Alien: Covenant

M & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Katherine Waterston as Daniels in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN: COVENANT.  Photo Credit: Mark Rogers. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Fifteen years after archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) encountered a parasitic species while attempting to chase down the alien origins of humanity, a colonization mission to Origae-6 goes awry when a radiation burst cripples the ship.

Like the previous expedition, funded by the eccentric Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the human crew is accompanied by an android, Walter (Michael Fassbender). Unlike his predecessor, David (so named for Weyland’s fondness for wearisome metaphor vis-a-vis Michelangelo), Walter’s intelligence is curbed. This seems peculiar, as it was Weyland’s intent to crew an android as a sort of HAL-9000 with an ulterior motive.

ALIEN: COVENANT is the second part of Ridley Scott’s prequel series to the 1979 horror film starring Sigourney Weaver as the protagonist, Ripley. While science fiction cinema has had elements of horror in its mid-century roots, ALIEN emphasized claustrophobia and terror as the primary elements, pushing the science fiction to the backdrop. Ridley Scott, however, hasn’t seemed to successfully move away from the tropes he helped popularize–namely, the Final Girl. Instead, he works backwards from them stuck in a kind of causal loop of intense mediocrity.

The surviving members of the crew are systematically picked off by the “neomorph”—like “xenomorph” but, you know, new… except this is a sequel, so shouldn’t they be protomorphs? Never mind. Scott’s modern Ripley, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), a terraforming engineer aboard the Covenant, happens upon another android who leads them (unsurprisingly) to a trap.

THE SPOILER: Yes, the villain is David… In spite of escaping a completely unrelated star system, in all the vast universe, somehow the cosmic radiation accident led the Covenant to the exact place where David and Elizabeth landed. And yes, David is going to double-cross them. And yes, he uses a trick that would make Hayley Mills proud (or nauseated). To his credit, Fassbender invokes the same creepy ethical vacancy of Ash in the original ALIEN.  And maybe there’s something to reintroducing that 1970’s-era distrust of technology into cinema at a time when our own fears about the surveillance state are coming to fruition.  In a back room, H.R. Giger’s early concept designs strewn across a table, we discover that David is a eugenics hobbyist, synthesizing and curating the “perfect” being in an attempt to recast himself from servant of one species to god of another.

Sidenote: Fassbender also supplies a hint of homoeroticism or, perhaps, auto-eroticism… but it’s merely titillation, eclipsing that hint of Sgt. Lope’s (Demián Bichir) marriage to Sgt. Hallett (Nathaniel Dean).

A prequel could conceivably take any number of routes to get you to where you’ve been, but Scott seems to be repeating the same storyline again and again only peppering us with bits of mythology like the interesting clues that lead nowhere in the television series, LOST. In the end, they’re all dead anyway.

Everything, Everything

Next off the assembly line of big-screen adaptations from young-adult novels comes Everything, Everything — a teenage romance that’s not for everyone, everyone.

The target demographic seems to be adolescent girls and fans of the book by Nicola Yoon, who might be more accepting of the cute contrivances and more willing to overlook the film’s sugary sentimentality and abundant narrative flaws.

“My immune system sucks.” That’s how Maddy (Amandla Stenberg) describes her affliction, diagnosed by her physician mother (Anika Noni Rose) as severe combined immunodeficiency, which has caused her to remain inside her carefully sanitized suburban Los Angeles home throughout her 17 years. Venturing outside apparently puts her at risk of disease and death, leaving her nurse (Ana de la Reguera) as the only source of meaningful interaction.

Enter Olly (Nick Robinson), an outsider whose family has moved in next door. The two exchange glances through their respective bedroom windows, and deepen their relationship using social media. Eventually, they give into temptation and arrange to meet in person behind the back of Maddy’s mother, who forbids physical contact.

The screenplay by Mills Goodloe (The Age of Adaline) masquerades as life-affirming until a late revelation will change the perspective of the uninitiated. Meanwhile, director Stella Meghie (Jean of the Joneses) employs a slick visual approach that includes an imaginative re-enactment of text-message conversations through fantasy sequences.

Stenberg (The Hunger Games) bolsters the material with an expressive portrayal that brings depth and complexity to a character who craves normalcy, not pity, and remains upbeat without dwelling on her predicament.

She also generates a reasonable chemistry with Robinson (The Kings of Summer) that makes the film charming in spots, even after a cheesy meet-cute involving a wayward Bundt cake. In fact, their romantic rapport adds a layer of authenticity to a film that otherwise indulges in emotionally manipulative tactics — from intrusive music, to trivialized details about Maddy’s affliction, to increasingly ridiculous plot twists that cause the whole enterprise to fly off the rails in the final act.

What starts out as a reasonably fresh take on stories about debilitating illnesses and unrequited young love winds up as a heavy-handed melodrama that lacks the courage to follow through on its convictions.

 

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes.

Wakefield

On the surface, Wakefield is an incisive look at a marriage in turmoil as seen through the eyes of an ordinary man enduring an apparent midlife crisis.

Yet there’s more to this provocative and mildly unsettling character study, based on an E.L. Doctorow short story, that provides an acting showcase for Bryan Cranston as a man who’s difficult to like but more difficult to dismiss.

Cranston plays the title role as Howard, a successful Manhattan attorney whose personal life is crumbling behind the scenes — at least in his eyes. So one day, without notice or direct provocation, rather than going home to his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two daughters, he impulsively withdraws to the attic of his suburban garage, and spies on his family through a window.

As they worry, days turn into weeks and months, and Howard remains a recluse, almost adopting the life of a bum as he scrounges for food and clothing. Along the way, he questions his intentions and whether it’s possible to rewind his life to better days. And when he eventually does emerge, what will his family think?

The screenplay by director Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club) delves inside the psyche of Howard, who spends the entire film trying to justify his actions to himself through a darkly amusing inner monologue. He asks: “Who hasn’t had the impulse to just put their life on hold for a moment?”

As he sarcastically describes the events next door, moviegoers are left to decide whether he’s just being cruel or brutally honest. Perhaps it’s an act of defiance against middle-class conformity, as he rationalizes.

It would be easier to pity or despise such a character, but Cranston earns sympathy through a performance rich in depth and complexity. He’s forced to act by himself almost from beginning to end, which makes the challenge even more daunting.

Of course, Howard’s voyeurism becomes kind of creepy after a while, and we’re not given enough context to surmise his true motives outside of what we’re told. The structure becomes repetitive, and the overall impact isn’t as profound as it aspires to be.

Still, those willing to suspend their disbelief will find that through its ambiguity, Wakefield develops an intriguing what-if scenario regarding contemporary relationships. It might even be relatable, even if nobody would admit that.

 

Rated R, 106 minutes.

Snatched

It might feature a choice pairing of big-screen comediennes past and present, but Snatched doesn’t play to the strengths of either of its multitalented stars.

Indeed, both Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn have their moments in this raunchy road-trip comedy about American tourists stranded in the Amazon jungle, even if the story is too thin and predictable to supplement the scattered big laughs.

The film opens with a series of setbacks for Emily (Schumer), a slacker who’s fired from her job as a store clerk and dumped by her boyfriend (Randall Park) just before their trip to South America. Saddled with nonrefundable tickets, Emily reluctantly chooses her slightly overbearing and very paranoid mother (Hawn) to join her.

What starts as a week of bonding on the beach turns sour after a local takes them on a scenic route back to their resort. They’re subsequently kidnapped and held for ransom in a remote village, causing them to confront their fears and differences in a quest for freedom.

In her second vehicle, Schumer doesn’t slide into her role as effortlessly as she did in Trainwreck, which she wrote. In this case, her mischievous shtick feels more obnoxious than endearing, although she does achieve a reasonable chemistry with Hawn, who conveys an effortless charm while returning at age 71 from a 15-year hiatus.

However, the screenplay by Katie Dippold (The Heat) emphasizes its low-brow tendencies while relying on contrived female bonding and strained intergenerational gags. The daughter is hip and adventurous, while the mom is oblivious and overcautious.

Snatched especially bogs down in the second half, once it abruptly transitions into more of a thriller about foreigners trapped in paradise. Yet since the eventual outcome is obvious, there’s never a feeling that our damsels in distress are in any real peril.

Most of the genuine amusement comes from a handful of throwaway jokes — with Schumer nailing some sardonic zingers — and periphery characters, such as Emily’s nerdy, agoraphobic brother (Ike Barinholtz) who tries to become an unlikely hero.

As directed by Jonathan Levine (50/50), the film squanders some picturesque tropical scenery — with Hawaii standing in for Ecuador and Colombia — and it won’t become a favorite of tourism officials in the region. Those involved might have gotten a free exotic vacation, but all we got was the cinematic equivalent of a lousy T-shirt.

 

Rated R, 91 minutes.

Capsule reviews for May 12

Paris Can Wait

This guided tour through the French countryside comes courtesy of director Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis) and actress Diane Lane, who stars as Anne, the wife of a workaholic filmmaker (Alec Baldwin) whose seven-hour car trip to Paris to catch a flight turns into an adventure with her driver (Arnaud Viard) that covers two days’ worth of fine restaurants, sightseeing and stories. Even if the cross-cultural insight is hardly groundbreaking, Lane’s endearing performance conveys an open-minded curiosity that resonates with moviegoers. The charming result feels stretched at feature length, but it’s a mouth-watering showcase for exotic cuisine that takes full advantage of its scenic surroundings. (Rated PG, 92 minutes).

 

Tracktown

Runners tend to be their own unique breed, and that comes across in this quirky low-budget comedy that follows Plumb (Alexi Pappas), a distance runner intensely training for the high-pressure Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon — the city belonging to the titular nickname. However, her routine is thrown off-track by an injury, prompting a day of rest during which she meets a barista (Chase Offerle) who changes her outlook. Pappas, who’s also a co-director, is convincing enough as she conveys the focused dedication of an elite athlete. However, the breezy film can’t quite go the distance with its string of earnest platitudes and distracting contrivances. (Not rated, 87 minutes).

 

Urban Hymn

While exploring themes of redemption and socioeconomic class, this coming-of-age drama from director Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy) ultimately sings a familiar tune. It follows a London social worker (Shirley Henderson) who takes a juvenile delinquent (Letitia Wright) under her wing by asking her to join the choir. But the teenager can’t escape her past, especially her loyalty to a best friend (Isabella Laughland) with a penchant for violent outbursts and criminal activity. The result is heartfelt but heavy-handed, with the strong performances compromised by a crowd-pleasing approach that feels more sanitized than authentically gritty. Outside of a surprising late plot twist, it’s formulaic and off-key. (Not rated, 114 minutes).

 

The Wedding Plan

There’s a fresh approach to familiar material that drives this modest Israeli romantic comedy, even if the overall impact is forgettable. It centers on Michal (Noa Koler), an Orthodox Jewish woman is dumped by her fiancée just weeks before their nuptials. But rather than canceling the wedding, she becomes determined to find a new groom before the big day, in an ultimate test of faith. As the clock ticks, however, her ensuing encounters with eccentric men only lead to desperation. The script by director Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void) introduces an intriguing spiritual perspective to Michal’s quest, yet the genuine laughs are more sporadic than consistent. (Rated PG, 110 minutes).

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

As you might expect, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a lot like the 2014 blockbuster from which it spawns — only bigger, faster and louder.

The latest high-stakes adventure with the ragtag group of intergalactic heroes features another cool 1970s mixtape and overflows with nostalgic charm, yet lacks the freshness of the first film. Since we’re familiar now with the characters and their antics, the sequel can’t coast as easily on enthusiastic banter, and doesn’t have the narrative clout to compensate.

To recap, the eccentric collection of misfits includes unassuming leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), green-skinned alien Zamora (Zoe Saldana), tough-guy enforcer Drax (Dave Bautista), wisecracking raccoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), the pint-sized offspring of the anthropomorphic tree from the initial outing.

Nemeses on their perilous odyssey through the cosmos include a mixture of established faces and malevolent newcomers, including Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the ever-present Ravagers, who try to divide and conquer the Guardians. Meanwhile, Peter, a.k.a. Star-Lord, gains elusive clues to his mysterious background when he meets his father (Kurt Russell), while learning little about his motives.

The original film suffered from trying to force its unique characters and imaginative world into a conventional superhero framework. This installment includes more of the same — both strengths and weaknesses — in an effort to appease fans more than newcomers.

The screenplay by returning director James Gunn includes a generous array of amusing sight gags and one-liners. And at least there’s an attempted emotional arc, as he makes an effort to further develop the existing characters, touching on themes including parenthood and surrogate families, instead of resorting to a common sequel crutch of merely introducing new blood.

However, despite some taut action sequences and seamless visual effects, this effort falls victim to many of the same pitfalls as other comic-book adaptations these days. It’s an exercise in spectacle over substance, trying to fill every frame with hyperkinetic visual chaos while incorporating inside jokes and obligatory links to its respective fantasy universe.

As such, Guardians Vol. 2 is a functional enterprise that seems content more to repeat the accomplishments of its predecessor rather than to branch out in ambitious new directions. In other words, it’s content to fit in rather than stand out, and its characters deserve better.

 

Rated PG-13, 136 minutes.

The Dinner

Eating is the least important aspect of The Dinner, an uneven but intriguing drama that includes plenty of dirty laundry and family dysfunction on its menu.

As two couples gather at a posh restaurant to renew acquaintances under difficult circumstances, the encounter is tense from the get-go, and even more so as details are gradually revealed, both about the characters at the table and the meaty main course that has them at odds.

Specifically, Stan (Richard Gere) is a congressman running for governor, a move that his younger wife (Rebecca Hall) views as an opportunity to climb the social ladder. Things aren’t going nearly as smoothly for Stan’s estranged brother, Paul (Steve Coogan), who isn’t getting much support from his wife (Laura Linney) in his misguided efforts to connect with their rebellious teenage son, Michael (Charlie Plummer).

A scandal threatens the campaign when video surfaces online of Michael committing a violent crime, causing the family to contemplate a cover-up strategy under the rationale of protecting him.

The screenplay by director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) is based on a book by Dutch novelist Herman Koch, and makes plenty of changes to the source material — both geographically and thematically — to reflect issues ranging from parental responsibility, to socioeconomic class, to sibling rivalry, to mental illness, to wealth and privilege.

While the dialogue is taut, the performances tend to outshine the material, which struggles in the translation from page to screen. Moverman tries to spice up the action with abundant flashbacks and cynical narration, although such a structure too often stalls the narrative momentum. With most of its action confined to a single setting, perhaps The Dinner would be more impactful on stage.

These are deeply flawed yet fascinating characters for whom it’s generally difficult to sympathize. However, as the story veers in unexpected directions and confronts its moral complexities head-on, the actors add depth amid the bickering and posturing — sometimes in lighthearted ways.

Coogan provides some deadpan laughs with his character’s sardonic misanthropy, which masks inner turmoil and lingering hostility. The film as a whole offers some comic relief as it pokes fun at pretentious eateries.

The messy result is nevertheless relevant and provocative. It’s the kind of film that could generate plenty of dinner-table conversation afterward, which hopefully will be more comfortable by comparison.

 

Rated R, 120 minutes.

Three Generations

Ray, the lead character in Three Generations, insists he just wants normalcy. But while it eludes the character, the film itself is unfortunately too normal.

This coming-of-age drama about a family coming to terms with the transformation of a transgender teenager aspires to be both heartfelt and provocative, yet its melodramatic approach just scratches the surface of its relevant subject matter.

Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon) shines as Ray, formerly Ramona, a 16-year old in New York who’s psychologically ready to transition from a female to a male. Ray’s single mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), has reluctantly accepted those intentions, and started referring to her child as “he” rather than “she.”

Less certain is Ray’s lesbian grandmother (Susan Sarandon), who also lives with the duo and asks rather ignorantly of Ray: “Why can’t she just be a lesbian?” Meanwhile, Ray struggles with school bullies and her own doubts about feeling comfortable in her own skin.

At any rate, the primary issue involves Ray’s desire to start testosterone injections, which requires the consent of both parents. That forces Maggie to track down Ray’s biological father (Tate Donovan), who has started a new family in suburbs and balks both at Ray’s idea and at Maggie’s intrusion — involving others in a dysfunctional mess.

As it probes teen sexuality and fractured families, the screenplay by Nikole Beckwith and director Gaby Dellal (On a Clear Day) feels didactic and heavy-handed. Along the way, the film squanders an audacious performances by Fanning. In fact, the entire cast is saddled with clumsy dialogue.

Only occasionally does Three Generations offer meaningful insight into Ray’s insecurities or inner turmoil. It’s a missed opportunity to present a compassionate portrait of tolerance and gender identity without trivializing or stigmatizing.

We’re no longer in a world where just coming out as gay and lesbian is edgy or controversial. This is an LGBTQ world, where each of those letters is becoming more and more the norm. This tale of acceptance almost feels unnecessary, which is good for society as a whole, but bad for the dramatic intentions of the film.

The broader attempt to promote tolerance and break down stereotypes is evident more in the intentions than the execution. A better film would focus on just one generation.

 

Rated PG-13, 92 minutes.

Capsule reviews for May 5

Chuck

Best Picture winner Rocky was inspired by Chuck Wepner, and so is this bittersweet biopic that’s more directly based on his rise and fall on the fringes of prizefighting fame. Chuck (Liev Schreiber) is a proud native of working-class Bayonne, New Jersey who was plucked from obscurity for a heavyweight title shot against Muhammad Ali in 1975. Although he lost, Chuck became a folk hero in his hometown as his personal life fell apart from drugs and infidelity. Schreiber is terrific, and director Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie) employs a gritty and evocative throwback visual style. The cast includes Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts and Ron Perlman. (Rated R, 101 minutes).

 

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait

This hagiographic documentary provides modest insight into the life of the New York-based artist and filmmaker behind Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And if you don’t believe he’s talented, just ask Italian director Pappi Corsicato, whose approach glosses over any significant difficulties in Schnabel’s life in favor of empty anecdotes and unabashed praise. There are some worthwhile moments along the way, mostly courtesy of interviews with friends such as Al Pacino, Bono and Willem Dafoe. And there’s an intimacy to sequences the film’s subject painting and reflecting on his childhood. Perhaps Schnabel could have assembled a more revealing look at his own life. (Not rated, 87 minutes).

 

Take Me

Caught somewhere between a dark comedy and a creepy thriller, the mildly amusing directorial debut of actor Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills) doesn’t succeed either way. Healy stars as a fledgling entrepreneur whose clientele consists of high-end thrill seekers who want to experience an abduction for a fee. Ignoring the legal ramifications of such an enterprise, problems arise on a potentially lucrative job involving an executive (Taylor Schilling) whose identity comes into question. The uneven result features enough playful twists to keep you guessing until the end, although the banter becomes tiresome and the emotional investment dwindles as the thin concept is stretched to feature length. (Not rated, 83 minutes).