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4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Summer fun with the famous slimy Ridley Scott aliens., 24 May 2017

"One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony." Walter (Michael Fassbender)

Anything that happens on or off a space ship traveling for years to an alleged perfect planet is bound, in sci-fi terms, to hold more than one wrong note. Such in the case of Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, a delectable slice of the Scott Alien franchise and the 2012 Prometheus.

It's a ship of clichés but so entertaining you'll rarely notice its own wrong notes.

The colony ship with 2000 sleeping souls has its crew awakened by a storm and eventually decides to explore a nearby attractive planet. Like going off alone anywhere in a horror film, this maneuver brings the exact excitement fans have been hoping for, especially the old Alien slimy monsters with the long heads not featured in Prometheus, to the dismay of fans. As Tennessee (Danny Boyle) observes, "We don't leave Earth to be safe."

The more cerebral tension of Covenant is the twin "synthetics," David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender. Knowing where their sympathies lie is a key puzzle, enhanced by the affective traits each oddly has, and leading to an uncertain role as good or evil. Fassbender has a poker face just right for concealing allegiances. The twist ending is more enjoyable because of the ambiguities fostered by these two androids.

The success for me is all about the humanity reveal and the concomitant dangers droids face when they become more human. Like the Star Trek series, which relies heavily on finding the humanity in the most vicious villains, Alien: Covenant wallows in our imperfections, making us the most vulnerable in the film's experience, especially when it comes to acting like gods, or ancient potentates whose ironic, crumbled monuments Shelley described in Ozymandias :

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair." David (Fassbender)

The Lovers (2017/I)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
It's good to see the older folks getting it on., 24 May 2017

"Writers are always writing about infidelity. It's so dramatic. The wickedness of it, the secrecy, the complications, the finding that you thought you were one person but you're also this other person." Alice Munro

Rare it is to see a romantic comedy about middle-aged couples whose marriage breakup is so realistically painful that I found myself fidgeting out of discomfort at the very-human acts. The Lovers, written and directed with a sure, quiet hand by Azazel Jacobs, is about those who love and those who discard love at the same time.

I hope I didn't mislead you into thinking this is a comedy in the laughs motif. Married Mary (Debra Winger) and husband Michael (Tracy Letts) shift between their lovers and their spouses like different courses at the same meal. The film is sometimes farcical, however, as when his emotionally-unstable lover, Lucy (Melora Walters), hisses like a witch at Mary but more tragic than comedic.

Unlike the traditional comedy, The Lovers is neither light nor humorous and has neither a cheery nor happy ending. That ending is perhaps too ambiguous for its own good but nonetheless true to the uncertainty of love. It does have a jaundiced eye about the sincerity of humans in their attempt to be faithful and caring.

What The Lovers has is a wickedly critical take on the state of true love, or on the ability of lovers to remain faithful. Although it took me a while to adjust to the realism cum farce, after a bit I saw that Jacobs had caught the restless heart of humanity, its ever-searching for love.

Jacobs leads us to a surprising ending in which the restless heart is not down for the count. Regardless of how you like the ending, it is sure to spark conversation; a line from The Crying Game and other places is in order: "Who knows the secrets of the human heart?"

5 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Never talk to strangers!!!!, 15 May 2017

"Never talk to strangers. If someone ever tries to take you, fight with everything you have." ― Lisa Unger, Ink and Bone

Young writer-director Ben Young must have watched Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs at least once because his Hounds of Love has earmarks of brilliant thriller/horror ultimately hinging on character and not blood. Young even introduces his film by observing that the real terror comes from what is not seen.

Much of this film, set in Perth, Australia, at Christmas time, 1987, is about the idea of a psychotic couple abducting and killing young women who happen to be stupid enough to get in the car of strangers. I say "idea" because once the girl is chained to a bed, the couple begins to reveal their psychoses, almost exclusively about the loss of children in their lives.

Although John White (Stephen Curry) does most of the physical heavy lifting as he abuses the girl, his partner, Evelyn (Emma Booth), is the tormented one and the object of abducted teen Vicki's (Ashleigh Cummings) campaign to drive a wedge between the two. The home and neighborhood is working class Perth, where similar events actually happened; the atmosphere is joyless living, not impoverished, just not nourished by the better angels of culture.

As the film moves assuredly to the climax, the characters' arcs move toward their deserved fate: Vicki shows a presence her initial bratty teen side did not evidence, John becomes more vulnerable because he is visceral rather than cerebral, and Evelyn struggles with her desire to have her children back in her life and her desire to be loved by John.

The title, Hounds of Love, ingeniously plays off the couple's dog and everyone's hunt for love, even Vicki's wounded but intrepid mother. Yes, life can have its moments of horror beyond the terrors of abuse and abduction.

Hounds of Love is meaty film from a talented filmmaker and a delight to see in a summer sure to be filled with explosions not of the mind.

4 out of 19 people found the following review useful:
An historical hot mess., 13 May 2017

"I'm not getting drawn into this mess!" Arthur (Charlie Hunnam)

Along with Arthur, we are drawn into the hot mess of a film, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Being a Guy-Ritchie-directed adventure, stylized fighting abounds with only an occasional instance of important dialogue. Although there are moments of humor, mostly it's a dreary re-imagining of the Arthurian legend, pre-Richard Burton glamour.

Ritchie uses some of the techniques he employed in Sherlock Holmes: montage, expository montage, and anachronistic quips (Arthur calling a female "honey tits"), not that the last is a negative, just historically distracting. The opening battle scene is blue-gray palette, the castle is gray, and the film is often awash in low-key, gray lighting. Most of all, character development is lost in honor of explosions and more explosions, fighting and more fighting, phallic and more phallic (sword, tower, etc.).

The story is as much of Excalibur, Arthur's magical sword, as it is about Arthur's defeat of his uber-evil uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law, always a good bad boy). A salutary twist but a cliché is Arthur's unwillingness to take the crown (remember Joseph Campbell's heroes) and his temporary paralysis of the mind about wielding the sword. This hesitancy done well is what we need to see more of and his relationship with The Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a young woman of magic and no little charm.

I report back to you nothing of dramatic import, except that this is nothing like the Broadway production, nor does Ritchie have Burton singing about Camelot as only the frequently cheesy director might do.

Graduation (2016)
Get your diploma in great film drama., 12 May 2017

A small Romanian film has universal implications: How do good people get drawn into corruption even if the ramifications are hardly worth the danger? Graduation tells of a decent doctor's (Romeo, Adrian Titeni) attempt to game the testing system so his daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus) can go to the UK to study.

However, beyond this infraction lie other small corruptions that characterize a middle class in decline.Romeo has a mistress at his daughter's school. Because his wife is emotionally needy, his daughter sees her father's extramarital connection in need of addressing and expunging.

Although European mores are more accepting of these transgressions, the film implies that they nevertheless corrode everywhere. The film's pace is almost serene in the face of implications from an investigation into the cheating and the questionable actions of her boyfriend surrounding her assault. It seems no facet of the doctor's life is free from the ramifications of his peccadilloes.

The dialogue is spare but poignant--each character expresses feelings true to his or her development. The system is rife with corruption--no news to those who know Romania over the years. Yet built in is a subtle Nemesis waiting to pounce. While no single action of the doctor is earth moving, Romeo suffers the scorn of his wife and daughter, and he is slowly losing his mistress as she awakens to the needs of her future.

If you like character-driven drama with a modest dose of sermonizing but pleasant verbal dexterity throughout, then see Graduation. Everyone gets a diploma in life navigation:

"Eliza, you have to do your best. It'd be a pity to miss this chance. Some important steps in life depend on small things. And some chances shouldn't be wasted. You know, in '91, your Mum and I decided to move back. It was a bad decision." Romeo

Risk (2016/I)
7 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Take a risk--see an informative and entertaining doc., 9 May 2017

"We don't have a problem, you have a problem." Julian Assange

As the ever-cool Assange announces to Hillary's campaign that leaks are forthcoming, he is slightly wrong: No one in the WikiLeaks world, on either side, is without problems. For Assange, four years of asylum-imprisonment in the London Ecuador embassy could not be easy; for Hillary, leaked messages and her private use of a server are only the beginnings of her problems.

It's all about info and who commands it—Laura Poitras's doc, Risk, lets us in to the private world of the Australian journalist and programmer Assange, founder of WikiLeaks in 2006, enabler of Robert Snowden, and purveyor of thousands of pages of secret government documents.

Poitras does a remarkable job keeping above the political sides, even admitting at one point that she does not trust Assange. She makes her presence known from voice over, yet rarely pushes an agenda other than entertaining and enlightening her audience.

Poitras gives the audience as much insight as they could hope for with a subject as opaque as might be expected: "What does it matter how I feel?" (Assange) Brief moments with Lady Gaga and Daniel Ellsberg provide humorous respite from the monotony of Assange's imprisonment.

Assange's answer as to why he does WikiLeaks is as evasive as his answers to most questions. Deflecting accusations of sexual harassment is pure Assange: He gently accuses hardcore feminists of a conspiracy against him. Sweden still wants to interview him about the charges.

Whereas in Citizenfour, Poitras let Snowden come off as a hero, she does not cut the low-key Risk in a way to make Assange saintly: "The risk of inaction is extremely high," he says in a reflection of his activist mentality and the title of the film.

He is smooth and careful, partly right and partly wrong, just like this documentary.

The Dinner (2017)
19 out of 26 people found the following review useful:
I love words, and they eat them with relish. Enjoy the war., 6 May 2017

By any standard, The Dinner is an exercise in indigestion, two dysfunctional sets of parents try to figure out what to do about the crime their two young sons have committed. While the dialogue is not as bright as Edward Albee's in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or even the similarly plotted Carnage, the staging is much more open, giving the sense that we can freely indulge allegory and perhaps lay the proceedings on our own door steps.

The parents hope no one will find out about the crime. Except that there is a video an adopted African-American sibling made and is thinking of blackmailing them. For the adults, the situation endangers their own lives, which could be forever changed with the disclosure.

The central conflict of wills takes place in an impossibly posh restaurant, with course descriptions about the length of a short essay, and where the high price of the meals pales next to the price everyone at the table will pay.

Stan Lohman (possibly suggesting the doomed Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman), played elegantly by Richard Gere (in a successful time of his career considering the recent release of Norman), is a congressman running for governor and on the eve of passing mental health legislation. Because his brother, former history teacher Paul (Steve Coogan), has mental issues, the legislation has more importance than usual. Paul unfortunately sabotages every conversation with rants about the world, as such also a danger to the good will of the audience which must endure his diatribes.

The better angel of this verbal slug fest, the congressman, considers jettisoning his political future for the sake of his son's future mental health, i.e., telling all to the press. Although he is not blameless in life, the others are deplorable in their self-serving arguments.

His wife, Clare (Laura Linney), and sister in law, Katelyn (Rebecca Hall), try to dissuade Stan, while Paul gradually drifts away through madness or willful ignorance. Regardless, writer-director Oren Moverman does an effective job keeping track while he cuts from dinner to the boys with their crime and to those who leave the table for periods of time.

Although I'm not sure the writers want to move too obviously in favor of Stan's moral high ground, they do persuasively show the tangled web deceit weaves as well as the corrosive nature of silence. For this word-loving critic, the emphasis on dialogue is nectar considering the blockbusters I must endure this summer.

Because this entertaining stage-like drama moves in and around idealism and pragmatism, it's nice to know that some family problems are almost unsolvable, if not downright intractable. Welcome to our collective American dinners, where even unspoken words are time bombs.

The Circle (2017/I)
17 out of 23 people found the following review useful:
It'll make you think long and hard about how much to put on FACEBOOK!!!, 4 May 2017

"Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better." Bailey (Tom Hanks)

How much information is too much? The Circle shows in a direct and melodramatic form that the saturation point is here. Mae (Emma Watson) is hired by a tech-centered firm, an amalgam of Apple, Facebook, and the CIA. Their inclusion-full-knowledge mantra culminates in Mae's agreeing to have complete transparency, a Truman Show for our time.

Bailey is the Steve-Jobs guru, whose weekly assembly for the campus is a model of group think and cultism, launching from the newest technology to the newest invasion of privacy. The willingness of the audience to embrace everything from the unethical farming of information to his obviously self-serving anecdotes suggests Jim-Jones cool-aid-audience imbibing.

The film is an attention-getting, absorbing object lesson in neglecting critical thinking.

The film's provocative theme about full disclosure includes the implied dialectic between the common good and privacy. Knowing where criminals are, such as in our sex-offender laws, is good in the case of creeps but scary when innocent citizens are the object.

Two incidents close to the protagonist illustrate the effects of private invasion, one for survival, the other for denying the efficacy. The former is about saving Mae from drowning because of surveillance and the other about the world seeing her aging parents having sex. No one could wish not to have life-saving surveillance; no one could want parental transparency 24/7.

The Circle is frequently simplistic, e.g., having records that allow automatic registration for voting but also require voting, ignores invasion of privacy and personal choice.

None of this polemic completely negates the efficacy of social media and constant contact. However, transparency, the film suggests, invades and makes circus-like a privacy our Constitution implies.

The camera spends too much time on Mae's bland, wondering stare and meaningless conversations that would be better spent arguing the mission of the Circle. At least it's a start toward better regulation of social information both public and private.

4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
A charming launch of summer blockbusters, 3 May 2017

"Sometimes, the thing you've been looking for your whole life, is right there beside you all along." Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)

Although a cliché like that shouldn't be allowed on any screen or stage, in the hands of filmmakers responsible for the amusing and sometimes serious Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it makes a sweet leitmotif that serves the large family-searching theme.

Yes, this comic sci-fi is not Shakespeare or Sophocles, but it does allow classic motifs to be enclosed in wise-cracking and explosions as the Guardians return from a rousing first volume to keep the noise high along with the humanity of earth '70's—the opening sequence featuring the pop tune Brandy (You're a Fine Girl) ushers in a sound track full of blasts from that turbulent time.

Central to the serious side, Peter is faced with the father he never met, appropriately named Ego, played ever so craftily and cavalierly by the durable Kurt Russell. You say you've already gone through daddy issues in summer movies, and you'd be right. However only the 1977 Star Wars with Luke, Han, and Darth is a bit ahead of the light and dark in this version.

After all, James Earl Jones is all voice while Kurt Russell is all boy- man: complicated, evil, and lovable at the same time. When Peter and he face off, I actually felt the tension every man-child in the audience remembers about his dad. In true Greek tragic form, the sisters are not left out either: Gamora (Zoe Saldana) struggles with her bad-girl sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan). No, it's not classical drama, but it is at least a worthy sequel to a version of the first Guardians at which even Aristophanes would chuckle.

Praise goes to director/writer James Gunn. Who spreads the love among the characters, most of whom are searching for identity or a respected reputation among a family of crew members prone to insult each other as social sport.

Captain Peter does double emotional duty between his father and his unspoken love, Gamora. Fortunately Pratt, Having played the mediocre hero of the latest Jurassic Park, is low key enough an actor to do no serious damage to the demands of heavy-duty plotting, and Russell, well, is a pro at mixing the ridiculous with the sublime.

But, hey, this is the beginning of summer blockbusters, where classical dramatic tropes are not usually on the menu. What is so delectable, however, is the constant rattle of ironic lines like, "You killed my mom! And squished my Walkman!" (Peter) That's the sound of summer fun.

Colossal (2016)
4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
It's monstrous, this thing called love., 28 April 2017

I learned about the power of the mind depicted in fiction by absorbing the sci-fi Forbidden Planet, in which the monster was the physical embodiment of the mad scientist's insanity. Think also of Pacific Rim for another sci-fi touchstone and Trainwreck for the romance. Basically Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo has a partially- successful psychological action, comedy sci fi enclosed in the mind of Gloria (Anne Hathaway).

The thousand-foot lizard destroying Seoul is all Gloria, and the competing robot is her home-town friend, Oscar (Jason Sudekis). Once that inventive conceit is established, the story turns into a black comedy that relies too heavily on cliché to make it an important film. A more sinister bad boy, as Oscar could be, would have made the love triangulation memorable.

After disturbing punches the two principals give each other, the film offers humorous, quaint South Korean crowd scenes in direct parody of great Japanese tokusatu cinema like Godzilla. Why these people are hanging about and returning to watch the monsters duke it out is part of the comedy.

Although I have to admit that monsters no longer hold much terror for me, having grown up with Kong, Mothra, Godzilla, and their ilk, the melodrama between alcoholic Gloria and her boyfriends still intrigues me. Mostly I'm interested in how she's going to turn for good after losing her NYC job and returning home to be a waitress in Oscar's bar. Annoying as his beer-guzzling and her emotional grandstanding are, the story draws you along to hope for their love match.

Colossal is a partially entertaining genre mash up strongest in its portrayal of a young woman in transition. Exorcising our demons is a lifelong struggle, and when they are city-destroying sci-fi tropes, you might be in for some fun that teaches about the challenges of modern life, drinking, and love, and all that.

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