Sunday, May 21, 2017

How I Met Your MUTHUR: “Alien: Covenant” is a Creepy, Contemplative Pre-sequel

It only took two films, the hotly debated and divisive “Prometheus” (I loved it) and what the Golden Globes called the Best Comedy of the Year “TheMartian,” for Ridley Scott to get back into his sci-fi thriller Xenomorph groove. When “Alien” was released in 1979 it set a new standard for horror and science fiction. So many films have understandably copied its success. The series petered out eventually, entering “Jaws the Revenge” levels of mediocrity. Ridley Scott's “Prometheus” was a return to sci-fi form and a nod to his original filmmaking roots. Some people hated it. Some people loved it. But the best movies are always the ones that are endlessly debated. Enter “Alien: Covenant” a sequel to “Prometheus” that also works as a prequel to “Alien” and helps flesh out the things that seemed to frustrate people the most about the film that came before it. It's a taught, well-made thriller. The film doesn't break the mold and doesn't offer the same shocking moments of its predecessors but it further explores the fascinating themes of creationism and artificial intelligence.

The best sci-fi films always offer a little bit more than cool effects and action. Ridley Scott is a pioneer in the genre but too far too long of a break. “Prometheus” and “The Martian” proved he could be successful in the genre again and “Covenant” is no exception. Taking place several years after the events of “Prometheus” the film follows a small crew of a ship carrying thousands of people, and embryos, sent to colonize a new planet. After the ship is damaged and the crew is forced to wake up from cryosleep early, they discover a signal from a nearby habitable planet, still years away from their destination, they decide to check it out in hopes it could be their new home. But it's never that easy is it? Aboard the ship is Daniels (Katherine Waterston) the wife of the ship's captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) the first mate, pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), head of security Lope (Demián Bichir), and a handful of others. Every crew member is with their significant other. Also aboard is a familiar face: a synthetic human named Walter who looks exactly like David from “Prometheus.” He's also played by Michael Fassbender in another standout performance. He's an updated model and the film delves extremely deep into these fascinating android characters. To say much more about the plot or whether familiar characters show up is to ruin the fun.

But let's get to the good stuff. One is going to see “Alien: Covenant” for two main reasons, you just really want your “Prometheus” questions answered and you want to see another awesome “Alien” movie. Rejoice because you get both. Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper make the most sense out of what “Prometheus” started and have a great script that is heavy on the philosophy but doesn't skimp on the action and suspense. And Scott taking a cue from himself, takes his time here. Anyone waiting to see a Xenomorph onscreen in the first 15 minutes will be sorely disappointed. But the money shots come and they're worth the wait. There is lots of slimy, slithery creature stuff here that I can't give away. I'd say none of it comes close to being as squirm inducing as the “abortion scene” from “Prometheus” or shocking power of the “chestburster scene” from the original “Alien” but there's plenty of good stuff. The computer effects are really well done. The days of practical effects are unfortunately long gone, but what we're given are completely convincing.

“Alien: Covenant” is also a solid achievement as well. Dariusz Wolski's moody and stark cinematography is gorgeous and Jed Kurzel's otherworldly music filled with cues from Jerry Goldsmith's original score is fantastic. Overall, “Covenant” is a resounding success. Waterston is a fine “Ripley stand-in” and is easy to care about, Fassbender gives another fascinating performance, and Ridley finds a great balance of “Prometheus stuff” and “Alien stuff” and bends these worlds together nicely. I would argue that the Alien-inspired “Life” was a much more squirm-inducing experience but “Alien: Covenant” is perfectly fine entertainment considering it's the 8th installment in a franchise that burst onto the scene nearly forty years ago.  GRADE: B+  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

O Mother, Where Art Thou?: Goldie Hawn Makes Her Return in the Decently Funny “Snatched”

I’m pretty confident that Amy Schumer is the female version of Seth Rogen. He’s known for playing the eternal man-child and Schumer is becoming known as playing the eternal woman-child. She was extraordinary in “Trainwreck” and paired nicely with Judd Apatow’s great sense of humor behind the camera and Bill Hader in front of the camera. Amy’s character in “Snatched” is also a trainwreck of sorts. She just wants to go on exotic vacations and drink with her boyfriend. But he dumps her and she decides to take her mother instead. Enter Goldie Hawn, a celebrity of the highest order who’s career took a nosedive with Warren Beatty back in the early 2000s. “Snatched” is about a mother and daughter who get kidnapped while on vacation in South America. It’s sort of a weird hybrid of “Trainwreck,” “Romancing the Stone,” and “Terms of Endearment,” but not as good. It’s stupid and raunchy and whether you laugh or not will probably depend on how much you like Schumer’s shtick; I enjoyed the film even if it runs out of steam by the end of its 90 minute runtime.

“Snatched” is nothing particularly new and when it comes right down to it it's probably offensive to a lot of people. And I'm not talking about the jokes that refer to Amy Schumer's vagina or anything. I'm talking about the whole “white women in kidnapped in South America” thing. However, you don't go to see anything with Ms. Schumer for politically correct stuff so let's move on. Amy plays Emily Middleton who has already booked and paid for a vacation to Equador with her boyfriend but he breaks up with her within ten minutes of the film opening. To the surprise of no one, she can't find anyone to go with. She goes begrudgingly to visit her lonely, overly worrisome, divorced, cat-loving mother Linda (Hawn). Linda is taking care of her agoraphobic adult son Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz, usually a scene stealer but not when he's given somewhat mediocre material). Emily sees a bonding opportunity and somehow thinks it's a good idea to drag her nearly 70-year-old , but former adventurous mother to South America (for the record, Hawn is currently 71). They meet two bizarre American tourists played by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack. Then Emily meets a handsome local man and before she knows it Linda and Emily are being held captive.

Let's focus on the positives though. Screenwriter Kate Dippold, coming off films like “The Heat” and the controversial-for-no-reason “Ghostbusters” redo, takes very familiar material and makes it somewhat fresh. This script isn't going to win any awards but at least it's not a sequel, remake, or reboot. And there are lots of women in it. And they're funny. Was this the script that was needed to revive Goldie Hawn's career? Not really. But she's still freaking hilarious and it feels great to see her up on that screen again. She hasn't lost anything. She has great chemistry with Schumer and the appearance of Sykes and Cusack in somewhat thankless and somewhat pointless roles are still a highlight. There are better comedies out there and there are far worse ones. Director Jonathan Levine seems to be more interested in broad comedy lately as opposed to the more refined emotion he brought to the likes of "Warm Bodies" and the wonderful "50/50."

I find Amy Schumer's brand of raunchy comedy amusing. And she's actually a good actress. This is still technically a downgrade from the wonderful “Trainwreck” and she's not exactly stretching her legs by any means but she plays this part well. It's fun seeing Goldie and Amy onscreen together and the film has a delightful mean streak and isn't afraid to be un-PC. The film eventually becomes a bit tiresome as it chugs along. But it has it's moments. If seeing Amy Schumer getting caught wiping off her crotch in a bar bathroom is your idea of fun entertainment (hell yeah!) then go see “Snatched.” The title certainly doesn't lie.  GRADE: B

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Suck Zone: Ranking All the Tornados in “Twister”

It’s no secret that “Twister” is my favorite disaster movie of all time (weather-related or otherwise) and one of my favorite and most well-remembered movie-going experiences as a kid. I recall May 10th 1996 so vividly, like it was yesterday. So how could I not celebrate its release every year? Especially since “Twister” officially turns 21 today. And since I love making movie lists just as much as I love watching the movies on said lists I’ve decided to delve deeper into “Twister” than I ever have before. This is the definitive ranking of all of the tornadoes that show up throughout “Twister.” Yes, I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.

1 - Stuck in a Ditch Twister aka “Why Can’t We Spend a Normal Day Together” Twister


This is without a doubt my favorite tornado in “Twister."  This is also the first actual twister we see onscreen. I love how much personality it has: its skinny shape and those camel sound effects are great. The entire ditch scene is fun and it was a centerpiece of the film’s effective advertising campaign. Everyone always remembers their first and since and this was always one of my favorite scenes in the movie because, like the Tyrannosaurus scene in “Jurassic Park,” it’s the first time we actually see the villain attack the main characters.

2 - Drive-In Twister aka “It’s Already Here” Twister


This is a great scene because it’s sort of a mix between the unseen twister in the film’s opening and the steady and monstrous one in the finale. And it’s a constant reminder that twisters even happen at night and are almost impossible to see. The gang is checking out a double bill of Psycho and The Shining when a twister approaches right when Jack Nicholson is chopping down the bathroom door. It must not be a Kubrick fan. Everyone must take shelter in a garage where cars are flung at them as the movie screen dissolves before our eyes. After this experience Bill's fiance rightfully bounces.

3 - Finale F5 Twister aka “It Must Be at Least a Mile Wide” Twister

This is the mother of all twisters, an F5 on the outdated Fuija-scale, only previously witnessed by Jo in the opening scene as a child. This twister also lasts for an unprecedented amount of screentime and eats a lot including DOROTHY III,  a tractor trailer truck, the villainous Cary Elwes, and lots of farm tractors. Though it can’t rip Jo and Bill from the ground because of the superhuman leather belts they found. We get to witness the core of the tornado and are satisfied with the fact that Jo has gotten to experience a twister from the inside. It’s super deep.

4 - Opening Scene Dad-killing Twister aka “I Can’t Hold It Anymore” Twister
Twister Intro
make action GIFs like this at MakeaGif

All great movies open with a scene in which the monstrous villain attacks but we can’t really see much. Steven Spielberg proved this formula works in “Jaws” and it works here and countless other times. Little Jo heads to the storm shelter with her parents and Toto-lookalike Toby only to witness her father get sucked up through the weakened storm door. It’s a traumatic moment for the character that defines her and it sets the pace for the spectacle that is about to await us.

5 - Double Waterspout Twister aka “We Got Cows” Twister

Probably one of the more well-known twisters from the film are the infamous waterspouts that fling the cow around.  As our heroes and the hapless Dr. Melissa Reeves drive over a bridge the tornado follows and splits into two (“We got sisters!”). It’s traumatizing to Melissa but Jo and Bill act as if they just saw the second coming of Christ. It’s a fun sequence but besides being made of water these twin twisters don’t have much going for them and don’t last very long.

6 - Hail & DOROTHY II-Killing Twister aka “That’s No Moon It’s a Space Station” Twister

Speaking of not lasting long, the last twister on this list is sort of pathetic. It shows up long enough to rip some telephone poles down and murder DOROTHY II in the process but other than producing some large chunks of hail it’s over much too quickly. We see the clouds churn like a fresh batch of ice cream only to have a funnel appear for mere seconds. At least Dusty gets to be getting a lot out of it by using his telephoto lens. Melissa, is yet again, not impressed - mostly because this tornado begins to signify the end of her relationship. Bummer. Welcome to the suck zone indeed.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Parent Trap: Marvel’s “Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2” Offers All the Fun of the Original

Guardians of the Galaxy” was a surprise hit in August of 2014. How could a Marvel movie be a “surprise hit” exactly? Because the movie didn’t star a man in an iron suit or a guy with an indestructible red, white, & blue shield or a hulking, angry green monster for that matter. For all intents and purposes “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a practically unknown property to the masses and writer/director James Gunn turned what could have been a confusing mess (like “Green Lantern” or “John Carter”) into one of the best and most unique comic book films in quite some time. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” offers all the great stuff that was featured in the first film including fun, irreverent humor, great chemistry among its top-notch cast, a catchy soundtrack, and spectacular action sequences. Even if a bit of the surprise factor is gone, which is inherent in a sequel, this second chapter delves deeper into the characters and is simply a delight from start to finish.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” feels so fresh because it feels so far removed from the rest of the Marvel cannon. And yet they’re supposed to come together eventually but for now most of the story doesn’t involve anyone related to an Avenger as far as I could tell. This time we learn a lot more about Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) and his father. We learn in the previous entry that he’s actually only half human. His father was some kind of non-earthling.  In a cheeky bit of genius casting, the father of the charming and hunky Chris Pratt is played by the charming and hunky Kurt Russell. Peter’s dad is none other than Ego, a cosmic being from another planet, but the less known about him the better.

Ego isn’t the only new character to show up in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” You’ll recall at the end of the last film that gigantic tree creature and fan-favorite Groot seemingly sacrificed himself. Rocket replanted him and Baby Groot was born. He appeared briefly dancing in his flower pot, but Baby Groot appears here and he’s cute as ever running around with his trademark “I am Groot” line over and over again. There’s also a lot more going on here which involves the Sovereign race of gold colored super-beings and their leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) which involves the Guardians defeating a gigantic, scary monster in the film’s brilliant opening title sequence. Sylvester Stallone shows up as a Ravager leader who has some unfinished business with Michael Rooker’s Yondu. Howard the Duck pops up again and the film’s Awesome Mix soundtrack is as groovy as ever.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” features everything you loved about the first one but turned up to an 11. These characters and their quirks are all simply fantastic. Gamora, Rocket, Drax, Baby Groot, and Star-Lord are some of the greatest characters ever to grace the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gunn keeps things bright and colorful with great moments of irreverent, biting and sometimes dark humor that pushes the boundaries of what we’re used to in these movies. The film still very vaguely even connects to the other films in this universe but that’s probably for the best the Guardian films can be enjoyed with or without knowledge of the dozen or so Marvel films that have come before. What an enjoyable way to kick off the summer movie season.  GRADE: A-