“Alien: Covenant”

There is some optimism in the gory nightmarish prequel “Alien: Covenant.” Since this takes place before “Alien” and has dumber characters, at least I know humanity gets smarter in the future.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON!

The Covenant is a ship searching for new life. Its crew includes the tough-minded Daniels (Katherine Waterson), wisecracking cowboy Tennesse (Danny McBride), an insecure man of faith Oram (Billy Crudup), and the android synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender). Along their way to inhabit a new planet, they discover a distress beacon at a closer planet.

Upon arrival, the place appears to be a heaven, but the crew learns it’s more of a hell when they encounter xenomorphs and the “Prometheus” synthetic David (Michael Fassbender).

The great Ridley Scott maintains the philosophical tone of “Prometheus” while paying homage to the original “Alien.” It’s a dark, gory space odyssey with intelligent androids and dimwitted humans. Scott directs each blood splatter and surreal image with beauty.

“Covenant” spends the first two acts exploring darker themes and building each character. We get a platonic friendship between the widowed Daniels and Tennessee, Daniels and Oram clashing over the mission, and Walter learning from everyone.

Fassbender delivers a brilliant dual-performance as Walter and David. Scott directs each of their interactions with long takes and tight frames to depict the androids’ homoerotic bond. David is more villainous than ever and acts as a demonic egomaniac.

The writers brilliantly address a thought on the “Alien” franchise I’ve had: why don’t the xenomorphs and androids interact with each other? We get scenes with the two together and the xenomorphs are indifferent. In one fascinating scene, David communicates with a new alien like its his own child. “You have to show respect,” he says.

Sadly, the horror sequences and characters are underwhelming, save for one terrifying lab scene halfway through. The aliens decapitate, chest burst, spine burst, impale, and rip apart the crew, but since each character thinks splitting up is smart, these sequences are predictable and boring.

The climax could have used a little more work because it feels too easy and convenient; its obvious twist briefly saves the ending due to atmosphere and the casts’ performance. And what’s with James Franco’s obscure cameo? Can we have smarter characters and more James Franco next time?

Grade: B+

 

“The Void”

Props to indie filmmakers Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie for designing some horrifying and innovative creatures via Kickstarter in “The Void.” They have a bright future as genre filmmakers, even if this body horror flick doesn’t meet its potential.

Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) takes a drug addict to the closest hospital. His estranged wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) nurses the patient and there’s tension between the couple. They have bigger problems when a knife-wielding cult surrounds them and patients mutate into carnivorous creatures.

I’m a big fan of horror films and the body horror subgenre. Body horror utilizes visuals and psychological dread while showing some wicked gore effects. “The Void” excels in the gore and visuals, but unfortunately, not the dread. I found myself checking how much time was left at least twice.

Kotanski and Gillespie show off their love for John Carpenter and Clive Barker through their use of siren lighting, its siege formula, evil cults, and parasites emerging from peoples’ bodies. They seem too caught up in paying homage to “The Thing” and we never learn about the cult or the monsters.

The second act is riddled with cliches. I’ve seen the cult using a woman to give birth to their demonic god, people brainwashed into killing each other, and half-dead guys dragging axes across the floor. Give me something I haven’t seen already!

The characters aren’t particularly likable, given Daniel is a self-loathing moron, Allison is a thinly written damsel-in-distress, and Nurse Kim (Ellen Wong from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) is an incompetent crybaby. It’s 2017, aren’t we done with the poorly written female characters yet?

The silver lining to “The Void” is its ending. Of course, it’s left open for a sequel, which can expand its world and mythology. And hopefully, give us some better-written characters?

Grade: C-

“T2: Trainspotting”

It’s about time Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor made amends and followed up “Trainspotting” (one of my favorite films) with a sequel. It’s better than half of the long-waited sequels.

Nearly 20 years after Mark (McGregor) stole money from his friends, Mark now lives in Amsterdam with a wife and career. He unexpectedly returns to Scotland and reconciles with estranged friends Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremmer). They aren’t as fortunate since Simon now makes a living blackmailing people and Spud has relapsed into his heroin addiction. Then the psycho Begbie (Robert Carlyle) escapes prison, raising hell for the trio.

The brilliant and kinetic Boyle once again shows flare and energy in this long-waited followup. “T2” might seem unnecessary, but there’s a sequel book (“Trainspotting” is based on a novel), so it’s somewhat necessary. When it slows down in storytelling, Boyle makes up for it with his visuals and music.

There are quite a few transgressive moments in “T2” that have the same level of energy as “Trainspotting.” Most of these moments are electrified by the cast. Whether it’s Mark singing a song about King William killing Catholics in front of an ecstatic audience, or Mark and Begbie realizing they’ve ran into each other in a sleazy men’s bathroom, the laughs are consistent.

“T2” slows down halfway through and shifts to a nostalgic tone, which is both admirable and frustrating. We see the characters in a new light with Mark realizing he’s not as innocent as he lets on, he and Simon are criticized by Simon’s girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), and Begbie sees the error in his ways.

Simultaneously, Spud spends most of his time writing a novel and these scenes result in pacing issues. Veronika’s subplot with her, Mark, and Simon nearly turn the film into a formulaic romantic comedy, but thankfully Begbie (an always great Robert Carlyle) saves the film from going that direction. Another plus about the nostalgic tone is viewers don’t need to see “Trainspotting” to follow along. “T2” stands on its own.

The ending scene is dark if you analyze it closely. Characters seem okay either staying in the same place or simply going backwards. “Trainspotting” was about rebelling against society, so it’s obvious these characters won’t snap out of their rebellion. And I’m okay with that!

Grade: B

“Manchester by the Sea”

About 90 minutes into the emotionally draining “Manchester by the Sea,” I was pleased when Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller) showed up on screen. This gave me a much needed chuckle.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a broken man. He lives in solitude, he’s rude to tenants (he’s a janitor), and he’s inept to women’s pickup attempts. Why? We learn the answer as Lee travels to Manchester, MA for his brother’s funeral, and it’s devastating.

Lee then must confront his own demons and come to terms with his brother’s death. However, he also needs to decide whether or not to take guardianship of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his nephew.

“Manchester by the Sea” is a powerful, quiet film with great performances and authenticity. The first 45 minutes are realistic, as we watch Lee go through the legal process of declaring his brother dead. He has to fill out paperwork, sell his brother’s possessions, make funeral arrangements, and finally tell Patrick what happened.

Patrick’s reaction hit close to home for me, as he’s sad one moment, but then asks for pizza and to hang out with his friends. It’s his own way of mourning, while Lee’s is eating pizza alone in his bedroom. Their relationship is the strongest part of “Manchester by the Sea.”

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges both deliver career-defining performances as Lee and Patrick. Their banter and arguments feel genuine, combining drama with a small dose of much-needed humor. Michelle Williams has a brief role as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. She’s only on screen for 10 minutes, but it’s enough to remind us she’s one of the best working actresses today.

“Manchester by the Sea” is a heavy film about grief. It’s also a sensitive and sincere film about the subject, given recent films about grief haven’t been (thinking of “Collateral Beauty”).

Grade: A

“La La Land”

Director Damien Chazelle demonstrated his passion for jazz music in “Whiplash” two years ago, which was one of 2014’s best films. He further expresses his passion for both jazz and film in “La La Land,” which is the most passionate and energetic film of the year.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a self-righteous jazz musician. He wants to open his own club, but he doesn’t know where to begin. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress. She wants to make it big, but doesn’t have faith in herself. Of course they meet and a romance blossoms, but we’re also treated to rich dialogue and lively musical numbers.

There isn’t a single dull moment in “La La Land.” From the retro opening credits to the end montage, Chazelle is on fire with the musical numbers and emotional moments. The opening scene is a masterful tracking shot, choreographing dozens of extras on a freeway who perform “Another Day of Sun.”

Every shot in this film is perfect and shows off the glamorous side of Los Angeles (a city I find dirty). Chazelle cuts the film brilliantly to highlight Sebastian and Mia’s emotions. They’re an adorable pair with great chemistry, but their mutual insecurities are overbearing.

As the film goes on, the drama progresses and we see that there are consequences to the couple following their dreams. Chazelle is less cynical about passion in “La La Land” than he was in “Whiplash,” but he remains realistic. He’s stating that you should follow your dreams, but there will be challenges along the way.

His intimacy with “La La Land” never comes off pretentious, but rather an introduction. Sebastian introduces a jazz-hating Mia to the genre, turning her into a fan. I don’t like musicals and have little jazz knowledge, but I know after watching “La La Land,” I want to watch more musicals and listen to more jazz.

“La La Land” is magical, but I wouldn’t call it a feel-good movie. It’s bittersweet, but more on the sweet side.

Grade: A+

“The Accountant”

Of the two Ben Affleck-helmed action flicks this year, I’ll take the non-Batman one. Still not happy between my options.

“The Accountant”stars Affleck as Christian, an accountant with a high-functioning form of autism. While he appears to be an average accountant, he moonlights as an assassin for criminal organizations. This is why the corrupt robotics company CEO (John Lithgow) should regret crossing him.

“The Accountant” is directed by the underrated Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior,” “Miracle”), and he’s a talented filmmaker. He’s a rare genre director, who makes unconventional action movies that are more about drama than the action sequences. The action scenes are spectacular in “The Accountant,” but they don’t top Affleck’s nuanced performance.

Affleck is quiet, expressive, and tragic as Christian. We get a sense of pain in his eyes whenever he’s alone. The backstory behind his character is far fetched, but still intriguing enough. The entire film has a problem between staying gripping and ridiculous.

The psychological study of Christian is the film’s selling point, but we spend more than half the movie focused on his cliched relationship with another accountant (Anna Kendrick). We also have JK Simmons as a seasoned treasury agent from Christian’s past, but all of his scenes are just exposition with no resolution.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!

I admired the unconventional style of “The Accountant” between its twist-filled story, dramatic pacing combined with quick bursts of violence, and its puzzle-like cinematography. But the sloppy final act ruined my liking.

The last twenty minutes is where “The Accountant” completely falls apart. Simmons is introduced as a potential antagonist, but in the end, he’s a redeemed secondary protagonist without development. There’s a predictable twist behind a rival assassin (a wonderfully over-the-top Jon Bernthal) that made the climax anti-climactic. Lastly, the final twist in the end was ludicrous.

If there’s a sequel to “The Accountant,” I’ll see it for clarification. For now, we’re stuck with a miss.

Grade: C+

“Swiss Army Man”

I look forward to watching a post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe movie because he does what he wants. He has the financial freedom and power to do so, so why not play a farting corpse?

“Swiss Army Man” follows suicidal Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on an island. He notices a corpse named Manny (Radcliffe) slowly come back to life, possessing powers that are able to guide Hank home. Thus, an eccentric friendship blossoms.

For the first two acts of “Swiss Army Man,” I was close to naming it one of the year’s best movies. It’s sweet without being sentimental, simultaneously juvenile (the movie consists of dick and fart jokes) and philosophical, and philosophical without being pretentious. Dano and Radcliffe carry this movie.

Whether it’s Hank teaching Manny about movies and love, or Manny bluntly saying he’ll masturbate thinking about Hank’s mom, the laughs are consistent. “Swiss Army Man” also works as a dark adventure, as they struggle with nature and encounter a bear while contemplating if life is worth living for.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

I’ll never watch “Swiss Army Man” again because the final act makes the movie creepy and depressing as a whole. There’s a subplot involving Hank’s phone having a picture of a girl named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and we’re left thinking she’s Hank’s girlfriend.

After he reveals that he took the picture of Sarah without actually meeting her, and we learn that he has several other pictures of her on his phone, I felt manipulated and frustrated we were rooting for a stalker for two hours. Manny was the actual protagonist of this movie.

Manny’s a curious child being used by Hank, who doesn’t care about him until the movie’s end. When Manny escapes across the ocean, that’s the only happy ending we get in “Swiss Army Man.” There isn’t much sympathy for Hank, but that’s fine since we were tricked in rooting for a stalker.

“Swiss Army Man” is fun at first, but I wish the filmmakers either were honest about Hank or wrote a more likable protagonist. People will say I missed the point and maybe I did. But was the point to feel uncomfortable? I’m asking you!

Grade: B-