“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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A few quick words on “24: Legacy” (2017)

I hate to say it, but “24: Legacy” (2017) was mostly average stuff; I’d give the 12-episode arc a 7 out of 10 for being a mildly engaging thriller, but nothing more than that.

I was one of the few people back in the day who opined that “24” could continue even without Kiefer Sutherland.  As priceless as he was in his role as anti-hero Jack Bauer, he wasn’t the only star of the show — the show’s gritty universe and its unique format could carry on without him.  I even thought, during the early years, that Fox was grooming Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) to be a viable lead if Sutherland departed.

I still think the show could manage without Sutherland.  The real culprit behind “Legacy’s” failure to stand out was its somewhat average writing.  It wasn’t bad, exactly … it was just average.  (Alright — for a little while, it was bad.  We see a key subplot/cliffhanger repeated three times, consecutively, in the same season. I’m surprised that major redundancy made it past the editing process.)  But mostly, it was average — we see thin staples of characters, and a plot that seemed largely reminiscent of … well, every other season of “24.”  (Admittedly, it must be tough after nine years to think up an original story for a serialized contemporary terror thriller in real-time format.)

The sad part is this — during the show’s final two or three episodes, it started showing more promise, with truly original plotting and unexpected conflicts.

The show got disappointing ratings.  We won’t know until at least May, but I think most viewers are guessing it won’t be renewed for another season.

 

“Life’s” a bitch.

Or at least it is to the astronauts who make an abortive attempt to escort it back to Earth.  (They realize that bringing a Martian organism home is a bad idea in this year’s surprisingly satisfying science fiction-thriller.)

I actually had more fun with this than I expected; the movie is much faster paced and scarier than the trailer made it look.  There are some real surprises and moments of genuine horror here, following a requisite plot setup that is relatively brief.  It’s a really nice monster movie that should please fans of the genre.

I actually didn’t prefer its ending, which is something for which other reviewers are praising it a lot.   I’m disinclined to say more, for fear of spoilers.  The movie’s marketing already spoiled enough.  (The ads infuriatingly show the fate of a main character.)

I will say what the movie is not, however.

One, it’s not a stealth prequel for Sony’s planned 2018 “Spider-Man” spinoff, “Venom” (though that’s such a clever idea, I wish I’d thought of it).

Two, it’s not a ripoff of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979).  Yes, it’s got the same MacGuffin, and some story parallels that I noticed early on.  But I like to think of this as a more grounded contemporary thriller, where “Alien” was a futuristic fantasy creature feature.  Besides, if we criticize every “haunted-house-in-space” movie as an “Alien” imitator, we won’t get more of them.

I’d give this an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it.

 

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Grandin Village, Virginia, March 2017

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Only in the South can you find an “ice cream and soda bar” on the main strip.  Some great friends of mine introduced me to “Pop’s” a couple of weeks ago.  Diet be damned; I can’t wait to find an excuse to go back.

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The below sign for Tae Kwon Do apparently advertises training in styles from “Traditional” through “WTF.”

I’d love to know what the “WTF” style of fighting is.  I’ll bet it’s something to see.

Below the sign is Grace’s Pizzeria.  (I wish I’d gotten a better picture.)  The pizza there is damn good, if a little extra greasy.

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A review of “Logan” (2017)

I’m not sure I agree with quite all of the accolades that “Logan” (2017) has been receiving.  (It’s being compared with Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” for example, as well as Frank Miller’s medium-altering 1986 graphic novel, “The Dark Knight Returns.”)  It’s still a damn good movie, though, and easily among the best of Fox’s “X-Men” series.  I’d give it a 9 out of 10, and I’d firmly recommend it.

This absolutely doesn’t feel like a “comic book movie.”  It feels more like a brutally violent, sometimes introspective, road-trip drama — though all of the comic book elements are still there.  I’d caution comic book fans that “Logan” was actually much darker than I expected — and, no, it wasn’t just because of the visceral violence that could only be afforded by this movie’s unusual “R” rating.  There was a lot more that went on here that got under my skin … I just can’t say more for fear of spoilers.

There is one thing I can tell you — there is none of the escapism of past “X-Men” films.  (C’mon, for being about a supposedly oppressed group, those movies always made being a mutant look fun as hell, and even glamorous.)  This film follows an aging, ailing Wolverine, and an even worsely afflicted Professor X — subsisting in secret in the Mexico desert.  What’s more, they and their aging friend, Caliban, appear to be among the last of their kind, thanks to an unexplained, decades-long absence of new mutant births.  And what little exposition is given about the other X-Men suggests that they are dead.  If you’ve been a fan of these iconic characters for a long time, then seeing Wolverine and Professor X being so painfully not larger than life is jarring, and even sad.  No matter what is the outcome of its story, this movie’s plot setup alone can make an “X-Men” fan a little despondent.

The action is damned good.  The movie surprised me by how smart it was, too.  Its examination of violence and its consequences is unflinching.  Also, we’ve been instructed through so many “X-Men” movies that humans should not seek to contain the mutants out of fear … yet “Logan” adroitly and subtly questions such one-sided moralizing.  The acting, across the board, is extremely good — predictably from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, and surprisingly from 11-year-old Dafne Keen.  She’s perfect as the young, imperiled, yet ferocious Laura.

My complaints with “Logan” were minor.  One thing that irked me was my own confusion about whether it was “canon.”  Are we to assume that this takes place in the “X-Men” movies’ “main continuity?”  Or is this a parallel universe or a different timeline?  The feel of this film is so radically different that I found it difficult to imagine it following the previous films (although the post-credits sequence in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” seems to set up “Logan.”)  I thought that this was based on Marvel Comics’ “Old Man Logan” storyline … wasn’t that an alternate universe story?

Maybe adding more to my confusion, “X-Men” comic books actually exist in the universe of this film.  Laura carries a bunch of them, and they are a minor plot point.  Does this mean that the humans in this universe have finally accepted mutants, enough to create comic books about them being heroes?  How did that come about?

My second criticism of “Logan” is that the character of Laura is thinly rendered.  Saving her is the plot device for the entire film, and Keen is absolutely talented.  Shouldn’t we know more about her, and about her relationship with Logan and Charles?

All in all, this was a superb film, though — with an unexpected tone and a surprisingly sober, risk-taking approach to Jackman’s avowed last appearance as Wolverine.  If you like the “X-Men” movies at all, then you should definitely see it.

 

 

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A short review of “XX” (2017)

I’m sorry to report that this year’s “XX” doesn’t quite live up to the great horror anthology that its trailer promises.  This quartet of female-directed horror shorts is actually quite average, when considered together, and I’d give it a 6 out of 10.

Only the first segment is truly memorable — “The Box,” adapted from a short story by Jack Ketchum.  The directing and scoring is superb.  (Seriously, the music is quite good.)  The acting is also good throughout this segment, most especially by “The Strain’s” Natalie Brown.  She’s a good actress and she’s starting to grow on me.  (And her memorable last lines here, which I assume come from the text of Ketchum’s story, are weird and haunting.)  This quarter of “XX” gets under your skin.

Despite “The Box” being capably developed and unnerving, however, there were no conventional scares at all.  It hardly felt like a horror short; it was more like a particularly macabre and ambiguous parable.  Nor is the story’s mystery solved — it’s left open-ended.

The second segment is largely a waste of time, despite being stylishly shot and scored.  (Hint: it’s got the same story device as “Weekend at Bernie’s.”)

The remaining two tales are more standard horror stories.  I’d suggest they are somewhat fair at best.

I think I would recommend this only to the most well rounded horror fans who are in the mood for something different.  And, even then, it might only be for the peculiar elements of “The Box.”

 

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