Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-man: Homecoming and Why the MCU No Longer Works

Belated, Obligatory Thoughts on Disney Sony's Latest

I went into the sixth Spider-man movie, deceptively titled Homecoming, with measured expectations amounting to exactly nothing, and in some places it exceeded them. Homecoming marks the second collaboration of sorts between Marvel Studios, which produced the film, and the stagnant Sony Pictures, which has been brazenly churning out one box office dud after another, viz. Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, Passengers, Life, and Rough Night. As far back as 2014, Sony barely managed to turn a profit with their abominable sequel, The Amazing Spider-man 2, but now they get to reap the fruits of Marvel’s ironclad business model after loaning them Peter Parker for last year’s Captain America: Civil War, a film that people would have gone to see regardless of whether Spider-man appeared in it for 15 minutes. Somehow this is supposed to benefit both parties in the long run, but to me it looks like Marvel and Disney are getting the short end of the stick.

Distribution economics aside, Spider-man: Homecoming predictably combines the more banal aspects of both Marvel and Sony, narrowly scraping by on the paltry virtues of the former and surviving the toxic signatures of the latter. Like many Marvel products before it, Homecoming suffers from an excess of humor and weightlessness that impedes sincere connection with its more dramatic moments, if and when they happen. As an example, Michael Keaton disintegrates one of his henchmen fairly early on and the film milks the death for an “Oops, I grabbed the wrong gun” joke, which both undercuts the value of human life in this comic book world and makes Keaton seem like a cartoonishly callous villain, an image we later learn that Marvel was trying to subvert.

Even the movies that I really admire from the studio, e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor, show a lack of restraint in the humor department, pursuing gags where sobriety would be more appropriate. And yet Spider-man has nothing on the Guardians movies in its comedic discipline. I’ve seen at least one fan try to fault Guardians 2 for feeling “like a sitcom”, with characters constantly trading insults and sparring wits with one another, but for me this style testifies to James Gunn’s talent as a writer and observer of human behavior. Whereas the jokes in Guardians largely stem from characters’ idiosyncrasies and dynamics, which require an incisive script and are arguably harder to write, most of the humor in Spider-man: Homecoming is of a stock situational variety that rarely surprises and thus rarely pays off. One trick the movie relies on a lot is contradiction humor, whereby one character will say something like, “Whoa, Peter, you can’t just quit on us, stroll up, and be welcomed back to the team!” and the camera will immediately cut to another character who says, “Hey, Peter, welcome back to the team.” I can recount at least three instances of contradiction humor, but there are probably a whole lot more that I forgot.

But I shan’t dwell too much on comedy, being as tenuous as it is, and some other irksome things about Homecoming should only be treated briefly. Like all the Spider-man movies before it (except maybe the second one, which I haven’t seen), the sixth one builds to an incomprehensible battle set at night for the sake of saving money on special effects, and Peter Parker doesn’t get the girl for the umpteenth time. Some bloggers have been comparing this to a John Hughes high-school comedy (perhaps because it references Ferris Bueller), but none of the kids in it drink, have sex, or call each other demeaning slurs, so it’s a very neutered, 21st-century imitation of John Hughes. The alternative superhero movie Chronicle from 2012 did a far superior job depicting the rebellious fever of the teenage years, while keeping within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Intriguingly, Homecoming appears to homage Chronicle in its first minutes, when Peter records low-quality video logs of scenes we saw in Civil War, but the movie drops this gimmick soon and proceeds in a very routine, unadventurous style.

I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a more distracting case of stunt casting in a superhero film than here; consider that Michael Keaton has gone from playing a Batman to playing a Birdman to playing a meaner, metal Birdman, or that the busboy from Grand Budapest Hotel is still playing a high-schooler, or that the director of Iron Man has a supporting role (I guess he was in the previous movies too), or that rapper-actor-comedian Donald Glover shows up for two scenes to do literally nothing aside from pointing Spider-man in the direction of a ferry. I won’t even comment on the deliberately controversial presence of Disney star Zendaya, who will presumably be playing a bigger role in future installments.

Perhaps the biggest detriment of Homecoming is that so much of it, including Zendaya’s moody SJW, piggybacks off an increasingly convoluted Marvel saga instead of focusing on being a good story. Maybe Marvel meant to lather on the interconnectedness in this movie especially, to celebrate the happy union of their characters and Sony’s, but whatever rationale is guiding their creative process, it hasn’t been contributing to the ongoing coherence of their works, and Homecoming marks the messy culmination of numerous wrong steps taken in deference to the universe’s “lore”, which must be reviewed and re-examined leading up to every new release.

The movie opens shortly after the climactic battle of The Avengers, introducing Michael Keaton as some kind of contractor who’s driven to become an arms dealer when he acquires some of the glowing purple tech left behind by Loki’s alien army. Eight years later, Keaton pilots an aerial suit not unlike Tony Stark’s and bosses around a group of thugs who use Gordon Freeman’s gravity gun to pull off bank robberies and other heists. I can see the mindset behind creating a more modest villain like this, who isn’t obscenely over-powered, vengeful, and bent on the destruction of New York, but Marvel arguably overreaches by handicapping him so much. Benefiting from Kevin Feige’s surely monstrous resources for research and development, Homecoming feels meticulously doctored to minimize backlash from self-affirming Youtube channels that echo the same praises and criticisms, but the patently obvious motions it takes to avoid the series’ documented flaws just end up weakening it in other ways. Vulture is clearly supposed to serve as a smaller-scale criminal on the level of a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man (a term Stark uses verbatim), but knowing that he gained his powers essentially by accident prevented me from being remotely intimidated or awed by him. It also doesn’t make much sense how a guy who starts out as a blue-collar worker – a family man who feels his livelihood impinged on by the Department of Damage Control (also headed by Stark) – is able to muster the money and time to manufacture sci-fi weapons out of elements from another galaxy.

Yes, Marvel does circumvent another boring antagonist who wants to destroy the world for some indefinite reason, but is an antagonist predicated entirely on events that happened in The Avengers that much of an improvement? On the contrary, the viral infusion of Avengers plot points into every facet of Spider-man: Homecoming constantly muddles the core story of Peter Parker while reminding me that I’m experiencing an insignificant chapter in a larger narrative. It also indirectly lessens the feats of all the other Marvel characters; when any Joe Schmoe can become a super-powered menace to society by taking advantage of some circumstance or device from a previous movie, the actual titans of the increasingly over-crowded universe lose a lot of their luster. Tony Stark isn’t such a genius anymore, just an egotistical public figure with billions of dollars to burn.

Similarly, Tom Holland’s Spider-man is more of a Spider-kid, whose power isn’t really explained and who derives most of his abilities from the generosity of another Avenger. “I’m nothing without this suit,” he pleads to Robert Downey Jr., the highest-paid star of the Marvel universe who now lurks in the background of every movie. If Parker is nothing without an expensive Stark Industries suit that talks back to him, does that make him an Iron Man-lite, someone who couldn’t exist if the U.S. government did not decree it? Why does the viability of Spider-man need to be inextricably tied up in the enterprises of Marvel’s most successful superhero? Thanks to Homecoming and Marvel’s multi-movie profit scheme, Peter Parker has regressed from an exceptionally bright and self-reliant kid into a good-hearted 15-year-old who got bitten by a spider and is propped up by the bottomless coffers of a bigwig superhero mentor.

It also goes without saying that the political backdrop of these movies has spiraled out of control, bending over backwards to justify the inclusion of Marvel stars who have no business being in the story. Sometime between The Avengers and this film, Captain America has apparently produced a number of videos for public high-schools, ranging in content from detention counseling to sex education (“So your body is going through some changes—I know how that feels.”). The script even jokingly acknowledges the absurdity of this development, having a P.E. instructor remark, “I’m pretty sure this guy is some kind of war criminal now, but whatever.” I don’t recall the Captain America stand-alones well enough to confirm if he is indeed a war criminal, or if S.H.I.E.L.D. even exists anymore, but Steve Rogers has definitely led a libertarian streak whether the writers intended him to or not, fighting against mass surveillance in Winter Soldier and U.N. globalism in Civil War. Bearing both these stances in mind, along with Cap’s background as a patriotic soldier frozen in the 1940s and reawakened in the modern day, I just can’t accept that the guy would ever debase himself to appear in such a cheesy and condescending campaign for Big Education, nor can I follow how the government and Avengers have gotten so intertwined over the years.

One of my biggest problems with Civil War was that the script didn’t give a very compelling reason for Tony Stark to break from character and submit himself to multi-national regulation, simply because the Avengers caused some civilian casualties in the process of saving the world from imminent catastrophe. For a character as independent and strong-willed as Stark to undergo such a reversal of personal values struck me as a shallow and unmotivated pretext for the better half of the Avengers to fight each other at an airport. With every episode in the overarching story, internal consistency falls further down the studio’s list of priorities, superseded by the need to incorporate certain characters in fun or oddball ways, even if they don’t make sense.

Having said all that, though, Homecoming is far from the bottom of the barrel in terms of superhero entertainment. The action is well executed apart from the ending, a third-act twist got audible reactions from audiences both times I went, and it does have an interesting message that runs counter to the prevailing current of comic book movies. Homecoming’s Peter Parker restlessly nags Stark about their next big mission and zips around Queens looking for crimes to thwart. Like a typical impulsive, idealistic teenager who’s eager to defend the defenseless, he’s convinced that taking forceful action is always the best solution for public threats, and in a crucial scene he berates Stark for not doing more to stop Vulture. As the movie progresses, Peter has to learn that intervention often escalates dangerous situations rather than removing them, that not every problem is within his ability to rectify as a man, which is a surprisingly sage takeaway from a genre film concerned with heroes who violently intervene in dangerous situations.

The rest of the movie seems perfectly content to follow formula.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The 9 Wokest Celebrity Reactions to North Carolina's Discrimination Bill

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Tiny fever and shareability practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

In the past, courageous entertainers have spent more time than any other group fighting at the front lines for civil rights and social justice, from the Beatles during the Jim Crow era, to Katy Perry and John Legend in the historic presidential campaigns of Barack Hussein Obama.

In 2017, a bunch of artists are making their voices heard again, rallying their young and socially conscious fans into action on what many are calling a new battlefield of human rights. North Carolina’s newly-enacted discrimination laws have divided America more than anything in recent memory. Some (mostly conservative) pundits have tried to justify the measures as “common-sense”, while others including the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center have denounced them as unconstitutional and based in hate.

With the proliferation of fake news and fast-paced nature of modern politics, it’s easy to lose track of where the stars stand on issues that matter most to voters. Our social media feeds are filled with provocative and insightful content, and while we love The A.V. Club, Vox, The New Yorker, and Jezebel as much as the next person, we also miss the bygone day when pop stars and people famous for pretending to be other people would tell us how to vote or think.

That’s why we at the Files decided to do our homework and figure out just what the hell is going. Here is a short, comprehensive list of how recognizable A-list celebrities are reacting to North Carolina’s controversial segregation policy.

1. Bruce Springsteen

The Boss reminded everyone who was in charge when he cancelled his forthcoming summer gigs in the state, refusing to compromise his moral integrity by collecting whatever money he would lose from fans who’d already planned expensive trips to see him. Springsteen explained his decision on his website: “Parking Bill 2 (or PB2) attacks the rights of TINY citizens to sue when their human rights are violated on public property. Some things are more important than a rock show, and this fight against prejudice and bigotry is one of them.”

Springsteen isn’t just one of the greatest rock musicians ever, he’s also one of the most human, and this quote proves it. The man is pushing 70, but showing empathy and solidarity has kept him relevant even to this day. Rock on, Boss!

2. Chris Evans –

What more American figure could one ask for to defend tiny house owners than Captain America himself? As anyone who crushes on the Marvel superstar as hard as us should know, Evans’ brother Scott lives in a tiny house, which is why he takes personal offense to North Carolina’s “embarrassing” and “heartbreaking” discrimination.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, visibly perturbed. “It’s insane that civil rights are being denied people in this day and age. I’m completely in support of tiny houses and the right to park wherever you want. In 10 years we’ll be ashamed that this was an issue.”

Marvel recently ran a series centering around a new Captain America, Sam Wilson, who confronts a white supremacist militia intent on oppressing undocumented immigrants. Hopefully the superhero juggernaut will do something similar in the future on behalf of tiny homeowners who are being denied their basic dignity. In the meantime, Chris Evans is demonstrating to his myriad fans that TINY advocacy is more than the right thing – it’s also sexy as f**k.

3. Steven Spielberg

The legendary Jewish director yelled, “Cut!” on any future filming in North Carolina until the state ceases and desists from its “hateful” and “divisive” behavior towards minority homeowners. His full justification read as follows:
By writing discrimination into the state’s constitution, they seek to eliminate the right of each and every citizen to comfortable living, regardless of what their housing preference is. Tinyphobia is on the rise because there’s no difference between anyone who is discriminated against. Whether it’s the Muslims, or the Jews, or minorities on the border states, or the TINY community, it is all one big hate, and at some point, good men have to stand up and say, “Stop.”
Having worked on Oscar-winning historical dramas like Schindler’s List and Lincoln, Mr. Spielberg knows better than just about anybody what the dark side of humanity looks like, and his defense of the TINY– (pronounced “tiny minus”) community shows he knows better than to repeat the genocidal mistakes of the past.

4. Ellen Degeneres

Ellen Degeneres has held many professions: comedian, human rights activist, and the voice of Dory (yes, that Dory, from Pixar’s 2003 classic). One thing that she’s never done, though, is stand idly by while a minority is persecuted.

“It’s the definition of discrimination,” she explained in her signature hilarious yet relatable way. “So two cupcakes walk into a school parking lot and they want to cast their votes. But the school principal doesn't believe in letting the cupcakes park there because cupcakes aren’t allowed to vote. Tiny homeowners are, though, so let them use the damn parking lot.”

As someone who’s faced extreme hardship and bullying throughout her career, it’s no surprise that Ellen would choose to out herself so fearlessly as a TINY– ally.

5. Brad Pitt

The star of World War Z, Troy, and multiple great movies from the 90’s sounded off on TINY– rights almost immediately after the news from North Carolina broke. Like many others, Pitt sees no distinction between the rights of tiny house owners and the rights of everybody else because supporting the former is same as supporting rights for everybody.

“It is each American’s constitutional right to live in a house that they love, no matter what state they inhabit,” he said. “No state should decide where someone can live and where they cannot. Someday soon this discrimination will end and every American will be able to enjoy their equal right to housing.”

By declaring open war on tiny homeowners’ right to park, North Carolina’s politicians hoped to wreak havoc on the state’s TINY communities, but Brad Pitt’s words have sent a powerful message against broken households that no one can ignore.

6. Bernie Sanders

Running as an openly irreligious, democratic-socialist outsider with unfaltering progressive values, Bernie Sanders stunned the world with his performance in the 2016 primary of the Democrats, a center-left party historically favoring moderates like Presidents Clinton and Obama. Many political experts still seriously wonder if Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump in the electoral college. Although he couldn’t compete with the electrifying candidate Hillary Clinton, Senator Sanders remains a vocal advocate for oppressed minorities, including TINY– members.

“It’s time to end discrimination based on housing style or homeowner status,” he said firmly on ABC’s The View. “This law has no place in America. I hope we remember what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us. You judge people on their character, not on the color of their skin. And I would add to that, you do not judge people by the size of their house or what they do with it.”

TINY-shaming is still a prevalent problem in society, and PB2 is sure to exacerbate the hateful behavior, so it’s reassuring that people like Bernie Sanders are pushing back against state-sanctioned discrimination in North Carolina.

7. Father John Misty

Father John Misty, a.k.a. Josh Tillman, has been making incredible indie music longer than most artists do in a lifetime, longer even than Kendrick Lamar, if not as long as Coldplay. Never one to shy away from political statements in his music, Tillman came out swinging against bigotry with the same sharp wit that sets his lyrics apart:
The bill is obviously bullshit. Some may wonder why I even consider playing for fans in a state that lets fear and ignorance dictate how it treats impoverished homeowners. I also play states that have oppressive drug laws designed to imprison the disenfranchised, rig elections, deny women their dignity, defend the reckless and insane practice of selling guns, and sustain a permanent underclass with hypocritical, opportunist readings of archaic documents written by land-stealers who never intended political privilege to extend past their buddies. But for me, this show represents a start in investing in the plight of tiny Americans.
Though Father John Misty didn’t go to the radical lengths of Bruce Springsteen, he did promise to donate all the proceeds of his North Carolina show to a nonprofit TINY– charity called the Center for TINY Solutions, which focuses on raising awareness about tiny houses among undergrads and college graduates. In a political climate marked by fear and uncertainty about the future, it’s good to see respected artists using their influence for such a noble cause.

8. Kamala Harris

The recently elected senator and former Attorney General of California laid down the law on what she called the “prejudiced and fearful” PB2. Harris took to social media on Saturday to slam North Carolina’s Jim Crow-style legislation, succinctly posting the following update.

And we are so glad that she did. So much of the debate surrounding tiny houses has centered on protecting children from “creeps” or “predators”, but this is rooted in outdated myths about tiny house owners, who remain misunderstood and feared by the older generations. In fact, surveys have shown that the vast majority of kids in elementary school don’t have a problem with people living in public school parking lots.

This begs the question, if the 10-year-olds who actually go to school feel safe around and accepting of TINY– people, than why are we seeing such a mad dash to strip away their rights? The simple reason is that bigotry is learned, not inborn, and we personally can’t wait to see what Senator Harris does in the 2020 presidential race.

9. George Clooney

Clooney has a reputation for more than just his striking good looks and Oscar-worthy acting chops. He’s also been politically active throughout his career, a qualification that’s reflected in his films Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. Clooney spoke bluntly about North Carolina’s parking law:
“It is astonishing that tiny and sustainable Americans are still treated as second-class citizens. At some point in our lifetime, tiny homeownership won’t be an issue, and everyone who stood against this civil right will look as outdated as George Wallace standing on the school steps keeping James Hood from entering the University of Alabama because he was black.”
When asked by the magazine TINY Life about rumors that he once lived in a tiny house, the star would neither confirm nor deny the speculation, saying that it was irrelevant and unfair to his friends who live in tiny homes. “I think it’s funny, but the last thing you’ll ever see me do is jump up and down, saying, ‘These are lies!’ I’m not going to let anyone make it seem like living in a tiny house is a poor or shameful thing.”

Clooney clearly understands that the size of one’s residence shouldn’t be an object of judgment or ridicule, and for that we can only respect him all the more.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

NWTE – "Warriors of the Dawn" Movie Review and the 1st Biannual Trailer Update

Around the middle of Warriors of the Dawn, a guy gives an amateur screenwriter, foreshadowing speech to another guy about the imprudence of attacking an enemy that’s backed against a wall. “Courage comes from fear,” he says, or something like that. Hence, he reasons, the protagonist needs to face his fears soon, lest he never mature from the fledgling, cowardly prince that he is into a commanding and magisterial king.

In a more intelligent, realistic, and ‘sloppy’ script, this quip about being cornered against a wall would merely be a throwaway line used to illuminate the characters and their quirks, but Warriors of the Dawn had already given me so many reasons to doubt its basic competence that I spent the rest of the feature wondering whether the king and his mercenary entourage would end up fighting a larger force with their backs against a wall. This they inevitably do, but more than that, the guy who earlier forecast the plot even prods the audience to recall this dialogue, literally telling the king to his face that he’ll be fighting with his back against a cliff, as if to scream out for the audience’s benefit, “This is where the plot is going to effect a change in the protagonist!” Such an exchange is more noxious than the Special Move trope that pervades animated kids films, whereby the main character practices and fails to execute a certain fighting maneuver that is reincorporated in the climax to represent how far he has come. Those who have seen Wonder Woman (at least 20 million people in America by this point, estimating by box office) should have encountered a live-action version of this cliché, coupled with the equally clichéd word of inspiration that the protagonist crucially repeats when she comprehends its meaning (“It’s not about deserve, it’s about what you believe”).

I’ve got nothing against set-ups and payoffs or some modest narrative symmetry; many of my favorite Korean movies recycle or reframe images for dramatic effect, and a surprising number begin upon the ending or something resembling it (Stoker, Barking Dogs Never Bite, Poetry, Memories of Murder, and Mother to name a few). Warriors of the Dawn doesn’t even feel like a Korean film, though; it has the timbre, and the title to boot, of an overlong, stupid Hollywood movie cobbled together from assorted Hollywood tropes, with the notable difference of having an all-Asian cast. Apparently the movie was produced and distributed by Fox International Productions, though I find that an inadequate explanation for the movie’s failure, since Fox just a year ago produced Na Hong-Jin’s riveting and thoroughly Korean genre-bender The Wailing. Between Warriors, Alien: Covenant, Wimpy Kid 4, and A Cure For Wellness, maybe the corporation has been making a streak of stinkers on purpose in the hopes of reducing its tax liability. Maybe they brought this movie to the west just to drop a truth bomb on Asia-fetishizing, self-loathing white males, the type who elevate Kurosawa, Miyazaki, or Wong Kar-Wai to god status while making stupid generalizations about the quality of American cinema.

Rarely does it cross these people’s minds that countries like Korea and Japan make scads of cheap entertainment every year that never make it America, and most of the films they deign to love so much are weeded out from the chaff through festivals. Every now and then, though, something like Warriors or The Man From Nowhere seeps through the cracks to prove that eastern directors make dumb action movies just as proficiently as American directors. Few films show such a fervent dedication to hitting all the right notes as this, so it would appear fitting to enumerate at least a couple of the tropes herein, such as:

* The song-and-dance routine placed in between action sequences to prolong the movie artificially and give some requisite humanity to the soldiers.

* Overly dramatic score supplanting the diegetic sound midway through the dance routine because the director can’t convey the impact the dancer is having on his spectators by purely visual means.

* Goofy and nameless side characters who disappeared earlier in the movie showing up before the climax and saying, “You didn’t think we were going to let you save the crown prince all by yourself, did you?”

* Sniping with 16th century muskets (stupid in The Revenant, and still stupider here).

* A straggling woman making the long dash back to the fortress, the Japanese on her tail. Her countrymen are cheering her on from the gate, all seems well, the path is clear, but then slow-motion – she’s shot before all their eyes! The hero screams in agony, and his scream reverberates through time, as screaming in slow-motion tends to do.

* “Let’s make it out of here alive first, then I’ll tell you my true name.”

Even before the so-called “proxy soldier” spoiled how the movie was going to culminate at a wall, I was sorely tempted to leave the theater, feeling the wasted hours being wrenched from my life as brutally as digital blood was being wrenched from actors on screen. Curiosity stayed my legs, however, as well as the nagging echo of a video log in which Mark Kermode discussed the professional ramifications of leaving a movie prematurely. “You can’t review the film if you haven’t seen it to the end,” the British critic said, recounting the story of a cursed Nicolas Cage screening he attended. “And I really had suffered through it up until that point… So I saw the whole film, from beginning to end… which means I’m perfectly justified in telling you that it’s rubbish.”

Warriors of the Dawn is a 130-minute indulgence in rubbish, but only 44 people have seen it between IMDb and Letterboxd, so I guess it doesn’t matter. The movie is currently playing in Regal specialty theaters nowhere near you, and it would probably be rated R for violence, although its horrible CG blood effects are impossible to take seriously. Lone Wolf and Cub or Oldboy this is not.

The Author’s 1st Biannual Trailer Round-up of 2017

Born in China – This is a movie made for babies, and kind of unbearable to me having seen non-narrative nature films like Baraka and Koyanaisqatsi. The whole thing has this constant, cloying voiceover projecting human attitudes and thoughts onto the animals so that little children won’t get bored and start talking aloud in the theater. Or maybe the soothing, gentle narration is supposed to put babies to sleep at home – I don’t know. Either way, it vexes me that bland Disney features like this always crowd out documentaries that generate a lot more buzz, e.g. Tickled or Voyage of Time, the latter of which looked stunning but played in 15 theaters over three days.

Silence – Pretty good film, far more moving and invigorating than The Wolf of Wall Street. The trailer doesn’t really capture how long and arduous and painful it is to watch.

Dunkirk trailer #X – This movie has been over-advertised to oblivion, and none of the umpteen trailers since the teaser have given any intriguing information about the plot, so what’s the point of them?

The Founder – This is the biopic about the man behind McDonalds starring Michael Keaton that I was always begging for Hollywood to make.

Gold – You say, “Inspired by true events,” I say, “Looks like a boring movie about a white guy trying to get rich without doing any real work.” I also can’t wrap my head around why The Weinstein Company would think it smart to remake Fool’s Gold with the same guy who starred in Fool’s Gold. Do they really take the public for such fools?

Stupid question. This is The Weinstein Company.

Monster Trucks – Well, that thing happened.

The Circle – The trailer really undersells what a fascinating mess its movie is.

Zookeeper’s Wife – I’m getting kind of tired of liberal Hollywood’s endless parade of mediocre Holocaust programming that expects to be praised merely upon its weighty subject matter.

The Last Word – Looks like one of those unfunny, feel-good indie movies, but I give props to whoever wrote this for shining a light on the unsung profession of obituary writers.

The Nut Job 2 – This was a Lego Batman trailer and I didn’t pay much attention, for obvious reasons.

Power Rangers – And the most unoriginal use of a Kanye West song in a movie trailer goes to… In fairness, they did get one thing right about this, when the voiceover man said of Elizabeth Banks, “She is pure evil.”

Despicable Me 3 teaser – To Illumination’s credit, they did mostly leave the minions out of this ad, and one has to appreciate a studio that uses animation aimed at kids to mock Apple’s anti-gun messaging. The movie still looks like a psychological torture device ready for Club Gitmo.

Despicable Me 3 “Gru’s brother trailer” – If I was a parent, this would make me want to take my kids as far away from the theater as possible.

The Boss Baby – Glad to see Alec “____sucking fag” Baldwin back up on the big screen in a movie made for families. Incredibly, The Boss Baby is nowhere near the worst that 2017 has had to offer in memes.

Lego Ninjago – I rather hope that these Lego flicks don’t become a biannual, Marvel-like extravaganza, because if they do, their self-aware and hyperactive style of humor is going to wear out fast. With that said, Ninjago may be Lego’s most definitive and versatile property, somehow blending skeletons, snake monsters, mechs, and transforming ninja, so I’m sure this will reward on a visual and comedic level.

Kong: Skull Island – Most of the warning signs issued in the trailer (bad one-liners, CGI, and a Suicide Squad-esque soundtrack) were delivered on in the final product, but it still succeeded at piquing my interest.

Life – Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum? Check. Counterpoint reading of children’s book / nursery rhyme playing over escalating scary music? Check. Letting it get to earth will risk all human life? Check. Not showing the monster except fleetingly? Check. This is a movie trailer, and one that does a pretty fair job presenting the pointless Alien mimic that Life is.

Ghost in the Shell trailer 2 – There’ve been much worse movies released so far this year, but Ghost in the Shell was still a dull and flavorless adaptation of rich source material, pressed down on the boilerplate of generic sci-fi ideas, most of which are disclosed within the trailer (“They created me, but they cannot control me.”). I’ve already written a Not Worth the Effort review of it, which may or may not see the light of day depending on whether I find another film to pair with it.

Alien: Covenant – Even the trailer was a disappointment. Alien: Covenant parodies certainly haven’t taken off in the same way that “Prometheus-style” trailers did.

Deadpool 2 – I think I laughed harder at this cheap, protracted joke than I did through the entirety of Deadpool 1.

Fast and Furious 8 trailer 2 – Looks stupid. I only watched the climax of this movie and a bunch of other snippets like the jailbreak, but I’d sooner see the rest of Fate than sit through all of Transformers 5 again. At least this series has a smidgeon of self-awareness, plus the Rock.

Unforgettable – Two of my friends with weird senses of humor laughed uncontrollably at this in the theater, and I don’t think that anyone there objected. An epic trailer in its scope, it runs the gamut of emotions and TV movie storylines in two and a half minutes flat.

Atomic Blonde – And the best use of Kanye West in a piece of advertising goes to…
I swear there's a slightly cleaned-up version that runs about 10 seconds shorter in Regal cinemas and better preserves the momentum of the track, but this will have to suffice.

A Ghost Story – I was really looking forward to this for a while, but A24 has been on a bit of a losing streak with their more arty, unconventionally shot movies, so I’m checking my enthusiasm now. It goes without saying that this is a really manipulative piece of marketing, between the music and the low-angle shots and the adulatory pull-quotes… so I guess it passes the Author’s trailer test?

My Cousin Rachel – Whose bright idea was it to make this period romantic mystery out to be some kind of dark erotic thriller? They probably hurt this movie’s business in the long run by selling it to the completely wrong crowd.

Wish Upon – American teens are growing up with warped perceptions of the horror genre and its possibilities, all thanks to a steady stream of crap like this. My generation sorely needs an Argento of its own, but I doubt we’ll ever see one surface if high-school girls (and it is mostly under-25 females who go to these) keep financially endorsing flicks like Lights Out, The Shallows, or those darned Insidious-Conjuring movies. I’m used to hearing, “I don’t like scary movies,” from peers, but horror movies don’t need to revolve solely around “scaring” or startling people, and it’s regrettable that the Wish Upon’s of the industry have conditioned people to think of horror in such terms. 

Ingrid Goes West – Yay, a movie that makes fun of Millennials’ addiction to their handheld devices, starring Aubrey Plaza from the ingenious comedy Parks and Recreation. Hilarious and original.

Valerian trailer 2 – This is going to lose hundreds of millions of dollars.

Baywatch trailer 2 – “Get Rocked, Get Ef’d” is funnier as a tagline than any ‘joke’ in this future heavy-rotation FX movie.

Annabelle 2 – Cross-apply everything said about Wish Upon. The only creepy doll movie I want to see in 2017 is Freddy Vs. Chucky, long overdue.

The Beguiled – I’m not a fan of Sofia Coppola’s previous work (or the work of any Coppolas saving the O.G. Francis Ford Coppola). In fact, I’ve actively hated a majority of it, but this looks like it could actually be good, mainly due to the presence of an unhinged, yelling Colin Farrell. I’m kind of concerned about Elle Fanning’s career after she runs through all of these trashy virginal-teen-on-the-brink-of-sexual-awakening roles.

Coco – As if I needed any more fuel to light my contempt for Pixar, now they’re ripping off The Book of Life but doing it in their trademark flat, computerized art style, because Donald Trump is president, or because the Fast and Furious movies showed there’s good money to be milked from Hispanic-oriented pictures, or because The Book of Life has garnered a small cult following and Pixar thought, “Let’s do more of that mariachi player and Day of the Dead stuff, but slap the Disney Pixar label on it, so we can reap at least $300 million from parents who unconditionally patronize everything our company produces.”

And don’t give me any of those “Coco predated The Book of Life but took six years to make because of Pixar’s high standards” excuses. For one, the director/writer of Book of Life was developing it with Dreamworks as far back as 2007 according to one article, but even if Pixar had no knowledge of the project whatsoever, I find it implausible and incredibly daft that no one behind Coco watched the other movie or suggested, “Maybe we should switch gears on our own film so it doesn’t share so many indisputable similarities with this smaller film that preceded us.”

I can’t be the only one who sees this as a crooked and unethical move by a powerful corporation that has the resources to turn countless original ideas into profitable films.

Cars 3 – I didn’t pay close attention to the commercial and didn’t care to revisit it. As I predicted, the tone had completely changed from the uber-dramatic teaser, and it looked more or less interchangeable with all the other Cars and Toy Story movies.

Wonder Woman “Origin Trailer” – I’ll probably be chiming in a little on this movie later, like all the tech blogs in the country, but first I have to comment on the hatchet job that Warner Bros. ran promoting it. I didn’t ask to be shown Diana’s 30-minute backstory (most of which was omitted from the teaser trailer), the highlight scene of Wonder Woman storming the village, most of the London fish-out-of-water jokes, the kissing scene, the poison gas, or a lot of the destruction in the last ten minutes, but DC exposed me to all of this as I sat unguardedly in the theater, waiting for Your Name to start. I’d be lying if I said that anything in Wonder Woman’s story surprised me, or that the trailer impeded my enjoyment of it, but next time I’d appreciate it if Warner left their Good Parts Versions of a given movie online for fans to seek out of their own volition.

Spark: a Space Tail – Ratchet and Clank called an hour ago. They want their space adventuring and straight-to-DVD animation back.

Baby Driver – I am going to watch this for two reasons, which are essentially the same. The first reason is that the star of Cinderella, Lily James, is in the movie, and the second is that I’m like Steve Martin from L.A. Story: a big dumb male.

On a more serious note, Baby Driver will likely pack a wallop of toxically unfunny humor but make up for it in its chase sequences. I intensely dislike Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy (best known for Shaun of the Dead) and would consider it the most overrated series ever if not for Toy Story, but this looks more like a romantic action thriller than a straight comedy, and Wright does tend to handle action and romance quite well. So as a wise man once said,

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – In Bruges is an awful, awful movie, but I’ll still take a chance on this one because Frances McDormand is a badass.

Megan Leavey – More of a dog lover’s movie than a war movie, or so it seems. I skipped it.

The Big Sick – Not directed or written by Judd Apatow, but looks a lot like Apatow’s annoying shtick all the same, and so the trailer wants you to believe. I’m betting that the white people mistaking the Pakistani main character for a jihadist is going to drag, but there aren’t a lot of movies that tout themselves as semi-autobiographical, so I guess I’m somewhat intrigued.

It Comes At Night – Arguably the worst horror film ever made, and I’ve seen a lot of them. “It” may not come at night, but It does come with the most willfully dishonest ad campaign since Hope and Change. Half of the shots in the trailer that are meant to disgust and horrify the viewer are taken from dream sequences extraneous to the plot, ergo they don’t happen in the movie’s own reality. Lots of websites are comparing It Comes At Night to The Witch as a case study in misleading marketing and ensuing consumer backlash, but It has nothing on The Witch artistically, and trailers for the latter movie didn’t blatantly lie about its subject matter.

I hope to write more about this soon.

Blade Runner 2049 – Directed by Denis Villeneuve, shot by Roger Deakins, and scored by Johann Johansson, this is already shaping up to be one of the decade’s most impressive features, just aesthetically. The story itself is vague and up in the air, but if we’re being honest, most people don’t revere Blade Runner for the story.

Kingsman 2 – It’s obviously hard to judge with so little context, but bringing back Colin Firth kind of mitigates what happened in the first movie and reeks of a studio crunching numbers for profit. It did get a song stuck in my head, though, so kudos for that. “And now the end is near…”

47 Meters Down – Obligatory summer shark movie.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard – I had to go peruse some comments online to figure out that this is parodying a Whitney Houston movie from the 90s called The Bodyguard, which I’ve never heard anybody speak of in my life. In any case, Ryan Reynolds continues to cement his status as the go-to guy for lackluster buddy cop/agent/spy movies. Remember R.I.P.D.?

Murder on the Orient Express –
Features possibly the worst use ever of an alternative radio song, and when will Hollywood learn to stop casting former USA Today contributor Josh Gad?

Geostorm – Obligatory summer weather disaster movie. A bunch of cynical strangers in Wonder Woman were audibly snickering at it.

The Mountain Between Us – Obligatory hiking disaster movie (although these are less common than obligatory weather disaster movies).

Justice League – Not as pathetic as some others have claimed, but it’s still the most try-hard trailer released so far this year, mainly on account of its phony, hackneyed Beatles accompaniment.

The Dark Tower – The moment Idris Elba said, “I don’t kill with my gun,” I knew he was going to finish by saying, “Guns kill people, pound sign Not One More, stop the killing.” How predictable.

Nah, I’m just kidding, he says that he kills with his heart.

Good Time – When in want of a better pitch, just throw some neon and synthwave on it.

Battle of the Sexes – “I’m going to put the show back in chauvinism –” But do male chauvinists think of themselves as chauvinists? This looks pretty bad.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A lazy and formulaic tease for a movie I could hardly care less about after Disney looked over Rogue One and said, “There! All ready for public consumption. Good job, everybody, that’s a wrap.” 

Thor: Ragnarok – The Author’s personal pick for trailer of the year, which he’s more shocked about than anyone. Marvel keeps plot details to a minimum, chooses an awesome Led Zeppelin single over stock epic trailer music, showcases a lighter, goofier tone more suited to a series about Norse gods, and caps the whole thing off with a hilarious and completely natural joke.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Thor says to some unknown audience, but also to us. “How did this happen? Well, it’s a long story.” Trailers are not an optimal medium for for telling long stories, but it’s reassuring to know that somewhere out there an editor still understands their purpose.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Underrated "King Arthur" Defends Authoritarian Meritocracy

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the sort of wholly unremarkable film that I wouldn’t feel behooved at all to review if mainstream critics hadn’t designated it for lower repute than several Amy Schumer movies. Maybe the lot of them were simply reacting out of visceral fury, having been spoiled prematurely by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and improperly readied for their first taste of what’s sure to be a nauseating summer. Maybe they just don’t like fantasy that has no overt political overtones or purpose other than to pass people’s time for two hours.

The key to enjoying King Arthur is to enter it with no preconceived expectations of receiving a traditional Arthurian yarn, about chivalry or honor or humility or respecting women. It’s been a good seven years since I’ve delved into a book of Arthurian legend, the last of which probably being Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the movie’s background, but I can say that Guy Ritchie’s Arthur fits both visually and structurally into the well-worn superhero origin story template. The movie traces the ascension to greatness of an unappreciated, invisible orphan of humble origins (raised in a brothel) who discovers some power vested in him alone (Excalibur) as a chosen one (rightful heir of Uther Pendragon), rejects said ability initially because he’s timid and lacks the will to power, rises to the occasion when his girl is taken captive, and vanquishes an evil overlord (Vortigen, his uncle) who has a personal connection unbeknownst to him. The hero also quips a lot and bears himself into every situation with a certain affected swagger.

In other words, Legend of the Sword is a movie you’ve probably seen dozens of times before in different drapes, but I wouldn’t necessarily hold its unoriginality against it. Yasujiro Ozu recycled the same actors, shot setups, and generational conflicts over and over again throughout his robust filmography, but he’s still counted amongst the greatest filmmakers, so familiarity isn’t damnable in and of itself. What hampers Ritchie’s Arthur from attaining anything more than mediocrity is its scattershot pacing and stylistic dissonance, arising mostly from the need to be a commercially viable, PG-13 movie.

The movie’s hook immediately accorded me many reasons to second-guess how I was spending my Saturday evening. King Arthur fades in to a wide shot of a flaming Sauron eyeball tower, then fades to black right after that with no exposition or characters introduced. I don’t recall if there’s a text card after that, but the next thing that we hear is the bellow of a giant Oliphant, and it quickly becomes apparent how little computer graphics have advanced since Return of the King. An incoherent battle on a bridge ensues, then segues into some lazy, wannabe timely world-building that emphasizes a rift between prejudiced normals in Camelot and downtrodden others, the mages, a beautiful and peaceful people who have been deported back to Africa on account of the unrepresentative extremist Mordred. Certain Arthur purists may raise their noses at the gigantic war elephants in the opening sequence, but within Warner Brothers’ socially conscious revitalizing, they actually make a potent metaphor for homegrown terrorists traveling vast distances from their natural habitat to wreak righteous havoc on the West.

Not that that has anything to do with the rest of King Arthur, which is one of many foibles with the opening besides pretentious slow-motion, lack of context, some truly terrible font, and the pointless casting of Eric Bana. Maybe future entries in the now-doomed franchise would have focused more on Us. Vs. Them sermonizing, but this is more of a personal vengeance tale. Having brushed all this obligatory trailer footage out of the way, Ritchie finally gets to his hero and the film starts to develop into something halfway interesting.

The movie blazes through Arthur’s hardening childhood in a montage full of slam zooms and precisely timed cuts that serves the threefold purpose of waking up audiences, mirroring Arthur’s dexterity in thieving, and showing off Ritchie’s skill at packing much longer scenes into a concise and entertaining form. A lot of early apologists for King Arthur have erroneously complimented its dialogue for being “witty”, but it’s really not. For one thing, none of the vocabulary rises above a 5th-grade reading level, and I may have inwardly groaned when Jude Law shouted at his minion, “Do your f___ing job!” The dialogue is, however, briskly edited, and Richie uses tons of L-cuts to hasten along scenes where not much is happening. The cross-cutting doesn’t always work, mainly in the ending, which mindlessly interweaves two scenes happening in the same room under the same lighting with the same set of actors. On the whole, though, King Arthur poses a workable solution to the exposition problem that’s endemic to a lot of its contemporaries. Some have labeled Richie’s twitchy directing style as formulaic or annoying, but I’d rather watch someone try to entertain me than someone bite the bullet and willingly put out an exposition dump that’s proven antithetical to cinema time and time again.

Special credit must also be given to Daniel Pemberton, who has composed yet another unique and energetic score after gracing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (a more satisfying movie overall). From what I’ve gathered, mainstream critics don’t pay nearly enough lip service to the role that music plays in motion pictures, which contributes to a cyclical pattern of mainstream action entertainment coasting by on extremely bland and homogeneous soundtracks. Even Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which I otherwise enjoyed, blatantly riffs on a Fury Road theme in the first five minutes, and Fury Road itself wasn’t that original in the music department. So whenever someone like Pemberton breaks through the mold of sameness and mediocrity, I feel both overjoyed and irritated, knowing the accomplishment will mostly go overlooked. If King Arthur’s score invites comparison with anything, it might be with Inception, but this is still a singularly medieval piece of work that tinkers with metallic clinking noises, elephantine rumbles, and even human hyperventilating.

In spite of its unimaginative title, most of King Arthur revolves around a meek and immature outcast who hasn’t yet grown into his social vocation. The crux of Arthur’s development is his struggle to endure a particularly scarring vision of his father’s demise, which is filtered to him through physical contact with Excalibur. The movie wisely doesn’t peddle any hackneyed message that the leader of a nation can come from anywhere; in fact, it kind of says the opposite, making the strongest case for merit-based monarchy since The Lion King.

In this Arthurian world, one is born to power and has a duty to accept that charge. The nameless enchantress who can enlarge and speak to animals (and doesn’t do much else) succinctly spells out the movie’s theme when scolding the squeamish and whiny king for averting his eyes from the past. “I look away. We all look away. But that is the difference between a man and a king.” Color me surprised that so many critics despised this in the current day and age, when many people seem eager to look away from the uglier aspects of history, when politicians recoil from “crude and disgusting Youtube videos”, or the public from live-streamed violence, when the president himself refuses to release a “graphic” picture of a deceased terrorist who murdered thousands of innocent people, or even to call him an Islamic terrorist.

If only Warner Bros. had the kingly mettle not to look away any time someone in the film dies by the sword, which happens a lot. This is a film in which multiple throats are slit off-camera, in which the main antagonist stabs and sacrifices his wives to a hideous tentacle monster for a momentary rush of power, and Ritchie paints this ruthlessness in the most blunted and bloodless of strokes. Despite the epidemic of poorly-reasoned, leftist articles complaining about unrestricted movies having “more gun violence” than restricted movies, the PG-13 label has truly been regressing into kids’ territory ever since Marvel movies became the standard-bearer for the category, to the point that studios no longer dare to depict violence either accurately or impressionistically. I don’t need every movie revolving around war or swordplay to resemble Hacksaw Ridge or 300, but when the company behind Suicide Squad and the Hobbit trilogy repeatedly waters its films down with the aim of maximizing profits, it has the cumulative effect of limiting what future art can show under that rating. This video handily traces the rating’s decline by the example of Gremlins, Titanic, and a bunch of 80’s remakes, but I’d also point to The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s King Kong, both of which secured a PG-13 while showing decapitated heads being lobbed over a wall and adventurers being devoured by giant leeches.

In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Arthur fights a misty, nondescript, CG boss and is lectured against turning a blind eye to suffering, and yet the movie does just that, over and over again. There’s a smorgasbord of issues I haven’t even touched on: forced racial diversity in a place where it doesn’t make sense, an unfulfilled romantic subplot, discreetly photographed mermaids, a 15-minute portion in the middle that does basically nothing, and just how terrible some of the action is. I’d tell Warner to get their act together for the sequel, but that probably won’t be necessary after all, since this has currently made back around $134 million of its $175M budget before advertising.

In other news, the CG remake of Beauty and the Beast has become the 8th highest-grossing film of all time in the States (not adjusted for inflation), just ahead of Finding Dory and just behind Rogue One. Thanks, America!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Hail to the Thief – The Pro-Trump, Alt-Right Protest Album We Needed, But Didn't Deserve

When it first came out back in 2003, Hail to the Thief was declared Radiohead’s most aggressive album to date and summarily pigeonholed as an invective of the Bush administration. One could easily be forgiven for thinking that that’s all it was, just going off of statements from Thom Yorke like:
* This society is still run by a bunch of misguided priests who are willing to sacrifice the people on a high altar in order to maintain the economic status quo. – 2015
* The west is creating an extremely dangerous economic, environmental and humanitarian timebomb. – 2003
* I can’t say I love the idea of a banker liking our music, or David Cameron. I can’t believe he’d like The King of Limbs much. – 2013

Hail has since been dismissed by music fan consensus as one of the band’s weakest, most dated works, but this speaks more to their listener’s political ignorance than to the record’s actual content, which is the most prescient poetry they’ve written in light of Donald Trump’s upset victory over the Democrat establishment and over his own, slightly less liberal party.  In spite of its less forward-looking sound, Radiohead’s sixth album speaks more directly to the contemporary grievances of the alt-right and Middle America than do any of their more hallowed, experimental albums, something that’s been entirely overlooked by staunchly leftist music critics. It’s certainly true that Hail to the Thief came out during a time when writing anti-Bush opuses was the fashionable thing for artists who wanted to be taken more seriously (P!nk, Maroon 5, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails to name a few), but Radiohead is far from an ordinary band, nor have they ever shown themselves to be trend-followers. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say they played an instrumental role in getting Trump elected (it’s safe to say that the majority of Trump voters aren’t Radio-heads), I will assert that pretty much every word Yorke spares to bashing the president of a country that’s not his own could just as well be construed as an endorsement of Donald Trump.

The record kicks off with the absolutely livid 2+2=5, as overt an allusion to 1984 as one could request. Stanley Donwood’s liner artwork includes multiple shout-outs to “doublespeak”, which further reinforces Radiohead’s cautionary state of mind and the dystopian backdrop of the album. Doublespeak, a variation on doublethink as Orwell calls it, is the practice enforced by Big Brother of clinging to one idea while accepting an idea that directly opposes it.
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself… Even to understand the word "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink. ~ Orwell, 1984

Aside from the literary allusions, it’s also worth noting the cheeky caveat tucked away in a footnote, alerting parents to the presence of words they may find capital-O offensive. The speaker of Hail to the Thief (and Yorke does sing in a much more talky, didactic style throughout) wavers constantly between social revolt and the contradictory or submissive modes of thought foisted on him by political correctness.

But as for the lyrics of the opening song, Yorke asks, “Are you such a dreamer / to put the world to rights?” In conjunction with the next two lines that echo the title, this sets up the conflict of idealism and stagnation that will undergird the whole record. Radiohead aren’t just making passing references to the classics for intellectual brownie points, although there is a hint of irony in the band invoking another avowed socialist whose most famous books are cherished by conservatives. 2+2=5 reads as a bona-fide indictment of low-information voters who have intentionally shuttered themselves away from political affairs, burying their heads in trendy and trite social justice “issues” that don’t make logical sense instead of seeking common ground with the rest of the electorate, which they deem deplorable. Yorke zeroes in on the outrage and incredulity that have dominated the youth’s response to some new government, presumably a Republican one, and comes to the grim conclusion that they fully deserve everything their puerile resistance has incurred.
It’s the devil’s way now
There is no way out
You can scream and you can shout
It is too late now
Because you have not
Been paying attention! (16X)
The night that Donald Trump was elected, I remember the faces of dismay and disbelief, the general air of depression that was sweeping virally over Pepperdine. “Let’s change the channel away from CNN,” one girl said in the electoral college viewing ‘party’ (dry of course, per school regulations). “These numbers aren’t accurate to what Google shows.” But changing the channel did little to allay her or anyone else’s fears. Twitter fits were thrown, tears were proclaimed to be shed, and professors made several cantankerous remarks in the coming days – one of them solemnly pulled out Maya Angelou at the beginning of class, but since it was a Creative Writing course, I was probably alone in thinking that extremely petty. Nearly everyone I spoke to about the election, which shouldn’t have numbered more than 20 people since the majority had already sequestered me to “the wrong side of history”, professed that they had been assured of Hillary Clinton’s victory. With the exception of one red-pilled philosophy student, even my friends who had the boldness to out themselves as Trump voters said they didn’t expect him to win for one second.

“I honestly hadn’t considered this was a real possibility until now,” wrote someone that fateful night, in a manner typical of many in my generation. Like the speaker of Hail to the Thief, millennials had been living in a la la land of their own imagining, a humanist, altruist echo chamber where transgender activism and 3rd Wave Feminism share mutually compatible goals, Islam doesn’t have anything to do with the oppression of homosexuals or women, and requiring a state I.D. to vote constitutes a reprehensible, racist form of voter suppression. Two and two always make up five, it’s easier to buy an “assault rifle” than it is to vote, and cooling winters support, don’t undermine climate change.

Yorke’s voice and Greenwood’s guitar take on a whiny, agitated inflection as the track progresses, until the former is crying out loud, “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in when it’s not! Maybe not!” Whether the band is addressing Alex Jones listeners or leftists whose cultural arrogance helped elect both Bush and Trump, the message translates the same: when your whole engagement with politics consists of regurgitating unfounded clichés, doomsday prophesying, and demonizing your opponents as Hitler reincarnate, you don’t have much of a right to complain about the consequences of such rhetoric.

There isn’t much to dissect lyrically about the next track, Sit Down Stand Up, which both continues the theme of doublethink and emblematically portrays the Democrat Party’s eternal condescension towards Republicans. We see this condescension especially in regards to identity politics: notice the endless spate of articles every election cycle pointlessly chastising the GOP for a lack of dark people or women or some other special interest group at their conventions. But whenever the GOP does present qualified candidates for office matching those physical characteristics, one can anticipate an equally endless spate of articles maligning said candidates’ intelligence, anonymously accusing them of groping some employee thirty years ago, or describing them as token figures. “Sit down, stand up” is basically the anthem of the mainstream media when it comes to counseling conservatives on how to win. Wealthy businessmen who run for office ought to uncover their tax returns, even though no one really has a right to see them. So the reasoning goes, that if Mitt Romney and Donald Trump have followed the law, then they should have nothing to hide from the public. If, however, it turns out that said businessman wasn’t hiding anything and filed by completely legal means, then he must have cheated the system, and his willingness to exploit the law to keep more of his own fruits proves he can’t be trusted to hold office. Sit down, neo-con cis scum. Stand up.

There’s another popular theory online linking the title of this song to Vice-President Joe Biden’s famous gaffe, whereby he told Senator Chuck Graham, “Stand up, Chuck, let them see you – oh, God love ya, what am I talking about?” Or maybe Radiohead was referring to the one-time Speaker of the Texas House, Gib Lewis, who issued the same exhortation to an entire crowd of people in wheelchairs. But even I think this is a stretch; our media circus interpretation makes much more sense overall, and far be it from the Author to besmirch one of the band’s most evocative compositions with such a ridiculous exegesis.

After these first two tracks, Sail to the Moon may sound relatively neutral to the unversed ear, but politically savvy fans will know better. On a literal level, Yorke is obviously paying lip service to Newt Gingrich’s proposal to colonize the moon, as well as the short rush of liberal enthusiasm for space travel coinciding with liquid being found on Mars and with Ridley Scott’s masterful return to sci-fi, The Matt Damon. Deniers of this reading may object that no one could possibly have anticipated these developments, but any man as intelligent as Yorke could easily have extrapolated Gingrich’s lunar leanings from his impeccable congressional track record.  On a second, metaphorical level, Radiohead is dryly mocking refugee resettlement operations gone haywire, comparing them to a massive, life-giving ark in the midst of perilous rising waters.
Maybe you’ll be president
But know right from wrong
Or in the flood you’ll build an Ark
And sail us to the moon.
Whether the lyrics are poking fun at the colonization dreams of Newt (who actually wants to do it) or of leftists (who won’t stop making movies about people doing it and think they have a monopoly on morality), the object of derision is the same. Career politicians have long been oblivious to the concerns of ordinary Americans, wiling away countless hours on climate negotiations (so sailing to the moon will be a privilege, not a necessity), trying to achieve some abstract goal of 100% coverage, bullying states that don’t believe in same-sex marriage, and solving other crises that they made up.

Next up, the underrated electro-banger Backdrifts signals a turning point in Obama’s presidency, when the criminality of the Democrat Party was finally starting to crystallize for many people. “We’re rotten fruit, we’re damaged goods,” intones Yorke over swirling, gale-like beats. “What the hell, we got nothing more to lose. One gust and we will probably crumble. We’re backdrifters.” There are almost too many parallels to the cursed Clinton campaign in these lyrics to enumerate. Back in 2003, who besides maybe Bruce Springstreen was more qualified than Thom Yorke to synthesize the desperation of the Democrats into music, a desperation that would drive the DNC to rig their primary for a former first lady who was mainly renowned for lying to Americans’ faces, shielding rapists, and deleting thousands of records of unknown significance?

What the hell, they had nothing more to lose indeed. Moreover, Democrat voters and leadership intentionally erred on the safe side of history, nominating someone who fancied herself a “progressive”, not a liberal, while rejecting the marginally more radical Bernie Sanders, paragon of college-age Marxists. Strategists hoped that backdrifting into the mold of Woodrow Wilson would propel them ahead of Trump’s populism; we needn’t review how that turned out. Backdrifts is alternatively titled (Honeymoon is Over), implying a marital component to this malaise on top of the social/political one. Still, the song isn’t over, and Radiohead’s axe keeps on grinding.
All evidence has been buried
All tapes have been erased
But your footprints give you away so
You’re backdrifting.
Later on, Where I End And You Begin is replete with images of separation and insulation, coupled with a frenetic bassline and Yorke’s unhinged delivery. “There’s a gap in between, there’s a gap where we meet,” says the singer, bemoaning the incumbent party’s detachment from the common people. He continues:
I am up in the clouds
I am up in the clouds
And I can’t
And I can’t come down
I can watch but not take part.
This calls to the mind the famous Limbaugh theorem, which postulated that President Obama was never perceived as governing and effectively enjoyed dissociation from any policies he enacted. Likewise, in stark contrast to pop music by OneRepublic or political hip-hop by A Tribe Called Quest, much of Hail to the Thief is written in a somewhat haughty first person singular, maintaining a distanced, even accusatory tone. “I could have told you this would happen,” is the gist of Radiohead’s message. “But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

A track with a name like We Suck Young Blood begs little explanation; this is the Democrats’ field, not Republicans’. Who could forget Obama’s coolness when it came to iPods, rappers, or Jedi mind melds? Or how skillfully he harnessed compliant movie stars’ Twitters to manipulate and mobilize the youth? Who could forget the day when Clinton said, “I’m trying to figure out how we get them to have Pokemon GO to the polls!” A Punchup at a Wedding is similarly straightforward, invoking the flurry of pseudo-philosophical articles published by toxic landfills like VICE or Salon questioning whether punching a “Nazi” unprovoked can be “ethically” justified. The lyrics themselves ridicule the perpetually offended subset of the Left that derives electoral and cultural power from sowing strife where none should rightly exist. In this case, they have poisoned the most joyous of all social occasions, which our Supreme Court and White House have since debased into just another legal proceeding.
I don’t know why you bother
Nothing’s ever good enough for you
I was there
And it wasn’t like that
You came here
Just to start a fight

You had to piss on our parade
You had to shred our big day
You had to ruin it for all concerned
In a drunken punchup at a wedding.
The passages highlighted here only comprise the more lucid cases of coded messaging by which Radiohead predict (and celebrate) the presidency of Donald Trump. If any fan who accidentally happened upon this analysis remotely agreed with it – an unlikely occurrence, seeing as I know exactly one Republican and zero quasi-Randians who like the band –, we would surely delve more into A Wolf at the Door, arguably the only rap song Radiohead have penned, as well as their best album closer. For now, though, we think it’s sufficient to notice the subtitle: (It Girl. Rag Doll).

In recent news, Thom Yorke has shot down Roger Waters’ arrogant petition for him to cancel shows in Israel, stopping short of calling the long-irrelevant musician a conceited moron, yet soundly denouncing the implication that he as a 48-year-old man can’t judge basic right from wrong. While I’m still on the fence over that implication, Yorke’s response confirms what Hail to the Thief suggested 13 years ago: the environmentally conscious British cuckold act is just a ploy to get good ratings, and Radiohead really are neo-Nazi, Zionist, alt-right trolls.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant – A Litany of Reasons Why It Is Just the Worst

Alien: Covenant is the most disappointing thing since my father’s son.

In an ideal universe, I would be able to go to sleep and wake up in a world where Ridley Scott had discretion and gentility enough not to go ahead with its script, a rare breed of prequel/sequel that by its very existence manages to lessen the merits of its titanic forebears. As with Prometheus, its title refers to thinly concealed religious themes, and while Covenant certainly sustains that film’s concern with creation and epistemology, there’s not a single covenant made or broken in the movie aside from the one between Scott and all his viewers who thought his films bore some seal of quality. I would call it an unmitigated disaster if not for the involvement of Michael Fassbender, who plays his unkillable android David with malicious glee but can’t save him from the sheer stupidity or audacity of Oscar-nominee John Logan’s writing.

Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb both currently show Covenant sitting pretty around 70% or 7/10, a figure I expect to plummet in time as the true consensus emerges. Or maybe IQ levels dropped sharply while I was sleeping. With that exigency in mind, the following review will consist more of disparate, jumbled reactions to the film, which were probably shared by a great many people, than of a structured, focused case against it, which would take even longer to write and of which it isn’t really deserving.

* It’s stunning how much one can induce about the evolution of the Alien series, the evolution of film in general, and the downfall of Covenant just from its opening titles. In 1979, the logo slowly faded in over a minute and twenty seconds of mysterious music and a mostly empty shot of outer space. In 2017, the title similarly materializes line by line but in a third of the time, serving as a microcosm for all the rushed, frenetic storytelling and shameless fan service to follow (that Jerry Goldsmith theme, do you recognize it?). Big-budget science-fiction in the 21st century has no patience for the long hallway crawls and purposely restrained reveals that typified Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s classic. Everything in Covenant is accelerated to an absurd degree, from the lettering to the cascade of animalistic bloodletting in the second half.

* The movie opens upon the most chilling and ominous of Alien locales, a sunny, white, and glass-walled room on earth that’s decorated with a piano and Michelangelo’s David, solely in order that David can remember (or determine) that he’s David. This prelude clumsily draws attention to the theme of creation and subcreation that Scott will ram through the rest of the picture, and does so with such devices as Pierro Della Francesca’s “The Nativity” and David playing his favorite Wagner piece, “The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla”. Later on, when David escorts one of the marooned crew through his laboratory, the camera passes over a xenomorph miniature crucified on a stick. “What do you believe in, David?” asks the hapless wayfarer. “Creation,” he answers wistfully, and further on poses a question of his own: “The choice is yours, brother. Serve in heaven, or reign in hell?” The message is anything but clear, though if I had to hazard a guess, it might be: Man creates his own gods, but can’t make them benevolent to him. Those “gods” in turn go looking for their own, arrogantly try to duplicate the process of creation, and eventually turn into the demons of their worshippers.

It goes without saying that Covenant’s philosophical pretensions are about as translucent as the alien’s curved dome, and as deep. Prometheus got a lot of flack for its overbearing philosophizing, right down to its mythological title, but at least that movie had something resembling a thesis and didn’t try to force-feed symbolism to audiences. Alien, by contrast, is a pedantic and blustery retelling of Noah’s Ark that’s all flood, no covenant, listlessly dropping references to Biblical, Catholic, and Norse heritage without a care to anything besides fooling gullible, insecure teenagers that Horror is finally an intellectual genre worth taking seriously.

* Apparently James Franco dies in a fire mere seconds after he’s introduced, something my brain didn’t even take note of until several Youtube comments informed me – so crucial was his role to the plot and heroine Daniels’ development. For anyone who mistakenly wandered into the theater expecting a classy horror film, Franco’s incineration sets the standard of treatment for many other victims whom Scott will gift with increasingly gruesome ends but nary a distinguishing line or trait.

* Doing my best to re-watch Alien in a vacuum as people would have in theaters, one of the most suspenseful things I notice about the original is how it withholds a clear protagonist for the first 40 minutes or so. Screen time and lines are divided pretty evenly between all the crew members, and Ripley only comes out as the most collected character later. From the very start of Covenant, Scott tries to recreate his own table banter scenes, but immediately props up Katherine Waterston as a blatant stand-in for Ripley, this time contending with the cheesy chauvinism of Billy Crudup’s interim captain. Feminism, or girl power at least, has always been lightly woven into the series – especially after James Cameron’s involvement –, to the extent that knowing audiences have been trained to look for male-female antagonism and expect the female to triumph over social adversity. Instead of anticipating that, subverting it, and taking advantage of their brand new cast of characters, Scott and his writers play directly into the formula of Ripley facing off against arrogant men.

As a result, the only tension one can feel throughout the entire movie is whether one will be able to stomach the next gore effect. Boring Ripley-lite is secure. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.

* Why are so many of the personnel aboard this monumental, high-risk colonization vessel with 2000 passengers married to each other? Watching it a second time with a keener eye to the minutia, I gleaned that every single one of the crew members is married to someone else aboard the mission, including two gay men, for reasons of modernizing the series, I guess. For what purpose could Weyland Corp. possibly have approved this as the best arrangement? In the event that unforeseen complications might ensue during space travel, as they do in Covenant, wouldn’t a rational company seek to minimize chances of failure by removing personal attachments from the equation altogether, picking workers who don’t stand to be compromised, as they are in Covenant? I seem to recall another space exploration movie which provided that very rationale for the lack of couples on the ship; alas, the name of it eludes me.

The primal dangers of sexuality or physical invasion have been a subtextual element throughout the series, mostly in the first and third films, so maybe the marital unions here are supposed to extend that. Two of the characters are even punished by the alien for having steamy shower sex, but punishing hot young adults for having sex is a cliché in horror generally, so perhaps I’m giving Scott too much credit. Even if all the couples do add up to some symbolic significance, their presence on a multitrillion dollar expedition doesn’t make much practical sense.

* Billy Crudup’s character, referred to once or twice as Chris, happens to be a man of faith, which doesn’t impact the story whatsoever but gives him the excuse to deliver lines like, “I have to go collect my strayed flock.” In one of the few scenes to illuminate anybody’s personality, he complains to his subordinate Daniels that no one in corporate trusts a believer like him to make rational decisions. No more than five minutes later, he suggests diverting the ship from its current course to go investigate another planet because they heard a transmission of a singing voice and “none of the crew want to get back in the pods”. Heaven forbid they complete their journey to the planet they’ve thoroughly mapped out and prepared for if it means getting back in those damned cryogenic pods!

As Prometheus did with Elizabeth Shaw, Covenant begs the question of why Chris’ religiosity even comes up at all, but even more so, since this crew never aspired to find some cosmic deity who engineered them. Is Scott just trying to voice his disdain for religion by assigning all the dumbest choices to the stubborn religious man who won’t take advice from a woman? Yet the villain of the film is a power-hungry eugenicist who doesn’t seem to believe in God and delights in playing out his godlike fantasies, so what is the point of demonizing the token religious character?

* After 30 minutes or so of uninvolving space scenes that retread the beginning of Alien, the ship finally touches down on the shore of a lake. Detractors of Prometheus will no doubt recall one of the most common complaints against it, namely the scientists’ decision to take off their helmets because the atmosphere seems safe. In Covenant, the scientists see fit to one-up this stupidity by not putting their helmets on at all, either for reasons of saving time or as a giant middle finger to those who hated Prometheus.

* One of the most persistent talking points about Alien: Covenant is how beautiful it is. This is grasping at straws, and not even all that honest. Completely barren of life for some reason, the Engineer homeworld doesn’t look that far removed from real-life valleys, unlike LV-426, which artists on Alien and Aliens painstakingly crafted to look like a craggy, inhospitable, storm-battered moon. Covenant was shot in New Zealand for the sake of redeeming tax credits, and while the setting has certainly been modified to some extent, the effort put into differentiating this world seems dwarfed by the effects work on Prometheus. On top of that, the whole movie is gray and dim and dull except for a few torch-lit scenes in the middle.

Some may argue that the similarity to an earth environment is intentional and a non-issue, but the aesthetics of Covenant’s landscapes still don’t lend themselves functionally to a terrifying Alien film. The original Alien trilogy owed as much of its horror to incredible, claustrophobic set design as it did to the aliens. The series followed the same conventional wisdom that applies to any haunted house movie: the home must look interesting before victims can go wandering around in it, and people tend to feel more dread when they don’t know where the monster’s lurking. The Nostromo corridors, underground hive, and lice-ridden correctional facility of Covenant’s predecessors provided no end of nooks and crannies to conceal the xenomorph, which put the audience in the same heightened state of alertness as the characters. I will never forget the first appearance of the creature in Aliens, when it lunges out of a seemingly natural wall formation, or the lengthy evacuation scene in the original that merely consists of Ripley creeping through a bunch of darkened hallways.

The CG aliens also look really bad, especially the white ones with no articulated jaw. Some of the shots look blatantly unfinished; e.g., one clip that Fox is using to promote the movie shows the aliens’ spinal tubes either vanishing through the floor or bending back at a right angle in a couple frames, an ability none of the prior films established. This shot, it happens, is one of the lesser ways the movie disrespects its source material, but more on that later. The point is that the monster which is the movie’s namesake looks worse than it did 38 years ago, and the most memorable scene in Covenant is a possibly homoerotic flute lesson given by Fassbender to Fassbender. The issue doesn’t lie with computers inherently; Prometheus used CGI to beautiful effect, and the facehugger could conceivably benefit from not being a puppet. The issue lies with laziness or apathy.

What image in Covenant can compare to the holographic star map, crash sequence, or birth of the deacon in Prometheus? I suppose it can boast of having the single bloodiest shot in the entire series, for whatever that matters. So when people say, “Ridley Scott has made yet another gorgeous film,” I have to ask not only, “How?” but also, “How are you letting him get away with this?”

* Alien: Covenant considers itself a successor to the movie that started it all, and won’t let anyone forget it through numerous aural and visual references. The soundtrack frequently tributes the series’ roots, the bobbing bird prop gets a cameo, David recycles the “perfect organism” or “magnificent specimen” canard that drove other Weyland-Yutani villains, and Scott recreates several of his scenes from the original – the first facehugger attack, the snaking of the creature’s tail between a girl’s legs, the discovery of Parker and Lambert’s bodies, etc. The allusions get even more offensive when one goes on Youtube and finds the deleted “Prologue”, wherein a character swallows something down the wrong pipe and starts to reenact Alien’s dinner table disaster to, ahem, hilarious results. Covenant shows as much dedication to milking fans’ memories for unearned commendation as Rogue One obscenely did back in December.

The structure of the plot itself is nothing new, but this isn’t ruinous in itself. I recently listened to Red Letter Media’s commentary on the series, in which Mike and Jay shrewdly pointed out that every Alien movie is virtually identical plot-wise but filtered through another director’s unique vision. Even Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection has an eccentric style entirely its own, if not a good style. Covenant’s undoing is that Scott ambivalently mashes together the gunfire and chases of Aliens, the extravagant gore of Alien 3, and the theological babble of Prometheus, but does none of those things as well as the artists who did them first. To watch the fifth film in the series is to see a 79-year-old Ridley Scott mimicking the work of his younger self in wholly superficial ways and failing miserably to capture the tone that set Alien apart.

* Around the 50-minute mark, two of the crew who aren’t wearing their helmets get infected by airborne black goo, and before long we have ourselves a severely dumbed-down slasher in the vein of Prometheus. The camera dwells on the swirling particles as if to imply that they are visible to the naked eye, but apparently they aren’t, and so the guys are made unwilling hosts. This is also the mark where Covenant devolves from merely derivative and confused into downright farcical and obnoxious.

Every character in the movie is a disposable idiot whose actions beg a barrage of unanswerable questions. First up is the lady who quarantines her friend with a gyrating infected man only to open the door later after a vicious monster has burst out of his back, completely nullifying the purpose of sacrificing her friend in the first place. Then there’s the chick who walks off by herself shortly after being attacked by a ruthless monkey creature because she “needs to wash up”. When the captain told her, “Don’t go too far,” I whispered to my friend, “She’s going to go too far,” which she did, but characters did seldom split up in the original Alien, so I’ll give Scott a pass on that part.

What I’m not willing to forgive, and where the movie backslides into pure comedy, is the egg scene. As stated earlier, Captain Crudup has gone looking for his missing sheep and comes across a sight that would strike any reasonable person as somewhat suspicious: the synthetic which helped rescue them a few hours ago appears to be pacifying the now-gaunt albinomorph, the pair of them locked in an intimate staring match. As the captain raises his firearm to shoot the blasted hellspawn which ripped his pal’s head off, David cautions him, “Don’t shoot,” then protests wildly when he does indeed shoot (the only sensible action that he takes). “It trusted me!” he screams, which doesn’t abate the captain’s desire to know what the hell is happening.

David promptly gives him a tour of his experimentation chamber, monologuing about all the imperfect iterations of the alien he’s engineered over the years, apparently from local fauna, in spite of a character in the trailer making a point of there being “no birds, no animals, nothing”. David confesses that all his efforts have failed by the lack of “one key ingredient”, but declines to name what it is. From there, the two descend into a damp and creepy-looking cave, where the strange and patently untrustworthy robot urges Crudup to stick his head into a creepy-looking egg that clearly encases another wiggling life form. “What are they waiting for, David?” asks the captain skeptically. “Mother,” the sinister android smiles. “Take a look. It’s perfectly safe, I assure you.”

With that, the captain wastes no more time and leans over the egg to take a look.

* And yet Alien: Covenant keeps finding new paths to slide downhill, mainly in its treatment of the xenomorph’s development and behavior, which defies and significantly reverses all past precedent. The rest of this section will probably bore or bemuse anyone who isn’t that avid an Alien fan, but for me this constituted one of the movie’s worst transgressions.

Because the Alien movies aren’t real-time documentaries of the species’ life cycle, it’s impossible to say with certainty how long each phase of the alien is supposed to last, but one can make certain assumptions about the timeline based on the films’ editing. In the original Alien, it took around 20 minutes between Kane falling victim to the egg and the eruption of the chestburster. Over this period, we see the team trek back to the Nostromo, attempt to sever the facehugger from Kane (back in space), run down several levels to observe the dripping acid, look for the missing creature, and do some other things, implying the passage of several hours. Other subtle signs suggest it takes a while for the facehugger to plant its larva and for the alien to gestate. When someone tries to loosen its grasp on the host, the alien wraps its tail tighter around Kane’s neck, which seems like an evolutionary trait designed to prevent premature detachment.

Alien: Covenant takes a torch to all of that by turning the alien, presumably in its first and least perfected generation, into a risible sex machine capable of reproducing at hyper-speed. The film presents at least two types of alien generation, one through black goo infection, the other through the traditional method, and somehow makes a mockery of both. Laying aside the writers’ total disregard for how the black goo works in Prometheus, it takes 2-3 minutes of film time for people who contract the goo to start displaying symptoms of deathly illness and 9-10.5 minutes for the albinomorrphs to burst from them. Later, when David lures the captain to the eggs he’s somehow created without a queen, it takes approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds of film time between the facehugger springing on him and the alien pushing out of his chest. Overall, then, in movie-minutes the monsters of Covenant take anywhere from half to a tenth of the time to materialize as those in Scott’s original, Alien 3, or Resurrection.

This isn’t just an illusion caused by editing, though, as a second facehugger later attacks another human and finishes its work in 14 real-time seconds. Hence we can deduce by Covenant that the facehugger in Alien had either regressed substantially, liked to take its time, or suffered from erectile dysfunction, none of which are options I am willing to entertain. This second victim, however, doesn’t explode until several hours later, after they’ve returned to the main ship. In other words, even if one is able to pardon Covenant for breaking continuity with the other films, one still must overlook how carelessly it shatters continuity with itself.

But the alien’s problems don’t stop at biological technicalities. On a more fundamental level, Scott has fallen out of touch with what made his monster so monstrous. Alien, it’s no mystery, is teeming with sexual overtones, uncomfortable forced perspective, and implications of rape. Being a parasitical hybrid, the xenomorph endures on a different level than other movie monsters because it represents the most savage and predatory things man is capable of committing. The more I rewatch the film’s most controversial scene, the more convinced I get that Veronica Cartwright’s hyperventilating gasps are meant to evoke more than simply death, especially taking into account the shot of her dangling, bare feet. Nor is Ripley undressing meant to be a bit of exploitive pleasure; rather, it’s a projection of the carnal thoughts rushing through the head of the alien, which seems to be spying on her from the darkness.

The various aliens of Covenant have no such sexual urgings, nor do they act upon the self-preserving hive mentality that took over in Aliens (foreshadowed in a deleted cocoon scene by Scott). They’ve been tragically reduced to the intricacy of dumb animals, senselessly biting and stabbing every organic thing in sight to service the morbid demands of general horror moviegoers who think that better and more abundant gore intrinsically leads to better horror stories.

* In retrospect, I may have been too harsh when I called the alien a dumb animal. It’s really a dumb cartoon. Witness the scene that someone apparently approved where the newly-born xenomorph (which looks like a miniature version of the adult one instead of a snake with tiny T-rex arms) raises its limbs and chirps excitedly in imitation of its creator, David, whom it can somehow see well enough to copy despite not having eyes. Awwhhhh. This is easily the cutest thing the franchise has seen since Newt.

* I used to tell myself that while this movie vastly weakened the later stories, it actually strengthened Prometheus by explaining one of David’s more irrational decisions. Then I revisited Prometheus with the screenwriters’ commentary, realized there was already a perfectly rational reason for David to spike Holloway’s drink with black goo, and lent myself yet another reason to hate Alien: Covenant. While the movie does derive some philosophical tension from David’s creative passion (making him more human, he argues) and Walter’s mechanical sense of duty, Covenant woefully perverts its most interesting and enigmatic character into a mad scientist archetype with a god complex.

The film conveniently ignores dialogue that previously characterized David as subservient or unemotional. “I was designed like this you are more comfortable interacting with your own kind,” he tells one of the crew before they disembark from the Prometheus. “If I didn't wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose.” Yet the David of the Covenant script appears to take pleasure in making people uncomfortable, viz. the captain, Walter, and Daniels, whom he tries to force himself upon for no reason.

In Prometheus, several people call attention to the robot’s inability to feel emotions, since he has no soul. Talking about the reason for his creation, Holloway tells David, “I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.” In Covenant, David walks away from his deactivated younger “brother” whom he met a couple hours ago and murmurs, “You were so disappointing to me.”

In Prometheus, Vickers pushes the android roughly against the wall and he doesn’t resist, because that would contradict his programming. In Covenant, David eventually turns into a superpowered brute who throws people around and has a kung fu punching match with his likeness. All of this asinine, inconsistent stuff occurs so that the film can have a standout antagonist in the absence of intimidating monsters, or perhaps it’s just another gratuitous callback to evil Ian Holm in Alien. Either way, making David a genocidal and oversexed robot gone wild undercuts the mystery and intellect that made him such a powerful force in the first film. Why does David need to physically assault one of his enemies if he can manipulate someone into drinking poison or walking straight into an alien? One of my literature teachers in high-school once criticized a movie I liked for relying so much on violence to advance the plot, essentially describing violence as a tool of lazy storytellers.  If anything good has come of my experience with Alien: Covenant, I think I finally understand what Dr. McMenomy was saying.

* To briefly throw in a good word about this movie, the score is fantastic per usual. Jed Kurzel reincorporates a lot of music from Alien and Prometheus, now stirringly performed on the flute, while providing menacing new themes that rely heavily on otherworldly electronics. It kind of sounds like Johann Johansson’s Sicario score mixed with industrial ambience from the first Alien, and it flows surprisingly well as an album for a soundtrack.

* Now that that’s out of the way, Alien: Covenant closes out on possibly the worst climax I’ve ever seen; making matters worse, it has two of them. What really appalls me about it is how easily a simple rewrite or couple altered shots could have fixed the whole thing.

After the shlock-tacular robot fistfight, Walter rushes away from the broken corpse of David to board the ship that Danny McBride is piloting, except that Walter isn’t Walter any more. Scott edits this scene to hide the victor of the duel, cutting right after David gets his hand on a knife. The intention, I suppose, is to keep the audience guessing which android really prevailed, but in so doing, it basically communicates to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before that the opposite of what the characters think is true. A real twist in this situation would be that Walter is actually Walter, and David didn’t miraculously manage to change his clothes, cut off his hand, and trim his hair (without a mirror) in less than a minute of film time.

The only purpose that withholding this information could possibly serve is to create a shock “twist ending”, one which every person I’ve talked to about Covenant predicted the moment the camera cut away. How much more suspenseful could Scott have made the finale if he hadn’t taken his audience for cinematic illiterates and just shown David killing Walter? Doesn’t it stand to reason that a viewer who knows Daniels is effectively facing two threats at once would feel more concern than a viewer who only knows about the alien and is scratching his head over the motives of the robot? Moreover, what sense does it make for David to aid the two survivors when his goal is to exterminate the human race and replace it with something he deems superior? Scott has already established that David enjoys godly sway over the aliens, and he’s also a non-organic being, so the xenomorph shouldn’t pose a threat to him. Basically the only reason he does anything heroic in the final act is to throw Katherine Waterston off his scent, so he can then lean over her in the cryo pod and sneer, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite. I’ll tuck in the children.” I can’t emphasize enough how John Logan takes a formerly cryptic, fascinating character and reforms him into a total cornball.

On a secondary level, including two xenomorphs in the climactic showdown adds nothing to the story and just symbolizes reversion to more-is-better sequel ideology. Considering the manifold other parallels this movie forces in to the original, culminating in a woman calling the alien a son of a bitch and blowing it out an airlock, the natural course for Scott would be to terrorize the crew with one alien, which seems to be defeated yet miraculously resurfaces for one last battle. This is the formula set by Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus, a formula that works because it makes the hero’s triumph seem greater and the alien more formidable. So why doesn’t Covenant follow this formula, if it’s already making such an effort to ape its source material? On one hand, it would have done away with the 14-second impregnation detailed earlier, on another it would have lessened the absurdity of the alien growing to full size in a couple minutes without the computers detecting it. I know the xenomorphs are essentially giant space bugs with abbreviated lifespans, but Covenant abuses suspension of disbelief the most of any film in the franchise.

Moreover, why do alarms have to sound everywhere in the ship except for the shower, or go off at all? I don’t recall the MUTHER intelligence in Alien or Aliens (both occurring later chronologically) detecting unknown passengers and making a lot of noise to alert the crew, but purely on a storytelling level, how much more intense could the ending have been if Daniels just happened upon the bloodied corpses and had to adapt on the fly, instead of being rudely awoken, finding the guy with his chest exploded, running around with a gun for a while, happening upon two more dead people, and finally finding the alien? In a $97 million film, one would think the easiest and least expensive thing to get right would be the script.

But who am I objecting to nothing in this movie making sense? They don’t let me write these scripts. If Scott had asked Logan to revise the thing until it felt more true to Alien, then he couldn’t have shot a sleazy shower scene or CG alien banging its head against a window. Neither of those things would have made it into the trailer, and Covenant might have crashed with something like $36 mil in its opening weekend.

Thank God that didn’t happen.

A collage of bloggers with better S.E.O. who think Covenant > Prometheus

To tell the truth, I probably wouldn’t have come this far if reactions to Covenant had been more tempered. It features some conventionally attractive people and enough intriguing platitudes that I’d normally just let it go. Yet the majority of critics and audiences genuinely seem to believe the film improves upon Prometheus, because it has an alien that murders people and it constantly echoes things they recognize. I don’t want to live in a society that thinks Alien: Covenant is better written, filmed, or conceived than Prometheus. It would be like living in a society that considers Gillian Flynn more important to its literary tradition than Flannery O’Connor, or a society where high-schoolers study Kendrick Lamar and Drake over Beethoven, or a society that spends more time watching Netflix original TV shows than it spends watching political affairs.

In the most intelligent dialogue of the film, Walter reprimands David for misidentifying the poet of “Ozymandias”. “When one note is off,” he warns, “it eventually destroys the whole symphony.” Would that Scott had heeded his character’s wisdom. Watching Alien: Covenant is alike to beholding a magnificent symphony gradually and excruciatingly destroying itself, again and again, into eternity, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes to create, one must first destroy.