Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Alien: Covenant

Film: Alien: Covenant

Starring: Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) and Billy Crudup (Almost Famous)

Director: Ridley Scott (Gladiator)

U.S. Release: May 26th, 2017 (Rated R)

Genre: Horror

Runtime: 123 minutes

For as puzzling and ambiguous as Ridley Scott's long awaited return to the Alien franchise was with 2012's prequel, Prometheus, the symbiotic relationship between filmmaker and sci-fi saga still rang true. And a handful of years since that release, Scott dives back into the unfriendly confines of outer space with the follow-up, Alien: Covenant. With similarities and differences abound, Covenant fully embraces its predecessor while unveiling its purpose with a massively altered approach.

A colonization mission is under way on the spaceship known as Covenant. But when an unforeseen issue awakens many of the vessel's passengers from their sleep chambers, they soon discover an Earthly signal from nearby inhabitable planet. They change their course for this mysterious land and soon discover that the superficial paradise they hope to call home is anything but a utopia.

If there's one thing I loved about Covenant, it's Ridley Scott's commitment to the same horror elements that made his 1979 original so transcendent. The dark depths of outer space are as frightening as they are exciting, and this film embraces that notion with an immensely gory take on the sci-fi genre. The film is filled with both strong and unappealing performances. Thankfully, its leading stars, Michael Fassbender (in a brilliant dual-role) and Katherine Waterston, offer fantastic turns that help propel Covenant into one of the finer big-budget horror films in recent memory. Ridley Scott has seen a fair share of awards season success and critical bashing over his long run as a filmmaker. And although we won't see Covenant's name resurface when major nominations are handed out later in the cinematic year, countless lasting images from the film reaffirm the director's exceptional abilities as a unique visionary.

Where Prometheus poses many more questions than answers it provides, Covenant scraps the cryptic formula for an overly-direct storytelling approach. It's an irritating overcompensation that spells out far more than what's necessary to the viewer. There's a sweet-spot somewhere in between the manner in which this new film and its predecessor handle the mystery and intrigue that makes Alien such a compelling franchise. And while I prefer this sequel in comparison, mainly for its horror-rich infusion into the plot, there are a few clear deficiencies that can easily be corrected to make any future installment an absolute masterpiece.

For as mediocre as 2017 has been so far, Covenant makes for one of the stronger titles in the first half of the year. Expect a more visceral and blood-filled sci-fi adventure than Prometheus, and one that addresses its predecessor closely, all a while harboring a tone similar to the 1979 original. Ridley Scott hasn't quite perfected his re-branding of this classic franchise, yet Covenant is clearly a huge step in the right direction.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (NEWEST) and Despicable Me 3 Trailers

We've been given a ton of Spider-Man: Homecoming footage, perhaps enough to know most of the film's storyline already, but who would really refuse another look into Jon Watts' upcoming summer blockbuster? Tom Holland reprises his brief cameo role as Peter Parker from Civil War and we're given a deeper look into the teenager's chaotic life. Peter masks his alter ego with an internship at Stark Industries where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) provides an assortment of gadgets to Spider-Man's suit that he'll need to master in order to defeat a new foe, The Vulture (Michael Keaton). Catch the final trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming below.

People who follow me know that I'm not the softest of critics when it comes to animated features. However, one franchise that has a direct line to my funny bone is the Despicable Me series. A third installment finds its way to theaters on June 30th, where former super-villain Gru (voice of Steve Carell) discovers a twin brother he never knew he had, Dru (also Carell), who tries to lure his now kind-hearted sibling back into the maniacal game. If you're a fan of the series, like I am, then the film's new trailer will be a satisfying look into what's ahead. Check it out below.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Best Tom Hardy Performances

Tom Hardy's career trajectory is still trending upwards. Co-starring in another Christopher Nolan collaboration, Dunkirk, and with the recent news that Hardy has agreed to play the Marvel super-villain, Venom, the future looks bright for this British acting talent. Tom Hardy is a personal favorite of mine and I'm thrilled to devote May's movie list of the month to honoring his spectacular career (April's list).

Honorable Mention: Legend, Locke, Max Max: Fury Road and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

#5. The Drop (2014)

Michael R. Roskam's The Drop will forever be remembered as the late James Gandolfini's last film. This slow-burning crime drama, adapted from a Dennis Lehane short story. follows a bartender (Hardy) at the center of a bar robbery in the underworld of Brooklyn's mob scene. Hardy molds an emotionally broad character whose maneuvered development truly stands as the film's most impressive component. 

#4. Warrior (2011)

While I had certainly seen earlier work from Tom Hardy before I had the wonderful opportunity to savor Gavin O'Connor's phenomenal sports drama, Warrior, it was this defining role that opened my eyes to the actor's unique abilities. Hardy stars as Tommy Conlon, an AWOL Marine who returns to his troubled hometown to train for a multi-million-dollar MMA tournament where he's pitted against his estranged brother (Joel Edgerton). Warrior will always carry the "MMA Movie" stigma, but it's remarkable onscreen work from Hardy, Nick Nolte (who was Nominated for the role) and Edgerton that place this sports drama into the upper echelon of its genre.

#3. Lawless (2012)

Hardy followed up the success from Warrior with a brilliant year as Bane in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, and an unforgettable role as Forrest Bondurant in John Hillcoat's Lawless. Channeling his inner John Wayne, Hardy delivers a quiet and effective role as the head of a family-run bootlegging operation that faces stiff opposition from a corrupt special deputy (Guy Pearce) set on cutting into their profits. Lawless blends together strong performances and a witty tale of southern folklore that makes for a compelling western entry.

#2. Bronson (2008)

As a fan of Hardy, I made a conscious effort to backtrack in his portfolio and stumbled across a remarkably transformative role in Nicolas Winding Refn's odd biopic, Bronson. Before Refn captured the world's attention with Drive, he gave us the true story of a maniac named Michael Peterson (Hardy) who was sentenced to prison for 7 years after robbing a post office. However, Peterson went on to spend three decades in solitary confinement where he's masterminded the self proclaimed alter-ego, "Charles Bronson". Hardy's versatility is on clear display and he navigates the un-navigable mind of a demented psychopath.

#1. The Revenant (2015)

It's a bit of a common theme, but Hardy's superb and even Oscar-Nominated talents in Alejandro G. Inarritu's revenge tale, The Revenant, was ultimately overshadowed by the end of Leonardo DiCaprio's career-long quest at earning an Academy Award. DiCaprio finally got to give that speech while unfairly Hardy played second fiddle as Fitzgerald, a member of a hunting team who leaves a colleague (DiCaprio) for dead after a vicious bear attack. This performance finally put Tom Hardy on the Oscars' radar and with continuous talent and maybe even a little bit of luck, one day he'll get to give an acceptance speech as well.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Glass Castle and It (NEW) Trailers

Brie Larson became a household name thanks to her Oscar-winning performance in the heavy 2015 drama, Room. Yet, anyone who's followed Larson knows that she's been offering quality work for quite some time now. Her most unforgivable omission came following a masterful turn in Destin Cretton's Short Term 12. The duo re-team in the 2017 August release, The Glass Castle. Larson stars as a young woman who must come to grips with her dysfunctional childhood upbringing at the hands of her drunkard father (Woody Harrelson), as she examines where her life currently stands. I was blown away by Short Term 12 and look forward to anything the collaborative talents of Cretton and Larson attempt. You can catch the debut trailer for The Glass Castle below.

Much has been made about the highly anticipated remake of Stephen King's classic tale, It. The film's debut trailer painted a familiar picture and Andres Muschietta's latest preview provides an in-depth look at the horror icon Pennywise. It centers around a group of unpopular kids living in the town of Derry, Maine who come face to face with an evil clown. It arrives in theaters this September, so in order to get your fix in the meantime, enjoy this new footage from Muschiettit and the entire team behind the reboot.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Battle of the Sexes and War for the Planet of the Apes (NEW)

As an outspoken fan of the directing duo Jonathan Davis and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine & Ruby Sparks), when news broke that they'd be teaming with the Academy Award winning screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire & 127 Hours), Battle of the Sexes immediately sprung to the top section of my year's most anticipated releases. In her first performance since capturing the Best Actress Oscar, Emma Stone stars as famed tennis player Billie Jean King, who accepted the circus-show challenge of former champ, Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), to square off in a man vs. woman tennis match. Battle of the Sexes unveiled its debut trailer yesterday and the September release could set an early bar for the awards season.

There are some positives and negatives hovering around the third venture into the Planet of the Apes reboot. Matt Reeves is back at the helm in a clearly escalating franchise, all things worth getting excited over. However, you can only pit man against beast so many times before you reach the saga's inevitable conclusion. The addition of the always fantastic Woody Harrelson provides another reason for optimism, as he stands as the latest opposition to the apes in what's sure to be an epic battle. Yet, the possibility of redundancy feels almost assured to set in with War for the Planet of the Apes. We'll find out soon enough, July 14th to be exact, as you can catch the final trailer for the sequel below.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and The Wall

Recently I offered an outpouring of love for James Gunn's surprisingly successful first installment, Guardians of the Galaxy, by labeling it as the best entry within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Needless to say, my anticipation for the franchise's second film was astronomical, something I haven't said about any sequel for quite some time. Yet, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fails to advance the Marvel story with a dull and lifeless character examination of Peter Quill.

Daddy issues resurface as the mystery surrounding Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) biological father becomes quickly addressed. Kurt Russell co-stars as Ego, the mystery man who helped spawn Star-Lord, and he returns with a bit of surprising news. Ego is what's referred to as a celestial, a god-like being with immense powers, and he helps Peter recognize his own superior abilities as they slowly reconnect after decades apart.

As I have stated before, I am no purist to the Marvel comics. In fact, the MCU is merely a refreshing brand of comedic and action-packed superhero fodder that's managed to progress and expand fluidly into an unstoppable machine. However, GOTG Vol. 2 takes a step out of the natural progression and dives deep into its source material's influence. James Gunn uses a wide combination of both familiar characters and new ones, bolstering a lineup that comic book loyalists are sure to appreciate, in order to expand on Star-Lord's character rather than act as a proper stepping stone towards the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. While this approach isn't necessarily destined to fail all own its own, Peter Quill's lack of personal conflict in the third act butchers this entire game-plan. GOTG Vol. 2's rampant attempts at comedic relief feel nowhere near as natural as its predecessor and, in conjunction with hokey dramatics and an irritatingly mind-numbing dose of Baby Groot, this sequel feels wildly off the mark. Marvel's typical formulaic approach is scrapped from James Gunn's latest work and, oddly enough, it leaves you longing for the cookie-cutter sequel. Simply stated, GOTG Vol. 2 feels twice as long and about not even half as good as the original.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Doug Liman has emerged as an action aficionado of sorts. The long-time filmmaker broke onto the scene in the mid-90s as the visionary behind the indie classic, Swingers. But since then, Liman has pivoted to a more uptempo directing approach with successes such as The Bourne Identity and The Edge of Tomorrow. Yet, even as a heralded filmmaker within the action genre, Liman's latest cat & mouse sniper thriller, The Wall, becomes hampered by its claustrophobic setting.

Set during 2007 in Iraq, after President Bush had declared victory, a pair of soldiers (Aaron-Taylor Johnson and John Cena) are investigating the murder scene of American contractors in the middle eastern country. Consequently, the two soldiers fall under the gunfire of an undetectable and skillful sniper. Left with nothing but a flimsily built rock wall to shelter him from the sniper's accuracy, Isaac (Johnson) finds himself immersed in a battle of wits and warfare with the opposing shooter.

Filmed predominantly in the same setting, The Wall tries desperately to avoid an aura of monotony with a mere 85-minute running time. Unfortunately, a severed amount of screen time still can't stop Liman's effort from standing as a tiresome affair. An insufficient and bland story overshadows an initially intriguing psychological opening. However, as the minutes begin to mount and the film's third act ultimately takes shape, a decent final sequence isn't nearly enough to salvage an utter lack of connection between viewer and characters. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, fresh off a Golden Globe win for his supporting role in Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, delivers a committed performance, but even his unique talents fail to withstand a rather unimaginative screenplay from Dwain Worrell. The Wall is more gimmicky than substantive, something that clearly doesn't suit Doug Liman's proven abilities as a filmmaker.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Wonder Woman (NEW) and Blade Runner 2049 Trailers

It's no secret that the DC Comics has tried desperately to keep pace with Marvel's massive film universe and the results have been lackluster to date. Yet, DC  hopes that all changes soon with the upcoming releases of Wonder Woman this summer and Justice League in November. Gal Gadot continues her role as Diana Prince, a prehistoric princess trained to be an unbeatable warrior. Fast forward many, many years and Prince uses her alter ego of Wonder Woman to resolve a world-threatening conflict. Wonder Woman is meant to set up Justice League, DC's answer to The Avengers, making Gadot and company's film a pivotal moment in the newly expanding DC film universe. Check out the latest trailer for the June 2nd release below.

Ridley Scott's pioneering 1982 sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner, is getting the sequel treatment. And while many will naturally respond with a rolling of the eyes, and perhaps rightfully so, there's an enormous reason for optimism knowing that Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival & Sicario) is at the helm of this sacred reboot. Set three decades after the original, Ryan Gosling stars as a new Blade Runner who discovers a shocking secret that could plunge the world into chaos. The only way to stop this impending doom is to enlist the help of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who's been missing for 30 years. Blade Runner 2049 has all the makings of a successful sequel, as we're given a new look into this October release.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

DVD Outlook: May 2017

As the summer blockbuster season takes over movie theaters nationwide with Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 kicking off the annual tradition, May's DVD and streaming outlook offers a modest collection of new releases (April's suggestions). While I can't vouch for many of the titles arriving this month, I will say that the finest entry from 2017 I've seen so far headlines the crop of films for May.

Get Out - Three stars out of 4 - (Read my rapid review here)

Jordan Peele, best known as one of the figureheads from Comedy Central's former sketch comedy show, Key & Peele, offers his directorial debut with the massively horror film, Get Out. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris Washington, an African-American man whose traveling to rural upstate area to visit his Caucasian girlfriend's (Allison Williams) parents for the first time. But the more time Chris spends at their upscale estate, the more he begins to notice how strange all of the other Black people he encounters seem to be acting, and he suspects a darker motive. Get Out plays well to its racial undertones, but the film shines brightest with it's creative horror and thriller twists that keep the audience guessing the entire film. Get Out is the year's best offering (so far) and it instantly makes me eager for whatever Jordan Peele has lined up next. (May 23rd)

Logan - Two and a half stars out of 4 - (No review available)

After hearing all of the lofty praises for James Mangold's Logan, some as bold as calling it the greatest superhero movie of all-time, I caught the film very late in its theatrical run. And while Logan stands as a serviceable superhero entry, Mangold's latest venture into the world of Wolverine has been unquestionably overblown by its loyal fans. Hugh Jackman reprises his title character role as a former member of the X-Men whose caring for an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) in a remote home off the Mexican border. But despite Logan's valiant efforts to stay off the grid, he finds himself consumed by a new foe when he's asked by a desperate woman to help escort her and a peculiar child to the Canadian border. Logan has moments of intense gratifying action, but it also succumbs to hokey dramatics and immense overacting from its leading star. In a weak month of new releases, Logan finds itself near the top of my suggestions strictly by default. (May 23rd)

I Am Not Your Negro - Unrated

In these tumultuous times of racial tension and a divided nation, Raoul Peck reintroduces the world to the powerful and insightful African-American author and activist, James Baldwin. Interweaving public interviews and known writings form Baldwin (which are narrated by Samuel L. Jackson), this poignant documentary feels eerily reminiscent with today's unfortunate state of events. I was only able to catch snippets of I am Not Your Negro, which was also an Oscar-Nominee for Best Documentary, and I found its message of hope and equality to be a powerful reminder of how far we still need to go as a society to come together. Some will label the doc as politicizing propaganda, but I commend Peck's efforts for bringing the intellectual and outspoken thoughts and beliefs of Baldwin to the forefront of our country's racial equality discussion. It's a message that everyone should know and hear. (May 2nd)

Honorable Mention: If you're looking for some cheap laughs and a rather mindless comedy experience, Fist Fight (5/30), is nothing spectacular but it will do the trick. While I admittedly haven't seen either film, My Life as a Zucchini (5/23), was one of the five Oscar-nominated animated features from 2016, and The Salesman (5/2) won the Foreign Film Oscar. Matthew McConaughey stars in the middling drama, Gold (5/2), and the sentimental heart-warming flick, A Dog's Purpose (5/2), has already arrived as well. Teen sci-fi drama, The Space Between Us (5/16), is also available this month, as is the sequel Fifty Shades Darker (5/16).

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Dunkirk (NEW) and The Dark Tower Trailers

Christopher Nolan is one of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers. So whenever he dons a new release, the whole world awaits with bated breath. This time around Nolan tackles the harrowing WWII evacuation of Dunkirk. Civilians assisted the British Naval fleet to help recover stranded Allied soldiers completely surrounded by German forces on the shoreline of Dunkirk, France. Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh star in Nolan's first work since the 2014 sci-fi drama, Interstellar. This early footage of Dunkirk doesn't disappoint and immediately catapults the film to the top of the Summer movie season. Catch the latest trailer for Dunkirk below.

From the unique mind of Stephen King comes Nikolaj Arcel's adaptation of The Dark Tower. The expansive book series gets its first film this August as Idris Elba stars as "The Gunslinger", Roland Deschain, who searches amongst a western backdrop for a mysterious tower and a "man in black" (Matthew McConaughey). This action-fantasy tale has been long rumored and it finally reaches the big screen this summer. Check out the debut trailer for The Dark Tower below.