Stomach-bursting, face-sucking Fassbender fabulousness

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is the eighth movie in the 38-year-old sci-fi horror Alien franchise. Following 2012’s Prometheus, the financially successful but fan-loathed prequel, Covenant tries to walk a fine line: The film throws enough red meat to ravenous Alien fanboys with stomach-bursting, face-sucking, don’t-go-in-the-basement grotesquery to get away with continuing Prometheus’ much-maligned, but wildly ambitious origin story of both the aliens and the human race. But while I appreciate the bloody legacy of Alien, I’ve seen those monsters be monstrous in the same manner, seen the humans make the same dumb fateful mistakes, now eight times. The only thing new is the mythology, and thankfully the great actor Michael Fassbender is the one making those myths.

Covenant starts 10 years after the end of Prometheus, when Elizabeth Shaw, last survivor of a research vessel, and her team’s android David (Fassbender) fly off into space in the spaceship belonging to giant human-looking beings dubbed the Engineers. The Engineers had both created life on Earth and created an alien-incubating virus that, it seems, they wanted to use to destroy humanity, and Shaw and David were traveling to find the Engineer’s home world and ask them why.

The new film begins with a totally unrelated ship named Covenant in the middle of a many-year trip to colonize a distant planet. Walter, an android that looks exactly like David, is watching over 15 sleeping crew members, 2,000 sleeping colonists and dozens of drawers of frozen human embryos. A random neutrino burst damages the ship and wakes the crew (killing the captain played by James Franco). While they’re repairing the ship, they hear a bizarre radio transmission, which they determine comes from a planet even more hospitable to life than their original destination, as well as seven years closer. Over the objections of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), new captain Oram (Billy Crudup) changes course.

This is the first of many, many mistakes this crew makes over the next hour and forty-five minutes. You can’t have a horror movie without careless or dumb characters doing something death-wishy, but the crew of Covenant seemed to have lost a substantial number of brain cells while they were asleep. Only Daniels and Walter have a healthy suspicion of the planet, but that’s not enough to prevent the snowballing doom when they arrive and we discover they’re on the planet Shaw and David had been looking for.

Fassbender was the best thing about Prometheus; David is one of the creepiest androids in science fiction, resourceful like Star Trek’s Data but also wily and unhinged like Westworld’s Maeve. As both the less problematic later model Walter and as David, Fassbender gets to act with one of the best actors in the world, himself. And he has a lot of fun, particularly as the effete David slowly reveals himself to the crew of Covenant and to the audience to be more than just a little over-programmed.

The rest of the cast, which includes Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo and Jussie Smollett, does a good job being fierce, scared or determined. Aside from Fassbender, only Crudup and Waterston have complex emotional and intellectual lives, which is a shame. McBride and Bichir are too talented to be wasted as simple cogs in the narrative machine. But to make a sci-fi epic, director Ridley Scott needs those cogs, the mandated conventions, and overdone tropes. Still, Scott makes genre films that are gorgeously shot, art directed with inspiration and never boring. But whether the Alien fanboys will give credit where it’s due is less predictable.

Alien: Covenant
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

The family that fights mercenaries and fascists together stays together

Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Part of why people loved Guardians of the Galaxy so much when it came out in 2014 was how surprised they were: The Guardians are not well-known characters outside of diehard Marvel Comics fans; no (at-the-time) major starred in the movie and few knew of writer-director James Gunn beyond his screenplay for Scooby Doo.

There was not much to expect. But Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive hit because it was thrilling, funny, nerdy and it featured Chris Pratt’s arrival as a major star. It’s considered by many to be the best or at least one of the best Marvel movies. So, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 had a lot to live up to. And while I couldn’t be pleasantly amazed again, I was still impressed by how much fun I had. The movie does all the things tent-poll comic book movies are supposed to do while doing something very few of them manage: be completely character driven.

The Guardians are comprised of their wise-cracking, Earth-born captain Peter Quill, or Star-Lord (Pratt), green-skinned and humorless warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), rascally racoon-looking Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper), oafish strongman Drax (Dave Bautista) and the tiny, talking tree toddler known as Groot, whose only words are “I am Groot.” (The phrase can mean anything and only Rocket knows how to interpret it.) The film begins with the Guardians killing a space monster for a gold-skinned race of fascist humanoids called the Sovereign in return for a prisoner of theirs: Nebula (Karen Gillan), the angry, blue-skinned sister of Gamora .

But as the Guardians leave the planet, the Sovereign attack; they are enraged when they discover Rocket has stolen a few of the Sovereign’s super-powered batteries. The Guardians escape but only because a mysterious, absurdly powerful man named Ego (Kurt Russell) incinerates the Sovereign ships. It turns out Ego is Peter’s long-lost father – who is also a millions-of-years-old god-like being called a Celestial. As Peter bonds with his dad, Gamora and Nebula fight, Drax has hilariously deep conversations with Ego’s empath companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff), while Rocket and Groot deal with the bounty-hunters and pirates called the Ravagers and their erstwhile leader and Peter’s former guardian Yondu (Michael Rooker).

There are a lot of characters and a lot of plot threads, and Gunn handles them expertly. He develops each character, giving them motivation, conflicts and almost complex emotions. The plots are created by the characters working to resolve these emotionally oriented problems, almost all of which revolve around how they create and sustain their families. In each case, these tough and rough heroes are resisting the connections right in front of them and seeking out the wrong goal, and they confront this error when they must fight a bunch of bad guys all at once. It’s a surprising moving and surprisingly sweet plot for a movie full of space explosions and weird-looking aliens.

The soundtrack is full of hits of the 1970s (ostensibly all found on Peter’s cassette tape Awesome Mix Vol. 2), and they are not used as ironic background noise but as commentary on the action: from “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass to “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, from “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison to “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac. “Brandy” is used particularly powerfully, with Ego explaining that he is like the sailor in the song: “But he made it clear he couldn’t stay / No harbor was his home.” It’s a romantic notion, but it’s also a sad one.

By the end, Peter realizes that nothing can replace the loss of his father, not even a God. But a family of space swashbucklers might come close.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Written and Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Kurt Russell
Rated PG-13

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Emotional realism isn’t easy to watch

It is likely that if you are reading this, you were either bullied in high school for not conforming to conservative gender roles or you consciously conformed to such roles so that you wouldn’t be bullied in high school. You may have gone the extra mile and bullied other kids to show how much you were not the kind of kid who should be bullied. Or you may have been bullied so severely that you contemplated or even attempted suicide.

It’s not just queer kids, out or in the closet, obviously. It can be just about anyone. Being bullied is strongly correlated with suicidality, and perhaps counterintuitively, as is being a bully. After falling for many years, suicide rates have been rising for teenagers overall, slightly for boys but dramatically for teenage girls. Over the last 15 years, for girls 10-14, it’s 300 percent higher, and for girls 15-24, it’s 50 percent higher.

It’s all quite sad and, for those of us who suffered in high school (and later), it’s upsetting. So why would we want to binge on a Netflix series about bullying and suicide? 13 Reasons Why, based on the bestselling young adult novel by Jay Asher and created by gay Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey, is certainly a drama about a girl who is bullied and then kills herself. It is meant to be an instructional and cautionary tale. It is as earnest as Heathers was satirical, but it is much more than an overlong version of the lame documentary Bully. It’s sad and fascinating and disturbing and enraging and occasionally funny, romantic and cathartic. It has a fantastic soundtrack, and it’s beautifully shot. It’s also flawed. The show has been the subject of extensive social media chatter for the last two weeks for all of those reasons, with even its haters watching the whole thing. I did so in 24 hours, even as I knew how much it manipulated me more than a narrative is supposed to.

The plot is structured by a smart gimmick. Beautiful teenage Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) has committed suicide and before she did so, she recorded her 13 reasons across seven and half cassette tapes. Each reason is focused on a different person who did something, something either horrific or just petty, leading her toward the decision. Each person is given the tapes, told to listen in order, and then pass them along to the next. Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) is the 11th side, and the show focuses on his experience listening to them.

A sweet, “good kid” (as his parents say more than once), he keeps almost all of his emotions sublimated, including his love for Hannah. He speaks to no one about the tapes except the other people on them. Some of them are his friends, but most of the kids are their school’s “popular” kids, and they do dreadful things to each other to remain popular, get ahead or prevent everyone from knowing their secret shames.

Hannah gets it the worse, but it’s not clear how reliable she is a narrator and not clear why some of the things that she claims to have set her on a course for suicide wouldn’t do so for anyone but someone who is already suffering from a mental illness. Research shows that 90 percent of people who commit suicide have an underlying mental health disorder, but the story allows Hannah to blame her suicide entirely on other people. It’s a bit much: One deserves to go to jail, and a few are dreadful people, but at least eight of the 13 were simply careless, at worst petty.

I guess some of why I kept watching was that I wanted to see who was really at fault. The narrative is propelled by numerous mysteries, from what Clay did to get on the tapes to who is on them to what was Hannah’s final straw. It’s also propelled by the unbelievable claim that Clay is too upset to listen to the tapes all in one sitting – unlike everyone else, who did it in one sitting – which gives him the opportunity to make the rest of the kids nervous, enraged and dangerously suspicious and the one big reason there are 13 full episodes of the show.

Despite this ridiculousness and despite how dreadful most of the kids are and how devoid of consciences at least three of them are, the show is engrossing and enveloping in a way that only the best teen-focused dramas are. In movies like The Spectacular Now, The Fault in Our Stars, or Thirteen, the emotional realism of adolescence is depicted by exceptional and artful acting, writing and directing. The latter includes such luminaries as Oscar-winners Tom McCarthy and Jessica Yu and indie legend Gregg Araki. Minnette is crushingly good in his grief and his love and Langford is luminous and fragile. Alisha Boe is heartbreaking and enraging as Hannah’s conflicted and damaged frenemy Jessica (Tape 1, Side A), while Brandon Flynn portrays Justin (Tape 1, Side B) with a pathetic and dangerous masculinity with a rarely allowed sensitivity. What 13 Reason Why does best is to show how complicated adolescent emotions are, how easily teenagers damage and are damaged, how easy technology amplifies bullies and bullying, and how hard it is to escape unscathed.

13 Reasons Why
Created by Brian Yorkey
Based on the novel by Jay Asher
Directed by Gregg Araki, Tom McCarthy, Jessica Yu and others
Starring Dylan Minnette, Katherine Langford and Alisha Boe
Whole series streaming on Netflix

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Refusing a genre, ‘Colossal’ is a revelation

The strongest of my genre expectations is that every film will exist in some sort of genre. And then, I expect that the conventions of that genre will convene, maybe with a few slips or surprises, but nothing more. When a film like Colossal comes along – a film that defies, ignores, mashes up and spits on multiple genres – I couldn’t help but be confused. Through half of it, I watched with my head tilted as if I were a puppy watching his owner practice yoga. It’s a talky indie comedy, a Korean monster movie, a feminist suspense film and an addiction parable; it’s funny, creepy, shocking and weird as hell. Clearly, the studio didn’t know what to do with it, because the trailer makes it seem like a slapstick rom com star vehicle for Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. It’s not.

Hathaway plays Gloria, an out-of-work New York writer who is drinking away her sorrows, her anxiety and her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). When he kicks her out after one-too-many all-night binges, she lands in the empty house where she grew up in Maidenhead, New Jersey. While walking home with her new inflatable bed, her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) drives by. He now owns his father’s bar, and they rekindle their friendship while drinking till dawn with his friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson). Oscar eventually offers a bartending job to Gloria; he clearly has a crush on her, but she seems more interested, at least while drunk, in Joel.

Meanwhile, a several-story-tall monster is randomly appearing in Seoul for a minute at a time and causing mass destruction. Not surprisingly, everyone is horrified and mystified, and Oscar’s bar does good business because of it. But then Gloria notices that the monster has the exact same body language she does, particularly at 8:05am when she’s walking home drunk through a nearby playground. Somehow, she is that monster – for a minute a day, from 7,000 miles away, and only in that little playground. She’s confused and feels horribly guilty for being responsible for the deaths of so many (nameless, faceless) Koreans. One morning, drunk as usual, she reveals her bizarre secret to her new friends, who are flabbergasted. And then it turns out that she’s not alone in her violent out of body transnational gigantism.

Gloria’s plight veers from ridiculous to pathetic to horrifying to hilarious, with the film starting as a comedy and ending in some sort of cathartic tragedy. The tone shifts make narrative and artistic sense, but they are certainly disconcerting, especially when you realize you’re watching comedic drunkenness that is killing hundreds of people on the other side of the planet. Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo doesn’t clearly signal to the audience how they’re supposed to feel about that or about Gloria’s emotional messiness in general, aside from bemused pity and confusion. But then the awkward love square created by Gloria’s flirtation with Joel, Oscar’s crush on Gloria and Tim and Gloria’s unresolved issues mashes up against the mysterious monster embodiment. Who’s good and who’s bad and what’s right and wrong becomes clear. And by the end it should be clear to most that the whole thing is a metaphor for the struggle with alcoholism.

Hathaway has done drunk well before, earning a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Rachel Getting Married. Gloria isn’t as well written a role, but Hathaway’s ability to seamlessly transition from broad comedy to dramatic grit is perfectly utilized. Except for Sudeikis, the rest of the cast mostly exist as plot devices, which is a shame considering the skills of Stevens and Nelson. Sudeikis, however, matches Hathaway’s skills in his portrayal of a not-so-secretly despondent drunk who is the life of the party one second and its destroyer the next. Oscar’s first appearance sets him up as the lead of a rom com, but then he becomes something much less safe and much more sinister, like the film as a while. Both are a revelation.

Written and Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

Do we really want to go back?

Trainspotting is the great film of the 1990s counterculture, its decade’s Easy Rider or Rebel Without a Cause. The tone poem about heroin addiction, friendship and the idiocy of youth among the Scottish working class arrived in the United States in the summer of 1996 laden by the weight of a Miramax publicity juggernaut, the massive popularity of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name and a burgeoning moral panic. Mothers and politicians were ringing their hands over a new heroin epidemic that had either been presaged or revealed by the heroin chic of Kate Moss and James King.

Opportunistic pundits argued that Trainspotting glamourized heroin, while people who had actually seen the film argued that it did just the opposite by providing us with some of the most indelible images of drugged degradation and sorrow in Western culture. The film catapulted to fame its stars Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Kelly McDonald and especially Ewan McGregor while announcing Danny Boyle as one of the great directors of the era. The film is a wildly imaginative kaleidoscope of music cues, tableaus and postmodern pastiche; it’s beautiful, horrifying, hilarious and deeply sad.

Why on earth would you make a sequel? It would seem like a bad idea: the first film was too iconic, the stakes would be too high. Welsh wrote a sequel called Porno and Boyle and Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodges almost made it in the mid-2000s, but Boyle has said, rather bluntly, that “it felt really not-good-enough, so we abandoned it.” Welsh’s story was an uninspired caper, and Boyle felt they were only making it for the money. After ten years pondering, Hodges and Boyle came up with something that was neither silly nor cynical. T2 Trainspotting is an inspired meditation on the very personal experiences of guilt and nostalgia and the culturohistorical problems of alienation and the ravages of capitalism.

Twenty years after the end of Trainspotting, after he stole the proceeds of a heroin deal from two of his friends, Renton (McGregor) returns to Edinburgh. He’s there to reconnect with his family and Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Simon, also known as Sick Boy (Miller). Renton had secretly given Spud his fair share of £4,000 (which Spud promptly shot up his arm), but he’d stiffed both Simon and their sociopathic compatriot Begbie (Carlyle). Renton arrives just in time to stop a despondent Spud from committing suicide, and when he finds Simon, who has traded heroin for cocaine, the two have a vicious, but slapstick, barroom brawl, and Renton gives him the money he’d stolen.

Along with Simon’s arch, wise-beyond-her years girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Renton, Spud and Simon revisit their friendship under the backdrop of the collapse of Edinburgh’s council houses and encroaching gentrification. Simon is secretly planning to betray Renton at some point as revenge, but when Begbie shows up, escaped from jail and struggling to connect with his son, he protects his friend with a complicated lie. Eventually, the schemes, lies, drugs and their various levels of competence at dealing with the modern legitimate world collide in a mess that seems quite fitting for our antiheroes.

T2 could not possibly be what Trainspotting was: a revelation, a representation of the zeitgeist. But in jettisoning Welsh’s parochial nihilism, Boyle and Hodges have made a movie about something much bigger than addiction and loyalty. They are bemoaning both the isolation of our hyper-mediated, deeply shallow culture and our nostalgic yearning for a past that never really existed. In giving us more complex versions of these famous characters – even Begbie’s behavior gets sympathetically explained – their plights seem more like our plights and thus more moving and more upsetting.

Renton’s revision of his classic “Choose Life” monologue that opened the previous film is a sublime and devastating ode to the loneliness and hopelessness of late capitalism. In having characters revisit the locations of many of the first film’s scenes while also strolling through the ruins of the British welfare state, the film both embraces and mocks its characters’ nostalgia. The characters do it, too: Simon snidely derides Renton’s too-fond memories of their youth in one of the film’s darkest moments. I felt implicated, too. Hodges and Boyle seem to be criticizing the audience for trying to rekindle its romance with Trainspotting and 1996. Do we really want to go back?

T2 Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by John Hodge
Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller
Rated R

Originally published in LGBT Weekly