Alien: Covenant takes a 38 year-old franchise in a refreshingly new direction

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Let it never be said that these new Alien films are mere copies of the previous franchise. Although Alien: Covenant is deceptively similar in terms of plot to Ridley Scott’s first Alien film from nearly four decades ago, the similarities seem to serve as a disguise to hide away the main storyline. After the opening credits scene involving David talking to his creator for the first time, the film follows Alien’s plot almost point-by-point. The crew members of a ship flying through space wake up from their hypersleep much earlier than expected due to a malfunction. After discovering a signal broadcast from a nearby planet, the crew set out to investigate. Once they arrive at the planet, things go horribly wrong.

It’s so similar that it all becomes rather predictable, until we’re finally reunited with David to see what has transpired in the ten years since the events of Prometheus. Make no mistake: Alien: Covenant is very much a direct sequel to Prometheus, and the lead character of the latest film isn’t anyone from the new batch of characters. Despite being absent for most of the first act, David takes front and center once he reappears and all similarities to the first Alien film end.

What started out as yet another monster movie in the franchise shifts its focus to the synthetic android with a God complex. Created by Peter Weyland to serve man, David has evolved to have desires and ambitions of his own. Alien: Covenant aims to explore what Prometheus took a glancing interest in: that of David’s frustrations and outright contempt for his own creators. Moreover, it explores David’s fascination with the creation of life and how it empowers him. The scenes of David talking to his “brother” Walter are superb and engaging. Two androids discussing their purpose in life, with David trying to lead Walter to the path of enlightenment. David, who used to be a servant, is now a King, and he hopes that Walter can realize his own potential as well.

Michael Fassbender’s dual performance is, in a word, phenomenal. The stark difference between David’s mysterious worldliness and Walter’s benign compliance is an impressive feat of acting. Even though they wear different costumes throughout, I feel as though I can tell the difference between the two characters even if they were wearing identical costumes since Fassbender gives them such a distinct presence even when they’re not speaking. All this, I should add, is achieved without showing any emotion throughout the film.

The theme of creation is the driving force of this new franchise. Exploring the origins of an iconic alien monster has somehow lead to infusing philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and mankind’s purpose. If that sounds like a tall order for what started out as a horror monster movie, it is. Alien: Covenant and Prometheus delve just deep enough into its themes to bring up the intriguing questions and make you wonder, but neither one executes it in a satisfying manner.

Both films use this theme as a springboard to bring about gruesome entertainment. What was supposed to be used by the Engineers as a complex biological weapon to destroy mankind is used by David to experiment for his own creations. These creations then terrorize a bunch of hapless crew members as they fight for their lives. It’s a great storyline for an entertaining blockbuster, but its deeper implications are only hinted at, left out in the open to be pondered but not explored by the film itself. The audience’s need for a satisfying answer to the questions raised at the end of Prometheus are left unfulfilled by the sequel.

But is the answer as to why humanity was created by the Engineers supposed to be satisfying in the first place? It seems that the promise of an answer has been dashed with Elizabeth Shaw’s death. After all, she started this expedition in the first place and didn’t get an answer herself. Everyone who asked the question of why is now dead, so it’s difficult to imagine that future films in the franchise will bother to answer the question that started it all.

Still, it’s not often that big-budget blockbusters even bring up the kind of questions that this franchise has. Alien: Covenant has the distinct quality of having a villain as its lead character, and as the franchise moves forward with David at the center, where the franchise goes from here is a fascinating question full of exciting possibilities. David’s motivations and the implications of what an android with a God complex will do next now that he has more resources at his hand is a compelling prospect for a sequel to explore.

8/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a surprisingly heartfelt and character-driven sci-fi adventure that pushes the boundaries of visual effects

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It still seems difficult to believe that a space adventure film where 90% of the main characters consist of weird aliens is one of the most successful and wildly entertaining franchises to come out in the last few years. Undoubtedly emboldened by the audience’s acceptance of the previous film, writer and director James Gunn takes these strange alien characters into an even more fantastical adventure that pushes the limits and potential of the world that it takes place in.

It’s easy to heap praise on the incredible visuals that the film provides. From the detailed production design, elaborate make-up and costumes, colorful cinematography, and awe-inspiring visual effects, the bigger and bolder sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy looks like an exhilarating exercise in creativity and imagination. Director James Gunn and his creative team fully embrace the strangeness of the film’s universe to provide us a world that is suitably alien and spectacular. It feels like every shot has been designed for maximum visual impact with its bold use of bright colors and otherworldly design.

But even more impressive than the film’s seemingly endless number of technical achievements is how it further develops its numerous characters. Sequels tend to have more freedom in terms of creating elaborate storylines because it’s no longer burdened by introducing and establishing its characters. Since most of the legwork and development has already been done in the previous film, a sequel can take off almost immediately since audiences should already be familiar with the major players. But in this case, James Gunn does almost the exact opposite by focusing even more on its characters and developing them further instead of telling a more intricate plot.

It does this so well that you begin to have doubts with regards to the quality of the film’s plot, but the complex character development serves another purpose: to distract us with what’s been happening in the background. Amidst Peter Quill’s reunion with his father, Gamora and Nebula’s conflict coming to a head, Rocket Raccoon’s persistence in alienating himself with the group, and Yondu’s thief-with-a-heart-of-gold routine, the film’s plot has actually been slowly but surely building up to the inevitable climax while we’re too busy focusing on the characters’ respective evolutions.

While it should come as no surprise that Peter Quill’s father is actually a villain with ulterior motives, the film manages to lull us into a false sense of comfort right before his ultimate plan is revealed. Again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ego is the film’s bad guy, but it takes us off guard anyway because we’re seeing him through Peter’s starstruck eyes. At no point do we see Ego by himself in the first half of the film, cackling in a hidden corner to himself as his evil plan comes to fruition while our heroes stand by unawares. On the contrary, Peter is with him every time we see Ego onscreen (save for the first scene), so we’re left wondering all throughout as to what his plans and motivations are, which is revealed to the characters and the audience at the same time. This has the exciting effect of kick-starting the film’s grand climax, which manages to surprise with its far-reaching scope.

Understanding that the success of the franchise is rooted in the characters is what makes this corner of the Marvel universe feel so special. The wonderful dynamic of these wildly different characters being united by a sense purpose when they’re among each other is executed so well that they manage to feel relatable despite their strange appearances. Most important is that they provide meaning to all the spectacle that the film has to offer. All the wonders of CGI aren’t as important if the characters and story fall flat.

Breathtaking action scenes and fully realized characters combine for one of the most entertaining and memorable blockbusters in recent memory. Although it doesn’t quite reach the same refreshing highs that the first film offered, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is nonetheless a worthy sequel to one of the biggest surprises to come out in the comic book and sci-fi adventure genre. What was once considered to be a risky inclusion in the Marvel cinematic universe continues to cement itself as one of the best in an oversaturated genre. When the end credits once again proudly and confidently state that the Guardians of the Galaxy will return, it’s a promise that manages to bring joy and excitement with what future installments will offer.

8/10

Silence is a deeply moving film about the endurance of faith

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Films that center around a character’s religious beliefs tend to be hindered creatively due to the limitations of conflict. No matter what time or setting it takes place in, films like Silence are usually about a character who’s religious faith is tested against all odds. This test usually comes in the form of punishment, torture, and/or death given by people who believe in a different religion from our lead character. In this essence, Silence offers nothing new in that regard. It’s still the same conflict at the end of the day, one that audiences have been told about literally since the beginning of the common era.

But what makes such a familiar story so compelling when done right is what it manages to say about the human condition. Martin Scorsese’s passion project explores a familiar tale in a devastatingly intimate manner. Beyond simply being a film about the power of faith, Silence is also a film about exploration and what separates and unites two vastly different cultures and nations from one another.

Told primarily from the perspective of Rodrigues, Silence follows two Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan to look for their mentor and spread the word of their religion. Almost immediately their journey proves to be more dangerous than they expected, as they are forced to live in hiding among villagers who, despite the threat of death, practice Christianity in secret.

It’s tricky presenting a story like Silence to a modern audience. Stories about martyrs who suffer for their beliefs is in real danger of feeling outdated and even ridiculous when seen through the eyes of the present. You don’t even have to be a non-believer to scoff at these characters’ insistence of sacrificing their very lives in the name of their God. In many ways, this is the ultimate challenge that films like Silence must overcome, because if the audience thinks that the characters are being foolish, it becomes difficult to sympathize with them.

But because of Scorsese’s expert handling of the story and the characters, Silence is a film that is deeply powerful and captivating. Watching these characters’ journey of faith is so emotionally involving because Scorsese brings an unmistakable sense of authenticity in every scene. We not only sympathize with these characters but live in their very shoes, regardless if we have religious beliefs of our own or not. It’s a very human story that not only speaks about faith, but also about the determination of people in believing something that’s greater than themselves.

Even more impressive about Scorsese’s direction is the restraint and grace that he brings to the story. Silence is deliberately paced and features a subdued artistry from a filmmaker who’s known for his intense films. Along with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese takes a step back from his numerous stylistic instincts and brings a solemnness to an already weighty subject matter.

Most important of all, Martin Scorsese also brings a necessary balance to the moral dilemmas being faced by the characters in the film. Silence focuses on the persecutors as well as the persecuted. It goes into great length to make audiences understand the motivations of characters who would otherwise be unsympathetic and villainous. There is a complexity in each character that the film explores, painting the film with more shades than mere black and white, resulting in a rich and satisfying experience from the very beginning to the very end.

Featuring a cast of incredible actors with yet another phenomenal performance from Andrew Garfield, Silence is a remarkably passionate and emotional film that reminds us why seemingly outdated stories can still be relevant today.

9/10

Kong: Skull Island is loud, obnoxious, and stupid. But worst of all, it’s unexciting.

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There doesn’t seem to be a moment of silence in Kong: Skull Island. If it’s not busy overwhelming its audience with a barrage of gunfire or CGI monster action, it’s full of superfluous one-liners from its seemingly bottomless cast of characters. Helicopters crash, things explode, people get eaten, and monsters fight. All of this sounds like a perfect recipe for a fun action spectacle worthy of an iconic character such as King Kong. Only there’s one problem: it’s not entertaining.

It’s not really enough that things explode and monsters eat people. There is no shortage of action or spectacle in this film. Where Kong: Skull Island fails is in putting its spectacle in the proper context so that we can get involved in all the action. An easy way to accomplish this is by making the characters interesting so that we end up caring about what happens to them.

Unfortunately, there are so many characters in this movie that trying to remember any of their names quickly becomes a fool’s errand. The only way to really distinguish them is through their jobs. There’s the Photographer, the War Commander (a.k.a. Samuel L. Jackson), Bumbling Scientist 1 – 3, Soldier 1 – 8, Soldier With A Kid Back Home, World War II Veteran, Scientist Who Gets Eaten, Scientist Who Gets Stomped To Death, and British Hunk With No Charisma. It’s like we’re not even watching people onscreen. These are cardboard cut-outs that can speak and talk at the same time. Some of the actors playing them have won major acting awards in their other work, but in Kong: Skull Island, they’re about as memorable as the disposable extras that get killed off in the background. Watching a bunch of people whose names I can’t even remember try to survive in an island full of monsters isn’t fun. It’s tedious.

The only character that’s given any motivation in the film is Samuel L. Jackson, but his character arc is so mindnumbingly stupid that you wish he were relegated to background status instead. After watching Kong take out a majority of his team, Samuel L. Jackson gets pissed and becomes obsessed with killing Kong. How he’s supposed to kill a 100-foot tall gorilla with just guns and bombs isn’t made clear, but he sure tries his best up until Kong smashes him like an ant. This one-sided rivalry between the two was only ever going to end in one way, so when the face-off finally happens it goes exactly how you expected it to.

But enough about the puny humans, because when Kong is onscreen, he’s appropriately impressive. I would’ve gladly watched an entire movie where Kong is the lead character, protecting his kingdom from the evil humans and saving the other animals from the real monsters. I’m reminded of the recent Planet of the Apes franchise, where the lead character is a CGI ape and the supporting characters are played by real-life humans. This film should’ve done the same, because Kong is enough of a compelling character to easily carry his own movie. At the very least it would’ve been a refreshing take on a story that’s already been remade numerous times.

There are simply no surprises in this film. The schlocky, B-movie approach has its charms every now and then, but overall it’s just a drag. Kong: Skull Island takes an iconic story of adventure and turns it into an empty spectacle. There’s a distinct “Been there, done that” feeling to everything that happens in this film, emphasized by the fact that Peter Jackson’s version of the story is only twelve years-old at this point. They’ve changed the look and the setting, but it’s still the same story. Only they made it worse by removing any sense of wonder or emotion that lies at the heart of the King Kong story. In this version, there is no awe in a world where hidden islands full of ancient monsters rule. Instead, Skull Island is a mere cynical launching pad for a franchise of movies to sell toys.

3/10

Despite its repetitive plot, Logan takes the X-Men franchise in a brutal and exhilarating direction

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Continuity has never been the X-Men franchise’s strongest suit, and Logan is no different. Despite deliberately recalling specific events in previous films, Logan should more or less be treated as a standalone film. This, of course, comes with many caveats. The first is that Logan is in no way meant to be your first introduction to the long-standing mutant franchise. Familiarity with the characters is a necessity to fully appreciate the major character arcs that Logan presents.

Secondly, it’s best to accept that every other mutant we’ve seen in the past films are now dead. For real this time. Although Logan takes place several years after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past (specifically the future when Wolverine wakes up at the mansion), so much has changed at this point considering that only Professor Xavier and Logan are left. It’s never explicitly explained, but the film gives out enough information for us to conclude that all those other characters like Cyclops, Jean, and Storm are dead due to the Professor’s deteriorating psychic abilities. Don’t expect any fun cameos in this one, because there are none.

Yes, it’s a hard pill to swallow, and frankly ludicrous. But here we are. This isn’t exactly the first time that this franchise has pulled off something like this, but it’s best to just go with it. Once that’s all settled, then you can begin to really experience what is supposed to be Hugh Jackman’s last appearance as Wolverine.

In terms of plot, Logan is as simple as they come. The mutant gene is now mysteriously gone, so some bad guys decide to make mutants of their own to train as soldiers. But a weapon called X-24 is invented, which is much easier to control than a bunch of violent children with superpowers, so they scrap the project by executing them. Some sympathetic nurses break out the children from the compound. One of them reaches out to Logan to help one of the kids named Laura. Logan and Xavier find out that Laura has the same powers as Logan because she was created with the use of Logan’s DNA. The bad guys come after them and they fight. Death and mayhem occur. Repeat ad nauseum until the climactic showdown. The end.

Logan doesn’t really have many surprises up its sleeves. It’s a fairly straightforward, almost generic action film in terms of plot. But what it lacks in a compelling narrative it more than makes up for with its pulse-pounding, violent action scenes. We’ve never really seen Wolverine quite like this before. Previous films in the franchise have attempted to push their PG-13 ratings to the limit, but it’s not quite the same as finally going all out in an R-18 action film like Logan does. The result is a relentlessly thrilling and entertaining action film.

But even more important, the violence never feels excessive. Director James Mangold and his team understands that violence for the sake of violence can end up being tedious instead of entertaining. Despite being given the freedom to depict the story’s action without any limitations, Logan never devolves into a film student’s wet dream of what an R-18 Wolverine would look like. The rampage is appropriately brutal, but never cartoonish. It also takes the action to a surprising level of intensity. When it starts, it immediately goes into a breakneck pace, assaulting you in a whirl of sound and blood that leaves you breathless in all the right ways.

All in all, Logan is a gritty, exciting ride that brings a satisfying end to two iconic characters. It is appropriately emotional and provides a surprising dramatic weight that elevates it above being just another action-packed comic book movie. At the same time, it strikes a delicate balance between the story’s seriousness and its more entertaining aspects. It might carry a bit more weight than your usual action bockbuster, but it isn’t any less fun as a result. Only time will tell as to just how final the ending of Logan is, but in any case, this is as satisfying a conclusion as we’ll probably ever get.

7/10

Lion is a flat, one-dimensional drama that wastes a talented cast

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Lion tells the true story of an Indian kid who gets lost from his home. After getting adopted by an Australian couple, he finds his way back home decades later with the help of technology. It’s an interesting story on paper, but it doesn’t necessarily work all that well when put on film.

The problem is that everything about Lion can already be seen on its surface. There is no depth or other avenues within the story or even the characters that can be explored. Kid gets lost, experiences a couple of harrowing months wandering the streets, gets adopted, grows up, and finds his family. What you see is what you get. The story meanders through a straight narrative line from beginning to end with barely any signs of life along the way. There is no arc to be found anywhere, and although it ends on an emotionally cathartic moment, it ends up feeling mundane instead of climactic.

The problem is that the film doesn’t really have a focus. The first half of the film is dedicated solely to a young Saroo getting lost and trying to survive on his own on the streets. This is easily the highlight of the film because we get a really good handle on his character and the enormous struggles that he faces. We get emotionally invested in him and we want to see how he survives his plight. But all of a sudden, his arc and story essentially ends once he gets adopted by a loving couple and moves to Australia.

But of course, the story doesn’t end there. It can’t, because now we have to see how he manages to find his family again. The second half of the film begins decades later, with a fully-grown Saroo being haunted by the loss of his original family and wanting to find them with the use of technology. At this point, it feels as if the movie has started all over again. Saroo is a completely different person now, with a completely different life. Not even his parents are the same, because the hardships of raising another adopted kid with mental issues have also changed them, particularly Saroo’s mother. The connection between the first half of the film and the second half is almost non-existent, because this drastic time jump has changed things so much that the film struggles to find a narrative consistency.

This is why we barely get to know the fully-grown Saroo. Unlike his younger self, who clearly followed an arc, the older Saroo doesn’t. Not long after we’re introduced to him, memories of his childhood begin to haunt him and drives him to do everything he can to find his family again. We never really get to know the older Saroo apart from this determination. To make things worse, he spends most of this time all by himself after driving away his girlfriend and hiding his search from his adopted mother. So we are left watching Saroo look at maps and computer screens and close his eyes as he remembers things from his childhood. Without even fully realizing it, the film has already fallen apart and the question of whether or not he finds his family again ceases to be interesting (if it ever was in the first place).

A more compelling development would’ve been to see how a young Saroo adapts to living a comfortable life along with his adopted mother’s struggles in taking care of a troubled kid. There are hints of this story arc in the second half of the film, wherein Saroo resents his adopted brother for making life more difficult for their parents. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really go anywhere and the film breezes by it. It might have resulted in a clunky mess of a movie if they focused on this aspect more than they already did, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a far more interesting storyline than watching Saroo scroll through Google Earth.

Adapting true stories can be tricky, because unless a filmmaker has no qualms about severely changing facts for the benefit of a more compelling narrative, they are essentially stuck with showing the truth. Real stories, even dramatic ones like Lion, don’t really make for interesting movies most of the time. Real life is slow and rarely interesting on a consistent basis. Lion clearly struggles with this fact and although I can appreciate its dedication in staying true to Saroo’s real-life story, it ultimately doesn’t work all that well as a film.

4/10

Jackie is a hauntingly elegant biographical film with a powerhouse performance from Natalie Portman

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“I never wanted fame. I just became a Kennedy.”

Apart from being a biographical drama, Jackie is primarily a film about grief in the face of tragedy. The nightmarish brutality of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the agonizing sadness in the days that follow not only sets the tone of the entire film, but for the characters as well. There is an unmistakable sense of a dream-like bleakness that threatens to suffocate the characters after experiencing unimaginable violence and death. In this regard, director Pablo Larrain’s film stands out from others in its genre due to its haunting but beautiful quality.

All this is accomplished through the overall look and atmosphere of the film. Jackie isn’t shot, designed, or scored like your usual biographical drama. Absent is the soft lighting and dramatic musical score that normally saturates films of this kind. In its place is a natural, gritty look that perfectly blends in with the real-life stock footage taken during the period, along with an eerie but delicate musical score that sometimes feels like it belongs more in a horror film than a drama.

Apart from its unique style, a great majority of the film is suffused in great anguish, and whatever sense of hope it presents either before or after the incident is still shadowed by the pain of loss. Make no mistake about it: Jackie is a heavy film that embraces and captures all the powerful emotions that such an event would cause. But despite this, the film is never overwhelming in its despair because there is a natural beauty that comes through all the pain. Its intimate and personal approach to the assassination humanizes a national tragedy by keeping its perspective singular.

Jackie’s character development in the film is framed entirely by the incident. Exploring how she faced the aftermath speaks a lot about her character and is the primary driving force of the film. When we are first introduced to Jackie, she’s meeting with a reporter and bluntly tells him how the interview will be controlled and edited entirely by her. Anything that she doesn’t want to be published will be removed, and through the course of the film she immediately takes it upon herself to excise a lot of the more vulnerable revelations that she accidentally let slip.

This obsession with how the public perceives her speaks a lot about her own vanity. But as we eventually discover, this vanity is not driven by ego or selfishness, but by Jackie’s respect of the legacy and importance of the American Presidency. Her famous televised tour of the White House is in many ways Jackie’s most memorable accomplishment during her tenure as the First Lady, which is something that the film keeps coming back to right up to the end. It’s shown that Jackie has deep respect for the Presidents that came before her husband and the rich history of the White House. It might seem silly, but in her eyes preserving the legacy of the historical figures in the very same place where they lived is an important and necessary aspect of the U.S. Presidency.

This is of course not just limited to the interior decoration of the White House. Even in the face of death, the dignity and grace of the Presidency must be preserved for all to see, which is a fact that Jackie eventually insists on even with the very real threat of violence in a public march. Is it vainglorious? Oh yes. But it isn’t silly. Jackie herself admits it, because the public march satisfies both the legacy of the Presidency as well as her vanity. Even more than that, it also speaks to the quiet desperation of Jackie’s desire to die with her husband as she admits to wishing that someone would kill her during the march so that she doesn’t have to do it herself.

It’s in these moments that Natalie Portman’s breathtaking portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy shines even brighter. On top of the technically challenging task of flawlessly capturing the real Jackie Kennedy’s voice, expressions, and intonations, Portman breathes complex life into a figure who’s most known for her iconic beauty and not much else. Not satisfied with merely giving Jackie a tragic, emotional depth, Portman also portrays her as a multi-faceted, complicated figure who treated her public persona differently from her personal life. The real beauty is in the subtleties of Portman’s performance, because it’s something that can take multiple viewings to fully appreciate.

Even more impressive is how Portman manages to execute all this while maintaining the quality of grace, poise, and refinement that the real Jackie Kennedy is most known for. This is no mere imitation of a real-life figure. It’s a stunning portrayal of someone whose pain feels astonishingly real and visceral. The scene of Jackie in the midst of immense emotional suffering while wiping her husband’s blood off her face is one of the most powerful depictions of raw anguish ever put on film.

Hindered only by some pacing issues during the second act, Jackie is an exquisitely-made drama that takes a refreshing approach to the biographical genre. Director Pablo Larrain infuses Jackie with a bold vision that elevates it from the mundane conventions that Hollywood biography dramas have been restricted with for years. There is an artistic and emotional honesty in Jackie that few films embrace each year. This rareness of quality should be appreciated every time it appears, because when it’s done with such effectiveness as in Jackie, the result is truly one-of-a-kind.

9/10