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+

3 Things to Watch This Week: Inaugural Edition

Welcome everyone to what I’m hoping will be a regular column. Pretty much every site does one of these, so you get the gist of it. Three things I want to recommend you give a watch, for one reason or another. One of these will be up every Tuesday, talking about things that aren’t going to get full reviews, but should absolutely be on your radar.

Maybe they’ll be new movies or TV? Maybe it’s something classic I’m just now paying attention to. Whatever it is, this is what should be streaming or spinning in your DVD player this week.

Get Me Roger Stone

Billed as a documentary about Trump booster and Republican “Dirty Tricks” operative Roger Stone, the secret of Get Me Roger Stone is that it’s basically the best horror movie of the year.

Its monster is Roger Stone himself, a man so dedicated to winning at all costs that he injects his own personal brand of venom into the entire Republican party, seeing it twisted into his own image. Something like a Body Politic Horror, the thesis is that Roger Stone’s style of politics has had such remarkable effectiveness over the course of the last decade, lurking in the shadows and subtly unlocking the hearts and minds of those in power to unleash their true dark potential.

Get Me Roger Stone doesn’t believe that the current twelve-ring-fuck-up-circus is a creation of the last few years, but rather a slow creeping sickness of which it vacillates between Stone being the infection or the symptom. Trump is the ultimate validation of his dirty politics, a win at all cost mentality.

It’s incredibly well-composed. While I wish a few threads had stuck around (the idea of Stone as the proto-showbiz politician is dropped too soon), Get Me Roger Stone is so good at twisting the knife over the course, directors Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro drawing out the threads of his operations and his beliefs before pulling them all together in a stomach-dropping montage of the 2016 election.

You may wonder why Stone would agree to something that makes him so easy to hate. Well, beyond the quote there in the header up top, it’s perhaps because the film so validates the effectiveness, his amoral drive to win. It’s a film that makes him the Machiavellian Orchestrator behind every Conservative political move in the last 40 years. Whether you buy it or not, he certainly wants you to.

And as the man himself says:

“I revel in your hatred because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.”

Streaming on Netflix

Samurai Jack (Season 5)

The long-awaited return of Samurai Jack has functioned as something like the series’ Logan, a chance for creator Genndy Tartakovsky to throw off the creative restrictions of content restrictions and open up a world with all the darkness and violence that has always lurked under the surface.

Yet that isn’t necessarily what’s made this season work so extraordinarily well. Blood has amped up the stakes, and the ability to explore what exactly being alone for 50 years with no hope of returning home might do to a man’s psyche has given the show a new sense of depth.

But what’s worked is that Season 5 has been Samurai Jack with an endgame, a story to reach and Tartakovsky at the height of his powers, while still being the same core show that was so popular.

Its action fundamentally still over-the-top and masterfully rendered. Its environment and visuals still gorgeously and meticulously crafted. There’s still kind of goofy sense of humor at the heart of it all, the first villain is Scaramouche, a Paul Lynde-talking robot jazz assassin.

It’s willing to go directions it never has, but retains its core.

Streaming on Adultswim.com

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer is perhaps one of the better examples of how badly the studio system can end up chewing up filmmakers and spitting them out.

Marc Webb, best known at this point for directing two Spider-Man films that can muster a pleasant nod at their best notes, has essentially turned into a hired gun, a bland and anonymous journeyman shooting with enough personality to keep the studio chugging along, Gifted perhaps the nadir of all this so far.

All of this makes it particularly insane to look back at the debut that made his name and simply realizing how bursting with life it was.

(500) Days of Summer shows a filmmaker who basically can’t stop moving. Every frame is something new, some way to discover a part of the story, some stylistic trick that still drills down into the character, some show of his knowledge of the craft. He’s playing with the French New Wave, there’s a musical number, he’s dipping the film into black-and-white, he’s giving a Rashomon impression. It’s a film that’s so gosh-darned excited to be getting made that it’s showing every trick in the book, a sort of melancholy exuberance in its construction.

In its best moment, it indulges in a bit of fantasy crushed by reality. The famous “Expectations vs. Reality” split-screen, on just enough of a delay to see the thoughts unfold before the world as it really happens. The Expectations are not some soaring La La Land, the Reality is not some sickeningly painful experience. They’re tempered, and all the more powerful for how recognizable both those are. There are few moments that ever so quite convey the soft tragedy of things not going as you’d imagine them quite like this.

One can imagine a world where Marc Webb continued along this vein easily, and in directing the pilot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, he sort of did, that show perhaps picked up this movie’s torch better than anything else has. If only he’d make another film quite so effective and interesting. At least we’ve still got this one.

Rentable on all major streaming platforms

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 20: Melissa McCarthy joins the Five-Timers Club!

How’s the Cold Open?

I’ve definitely been critical of Baldwin’s performance as Trump in recent weeks as largely being a “Fill-In-The-Blanks” impression, and it isn’t as though this week’s showing was necessarily any better about that.

I feel like this week was just to some degree the most absurd and stupid week in the history of the Trump Presidency, where the sheer vain idiocy came so far to the forefront of President Wario’s actions that any repetition would be deeply amusing in a sort of “Laughing at the Mushroom Cloud” sort of way.

So, yeah, Baldwin is doing his standard shtick, but I couldn’t stop stress-laughing remembering how barely exaggerated the actions were this week. The actual comedy star of this one was Michael Che as Lester Holt, whose delivery of the line “Nothing matters” taps into that weird pervading nihilism about the whole thing.

Also, any time we can mock Paul Ryan, let’s do it. Bring ice cream you Randian motherfucker.

I’m mad about politics this week. The sketch was funny.

Who’s Hosting?

It always kind of surprises me that Melissa McCarthy didn’t come up through SNL. She seems like the sort who would have been a smashing success here, a brilliantly broad comedic performer with a penchant for really digging underneath the characters. She’s always been SNL-adjacent anyway, kicking off the superstar portion of her career in a movie starring Kristen Wiig, so what would it have hurt to have had it every week?

She enters the Five-Timers Club this week, the second this year (there will ultimately be three), and she is absolutely deserving. No non-cast member has felt quite so at home as McCarthy, she’s up there with luminaries like Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, or Justin Timberlake.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“First Birthday”

A weird recurring sketch that tries to explain those suburban mom trends, I’m a fan of weirdly sinister comedy and this absolutely has it in spades. A bizarre, Stepford-esque escalation of finding “your animal” and your nature, the great little weird behavior details and the increasingly dark/glassy-eyed performance from everyone all builds to a nice comedy crescendo.

“Production Logo”

A perfect 10-to-1 sketch, the kind of sketch that you’re not sure what exactly the thought process was that led to it, but you’re happy someone thought of it. Absurd, but played with a totally straight face. Don’t know what made me laugh so much about Melissa McCarthy’s depressed logo woman, but made me laugh it did,

“Kyle and Leslie”

This romance between Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones has been one of the more surprising delights of this season, a romance surprisingly sweet and funny as it is weirdly told and well put-together. It actually pulls from a real place if this romance existed (their varying levels of success) and then pushes it in a legitimately interesting way until it takes the comedy turn, which actually may be the hardest I’ve laughed this season so far.

No shit. I was scream-laughing.

“Sean Spicer Returns”

Spicey, Sean Spicer if you’re nasty, may legitimately be McCarthy’s greatest character, a bundle of anger and rage and genuine nervous fear that explodes in comedic service of a total buffoon. McCarthy plays Spicer with everything she’s got, and I think it’s one of the few that finds no diminishing returns. Yeah, Spicey has thrown shit before, but that column throw is a legitimately hilarious escalation, it always feels like you’re finding something new. Even if you’re just reciting what happens (Spicer really did hide “among” the bushes), McCarthy finds the comedic gold therein and pulls it out, not just reciting.

Plus, I will never not laugh at the use of the podium.

“Film Panel”

Considering real-life Classical Hollywood was only slightly more dehumanizing than these folks describe, I’m impressed how much they manage to pull out and the delight with which McKinnon and McCarthy’s old actress describe all manner of twisted things. Just a great duo performance, and the showcase for McKinnon’s talents that works every time.

“Melissa McCarthy Mother’s Day Monologue”

Just a fun little piece to kick off the show, I always love the various shenanigans they pretend are going on behind the scenes at SNL and I’m also a fan that they keep McCarthy’s Llama recurring.

What Didn’t Work?

“Amazon Echo”

Reasonably committed, but honestly, there’s not really any gags that haven’t 100% been done before, this is just kind of your standard group of old people gags given “relevance” by tying it to a new piece of technology.

“Game Show”

Carried entirely on McCarthy’s physical humor here, it kind of runs into a rut a little too fast, telegraphing all its gags from the first pie-to-the-face. I’ll admit to laughing at the “washing off” stuff, but everything else is just not all there.

Weekend Update!

In a weird way, this week more than ever, Weekend Update is feeling the strain of keeping up with an exceptionally dumb administration. One has to wonder what it would have been like for this show to operate under Nixon, keeping up with the vitriol and the stupidity and the sheer weird baffling behavior is plenty of material that you’re still never going to feel better comedically than the dark joke of seeing it actually happen.

At this point, there’s just a general need for a little catharsis, a barely concealed need to throw up the hands and just ask “What the fuck?” While these guys aren’t as good as Seth Meyers (As far as mainstream goes. When you’re talking non-mainstream sources, no one is beating Chapo Trap House for the cathartic political comedy), Jost and Che are getting a few good shots in this week, my favorite being Jost hitting Spicer and Trump over Spicey diving in the bushes without warning as that’s usually Trump’s move.

Correspondents were good this week. Cathy Anne actually made me laugh this week with a solid group of hits that were clearly connecting on Trump. The concept of the character as a woman at her last rope is finally coming through here, and it’s funnier than she’s been in her past. Pete Davidson also did a nice little personal bit about being in rehab, and I hope all goes well for him.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Oh yeah. HAIM is the bees knees.

MVPs!

An ensemble show largely, but Cecily KILLED it as a straight-man this week, so major props to being able to do that. And Cathy Anne actually worked this time around.

Beck Bennett – 4
Cecily Strong – 3

Kate McKinnon – 2
Bobby Moynihan – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

A great week, one almost certainly buoyed by having Melissa McCarthy’s comedic presence around. While not quite as experimental or sheerly-skilled as some of the better episodes of this season, it’s a solid group of sketches that land more hits than misses.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Emma Stone
  7. Aziz Ansari
  8. Chris Pine
  9. Melissa McCarthy
  10. Scarlett Johansson
  11. Alec Baldwin
  12. Kristen Wiig
  13. Margot Robbie
  14. Casey Affleck
  15. Benedict Cumberbatch
  16. John Cena
  17. Felicity Jones
  18. Octavia Spencer
  19. Emily Blunt
  20. Jimmy Fallon

Next Week: THE SEASON ENDS. Dwayne Johnson also joins the Five-Timers Club.

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 19: Chris Pine Sings!

How’s the Cold Open?

It’s actually pretty standard for the Cold Open to feel a little out of step with the rest of the episode. It’s attacking different subjects, usually political ones, at a totally different clip.

Still, in such an episode that was so bizarre and exuberant and off-kilter as this one, this one still felt a little off comparatively. Now, fortunately, it wasn’t just wheeling out Baldwin in the Trump makeup and calling it done. He was here, but the focus was on Moffat and McKinnon as the recently announced-to-be-engaged hosts of the MSNBC show Morning Joe. Their lovey-dovey physical comedy here is plenty amusing, and at least a welcome change from talking into the camera during the Cold Open.

And when Baldwin’s Trump returns, it’s got more energy than it’s had in multiple sketches, perhaps because all Baldwin has to do is the voice. While Anthony Atamanuik is currently spanking Baldwin’s impression weekly over on The President Show, this one is at least better than normal, giving Baldwin a chance to indulge in the weirder parts of the persona by playing as John Miller, Trump’s fake publicist.

But overall, the sketch just feels out of step with the rest of the episode, a bit of normality on a weird one. Nothing too strange, just physical comedy and some fill-in-the-blank jokes.

Who’s Hosting? 

I certainly know that no one would have expected as much musical comedy out of Chris Pine, a guy who’s talented and handsome and desperately trying to differentiate himself from the other talented and handsome actors named Chris that are filling out the ranks of our Genre franchises.

Though, perhaps his SNL appearance shows that differentiation. Besides his go-for-broke goofiness, there’s a real talent there, an acting through the whole body through every bit of weirdness. Pine is the most actorly of the Chrises, but he’s the one who disappears into goofiness the quickest. Also, I can’t reiterate this enough…he just keeps singing. So much singing. It’s kind of great.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“SWAT Recon”

The theme of this night is “Holy shit, this is a weird one, and I LOVE it.”

Perhaps the biggest case in point is this one. A sketch that starts with going for broke, a premise that makes no sense but in the best way, and just keeps spiraling upwards and upwards until its end. Entirely too much fun (Cotton Candy Dance Party actually sounds like a good Saturday night) and reasonably well-structured, this was the sort of bizarre exuberance that made the whole night work.

“World Peace Rap”

I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening here, and I love it. I like that Pine seems to jibe so well with Bennett’s weirder sensibilities tonight, and he plays at each turn. This is definitely a bizarre sketch (that Tommy Wiseau wig) that must be based on SOMETHING, and holy hell I’m just glad to have seen it happen.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

This seems to be a sketch with an obvious direction, so when it takes the turn it does, I’m all the more appreciative. The angle of “men ignorant of women’s problems” is incredibly well-played and the delivery between the actors here is A+, a smarter tear of satire that the standard Trump stuff.

“Star Trek Lost Episode”

Just another big, goofy one that strikes me as one of those sketches that makes it hard to believe anyone managed to come up with it. It’s also a sketch that makes you realize that you’re probably gonna miss Bobby Moynihan when he leaves, there’s a level of sheer fun and interplay with any member of the cast that nobody else does even half as well. No one outside of Kenan can get so much with one bug-eyed look.

Also, fun fact, Leo Yoshimura, SNL’s longtime set designer, is the man playing Sulu, reprising his role from the first Star Trek sketch in 1976.

“Where In The World Is Kellyanne Conway?”

I’m a big fan of “deflater” sketches, where there’s a HUGE wind-up for a deliberately hilarious thud. So this one totally works for me, pulling off a pretty well-done recreation of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, including a pretty good impression of The Chief (though not as hilarious as the one Carl Tart has been doing over at Comedy Bang! Bang!), and then ending in about 15 seconds. Short sketches really do benefit SNL.

“The House w/ Chris Pine”

I’ve missed these Good Neighbor sketches, these chances for SNL to hew closer to anti-comedy and Tim and Eric-esque sketch making, so I’ll praise any time they come back around. The stilted delivery is always a special kind of brilliant, especially out of sketch actors as good as Bennett and Mooney, and the way this one chugs forward is just such a delight to watch.

“Chris Pine Monologue”

Our first signal for how much singing was gonna happen, and also how much fun Chris Pine would end up be in this episode. I kind of love him leaning into the Chris dilemma (by the way, Chris Evans is the only one who hasn’t hosted yet, get on that), and it’s the one time the musical monologue feels of a piece with the rest of the episode. So, points.

What Didn’t Work?

“Couples Game Night”

Cute idea, weird punchline, but it kind of just takes too long to get there and doesn’t find quite enough laughs along the way to justify the length of the sketch.

“Auto Shop”

Again, cute premise, and that lip sync battle at the end is amazing, but the sketch tips its hand too early. You know where it’s gonna go and the pivot doesn’t function like it needs to at all.

Weekend Update!

   Anchors

Che and Jost were in reasonably fine form this week, going in on a week of fairly supreme Trump stupidity and evil. The AHCA passing was the center of the week’s best jokes, with Jost commenting on Trump’s building of a wall “between Americans and their healthcare” and Che noting the overwhelmingly white House Republicans were celebrating like “they had just invented sickle cell.”

Their groove is so established that it comes down to the specifics of the material, and there’s just too much going on this week to not have a few good gags.

Correspondents

Two this week. One is Leslie Jones doing a solid bit of stand-up. I’m never going to protest when Leslie Jones comes on as herself, and she’s killing it as herself here. The other is Dawn Lazarus, played by Vanessa Bayer, who I’d love to see more of. It’s a variation on Kristen Wiig’s travel agent character, taken to an extreme where her nervousness has gone so far that it’s looped past making her unable to perform and has her speaking gibberish with total confidence. Bayer does amazing things with this character, an absolutely tightly controlled performance.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nope, I feel like I should get into LCD Soundsystem at some point though.

MVPs!

Bennett wins it almost solely on the back of the World Peace Rap. In general, he seemed to vibe the most with what has happening this episode, acting through the singing and the musical number, but World Peace Rap is such an insane thing that it’s hard to not give him credit for how well it was done.

Season so far:

Beck Bennett – 4
Kate McKinnon – 2
Bobby Moynihan – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

Overall, I like when the show goes goofy, and I like when the show goes weird. This was both in spades, and Chris Pine was a surprising delight to watch. A good week.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Emma Stone
  7. Aziz Ansari
  8. Chris Pine
  9. Scarlett Johansson
  10. Alec Baldwin
  11. Kristen Wiig
  12. Margot Robbie
  13. Casey Affleck
  14. Benedict Cumberbatch
  15. John Cena
  16. Felicity Jones
  17. Octavia Spencer
  18. Emily Blunt
  19. Jimmy Fallon

Next Week: Melissa McCarthy!

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-

(This Ain’t) Black Mirror Season X, Episode 1: The Circle A.K.A. Delete Your Facebook

After a long delay, it’s good to have Black Mirror finally back on the…

What? This isn’t Black Mirror? 

But like…really? Well, okay.

The Circle is an attempt for a film to capitalize on the increasing pop-cultural space of Black Mirror, a 5-minutes ahead techno-thriller warning of the folly of man as technology increasingly encroaches into our lives. While that’s been the domain of films for some time (think The Net)The Circle is absolutely trading on Black Mirror‘s aesthetics and thought processes to the point where I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d paid for an inferior version of something that’s streaming at home.

Adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel by Dave Eggers and writer/director James Ponsoldt, whose gift with raw character interactions and realistic yet melodramatic story nuance are largely wasted here, The Circle is just a disappointing mash, no idea or person properly utilized or (almost) any of the novel’s worst tendencies supplanted.

Fuck it, we’re just gonna look at this like a Black Mirror episode. Why not?

WHAT’S THE IDEA HERE?

Connected media will destroy all privacy. 

Mae (Emma Watson) is a sprightly young go-getter working at a utility company when her friend Annie (Karen Gillian) gets her a job at The Circle, a company that’s something like Google plus Facebook plus Twitter plus HYDRA. Founded by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), the company wields a disproportionate amount of influence that only seems to be growing, as their tech slowly engulfs the whole of American life, as it engulfs Mae’s life.

Mae quickly rises through the ranks and loses touch with the people around her as she begins to give herself over more and more to the influence of The Circle and its erosion of privacy throughout the world.

HOW’S THE IDEA WORK?

Not well.

It’s not that The Circle isn’t vaguely right about what it’s talking about. Social media and “everything on” connectivity has contributed to a largely voluntary erosion of any norm of privacy, sharing everything in our lives at any moment for anyone. That much is fair to say that The Circle gets right.

But that was a vague prediction in 2013 and now it simply seems dated. Whether you think it’s sad or not, there’s only a few degrees separating us from The Circle, but the largest majority of it is behind the times. The concept of a constant video stream of someone’s life may have seemed insane in 2013, but in 2017, there’s Periscope, Twitch, and Facebook Live.

Being dated isn’t necessarily impossible to overcome (the difference between the pace of technology and the pace of getting a film made can line up in unfortunate ways), but you’ve got to still have something interesting despite being behind. That’s kind of why last year’s Nerve worked better than anyone should have expected.

The Circle is more caught up in its techno-phobia, blaming the tech and seeming to suggest some sort of corrupting effect to technology, as if it was social media that forced us to post on it rather than any sort of thing within humanity. This is more like Black Mirror at its worst rather than Black Mirror at its best, which posits what within the human nature and character makes us so willing and so possibly poisoned by the erosion of norms by technological innovation.

Moreover, as much as I’ve cited Black Mirror, it feels like The Circle is a story that should be taking notes from Silicon Valley. Right there, you have a global capitalist technology octopus seeking to put its tentacles into every arena much like the real global capitalist technology octopi that we have. Mae seems to go along with every step despite her concerns because the company culture forces her into it (also script convenience). Making into villain a company that is so obsessed with profit that it would seek to supplant the United States government to keep it from stopping them is a fascinating story and a legitimately striking thing to do when it looks like Mark Zuckerberg might be running for President, a legitimate condemnation of a cold Silicon Valley culture and its role in late capitalism.

But none of that is there. The Circle is an evil company because its damn technology keeps screwing everything up. The movie shakes its fist and moves on.

Perhaps this would be excusable if The Circle was at least well put-together. But it isn’t. Ponsoldt’s sort of quiet, small, meditative filmmaking has given itself over to a glossy studio aesthetic, something closer to literal commercials than the intimacy of The Spectacular Now or The End of the Tour. 

It’s also likely his worst script yet. While Donald Margulies or Neustadter and Weber were certainly steps up, Ponsoldt and the original author Dave Eggers seem to be incapable of fixing the structure problems of the original book or drilling down into it. It’s a story that feels too long and too rushed in equal measures (the worst mark of a film that was likely hacked together later) with paper-thin characters.

Those paper-thin characters likely translate into the mostly bland performances. Great actors, like Hanks or Gillian, are given too little to work with besides riding off charm. Good actors, like Watson, are kind of left to flail while they deal with no character and no real direction. Bad actors, like Ellar Coltrane, are truly left up shit creek, with Coltrane having an annoying character and an even worse attack to the performance.

OVERALL?

The Circle just has nothing to it. Too bland to be bold, too behind to be forward-thinking, to aimless to hit anything. There’s a lot of talent here, Ponsoldt is a great director and this is a cast totally built for success. But everything is wasted in a story that doesn’t know what to attack and isn’t interesting enough to watch. Just a shame that this would totally deserve more and doesn’t earn it.

Grade: D+

SERIES(ish) RANKING

  1. San Junipero – A
  2. Fifteen Million Merits – A
  3. Be Right Back – A
  4. The Entire History of You – A
  5. White Bear – A
  6. White Christmas – A-
  7. The National Anthem – A-
  8. Nosedive – B+
  9. Playtest – B+
  10. Hated in the Nation – B
  11. Shut Up and Dance – B-
  12. The Waldo Moment – C
  13. Men Against Fire – C
  14. The Circle – D+

The Lost City of Z is the kind of film they used to make

Had The Lost City of Z been filmed in a brightly lit black-and-white, perhaps projected from a rediscovered reel of celluloid in some revival theater, no one might blink an eye. Was it not for the modern faces of its lead actors, one could tell me this was some lost adventure film made by some great director whose name is remembered by the programmers of TCM.

In case I’m not driving home my point bluntly enough, director James Gray has made something fiercely gorgeous and relevant that feels totally crystallized in amber, a relic lit with fire. The Lost City of Z is an aesthetic triumph with a surprising current of wonder and adventure running through it.

Based on a true story, The Lost City of Z chronicles the journey of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier tasked by the Royal Geographic Service to chart a border between Bolivia and Brazil, exploring unknown territory and leaving behind his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and ever-growing family.

During that journey, along with his partner Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), Fawcett discovers the possibility of a lost city trapped deep within the jungles of Amazonia, a city he dubs Z (pronounced “Zed”) that may predate European civilization. This pursuit consumes his life.

That makes The Lost City of Z sound like a movie about obsession, about destroying your life in the pursuit of a goal, of tearing your life apart. But I don’t think that’s necessarily what it is at all.

The Lost City of Z is rather a story of the pursuits we must make to make our name, to be forced to leave family behind and achieve greatness in the hopes that we will make a better lives for ourselves. The Lost City of Z is about what society needs us to leave behind in the hopes of climbing the ladder. It’s not the obsession, it’s the demands we all make, it’s the obligations that Percy Fawcett feels that he keeps articulating as providing a life past the reputation his father left.

At least, that’s what I got, but any good movie is about at least 3 things. James Gray has crafted a film that, while likely more removed from Gray himself than ever, feels intensely personal to Gray, his own pursuits and his meditations and his feelings. It’s a filmmaker working through his thinking on the screen. There’s not just his own personal pursuits of pride, but his thoughts on the inherently colonialist nature of the material.

Fawcett certainly has his better intentions with discovering this society, but the film is not willing to let him off the hook for his indifference to plight or his using of the societies he discovers. It’s also willing to draw that to his treatment of his wife (a fantastic Sienna Miller performance) and how she is just as much a part of what Fawcett sees as resources to pull himself ahead. There’s a feeling of looking inward.

That’s also what makes Charlie Hunnam work so well. An oft maligned actor, Hunnam shows how good he can be, leaning into the old-school sense of derring-do he’s been able to consistently convey combined with a more recent sense of sensitive melancholy. It’s a fantastic lead performance and the exact sort this movie needs.

Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland must also be singled out for praise here, his partner and his son who both join him on his journeys. Pattinson gives a reserved and meticulous performance, everything just so, the control to Fawcett’s adventure. Holland shows the shades of his cinematic father so well, shaped by having to live under someone who was never there.

But thematics and performance alone are not what makes The Lost City of Z so fantastic, it is that earlier mentioned aesthetic triumph. Few filmmakers are simply as classically strong as James Gray, and few make it look so easy.

When Gray is in the jungle, his approach feels like the truest of adventure filmmaking. His Amazonia feels near mythic, a place of reverence that is constantly being unfolded. We are as in awe of discovery as our characters are, it’s stripping away the fantasy to show a world where there was still new charts to be made, that there’s something fundamentally human about that discovery.

That feeling is thanks not only to Gray’s steady directorial hand and vision, which also produces an amazing final 20 minutes unlike anything I’ve seen from him before and a gasp-worthy final shot, but thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji’s amazing work. No film has ever more clearly needed to be shot on film, the grain giving a tangibility to this world, allowing for the gentle painting of light uncovering this world. The warmth of the sun-lit world, the inky shadows broken up by fire, all of this is captured immaculately with Khondji’s camera.

The Lost City of Z is a beautiful work, a classically made film that stands as an ode to a style and a world long gone by. James Gray is a master, let that much be clear.

Grade: A

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