Publication Notice: Quail Bell Magazine features “Graceless Ravens Envy You”

I am honored tonight to share here that Quail Bell Magazine has kindly published a poem of mine, “Graceless Ravens Envy You.”  You can read it here:

“Graceless Ravens Envy You”

Quail Bell Magazine is a Richmond-based multimedia literature and arts journal “that explores the imaginary, the nostalgic, and the otherworldly through the highest quality creative and journalistic content.”   It really is a wonderful and unique online periodical, and I encourage you to check it out.

“Graceless Ravens Envy You” first appeared at Dead Snakes in 2015.

 

“Alien: Covenant” (2017) is a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness.

I am part of a happy minority where “Alien Covenant” (2017) is concerned — I keep hearing about “meh” or negative reactions from my friends, but I quite enjoyed it.  I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

No, this second installment in the “Alien” prequel trilogy doesn’t bring much new to the table.  It often seems like a collection of common tropes, and borrows a bit from previous films in the franchise — especially the first movie in 1979.  Some aspects of it — like a predictable and slightly gimmicky development late in the story — even feel like horror movie cliches.  (I am doing everything I can to avoid spoilers, so forgive how vague I’m being here.)  “Alien: Covenant” isn’t groundbreaking, and it isn’t destined to be called a “classic.”

Here’s the thing, though — all of the movie’s common tropes are exactly what make fans happy.  Think about it … if you had to name two “Alien” movies as unique or the most divergent, they might be the heady, ambitious “Prometheus” (2012) and the baroquely experimental “Alien: Resurrection” (1997).  Whatever their failings, both of those movies deserve points for creativity.  And they are among the three films that fans hated the most.  (The third here is the smartest and most underappreciated installment, 1993’s brilliant “Alien 3.”)

With “Alien: Covenant,” Ridley Scott gives fans exactly what they were clamoring for — a frightening, gory, space-based horror film with creatively designed monsters and some nasty surprises.  It very much returns to the tone of the first film.  It is even jarringly darker than “Prometheus,” which was defined partly by its moments of cautious optimism.  And, more than any other sequel, it seems directly inspired by the grotesquerie of H. R. Giger’s original, nightmarish monster designs.  I feel certain this movie would have received the late artist’s blessing.  (I could name a certain scene and an excellent surprise story development, but I won’t.)

Michael Fassbender shined in his two roles here.  (He not only reprises his role as the android, “David,” but also portrays a newer model, “Walter.”)  The rest of the acting was roundly good too.

I also found the movie nice and scary.  I, for one, don’t think Scott’s direction of action scenes here is perfect.  (They are harder to follow here, for example, than his beautiful arena melees in 2000’s “Gladiator.”) But they were still effective.

So this return to form made me pretty happy.  I didn’t want another muddled attempt at profundity like “Prometheus.”  Nor did I want a winding, bizarre, arthouse-horror tale like “Resurrection” — that movie was like a poorly written, drug-fueled comic book.  I wanted a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness, and that’s what I got.

If I had to pick a criticism of “Alien: Covenant,” I’m surprised to have to point to some less-than-stellar CGI.  This was something I noticed from early trailers for the film, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard another reviewer mention in it yet.  One scene rendered a title baddie about as well as a modern video game, albeit a good one.  Another’s depiction of an upright “neomorph” seemed … fairly bad.  (Fans of decent creature features shouldn’t despair, however — there are still some outstanding monster moments, and no small amount of accompanying gore and goo.)  Have I just become spoiled by the amazing dinosaur effects of 2015’s “Jurassic World?”  I don’t think so … I suggest that the otherwise lamentable “Alien: Resurrection,” with its combination of CGI and practical effects, had far better creature effects than this newest outing.

Of course I recommend this movie.  Maybe I should only do so with the caveat that I am (obviously) a huge fan of the series.  It has been said that I’m easy to please, too — I actually gave a glowing review to “Prometheus” shortly after its release, before wiser minds pointed out to me its sometimes egregious flaws.  (A friend of mine shared with me one of those “Everything Wrong With” videos that CinemaSins produces … it’s a hilarious webseries, but it sure will dull the shine of some of your favorite movies, lemme tell ya.)  Your mileage may vary, especially depending on how much you enjoy horror movies, as opposed to more general science fiction.

Oh!  There is a mostly non-sequitur postscript that I can’t help but add here … yet another one of my movie prognostications was flat out wrong.  It isn’t a spoiler if it’s a far-out prediction that didn’t happen, so I’ll go ahead and share it here … during one of the ads for “Alien: Covenant,” I could swear I heard a character call out the name “ASH!!!!”  (I’ve evidently started hallucinating at the start of mid-life.)  I predicted that the new and robotic Walter would turn evil, and actually become the android named Ash in the 1979 original.  (And why not?  Androids do not age, and a web-based prologue for “Alien Covenant” suggests their faces can be easily swapped out.)  I further predicted that the more human David would be pitted against him in order to save humanity somehow from alienkind.  (These things do not happen.)

I still think that’s a pretty clever idea, though, even if I only accidentally arrived at it.  It would be great if that happened somehow in the planned “Alien: Awakening.”

 

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Do not see “Tank 432” (2015)

[WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS A MINOR SPOILER FOR THE FILM.]  “Tank 432” (2015) is alternately boring and confusing.  To be fair, its surreal story aspects are necessary to the plot, but I don’t think that redeems the movie much.

Don’t let the poster’s image of the tank and the soldier fool you — there’s a little bit of action as the film opens, but most of the movie takes place inside the titular abandoned tank, which remains stationary throughout most of the story.  (The protagonists are trapped inside it by a jammed door. )  Thereafter, the unease and claustrophobia they feel are soon felt by the audience.  Maybe that suggests skilled film-making on a certain level, but it certainly doesn’t make for an entertaining viewing experience.

The film is quite slow.  Furthermore, writer-director Nick Gillespie appears to assemble the components of several mysteries as subplots, and then leaves those smaller mysteries with little in the way of an explanation.

I’d rate this movie a 1 out of 10, and that’s only because Rupert Evans is a very good actor.

 

 

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A short review of “Split” (2016)

For much of its running length, I was considering writing a review for “Split” (2016) that rated it a perfect 10.  (I am an unabashed fan of M. Night Shyamalan, no matter how reviled he is by other Internet commentators.)  I love the way he frames his shots, I love his dialogue, I love his stories, and I love the strange way he can make a slowly paced film nevertheless absorbing.)

And “Split” looked nearly perfect.  James McAvoy handed in a tour-de-force performance as Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  (Yes, I am aware of the clinical controversies connected with whether the disorder even exists — I was a psychology student many, many years ago.  I think we should suspend whatever disbelief we have for the purposes of enjoying the movie.)  McAvoy plays his role to perfection.  His “Dennis” persona is particularly frightening, and “Barry,” one of the “good personalities” he portrays, is surprisingly endearing and sympathetic.

Playing off McAvoy wonderfully are Betty Buckley as his gentle psychiatrist and Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three teenaged girls kidnapped by his nastier personalities.  The talented Taylor-Joy was also perfect in her role.  (I last saw her 2015’s “The Witch” and she was also in last year’s “Morgan;” I’m gaining the impression that this promising young specializes in cerebral horror-thrillers.)

I would rate “Split” an 8 out of 10.  It suffers a bit, I think, from two missteps toward the end.  One, this taut psychological thriller takes an ill-advised turn into dark fantasy.  I thought it was amazingly good as a thriller grounded only in the real world — it was far less so with the later jarring story elements.  (I do realize why Shyamalan made this creative decision, and you will too, after watching it and then reading up on it.)  But I still think that this would have been a perfect film if the majority of it focused on McAvoy’s personalities either aiding or misleading his psychiatrist, with Taylor-Joy’s fate hanging in the balance.

Two, this film seemed to suffer from the too-many-endings syndrome that people often associate with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies.  We seem to have one denouement that works quite well, then a second that should have been re-shot and re-scripted.  And then there’s another plot strand finally addressed … but it is played so subtly that I’m not even sure I got it.  And this isn’t even counting the significance of the movie’s final line, which works as a fantastic framing device.

About that line … if you’re a Shyamalan fan, then you simply must watch the film until it’s very end, as the camera pans through the coffee shop.  You’ll love it.

 

 

A quick pan of “The Witch” (2015)

I’ve read that renowned horror author Brian Keene criticized the popular audience backlash against 2015’s “The Witch,” saying that “90 percent of the people in the theater … will be too stupid to understand” it.  Well, maybe I am among the stupid 90 percent.  I’d name this movie as the most disappointing horror film in recent memory, and I’d rate it a 2 out of 10.

I … think I understand it.  I just didn’t like it much.  It is alternately boring and sad.  It is boring far more often than it is sad.  When it is sad, it isn’t the cathartic, meaningful, artistic “sad.”  It’s just kind of a grimace-inducing downer.  There are problems with pacing, tension and story structure.  The movie only gets interesting during its closing several minutes.

These problems, however, are overshadowed by the movie’s biggest flaw — most of the (literal) Puritans populating this period story are so unlikable that you’d care little about what happens to them.  They are verbosely, tiresomely God-obsessed.  I myself might strike a deal with the devil if he’d silence the two creepy tots, and maybe the shrewish, hysterically shrill mother (Kate Dickie), too.  He wouldn’t have to kill them or anything — muting them would suffice.

Yes, the film does succeed somewhat in establishing mood and tone.  But the result is still nothing to write home about.  This isn’t “It Follows” (2014).

The film has two things going for it.  One, as other reviewers have noted, it achieves authenticity quite well.  The sets, costumes and dialogue were so meticulously developed that I actually did believe we were in 17th Century New England.  Two, Anya-Taylor Joy wonderfully performs the role of young Tomasina.

Those two things do not redeem the film, however.  I’d skip this.

 

 

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A review of “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016)

At the start of “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016) I was worried that I was finally beginning to experience a degree of “viewer fatigue” in connection with the beloved franchise.  This would be the ninth film since the X-Men first hit the big screen in 2000, if you count this year’s “Deadpool,” and its somewhat formulaic setup felt by-the-numbers.  Once again, a diverse, earnest, international group of young people unite under Charles Xavier’s leadership to combat an even greater threat than the one presented by the last film.  (This time it’s “Apocalypse,” a Big Bad with truly godlike powers.)  And they save the day despite their youth, their inexperience, their self-doubt or the suspicions of a prejudiced humanity.)  How exciting can the arrival of Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) be if these were already key reveals in past movies?  And … the cameo?

There are script problems.  The whole thing is cluttered with too many major characters.  Many are thinly drawn; a few make inexplicable, major decisions that affect the plot.  Fan favorites like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) get too little attention to make their ardent fanbases happy, I think.  The villain looks like a middle-aged and particularly grumpy member of Blue Man Group.

And, yet … I still frikkin’ loved this.  I’d grudgingly give it a 9 out of 10, simply because I enjoyed it so much.  It’s the X-Men.  It’s a big-budget, globally staged smackdown with great special effects, and it was obviously made by people who love the source material and tried to stay true to it, despite its inevitably campy nature and its implausibility.  Characters like Havoc (Lucas Till) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) are fun to watch.  (Am I the only one who nostalgically remembers the latter character from the 90’s comic books?)  There is even a really nice stab at self-referential humor poking fun at the earlier films.

This movie had two things going for it that really made me want to see it a second time around.  The first is Quicksilver.  The X-Men movies will probably never equal the skillfully made blockbusters of that other Marvel universe, but I’ll be damned if the franchise doesn’t totally beat them out in rendering this character.  (Yes, this is indeed the same character in the comics who inspired Scarlet Witch’s brother in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015).)  Evan Peters brings great charisma to the role; the special effects connected with his action sequences are beautiful and goddam perfect.  He’s easily cooler and more likable than any other teen superhero I can remember — and that includes Tom Holland’s excellent new Spider-Man.

The second thing that make me want to watch it again is the action sequences.  The finale is damn fun.  I think it must be difficult to write, stage, direct and physically perform a melee among a group of combatants with various superhuman abilities and varying degrees of power.  But the climax here works.  It’s an entertaining battle that feels like it was lifted perfectly from the comics, and it ought to please fans of the genre.

Anyway, I obviously do recommend this.  Check it out.

 

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A few quick words on The CW’s “Containment” (2016)

The poster for The CW’s new “Containment” seems like a ripoff for some exceptional poster art for 2007’s outstanding horror movie, “28 Weeks Later.”  That is just one of a few offhand references that the TV pilot seems to make to the film.  At one point, a panicked character blurts out the phrase “zombie apocalypse,” even though that has nothing to do with the plot.

Whatever.  Judging from the pilot, the new sci-fi thriller seems like a more or less average outing.  It isn’t bad, exactly, but it’s got plenty of room to grow.  Right now it seems like a undistinguished, mainstream television treatment of “Contagion” (2011).  I’d give it a 6 out of 10.

And, hey … just to add to the confusion, last year there was a really good British independent sci-fi-thriller, also entitled “Containment,” that also portrays a fatal disease outbreak.  I reviewed it here at the blog.  It almost seems like The CW is adopting the “mockbuster” strategy of capitalizing on viewers’ confusion of their show with superior properties.

Oh, well.