Movie Review – “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

 

 

For a time, it felt like Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” was one of the more divisive films of 2012. While the idea of humans exploring the cosmos to find our creators, in whatever form or shape they might come in, is certainly an ambitious move, I felt that Scott didn’t fully explore this concept to its fullest potential and focused more on the origin of the Xenomorphs, which I’m still unsure if people wanted to see that (I know I didn’t want to). Part of the reason “Prometheus” did little for me was due to the incompetence of its cast of “geniuses” and how quickly it resorts to horror movie clichés, thus making everyone look like idiots.
If I had to describe “Prometheus” in one word it would be “stupid.”
Of course “Prometheus” left a lot of questions unanswered and just made us far more confused as to how the events of that film tied into the creation of our favorite murderous aliens, which leads us to its sequel, “Alien: Covenant.” I’m not sure if Ridley Scott intended for this origin story to be told through two movies or if he made this film to explain away all the problems people had with “Prometheus.” But in any case, “Covenant” is more competently handled than its predecessor and actually gives audiences what they came here for – alien action and gore.
Set ten years after the events of “Prometheus,” the colonization vessel Covenant is on its way to Origae-6, with more than two thousand colonists and a thousand embryos onboard, with the intention of forming a new society on a different planet. But after a random solar event, the main crew of the Covenant is forcibly woken up. They eventually discover a rogue transmission from an alien planet and learn that this world is much closer than Origae-6 and the crew decides to take a look. When they get there, they soon discover wheat but no sign of any other life forms, except for the transmission signal emanating from a nearby spaceship.

 

 
Coming out of “Covenant,” my first thought was: It still has its problems, but at least it was better than “Prometheus.”
This movie shares some of the problems of the previous one, in particular the characters still acting like morons who probably couldn’t tie their shoes if you put them under the smallest amount of pressure. For example, their acting-captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) ignores the logical reasons presented to him against going to this new world from his second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), like how this could be trap. You would think the first danger flag would pop up when the alien starts to sing “Country Road,” but our brave captain pushes to stupidity and beyond.

 

Part of the reason this is big deal for me is because my favorite film in this franchise is the first film, “Alien.” It is one of the smartest horror movies of all time, where the actions of every single make logical sense and you can sympathize with every single one of them, including the alien itself. That movie prided itself on showing just how versatile and cunning humans can be in the face of imminent danger, never sacrificing one bit of intelligence for the sake of cheap horror.

 

 

 

Yet here we are, watching a couple make out in the shower while a monster is on the loose, or seeing our captain just stare at a deadly alien pod like nothing bad has ever happened to him. These moments don’t happen nearly as often as they did in “Prometheus,” but still enough that the lazy writing pokes through every once in a while.

That being said, the best part of “Covenant” was Michael Fassbender, playing two androids, the supportive yet rough Walter, and the megalomaniacal David, returning from the previous movie. It is fascinating how different these two are, yet still so much alike. They’re both devoted, but to vastly diverse things – Walter is programmed to be loyal and to follow his duties, while David is programmed to be man’s greatest achievement, something better than we could be; perfect. You can see the logical jump the android creators took, going from the life form that sees us as inferior creatures to the slave-like creatures meant to preform the tasks we cannot.

 

 

 

Fassbender steals the show as David, mostly because we just want to see how far his hatred of other beings goes. He seems to programmed to respect all life forms, showing everyone kindness and answering everyone’s questions, but his new personality and ego trump those values in the end to show what he wants to be – a creator. To give the universe something new and to make his mark.

 

And hey, we actually get to see some aliens doing what they do best. That’s more than I can say about “Prometheus.”

 

Overall, “Alien: Covenant” certainly isn’t a bad experience and an improvement from many of the previous Alien movies, with some great acting from Fassbender, Waterston, and Crudup. But it still gives in to many horror movie clichés and tropes and ends up dumbing down most of its cast for the sake of moving the story forward, which is disappointing to see from the creator of “Alien.”

 

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Coraline” (2009)

 

 

While I certainly feel that “Kubo and the Two Strings” is Lakia’s most visually enthralling and captivating film, “Coraline” is Lakia’s most well-told story with mesmerizing visuals that both astound and terrify. It shows that Lakia isn’t just about making one-of-a-kind stop-motion movies, but can tell a tale that encases a multitude of emotions that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
The movie follows its titular character, Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning), a young girl who just moved from the midwest to the west coast into a rundown boarding house. Her parents are far too focused on completing their gardening catalog to pay attention to her, and her new neighbors would rather talk about themselves instead of listen to what she has to say. But one day, Coraline discovers a secret door in her new house that ultimately leads to some sort of alternate world where everyone is nice, pleasant, and wants to make life exciting for Coraline. She is eventually presented with the possibility of staying in this world, but at the cost of having her eyes replaced with buttons.

 

 
Part of the reason “Coraline” is so enthralling is because of the pacing, which is just slow enough to cast doubt on this colorful world but to see why it is worth living in. Information about this “other world,” and especially Coraline’s “other mother” is slowly fed to us in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or forced, so we put the pieces together just as Coraline does. It also helps that she is a clever protagonist who just wants to belong in the world. She completes the well-rounded mystery by making you want to pursue the truth.
The animation style is far more like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” than any other Lakia picture, with lots of vibrant colors that often take disturbing shapes, especially with the puppet motif in “Coraline.” It helps that this movie had the same director as “Nightmare,” Henry Selick, as he adds his visual hellish landscape-vibe to this movie.
Add in the well-paced story, a well-written main character, plenty of mystery and horror, yet still making it enjoyable for both children and adults, and you get a smart, fulfilling experience. “Coraline” is one the better Lakia movies and is certainly worth checking out.
Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Lady Snowblood” (1973)

Meet the biggest inspiration for the “Kill Bill” saga – “Lady Snowblood.” And it is exactly what it sounds like.

Set in feudal Japan, at a time when thieves and mobsters ruled peasants through fear of samurais and warlords, a group of four criminals attack and kill a peaceful teacher in brutal fashion, in front of his wife and son. They proceed to kill the son and rape the wife, Sayo. One of the criminals takes Sayo for himself, hiding her away to work for him, while Sayo eventually kills this man but is sentenced to life in prison.

Sayo then realizes there is only one thing she can do – birth another child, and have that child carry on her plans of revenge and murder the other three criminals responsible for all this. She does eventually bring another child into this hateful world, a girl Yuki (Meiko Kaji). She is taught in the ways of sword fighting by a priest, who believes Yuki is a demon of vengeance, meant to bring order to a chaotic time.

 

 

The violence in “Lady Snowblood” is the over-the-top insanity you would expect from a 1970s Japanese movie, with vibrant colorful blood, and characters dying into the most exaggerated ways, especially with Yuki’s main weapon being an umbrella with a dagger inside the handle. If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you will get a kick out of this movie.

This one is a nice change-of-pace for a Japanese samurai tale, since I don’t recall many female sword users in Japanese cinema. That is a trend that comes up in other cultures, especially nowadays, but to see this happen in 1970s Japan is special. It could be that “Lady Snowblood” is based off a manga, but the movie rarely shows it with how authentic it feels to the samurai experience.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with “Lady Snowblood.” It is grotesque, over-the-top, yet fateful to the samurai lifestyle to make its quieter moments hit harder. It is not hard to see how this film influenced Quentin Tarantino with its violent style that is wholly unique.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “An Affair to Remember” (1957)

 

There’s a strange concept to many “forbidden love” stories from the 1950s that often has me rolling my eyes – the tragic twist.

Years ago, I remember watching the Douglas Sirk movie, “All That Heaven Allows,” which is about a middle-aged woman in small town falling for a much younger man. It was competently handled, if a bit uncomfortable to watch at times, but the only thing I remember is the tragic twist that comes near the end and how out of nowhere and infuriating it made me. I watched the film with a large group and I recall a few people walking of the movie with their arms thrown up in frustration at how absurd and unnecessary the ending felt.

I now realize that “All That Heaven Allows” was not the only one to do this, as “An Affair to Remember” has a similar scene that makes everything that came before this moment feel wasted and everything that comes after hard to watch.

To be fair, I went into “An Affair to Remember” expecting a much different movie – Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the later years of their careers. I went in thinking this would be more of a screwball comedy, with lots of wordplay and sarcasm from Cary Grant, similar to his suave jerk persona in “North by Northwest” with some light romance with lost souls looking for another chance to love again.

And for about the first hour that is close to what we get. Grant plays a painter and well-known playboy, who is about to be married, and Kerr plays an aging nightclub singer, who is in an unhappy marriage, and the two meet on an ocean liner on its way from Europe to New York. They develop a friendship that quickly turns into a romance when Kerr sees there is more to Grant than just the party boy. As the cruise ends, they profess their feeling for one another, but are concerned about their committed relationships. So they make a promise – They will meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months. If they are both up there, they will get married that day, but if one does not make it, then they will know it wasn’t meant to be.

 

 

I will not give away the tragic twist ending, but let’s just say it causes a drastic shift in the movie that was completely avoidable. This change occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and suddenly the film changes from a forbidden love story to one of acceptance. This works at times, but other times it comes across as the filmmakers not having enough material to work with so they insert at least two scenes of children singing instead.

These two stories are so drastically different that I lost interest the moment this tragic twist occurred. It also doesn’t help that all the drama of this situation could have been avoided if either of them picked up the telephone and told the other exactly what happened. Instead, we get a third act where both characters think the other is a terrible person and needs to constantly be reminded of that.

At its best, “An Affair to Remember” is “North by Northwest”-lite – Funny, over-the-top banter from Cary Grant while he takes the opportunity to put the moves on a woman. It its worst, the film is groan-inducing and hard to get through without screaming at your TV screen. It’s like watching two long lost lovers waiting for the other all night long, talking about how the other is a terrible human being, when all along they just got the addresses mixed up – You’re invested in their struggle, but appalled at how stubborn and stupid they can be.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Sleeper” (1973)

 

 

I would have never expected to love a Woody Allen film as much as I enjoyed “Sleeper” but this film caught me completely off guard, while also teaching me that I love slapstick and visual comedy more than verbal comedy.

As I’ve mentioned, Woody Allen movies are so hit-and-miss with me, some leave a great impression on me like “Midnight in Paris” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors” while others like “Annie Hall” or “Hannah and Her Sisters” make me want to claw my eyes out. Part of me feels that Allen’s work gets better when he distances himself from the movie, by making his characters less like his neurotic, annoying self. But “Sleeper” throws a wrench into all of that by embarrassing the standard Woody Allen protagonist and changing the world around him.

Suddenly, I found this to be comedic genius.

Miles Monroe (Allen) was the owner of a health-food store in Greenwich village in the 1970s, but goes in for a surgery and ends up cryogenically frozen, only to be woken up 200 years later. Miles finds the world vastly different from the one he left, where countries no longer seem to exist, sex is only done inside of small booths called the “Orgasmo-tron,” polite robots perform all tedious tasks and the world is ruled by a man known as the great leader. Miles has been brought out of his sleep to infiltrate a top secret facility for the rebellion, a group intent on taking down the dictatorship.

 

 

Part of the reason this works is because it is a reverse fish-out-of-water story, where we are put in the same position as our protagonist. Not only is Allen an alien to this world, but so are we. Every new advancement in technology that we learn about is so wildly bizarre yet strangely alluring, like the previously mentioned sex machine or the way food is cooked. This makes Allen’s reactions to the new world so much more enjoyable when we are having a similar reaction.

I found myself laughing at nearly every scene, from Miles learning about this strange drug ball, to a chase around the robot repair facility that may or may not involve dismemberment, to Miles getting stuck in a suit that lets him bounce like he’s on the moon. So many memorable scenes, but my favorite was probably Miles learning how food is cooked in the future and he ends up creating a blob-like monster by mixing two similar viles together and has to fight it off with a broom.

While “Sleeper” wants to be a parody of dark tales of the future, like “1984” or “Fahrenheit 451,” it is also Allen’s tribute to the greats of slapstick comedy, like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. This shows constantly throughout the movie, as there are many single shot sequences with little dialogue and lots of physical comedy. But fewer pies in the face, and more avoiding the dangers of the future by strange methods that would make Jackie Chan blush.

 

 

“Sleeper” does have its share of verbal comedy, especially when the people of the future want information on celebrities of the past and Allen tells the strangest lies about people like Richard Nixon and Joseph Stalin. But the focus of this film is on slapstick, which made realize just how much I adore visual comedy, at least in the movies. At its best, slapstick embraces the visual art form of film and can tell us so much without saying a word. It is enjoyable in the simplest of ways, but can be far more satisfying than the greatest of verbal sparrings.

“Sleeper” takes me back to movies like “Duck Soup” and “City Lights” and gives non-stop laughs, while also offering a future that uniquely dark yet strangely comforting, a world that has its dark side but does not seem all that bad. The film takes every opportunity to explore this laughable world while giving us a Woody Allen character that never gets too annoying. This was a joy to watch from start to finish and is now my favorite Woody Allen movie.

Final Grade: A+

 

Movie Review – “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)

 

 

Imagine if Charles Foster Kane was a country singer instead of a newspaper man, and you’ll get “A Face in the Crowd.”

Actually, that is not an enitrely fair description. “Citizen Kane” painted the good and the bad of its protagonist and showed him for who he really was – a flawed man who had wants and desires that could never be fully achieved, like all of us. “A Face in the Crowd” takes a similar angle, by showing a man rising from nothing to position of power and ultimately being corrupted by that same power and greed.

“Citizen Kane” does its best to mantain Charlie Kane’s humanity, despite his growing need for love and affection. But in this movie, its main character Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) embraces the megalomania and shows just how deep his lust for power can go.

Lonesome is found by a local Arkansas radio persona, Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) in the town’s prison for drunk-and-disorderly conduct but has a knack for singing and playing his guitar. Marcia decides to bring in Lonesome to play on the radio in the morning, and he quickly uses his airtime to say a few things about the people in this town, like the sherriff running for mayor and the owner of the radio stations’ massive pool on a hot summer day. At first, Lonesome feels he is using his voice of the “common people” and putting it to good use, making sure they vote for the right person and helping out kids during a scortching day.

But the way he speaks to people gets the attention of bigger news stations in Memphis and eventually New York, when Lonesome Rhodes gets his own television program that is watched by millions of people across the country. As Rhodes gains more fame and has women swooning over him at every event he attends, he also eventually gains power over a senator and wants to start making his way into politics.

 

 

The power of “A Face in the Crowd” comes from how small and simple Lonesome Rhodes starts out, even with his big personality. He claims at one point that he puts everything he has into everything he does, even his boisterous laugh. But as we see Rhodes using his power more and more to his own advantage, instead of for the people like he did while on the Arkansas radio, we see more of this sadistic man who is only out for himself and will do anything he pleases, losing what made him popular in the first place.

But because Lonesome started out in a place where everything comes from, we end up seeing a lot of ourselves in him. That if we were given the same opportunity where a camera or microphone is constantly forced in our faces, we might lose ourselves as well and give into the power he has. It is both freightening and relatable at the same time.

Of course, Andy Griffith’s performance is what makes this movie so powerful. It is strange having only known about his television work before watching “A Face in the Crowd,” where I had known him to be a wholesome and honest character, yet we see him playing a despicable man who drinks too much and handles more women than a brothel, but still knows how to connect to the common man. He does everything over the top and so passionately, like any moment will he his last moment of life, which makes meanical transformation so much fun to watch.

I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen during “A Face in the Crowd,” as I was always so curious how far Lonesome Rhodes would take his power trip and what would be lost in the process. It is also a great example of how the media can corrupt people with good intentions, or take people with bad intentions and give them a platform to reach other people. While the movie doesn’t outright attack all media outlets, so does show that media creates power quickly, and that power can be corrupted easily.

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Power Rangers” (2017)

 

 

If you asked my parents what I cared about more than anything else as a child, they’d tell you I was obsessed with three things – Godzilla, Star Trek and Power Rangers. Every day after school, I would be sure to get back in time to watch an episode of Power Rangers, even if I had already seen the episode twenty times. I remember dressing up as the original blue ranger for Halloween one year, and then wearing that same outfit the next year with the addition of Worf’s sash from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

And while my passion for Power Rangers has died down much over the years than my love of Godzilla and Star Trek, I still keep up with Power Rangers even after being on the air for over 20 years. Every once in a while, I look back and the Rangers and realize just how corny and over-the-top it was, with bare-bones morals, dialogue with more puns than any normal human being could stand, and of course martial arts performed by superheroes in brightly-colored spandex who would be showered in sparks when they were hit.

And I loved it. I still love it today.

I find the charm of Power Rangers to be a simplistic one, cool martial arts accompanied by a catchy rock anthem and memorable giant robot fights. Let’s face it, nobody remembers the plots or messages of a Power Rangers episode, just the action sequences. Personally, I always enjoyed the giant monster sequences more than the solo-Ranger fight scenes but that might be due to how much it feels like a Godzilla movie. At its best, Power Rangers felt like a combination of a Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee martial arts film and a daikaiju movie were made into a television show.

So when the new “Power Rangers” movie was announced, I was skeptical but also excited at the prospect of the Rangers being given a massive budget. The biggest flaw of the original show was it always had a cheap budget so everything always looked fake and many shots were recycled, not to mention using almost all fight sequences for the show from a long-running Japanese program called “Super Sentai” (for example “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” used most of its fight scenes from “Zyuranger”). As the trailers were released, my excitement for the film slowly died down and I realized the film was not going to be good. And I was right.

 

 

Set in the town of Angel Grove, five teenage misfits uncover five glowing coins in an abandoned gold mine. The next morning, they all discover that the coins have given them incredible strength and head back to the mine to find answers. What they find is a space ship with two alien life forms, the robotic Alpha-5 (voiced by Bill Hader) and the giant-floating head of Zordon (Brian Cranston), who tells the five they are now the Power Rangers and must defend the planet from the evil Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

The one thing “Power Rangers” wishes to stress more than anything else is the “five teenagers with attitude” concept. Each of these five new characters has their own set of problems, quirks, and reasons to be angry at the world or rebel against the status quo. Jason (Dacre Montgomery) was a star athlete that didn’t want to be forgotten and took things too far, Zack (Ludi Lin) is a crazed kid looking for fun but wants to just get away from his sick mother, while Trini (Becky G) is confused about what she wants out of life and refuses to have any labels put on her, including her own sexuality.

But the character that gets to shine brighter than any other is Billy (RJ Cyler), who is still the token-nerd, but ends up getting all the best lines and seems to be the only one who enjoys being a Power Ranger. This time around, they made Billy autistic, as humor goes right over his head and he takes everything literally, which leads to a lot of great jokes between him, Jason, and Zack.

Looking back at the original Power Rangers, this is a nice change, since the 1990s Rangers had no real character. They were idealized goody-goods who were perfect in everything they did, whether that’s fighting monsters, school or their many extra-curricular activities. Now each of the Rangers actually feels like a human being with flaws and motivations.

 

 

However, that’s the only good thing “Power Rangers” has going for it. Out of the two-hour runtime, they spend about an hour-and-a-half developing each of the Rangers and their angst, while another twenty minutes is spent explaining a backstory most the audience already knew. There is maybe 15 minutes of action to be found here, and the majority of the hand-to-hand fight scenes are all done through fake-looking CGI.

I expected the Megazord fight to be entirely computer-generated, but to take the human element out of the martial art sequences and be replaced with more robotic-looking models than the actual robot is infuriating. There is only one scene where the Rangers fight a gang of rock monsters, and they don’t use either power weapons or use any classic music.

In fact, outside a brief five second shot, this movie never uses the Power Rangers theme song, or any memorable pieces of music from the show. Part of what made Power Rangers so memorable was the music and how effective it was matching the tension of a fight scene while also getting the audience pumped up. The music gave the show charm that it couldn’t get anywhere else. I cannot remember any of the music from this movie, outside the forced pop songs that were groan-inducing.

 

 

Imagine watching a Star Wars movie without any score by John Williams or the sound effects, and you get an idea of how off-putting “Power Rangers” can be.

The other problem with this film is that it takes itself far too seriously. Outside of some jokes that Billy gets, the other characters are always so serious about being super heroes that it takes the joy out of everything. For crying out loud, these five are standing in a space ship, talking to a giant-floating head telling them they’ve been signed up to be soldiers in an intergalactic war while wearing brightly colored Iron Man suits with incredible powers and get to drive around in robotic dinosaurs. At least crack a smile every once in a while and have some fun with the ridiculousness. The best we get is that Kimberley crashes a monster into the car of some girls that were picking on her, or Jason making a Transformers reference, but that’s about it.

From a fan’s perspective, “Power Rangers” is a disappointment. While there is the occasional reference to something in the series, like the Zeo crystal or the Green Ranger, the film doesn’t seem to get what made the Power Rangers so memorable and why they are still making new series over twenty years later. It’s not because of new Super Sentai footage, but because of the genuine sense of fun action that it brings. The show embraces the corny style and just rolls with how absurd things can get. But this movie only seems to be interested in teenage drama and takes every bit of dialogue or action as if it were the end of the world. There’s no sense of joy or amusement to be found here.

I would say “Power Rangers” is like a Wikipedia article – It is knowledgeable of the past, but it sucks all the entertainment of it. The film might understand Power Rangers, but it doesn’t respect Power Rangers.

Final Grade: D+