on in the first place but whatever — because he doesn’t care about your rules, and he’s in this for justice. Seriously, this kind of dialogue is just in here and as far as I can tell it’s meant to be taken seriously. I could almost respect a movie that quoted this sort of self-serious garbage in an attempt at parody, but no it really is this ridden with clichés.

But why are we on Nantucket again? Honestly, I’ve been back over the first chunk of the movie again and I can’t see the connection. Something about Doyle’s family, and they used to come to the island, or he thinks some portion of them live here. It’s the sort of small town where everybody knows everybody, but nobody knows the names he’s asking about even as we later discover they’ve been there the whole time.

A representative from the local police (a wasted Adrian Lester) is there to meet him off the ferry, and he quickly meets local socialite Melissa Reynolds (Natalie Zea) who naturally falls for him but he’s still too hurt — in a quiet, manly way, of course — by the loss of his basically identical girlfriend to return her affections.
Yet. There’s a local drunk (Amy Madigan) and a loopy blonde (Carolyn Stotesbery), and Shea himself shows up as the police chief here to deliver an in-person dose of canned rogue-cop dialogue.

There is nothing redeeming here. It doesn’t look particularly good; there are no bravura performances; there’s no interesting quirk that makes up for the overwrought, well, everything. It even commits the cardinal sin of hiding information from the audience for no story-driven reason, and it has the cluelessly poor taste to do it right in front of us. I can only imagine that Shea had stockpiled a decade’s worth of favors from his television career, and hope that he has now cashed them all in.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.