Category Archives: Reviews

War for the Planet of the Apes is a coronation for the best modern blockbuster franchise

For Matt Reeves, it’s all about the eyes.

It’s a rare accomplishment to have a film this large and this wrapped up in decades of backstory and expectations feel like so intimate and so desperately emotional, clinging on to hope and despair and fear and triumph.

It’s because of the eyes. The surprisingly emotive digital eyes that peer deep into the souls of creatures that exist as a pair of pajamas and thousands of hours of computer rendering. It’s the hardest thing to do creating digital characters, to get their eyes right. Yet in every moment, Reeves finds something real inside them. The slow examination of ape and man that reveals an internal life that cuts deep into the heart.

This has always been the strength of the Planet of the Apes revival, starting with Wyatt’s Rise and moving into Reeves’ Dawn, to find surprising depth and excitement inside films that didn’t demand either. In War, all of this comes to the final fruition in its best incarnation yet, capping a trilogy in one of the most unequivocally emotional and bleak and dazzling films of the summer.

Picking up roughly two years after Dawn, the apes and humans are locked in a fierce war for the planet, no one gaining ground with pyrrhic victory after pyrrhic victory. Caesar (Andy Serkis) has not been seen in some time, but his presence still terrifies the human forces, led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

An attack by the Colonel devastates the Ape camp as they prepare to leave for a new home, which sets Caesar down a dark path of revenge and directly towards what will almost certainly be the final showdown for whether this becomes the Planet of the Apes.

That’s right, our protagonists’ end goal is to wipe out humanity, or at least not stop the decline of the remnant. It’s deeply fascinating that we have a major studio picture that is so unabashedly misanthropic, or at the very least getting the audience to root against itself.

We do all hate humanity a little bit right now, so I can’t blame an audience for giving into those impulses. But it also comes from the work Matt Reeves does with his main apes and the work that the motion capture artists do with their performance as well.

While they all blow me away, from Steve Zahn’s impossibly endearing Bad Ape (I want to give away very little, but he’s an absolute delight) to Michael Adamthwaite’s gentle and powerful Luca to Karin Konoval’s wise Maurice, it’s Serkis’ Caesar that is the beating heart of this franchise and the most core to its success. While Gollum may be his most iconic role, Caesar will undoubtedly go down as his best.

Serkis’ Caesar is a deeply flawed leader, one of great intelligence and strength and one of short temper and loyalty-driven misjudgements. You understand the loyalty he inspires and the pain that drives every wrong step. You see it in his eyes, the rage that overcomes him and in the pain he just barely keeps under the surface.

It’s Serkis that puts all that there, a delicate art in combination with the VFX artists that map in on top of a truly brilliant performance. It’s Reeves who captures it perfectly, every look and every longing for something better and for a people who could possibly have the world they imagined.

I focus so deeply on the character because they are what drive War for the Planet of the Apes. As large-scale as this movie is, this is a movie that is all about the relationships between its character, the conflicts that they are driven into.

Harrelson’s Colonel is the perfect catalyst in that sort of scenario, a man so passionate and so utterly convinced that he’s doing the only logical thing. The flip of Caesar, where his rage feels like its consumed him so deeply he can no longer even recognize its existence. Harrelson chews scenery, but it is with purpose.

Colonel is also the perfect villain for what this movie ultimately is. He’s not a general, he’s a wild card, a killer reveling in his sadism. And this ultimately isn’t a war movie, despite its name.

Okay, well, it is. But it’s less The Longest Day and more The Great Escape, a picture about what war does to people when they aren’t directly on the battlefield and how people navigate tragedy and captivity.

It’s also less a war and more a Western, traveling throughout the landscapes of the Wild West that is now the whole of America on horseback, the young savage girl joining them, the conflict between man and nature writ large.

But all of this is best understood in the story this trilogy has been telling. Our de-evolution and the evolution of a species that can and does replace us. Seeing Caesar come into his own as a leader and lead his people to the promised land. There’s a weight of history, a character who has struggled for years. A journey of rising and falling that is given its final meaning.

War for the Planet of the Apes is simply the most of its trilogy. It’s the most emotional, the most amusing, the most thrilling, the most thoughtful, and so much more. It’s stunning to see a film this big that roots against humanity, that is willing to go so quiet for so long, that is willing to be so reliant on its effects beyond just set pieces.

It’s a towering testament to how you can fuse art and entertainment. It’s an affirmation of the talent of everyone involved. It’s an elegy to a blockbuster franchise that stands head-and-shoulders above almost all its competition.

Grade: A

My Review For Transformers: [Insert Subtitle Here]

This is the introduction, penned with a heavy resignation that we’re having to talk about yet another Transformers movie. An acknowledgement that we know how much money these things make, but a veiled statement that their popularity puts them beneath us, as if on the face of it this extraordinarily popular franchise is necessarily different from the other extraordinarily popular franchises that have received breathless praise.

This is the thesis paragraph, leading into a discussion of why this is yet another terrible Transformers movie in terminology that I’ve slightly modulated for about 4 different movies at this point. This may include whatever particular hang-ups I have ranging from (but not limited to:)

  • Michael Bay
    • His busy directorial style
    • His simplistic storytelling
    • His objectification of women
  • General issues with blockbuster filmmaking and the studio system
  • Poor writing and story structure
  • Bad actors/actors slumming
  • Design problems
  • Attachment to the Transformers franchise (non-movie)

I’ll use any combination of these things and maybe throw in a reference to what the last Transformers move I liked/saw was and then also say something disparaging about Age of Extinction. 

Time for the summary paragraph. This one will be entirely tongue in cheek, a reference to the fact that at this point Transformers may not be capable of creating a coherent or sensible story and still maintain its mythology. A few asides and gawps at a truly bizarre story that amounts to “Robots have problems with Other Robots and Humans have problems with those Other Robots.” But it’s also because I hate summarizing a story I liked, much less one I disliked.

Which seems like a good way to transition into the part where I talk about Michael Bay. I’ll talk about how much I love The Rock or Pain & Gain in a way that makes it clear I don’t quite understand the connection between those movies and his more disliked films.

Here I’ll praise Michael Bay, a cliche about how you definitely get what you paid for seeing his movie. Discussing the spectacle, and maybe dusting off that cliche about how you still get the giant robot fights that you expect (though I’ll throw in how Pacific Rim was better).

Here I’ll make fun of Michael Bay. Using some material I cribbed from Tony Zhou most likely, I’ll discuss how Bayhem makes it near impossible to follow the visuals of this film and how it doesn’t matter that giant robots are fighting if you can’t see what the hell is going on.

Now it’s time to get in a further discussion of the weirdness of the plot, segueing out of some joke about how I have no idea what I saw. I’ll throw some praise towards one of the weird elements (Cogman/Hopkins) so I can properly join in on Film Twitter jokes later. But I’ll also talk about some of the bizarre decisions (King Arthur stuff) so I can join in on those jokes as well.

But mostly, this discussion will be talking about how it makes no sense and how hours later I’ve retained nothing, mostly to cover for the fact that I refuse to take notes. Words like nonsense and phrases like garbage fire will be thrown out. At this point I’ll reveal that the thing that was heavily marketed was only in the movie for like five minutes (Optimus Prime being evil) and it’s ridiculous, mostly because I have a film degree and not a marketing degree.

Hell, now seems as good a time as any to also discuss the actors I didn’t throw praise to so I seem even handed. They’re all terrible, of course. Most of my ire is reserved for the completely unbelievable lead (Mark Wahlberg). But I’ll throw some at this movie’s chosen woman (Laura Haddock) for this film and I’ll discuss her objectification (she has something to do this time around) mostly so I can make sure I get the woke points even though I really suck at talking about this stuff. There’s also some weird cameos that are worth mentioning (Stanley Tucci as Merlin, Steve Buscemi as a robot).

Well, at this point, I’ve run out of anything to talk about so I’ll pretend I planned to reach the conclusion at this point. Another summary of what’s terrible and why I dread the next entry in this franchise even though I secretly salivate at the chance to be mean to the next one of these. A few more digs and then a conclusion that I think works as a mic drop.

Grade: Not a total failure, but something that seems sufficiently negative

The Book of Henry is one of the most profoundly infuriating experiences ever had in a theater

There is literally no way to talk about this movie without spoilers, but trust me, you need to know.

There’s a point during this movie where I definitely lost the potential of making friends in the theater. At a point that was either 40 minutes in or halfway to the end of eternity, The Book of Henry’s titular Henry (Jaeden Liberher) dies.

Keep in mind, the death of a main character is a difficult thing for any movie to pull off. You’re essentially asking an audience to side with someone and find more meaning in their death than in their continued life. That’s why disease weepies are never really about the person dying. But still, if you’re going to kill off the person the movie is about, you have to earn it, make sure there is some deeper meaning.

Up until this point, Henry has basically been a cartoon character, a caricature of intelligence that only ever exists in the contrived imagination of hack screenwriters. Endearing because the filmmakers shove your face in him and force your acclimation.

So, of course, he’s killed 40 minutes into the movie. In a long, overly hard-to-watch sequence. Because that’s earned. Because that’s exactly what the movie needs. Because it doesn’t just feel like a puppet master making you dance on your strings.

It’s not just that he died that likely made the lovely couple next to me look askance. It’s that this character who the filmmakers are trying to force us to love dies in a FUCKING PIETA POSE IN THE ARMS OF HIS MOTHER. Oh, are you unfamiliar?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Michelangelo%27s_Pieta_5450_cut_out_black.jpg/250px-Michelangelo%27s_Pieta_5450_cut_out_black.jpg

IT’S ALMOST EXACTLY LIKE THIS. THAT’S RIGHT. OUR PRECOCIOUS FUCKING SHERLOCK DIES LIKE THE LORD AND SAVIOR OF ALL HUMANITY. Which is of course when I started repeatedly muttering “fuck you” under my breath.

Now, this may seem minor and unfocused. But it’s exactly the problem with The Book Of Henry, exactly the reason why this is so ABSOLUTELY fucking awful as a film, exactly the reason that director Colin Trevorrow is having his head put on a pike over this one.

The Book of Henry is such a fundamentally awful movie because The Book Of Henry doesn’t want to earn a goddamned thing from you. It pulls your strings at every turn and pushes and pulls and manipulates rather than actually drawing or fleshing out any of the decisions it makes. There are skilled filmmakers who can do that, but without that ability, not a turn is justified and what is laid bare is a movie fundamentally bizarre and off-putting. Too dark for its whimsy, too whimsical for its darkness.

Up until the death of Henry, it’s been something of an all-too-whimsical family movie. A supernaturally intelligent young boy runs the house while his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) follows his every instruction and works a day job to keep a little bit of normality around. There’s also a younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) around to be cute I guess.

Before his death, Henry also begins to take interest in a tragedy happening right next door. Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being sexually abused by her step-father Glenn (Dean Norris), who is also the powerful and well-respected Police Commissioner.

After Henry’s death, Henry leaves behind a book for his mother with a detailed plan to kill Glenn. So, that’s the back half of this movie.

No description is quite so bizarre as seeing it unfold though. Nothing can quite convey the jarring tonal shifts, the supernatural abilities Henry is gifted with that defy even the basic tenants of narrative logic (how does he sneak out when we see the systems go off another time? In what world can a child’s reactions see that far ahead?), Sarah Silverman’s boob tattoo, or the fact that the movie may end with HENRY’S ASHES BEING SPREAD OVER A TALENT SHOW AUDIENCE.

Not for sure. It’s implied.

Now to be sure, much of this can be attributed to the script. Gregg Hurwitz’s script attempts to plot out four different films in genre and tone and narrative and manages to bungle the transition between every single one of them. The structure is collapsed at every moment, reading something like the overly ambitious try of a Sophomore in a Screenwriting class.

All of that was possible to navigate, or at least reorient, was it not for the captain at the helm. My feelings on Jurassic World were decidedly negative and much of it was for reasons that, after seeing this movie, become increasingly apparent should be laid squarely at the feet of Colin Trevorrow.

In another era, Trevorrow would be a salesman of elixirs, ran out of town each step by angry folk who realize his remedies don’t work. He’s not just a hack, he’s a huckster and a clumsy one at that.

The Book Of Henry collapses on his total inability to actually tell a story or sell an image. Rather, every moment is a naked manipulation, an unearned push-in or moment of whimsy. He has nothing to say, so his directorial style is to push reactions to hope that you never notice how bad our soulless or wrong what he’s doing is.

It’s the instinct that wallpapered over a brutal murder of a woman who’d done nothing wrong by bringing back an old franchise stalwart or blaring the Jurassic Park theme song. It’s not that he’s uninterested in compassionate or human storytelling, it seems that he’s fundamentally incapable of it but is so absolutely manipulative that he’s somehow managed to fail upward, each film he’s made steadily worse than the last.

Which bodes well for STAR WARS EPISODE IX: HOLY SHIT THIS THING IS FUCKED.

I wish there was something redemptive here, some shard of hope to pull from the wreckage and hold onto. There isn’t. The actors are playing characters animated largely from scraps of ideas and stitched together. There are no human reactions because there is no sense of what humanity is in this film, just raw attempts at stimulating nerve reactions.

The Book Of Henry irritates me so much because it’s the worst instinct of America filmmaking. It’s all reaction, all forgettable emotion sweeping you along through errant action. This is a bad film being pushed by a conman. No amount of Jacob Tremblay’s tears should have you forget that.

Grade: F

It Comes At Night asks what will scare us the most come the End of the World

It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about movies about the Final Days in terms of how “they reveal the real monster/virus/nuclear holocaust to be man,” especially after The Walking Dead repeatedly beat the idea into the ground with a barbed-wire baseball bat over the course of 7 steadily more interminable seasons.

Yet still, I feel like it’s worth bringing up when discussing director Trey Edward Shults’ new film from A24, It Comes At Night. Let it not be because I am a walking cliche, but because I cannot think of any film in quite some time that so embodies that ethos. Not only in the fact that there is no monster (which is sure to irritate many an unsuspecting theatergoer), but for the fact that it has such an uncompromisingly bleak view of what we will do when the chips come down, and the terror that the family unit can wreak.

Set sometime after a plague has devastated humanity, a family – father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hidden away in a remote cabin in the woods buries their infected grandfather. One night, a man (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house, seeking supplies from a house he says he believed to be uninhabited (if you believe him).

Paul takes the man captive and then lets the man, Will, bring his family, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), back to their house to survive together. But being trapped in a desperate scenario makes for darker impulses.

It Comes At Night is almost certainly not the movie the marketing is selling or even that the title is selling. Implied in the images of desiccated men with blackened eyes and ominous doors and shadowy woods is that there is some monster lurking and an “IT” that comes at night, a zombie or a vampire or something that can be defeated to beat back the darkness.

The groans and moans I heard exiting the theater likely ties into the precise lack of any of that. It Comes At Night is ultimately more deeply unsettling than frightening, its scares eliciting gut-wrenching rather than adrenaline-raising.

But based on Shults’ previous film Krisha, that should be no surprise. Krisha was something of a horror film in this vein, a creeping dread set in around when its lead would eventually fail her family.

Ultimately, It Comes At Night is in the same vein. A film of family horror, where the shading of the relationships is the animating force, slowly pushing the dynamics to their breaking point and seeing what’s left after the devastation. Where its trust and the lack thereof is what destroys everyone.

There’s something more fully formed in Shults’ nihilism here. In fact, in general, It Comes At Night is impressive for seeing the massive leaps forward Shults has taken in the things that animate him as a filmmaker. That nihilism is at the core, a fundamental distrust in the nature of humanity and his belief that people will ultimately let each other down, is fully formed here. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but that is the impulse that electrifies It Comes At Night, a sort of sighing resignation that we will ultimately eat each other and maybe we deserve it.

It Comes At Night has also pushed forward from a filmmaking perspective. Krisha felt like an excessive ape of his mentor Terrence Malick, It Comes At Night alters that free-floating camera into something more meditative and focused. It maintains the ethereal beauty and the glide, but it’s absolutely willing to lock and linger now, putting emphasis on stares and glances and the stoic faces.

Shults’ filmmaking is the painting here, his writing keeping a tight and twisty narrative that tends towards ambiguity (occasionally to the film’s detriment) but being largely serviceable. Perhaps the biggest inconsistency here is acting.

Edgerton is great, even if he’s basically doing the same performance he does every time. Ejogo is great, but she doesn’t get much to do, same goes for Keough. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is truly great, given the most complex character and absolutely knocking out of the park. Christopher Abbott is…serviceable. Not actively bad, but seems just kind of lost in a character that’s more about hiding things than revealing anything.

But It Comes At Night’s successes far far outweigh those failures. It’s a portrait of the end, a dark and nihilistic twist on the idea that during the Apocalypse, we will be more dangerous to ourselves than anyone or anything else.

Grade: B+

Oh thank Hera: Wonder Woman is a resounding, unabashed, and joyous success

It is perhaps fully impossible to ever truly overstate the feeling of relief that washed over me when the credits of Wonder Woman rolled. My animus towards and deep disappointment in the DCEU thus far is thoroughly well documented. I mean, I’ve detailed the fuck out of it.

But I speak so frequently and so passionately because I really do truly care for these characters. My attachment to this franchise has been something like a parent whose child makes a wrong step at every conceivable measure, hoping that they will eventually correct the path and get things right.

This time, they got it right.

Wonder Woman, the fourth entry in the nascent DCEU, is the first truly unabashed success. There is no rationalization required, no dense sorting through half-formed ideas given fullness. This is a great movie about a true hero, the first of these movies truly cast in the DC Comics mold. It’s funny, romantic, exciting, and a clarion call not only for what this franchise could be, but for another way forward for superhero cinema.

Wonder Woman is framed in the modern day, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) receiving the original plate of the photo from Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a photo in her full regalia from a long-ago war.

This flashes us back to Diana’s childhood on the island of Themyscira, the only child on the island and the daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). She’s an Amazon, a group of warrior women created by the Greek Gods. She’s trained by Antiope (Robin Wright) and becomes the fiercest among them, wielding a power no one fully understands.

Their idyllic world shatters when Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash lands on the island with a battalion of German soldiers following behind. Man’s World has erupted in the War to End All Wars, which Diana believes can only be at the hands of Ares, the God of War. So she leaves the island with Captain Trevor to kill Ares and save the world.

It feels only appropriate to begin assessing this movie at the top, looking at Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot has been a low-grade charmer for years, her role as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise being a particular scene stealer, and Wonder Woman proves how ready she is to launch to the top of Hollywood.

Gadot turns out an incredible lead performance here. There’s a grace and a kindness underlying an undoubtedly powerful warrior, an emblem of peace through strength. Gadot is particularly adept in this movie at pulling you into her perspective, at filtering the film through her eyes. It’s the off-kilter way she engages, the enthusiasm in just the wrong places and the confusion in just the right ways. She stands tall as a hero, poised to move to the top of the Hollywood Ass-Kicker list.

But it isn’t just Gadot’s performance. Affleck does a bang-up job playing Batman after all. It’s the character they’ve crafted. For the first time, Wonder Woman gives us a hero in the truest DC mold, an emblem of something greater, an ideal that pushes against a darker world.

all-star

Diana here stands for something greater, for a love that can conquer the darkest impulses of humanity, for a hope that one day war can end. Diana uses her strength, but it’s as a peacemaker, as a hero that truly believes that humanity is good and can be made better. It’s not the flawed heroes of the Marvel Universe, but a representative of more, a God that stands above and charts a way forward.

Wonder Woman and the eponymous character both revel in striving towards something better. That’s what has set DC apart and can continue to set it apart, if it continues to use it right. It isn’t as though this film doesn’t engage in the philosophizing that has marked films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. Rather, it understands that there can be fun while you prod those questions, a movie that thrills you and uses those thrills to dig in deep. We understand Diana’s belief in doing good because we see the people she saves, but also because we feel the joy and adrenaline along with her.

That is, I believe, thanks to director Patty Jenkins. Consider this quote from a New York Times interview:

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Perhaps no mission statement better embodies the successes of what we see on screen.

Consider (keeping in mind the work screenwriter Allan Heinberg did) the film’s central romance, between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor. Romance in superhero films is often, to put it mildly, begrudgingly trotted out to please some executive trying to meet 4 quadrants.

Wonder Woman has perhaps one of the most successful on-screen romances in any superhero film. Much of that is helped by Pine, who does an absolutely phenomenal job as the noble but compromised Trevor, and his chemistry with Gadot. The two have a crackling banter that feels like a great screwball comedy and it’s easy to see what they might see in each other.

But it works because of that mission of sincerity and that thematic motivating belief that love can and will do good in the world. It informs the romance and gives it the space it needs to breathe in the movie. I can think of few movies that would indulge so many quiet and melancholy moments in this romance, or that would allow moments so unabashedly silly in the same space. But Jenkins’ sincere belief gives their love room to breathe and it makes it work.

That belief extends throughout the film. It’s that sincerity that makes everything work emotionally. Everything resonates, everything feels real, Wonder Woman goes for broke and it hits so often that it can wallpaper over any flaws.

I could of course pick at a few scabs. The third act indulges in plenty of weightless CGI battling, I wish it had been allowed to really make its own visual palette, the slo-mo can be a little much, and it takes a little too long to really get cooking at the beginning.

I say all that knowing there are small things littering the film to praise as well. The supporting cast, from Lucy Davis’ delightful Etta Candy to Ewen Bremner’s charming and sad Charlie to Saïd Taghmaoui’s roguish Sameer to Elena Anaya’s cackling Dr. Poison, fills out the margins of the film in a way few superhero films indulge. The action is phenomenal, a sequence set in the No Man’s Land of a Belgian battlefield is a total all-timer.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score must also be singled out. An old-school, sweeping score of a kind you hear less and less since the Zimmer style became popular, it really helps drive these moments home.

But I can’t throw too much shade, because Zimmer did help write the Wonder Woman theme, a recurring guitar riff that showed up in Batman v. Superman to announce Wonder Woman’s arrival, and here shows simply how great it is to have a theme for a character. When that guitar riff enters during that No Man’s Land sequence, you’re damn near ready to jump out of your chair cheering. That’s a theme song.

In my eyes, Wonder Woman is simply the best traditional superhero movie in some time. Its belief in do-gooding, its thoughts on what that can mean, its great performance, its unabashed joy in superheroics are such a breath of fresh air. This is a victory, a story that finally lets a DC Comics character come to life, and be who they are and what they stand for.

Grade: A

Alien: Covenant and the Ascent into Hell

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Paradise Lost, Book 1, Lines 258-263 (John Milton)

What if the Devil could create?

Lucifer’s greatest punishment is that though he aspires to God’s place, he cannot create like God does. He can react to, he can corrupt, he can bring God’s creation into his fold and warp it in his image. But it’s just that. It’s tailoring and resizing what already exists. The Devil can never be a father, a creator.

Increasingly, these are the matters with which Ridley Scott has concerned himself. While humans play various factors, Scott is returning to the well of Blade Runner, of asking the fundamental questions of humanity and what it means to be human and interacting with the natural world while becoming increasingly less concerned with the actual particulars of human behaviors, and of the characters themselves.

It’s a damned shame that he has to do that thinking in a blockbuster mode that is so often judged on the basis of its characters, and that is so constrained by the demands of its franchise. While not bad in its claustrophobic horror, Alien: Convenant, a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien, is at its best in its most unconventional and idiosyncratic, where it’s a Gothic Horror Sci-Fi resembling a holy fusion of Paradise Lost and Blade Runner.

Alien: Covenant introduces us to the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship headed to a new world to spread humanity throughout the stars. A freak Neutrino burst rocks the ship, killing the captain (James Franco) and waking up all the other members of the crew, including the Captain’s wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) who is now second-in-command, the new Captain Chris (Billy Crudup), the pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), and a whole bunch of other people who don’t really matter but one of them is played by Demian Bichir so you do care. Already awake was their synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender).

In an effort to cut the trip short and avoid going back into the Hypersleep pods that malfunctioned in the incident, the crew of the Covenant take a stop on a heretofore unknown planet. From there, you pretty much expect what’s going to happen to them, though what you may not expect is who’s waiting there.

I don’t know what’s considered a spoiler for this film, and this fact is given away extremely early. But, if you must go in with no prior knowledge, go see this and then come back. Otherwise, feel free to barrel forward.

On that planet, they find David (Michael Fassbender), the synthetic from the crew of the lost ship Prometheus, who has terraformed the planet and taken up residency among the dead civilization. But all is not as it appears.

The reason I mark that you should only consider that a spoiler is if you must go in with absolutely no prior knowledge is that to talk about Alien: Covenant is to talk about Walter and David, Michael Fassbender’s dual performance in this movie. All of its most fascinating parts, its thematic meditations and most impressive visuals (frankly) rest in that performance and what leads to it.

I want to discuss the visual aspect first. Scott has always been one of our greatest visual thinkers in cinema, so few have had such influence on the way generations of cinema have ended up looking like Scott. While Alien: Covenant is no great innovator, it’s still a remarkable visual work, and I think particularly of the residence that David has taken up.

Alien: Covenant feels heavily influenced by Hammer Horror films, and perhaps nowhere does that show through more than in David’s Necropolis, an imposing and dark place castle built entirely on the remains of a now-dead civilization. It’s perhaps one of the best sets I’ve seen in a film in some time, gorgeous and frightening and immersed in atmosphere. Introduced soaked in rain by a cloaked David, there’s perhaps no place that more immediately puts a film on its A-game, that immerses the audience in the mood so quickly.

It’s here that the film snaps most readily into place. Here, our Xenomorphs and their predecessors become ghosts, twisted Lovecraftian visages reaching through this darkened place. Our relationships become strained, immersed in a quiet hell. And no more does David more seem like the Devil, sitting on his throne in a place only he resides, a creation that he had to twist.

I’ve danced around it long enough so let’s just state it. Michael Fassbender’s performance isn’t just the best part of this film, it’s one of the best of the year so far. I count myself as a fan, and this is a performance that rivals Shame as his best.

It isn’t just the pyrotechnics of a dual performance, but the shading he gives each. Despite the fact that each is such a big character, he wears such subtleties in what should be very difficult roles. He has legitimate chemistry playing off of himself (leading to some…charged moments) and manages to so orient the gravity of the film around himself that it’s a shame when he’s not on screen.

Fassbender plays like a Blade Runner remake entirely oriented around Roy Beatty, driving the film and the thematic concerns almost fully around what he’s pulling off as a performer. It’s to the point where the movie feels unfocused solely by the act of having him off screen. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but I’m just grateful we have that Fassbender performance.

It’s also that everyone else just isn’t at that level. It’s not that our main characters are bad. Waterston is consistently a ton of fun to watch (reminding me that she should have been the lead of Fantastic Beasts) and I’m always up for more Danny McBride. But they’re largely just too thin to carry the dramatic meat of the film.

To be fair, they’re not supposed to. Scott doesn’t much care for humans, and they’re disposable on his tale of Luciferian creation. The humans and their stupidity is part of it, that flawed humanity can and will be replaced or molded into something better.

They’re here as tools of David’s plan, and as prey for the more perfect organism, the Xenomorph. It’s the Xenomorph, oddly enough, that feels most out of place here. Thematically it works, David twisting humanity into a creation befitting of his eye.

Narratively and cinematically, it’s when the movie shifts away from what it’s best at. It’s not bad at all. Scott still has a major penchant for framing these scares and he knows the weight the Xenomorph’s image carries. I’m not a huge fan of the CGI Xenomorph in motion, but the images of it lurking work fairly well.

It’s just convention creeping into something legitimately different and unnerving. The price Scott had to pay for a meditation on Satan and on the nature of man that shows sympathy for the Devil. This is such a singular and exciting movie for so much of it, that it’s a shame he’s forced to do anything else.

Grade: B+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 loses a little of the surprise, but gains a lot of depth

Summary: 

Picking up some time after the ending of the first, the Guardians of the Galaxy are on the run again, after a job from the glorious golden space Nazis the Sovereign, led by High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), went awry. They’re saved after a crash landing by the mysterious Ego (Kurt Russell), a Celestial who reveals himself to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. 

So, like any good test of a team, they split up. Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Quill go off to visit Ego and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementioff). Meanwhile, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) stay back with their prisoner Nebula (Karen Gillian) as the Ravagers quickly come on their trail. 

Let’s get this much out of the way, since I know you’re wondering, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not as great as Guardians of the Galaxy, for reasons that are almost entirely not its fault. This is by a nose hair, but the fact is that the original was a total surprise, a big weird movie unabashed in what it was and unabashed in its tone and sense of humor. That surprise is gone, and the narrative isn’t quite as tight this time around, there’s not as much a propulsive sense underlining the rocket of fun shooting forward. You almost couldn’t replicate that.

It earnestly comes down to that I can see myself rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy more than I can this one.

But let’s not make the mistake that that means Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t a truly great movie on its own merits, and one that ranks proudly with the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For every extra bit of excitement the original had, this movie trades for depth, an exploration of the lovable, broken misfits at its center. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doubles down on the character and thematic work that has made the MCU so great and writer/director James Gunn turns in an entry in this franchise that is as gloriously weird, exciting, and heart-wrenching as one has come to expect.

On the most surface level, I have to praise the visuals of this film. The MCU can be flat visually, so it’s worth praising any film that pops. Boy fuckin’ howdy does Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 pop.

The color in this film is absolutely gorgeous, rich and running all across the spectrum. Cinematographer Henry Braham has given this film a rich and deep saturation, with a lot of clear and beautiful lighting that creates images with shades and depth and a very Alex Ross-esque power. There’s an actual pleasure in just looking at this movie, it’s so nice to have a film in color.

But drilling down further, this is a movie about the characters and the stories of their lives. It largely eschews high-flying adventure, this is a movie that has a whole lot of people having conversations about their personal problems. There’s more Linklater conversation than Lucas spectacle.

However, that approach absolutely works. Much of that is on James Gunn, who has such an affection for his weirdos that you feel a certain joy in seeing him spend so much time with them. He’s got such a specific sense of who these people are (part Troma, part Fast and Furious) that letting him expand the world of these characters is about as good as it gets.

His approach is essentially to give all these people rejection in their lives, by fathers, by creeds, by family. Maybe the obvious approach, but misfits feel like misfits for a reason. Gunn helps flesh them out by understanding why they seek each other out, and why we relate with them. He gives them these moments of happiness and shows them why they’re so long earned.

And what’s perhaps best is how simple these moments are. There’s a moment early on where Quill talks about how he never got to play catch with his dad, and you know what will be coming once he finally meets Ego. But it doesn’t take away any of the lump in your throat that you get when it happens.

That keeps happening. Guardians Vol. 2 is a deeply emotional film, one that knows how to pull the heart strings without ever going too far into the schmaltz. An irreverent sense of humor (there’s a pretty off-kilter one liner or physical gag at least once per scene) keeps things breezy, but the moments where it really prods its characters are here to melt stone hearts.

All of that emotionality is also the chance to expand the roles for the characters. Everyone gets an arc, everyone in the film is well-served. But there’s two who steal the show. One is Drax, who perhaps has the thinnest arc, but is perhaps most indicative of what works about this film. Big, goofy, sweet, and irreverent as a character, Bautista finding the shading within his totally literal interpretation of the world is what a sequel should do at its best.

The other is Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who absolutely steals the show. Gunn takes him from a two-note thug to a fully fleshed out…person. Rooker sells the underlying sadness to a lonely criminal like nobody’s business, and the slow reveal of his feelings towards the other characters is aces. The relationship between him and Rocket is particularly well done, props to Cooper for his less cartoony performance this time around.

Guardians is the rare ensemble picture that CAN actually spin its characters off in different directions and still work. They’re satisfying on their own, they’re satisfying paired off, and when they reunite for the big team finish, there’s a certain jubilation in seeing the Guardians together again.

Between the joy of great character, a wicked sense of humor, and enough Marvel paraphernalia to shake a stick at, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about as good as Marvel movies get. Not breaking the formula, but pushing it to its limits to find what can be good and exceptional about these films.

Grade: A-