Alien: Covenant (2017)

There is an old parable about a man saving 18 months for a pair of shoes.  Another man saves longer for a nicer pair of shoes. One them is eaten by a bear.  That story may or may not have been told in Alien: Covenant.  I saw it 24 hours ago and honestly have no idea whether it was used in the movie or if I just dreamed it. Literally just dreamed it — I dozed off early this evening after a couple of Monkey Shoulders and just woke up with that hazy memory.

Which, I guess, is to say that I got more entertainment out of this fine moderately-priced scotch whiskey than I did out of a pair of movie tickets that cost about the same as the bottle.  My memory of the movie is already fading, so I have no right offering an opinion, or maybe that is the opinion.

I think most people, like me, went to the theater full of good will.  Sure, Alien III was dull and Alien IV was a fiasco.  Alien vs Predator might have had a slight guilty-pleasure vibe, but Alien vs Predator 2 killed that.  Then Prometheus . . . well, then Prometheus.  Never in history did a movie with such a spotty pedigree have people anticipating greatness.  This is like thinking, yeah, George Bush III, he’ll be the great one!

Still, it was directed by Ridley Scott.  You can’t take the original Alien away from him, and The Martian last year was great.[1]  His name, plus the promise of this being a lot more xenomorph-centric than Prometheus, and the absence of Damon Lindelof boded well.  Boded?

The thing that keeps coming back to me is a line from the great Plinkett review of The Phantom Menace.  This movie is about an old man [4] “shoving as much crap into each shot as possible.”  You can’t just have a simple computer display like MOTHER in the original — you must have a wholly impractical 3-D light-show.  You can’t just have a corporeal alien — it has to also be shown as choreographed black mist.[2]  You can’t just build suspense interspersed with a few earned jump-scares — you must use that god-awful choppy editing technique that no-one — literally not one person I’ve ever spoken to in my life  — likes. [5]  You can’t have the simple gritty claustrophobia of the Nostromo or the remoteness of an alien outpost — let’s throw in some rock-climbing and a scene of the world’s most over-praised robot playing John Lennon’s piano from the Imagine video.[6]

It might be a selective memory, but I have a feeling when I left the theaters, I could name every character in Alien & Aliens (except a few cannon-fodder Colonial Marines).[3]  Looking at the Alien: Covenant IMDb page, I remember Daniels, Tennessee, Oram (but no idea who he was), and the robots.  That’s it.  There was zero characterization to be found here.  Where were the working class guys like Parker and Brett?  The weasel like Burke?  The panicky guy like Hudson?  The grizzled tough guy like Apone?  Where is any character that is distinguishable from any other character?  Oh, Tennessee wore a wacky hat.  And was named Tennessee.  Any movie that makes me long for the acting skills of Bill Paxton is in trouble. At least he had a character, and I still remember him.  I guess it is not a coincidence that most of those characters were not in Scott’s Alien.

I get that you can’t just have a new group of people be slaughtered in every Alien movie; that would be as boring as any Friday the 13th movie (except X — Jason in space should have won an Oscar).  I understand new elements must be introduced to energize the story. You had to have the Dharma Initiative in Lost; the cast couldn’t spend 5 years on the beach hearing noises in the trees.  Lost might have been short on answers, but it understood you had to have interesting, definable characters.  Hey, maybe this needed Lindelof after all.

This is just a huge squandered opportunity.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] To be honest, it is best to overlook a lot of his films in between.  Blade Runner looked great, but people forget how deadly dull it is.  The rest of his resume is flirting with the Mendoza Line.
  • [2] Did they learn nothing from The X-Files?  Black Oil never works out well as a story-telling device.  Except in There Will Be Blood.
  • [3] Even ones I can’t picture, like Spunkmeyer and Wierzbowski — at least I remember dialogue using their names.  Hmmm to be fair, I have no idea who Private Crowe was.  And I always forget there was a 4th woman in the rescue mission.  Everyone in Alien: Covenant is that woman.
  • [4] Although, George Miller was 106 when he directed Mad Max: Fury Road, so it isn’t necessarily a function of age.
  • [5] And by the way, I don’t know if Ridley Scott invented it, but Gladiator is the first place I remember being annoyed by it.  The technique is objectively crap.  It is the worst kind of crap.  It is crap that is more difficult to produce than non-crap.  If it is cheaper, easier and more interesting to produce non-crap, what is the point?
  • [6] Mea Culpa: I just noticed on IMDb that the piano in the movie was black, not white.  However, in this case, being wrong further proves my point.

The Shallows (2016)

shallows1The Shallows almost immediately lost me when the main character apologized for being an American. It remained iffy with some out-of-place choppy editing (intermittent slo-mo) in an early surfing sequence — just jarringly awful.  However, the film quickly recomposed itself to be visually stunning and suspenseful.

Blake Lively is returning to the beach where her mother went when she was pregnant with Blake. Having not seen Touristas, Hostel, The Ruins, Jaws or basically any movie ever, Blake goes to the remote beach alone. She does not even have a car which might be spotted or reported missing.

She meets up with two locals and they ride the waves.  The landscape is beautiful and the surfing — awful editing aside — is great.  There is even a fun shot of the shark inside of the cresting wave.  I don’t know if it is aquatically accurate, but it is a nice visual.

The guys leave, but she just has to get one last ride in.  That is when the trouble starts. Without recapping the obvious, she is attacked by a shark.  However, the story does go places I’ve never seen and is never boring.  There is a B-story with her father that seems extraneous, but does give texture and closure to the story.  It might be a little perfunctory and cliche, but there’s a reason some things become perfunctory and cliche — they work.

Is the ending credible?  Is that even an issue?  Were the endings of any of the Jaws movies credible, even the first one?  Only the book had a credible ending and that was a complete bore.

This is Gravity in the water, but I don’t mean that as an insult.  A woman is alone, her companions killed, surrounded by a hostile unbreathable environment, can see home but can’t get to it, makes her way to “islands” of momentary safety grasping at any opportunity to survive, she wins by using her wits, and ends up exhausted on a beach.

Highly recommended.

Bonus points:  Blake Lively’s character is a woman rather than the usual immature Hollywood little girl, she is a medical student, she surfs, she clearly takes care of herself, she helped raise her little sister after their mother died, she is confident enough to go to this remote beach alone, she improvises sutures and bandages on a big-ass shark bite, she survives while the men die, she defeats the shark, and after her ordeal, she returns to surfing.

But some delicate snowflakes are saying it is exploitation because she wears a bikini to the beach, and applies sunscreen.

Hannie Caulder (1972)

hanniecaulder71aThe long-threatened western.

It took some time with Google to remember what made me watch this. Turns out, it was a reference in a review of Jane Got a Gun to the hat worn here by Raquel Welch.[1]  Leave it to the New Yorker to remember Raquel’s iconic role as hat-centric, rather than the obviouses.  But then, the new movie stars waifish Natalie Portman, so a comparison couldn’t really be drawn based on Raquel’s usual calling cards.

The Clemens brothers [2] ride up to the local banco (bank, according to Google Translate).  In a scene sure to warm The Donald’s heart, the Mexican Police are all comically lying about, taking siestas in the sun as the gang robs the banco across the street; also heart-warming because they are still in Mexico.  An overzealous teller triggers the non-silent alarm — i.e. a bell with a rope — waking up the policias, triggering a chase on horseback with a great pounding orchestral score.

hanniecaulder01The three gringos — despite one being shot and another being Ernest Borgnine — escape the pursing cops. They stop at an adobe ranch house where a man introduces himself as Jim Caulder — I don’t like his odds.  Not surprisingly, he is dispatched within seconds and the gang goes inside to find the titular Hannie Caulder.  Over a static shot of the house we hear her screams as she is raped.  Nothing funny about that, although there is an odd bit of business with one of the men being thrown out the front door . . . twice.  Or maybe they were different men; they were indistinguishable from the distance.  No idea what they were going for there.

The next morning, the gang stumbles out the front door and leaves Hannie and her burning house behind as they oddly just walk their horses away.  It is a nice shot as she comes out of the flaming house holding a serape around her to find her bloody husband dead.  Like all good movie characters, she digs a back-breaking grave in the desert and buries her husband without breaking a sweat; a glistening, clothes-clinging sweat.

hanniecaulder32Up rides bounty hunter Thomas Price (Robert Culp) asking for water from her well. Hannie quite understandably points a rifle at him.  He easily takes it from her, but she is learning the ways of men . . . and brains him when his back is turned.  They end up riding together to find a gunsmith to outfit Hannie.  As you would expect, the gunsmith is played by Christopher Lee.  Wait, what?

After they are attacked by a band of illegal aliens — wait, I mean citizens — we see that Hannie has become a killer.  They ride to a town where they meet up with the Clemens bothers.  Hannie’s luck with men continues as Price is knifed by 1/3 of the Clemens gang.

The ending is a little anti-climactic, but it might have not been so at the time.  This was an early example of the rape-revenge genre, so maybe audiences were shocked enough just by a woman avenging her rape, that it had an excitement not conceivable today.  Hannie is also ahead of her time in getting off some good zingers as she kills the bad guys.  Finally, there is a strange deus ex Messala appearance by Stephen Boyd that makes no sense to me, and undermines Hannie’s accomplishment.  That’s men for ya.

hanniecaulder55It is obvious this was filmed in the early days of Hollywood’s new freedom.  A few son-of-a-bitches and asses are thrown around, but they come off as being spoken by a 10 year-old who just discovered them. There is no weight to them — to be fair, a lesson Martin Scorsese still has not learned.

Shockingly, Raquel is the best performer in the film.  Culp is perfectly fine in a TV movie sort of way, but nothing special.  The Clemens brothers are just boobs.  Ernest Borgnine screams every line.  Strother Martin and Jack Elam are just there for the comic effect of their antics and squabbling, but consistently fail.  Raquel, however, pulls it together with as much subtlety as the role allows, and with her natural beauty.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say there is just a pleasure in watching her on the screen that you don’t get from, say, Ernest Borgnine.  Strangely for the era, and for this actress in particular, there really is no gratuitous exploitation of her looks or figure.  Well, one shot of her bare back, but nary a hint of side-boob.

hanniecaulder23

The only example I’m aware of that has shotgun-POV. Literally, first-person-shooter as the viewer is the shotgun.

There is enough thick red paint for a barn-raising, although not the projectile bleeding that Sam Peckinpah was pioneering at the time.  The natural pre-CGI sets, the natural pre-silicone set, the non-Clemens performances, and the always-welcome story of a woman getting revenge make this a good one.

Post-Post:

  • [1] The New Yorker only referenced Hannie Caulder to say that, bad as it was, it still “blew away” Jane Got a Gun.  It did, however, say that the supporting cast had “gusto.”
  • [2] Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin.  Say, this supporting cast does have gusto!
  • Director Burt Kennedy previously directed Support Your Local Sheriff.  In 1969, the other New York braintrust over at the Times called it “dreadful”, illustrating that the NYT’s utter detachment from reality is nothing new.  The trailer I linked actually is pretty poorly done, but the film itself is 2nd only to Blazing Saddles in the comedy-western genre.  Granted, with competition like A Million Ways to Die in the West and The Ridiculous Six, the bar is lower than the saloon’s in The Terror of Tiny Town.
  • OK, the hat was pretty cool.

Harbinger Down (2015)

In June 1982, a Russki spacecraft is burning up on re-entry and makes a 3-point swish shot, never touching the Arctic Rim.

Then to current-day Alaska.  One of the reasons I clicked on this movie was the cover which had a nice, clean design and an attractive bluish tint.  Holy crap did they go overboard with the blue tint.  Think of the green tint in The Matrix — it was only subtly noticeable and you got used to it.  This opening of this movie looks like it was shot through a bottle of Windex.

Stephen, Sadie and Ronnell hook up with the titular Harbinger captained by Lance Henriksen.  The trio is tracking a pod of whales that have been tagged.  One of the crew tells them that research grants are nothing but white people’s government cheese.  This is from a guy nicknamed “Dock” because he used to live under one.  Seriously. Whatever it is that is going to do the killing in this joint, please start with this idiot.

While Ronnell is sleeping and Stephen is yopping, Sadie bundles up and goes up on the deck of the crab boat.  They spot something shaped like a Russki spacecraft which is attracting the whales.  So naturally, they haul it on-board.

harbinger04Ronnell is the first to notice that they are getting no cellphone service.  Being a thousand miles from a cell tower might to be blame.  Maybe they should have sprung for a satellite phone.  Sadly, she is not the least respectable of the group.  Stephen is a douche-bag determined to steal credit for the find.

Sadie nabs a Russki member of the crew and inspects the spacecraft while Stephen is distracted by a crew-member playing him like a harp.  They find the crewman still remarkably well-preserved for having spent 30 years in the ocean.  Short time later, however, it is discovered that the body is missing and a giant raw oystery-looking snot-ball kills a crewman.  Thus bringing us to the Alien portion of our program, where the crew must pursue the monster and get picked off one by one.  But that’s not a bad thing.

Shockingly, the first to go is not Dock, but is the even more unlikable Stephen.  He does not get a chestburster scene, but does get a pretty awesome backburster scene.  Unfortunately, the actor looks too much like Andy Bernard from The Office and it makes it a little hard to take the scene totally seriously.  To be fair, I’m not sure it is intended to be totally serious.

harbinger07And so the picking-off begins.  But it is not as dreary and mechanical as one might fear.  there are surprises and tentacles, teeth, and slime.

It ain’t no Alien, but then neither was Prometheus.  It floats in that middle ground, better than SyFy and Asylum, but not worth seeing in a theater.  The casting is better than the acting — I really enjoyed everyone except for the miscast Nard-Dawg.  Dock was annoying, but at least he was a character.  Even the order of deaths is not what I expected.

The plot and score are entirely adequate, and the creature is nicely unconventional and not CGI.  I doubt it was intended even on a satirical level, but the biggest horror was that it frequently reminded me of pink slime.

I feel like this was 90 minutes well-spent.

Post-Post:

  • On Rotten Tomatoes, this film has a rating of 50% from critics and 25% from normal people.  I suspect this is due to the film’s heavy endorsement of global warming.  The quality of the film doesn’t matter as much as sticking to the state-sanctioned narrative.
  • It is also noted that the Russki chick says she “can see Alaska from my house.” It’s a pretty funny twist on the misquoted line, but clearly also pandering to the left.

harbinger11