Thursday, May 25, 2017

Alien: Covenant: Still Meddling, Still Dying, but with Double the Robots

Katherine Waterston and Michael Fassbender in "Alien: Covenant"
During one of the best scenes in Alien: Covenant, a robot tells an antiquated model of himself why he was ultimately decommissioned. “You were too human,” the current version bluntly informs his predecessor. “Too idiosyncratic.” The explanation makes sense—the older model’s uncannily lifelike behavior unsettled his mortal masters—but it carries with it an undeniable sting of irony. Covenant, the sixth entry in the Alien franchise and the third directed by Ridley Scott, is a vigorous and impressive piece of mass-market entertainment, a finely calibrated horror film that boasts expert effects work and pulse-pounding set pieces. Yet it is also clearly the product of corporate assembly, a sequel to a prequel that ably perpetuates the series’ mythology but does so with minimal distinction or ingenuity. It’s a bit like that newly updated cyborg who lectures his elder counterpart: sleek and efficient, but not idiosyncratic enough.

Or maybe I’ve just seen too many Alien movies. If you haven’t watched Scott’s classic original (which is slightly overrated, but that’s a different discussion), you are likely to be gobsmacked by the spectacle of violent death and physical suffering that the director has arrayed before you. Setting aside Sigourney Weaver’s spunky and sexy performance, Alien achieved cinematic immortality for two reasons: its historically great tagline, and John Hurt’s upset stomach. Seeing as Covenant cannot hope to match the former (though “The path to paradise begins in hell” isn’t half-bad), it strives to one-up the latter. Throughout this movie, nasty critters burst out from within the insides of unsuspecting human hosts, spilling blood and splintering backbone in the process. Alien enthusiasts may have seen this before, but they likely haven’t seen it this excruciating and visceral.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Small-Screen Swagger: Six Shows Stretching the Boundaries of TV

Aubrey Plaza going bonkers in FX's "Legion"
Television used to be a safe space. It was a repository for the comfortable and familiar: the family sitcom, the police procedural, the doctor show. After a long day, we settled on the couch to bask in the routine pleasures of our favorite weekly programs—chuckling along with the laugh track, racing to uncover the killer, wagering on the survival of the patient. We didn’t watch TV to be challenged or jostled. We watched it to be soothed.

Here’s a decidedly cold take: TV has changed. Over the past several decades—the point of origin is a matter of dispute, but most critics cite the launch of The Sopranos in 1999—television has transformed into a multi-headed hydra of prestige entertainment, teeming with hard-bitten dramas and historical epics and anarchic comedies. (It’s also grown more cinematic, but don’t worry: This is not one of those insufferable think-pieces declaring that TV is better than movies, or vice-versa. (For the record, the only correct answer to the question of “Which is better, movies or TV?” is “Yes”.)) As competition expands and delivery options multiply, showrunners are capitalizing on this land of digital opportunity, developing series that are bigger, costlier, and riskier than anything we’ve seen before on television.

This can only be a good thing. Not every huge new TV show is a huge success—for every Game of Thrones or The Americans, there’s a Vinyl or a Bloodline. But there’s a heretofore untapped vein of possibility to the medium now, the sense that the next mind-blowing series is just one click away. What’s particularly gratifying is that creators are seizing the moment and pushing TV into uncharted territory. Emboldened by their compatriots’ achievements, showrunners aren’t just telling bigger and better stories; they’re telling them in new and exciting ways.

What follows are a half-dozen programs that are especially noteworthy for their ambition: the way they use the classic format of the TV show—a series of individual episodes that gradually accumulate a greater and more cohesive power—for breathtakingly novel purposes. These aren’t necessarily the best shows on TV, but they are among the most audacious.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Saving the World, One Wisecrack at a Time

Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Pratt in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"
In the middle of the hectic opening set piece of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, the green-skinned alien Gamora reproaches two of her squabbling colleagues: “Can we put the bickering on hold till after we survive the massive space battle?” It’s a sensible request that comes from the troupe’s most sensible member, but at the risk of mansplaining (human-splaining?), allow me to point out the flaw in Gamora’s logic. Whereas the typical superhero extravaganza centers on its high-octane action sequences, the first Guardians of the Galaxy made its mark by inverting the formula; it emphasized writing and character, pushing its passable pyrotechnics into the background. With this franchise, the bickering isn’t ornamental—it’s the main attraction.

That canny focal adjustment made the original Guardians a welcome antidote, a rejuvenating tonic that helped offset the fatigue brought on by the glut of superhero pictures constantly invading the American multiplex. The challenge now facing James Gunn, returning as both writer and director, is how to reconcile the bracing freshness of the first installment with the rigid demands of the cinematic universe. The standard operating procedure for comic-book sequels is simply to take what worked the first time around, then blow it up to even greater dimensions, but spunky originality isn’t so easily amenable to magnification. How do you bottle lightning twice?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Unwelcome to the Jungle, But Pressing On

Charlie Hunnam in James Gray's "The Lost City of Z"
The soldier finds the mission underwhelming. Sure, he once trained with the Royal Geographical Society, but that was ages ago, and he barely remembers his studies. Why should he be the one tasked with mapping the border between Brazil and Bolivia? He’s a warrior, not a surveyor. Yet by the end of The Lost City of Z—the grand and grave historical epic from James Gray—the soldier’s reluctance has transformed into obsession. This touching, tragic film chronicles its hero’s gradual descent into something like madness, even as it acknowledges the nobility of his pursuit and the dignity of his character.

For all of the death and misery that it uncovers, The Lost City of Z is not exactly a downer. Gray, once known for his gritty thrillers, has of late developed an odd and interesting talent: He can make human suffering seem strangely beguiling. His Two Lovers put Joaquin Phoenix through the emotional wringer, but it also recognized the thrill of newfound romantic attraction. And while The Immigrant essayed the challenges facing Marion Cotillard’s woebegone traveler with unflinching directness, Gray’s lustrous craft shaded her predicament with tenderness and hope. Now with The Lost City of Z, he examines the ecstasy and the agony of mania—the fanatical need to prove yourself, no matter the mortal cost.