Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Updates, eh? Sometimes they work, sometimes they get you in the … Well between computer glitches and Shelley, the Prometheus behemoth is regenerating with this Alien retread and despite my misgivings including the dislikeable casting, I didn’t even look at my watch until ten minutes before the end. Some kind of record. Particularly given the charisma gap here. The Covenant is en route to an intergalactic colony with a coupla thousand peeps and foetuses in pods but a random electrical event causes the death of the Captain (James Franco, gone in sixty seconds) and he’s replaced by deputy Billy ‘Skeletor’ Crudup a religious zealot who sees another planet and decides to stop there instead. Bad move. Because this ain’t paradise and there is not just the pathogen ‘accidentally’ released by Prometheus to contend with, but David 8 (Michael Fassbender) the lone survivor of that ship. And his ‘brother’ Walter (Fassbender) a staple of the Covenant crew meets one of his own kind – family! – for the first time. We’re into mad scientist territory and moreso. It’s only a matter of time before the team including second in command Daniels (beady eyed Katherine Waterston, Franco’s widow) are in all kinds of danger. This can happen when you literally have to recharge your batteries:  so much for technology. This is so fast and furious you never stop to think about the fact that Danny McBride is the guy who’s left to rescue them. Wow. This is more than a human origins/Adam and Eve story:  it’s a proper riposte to the gyno-politics of the series, especially the last one when Dr Elizabeth Shaw (the great Noomi Rapace) carried out her own abortion/Caesarian – and you should see what’s left of her. This is what happens when men decide they want to take charge of reproduction, with obvious debts to more than one Shelley. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. I have one major issue with this. Please stop shooting all sci fis and superheroes on grayscale. I can deal with all the colour spectrum. Really. And I’m not the only one. Put on some lights, use the rainbow. This has been going on for years and I’m sick of it. I will need a coalminer’s lamp next time I go to the movies if this continues. And next time an insect flies into one of your orifices, be very scared indeed … Outer space, innerspace, vive la difference! Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty and the Beast 2017

It seems a little odd to suggest the obvious – that this remake isn’t as good as the original – until you recall that the 1991 animation was the first one to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. While a little flawed, it didn’t outstay its welcome. The opening narration here seems to go on for about a half a day. As voiceovers go, it’s redundant if you stick to the Show Don’t Tell rule of cinematic story:  we can SEE what’s happening as Belle (Emma Watson) trots around the village waving her book-reading superiority at her fellow natives. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a bumptious character, hilariously played and sets the tone proper with his antics chasing ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ (hmm….) His self-love is reflected in the slavering attentions of sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) and the opening sequence culminates in an outstandingly well done groupsing at the local inn.This is one of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Belle’s papa Maurice (Kevin Kline) needs to travel for his work and promises to bring her back a rose – like he does every year. And when he finds the enchanted castle where Beast (Dan Stevens, who makes a very wan prince indeed) resides reclusively since having a spell cast upon him years earlier … Belle arrives to save him and swaps places and the rest you know. The animated houseware is now characterised through CGI and voiced among others by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth – he previously worked with director Bill Condon in the wonderful Gods and Monsters), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and most disappointingly, Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) whose harsh faux Cockney cannot approximate to the warmth and sheer incomparable charisma of Angela Lansbury. The whole film is shot in an incredibly dark palette which renders the experience quite difficult – made worse in 3D – and the staging is very awkward in places: the first ballroom scene, featuring the famous dance between Belle and Beast is really underwhelming (remember the brilliance of the original?) suggesting a lack of attention not just to famous musicals of the past but basic dance steps, decent choreography and a sense of magic which is nonexistent at what should have been the story’s high point. The shots are completely wrong for such a sequence. There are great life lessons in the story – misunderstanding people on the basis of their appearances, the swift way in which groups become mobs and the way that Belle is told of her mother’s death is very well done but the narrative momentum is lost to bad handling. The outstanding performance is by Luke Evans, literally pitch perfect in an overly long underimpressive production. Maybe if they hadn’t been so hellbent on making something so politically correct/gay/racially diverse they’d have had a monster film.There’s always La Belle et la Bete.

King Kong (1976)

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Off to the ocean wave are we! Setting sail to exploit the untapped oil reserves on an undiscovered island – but lo! What have we here?! A beautiful scantily clad blonde (Jessica Lange) washed up in a dinghy, her life saved by walking out of a bad movie screening and managing to make good her escape from an exploding ship … Anthropologist Jack (Jeff Bridges) is mighty taken with her but when they meet the locals on said Indian Ocean island, a large wall indicates that all is not well. That’s when they meet Kong, the island god. And he’s a rather strapping fellow. But there’s a lovely white woman to offer in ritual sacrifice … Lorenzo Semple Jr (what a fantastic writer he was) adapted the screenplay from the Thirties classic (appropriately, one of my desert island faves, written by James Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace) but manages to make this its own beast, clarifying the tangled updated web of oil interests, (female) exploitation and animal welfare:  there’s no doubt whose side he’s on. The New York scenes are very well executed and the creature work by Carlo Rambaldi and Rick Baker is quite remarkable, a far cry from the CGI-fest of 2005. I’m with Pauline Kael on this one – it’s a comic strip romance that can make you cry. Take that, Tom Hiddleston, who recently stated (unironically uninformed perhaps) that his new remake is “uniquely set in the 1970s.” Bah, humbug, etc. No wonder Kong went on fire. Directed by John Guillermin.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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This animation brought Disney back to its classic roots with Linda Woolverton’s screenplay (working from a painstaking adaptation by eleven scribes!) of the French fairytale hitting all the right story points at a rattling pace (84 minutes). It was the first animation to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are pretty great and use a variety of forms including waltz and they are exceptionally well positioned in the narrative:  it helps that they are performed by experienced stage vets, including Paige O’Hara as bookworm Belle, who falls for Beast (Robby Benson) after he’s exchanged her father for her in his enchanted castle. If it falls down anywhere in it’s in the sequences outside – interestingly this is the flaw shared with its progenitor, Jean Cocteau’s magical La Belle et la bete (1946), a live action version whose animated statuary proved a spellbinding lure into the rest of the tale. On a technical level, Disney had abandoned their original hand inking technique in the late 1950s and the new CAPS system developed by Pixar enabled them to utilise a wider and more subtle colour palette in conjunction with digitalisation – just wait for your jaw to drop during the ballroom scene. Angela Lansbury and Bradley Pierce as Mrs Potts and her son Chip (of the teapot Potts) are particularly good, and Lumiere, the candlestick maitre d’hotel (Jerry Orbach) is pretty wild, with a great sidekick in Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers). All girls should have a library like the one gifted Belle and have the Academy Award-winning title song sung to them. Be Our Guest! Compelling. Produced by Don Hahn, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

Happy 70th Birthday Steven Spielberg!

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We sometimes forget the people who are always there and Steven Spielberg has always been in my life, like a comfort blanket. His command of the visual language complements an extraordinary understanding of the centre of things, the emotionality, the source of humour and compassion, thrills and action. His films have made me swoon and gasp in awe, laugh hysterically, gaze in wonder and shiver in fear. He uses new technology and collaborates with great practitioners in filmmaking crafts. He creates worlds and leads us there, by the hand, and sometimes educates us. He produces films and inspires and mentors other writers and directors and has given the world the great John Williams scores and the summer blockbuster. He is at the heart of pop culture and for Generation X he is simply our guy:  Jaws, CE3K, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET:  The Extra-Terrestrial. His sensibility may have altered somewhat as he has aged, but the audience is always crucial to his thinking:  good stories, well told and beautifully made. He is a master of all genres, pretty much and those he hasn’t directed he’s produced. Spielberg was born 18 December 1946 and we are fortunate to have him. Long may he reign.

Tremors (1990)

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You wanted a western monster movie homage, so here it is, the deserved cult fave with Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as the laconic cowpoke repairmen bored by life in Perfection, Nevada when they find a colleague dehydrated and dead up a telegraph mast and a station wagon buried in the sand. They soon find out why – as a giant worm with massive tentacled tongues chases them across the desert. And he has some friends. They and their smalltown acquaintances have to use their ingenuity to send the monsters to kingdom come but it’s the pretty seismologist (Finn Carter) who has most of the good ideas while Reba McIntire and her hubby Michael Gross show us why sometimes it’s good to have an elephant gun in the rec room. Great fun with some cracking lines and deadpan performances, featuring a number of deadly C&W songs including Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life. Debut film by Ron Underwood, written and produced by Brent Maddock and SS Wilson and the first of a long series.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

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The original Fifties monster movie! This is the story of a team of fossil hunters and anthropologists on an expedition down the Amazon who discover something quite fascinating. They encounter a gill man who has evolved underwater and now has a thing for Julie Adams whom he’s observed swimming. The team get picked off, one by one, as he escapes from their boat and takes her to his cave …. Originally shot for 3D with great sequences by William E. Snyder, the creature is played by Ricou Browning in water, Ben Chapman on land. The non-amphibians are played by Whit Bisssell, Richard Denning and Antonio Moreno.  Star Richard Carlson is reunited with director Jack Arnold from the previous year’s It Came From Outer Space and plays a Californian icthyologist based in Brazil who is called in to analyse a skeletal webbed hand. Both he and Adams look very nice in their swimming togs when they take a break from romancing on the tramp steamer.  Producer William Alland based the film on a tale he was told during production on Citizen Kane, when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa regaled him with a myth of half-human half-fish creatures in the Amazon. His notes, with some aspects of Beauty and the Beast, were expanded into a story treatment by Maurice Zimm and then the screenplay was written by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross.  Arnold handles this material with appropriate seriousness, getting decent performances in a story that could have descended to the ridiculous. This archetypal Universal production boasts some very influential marine photography particularly the POV shots of Julie Adams which would later resurface in Jaws.  A classic, it spawned two sequels.

Krampus (2015)

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Ever dreamed of spending Christmas without your family when everything seems like it’s going to Hell in a handcart? Well young Max (Emjay Anthony) swaps one kind of home invasion (aunt, uncle, cousins and great-aunt) for another (a German folkloric nightmare) when he wishes exactly that. Grandma Omi (Krista Stadler) knows it’s all down to what she did as a kid back in Austria but that doesn’t stop the demons being unleashed, starting with an ominous looking snowman in the yard, a power cut and a big sister kidnapped on the way to see her boyfriend in a snowstorm. There are noises in the attic and suddenly there are psychotic gingerbread men, Teddy bears and porcelain dolls on the prowl and that’s before the elves get started. Way to see your obnoxious cousin disappear up the chimney! NRA supporting uncle Howard (David Koechner) figures there’s only one way to deal with the invaders, since you can’t placate a crazy cookie.  I know how you feel about family at Christmas too (aw! really?!)  but even I find this veering on the violent end of the spectrum – tho hey, what about that staple gun! Starring Toni Collette and Adam Scott as the put-upon PC hosts who become really quite ingenious with their home cleaning solutions. Written by Todd Casey, Zach Shields and director Michael Dougherty, responsible for Trick ‘r Treat. Only if  Gremlins really doesn’t do it for you. I must start looking for those baubles …

Frankenweenie (2012)

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A real return to form for Tim Burton with another stop-motion animation, this time a remake/expanded version of a decades-old short, the story of Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who is devastated by the death of his dog Sparky but through science class and an experiment on a dead frog, he learns how he might bring him back to life. A glorious spin on the Frankenstein story with a genius character by the name of Edgar, a creepy bug-eyed buck-toothed little hunchback frenemy who rats out Victor’s secret and soon all the animals in the pet cemetery are making a return … Written by Leonard Ripps (in 1984) from Burton’s original idea, with a screenplay by John August and apologies to the source, Mary Shelley who probably never saw this one coming! A great pastiche of monster movies. Brilliant, moving and funny as hell. Love it.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) (TVM)

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Old houses are spooky, aren’t they? And mine scared the hell out of me and my guests when I first moved in – with floors settling, wind whistling down the chimneys and the TV going on and off of its own accord …  Sally (Kim Darby) moves into her folks’ old Victorian and it’s not long before she’s pulling open the bricked-up fireplace in the basement which she plans to turn into a study despite the carpenter’s advice to leave well alone. He’s been around a long time and knows things about the place. She carries on and soon there are voices calling to her and creatures visiting her and hubby Alex (Jim Hutton) thinks she’s going crazy.She humiliates herself at a dinner for his business colleagues when a creature materialises under the table but only she can see it:  Alex agrees to sell up. When he returns from a trip to San Francisco the realtor has died falling down the staircase and Kim’s got wire scars on her hands – she says the creatures were holding cord when they tripped him up thinking they were getting her … This is of course the legendary cult TVM that inspired Guillermo del Toro to the point where he rewrote it and produced his own version in 2011.  Written by Nigel McKeand and directed by John Newland with editorial supervision by Gene Fowler Jr. There really are creatures living in the house and they want her.Sally! Sally!