Friday, 19 May 2017

David at the movies: a John Hurt moment

ALIEN: COVENANT


Prometheus (2012) was a prequel to Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). Covenant, also directed by Ridley (Gladiator) Scott, is a sequel to the prequel. Are you still with me? Keep up!

Ten years on from our last venture into deepest darkest space, another vast spaceship full of cryogenically dormant colonists is diverted by a radio signal to the planet where the Prometheus is marooned with robot David (‘synthetics’, they prefer to be called) the last survivor. Even before they find David, two of the crew inhale something nasty which puts the viewer on alert for a ‘John Hurt’ moment: there will be more than two of these.

The Covenant also has a synthetic crew member, Walter. Walter is an ‘upgrade’ of David, but his twin in looks, with both of them played by Michael Fassbender. Much as we had good Arnie and bad Arnie in the first two Terminator films, we have good and bad synthetics here, supplying the main plot ingredient – unless you think of the mutations and killings as the main course on the menu, which they more or less are.

The CGI (awesome) and the pace (erratic) of this epic try, not entirely successfully, to blind us to the fact that both on the planet and back on the mothership, there is some heavy recycling of the first two episodes in this 38-year saga. Billy Crudup’s captain is very much a re-run of the doomed captain of the Nostromo, and Katherine Waterston’s ballsy Daniels is practically a clone of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (who was, as we fondly remember, cloned herself in 1997’s Resurrection). Michael Fassbender is glamorous and persuasive in his Frankensteinian double role, but some of us still yearn for Sigourney to return.

Covenant is more of an action movie than Prometheus, which ventured down the mock-philosophical road of the Star Trek series. It’s also more of a horror movie, with regular infusions of ‘face-huggers’ and slaughter. Good scary fun. This franchise still has plenty of (alien) life in it.


THEIR FINEST



In wartime London a secretary from Wales, Catrin Cole, goes to work for the government’s propaganda film division. She has no screenwriting experience and is only required to write the ‘slop’ dialogue for the female characters in their latest production, which dramatizes the story of two sisters from Devon who pinched their father’s fishing boat to join the rescue of troops from Dunkirk. Of course, Catrin will prove indispensable to the success of the movie.

This is a slight comedy-romance with a feel of (deliberate?) amateurishness about it. London during the Blitz is splendidly recreated, but the cast of the movie – as well as the movie within the movie – play it like the members of a provincial repertory company; Jeremy Irons, Richard E. Grant and Henry Goodman turn in fruity cameos. Jake Lacy is appealingly awful as the US war hero pasted into the Dunkirk story, a hero with great looks and zero acting skill. Bill Nighy is encouraged to grandstand as an old ham whose ego is greater than his talent; he plays Ambrose in the style of Laurence Olivier, but the character rather recalls Sir Donald Wolfit (even more wonderfully sent up by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood).

Gemma Atherton is charming in the central role, although her Welsh accent doesn’t always hold up (reminding me of Vivien Leigh’s Belgravia Southern belle in GWTW). A star-crossed love story descends into mawkishness towards the end, but the film works best as a tribute to the chestnutty yesteryear comedies from Ealing Studios which we all hold so dear.


A DOG'S PURPOSE


If you love dogs (I hope this includes all my readers) you will adore this movie. If you don’t, take a hike – now. (All my hikes are with my dog.)

An engaging Buddhist philosophy underscores this tail – whoops, this tale – of four dogs who share the same ‘soul’ (isn’t it fantastic to be assured that our pets have souls?). Voiced by Josh Gad, our hero’s second and longest life is as the cherished companion of Ethan (K.J. Apa), a likeable teenager whose dreams of a sports scholarship and high-school romance  are egged on by the even-more-likeable Bailey. 

The trouble with a reincarnation movie is that Bailey has to die to be reincarnated. The cinema was awash with tears – and you have to go through this more than once. You somehow know that Bailey's next life as a police dog is unlikely to have a happy-ever-after. The final incarnation – perhaps only for now (there can be countless sequels)  – features Dennis Quaid as a curmudgeonly old geezer who will … well, you can guess what’s coming. The ending takes schmaltz to a new high – or, if your critical faculties haven’t been washed away completely, a new low.

Yes, there’s schmaltz overkill here. But I love dogs, and I adored this movie. The canine actors are splendid, and the humans acquit themselves very well also. 

A dog's purpose, most of us already know, is to love unconditionally. This movie affirms that - and does it beautifully.

Dennis Quaid with Buddy, Bailey's fourth incarnation.

A QUIET PASSION


Emily Dickinson lived her entire life (1830-1886) in Amherst, Massachusetts, rarely leaving the town and, in middle age, not even leaving the family home. She never married and, in this biopic, only once falls seriously in love – with a married vicar who almost certainly did not know of her “quiet passion”. A young man who courts her later in the movie has to talk to her unseen at the top of the stairs.

Dickinson’s life lacks the stuff that might make a substantial movie. Cynthia Nixon does a valiant job of giving her substance – in conversations and arguments with her sister (Jennifer Ehle), her father (Keith Carradine, looking like a Mount Rushmore effigy) and visitors and relatives – but what little drama there is here comes from illness and death scenes, of which there are many, long drawn out. The overdone manners of the era are parodied in drawing-room scenes borrowed from Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, scenes that are pleasingly comic but seem more than a little contrived. Nixon reads some of the verse in voice-over but the early efforts, celebrating Nature, are not in Walt Whitman’s league and only the later poems anticipating (almost inviting) Death have any real resonance. It is for these that Emily Dickinson is mostly remembered.

The cinematography is splendid, and the costumes and the over-furnished sets convey a stifling sense of the period. A moment in which portraits of the younger Dickinsons morph into their older selves is exquisite and there’s another nice one at the end. The script – and the direction – struggle to make a mountain out of the molehill that was Emily’s life. I was constantly thinking how much more ‘oomph’ there is in an Austen or a Brontë adaptation.


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