Alien: Covenant (2017)

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To call Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant “a new chapter in his groundbreaking Alien franchise” is a bit of a stretch. Actually, it’s a lot of a stretch, since this latest entry is basically a redo of Prometheus with most (but not all) of the head scratching removed. Actually, it’s even more a redo of the original Alien from 1979, which further confirms that there’s nothing remotely “new” about it. It’s just the same old same old: motley crew of space explorers responds to distress call, lands on hostile planet, unwittingly brings aboard alien life form, watches in shock and horror as it decimates just about everyone until the tough broad finally blows it out the airlock. I’m a big fan of the four-star original, less so its James Cameron-helmed, testosterone-laden, military-heavy sequel, so it was nice to be reminded of the former every step of the way here. And ‘Covenant’s got that deep-space style (and splatter!) we’ve come to expect from the veteran Scott. But the film’s human stars—Katherine Waterston in the Sigourney Weaver role, Michael Fassbender in the Ian Holm role, Billy Crudup in the Tom Skerritt role—can’t really hold a candle to the original cast… although this is probably the first film to feature Danny McBride (Your Highness, Land of the Lost, Observe and Report) that hasn’t had me running for the exits (he’s actually a pleasant surprise here). But he’s the only surprise. Even the alien itself has morphed from a drooling, skeletal, reptilian beast into a humanoid disappointment. In space, nobody can you hear you roll your eyes.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

It (2017)

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It begins in 1988, in the New England hamlet of Derry, Maine, when Billy Denbrough’s little brother Georgie is lured into a storm drain by a creepy clown (or rather, a shape-shifting demon that favors the seductive guise of Pennywise the Dancing Clown).
     A year later, the boys’ parents have given the missing child up for dead, but Billy desperately believes that his brother could still be found and convinces his misfit friends Richie, Eddie, and Stanley to help him search The Barrens, the town’s vast and intricate sewer system. They’re joined in their noble pursuit by an equally-ostracized trio of put-upons: Mike, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks; Ben, who hides in the library to escape the mullet-headed town bully; and Beverly, a gutsy Molly Ringwald type. Fortunately, Ben’s enforced time behind books has led him to discover that the town has a history of strange disappearances (every 27 years!).
     Stephen King’s popular horror novel was first turned into a TV miniseries in 1990; It starred The Waltons‘ Richard Thomas as Bill and Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Pennywise. Now (27 years later!), Andy Muschietti—the director of 2013’s old-school scare-a-thon Mama—has been entrusted with taking a crack at a redo. And a fine job he does too. Muschietti orchestrates many a spooky set piece, often centered around the killer clown but not always, and it’s refreshing to watch a scary movie that relies solely on creep-outs and jump shots for its horror element. A key strength, of course, is the deliciously demented performance from Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, who somehow manages to pull off true menace beneath his ghoulish make-up.
     Amongst the film’s considerable charms are the magnificent seven of loser-heroes brought to life by a septet of likeable young actors, including Jaeden Lieberher as Billy, Sophia Lillis as Bev, and Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben. Also effective are author King’s familiar themes: ordinary people coming together to achieve extraordinary things (The Stand, The Dark Tower); the victimization of the weak by the strong (Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile); and the eternal battle of good vs. evil (Needful Things, The Talisman).
     Stephen King’s prolific outpourings of short stories, novellas, and full-length novels have spawned a multitude of adaptations over the years, on film, on television, even on the stage. Quite a few of the cinematic versions have impressed—Carrie, The Shining, Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Misery for starters. With carefully-crafted chills, well-developed and likeable characters, a killer villain, and a strong storyline, It deserves a place in those illustrious ranks.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Realive (2016)

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In this year’s Ex Machina on ice, the contemplative science fiction drama Realive (from SyFy Films) is about a man who, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to have his body cryogenically frozen until science and medicine can bring him back to life. Moody artist Marc Jarvis (Tom Hughes) signs on to the predictably-named Lazarus Project run by a cadre of strikingly lackluster actors. Unfortunately for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Naomi (Oona Chaplin, Charlie’s granddaughter), who had hoped to spend the last year of Marc’s life with him, Marc feels the need to take drastic action before the cancer begins to ravage his otherwise healthy body. Fast forward to 2084, and the Lazarus Project is—ta da!—a great success, although Marc, shaved headed and looking remarkably like Nicholas Hoult, is a little unsteady on his pins at first. Surprisingly, the future is not that different from the past Marc left behind—cars still have wheels, planes still have wings, as he’s reassured, somewhat patronizingly, by his cryogenic reanimators. And he has a very attentive nurse played by Charlotte Le Bon. But Marc slowly comes to realize that immortality might not be everything it’s cracked up to be. As directed by Mateo Gil, who wrote the original Spanish-language Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) with Penelope Cruz and Eduardo Noriega as well as its Americanized remake, Vanilla Sky, with Penelope Cruz and Tom Cruise, Realive feels a little sterile and its performances are hit and miss. But its thought-provoking conceit keeps you engaged until the very—and largely ironic—end.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Limehouse Golem (2017)

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In Jewish folklore, a golem is an artificially-constructed figure in the form of a human being, magically endowed with life. In English geography, Limehouse is a seedy industrial district in East London. In this period horror yarn from director Juan Carlos Medina, “golem” is the macabre moniker applied by the penny press to a Jack the Ripper-y serial killer who is indiscriminate in his choice of victims but leaves a unique signature. The Limehouse Golem is a great name for a horror film and originates from the historical novel Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd, “a tale that is a mixture of fable, adventure and Gothic comedy.” Golems can be scary things after all; those naughty German Expressionists were scaring the lederhosen off early filmgoers with their classic Der Golem trilogy of films all the way back in the early 1900s, Cabalist thrillers featuring a massive clay figure lumbering around, causing much Weimar-era unrest. In Medina’s 2017 film, which effectively leverages the historical creep factor of the title character, Bill Nighy stars as Detective Inspector Kildare of the Yard, a veteran policeman with a shaky past who’s called upon to investigate a series of brutal murders in London’s seamy East End. Interestingly, the film is less concerned with the titular golem (or even Kildare himself) and instead focuses its energies on Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke), whose late husband (Sam Reid) is the good inspector’s number one suspect. The film chronicles Lizzie’s rise from dockside sewer rat to music hall celebrity to accused spousal poisoner and Medina should be applauded for his meticulous and atmospheric recreation of 1880s London, as well as the gravitas he brings to the project, enlivened with some lurid flourishes. The cast, which includes Douglas Booth (as the historical entertainer Dan Leno), Eddie Marsan, and Maria Valverde, is also strong. Fans of oom-pah-pah revelry, Hammer Horrors, and Victorian-era introspection should find plenty to whet their appetites in The Limehouse Golem.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Aubrey Plaza seems to have one mode and one mode only: surly. It’s her lovable April Ludgate, the character she popularized on TV’s Parks and Recreation. Surly works for Plaza—and I like how she plays it—but it limits her range and she winds up playing these types a lot. That said, surly mostly works—and I like how it mostly works—in Ingrid Goes West, the new dark comedy from writer Matt Spicer (Flower) who, like everyone else these days, is trying his hand at directing.
     Ingrid Thorburn (Plaza) is a pathetic loner whose idea of friendship is following someone on Instagram. Connected 24/7 to social media, Ingrid forms unstable, one-sided relationships with people she friends online (one such friendship, for example, results in a wedding reception macing incident after Ingrid fails to get an invite—the seriously screwy sad sack serves a short stint in the psych ward for her sins).
     While relaxing in the tub one day, Ingrid reads about the adorbs L.A. lifestyle of photographer and media manipulator Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen, doing the Venice Beach boho-chic thing—”Another day, another avocado toast. Prayer hands emoji”) and decides that Taylor will become her next best friend. And so Ingrid instantly uproots herself from PA to CA, her backpack fit to bursting with the sixty-two grand left her by her dead mother.
     Once in SoCal, Ingrid slowly insinuates herself into Taylor’s meticulously manicured way of life… by stealing her scrappy pooch, Rothko, for starters. She eats in the same restaurants as Taylor, gets a makeover in the same salon, sports the same carefree styles and accessories, all so that she can feel cool and successful and, most of all, loved.
     Sounds mostly cute and funny, if a little sad, right? Well it is, at least in the beginning, despite the creepy undercurrents. But it turns dark, not surprisingly, and suicidal, and it’s only the quick thinking of Ingrid’s Batman-obsessed landlord Dan Pinto (the extremely personable O’Shea Jackson Jr.) that prevent things from culminating on a maudlin note.
     Make no bones about it, Ingrid Goes West is a stalker film in the tradition of Martin Scorsese’s masterful The King of Comedy, although not nearly as polished. Plaza, oozing affability despite her generalized sullenness, is no Robert De Niro, and Ingrid Thorburn’s a shallow take on Rupert Pupkin. But the films share many similarities: the unhinged, obsessive protagonist; the drive for fame and fortune; the funny moments and the uncomfortable moments and the scary, pathological moments.
     Spicer makes good use of Plaza’s one-note appeal but his script is ultimately without the sophistication—and his direction lacking the necessary maturity—to make Ingrid Goes West truly memorable.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Goon: Last of the Enforcers (2017)

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Dude, Where’s My Car? Stark Raving Mad. Bulletproof Monk. The Dukes of Hazzard. Mr. Woodcock. Cop Out. American Reunion. Movie 43. Just Before I Go. The cinematic oeuvre of one Seann William Scott doesn’t exactly cry quality merchandise. Even his dislocated voicework couldn’t raise the likes of Planet 51 and four (!?) Ice Age sequels to anything much beyond meh.
     Scott’s best reviewed film to date, Goon (2012), was an amiable slob comedy (i.e., pervasive stupidity, overage drinking, genitalia) about a doofus hockey fan who’s signed by the Halifax Highlanders after the team’s coach witnesses him brawling on the ice. Unfortunately, Doug doesn’t even skate, let alone know where to stick the puck.
     It was inevitable that, five years on, Scott would be recast as Doug “the Thug” Glatt in Goon’s “long-awaited” sequel, Goon: Last of the Enforcers, and sure enough, here he is! But as we learned earlier, a quick peruse through the actor’s embarrassing filmography tells us that most anything with Scott in it—sadly—is likely to be a dud. And Goon: Last of the Enforcers doesn’t disappoint.
     Ooh yah. Dud-ola.
     Tonally, the film is all over the ice. The hockey sequences zip along but first-time director Jay Baruchel (a Seth Rogen crony; he was in Knocked Up and This is the End) flips between bloody face-offs, sports-center aggrandizing, and sentimental domestic moments so randomly that the film fails to find any kind of rhythm. Baruchel has a recurring and, thankfully, small role as Doug’s best bud Pat—he’s repulsive. Fleshing out the name performers are Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as Doug’s pregnant wife Eva, Elisha Cuthbert (Fox TV’s 24) as Eva’s girlfriend Mary, and Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) as a former hockey pro, Ross Rhea, who teaches Doug to fight with his left after the coach’s son (Wyatt Russell, Kurt and Goldie’s kid) relegates Doug and a dodgy right shoulder to a short-lived career selling insurance.
     While Scott himself isn’t the worst thing in the film—Dougie’s darling dimwittedness generates an occasional chuckle—it’s not exactly a performance he should feel, you know, proud of. And it does beg the inevitable question: Dude, Where’s My Career?


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Wind River (2017)

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On Wyoming’s remote Wind River Indian Reservation, the body of a barefoot young woman lies face down and frost bitten in the snow. Despite incontrovertible evidence indicating foul play, the medical examiner rules the cause of death pulmonary edema—her lungs had filled with blood, a sure sign she’d been running. But from what, out here? The closest habitable structure is six miles away. Most people wouldn’t make it 600 yards in these frigid, subzero conditions, let alone six miles.
     The man who finds her is Cory Lambert, a veteran game tracker for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He hunts predators for a living—coyotes, mountain lions, hungry wolves. The FBI sends in rookie agent Jane Banner from Vegas, inadequately attired, to investigate. Clearly she’s out of her depth here. She asks Cory if he will come hunt a predator for her.
     He agrees, partly, because he knew Natalie, the dead girl. She was his daughter Emily’s best friend, but Emily is gone now too. “I suppose you’d like to know how?” he asks Jane, during a rare moment of downtime, pausing to add “so would I.”
     The enormity of loss in Taylor Sheridan’s stark and unforgiving Wind River is a powerful presence, and the film’s performances, by Jeremy Renner as Cory, Elizabeth Olsen as Jane, and Gil Birmingham as Natalie’s father Martin, are equal to it. Birmingham is especially good, but Renner has rarely been better, and Olsen continues to impress. Dead daughters and sad, wasted lives make for emotionally difficult cinema and Wind River’s got them in spades. The scenery is spectacular, but some of the film’s brutal content requires a strong constitution.
     Sheridan, an occasional actor better known for writing the recent Hell and High Water and Sicario, takes a second stab at directing here (after the Vile slasher from 2011) and crafts a marvelous mood piece; he also penned the taut screenplay.
     Wind River is both thrilling and intensely moving, a testament to its novice director and fine cast which also includes Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) as Ben, the local law enforcement, and Julia Jones (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1) as Cory’s estranged wife.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com