Friday, May 19, 2017

BOO, RIDLEY

Opening this weekend:



Alien: CovenantRidley Scott’s original 1979 Alien was a space Gothic, a sort of Ten Little Indians with a parasitic alien replacing the mystery killer and a dank industrial spaceship replacing the creepy old mansion. There was nothing very new about the plot, but the film’s combination of gory, lowbrow shocks with Scott’s impeccably-crafted direction and the top-notch production values was a major leap forward in making the horror genre critically respectable.

Those of us who saw it in a theater back then aren’t likely to forget the experience. A junior in high school, I saw it with a group of friends, and during the celebrated scene when the baby alien popped out of poor John Hurt’s chest, the young woman next to me repeatedly pounded my right leg with her fist, leaving me with a bruise. Then the little alien let out a little squawk and scampered off, and we all howled with laughter, hysterical but also delighted.

We’d all seen gorier, grosser scenes in other horror movies before. But I don’t think we’d ever seen a scene like this made with the full force of state-of-the-art special effects and high-end designs by H. R. Giger and an award-worthy cast with the likes of Hurt and Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton and so on. It felt like a game-changer.

Then came James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens, more adventure picture than horror movie, and two more sequels, and then two films pitting the Aliens against the extraterrestrial trophy hunters from the Predator movies. In short, the svelte, fanged title characters have proven as durable a movie monster as the Wolf Man or The Mummy.

Then, in 2012, came a prequel to Alien, called Prometheus and directed by Ridley Scott. And this week we get this sequel to Prometheus, likewise directed by Scott. About the most that I can say for it is that it increases my admiration of the original.

The setting is a huge spaceship called the Covenant, headed, like the ship in last year’s Passengers, to a distant colony planet with a cargo of suspended colonists and fetuses. The small crew is woken from their decades-long snooze to deal with a flight emergency, after which they notice a much closer, much more promisingly Earthlike planet, so they make a detour to investigate.

The place initially looks like Paradise, but before long it seems more like Hell: the landing party runs afoul of, well, aliens, who look like pretty close relatives of those from the earlier movies. One supporting player after another is bloodily dispatched. They try to take refuge in the ruins of a city, where Michael Fassbender, as a leftover from Prometheus, tells them to make themselves at home, to the extent they can, “in this dire necropolis.” Love that old-fashioned hospitality.

All this may sound more intriguing than it is. The scare scenes are very gruesome, but they rely heavily on CGI effects, and while they’re unpleasant, they lack the shuddery, visceral punch of the original film’s shocks.

But even this is less problematic than the pace. Alien: Covenant is tediously, ponderously slow, burdened with unnecessary backstory and pretentious rambling dialogue.

The supporting players are mostly generic alien-fodder, but several of the leads manage to come across well despite the leaden tone. Elizabeth Waterston is touching as the bereaved but brave heroine. So is Billy Crudup as the feckless fellow who finds himself unhappily in charge, and Danny McBride lightens the mood a bit as a daring pilot.

Fassbender has a dual role, as David and Walter, earlier and later models of the same lifelike robot, so he spends much of his time playing scenes opposite himself. No actor could ask for a more rapturously infatuated scene partner, but the interminable murmured Miltonic musings that he’s been given are enough to make us long for the gore to start up again.

Also opening here in the Valley this week…



…is Lydia Tenaglia’s foodie documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, about the California Cuisine master. Check out my review of it on Phoenix Magazine online.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

RED DON

Your Humble Narrator is a bit belated in paying tribute to the great Don Rickles, who passed on last month at 90. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge the ill-fated vampire into which Rickles was transformed in the 1992 John Landis gangster/horror opus Innocent Blood...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

GIFT, FRIDA, DIEGO, ET AL

A mini-holiday for Your Humble Narrator! For Mother's Day this past Sunday, The Wife requested to be taken to...


...the Diamondbacks-Pirates game at Chase Field.

Alas, although she was given a handsome Diamondbacks clutch purse upon entering the gates, and although we had good seats and enjoyed voluminous hot dogs, the game itself was a bummer, a draggy affair that the D-bax lost, 6-4, in ten innings, despite numerous chances to win it. Nonetheless, it was most cool to hang out with The Wife at the ballpark (The Kid eschewed the excursion, but joined us for dinner later), and we comforted ourselves with the thought that my dad would be pleased by a Pirates win.

Also, I was startled to see, playing 2nd base for the Pirates, Gift Ngoepe. I had seen Ngoepe play in 2009 for South Africa's World Baseball Classic team, in an exhibition game against the Oakland A's, and had noted at the time, along with the excellence of his play, the supreme coolness of his name. He made his debut with the Pirates this past April, thus becoming, incredibly, the first player from the African continent to play in the Majors. He also took over, from Lastings Milledge, the title of Pittsburgh Pirate with the coolest name.

Anyway, on Monday The Wife and I played hooky from work to visit the Heard Museum and see...


...their current exhibition of works by, and photographs of, Frida Kahlo (The Wife's idol) and Diego Riveraincluding Kahlo's stunning Self-portrait with Monkeys and her astonishing Love Embrace of the Universe, and Rivera's enchanting Modesto and the heartbreaking Sunflowersfrom the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, as well as a few works by Rivera's and Kahlo's contemporaries (including a charming Portrait of Cantinflas by Rufino Tamayo). Mesmerizing stuff. The Heard is the only North America stop for this show, and if you're in the area I highly recommend.

Friday, May 12, 2017

VARIETY IS THE SPOUSE

Opening in the Valley this weekend:


The LoversThe title characters are Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts), California cubicle rats long married to, and out of love with, each other. Both are in serious extramarital relationships, and have been for a while. They still share a bed and have dinner together, and unquestioningly accept each others’ transparent lies and cover stories about why they’re home late from work—at the gym, having drinks with a friend, etc—in civil, unspoken d├ętente.

Their high-maintenance lovers—a ballet teacher (Melora Walters) for Michael, and a brooding writer (Aiden Guillen) for Mary—are impatient for them to divorce, however. When their anxiety is compounded by an impending visit from their disapproving college-age son (Tyler Ross) and his new girlfriend (Jessica Sula), the pressure gets so strong that Mary and Michael suddenly find each other the least demanding people in their lives. One morning before work they impulsively have sex, and before long they’re having a furtive, surreptitious affair, with each other.

Azazel Jacobs wrote and directed this delightful, low-key comedy-drama, a take on adultery and fidelity I hadn’t seen before. It’s full of passages of high comedy, like Michael’s indirect yet steely-voiced verbal seduction of his wife over the phone while he’s out on a date with the ballet teacher, or Mary’s struggle, distracted by thoughts of sex with her husband, to listen while the cool writer reads to her from his work.

But beyond the ingenuity of the situation, I loved the depiction of how these people live. Movies about adultery are often set among people who have all day to devote to it, the economically comfortable idle cheaters. The Lovers shows the rushed, unsatisfactory quality of adulterous encounters. It’s full of splendid details, like the cigarette burns on the tree outside Mary’s office building, where the writer waits to meet her, or the knowing glances of Mary’s and Michael’s coworkers as they scurry into work late.

This atmosphere, so rarely seen in movies that it seems almost exotic, extends to the leads. Winger and Letts look their age here, and it makes them more, not less, intensely attractive—it’s entirely believable that their younger, superficially more glamorous lovers would be the needy pursuers in the relationships. But we also see that this magnetism doesn’t make life easier for them. They’re constantly scrambling around, making excuses and apologizing, constantly hounded by the familiar middle-aged idea, not unfounded, that they’re letting everybody down.

It’s only now and then any more that I feel, watching a movie, that I have no idea how the story will turn out, and that I deeply care. The Lovers gave me that unaccustomed feeling, and its resolution seemed to me perfectly convincing and apt. It may be my favorite film so far this year.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

RAINSPOUT MAN

This Saturday on MeTV, the redoubtable Svengoolie presents a childhood fave of mine, the 1972 TV movie Gargoyles, about living versions of the creepy creatures represented in cathedral architecture menacing researcher Cornel Wilde and his fabulous daughter Jennifer Salt in a remote New Mexico desert community. Bernie Casey plays the leader of the Gargoyles, and Grayson Hall of Dark Shadows and the young Scott Glenn are also in it. If you've never seen it, and if, like me, this sort of thing constitutes an exciting Saturday night for you, I recommend.

So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge this guy...


...one of the title characters, designed by the late great Stan Winston.

Friday, May 5, 2017

THE CHANGING OF THE GUARDIANS

Opening this weekend:


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Back in 2014, I was delighted by Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel movie based on a comic I had never read. I don't think I had ever even heard of it prior to the movie version, and this comparative obscurity has been a sign of success, for me, among Marvel productions. Some of their most charming efforts have been adaptations of their less prominent titles, like Ant-Man or Dr. Strange. Possibly the less-familiar characters afford the filmmakers more creative latitude then icons like Spider-Man or the Hulk.

In any case, Guardians of the Galaxy the First was driven along by a sensational soundtrack of '60s and '70s pop hits, sourced from the "Awesome Mix Tape" in the Walkman of goofball Earthling hero Peter Quill. More importantlythough only a little more importantlythe movie had a droll sense of incongruity between epic space action and the petty bickering of the title heroes, a motley crew of thrown-together interstellar mercenaries.

They're all back for Vol. 2: In addition to Peter (Chris Pratt), there's the sensible, green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the burly, inappropriately mirthful Drax (Dave Bautista), the talking racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), an endearing juvenile cutting of the talking tree from Part One, jointly parented by the other Guardians. Michael Rooker is also back from Part One, as Peter's scurvy space-marauder stepdad. 

The story this time has Peter, whose late mother was an Earth woman, at last meeting his alien father, Ego, the humanoid incarnation of a protean planet. Ego is played with effortless geniality by Kurt Russell, under a godlike mane and beard. Sylvester Stallone turns up in a small role as well, but those hoping for a Tango & Cash reunion (are there any?) will be disappointed; Stallone and Russell have no scenes together.

There's a lot to like about this sequel, directed, again, by James Gunn. It retains the strong acting of Part One, and it's maybe even more visually imaginative and lush—I especially liked the shiny, Plasticine look of Ego's planet. The plot, which suggests elements of Lem's Solaris blended with one of David Mitchell's fevered fantasies of narcissistic, predatory immortality, had promise as well.

On the whole, Vol. 2 is reasonably entertaining, but it suffers from sequel-itis. It's too long and too grandiose, the pacing is slack, and gags which worked beautifully in Part One because they were silly throwaways are played self-consciously here, and too many of them go thud. This extends, alas, to Peter's second "Awesome Mix Tape," which, though another superb collection, is unwisely brought center stage in its psychological importance to our hero.

That said, it's hard to disapprove too much of any movie paying such heartfelt tribute to the 1972 Looking Glass hit "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)." After the two Guardians soundtracks and the use of "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys in last year's Star Trek: Beyond, someone may get an interesting term paper out of the symbiotic affinity between space opera action and nostalgic radio standards.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

TOP RAT

Saturday evening (11:30 p.m. Phoenix time) Turner Classic Movies hosts the TCM premiere of the 1983 Canadian horror picture Of Unknown Origin, directed by George Pan Cosmatos of Rambo fame, about the battle of wills between a young urbanite (Peter Weller) and a rodent of unusual size who's trying to drive him away. I remember seeing it back in the '80s, and finding it intriguing.

So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree is the vermin from that film, here salaciously depicted on the VHS cover art...