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10 - Masterpiece
9 - Great
8 - Very good
7 - Good
6 - Watchable if you like the genre
5 - Mediocre, don't bother
4 - Bad
3 - Terrible
2 - Garbage
1 - Genuinely offensive
(images are taken from other movies to give an idea of how the film could have looked)
A crew of astronauts faces a first-encounter scenario with a hostile alien life-form, which picks them off one by one.
Sounds familiar? Let's get right to it: it's impossible to discuss this without mentioning Alien (so SPOILERS for that film as well), because Daniel Espinosa' movie borrows so heavily from Ridley Scott's classic that it becomes the proverbial elephant (er, xenomorph?) in the room.
Alien is a milestone of horror/science-fiction where every element Scott's elegant direction, O'Bannon's taut script, solid performances, phenomenal creature and set design worked together to create a masterpiece of cinematic dread. It may not be a pleasant watching experience it's an oppressive, nightmarish film, unlike James Cameron less disturbing but breezier sequel but it's up there in any serious Top 100 movie list.
How does Life fare against the 1979 titan? Well, Alien is obviously light years above it, but Life does not embarrass itself either. It's better than Prometheus, which was much more ambitious and therefore more awkward in its failure.
Life is... passable. The first forty minutes or so are actually excellent, with an effective build-up of tension as the scientists retrieve samples from Mars' soil and study a fast-growing organism (which they name "Calvin") found in it. Direction, production values, performances and characterization are all above adequate; incidentally, Ariyon Bakare's paraplegic biologist, who sees all his dreams come true before they blow up in his face, would have been a more interesting main character. Also, I would pay money to listen to Rebecca Ferguson read aloud even a History of Fourteenth Century Clavichords.
Then the movie degenerates to an extent. Why is that?
Again, Alien is the key to understand this. Less is more. We see way too much of starfish/octopus-like Calvin once its killing spree begins. When re-watching Alien, it's striking how little we see of the Xenomorph after the chest-bursting scene. I don't think its various on-screen appearances last more than a minute until the climax, and, with one exception and a deleted scene, we never see what he does to its victims. In Life, Calvin keeps bouncing around like an evil CGI rubber ball, dispatching characters in gruesome detail (also, it grows a cobra-like mug to grin at its preys, which was a really silly design choice). As a result, it's far less creepy.
Also less creepy is the location, although that was an inevitable problem once you go for the modern day setting, with a realistically cramped space station. Alien's colossal Nostromo was a haunted house in space, with plenty of dark rooms to explore and darker corridors for the creature to crawl in.
But the real horror of Alien was how it implied a Lovecraftian universe full of mysterious threats well beyond mankind's understanding (that was before Prometheus came out and started putting tags on them, thanks a lot). Here everything is neatly explained and spelled out. That's the organism which caused mass extinction on Mars, a nasty bugger which eats everything, is nearly invulnerable and as smart as the plot needs it to be.
Speaking of that, it's amusing in a meta kind of way how Life follows the tone of Alien's original ending (when the script was still called Star Beast), complete with Diabolus Ex Machina. Watching Life, it's clear the choice to tone down the Xenomorph's powers at the end of Alien was a smart one - unlike Calvin here, who instantly knows how every piece of machinery works, much like the genius sharks in Deep Blue Sea. It may be intelligent, but intelligence doesn't work like that; a space octopus which two hours ago was no bigger than an Escherichia Coli cannot simply glance at the cockpit of a spaceship and know how to pilot it, sorry.
While I can appreciate a dark twist as much as any horror fan, I appreciate it more when it feels a little less contrived and smugly "wah-wah!" - something more creepily ambiguous, like in Carpenter's The Thing, which remains the gold standard for this kind of endings.
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
I've never said that name out loud before, it sounds stupid now that I say it
Color me surprised, as Kong: Skull Island is better than it had any right to be - meaning it's harmless popcorn fun rather than unwatchable tripe. Sure, it's dumber than a brood of drunk chickens, but I don't walk into a Kaiju movie expecting Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Effects are neat, with convincing CGI renditions of the titular ape and the rest of the island's monstrous fauna. Script is serviceable; nobody is going to win writing awards for this, but at least it tries to develop a few characters other than the male and female leads (Hiddleston and Larson) - they're broad, but you can tell them apart.
The cast is rounded out by an exceptional trio of veterans: John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly. If the first two are somewhat subdued (too professional to phone it in but below their par), Reilly steals the movie as the WW2 pilot marooned on the Island for thirty years.
Bonus points for an acceptable 120 minutes running length, which is short for the bloated standard of modern blockbusters, and for avoiding a uselessly complicated plot - walking in, I was dreading a profusion of stupid MacGuffins, Pirates of the Caribbean-style (find the Magic Stone and the Ancient Staff to tame Kong in the Temple of Evil...). Nothing of the sort, the goal is simply to get out of Skull Island uneaten. Thanks.
So? It's a watchable action/adventure with giant monsters. If this is your kind of thing, shut your higher cerebral functions off and open wide.
The Great Wall (2016)
Green Trouble in Little China
Zhang Yimou's Hero has the dubious privilege of being the most gorgeous movie with a reprehensible message I've ever watched in theaters ("Hey, if the tyrant prevails at least the war will end and we'll all be cool, amirite? Also, check out this awesome fight scene with a red-and-yellow colour palette!").
Yimou seemed to make an amend of sorts with Curse of the Golden Flower, which was less visually luscious but had the good grace to squint with horror at the brutality of absolute power celebrated by the ending of Hero.
In The Great Wall, a Chinese-American fantasy epic, politics take a backseat (other than a generic "sacrifice for the greater good" theme) and the director goes for pure schlock - call it Yimou's Pacific Rim.
See, what history books fail to mention is how the titular Wall was built to protect ancient China against hordes of green telepathic alien hyenas. That's kind of a grievous omission, history books. Cue a noble order defending the Wall, including strategist Andy Lau and commander Tian Jing, who knows how to rock a tight-fitting armor.
Cue Matt Damon - who can be fine in the right part (The Talented Mr Ripley) but is on auto-pilot here - and Oberyn Martell, unshaven Western mercenaries gaping at the unusual sight before jumping into the fray.
Cue Willem Dafoe as an older prisoner, a role tailor-made for the purpose of delivering exposition... except he doesn't even get to deliver exposition. Oh, there is a subplot about gunpowder, but it doesn't go anywhere and Oberyn Martell could have carried it alone. I guess Willem Dafoe is there to justify why members of the order can speak English fluently in ancient China: Willem Dafoe taught them. I appreciate your sudden concern for realism, movie, but - given the green telepathic alien hyenas - you shouldn't have bothered.
All the outcry for white guy Matt Damon starring in a story about the Great Wall could have been saved for the movie being, you know, not very good. The first act is enjoyable in a mindless kind of way with the spectacle of various units wearing specific hues of brightly colored armors depending on their battle specialization... although the blue ones who bungee jump on monsters really drew the short stick.
Sadly, the movie peters out in a last act which is unintentionally funny ("Oh no, the monsters did pass through the Wall while we weren't watching! All five millions of them!"), obvious and anticlimactic: the Good Guys only need to blow up the Alien Queen, which provides wi-fi connection to the whole horde. Kind of like the last act of Edge of Tomorrow (the worst part of it).
Pity: with the same endearingly ludicrous high-concept premise but stronger characters and a tighter script (and more sense of humour, because you really can't play this stuff with a straight face), The Great Wall could have become something of a cult classic.
(Also, this is a cheap shot... but the movie poster, with its ominous "What were they trying to keep out?" tagline under the actor's giant mug, looks like the Great Wall was built to defend China against Matt Damon. Mission failed, Wall).
Blue Ruin (2013)
Blood, not so simple
There is a scene in Blue Ruin where Dwight (Macon Blair), a homeless man pursuing a personal vendetta he is ill-suited for, walks into a goods store after receiving a nasty arrow wound in a leg. He starts buying disinfectants, stitches, pincers, glue, and you think you've seen all this before.
Cut to Dwight groaning as he fumbles with the wound trying to get the arrow out.
Cut to Dwight limping into an ICU and collapsing to the ground.
This bit of black humor encapsulates Blue Ruin: a clever, subversive little thriller which reminds me most of all of the Coens' debut Blood Simple, as inept characters stumble through poorly planned crimes with messy results.
Blair is remarkable in the lead role; his Dwight is an interesting, unusual protagonist for the genre, basically the anti-Jason Bourne - an incompetent killer wrecked by memories of his past. Direction by Jeremy Saulnier is impeccable; the movie often shifts between taut action beats and unexpectedly funny moments, and it works.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
If you must blink, do it now
In one of the most "meta" cinematic confessions of the last years since Kylo Ren being embarrassed by his inability to live up to Darth Vader in Episode VII, young wizard/storyteller Kubo (Art Parkinson), the titular protagonist here, sheepishly admits he isn't very good with endings.
This stop-motion fantasy adventure by Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) has many successful elements: likable characters, strong voice acting (Charlize Theron in particular is great as a talking animal companion), enough original spins to make the classic hero's journey feel fresh ... and it looks phenomenal. Kubo bristles with visual details - it's one of the most gorgeous animated movies I've watched in years.
Spoilers aside, Kubo starts with an effective first act, builds up to a powerful crescendo... then sort of peters out at the end. Characters we've grown attached to get kicked off the spotlight by the main villain, who had been conspicuously absent until then. It's not a *bad* conclusion - it has a nice bittersweet flavor - but it's anticlimactic. It's the opposite of ParaNorman, which was droll but unremarkable for most of its running time but knocked it out of the park in the final act.
Overall, Laika's winning streak continues. Much like Coraline, however, this isn't fit for younger children - if you want a fine stop-motion adventure for little kids, go for the Shaun the Sheep movie.
Rogue One (2016)
The three stages after a new Star Wars movie
1) Relief and jubilation that it's better than the prequels; 2) Gushing over its slick execution, practical effects, cool set-pieces - at this point, a tentative argument is made that "it's better than Return of the Jedi" 3) Creeping realization of the movie's flaws.
Rogue One (aka Episode 3,5 or"How the Death Star plans were stolen") is an entertaining flick with strong moments and a few issues; inferior to the original trilogy and superior to the prequels, I'd rate it higher than The Force Awakens as well, because at least it's not a remake of A New Hope.
The film does plenty of things right - the look of it, in particular, is perfect; sets, effects and costumes are great, with a "lived-in" feel which is classic Star Wars. Edwards is a fine visual director, his set-pieces are neat and stylish. Rogue One also features a rare case of clever retcon: the Death Star's fatal structural flaw was implanted as a revenge by a Rebel-sympathizing scientist. Not bad.
The main issue is haphazard characterization. Characters are well-cast and competently acted, but they are sketchily drawn, missing moments of development which would have made them pop to life.
Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso (Dark Forces reference duly noted) has two father figures but interacts meaningfully with neither, and in the space of a few hours (though admittedly eventful hours) goes from cynical loner to making pep talks about hope. Diego Luna's Cassian has a promising "Han shooting Greedo" scene at the beginning, but we never learn about his backstory and the reason of his devotion to the Rebel Alliance. Forrest Whitaker's interesting Saw Gerrera gets little screen-time after a long build-up.
Donnie Yen has a couple of cool moments, but his blind monk Chirrut and trigger-happy pal Baze (Wen Jiang) feel more like NPCs with great stats in a role-playing game than fleshed-out characters. The Alan Tudyk-voiced robot (inspired by KOTOR's HK-47?), although droll, becomes too much of a quip-delivering machine.
Riz Ahmed's pilot is underwritten for such a crucial role; we don't learn what made him desert the Empire, but we do get a confrontation with a lie-detecting octopus (?) which is supposed to drive him insane but just leaves him a bit weird for a couple of scenes. It's a silly moment which sums up the movie's aimless approach to characterization (either cut the scene or give it meaningful consequences).
The lack of arcs and developed relationships make several supposedly emotional moments feel unearned - like Baze calling Jyn "little sister" near the end (I think that was the second time they spoke to each other in the whole movie) and Bodhi's "For you, Galen!" (the two never share a scene).
In fact, the more coherent new character is villain Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn); although he isn't particularly menacing, he does feel like a well-defined individual a smug, amoral, ambitious Imperial officer who is way over his head dealing with bigger fishes like Vader and Tarkin.
Speaking of Tarkin, he is played by a CGI version of Peter Cushing; although it looks good as far as these things go - and they don't go THAT far yet, a seamless CGI human is still impossible without the uncanny valley effect - pasting a dead actor's appearance into a movie he didn't choose to be a part of, in a role he had no creative influence over, strikes me as creepy. As iconic as Cushing was, just recast the part.
Other issues include the clunky beginning - jumping back and forth to five different planets in fifteen minutes, with distracting title cards (why not use the series' classic wipe transitions?) - and an excess of fan-service: some of it is appreciated (a spaceship here, a throw-away line there), too much becomes an overkill. We don't need, for example, to bump into the two creepy guys from the Mos Eisley cantina - it's the kind of pointless, smug in-joke the now deceased Expanded Universe would have dished out (actually, it would have added a couple of novels about their shenanigans).
Rogue One was just a few tweaks away from greatness, but settled for competence instead. Still, for me it's the best Star Wars movie in thirty years... although it wasn't that high a bar. Now, if only they could reduce the fan-service... wait, what else is Disney filming now? A young Han Solo movie? Oh dear.
Blair Witch (2016)
Some footage is better left lost
Look, I've defended found-footage horror in the past - "har har why do they keep filming" notwithstanding. Matt Reeves' Cloverfield was neat, impressive, with its sense of scale and scope, the humongous threat glimpsed from the limited point of view of the protagonists; Jaume Balagueró's Rec was terrifying, with a masterful build-up of tension as the mystery surrounding the apartment building began to unravel. Blair Witch, however, is a worthless specimen of this particular genre.
If the first half or so is mediocre but tolerable, with a bunch of underdeveloped characters roaming the haunted forest, in the second part all semblance of storytelling goes out the window and this becomes some of the most tiresome stuff I've watched all year.
You can effectively recreate the experience by turning on a cheap camera, grabbing it and running at full speed through your local public gardens at night, while a bunch of your friends bellow and scream as you pass by; every now and then, someone gets a perspiring, hysterical close-up before being yanked away from the camera with a "whoosh!". This is anti-cinema; it's so shapeless and incoherent, it makes the first Paranormal Activity (i.e. the only one which wasn't completely terrible) look as tightly plotted as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
I suppose suckers for Blair Witch lore (if such people still exist seventeen years after the original) could be intrigued by the last ten minutes... except, the movie takes a supremely silly turn even then and implies aliens are behind it all. Wait, what?
Worth no viewings.
True Grit (2010)
A saucy line will not get you far with me
There's this idea by some critics and moviegoers that True Grit does not feel like a Coens movie. However, it seems to me this adaptation of Charles Portis' fine western novel bears many clear traces of the brothers' touch.
Has there ever been a case of weak acting in a Coens movie? Performances are tone-perfect. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is phenomenal as shrewd, pugnacious 14-years-old Mattie, who hires dogged U.S. Marshall Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father. The great Jeff Bridges is compelling and larger-than-life as Cogburn, the role played by John Wayne in the 1969 version. Matt Damon (as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (as the dim-witted killer) and Barry Pepper (as the leader of a criminal gang) round out the excellent cast.
Camera work is stylish, precise. See the ending of the climactic battle, with an exceptional amount of tension conjured by a long shot of two far-away figures as we wait for the result of a desperate sniping attempt; see how the camera slowly creeps into the point of view of a doomed character during a confrontation in a cabin to make his abrupt demise all the more shocking.
Storytelling is masterful, dialogues crisp. Notice the clever way the Coens handle exposition - the element most screenwriters struggle with - in the courtroom scene, as Cogburn's background and history of frontier justice are extorted from him in moments full of humour and conflict. Weird characters like the "bear man" and darkly humorous bits - like when a condemned Native American's final words are unceremoniously cut off by the hangman - are also trademark Coens.
The delightful soundtrack was composed by Carter Burwell, the brothers' long-time collaborator since Blood Simple.
True Grit does feel less misanthropic and nihilistic than the Coens' average film, with Mattie finding a surrogate father figure and the Cogburn/LaBoeuf duo eventually bonding with her. Still, consider how the most emotional sequence - the "ride to death" to save the girl - results first in the killing of a beloved animal companion, then in the physical disfigurement of a main character, and how the epilogue is a regretful meditation about time and loss.
So yes, it is a Coens movie, and it's a great one.
Yo mama is so ugly, she put the "ug" in "Ugnaught"
Of all the Star Wars prequels, Revenge of the Sith wastes the biggest potential.
The Phantom Menace was doomed from the start because of its terrible structure (the Tatooine mid-section is so clunky, it kills the momentum of the whole movie); Attack of the Clones is a pestilent disaster.
But Revenge... there was a great premise here. Now that the new, Disney-tagged cycle of Star Wars has begun with the competent but depressingly safe Episode VII (a movie which is "a bit derivative" in the same way hydrogen cyanide is "a bit unhealthy"), Lucas' ambitions with the prequels appear all the more admirable, his failure all the more disappointing. Revenge was supposed to be the climax of Anakin Skywalker's downfall, the culmination of his reverse hero's journey; horrific writing and consequently abysmal performances turned it into the punchline of a drawn-out, embarrassing joke.
(Speaking of performances, what happened to Christensen? Unlike Natalie Portman - who was equally bad but landed on her feet - and the blameless McGregor, Hayden seems to have disappeared. I know right now he is probably chilling out with some hot model in a swimming pool, but I like to picture him atoning for his acting sins in some remote monastery).
People mock Lucas as someone whose main priority was selling action figures but, watching scenes like the Jedi purge or the Obi-wan/Anakin duel, I don't see that at all. I see a once vital storyteller trying - trying hard - to recapture what talent he once possessed.
Sadly, much like Kurt Vonnegut's fictional writer Kilgore Trout, George has interesting ideas but botches the execution; his hubris got the better of him when he decided he should be the scriptwriter instead of merely the creative force which provided the basic story elements. The prequel trilogy in general and Revenge in particular were a brave, ambitious project which ended up as an abject defeat. And that's why J. J. Abrams overcompensated in terms of caution.
Europa Report (2013)
Rendezvous with Europa
This found-footage movie is quite low-key for a sci-fi thriller - meaning there aren't giant robots fighting monsters or nuclear bombs countdowns. It's a space exploration yarn with an old-school, "Rendezvous with Rama" vibe, where action takes a backseat to mystery and awe.
The main problem is structure. The movie opens with a flash-forward, then alternates between two different time-lines, both the first and the last days of the mission. It's a mistake; not only jumping back and forth is distracting, it also spoils the death of a crew member, an effective scene which would have carried more tension if we hadn't already watched its aftermath.
This also muddles other characters' arcs; they start off as morose and disillusioned, then we jump back to before the incident, when they are still optimistic. Playing with time like that is a dangerous storytelling choice; with a few exceptions (think Memento), the dramatic progression works better as a chronological crescendo from good to bad to worse.
Maybe I'm sounding like The Europa Report is a mess, but it's not. Like Duncan Jones' Moon, this movie looks neat in spite of a slim budget; the cast is composed of competent character actors. After the first two thirds of Interstellar, this is probably as close to a "hard sci-fi / space exploration adventure" as fans of the genre are likely to get in a long time.