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“Alien: Covenant” disappoints on many levels

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As I left the theater, I honestly gave a small giggle. Once I got into my car, the giggle became a laugh. Then, as I drove to my house, the laughter just couldn’t stop. I couldn’t believe how absurd and dumbfounded this feature was that I found myself laughing in mockery over what strange choices director Ridley Scott took. At least when “Prometheus” came out, Scott had the upper hand in starting a fresh timeline. My theory is thanks to those who complained about the unhinging questions and mysteries from that movie, we ended up with “Alien: Covenant.” A film meant to pacifier fans who complained about Scott’s prequel. Instead, I feel those pacifiers have been rejected in the process.

I should point out another film would have taken place after “Prometheus” called “Paradise Lost” and I was rather intrigued to see where it would lead. From what I recall, unless its the “Mandela Effect” kicking in, we would have seen Elizabeth Shaw’s character visit the Engineer world and seek her questions of why this and that. Either that concept was tossed when writer Damon Lindelof left or Scott had alternate plans. After all, he did say there would be no xenomorphs in the next feature and then contradicted himself by saying they would have aliens of a similar breed. Honestly, I’d rather get my opinion out of the way now considering how confusing it is to look into the behind the scenes stuff already.

The plot is very close, if not, and somewhat similar to the first “Alien” movie. A group of people get a distress call and go to investigate, they find a strange stuff there, one of the members gets attacked by a creature that impregnates him with an alien and so forth. Scott tries to rectify that by doing some new stuff like introducing the ship’s crew in the midst of an action scene. But when casualties happen, like one of the scientists die in the wreckage, we feel little to no empathy because we just met these people. In previous movies, at least we had time and development in understanding who we are with. Here, I could care less.

The spacecraft named Covenant holds a crew on a mission for colonization. That means, we spent with couples instead of scientists. Even when the crew of Prometheus was doing things like taking helmets off in oxygen laden alien ships, I wouldn’t mind it too much because they were observers and examining things. Here, when I see normal people walk around on an alien planet without something crucial as a space helmet, it begs the question if they really think they got a chance at living or have a death wish. And when your characters are so dumb enough to a point they slip on bloody floors or shoot alien creatures inside a ship near explosive equipment, it gets irritating to wonder if anyone has any brains. Even the Robinson Family on the “Lost In Space” series knew much better than these people.

I can’t remember a single character that was memorable or did anything significant. Sure, Katherine Waterston’s character is given this Ripley-style arch where they place her in the background and build her up, but it doesn’t work. All we know to her character is that she is suffering from a loss and you don’t feel the building emotion of her recovering once her big action scene kicks in. Most of these crew members feel like the red shirts you would see on Star Trek. The minute you see them, you know someone is going to act dumb and die from their consequences. Even the captain is so miffed that what happens to him later on is so baffling that it makes you think why would anyone make such poor choices.

So is there anything worth sparing? For one, Michael Fassbender has proven to be very unique to this “prequel” trilogy. He does double duty as android Walter who seeks to serve the crew and android David who plans to one up mankind in his own right. Being a fan of Blade Runner, there is a running theme of creation vs. creator that is reflected here. Instead of creation asking for something impossible to achieve, it seeks to outdo creator by means of making something in his own image. It is here the character of David is brought to creepy levels that overpower those of HAL 9000. The idea if he is created in the most perfect way possible and wishes to let humanity die on its imperfect nature. A typical trope but it’s helped with the character of Walter who is complete opposite and let nature take its course.

Even if I said most of the crew are forgettable, Danny McBride is surprisingly engaging here. His character Tennessee is more laid back and less manic compared to his other comedic roles. McBride tries to channel his actions like he is the next Kurt Russell when it comes to overpowering computer restrictions and comes handy in key action scenes near the end. Considering how I’m used to seeing him in raunchy comedies, I’m very speechless to see how great his acting is here. When he looses someone dear, we see him react in broken manner that shows how much he is giving it his all.

On the whole, did I completely hate this movie? For the most part, I’d say maybe the first and second acts where fine. When it was doing its own thing and trying to follow on the questions “Prometheus” left, that’s when I felt it worked. The final 20 minutes, on the other hand, try way too hard to repeat what made “Alien” so enjoyable. “Alien” was about claustrophobia and survive in the unknown space frontier. Here, all of that gets revisited in a section of the movie that could have been so easily cut out and you wouldn’t have noticed it. I won’t go into spoilers about what happens in the final third, but if you know what happens at the end of EVERY ALIEN MOVIE, then I’m certain will expect that it will go in THIS DIRECTION as well. But wait, there is a bonus twist tossed in that is sure to throw viewers for a loop but even we can see that coming a mile away.

How did one of the most unique and mysterious of features get turned into something akin to “Friday the 13th?” The beauty and sublime are replaced by trope characters repeating things that have been done light-years before. There was never a sense of dread or fear. I was never scared at all by these CGI monsters and never felt like I was on the edge of my seat during the action scenes. It’s hard for me to chalk off if Ridley Scott was giving too much freedom with the franchise or the keys to the liquor cabinet during press interviews. I feel bad for saying that because Scott is capable of doing a good movie and this shows it. There is much eye candy to behold, but the story that goes with it doesn’t match up. If 20th Century Fox is considering another installment, my best recommendation is to really overlook what has become right before they hand over the blank check budget.

“Looking Glass” is colorful yet underwhelming

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The sequel no one asked for…and it exists?

Is there really a reason for this sequel to exist? The executives at Disney feel so considering the $1 billion Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” grossed back in 2010. Truly these are different times when one judges success by the box office numbers and not public criticism. That was the old Disney way considering if it wasn’t for the polarizing reaction to “The Sword in the Stone,” we wouldn’t have gotten Walt Disney trying to make “his” version of “The Jungle Book.” On the other hand, Lewis Carol did write two books on Alice’s adventures in the strange Wonderland, so I guess a sequel is needed. However, what we got was an entry that strays farther from the source despite its good intentions to better than the first one.

Mia Wasikowska returns as the curious Alice Kingsleigh who returns from her trip to China, as depicted in an opening which appears like a scene taken from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Not much to say about her character as takes on a spunky attitude and sees life as an adventure. However, her family is in debt as the only means to save her mother’s home is to sell off her ship to the snooty suitor from the first movie (Leo Bill reprising his role) in a possible move of revenge on his part.

Before a deal can be struck, Alice returns to the strange world of Wonder-oh, I’m sorry- UNderland where things are brighter and more colorful compared to the dreary and murkiness of the first film. Director James Bobin (The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted) brings a new variation of the topsy turvy world that appears more whimsical and less grim. Almost every scene has a bright blue sky and only the intense moments have darker shades of black and navy blue. While some practical sets are used, most of the effects are CGI and sadly appear more cartoony and less lifelike. Sometimes, I feel actors get lost on a green screen as opposed to making us believe something is right in front of us. Most notable is Alice’s first descend into the mirror as she takes moving chess pieces and a living tiger skin rug as a natural occurrence.

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Alice tries to help her friend the Mad Hatter, who looks more like a cross between Willy Wonka and a Halloween clown

Not everyone is happy as The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is falling into a deep depression when he feels unsure if his family is alive or dead. While Depp’s performance is not heavily used like the previous movie, there’s something strange about this take her. While the Hatter in Tim’s take was wild and manic, I found myself wondering why Depp would change that here. Instead this Mad Hatter seems confused most of the time and talks in a soft lisp that feels unintentionally comedic. It’s like Jimmy Stewart trying to do an impersonation of a cartoon character.

With her best friend under sorrow, Alice decides to help out by paying a visit to Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) with plans to steal a device that can travel though the past. She believes that she can find a way to save the Hatter’s family so he won’t be under so much guilt. This is an element that was obviously not in the original book as the story of “Looking Glass” was an allegory for chess. Personally, I found the book more unique taking Alice’s journey and putting it on pair with a parlor game. It made for something unique to look into how an innocent girl’s quest to be queen can be seen this way. Unfortunately, that is no the case here. Any material from Carol’s book is tossed out to make way for something far removed from the source as Alice goes from one time period to the next as her venture serves as an excuse to see the origins of characters like the Cheshire Cat or the Queens. Even stranger is the time machine that looks exactly like it was a prop modeled after the craft in George Pal’s 1960s “Time Machine” making it weirder to see sci-fi cross with fantasy nonsense. On the other hand, a set of clock minions can mutate into giant Transformer robots, so why complain?

When “Looking Glass” is not trying to be a prequel, it revives its previous villain, The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) with a plan to steal the time machine Alice took in order to change her sister’s past. Without giving too much, her plan only provides as an excuse for Carter to just walk about, yell obnoxiously and act like a brat as opposed to being a threat like that last film. And when you do find out what her sister, The White Queen, did to make her life so miserable, it makes one to wonder why she didn’t just apologize about it in the first place to avoid such a chaotic mess?

Honestly, I didn’t care much for this sequel and in-between the six years it took to get this into production, I would have been find without it. Characters like the March Hare, the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum get side-linded with minimal lines compared to how prominent they  were before. Most of the cast feels like they showed up for a paycheck considering the three lines spoken by the late Alan Rickman as the Caterpiller show how disrespectful they were to the source. Why even have these characters return when they don’t even make an impact? You could have just cut them or replaced them with other characters and the movie wouldn’t change at all. Even some give off hammy and bizarre performances like Anne Hathaway who is reduced to waving her hands like ‘The Wizard of Oz’s” Glinda the Good while talking exposition in an air-headed manner.

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The sequel no one asked for…and it exists?

The only redeeming factor, surprisingly, is Sacha Baron Cohen as the new character Time, who oddly gets played up like a villain when he doesn’t even intend to be mean that way. True, he does monitor those who kick the bucket and lives in a dark castle, but Cohen’s performance saves this character from being a one-note creation. Time comes off as an eccentric creature that is so obsessed with timelines that even he works like a clock literally. There’s a lot of effort and creativity going into this one character which feels like a mix between a Flash Gordon villain and a Rolex watch.And while I’m not fan of Cohen’s work, I admit when he plays a side-character, there is when I feel most comfortable. Its almost like his wild energy is restrained as he knows exactly what to do with the material he gets, even if its minimal.

As for the rest of “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” there’s not much that can be said. Its a harmless sequel that tries too hard to be expansive, but doesn’t have much necessity value. Plotlines go left and right while characters either chase after each other or try to find a working motive. I also have to question there are odd times when it does have a small dose of darkness that barley goes anywhere. About midway, Alice transports into the real world to find herself trapped in a Victorian asylum without proper transition. A character explains how she ended up there as opposed to showing how she was taken. Something tells me there are missing scenes here. But if the movie is not interesting in clearing this up, than so what? Why should I care for the near death of the Mad Hatter when Alice is busy trying to mend things with the Queens, the Hatter’s family and trying to avoid destroying the fabric of time when she already has done so much damage? For a movie that crams so much and does so little to invest me into what’s happening, I tend to wonder why a raven is like a writing desk more often than the plot holes in this movie. Not the worst, but better recommended as a rental.

“Minions” packs laughs despite uneven story

Kevin, Stuart and Bob hit the road in the all new Minion movie

Kevin, Stuart and Bob hit the road in the all new Minion movie

Ever since the first Despicable Me movie, viewers have gone nuts for those cute and naughty yellow creatures known as Minions. I do admit, I was really hooked as these supporting characters slapped each other around and that gibberish banter was very amusing. Well, they have a movie out and like many, I was really hyped. There were endless possibilities to what could be done. However, “Minions” seems to cater to the humor than put its cute, chaotic characters in a stronger story.

Set up as a prequel, the first 10 minutes are probably the best part as we see these yellow henchman walk on land and find themselves serving dinosaurs and cavemen and later historical icons from Napoleon to Count Dracula. Even if this appeared in the first trailer, these are the funniest moments of “Minions” as its starts off as a “History of the World: Part I” manner with these beings trying to serve a villain but sadly lose them in the process due to great misfortune or just because they mess things up.

Unfortunately, that is the start of the picture as the Minion clan seek refuge up north. But soon enough they find that without a master, they have no purpose to continue living. Our plot kicks in as three Minions named Kevin, Bob and Stuart (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) go out in the world to find a new boss. Along the way, we learn things like how they were able to obtain their signature overalls and appreciation for pop culture television. These scenes are cute alone as the three marveling at shopping malls and yellow fire hydrants. Perhaps more notable is a sequence similar to Modern Times when they stake out in a mall much like Chaplin’s Tramp did minus 1960s television and being a vehicle to find out where to find a new master.

Eventually they do get a new boss in the form of Scarlet Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock) whose ultimate goal is to steal the crown from the Queen of England and be the new ruler. Scarlet herself is a lot of fun to watch as Bullock really hams up the performance going from a sweet and innocent mother-like tone to slowly showing her true colors near the climax. Its basically Cruel DeVille if she was a super villain but there is fun here. Also enjoyable is her husband Herb (Jon Hamm) whose beatnik personality is a delight to watch. Some of the quips are not too annoying to the point of cringing but his endless array of gadgets are very creative from lava lamp guns to mechanical arms that are put to good use.

Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm really "overkill" the hilarity as Scarlet and Herb Overkill

Sandra Bullock and Jon Hamm really “overkill” the hilarity as Scarlet and Herb Overkill

As enjoyable as “Minions” gets to be, the true star of the film is not the animation or the Minions but rather the comedy. For those who miss the dark humor of the first Despicable Me won’t be disappointed. The tone can be described as a blend between something along the lines of the Marx Bros and a Charles Addams cartoon. Highlights include our three mischievous characters mistaking a torture dungeon for an amusement park, a funny shot of a line up of depressed Minions trying to visit a shrink and some notable moments in a villain convention. This movie is packed with many sight gags that a second viewing would be required to hand pick every sign and Easter egg the animator’s stuck in.

Even a little British humor is injected along with the culture itself with endless 1960s pop culture jokes (as the film is set during 1968 as a time period) including a cute parody of the Beatles “Abby Road” album at one point. Even Queen Elizabeth II is not all she’s cracked up to be fooling viewers into thinking we will see a British stereotype when we see her royal majesty can be quite the fighter. In a sense, British pop culture seems to be such a bigger focus for the second half with elements like the King Arthur legend and some British rock tunes play a crucial part in the story and comedy.

Unfortunately, at the heart of “Minions” lacks a story. Kevin, Stuart and Bob get bounced around so much that we find ourselves wondering what is the main story. We go from an origin tale to a fish out of water to a robbery heist as it all builds to a finale that is fun but a tad fatigued. Maybe there is only so much one can handle of that Minion gibberish that one wonders how their shtick can pad out a 90 minute movie. Perhaps if the film played out more like its beginning as an anthology story with the little guys going from one master to the next, there could be some promise.

However, “Minions” is not that kind of movie. Even far from being considered a bad flick. It works better as a mindless comedy and this where my recommendation lies in. If your looking for a film with fast-paced action and really funny jokes, this is worth checking out. On the other hand, there have been mindless comedies before like “One Crazy Summer” and “UHF” that are able to balance a story  with a string of bizarre but funny gags. The humor of “Minions” is in the right spot but it left me wishing more was done in the narrative that keeps jumping around. But when there is effort placed in the animation, humor and voice performances, I can’t deny this movie gave me what I wanted and that’s a good laugh.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

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Truly the ultimate horror movie

Truly the ultimate horror movie

John Carpenter’s The Thing is by far one of my all-time favorite horror movies. Its the movie that got me back into the horror genre during college and got me thinking there is much more than a monster to make a movie scary. Its that good to the point I feel one single analysis can’t do it justice. It needs to be seen to be believed to know just how all the tension and craft is perfect. I can’t think of another time when I felt so satisfied with a horror movie like this. There’s a lot to talk about but I will try to cover what works so well.

I guess I should start by saying its based on John W. Campbell’s novella titled Who Goes There, which depicts a group of scientists in Antarctica that are trapped with a alien that can assimilate and mimic its victims. It was later adapted loosely into The Thing from Another World where the beast was humanoid but was able to grow limbs back and be something close to a walking vegetable. But the strange thing is that this adaption takes place in the North Pole as opposed to the novella’s South Pole placement. Unfortunately, I was unable to get time to view this version but I have heard before its been highly praised as a science fiction classic. Perhaps next year I will get the chance to bring a deep review but for now, let’s discuss the 1982 adaption.

Its funny how John Carpenter’s take really reflects the darker aspects of the novella by not only being set in Antarctica but also having the creature being able to assimilate its victims. The creature effects were done by Rob Bottin and he really pushes the limitations of what practical effects can do. When the Thing starts to shapeshift and “devour” what ever it comes into contact with, its absolutely disgusting. Instead of seeing its true form, we can a hint when it starts to consult its various forms. There are times when it forms into a blob of organs and times when it mutates into such nightmarish forms that are far too horrific to even mention here. In short, the creature is nasty while being a show stopper at the same time. You really have to admire just how much effort was put into the anamatronics. Gore fans won’t be disapointed.

MacReady (Kurt Russell) tests to see who is truly the Thing in this classic scene

MacReady (Kurt Russell) tests to see who is truly the Thing in this classic scene

The characters we get are also interesting too. Carpenter regular Kurt Russell leads the team of scientists as MacReady who is not only anti-social but alienates himself a lot from the group. Is it out of fear for tolerance among the group or is he bad at socialization? That’s what makes his character interesting. As cold as the snows and ice of Antarctica gets, so does his thoughts on humanity and doomed he feels about it later. At the very least, he plays it smart knowing that anyone could be inhumane. Even himself. Expectations are played so much that we wonder if he’s truly alien himself or just to those around him.

The group looks at the charred corpse of the alien from the campsite

The group looks at the charred corpse of the alien from the campsite

Some viewers of today might be uneasy to see an all male cast instead of something more co-ed like Alien but I think it works. The fact these guys have been out of society for so long raises the stakes when the creature appears. Being out in the tundra could drive one insane seeing how little interaction there is out there. The pace of the movie is slow on first watch but on repeated viewings you start to realize its part of the atmosphere of the film. It sets you in the mood considering how chilling and cold a place like this can really be.

Its a much darker film and its a nice change of pace seeing the original 1951 version set in the suspense well. But it does make some reference to the original movie as some form of sequel which is more interesting itself when they discover the remnants of the alien are from a Norweigian camp site. This is a really great scene from the movie as our characters look through the burnt down base. We don’t need flashbacks or an explanation. The images of fozen corpses and a block of ice where the creature burst out of is all we really need.

The Thing in its true form. A bit of stop motion that sadly never made it in the final cut of the film

The Thing in its true form. A bit of stop motion that sadly never made it in the final cut of the film

Speaking of which, its interesting we never get to see the Thing in its true form. There are hints along the way with how huge and twisted it looks but we don’t know if its trying to form into what it really is or just constantly morphing. There was originally a bigger climax that alludes to its original form with the use of stop-motion animation by David Allen and it does look impressive But unfortunately, most of the animation was left on the cutting room floor when John Carpenter felt the effect was too obvious and less seamless with the Rob Bottin puppet. In the final cut, a few seconds remain but the full sequence can be seen on the DVD as a bonus.

Perhaps the less said about this one, the better because this movie is too good of an opinion. Its a pity it didn’t do well at the box office and I can understand why. With today’s movies and TV shows relying on darker elements, its fair to say that The Thing was way ahead of its time. Over time, it has grew a better appreciation with home video sales and given the audience it truly deserves. What else can I say but this one is a true must watch.

If its a prequel, why does it have the same name as its predecessor?

If its a prequel, why does it have the same name as its predecessor?

Now there hasn’t been a sequel to this outside of video games and comic books but there was a prequel that came out in 2011. There were many proposed ideas before then to give it a franchise feel like an abandoned Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. At first, I was hyped considering how much potential there was. This one was set before MacReady and the gang find out about the Norweigan campsite and also show what happened. I was even impressed to hear there would be English and Norwegian dialogue thinking it would get a foreign horror film feel. Well, I was unable to see it theaters but by the time I was able to rent it, I found myself to be really underwhelmed.

Not only does it answer questions and shows what happened at the campsite but it demystifies the Thing as a monster that is beaks and tentacles. It doesn’t explain its reason for being on Earth which is good but at times, it seems to appear too often than it should. In John Carpenter’s take, the Thing appeared not as frequent as the viewer was kept in suspense wondering who the alien would take next. In the prequel, the creature seems to pop out for no reason at times. Most notable is when a group is escaping in a helicopter and for no reason the Thing morphs out of its disguise and kills the crew. Why not wait till it goes to the base or why even bother transforming now? It doesn’t make any sense.

Our characters look clueless on the site

Our characters look clueless on the site

I expected the effects work to be CGI and was surprised to hear how at times they would use practical effects in certain scenes. Unless they blended the two well, all I say was mostly computer effects all the way. Shame seeing how great the effects in John Carpenter’s film were compared to this one which becomes more of a generic haunted house and less of an intense thrill ride. The characters are honestly forgettable to me. Outside of having a female in the group, that’s really about it. And the Norwegians I mentioned become easy “red-shirt” bait in the second half. Wouldn’t it been more interesting if they were all NOT American to heighten it? Its sounds ambitious but you never hear of a foreign film made by an American studio. It also doesn’t help we certain story elements that I feel harm the intense nature. Going inside the spaceship it came in really robs the mystery of the creature and I wasn’t a fan of seeing what many speculate as his “true form” near the end.

The spaceship in the original 1982 film. Sure its only a model but its a damn good one

The spaceship in the original 1982 film. Sure its only a model but its a damn good one

But the final nail in the coffin of crap is how THIS prequel is called The Thing. No subtitle or anything added on. Just “The Thing.” Its clear they wanted to cash in on the Carpenter classic and nothing else. Even weird is how at times I feel like I’m watching a remake of the Carpenter film and less of the prequel trying to be its own movie. It recycles everything from the dogs being assimilated to even the infamous blood test scene. Why bother labeling it a prequel when you do stuff like this anyway? Unlike how the original builds character and tension, this one just rushes the story to answer questions than give us time to take in the atmosphere or get to know a character before they are killed off. Its about as fast as how the Thing moves way too swiftly in this one.  Bottom line, skip it. Stick with the Carpenter film for something truly chilling and really on the edge of your seat terror.