Category Archives: Movies

Alien: Covenant – A Messy Prequel-Sequel

Alien: Covenant (2017) stars Katherine Waterston as a colony ship scientist named Daniels, and Michael Fassbender, who plays dual roles as two androids named David and Walter, in a sci-fi horror film and the latest installment in the Alien franchise. It was directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan and Dante Harper. John Logan is an accomplished screen writer, but this was Dante Harper’s first screenplay. Michael Green (of Sex and the City and Green Lantern) and Jack Paglen are credited with writing the story.

So many different writers is probably why Alien: Covenant felt like so many different films. It was supposed to be a sequel to Prometheus (2012), but often felt like a reboot of Alien (1979). Minus the events on the planet’s surface, Alien: Covenant was basically an updated version of the original. It flirted with its roots as a horror film, but lacked tension and suspense.

Alien: Covenant begins in a sterile room with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his synthetic creation, David. They muse on the nature of creation before the film shifts to the colonization ship Covenant, which is heading toward a remote planet, Origae-6. A neutrino burst damages the ship as it is recharging, killing some colonists as well as the ship’s captain, Jacob Branson (James Franco). The crew wakes up and Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes command. While making repairs, pilot Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride) hears a strange signal. The crew tracks the signal to a nearby planet and decides to investigate.

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The Founder

The Founder (2016) stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who took a local California fast food restaurant called McDonald’s and turned it into a global, multi-billion dollar empire. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch co-star as McDonald’s founders Richard and Maurice McDonald. It was written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, who also directed Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Blind Side (2009).

Ray Kroc was born in Oak Park, Illinois and he opened his first McDonald’s franchise on Lee Street in Des Plaines, where I grew up. I passed by the old McDonald’s museum hundreds of times, but never knew the story of how McDonald’s got its start. Ray Kroc himself was responsible for much of the popular mythology behind the company’s founding. His claim of being “the founder,” despite his first McDonald’s restaurant actually being the ninth, was so ostentatious, it turned out to be the perfect title for a film about his life.

The film charts Ray Kroc’s rise from struggling milkshake salesman to restaurant/real estate mogul, his tumultuous relationship with the McDonald brothers and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), and his unshakable faith in persistence. The movie’s first half tells the inspiring story of how Kroc turns around his business prospects despite daunting odds. The second half shows him screwing over everyone who helped him along the way, even stealing a restaurant owner’s wife.

The Founder is historically accurate, for the most part. Some of Kroc’s relationships are simplified for the sake of plot, including omitting a brief second marriage before marrying Joan, the restaurant owner’s wife. In real life, Joan was not actually married to the restaurant owner as the film depicts, but to another man who became a manager at McDonald’s. It also omits Ray’s daughter, Marilyn.

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War Machine

War Machine (2017) stars Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a fictional commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009. It is a savage parody of General Stanley McChrystal and the U.S. and Coalition War in Afghanistan, based on The Operators (2012) by Michael Hastings, a sleazy reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed. Hastings’ hit piece on General McChrystal in Rolling Stone led to his resignation as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and retirement from the Army in 2010.

The film opens as hard-fighting General Glen McMahon arrives in Afghanistan to whip things into shape and finally win the war. The narrator tells us General McMahon is a soldier’s soldier, a West Point and Ranger School graduate who eats once a day, gets four hours of sleep a night, and runs seven miles every morning.

His staff includes a civilian press adviser, Matt Little (Topher Grace), X.O. Colonel Cory Staggart (John Magaro), Major General Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), “tech whiz” Andy Moon (RJ Cyler), Navy Seal Major Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes), Admiral Simon Ball (Daniel Betts), and Sergeant Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen). Together, they believe they can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

General McMahon quickly learns he’s up against some tougher opponents than the Taliban, including obstinate government officials, reluctant NATO allies, and a hostile press. Even U.S. soldiers, given voice by Marine Corporal Billy Cole (Lakeith Stanfield), are skeptical of their mission and its chances for success. McMahon must use unconventional tactics and the force of his personality to fully implement his grand plan for victory.

In the military, commanders are given a high degree of discretion over their troops. They are accustomed to getting what they want and not hearing the word “no.” Like Colonel Joshua Chamberlain says in the movie Gettysburg (1993), there’s nothing so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield. So it’s easy to see how frustrated generals can be when constantly butting heads with civilian authorities who think they know the general’s job better than he does. War Machine artfully and humorously depicts this situation.

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The Circle: Style Over Substance

The Circle (2017) stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young woman who lands a dream job at a tech company called The Circle. Skeptical at first, she comes to embrace The Circle’s vision of total openness and transparency, until ultimately uncovering the company’s nefarious agenda. It is based on a novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. The Circle is visually impressive, blending current and speculative technology to bring to life a world where the digital and physical overlap. If Apple made a movie, it would look like this. Clean, simple, elegant. Unfortunately, its message is lost in a plot thinner than an iPhone 7.

The Circle was founded by Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) and Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and designed by Ty Lafitte (John Boyega). Since growing into a Google-esque tech giant, Ty Lafitte has faded into the background, becoming an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure who quietly opposes its agenda. The Circle integrates everything about your life into one system, seeking to acquire an ever-increasing amount of personal data, including placing cameras all over the world to monitor and analyze all human activity.

The Circle is a progressive and hip company that provides everything for its employees on its massive campus. Parallels to Apple and Steve Jobs are obvious (Eamon Bailey even holds casual talks where he announces products to his employees). Employees are peer pressured into conformity and relying on The Circle for social acceptance, entertainment, and even health. While employees are continually encouraged to “become more transparent,” Stenton and Bailey operate in secrecy, hiding their future plans and true motivations. Their agenda is so secret, not even the film’s audience ever finds out what they’re up to.

Is privacy important? Is transparency always good? Those are the questions I thought this film set out to explore. Don’t expect any clear answers. Mae Holland is converted to The Circle’s philosophy after she steals a kayak and would have drowned in San Francisco Bay if not for the cameras secretly recording her activity. She decides to go “fully transparent,” broadcasting her every experience through cameras. Later, however, she is pressured into using this technology to find her ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who flees the cameras and drives off the San Francisco Bridge. Though depressed, she determines to “fix” the system. “When a plane crashes, you make planes safer, you don’t stop flying,” she tells her parents.

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Quest for Fire

Quest for Fire (1981), or La guerre du feu, is a French film depicting primitive man’s struggle to attain fire in Middle Paleolithic Europe. This movie fascinated me as a kid, but I haven’t seen it for nearly two decades. I recently decided to watch it again, to see if adulthood would ruin the magic. After 35 years, it still holds up as a cinematic achievement. Written by Gérard Brach, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, and based on a Belgian novel of the same name by J.H. Rosny, it stars Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, Nicholas Kadi, and Rae Dawn Chong. This was Ron Perlman’s first film. Jean-Jacques Annaud also directed The Name of the Rose (1986), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), and Enemy at the Gates (2001).

Quest for Fire follows four Paleolithic humans as they search for a source of fire, the only thing that provides warmth, light, and security in a hostile world. As the film opens, the Wagabu, a savage tribe of ape-like Neanderthals, attacks a tribe of Homo sapiens, the Ulam, as they lounge in their cave. After a fierce battle, the Ulam scatter and find themselves in a marsh, where their pilot light (for lack of a better term) is extinguished. The tribal elder sends three men, Naoh (Everett McGill), Amoukar (Ron Perlman), and Gaw (Nicholas Kadi), to find a new source of fire, since they cannot create it themselves.

Along the way, Naoh, Amoukar, and Gaw rescue Ika (Rae Dawn Chong) from a tribe of red-haired cannibals, the Kzamm. Ika belongs to the Ivaka, an advanced tribe of Homo sapiens. The Ivaka have mastered building shelter, using gourds as cups and bowls, atlatl, and most importantly, the ability to make fire with a hand drill. Together, the four return fire to the Ulam, but not before defeating a rival faction using their newly acquired, advanced weaponry.

After all these years, Quest for Fire holds up so well partially because there were no special effects. Most scenes were shot in a single take, and the dialog consists of grunts, gestures, and a primitive language created by novelist Anthony Burgess. All the animals are played by actual animals, even the mammoths.  The mammoths, I admit, look goofy, but I was surprised to learn the filmmakers used circus elephants to portray them. Like The Revenant (2015), Quest for Fire features a bear attack, but unlike The Revenant, the bear in Quest for Fire is 100 percent real, not CGI. There’s something unnerving about watching actual lions prowl beneath a flimsy tree, waiting for the three helpless cavemen to fall, as opposed to fake, CGI monstrosities.

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Kong: A Monstrous Popcorn Flick

Samuel L Jackson fights CGI monsters in this nostalgia-driven reboot of the 1933 classic King Kong. This is the third remake/reboot of King Kong. Though essential elements of the original remain, Kong: Skull Island (2017) is set in 1973, at the end of the Vietnam War. It is replete with counter-culture references and music from the period, with the addition of a marooned WW2 vet to appeal to Baby Boomers and their parents alike. Nostalgia is the only explanation I have for why this film has gotten such good reviews. The dialog, acting, plot, and CGI are all mediocre. Its only redeeming quality is the ending fight scene between Kong and a giant skullcrawler called Ramarak.

The plot is straightforward. Bill Randa (John Goodman), a monster-hunter, attains funding to travel to an uncharted Pacific island under the guise of a geologic  mapping expedition. He enlists the help of former British Special Air Service Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), and “antiwar” photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), alongside various Landsat employees. Once over the island, they encounter Kong, who smashes their helicopters. The survivors find a primitive tribe living on the island, alongside a stranded WW2 fighter pilot, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). From there, they must cross the island to safety while avoiding oversized creatures and carnivorous skullcrawlers.

While the 2005 Peter Jackson remake staring Jack Black wasn’t great either, I preferred that version of Kong. He was essentially just a giant silverback gorilla, with complex emotions and mannerisms copied from real life. In contrast, this Kong was as tall as a skyscraper, walked upright, and had two emotional states: pensive and roaring loudly. He’s also somehow impervious to .30 cal machine gun bullets, fire, and razor-sharp teeth.

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