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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Ridley Scott’s third Alien movie, Alien: Covenant, is a good one. Sadly, it was not good enough to motivate a lot of domestic viewers to take it in—putting the franchise in jeopardy.

A direct sequel to his Alien prequel, Prometheus, Covenant tries to be both a gory monster movie and a philosophical meditation on the creation of man—with mixed results. It’s as if Scott heard all of the bitching by Alien fans who didn’t get enough monster madness in Prometheus, so he upped the ante on the gore and special effects, but did it with a smaller budget and the same kind of crazy plot holes that plagued Prometheus.

The movie still represents good Alien fun, with Michael Fassbender doing excellent work as not one, but two androids: Walter, the new, nicer android, and David, the dickhead android from Prometheus. Scott gets a little carried away regarding David’s overall role in the Alien universe. His new theory is relatively cool, but sometimes things are better left without an origin story.

The relative box-office failure of this one not only puts the other proposed Scott sequel in jeopardy; it almost certainly means the death of Neill Blomkamp’s proposed direct sequel to Aliens (a film that would’ve ignored Alien 3 and 4), which would’ve brought back Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and Newt. Farts!

Special Features: The coolest thing you will find here is a director’s commentary with Scott. Watching the movie with Scott explaining his intentions makes the viewing experience a little more awesome. You also get a bevy of deleted and extended scenes, and a behind-the-scenes docs. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Writer-director Terrence Malick has shit the bed with his third consecutive film: His latest cinematic effort, Song to Song, is a joke.

I am a card-carrying, Malick-worshiping super fan who is in pain watching one of my directing heroes lose his way. After the triumph that was The Tree of Life, Malick shot To the Wonder and Knight of Cups out his film-making butt—and I hoped that would be the worst of it. Alas, Song to Song, which is supposed to be about people having love affairs amidst the Austin music scene, is Malick’s worst … by far.

For starters, I just have no idea what the fuck is supposed to be going on in this thing. Rooney Mara plays some kind of groupie who hooks up with a record producer played by Michael Fassbender. Then she starts dating wannabe musician Ryan Gosling. Then Gosling dumps her. Then Natalie Portman drowns. Then Mara becomes the guitar-player in Val Kilmer’s band, strumming away and looking like an idiot. Then Kilmer cuts his hair off onstage with a big knife. Then Mara starts dating Gosling again. The fucking end.

There’s no script; this film simply features a bunch of aimless, good-looking actors and actress walking around with nothing to do. If you can’t tell, I’m pissed about how much this sucked! And for a film about the Austin music scene … it doesn’t really have any music!

Still … I will be the first in line for the next Malick effort. He’s a master filmmaker who has already made his mark. He can screw up 100 times now, but he’s still made some of the greatest, most-beautiful films ever made. Song to Song is far from being one of them.

Song to Song is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Ridley Scott’s third Alien film is an entertaining mashup of the overreaching-but-cool sensibilities of Prometheus and the old-school dread and “Ick!” factor that made the original Alien one of the best horror and science-fiction films of the 20th century.

Alien: Covenant continues the ruminations about the origins of man birthed in Prometheus while injecting a few more Xenomorphs into the mix. It will please fans of the first two films of the franchise who want the shit scared out of them, while also appeasing those who enjoyed the brainy (if somewhat confusing and inconsistent) ways of Prometheus.

While Scott leaned harder on the horror elements here, his budget is $30 million-plus less than what he had for Prometheus. That film constituted one of cinema’s all-time-great usages of 3-D technology, with flawless special effects. Covenant totally abandons 3-D (money saved), and features some CGI in the opening minutes that looks like something you would see in a low-budget Syfy channel offering.

The film more than makes up for that shoddy computer work once the crew members of the Covenant—a stricken colony ship in danger of not reaching its destination—sets down to scout out a new planet as an alternate, closer option. The expedition is led by a new commander (Billy Crudup) after the original captain passed away (in an eyebrow-raising cameo).

Things look encouraging at first: There is fresh water, breathable air and even wheat fields, on the plus side. After a quick search for a transmission they received drawing them to the planet, they discover the horseshoe ship piloted by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David the android (Michael Fassbender) at the end of Prometheus. After this discovery, the minus side begins to get a lot of check marks.

They are on the Engineer planet, the origin of Earth’s creation, and the place where they created the bio weapon meant to destroy us. David has been surviving on the planet for more than a decade, but where’s Elizabeth? Where are the Engineers? Only David knows, and David, as you might remember from Prometheus, is a bit dickish.

The film allows for another mind-bending performance by Fassbender: Not only is he playing David, but also Walter, the upgraded android from the new expedition. The two androids are essentially the devil and Jesus in this movie, and they share an interesting flute tutorial that suggests androids can have sexual/incest impulses. Fassbender, as with Prometheus, is the main reason to see Covenant.

That is, he’s the main reason to see Covenant besides the triumphant return of the Xenomorphs. The face-huggers and chest-bursters return, along with some new bad bastards including the back-burster and the face-burster. When they grow up (quite rapidly), they become all forms of H.R. Giger’s inspired creepy madness. Unlike Cameron’s Aliens, these Xenomorphs aren’t interested in cocooning. They are more interested in stuff like popping heads off and doing that claw-between-the-legs move that Veronica Cartwright endured in the original Alien’s most-horrifying moment.

Beyond Crudup and Danny McBride as ship-pilot Tennessee, nobody else in the cast really distinguishes themselves beyond being fodder for the aliens. Katherine Waterston is OK as the film’s main protagonist, Daniels, but her role ultimately feels like a greatest-hits compilation of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Rapace’s Shaw.

Where does this rank in the Alien franchise? I’d say fourth, behind Alien, Aliens and Prometheus, and just above the unfairly maligned Alien 3. It’s a good time for Ridley Scott and Xenomorph fans, and it continues the existential offerings of Prometheus. Had they taken the time to work a little harder on those early effects, and fleshed out the cast members a little better, it could’ve surpassed Prometheus.

Scott is promising at least two more films leading up to the events of his original Alien, while apparently putting the kibosh on the Aliens sequel that was in the works for director Neil Blomkamp. That’s the one that would’ve brought back Ripley, Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt.

Dammit! That would’ve been cool.

Alien: Covenant is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

After scoring a huge critical and box-office success in 2014 with X-Men: Days of Future Past—Bryan Singer’s triumphant return to the franchise—20th Century Fox wisely brought the director back for X-Men: Apocalypse.

However, in an utterly baffling move, Fox cut the budget for the current installment, while padding the cast and upping the action. (Well, this is the studio that screwed up The Fantastic Four, so maybe the shortchanging of a reliable franchise isn’t all that surprising.)

The result: Portions of the movie look much sloppier than Singer’s usual offerings, with quite a few moments featuring cut-rate-looking CGI. The movie alternates from looking great to looking terrible. The flaws eventually pile up, and while there are some nice, enjoyable stretches, X-Men: Apocalypse is a mess in the end, despite powerful work from Michael Fassbender as Magneto, and a great performance by new-to-the-franchise Oscar Isaac as the menacing villain, Apocalypse.

Before the opening credits (which, by the way, look like shit), we get a quick back-story for Apocalypse. En Sabah Nur, an ancient Egyptian, morphs along with some sort of ancient mystical being, thus becoming the world’s first mutant, or something like that. He’s then buried under a crushed pyramid for centuries. Cue the cheap-looking opening credits.

Cut to the 1980s, 10 years after the events of Days of Future Past. A bunch of random people are standing around chanting in the pyramid ruins, and En Sabah Nur awakens as Apocalypse, a blue monster that looks like a cross between Jeff Bridges in Tron and the Emperor from Star Wars. Even though he’s buried under a bunch of makeup and voice modulation, Isaac makes every moment count. He looks like he’s having a lot of fun.

The same goes for Fassbender, whose Erik Lehnsherr has been masquerading as a mild-mannered factory worker in Poland since the events in Washington, D.C.; he’s happily married with a daughter. Erik is loving life—but when Apocalypse awakens, he causes an earthquake that jars something loose at the factory. Erik stops an object from falling on a friend, thus blowing his cover—and starting a series of events that leads him toward becoming the evil Magneto.

Apocalypse builds an army of four (like the four horsemen), including Magneto, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). They jet all over the Earth in some sort of energy bubble (kind of like Bill and Ted in their phone booth), eventually winding up at the school run by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). Xavier has a power that Apocalypse craves—and this leads to all sorts of wham-bam, chaotic showdowns involving crumbling buildings and telekinetic battles.

With all of this going on, Singer tries to make time for a back-story involving Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) while also upping the screen time of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Oh yeah, the film also features an upstart actress by the name of Jennifer Lawrence, doing her Mystique shtick. There’s even memorable sequence involving Quicksilver (this time set to a Eurhythmics song) during which the guy with knives shooting out of his knuckles makes a big, if forced, cameo. In other words: Singer tries to do too much, and the movie wears out its welcome with its 144-minute running time.

The weakest of the new entries is Turner as Jean Grey. The Game of Thrones actress is simply outmatched by the talent around her, and fails to make her Jean Grey compelling. She’s just kind of pouty and grouchy. Lawrence is fine as Mystique, but her storyline feels tacked on.

Had the movie spent a little more time with Magneto and cut back on some of the characters, X-Men: Apocalypse could’ve been another worthy entry, thanks in large part to Isaac. It’s ultimately a near-miss, and the worst movie in a franchise that hadn’t previously delivered a bad film. (Yes, I was OK with the third one.)

Whatever happens next, it might be time for Singer to take a sabbatical from X-Men.

X-Men: Apocalypse is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

I can’t say whether Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Steve Jobs in Danny Boyle’s new firecracker of a movie is accurate; I didn’t know the guy. I can say that the performance is, dramatically, one of the best things you will see in cinemas this year.

Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by the ever-reliable Boyle (127 Hours, Sunshine), plays out in three parts: Apart from a few flashbacks, we see Jobs backstage at three significant product launches during his career. The film is expertly staged, playing out like the most entertaining and brutal of Shakespearean dramas.

As Jobs ties his bowtie and prepares to launch the Macintosh in 1984, his personal life is messing with his mojo. Estranged lover Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) is distressed over the paltry sum Jobs pays her and their alleged daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), in child support. Jobs is worth millions, but offers only hundreds per month—because he doubts his being the father.

Chrisann has some good arguments. A paternity test puts the likelihood of Jobs being the dad at more than 94 percent, and Lisa looks an awfully lot like him. This is no matter to Jobs, who spends years denying fatherhood—while reluctantly turning over more than the court-mandated amount of cash, because part of him really likes Lisa. He even names a computer after her.

We see Steve Jobs at his very worst, a man so obsessed with his company’s new gadgets that he won’t face the reality of his fatherly duties. Lisa, portrayed at different ages by Moss (6), Ripley Sobo (9) and a show-stopping Perla Haney-Jardine (19), is a girl any dad would be proud of—but Jobs can’t really be bothered. He has goofy-looking computers to sell.

While Jobs won’t be a dad to his daughter, he tries to be one to Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the engineer who actually built the board that launched Apple computers. Mind you, Jobs isn’t a good father figure. While he claims he will always protect and nurture Wozniak, he fails to come through on some key matters, including the acknowledgement of Wozniak and his team in the Apple legacy. 

Fassbender’s Jobs is every bit that charming man we saw while he was introducing computers, iPods and iPhones to drooling masses. He had such nice, warm tendencies in public that it was hard to imagine him as a bastard behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, his quick wit and ability to reason are often wielded as weapons against his perceived enemies, whether they be Wozniak, justifiably begging for recognition, or Chrisann, begging for money. As far as this movie is concerned, Jobs was a brilliant but not-so-nice man. In fact, he was a major dickweed.

The major coup is that Fassbender still makes Jobs likable. It’s easy to hate the man’s actions, and it’s also very easy to root for his redemption. Fassbender puts petal to the metal with this performance, and he never lets up.

Say hello to Seth Rogen … actor! In his few pivotal scenes, Rogen breaks hearts as Wozniak, a good natured, well-meaning man who obviously loves and admires Jobs, but can’t fathom his stubbornness. It’s a revelatory performance from a man who usually delivers laughs. This time out, you’ll feel his character’s emotional pain and hurt.

Kate Winslet, even though her accent morphs from time to time, is equally compelling as Jobs’ confidant and mother figure, Joanna Hoffman. It’s an incredible performance. The same can be said for Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, the advertising giant who essentially became Jobs’ boss. That relationship is combustible at times, and Daniels blows up the screen.

Steve Jobs will make you forget Jobs, that other biopic that featured a heavily made-up Ashton Kutcher playing with an iPod. Fassbender and Boyle deliver the kind of movie Jobs deserved—warts and all. It’s a mesmerizing film about a complicated man.

Steve Jobs is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Michael Fassbender remains on a fantastic roll with Slow West, a gritty, appropriately downbeat Western from writer-director John Maclean.

Fassbender plays Silas, a cynical, grouchy rider on the American frontier in the 19th century who comes across Jay (Kodi-Smit McPhee), a Scottish boy who is travelling alone in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), a girl he loves. She had to flee to America with her father after an accident, and now they have a bounty on their heads. Silas knows about the bounty—but he doesn’t tell Jay.

After coming across a group of bandits led by Payne (the ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn), Silas must decide who he’s going to back—the boy or the bandits.

Slow West is a great ride, with a vivid depiction of the old West unlike any I’ve seen before. By the time the action reaches Rose’s farm—a single house out in the middle of nowhere—you get a true sense of just how few people were inhabiting that part of the world at this particular time.

McPhee is heartbreaking as a young man who just doesn’t get it, and Fassbender continues to prove he’s a cinematic treasure. They make a great screen duo.

I’m very interested in seeing what this Maclean fellow does next.

Slow West is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Director Lenny Abrahamson has made a profound yet silly film about the soul-sucking madness that can come from the creation of art—as well as the perils of pursuing celebrity.

In Frank, Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) clumsily tries to write music while living with his mom and dad in England. His attempts are pathetic—and he knows it. Jon happens upon a strange band, the Soronprfbs (yes, it’s impossible to pronounce), while their keyboardist is attempting to drown himself in the ocean. The band is fronted by Frank (Michael Fassbender), a possible musical genius who insists upon wearing a large mask with big bug eyes. He wears it all the time, whether he’s in public, performing or sleeping.

The character is based a bit upon Frank Sidebottom, the singing alter ego of the late British comedian Chris Sievey, who wore a mask similar to the one Fassbender wears in the film. Jon Ronson, a former member of Sidebottom’s band, co-wrote the script.

As terrific as Fassbender is, it is Gleeson (Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) who commands most of the movie. Watching the previously grounded Jon nearly go insane is one of the film’s many pleasures. When Frank sings “I Love You All” in the final scene, he’s managed to create his most “likable” and accessible song yet—and it’s the catchy byproduct of madness, despair and the artistic birthing process.

Frank is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

The X-Men franchise has taken the time-travel route made popular by James Cameron’s Terminator movies and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) partakes in a unique form of time-tripping—and the result is the best film in the series since X-Men 2.

Another big contributor to the awesomeness of the latest installment is the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair. Singer piloted the first two X-Men films; he has a nice command of the characters in both their old and younger incarnations. It’s good to have him back.

The film starts in the future, where the likes of Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Wolverine have been reduced to hiding out in a dark, apocalyptic world where their enemy is a vicious robotic force called the Sentinels. Things are looking bad for the mutants.

However, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has perfected a form of time travel in order to mess with the Sentinels. It involves time-traveling in one’s own mind back to a particular point in memory where the traveler can mess with the fabric of time. She can only send somebody back for a few minutes or so due to brain trauma—but then it strikes the X-Men that Wolverine has instant healing powers.

Wolverine therefore travels back to the early ’70s, before the Sentinels go into production, and before Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) commits a murder that will doom the future. It’s a nice chance to see Wolverine with his bone claws again, and it creates an opportunity to combine the two recent X-Men casts.

Most of the action takes place in the past, so the X-Men: First Class cast gets most of the screen time. That means more of the terrific Michael Fassbender’s take on Magneto, who is being held in a prison underneath the Pentagon for allegedly having something to do with an infamous magic bullet. James McAvoy actually steals the show as young Xavier/Professor X, who has found a solution for his crippled legs—but it has a truly bad side effect.

Peter Dinklage has a pivotal role as a creator of the Sentinels; Dinklage always adds a level of class to any project. The film also allows a funny take on Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho), who finds himself in the middle of the whole mutant public-relations fiasco.

While Lawrence gets plenty of screen time as Raven, we never do see Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. We do get a brief, brief glimpse of Anna Paquin’s Rogue. (More scenes wound up on the cutting-room floor, according to Singer.) There are more than 30 seconds of Halle Berry’s Storm in the film, which means there’s more Storm in this movie than anybody really needs.

A welcome cast addition is Evan Peters as the speedy Quicksilver. One of the film’s best sequences involves how it looks to Quicksilver, through his eyes, as he rearranges a gunfight with his fingertips in a half-second. We see it in slow motion, with much comedic detail. It’s brilliant.

This film basically allows the X-Men universe to jettison X-Men: The Last Stand, a film made by Brett Ratner; it was not a favorite with fans. I didn’t hate the movie, but it stands alongside the mediocre X-Men Origins: Wolverine as one of the weakest movies in the series.

As is the case with Star Trek, the whole system has been reconfigured with X-Men, and all options are open for future films. Is there chance they can use the whole time-travel thing on the Matrix movies, and fix those screwed-up sequels?

X-Men: Days of Future Past is playing in regular and 3-D formats at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The picture that took home Best Picture honors at this year’s Academy Awards is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery before the Civil War.

The film, fresh off its win of three Oscars, is being released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, March 4.

This effort from director Steve McQueen is a towering achievement, one of last year’s bravest and most uncompromising films. Chiwetel Ejiofor got a much-deserved Oscar nomination for playing Northup, a man who was forced to work on cotton plantations—one of them run by the despicable Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender (also an Oscar nominee) in a vicious and brilliant performance.

McQueen shows slavery as the horror it was, and Ejiofor puts a character on the screen who you will never forget. If you were one of the few people who saw 2011’s Pariah, you know that Adepero Oduye is a stellar actress, as she further proves here as Eliza, a woman sold into slavery and taken from her children. Relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (an Oscar winner) is equally heartbreaking as Patsey, a victim of Epps’ sick abuse.

The movie is shocking, violent and unrelenting in its mission to show this country in its worst, most shameful days. It’s about time somebody had the guts to make a movie like this one.

Special Features: There are not a lot—just some short features on the score and the folks who made the movie.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

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