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Josh Reviews Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott’s Alien (released in 1979 — can you believe it?) is a masterpiece of science fiction/suspense/horror, a near-perfect film that has barely aged a day.  James Cameron’s Aliens (released in 1986) is one of the greatest sequels ever made, a spectacular action/adventure film that took the universe and concepts from Mr. Scott’s film, as well as the character of Ripley, in a thrilling different direction.  The subsequent thirty years have seen one failed attempt after another to create another successful film from this universe.  Even Ridley Scott himself, when he returned to the franchise in 2012 with Prometheus, flamed out spectacularlyPrometheus is a gorgeous-looking film, and there are some wonderful sequences in the film, but on the whole it is a muddled mess, with non-existent characters (with the exception of Michael Fassbender’s android David) and a plot that makes little sense.  (One can still see the skeleton of Jon Spaihts’ original script, which was intended to be a more direct prequel to Alien, which makes the confusing finished film all the more frustrating.)  Remarkably, Mr. Scott has returned to the Alien universe once again with a new film, Alien: Covenant, which is a terrific course-correction from Prometheus.  The film is a sequel to Prometheus, but it’s also far more directly linked to the original Alien (as Prometheus should have been) in a way that brings focus and cohesion to this wandering franchise.  More importantly, unlike Prometheus, Alien: Covenant tells a focused story with interesting characters that is exciting, scary, and terrifying.  The film has its flaws, but it is easily the best film in this eight-film franchise (if you count the two Alien vs. Predator films) since the original two.

A decade after the events of Prometheus, a solar flare damages the colony ship Covenant, and the crew are awakened from hypersleep to effect repairs.  The ship, bearing 2000 colonists, is still seven years away from its destination.  The pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) detects a human signal from an unexplored planet, which appears well suited for human life, even better than the planet the ship was originally heading towards.  The acting captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to investigate.  What they discover is a beautiful world that seems to be devoid of any sentient or animal life.  But several the unwitting Covenant crew-members are soon infected with the Engineers’ black accelerant (as seen in Prometheus) and become hosts to horrible monsters.  However, the most dangerous monster of all might be the planet’s other inhabitant: the android David.

I was incredibly impressed by the way in which Alien: Covenant manages to go a long way towards redeeming the uneven Prometheus, making that film’s wild missteps feel more of a … [continued]

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Catching Up on 2015: Josh Reviews Slow West

In the last several years, Michael Fassbender has shot right up to the top of the list of the finest actors working today.  Like many, I first took notice of Mr. Fassbender in X-Men: First Class.  I was blown away by the masterful way in which Mr. Fassbender took complete ownership of the character of Magneto, who had previously been inhabited so iconically by Sir Ian McKellan.  Since then, Mr. Fassbender has dazzled in films like Prometheus (Mr. Fassbender’s performance as the android David was one of the best elements of that muddled film) and Steve Jobs.  And so I was tickled by the idea of seeing Mr. Fassbender play a cowboy in a Western!

SlowWest.cropped

In Slow West, Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay, a young Scottish boy following the girl he loves to the American West.  It seems that Rose and her father (played by Rory McCann — Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones!) have been forced to flee Scotland (for a reason that the film gradually reveals), and so Jay has set off after them.  Along the way, Jay encounters the outlaw Silas (Michael Fassbender), who agrees to help Jay track down Rose and her father in exchange for payment.  What Silas knows, and Jay doesn’t, is that a sizable bounty has been placed on Rose and her father’s heads.

Written and directed by John Maclean, Slow West is a tremendously impressive debut film.  The movie is absolutely gorgeous, with nearly every frame filled with staggeringly beautiful views of the American Old West.  That beauty is contrasted by the dangerous and cruel world in which Jay finds himself.  The film seems to take the viewpoint of Silas, who early on describes himself as seeing danger around every corner.  No one who Jay encounters, apparently, is not a threat to him.  The film masterfully creates a feeling of dread, one that grips ever tighter as Jay and Silas get closer to Rose.

Kodi Smit-McPhee continues to impress.  He was great in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well as in The Road (a movie that shares a lot of similarities with Slow West, come to think of it!  It’s another tale of a boy and a father-figure on a perhaps-doomed road trip through dangerous territory) and he does great work again here.  Mr. Smit-McPhee gives Jay heart and spirit and also intelligence.  Jay is incredibly naive but Mr. Smit-McPhee doesn’t over play that.  Jay is a little bumbling but not entirely hapless.

Mr. Fassbender meanwhile is just as much fun as I had hoped he would be.  In Silas, Mr. Fassbender creates a wonderfully endearing and fascinating character, bringing life to what could have been a … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Steve Jobs

The film Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is divided into three vignettes, each taking place in the moments before Steve Jobs will go on-stage to announce the launch of a new product.  The first vignette is in 1984, at the launch of the Macintosh computer.  The second is in 1988, after Jobs’ ouster from Apple (the company he had co-founded), at Jobs’ presentation of the NeXT computer.  The third and final vignette is in 1988.  Jobs is back at Apple and is about to present the iMac.

Steve Jobs.01.cropped

Steve Jobs has a very theatrical feeling, with its three-act/three-vignette structure.  Though the film is an original screenplay, written by Aaron Sorkin based on Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Mr. Jobs, as well as on additional interviews conducted by Mr. Sorkin and the filmmaking team, it feels very much like an adaptation of a play.  The tone reminds me very much of some of the films that David Mamet wrote, adapting his own plays, both because of the very stylized dialogue and also because of the theatrical structure.  (This is on my mind as I just last week watched Mr. Mamet’s 1996 film American Buffalo for the first time, which is an adaptation of Mr. Mamet’s stage play of the same name.)

I sort of love this three-act structure here in Steve Jobs.  The challenge of biopics is that of condensing a subject’s entire life into a two-hour film.  Many biopics over-reach, trying to cram in every major life event of the subject, and wind up feeling bloated and, at the same time, very superficial.  I tend to prefer the approach taken by films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that focus in more narrowly on a specific period in the subject’s life.  Here in Steve Jobs, Mr. Sorkin has taken a different, and very clever, approach.  By dividing the film into three sequences at three different points in Mr. Jobs’ life, we are able to get a sense of the over-all ups and downs of his career, while also allowing the film to have a clear focus: on these three momentous events in Mr. Jobs’ life and career.

When watching biopics, or any films based on real-life people and/or events, I often find myself judging the film based on its accuracy to the real-life events.  I hate it when films twist the truth of real-life people or events in order to make what they think is a more palatable story for a movie.  A film like A Beautiful Mind was well-made and well-performed, but it seemed to so clearly gloss over some of the difficult realities of John Nash that I found I had little patience for it.  … [continued]

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“What’s the Last Thing You Remember?” Josh Reviews X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, released in 2000, was a revelation, proof to me that the complex, wonderful world of comic book super-heroes could indeed be brought to life on-screen in a fun, serious way.  There had been some great comic book movies before X-Men, of course.  Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) was and still remains a magnificent interpretation of the character, and I’ve always loved the flawed but still great Superman II (1980).  Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) also was a fun film that had a huge cultural impact.  But while those films were great, even as a kid they seemed to me like totally different versions of the characters I knew and loved.  These were the “movie” versions of those characters.  They were fun, but not at all like the “real” characters.  I also recognized early-on that, while all of those films had moments of grandeur and lots of visual-effects magic, they were severely constrained by the limits of physical reality.  The sprawling stories and epic nature of my favorite comic book series were far beyond the reach of any movie adaption.

Then came Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and suddenly the impossible seemed possible.  Mr. Singer and his team (including screenwriter David Hayter and many other uncredited writers who were involved with the finished screenplay) took the X-Men, possibly the most sprawling and epic of all the different comic-book series and universes, and brought them to life in a way that on the one hand preserved their complexity (the film is jam-packed with different characters, each with their own back-story and power-set and motivation) while also boiling down the decades of comic-book story-lines into simplified versions that worked on screen.  2000’s X-Men took the property seriously (more seriously than some of the various bad X-Men spin-off comic-books over the years had done), anchoring the story in Magneto’s past as a survivor of the Holocaust.  (The decision to open the film with a prologue set in Auschwitz is an incredibly gutsy move, and is I think a critical key to the film’s success, because that scene gives a weight to Magneto’s point of view.)

Almost a decade-and-a-half later, it’s easy to look back at X-Men and see everything that the film got wrong.  We’ve been blessed with some incredibly faithful comic book adaptations lately.  Looking at how well the Marvel Studios films have brought their characters to life, we can look back at X-Men and bemoan the dull, Matrix-inspired leather look to all the characters.  While the film nailed Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto, we can complain about the characterizations that missed the mark (Storm, Cyclops).  We can comment how small-scale X-Men is, how it lacks in any real crazy … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Prometheus

Sigh. I guess I’m just never going to see another good Alien movie, am I?

Who’d have thought it would be so hard? Ridley Scott’s 1979 original seemed ripe for further exploration, not one of those movies that would be impossible to ever sequelize.  And let’s not forget, A GREAT ALIEN SEQUEL HAS ALREADY BEEN MADE!  I’m speaking, of course, of the very first sequel to Alien: James Cameron’s magnificent Aliens. That film happens to be one of the very best sequels ever made, and it’s so good that to this day people debate which is better: Alien or Aliens.

But since then, it’s been strike-out after strike-out. (One of the very first posts I wrote for this site contained my lamentations at the way the Alien franchise had gone off the rails.)  I had high hopes for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe, Prometheus. (And make no mistake, despite all the perplexing statements in the press by Ridley Scott, writer Damon Lindeloff, and other members of their team in which they claim that Prometheus is NOT an Alien prequel, from the film’s very first trailer it was obvious that it was.)  I mean, surely Ridley Scott, one of the finest filmmakers of our time, and the man who directed the original Alien back in 1979, could finally craft another worthy follow-up to that film?

Sorry, my friends, such is not the case.

Prometheus is jaw droppingly gorgeous. The film is a real work of art, the stunning product of a brilliant director who has the visual effects tools to create anything he can imagine, and the complete mastery of how to use those tools to greatest effect. Plenty of other directors with budgets far larger than that of Prometheus have used CGI effects in garish and ugly ways, but Prometheus is staggeringly beautiful.  The other space effects, the look of the Prometheus itself, the realization of the Engineer’s lair that Dr. Shaw and her teammates discover, image after gorgeous image unfold, each more mysterious and beautiful than the next.

Too bad, then, that the story of the film is so maddeningly incomprehensible.

OK, SPOILERS AHEAD so please beware.

I repeat: SPOILERS.

The original Alien has a simplicity that is impressive.  In the first half of the film, the crew of the Nostromo answer a beacon and investigate the extra-terrestrial space-ship they discover.  In the second half, they are mercilessly hunted by the Alien creature they unwittingly unleash, and try to survive.  That’s it, that’s the film.  And for all that the Alien is, let’s face it, made-up sci-fi hogwash, there’s still a simplicity to the life-cycle of the creature that is elegant and easily understood … [continued]

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Josh Reviews X-Men: First Class!

I was beginning to think I’d never get to see another great X-Men movie!

I’m a big, big fan of Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films.  I think they’re pretty much perfect, the first two steps in what seemed like an epic cinematic saga.  When the final shot of X2 tantalized viewers with the promise of the Dark Phoenix saga (probably the single greatest X-Men storyline ever), I was overcome with gleeful anticipation.  I think I’m still recovering from the disappointment at how badly the film series fumbled things from there.  The studio rushed X-Men 3 into production with another director, as a big up-yours to Bryan Singer, who had been hired to direct Superman: Returns.  X-Men 3 has a decent first 45 minutes or so but then things totally collapse, and the brutally awful handling of the Phoenix storyline was crushingly disappointing.  And in the years since, the only new X-Men movie we’ve gotten is the abysmally terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine (share the pain and read my review here).

When I heard that they were finally putting together a new X-Men film, and that it was a prequel, I was not pleased.  I really hate prequels, as readers of this blog are probably aware.  I think it’s a lazy approach to story-telling, and I’d always rather see a story move FORWARD rather than circle back upon itself.  That we’ve been so deluged with prequels these past few years makes me absolutely crazy.  Why do I want to see the young versions of characters I love?  I want to see the experienced versions of these characters, in their prime, kicking ass and going on new adventures.  Why has that seemingly been so difficult for the masterminds behind the X-Men film franchise?  Can no one in Hollywood think past a trilogy?  X-Men 3 was flawed, but it still made a TON of moola.  Hire some new writers and get to work on X-Men 4! Of all the franchises in the world, the X-Men seems like the easiest no-brainer in the bunch.  There are SO MANY great characters and story-lines in the comics to choose from.  Is Patrick Stewart getting too expensive?  No problemo!  The comics were constantly writing Professor X out of the stories for long periods of time.  Let’s see the films adapt some of the great X-Men stories from the eighties, in which Prof X was gone and Magneto tried to reform and take over the X-Men.  That would be awesome!  It just seems so simple to me — we should be getting brand new X-Men films every 2-3 years, like clockwork.

But, obviously, that hasn’t happened.  Just one god-awful Wolverine solo flick and a prequel.  … [continued]