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Posts Tagged ‘Katherine Waterston’

I’m aware that these little pieces which aspire to inform and educate about films can be a little on the long-winded side. It’s unusual for one of them to come in at less than eight hundred words, and most of them are over a thousand. Is all this verbiage strictly necessary to get my views across? Frankly, I’m not sure: I was at the pictures just today, and as the closing credits started to roll, my companion turned to look at me, and expressed his opinion eloquently and passionately using just one single monosyllabic word of Germanic derivation. Perhaps there is a happy medium to be struck; but on the other hand there’s also the fact that I have many empty hours to contend with and writing single-word film reviews wouldn’t do much to fill the time.

Anyway, the film which moved my friend to such a model of forthright concision was Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, which I think you’ll agree sounds jolly portentous. What dark deal has been struck, and how does it relate to H.R. Giger’s famous acid-blooded extraterrestrial killing machine? Well, um, er. The film has the portentous subtitle Covenant because it’s about a spaceship called the Covenant. Why is the spaceship called Covenant? Because the film needs a portentous subtitle and Alien: Saucy Sue or Alien: Spaceshippy McSpaceshipface just wouldn’t cut it. If this at all gives you the impression that the Alien franchise is showing signs of vanishing up one of its own glistening, biomechanical orifices, well, I commend you for your perspicacity, readers.

Scott’s last visit to this series, 2012’s Prometheus, enjoyed one of the most inescapable advertising campaigns I can remember and was generally hated by people expecting an Alien movie which had, you know, the actual alien in it. Things have been marginally more restrained publicity-wise this time around and it seems to me that a definite effort has been made to keep the fanbase on-side. Certainly the opening movements of the plot mimic those of the original 1979 film very closely: partway through a long-haul deep-space mission, the crew of the spaceship Covenant find themselves unexpectedly awakened, and detect a mysterious signal coming from a nearby planet. The captain (Billy Crudup) decides that they will go and take a look, much to the unease of his second in command (Katherine Waterston). The ship’s android (Michael Fassbender) doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion either way.

On arrival on the planet’s surface, the crew are presented with various mysteries, the primary one being a huge, horseshoe-shaped alien spacecraft. Unfortunately, one of the expedition is exposed to an alien life-form which uses his own flesh to gestate a vicious, lethal creature which puts everyone’s lives in danger…

Well, it’s not quite the play-by-play knock-off that I’m probably making it sound like – the relationships between the crew are different, not to mention their characters – Captain Oram is plagued by self-doubt and takes himself just a bit too seriously, for instance. But we are in rather familiar territory, and if you’ve seen the earlier movies you will certainly know the tune even if some of the words have been tweaked.

However, things go off in a new and slightly unexpected direction as the crew of the Covenant encounter David (Fassbender again), another android and apparently the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission, ten years earlier (in case you’re wondering, his body seems to have grown back since the last movie: this is handwaved away rather). The newcomers accept his offer of shelter against the perils of the planet’s ecosystem, but are startled when he takes them to an ancient ruined city built by alien humanoids. What happened to the planet’s original inhabitants? And exactly how has David been passing his time for the last ten years…?

One of the things we discussed while waiting for the movie to start were the similarities and differences between the Alien series and the stellar conflict franchise currently owned by the Disney corporation. Both started in the late 1970s, have dedicated fanbases, have provided many iconic screen moments, and have indulged in some dubious prequelising; you could argue that both ultimately owe an enormous debt to Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune movie. And, I would argue, both of them trade enormously on the reputation and quality of their initial couple of films: personally I didn’t find any of the stellar conflict movies completely satisfying between 1980 and last year (your mileage may differ, obviously), and while everyone seems to like Alien and Aliens, the other films in the franchise are much less loved (and a couple of them have apparently been stricken from the canon). The question in the case of the Alien series is quite simple: what new things can you find for this particular monster to do? Audiences, I suspect, just want more of the same experiences that they had during those two films.

When I eventually prevailed upon my companion to unpack his thoughts on the film a little, he complained that the new film wasn’t ever actually scary or particularly thrilling, and that all the most memorable and interesting bits should have gone into the Blade Runner sequel instead. He couldn’t understand why Ridley Scott had bothered to return to the Alien franchise if (as seemed the case) he had nothing new to bring to it, and even muttered darkly about the director going senile (note to Mr Scott’s lawyers: please don’t sue).

Well, my expectations were lower, I expect, because while I wasn’t tremendously impressed with Covenant, I found it fairly enjoyable for most of its running time. In many ways it’s much more of a direct sequel to Prometheus than I expected. One of the little commented-upon consequences of Prometheus’ release was Guillermo del Toro abandoning his long-cherished desire to film Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness, on the grounds that the plot and atmosphere would be just too similar – and the Lovecraftian overtones carry on into Covenant to some extent, with the action taking place in and around cyclopean alien citadels, with terrible secrets of a hostile, impersonal universe coming to light.

That said, they are careful to put some proper aliens into this one, including at least one interesting new variation on the classic beastie. The notion of a whole alien-influenced ecosystem is a fascinating one, but unfortunately not much gone into. The same can really be said for some of the film’s ideas about human teleology and ontology: there are scenes which set up this film as having some grand philosophical ground to cover, but in the end it just devolves into highly familiar running and screaming and shouting. It looks fabulous throughout, and Fassbender gives a brilliant double performance – through the magic of digital effects he gets to do all manner of things to and with himself, and the realisation of this is flawless.

However, this kind of leads us to the stuff about Covenant which I didn’t like, and this is a not inconsiderable matter. If the film-makers want to rewrite the ‘rules’ of the series, that’s their prerogative – the alien life cycle, which used to operate over a period of hours, if not days, is here compressed to a matter of minutes or seconds – but no amount of authorial wriggling can remove the problem that the plot of this movie is built around a reversal that simply doesn’t make sense, in terms of how it’s presented on screen at least. You can also argue that a key plot twist is extremely guessable. I liked much of Alien: Covenant enough to indulge it for most of its running time, but together these things conspired to kick me out of the movie for its final segment.

The film concludes with a relatively short concluding section which seems, again, designed to resonate and chime with fans of the first couple of movies. I suppose it works on some level, but it – along with much of the ‘traditional’ Alien-themed material – almost feels like a contractual obligation in a film which is perhaps at its best tackling the same kind of grand philosophical concepts as Prometheus.

The problem is that Prometheus arguably failed, as an Alien sequel at least. The job of this kind of sequel is essentially to remind you of what a good time you had watching the original film, by restaging it in a slightly modified form. Innovation in a sequel is always a risky proposition and one best done very sparingly. Alien: Covenant works hard to include all the key scenes, concepts, and tropes you might expect from a film in this series, and if the result is something that feels like a karaoke version of one of the original films, with a slightly odd new arrangement of the melody, then I expect that will do the producers very nicely and allow the franchise to trundle on for a good while yet. But the fact remains that, although good-looking and often well-acted, Alien: Covenant is just too incoherent and slavishly derivative a movie to give the audience the same delighted sense of intertwined novelty and familiarity provided by the last stellar conflict prequel. In space, no-one can hear you scream – but in a movie theatre, you can certainly hear the person next to you grumble, and with pretty good reason in this case.

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I hate to break it to you, but we are currently approximately 16% of the way through the 21st century. All resources must be exploited. All revenue streams must be maximised. The chances of anything still popular and therefore financially viable being allowed to remain a fond memory are, to be perfectly honest, zero. So it should come as no surprise that it has been decreed that the vastly lucrative entity that was the Harry Potter film series has lain fallow long enough, and that a series of prequel movies has duly started to appear. (It took about fifteen years for the original Star Wars trilogy to get prequelated; ten years for The Lord of the Rings; with Harry Potter the delay is down to five. At this rate the prequels will soon start coming out in double bills with the films they are based on.) First out of the blocks to hoover your money is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David ‘Safe Pair of Hands’ Yates.

fantastic_beasts

(What, too much? You may have a point, especially considering I was rather positive about Yates’ Tarzan movie, which only came out a few months ago: he must have knocked this one out in a couple of weekends. Well, anyway: you must forgive me, it’s my age. Come on, it’s not as if JK Rowling actually needs the money or anything.)

All righty then: the story opens with the arrival in New York, New York of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He is a traveller who appears to be British, has floppy hair, is terribly eccentric yet clearly meant to be hugely endearing, wears a bow tie, and has a battered old box which is bigger on the inside than the outside (hey, I’m just saying). Newt is, of course, a wizard, for we are in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (TM), although we are also in 1926 on this occasion.

Inside Newt’s magic box are his collection of magic animals, a.k.a. weird little chunks of CGI, which he frequently fishes out and bonds with; so often, in fact, that you begin to fear for Redmayne’s sanity after all that acting to empty air and golf-balls on sticks. His visit to the States runs into trouble when he accidentally mixes up his case with that of aspiring baker and non-magician Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and several of the little buggers inevitably escape. This draws the attention of magical cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her kooky sister (Alison Sudol).

The magical authorities of the States are not best pleased as it seems that some kind of supernatural menace is already on the loose in the Empire City, preying on normal people and wizards alike, with top wizard-cop Colin Farrell on the case. Can Newt and his friends recapture all his lumps of CGI and solve the mystery of what’s really going on?

The ardour of the Harry Potter fanbase is still such that a film like Fantastic Beasts is effectively critic-proof; and sure enough this one has made over $270 million in about a week of release. Anyway, it would be remiss of me to say that it is an actual waste of time, money, and talent, for clearly a lot of thought, imagination and skill has gone into creating the world and story of the film.

Even so, one can’t help but notice that this first made-directly-for-the-screen tale has ditched the British setting for something more familiar to that big audience in the USA (i.e, a setting in the USA). It hasn’t become totally Americanised, but something very odd still seems to have happened: this is a film with a main character who resembles an American person’s idea of what the British are like, set in a place which is a British person’s idea of what America is like. Then again, it’s JK Rowling, so you don’t turn up expecting reality, and the two things do kind of balance each other out.

That said, I’m rather less impressed with Rowling the screenwriter than I was with Rowling the novelist: the story is reasonably well-structured, and properly cinematic in scope, but the plotting is considerably less impressive, the tendency towards sentimentality seems rather stronger, and as usual the thing is in dire need of a good no-nonsense editor.

Possibly the most serious problem, which may become more obvious as this series goes on – apparently four (four?!?) more prequels are in the works – is that very sense of self-indulgence, of the film being its own raison d’etre. I still think much of the success of the Harry Potter books was down to their comforting familiarity to parents rather than children: there’s a touch of Agatha Christie to that fiendishly clever plotting, and also of Enid Blyton in the Three Have A Wizard Time vibe which is so often in evidence. Underneath all the intricate world-building they are on some level pastiches of different kinds of story.

Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, is just a fantasy with a couple of right-on subtexts of brick-through-your-window subtlety, coupled to a lot more world-building. Some of this is interestingly unexpected: the magical community in the USA, despite having a female president (told you it was a fantasy), is by no means depicted entirely flatteringly – they are autocratic and alarmingly fond of the death penalty. But much of the rest of it may not be that interesting to you if you’re not already a pretty heavy-duty Harry Potter fan, and many of the references to characters and so on from the previous films and books may likewise go over your head if you’re not one of the faithful. Due to my abnormally retentive mind, I think I got most of the references, but even so I thought much of the climax was rather underwhelming – there didn’t seem to me to be a lot at stake, at least nothing I’d been made to care about. Some concluding revelations in particular are most likely to simply baffle people who maybe saw all the earlier films once each when they came out, and can’t remember all the labyrinthine backstory of every major character.

Still, it looks suitably lavish and there are some nice performances: Redmayne is a bit too mannered for my tastes, but Fogler gives a charming performance, Farrell gives proceedings some heft, and they appear to have finally run out of new ways to smother Ron Perlman in latex rubber: he appears here via mo-capping, as a goblin who seems to be in desperate need of a chiropractor. None of it is actively bad, although Sudol’s performance possibly comes close in terms of sheer capacity to annoy, and I have no doubt the expectant masses will lap it up like butterbeer.

Fantastic Beasts is, though, primarily a film which has been made to service an existing fanbase, and just how much you enjoy it will probably depend on how much of a true believer you are. I was never really one of the faithful, certainly as far the movies go, and so I found this film to be a reasonable diversion, perhaps rather overlong and a bit schmaltzy, but generally inoffensive overall. It will be interesting to see how well this film does over the whole length of its release, and whether subsequent instalments will direct themselves quite so exclusively at the core audience. And if it sounds to you that I’m treating this film more as an exercise in branding and marketing than an actual piece of storytelling – well, I commend you on your perspicacity. But it is 2016, after all.

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Have you ever had that experience when someone or something gives you such a moment of concentrated rapture that it puts you in their power forever after? It doesn’t matter how frustratingly non-rapturous subsequent encounters with said subject is, you are always inclined to cut them some slack simply because, well, you can’t escape that one moment when everything was utterly, obliteratingly perfect.

I’m really starting to feel that way about Paul Thomas Anderson. My big shiny moment with this guy came fifteen years ago, with the release of the extraordinary Magnolia, a film which instantly rocketed onto my list of all-time favourites. (Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve watched it in over a decade: perhaps I’ve just been afraid to discover time has not been kind to it.) That film was enough to make me turn up to practically every Anderson movie since – Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, I’ve been there for all of them, and found myself having to contend with my own bemusement: for all of these films are clearly the work of a master, but a master who seems to be deliberately underperforming.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep coming as long as he keeps filming, because none of these films have actually been anything less than striking and memorable. So it was that I turned up to his latest offering, Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a novel by reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon.

inherent vice

Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the story is that of hippy private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (nicknamed thus presumably because he meets clients in the back of a doctor’s surgery), who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film opens with him taking on a number of apparently disparate cases: his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) believes her new beau may be in danger of kidnap by his own wife and her lover, a Black Panther hires him to track down a Nazi skinhead who owes him money, and a young widow (Jena Malone) wants him to help confirm her belief that her husband (Owen Wilson) may not be as dead as has been widely advertised. Despite being medicated to the point of semi-consciousness much of the time, Doc sets to work, and discovers strange connections between all three enquiries: namely, a secretive organisation known as the Golden Fang. Between the perils of the cases and the hostility of the local detective (Josh Brolin), will Doc be able to uncover the truth?

Well, normally spoilers would dictate me giving away the ending, but in this case I’m not entirely sure what the ending is. You know how most people don’t remember anything about their lives prior to the age of four or five? I’ve always thought this is because when you’re really young, you’re not aware of what anything around you actually means, so you can’t store it in your memory – in the same way it’s much easier to remember a sentence in English than one in a language which is completely alien to you. Well, in the same way, sort of, my memory of much of the latter stages of Inherent Vice is deeply confuzzled, because past a certain point I had absolutely no clue what was going on. The basic connections of the plot just weren’t there, and I was left with a sequence of scenes in which various characters appeared and had conversations which I almost understood, but which had only tenuous links with the scenes preceding and following them.

A wise friend observed to me that this narrative incoherence is all part of Anderson’s intention for the film, which is to recreate the experience of being deeply stoned without the actual need for pharmaceutical ingestion. I’m not so sure, but it is true that Inherent Vice remains a crazy, distinctive trip. Anderson has assembled his usual excellent cast, including people like Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and (cameoing) an on-form Eric Roberts, and it’s never actually boring to watch. Phoenix gives another charismatic, hugely likeable performance as Doc, and it’s just a shame that the actual narrative doesn’t live up to those of some other films in the LA private detective genre.

I’m thinking of things like Chinatown and even The Rockford Files (which features an equally amiable anti-hero), but the stoner-on-a-mission plot most recalls The Big Lebowski. This type of story has a noble history, going all the way back to Raymond Chandler, of using the detective genre to say things about the nature of wider society. Much of Inherent Vice is so bizarre and disjointed that it’s hard to tell if it’s attempting to make such a comment: but I suspect the title may be significant. It refers to the extent to which many things are fragile and perishable by their very nature: nearly everything turns to rubbish in the end. It’s a downbeat message for a film which is about characters who mainly seem to be trying to live in the moment. I suppose a further theme is that Doc and his stoner friends, who are despised by ‘respectable’ society, actually have more decency and integrity than the police, businessmen, dentists, and so on. But I am hesitant to claim too many insights, for obvious reasons.

It’s never actually dull to watch, and Anderson displays his usual technical mastery: here he shows a great fondness for the occasional very long take, usually in a two-handed scene. The film is full of wit and incident, and in its early stages is frequently very funny, though it darkens considerably as it goes on, and the ending, to the extent that I understood it at all, seemed rather ambiguous.

Inherent Vice has had some glowing reviews from respectable critics, which means one of three things: a) the press pack contains a detailed synopsis allowing them to follow the plot while watching the film, b) their refined sensibilities allow them to enjoy the cinematography, direction, and so on, without having to worry too much about the story making sense, or c) proper critics are just really, really clever. My money’s on b), to be honest. In any case, I’m reluctant to dismiss this movie out of hand: it has that aura of class about it, for all that the actual narrative is maddeningly obscure, to the point of virtually seeming incoherent. But then again, I’m inherently biased where Paul Thomas Anderson is concerned.

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