Movie reviews: 'Alien' prequel overshoots on climactic cat-and-mouse game
Published Friday, May 19, 2017 7:14AM EDT
ALIEN: COVENANT: 2 ½ STARS
Alien: Covenant is the second instalment in the “Alien” prequel series and the sixth film in the franchise overall. Its director Ridley Scott's follow-up to his 2012 film "Prometheus," and the origin story for one of the most fearsome alien species ever, the Xenomorph.
Led by the pious first mate Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), the colony ship Covenant hurtles trough space to planet Origae-6, an Eden that offers a chance at a new life in the first large scale colonization mission.
Laden with crew—including android Walter (Michael Fassbender), terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), biologist Karine (Carmen Ejogo) and crewman Tennessee (Danny McBride)—2,000 settlers and 1,000 embryos, the spaceship is damaged by an energy surge. During repairs they intercept a mysterious radio transmission from a nearby planet that suggests better living conditions may be just around the corner.
Abandoning their original course, an exploratory crew is sent down. On the ground they discover breathable air, wheat, the only survivor of the ill-fated Prometheus mission, an android named David (Fassbender again) but Daniels is concerned. “Do you hear that?” she says. “There’s nothing. No birds, no animals. Nothing. What happened here?” Of course there is life on the planet, life in the form of nasty face-hugging, chest-bursting aliens.
All great sci-fi has to have a bedrock of strong ideas but this is an “Alien” movie, can't we have a better balance between ideas and action? Scott kicks things off, appropriately enough (given the movie’s plot) with Richard Wagner’s “Entering of the Gods into Valhalla,” a stirring number that thematically sets up the story of Xenomorphs and a search for a new promised land. There is talk of creation—Where do we come from? We can't be random molecules thrown together by chance—how humans may have already blown their one and only shot at existence (“Why give them a second chance?”), android love and whether it is better to serve in heaven or reign in hell.
Grand ideas one and all and each seems to take on more import as they are filtered through Scott’s dark and dreary atmospherics. It’s moody, with a growing sense of what is to come, but it takes almost an hour for the first alien to burst (in rather bloody spectacular fashion) onto the screen. In that time there are loads of cool images, Scott is genetically wired to make great looking movies—witness the beautiful and delicate way the alien spores are dispatched—but the film is at its best when the slimy Xenomorphs are involved which, unfortunately, isn't enough of the time.
From the way the crew banters to the space intrigue to the chest bursting “Alien: Covenant” feels more like a throwback to the original films than to “Prometheus.” There’s more dark humour--“How do you know you're infected?” “You’d know by now.”—and when Scott revs up the action there are some truly horrifying moments, but because much of the crew are the equivalent of “Star Trek” redshirts the alien kills don’t have much emotional impact.
“Alien: Covenant” is well made, although Scott over shoots the climatic cat-and-mouse-game, but feels perfunctory in the scheme of things. It tries to freshen up the formula—no spoilers here but the Xenomorphs aren’t the only villains—but despite the injection of a good dose of philosophy is still essentially a “run away from the monster!!!” movie we’ve seen before and better.
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: THE LONG HAUL: 3 ½ STARS
The “Diary of the Wimpy Kid” movies are meant for children who have aged out of “Dora the Explorer” but aren’t quite ready for “Thirteen Reasons Why.”
Based on the ninth book in the wildly popular children’s book series by Jeff Kinney, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” takes place a year after the events of the last film 2012 “Dog Days” but don’t expect to see many familiar faces.
Original star Zachary Gordon aged out of the title teenager role and was replaced by newcomer Jason Drucker. Also recast was Devon Bostick who played the popular Roderick character. Charlie Wright took over, a move that didn’t please the film’s fans. One Wimpy aficionado tweeted, “The new Rodrick looks like a kid Rodrick would bully,” while others voiced dissatisfaction with the hashtag #NotMyRodrick.
When we first meet the new Heffley family—whimpy kid Greg, brother (and drummer for the metal group Löded Diper) Roderick, Mom (Alicia Silverstone), Dad (Tom Everett Scott) baby Manny (Wyatt and Dylan Walters)—they’re on the way to Corky’s—imagine a bigger, wilder Chuck E. Cheese's and you get the idea—for dinner. When Manny gets lost inside a chute maze Greg comes to the rescue. His act of heroics backfires when he emerges from the ball pit at the end of the chute with Manny in one hand and a diaper on the other. A video of the event immediately goes viral and Greg becomes famous on the internet as Diaper Hand.
If Greg doesn’t do something soon he’ll be teased relentlessly, more a meme than a man. “If I don't do something soon I'll be branded Diaper Hands until I die,” he says. “Maybe longer.” Then inspiration hits. He realizes his hero, videogame guru Mac Digby (Joshua Hoover), will be appearing at a giant convention called Player’s Expo. “If I get a video of me with Mac I'll be the coolest kid in high school,” he says. “Everyone will forget about Diaper Hands.”
Conveniently the family is planning a road trip to their great-grandmother’s 90th birthday, which, according to the map, is only two inches away from where the expo is taking place. The family heads off, Mom and Dad blissfully unaware of Greg’s plan, on an adventure that will play out like Griswold Lite.
Gently paced, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” is like a 1950s family sitcom updated with cell phones, pee, barf and poop jokes. There’s also a pig with the pacifier, some mild action and a slapstick villain named Beardo (Chris Coppola). The underlying messages of family togetherness, respect and the importance of reading “word books” are circa “Leave It To Beaver” era, and so are many of the jokes, but that’s not an entirely bad thing.
There are some genuinely funny moments—many supplied by clueless goofball Roderick—but mostly this is a sweet story fuelled by the familial relationships. It’s a generation gap between the kids who want to stay connected online while the parents went to connect as a family.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” doesn’t reinvent the family movie wheel. Instead it searches for new ways to freshen up the kind of poop jokes so often found in neo-children’s movies.
CHUCK: 3 STARS
Chuck Wepner goes by many names. To some he is The Champ, a heavyweight boxer who once went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali. To others he is the Bayonne Bleeder, a fighter sometimes sidelined by his tendency to bleed out all over the ring. Still others call him the Real Rocky in reference to the rumour that his career inspired the Sylvester Stallone movie. He’s an American brawler played by Liev Schreiber in a new movie simply called “Chuck.”
Wepner became a local hero when he was tapped to take on boxing legend George Foreman. There was just one catch. Foreman had to beat Muhammad Ali first. The odds were in his favour but, in an upset, Foreman lost. That defeat should have put Wepner out of the running but the Ali fight was being positioned as a battle of the races and since he was the only white boxer on a long list of fighters qualified to take on the champ, he got the gig. The odds against him were 40-to-1 but the lure of a $100,000 payday was too great to resist. As expected he lost but the fact he shared the ring with Ali burnished his reputation, if not his bank account.
And thus the template of Wepner’s career was set. He’s an also ran, a man who can see the brass ring but never quite grab hold of it.
In the wake of the Ali fight Wepner’s life was turned topsy-turvy. He coulda been a contender but instead moonlighted as a liquor salesman. He was a star at night, hanging around clubs, cheating on his wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) and developing a cocaine problem. His notoriety increased with the release of “Rocky,” the Stallone movie reportedly semi-based on Wepner’s life. A failed audition for “Rocky 2” forces the fighter further down the rabbit hole into a “Requiem for a Heavyweight-esque” life outside the ring.
“Chuck’s” story is little known but feels familiar. The “Rocky” twist and Ali fight add some nice colour to the tale, but this is, essentially, another retelling of an arrogant also ran boxer whose life outside the ring spiralled out of control. In Schreiber’s hands it’s easy to see why people were drawn to Wepner. He’s charismatic and despite his myriad flaws, likeable.
Good supporting work also comes from Moss (in an underwritten role), Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan as Wepner’s manager and best friend respectively but the movie, directed by Philippe Falardeau, like it’s main character, feels workmanlike. It covers large sections of the man’s life when it feels like a concentrated version may have been more compelling.
THE LOVERS: 3 ½ STARS
It is surprising “The Lovers,” a new family drama starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, doesn’t use the Earth, Wind and Fire song “After the Love is Gone” as a theme song. The hit tune and the movie share a common question, “Can love that's lost be found?”
Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) are an old married couple going through the motions of having a relationship. Both are having affairs, she with frustrated Irish novelist Robert (Aidan Gillen); him with unpredictable ballet teacher Lucy (Melora Walters). They are a couple on the verge of a break up, teetering dangerously close to divorce. There’s no acrimony, just disinterest, as they slowly grow apart.
It seems, as Earth, Wind and Fire might have sung on the soundtrack had the orchestra score been replaced with mid-70s smooth R&B, “What used to be right is wrong.” Then something remarkable happens. They find their old spark. But what to do about Robert and Lucy?
The set up sounds rom com-y, like a Garry Marshall film starring Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl but it’s not that. It’s quirkier, more complicated, richer largely due to Winger and Letts. Both are gifted actors, both bring believable emotional baggage to a couple on the search for satisfaction.
Complicating the already fraught situation is the arrival of the couple’s son Joel (Tyler Ross), and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Sula). The visit takes up the film’s final third and it is here where things go from understated to interesting. “They hate each other,” says Joel. “You gotta understand. I would love it if they left one another.” He uses them as an example of how not to live and asks Erin to punch him in the face if he ever starts behaving like them.
The true depth of their loveless dysfunction is revealed and it is here where the quiet desperation of their lives boils over. “It looks like you and mom are getting along,” says Joel. “Occasionally,” replies Michael.
“The Lovers” isn’t a flashy movie, like it’s suburbanite / cubicle setting it’s straightforward looking, but beneath the banal surface are bubbling, authentic emotions.
TOMMY’S HONOUR: 3 STARS
Long before Sergio García, Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer became the people most associated with the game of golf a father and son team were the most famous names on the fairway. A new film, “Tommy’s Honour,” lionizes Tom Morris (known as Old Tom and played by Peter Mullan) and Tommy Morris (Young Tom, played by Jack Lowden) as the founders of the modern game.
Based on the book “Tommy's Honour: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf's Founding Father and Son” and brought to the screen by Jason Connery, the film takes place against a backdrop of nineteenth century class struggle. Old Tom is the greenskeeper of Scotland’s St. Andrews Links, the largest golf complex in Europe. He is a traditionalist, a man accepting of his place in society. Not so his oldest son Tommy. A golf prodigy, he has a healthy disregard for authority and an eye toward doing things his way. He refuses to accept his lot in life—become a caddy and then one day, perhaps, work his way up to greenskeeper. His talent and arrogance win out, however, and even though championship play was reserved for the wealthy he went on to become (and still remains), at age 17, the youngest ever winner of what is now known as the British Open.
Flushed with success he demands a larger share of his winnings, butting heads with upper crust types like St. Andrews club captain Alexander Boothby (Sam Neill). Personally he defies his religious mother by dating Meg Drinnen (Ophelia Lovibond), an older woman with a scandalous past.
Showdowns, both personal and professional, follow as “Tommy’s Honour” explores the sport and societal norms of the time.
The best sports movies are never really about the sport and “Tommy’s Honour” is no different. Golf supplies the backdrop for an examination of the social shift of the game, from a gentleman’s past time to a game for (almost) everyone. It’s a class study with plenty of melodrama and father-and-son clashes that should supply some level of interest to non-golf fans.
Director Connery is workmanlike in his presentation of the story, preferring to simply document the performances rather than clutter the screen with fancy editing or swooping crane shots of St. Andrews. It’s a stately, traditionally made film about a radical change to the game.
Mullan hits a hole in one as Old Tom, bringing gravitas and fire to the role. Lowden is a fresh-faced find, a charismatic actor who carries the movie.
“Tommy’s Honour” succeeds because of its subtext, the underlying investigation of social mores of the day told through one family’s story and their influence on the game of golf.