About sdouglasferguson

I have many years of academic training in many aspects of film making. Most thoroughly in writing and acting, but also in cinematography, editing, and direction. I've decided to use that experience and passion to write this blog reviewing mostly new, but occasionally older, film with an academic focus.

Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay; 2017)

I spoil the end of the movie in this review, if a movie this horrible to begin with can truly be said to be spoiled, so proceed at your own risk.  But, trust me, it’s a lousy movie which you shouldn’t see so the risk is pretty minimal.

Transformers: The Last Knight opens during the Dark Ages during a war between King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and an unknown force.  The men in King Arthur’s cadre of warriors ask him about Merlin (Stanley Tucci) and where he is, while others write Merlin off as a worthless drunk.  We then cut to Merlin and find that he is, indeed, a drunk, but that he knows the location of a Transformer.  The Transformer has a staff that Merlin needs to control a dragon Transformer, and when drunk Merlin swears off drink and money for the rest of his life if he can have the staff, the Transformer for some unknown reason decides that Merlin can now have the staff and Merlin saves the day for Arthur with his mechanical dragon.  Why the staff is needed to bring the dragon into the fight is never made clear.  Why the dragon is needed to win in the first place is also never made even remotely clear since Arthur had 5 normal Transformers fighting for him where their unnamed enemy just had normal Dark Ages people with normal Dark Ages technology.  And, in the main story which takes place 1600 years later it is also never made clear why this staff can only be wielded by a descendant of Merlin nor why the staff is needed at Stonehenge when the planet of Cybertron and the creator of the Transformers,  Quintessa (Gemma Chan), are attacking Earth.  It’s even unclear in the film’s climax because when Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) the said last descendant of Merlin gets her hands on the staff, the dragon shows up and the heroes just win.  Because. Cybertron is still there and it isn’t clear what happened to Quintessa, but the script and director apparently decided the plot did what it needed to do, so the heroes win.  Yay!

At one point mid-movie when Cogman (Jim Carter), a rather annoying butler Transformer (that’s a thing) is speaking to is speaking to Cade (Mark Wahlberg) one of the other Transformers, I can’t tell which one since all the Transformers show up at random with no purpose and have a line or two each at most, approaches them and asks “Who is this?”  Cogman immediately spins around and breaks all of the fingers on the larger Transformer’s right hand.  Why?  I guess random acts of extreme violence performed on a large thing by a small thing are hilarious in the minds of Michael Bay and his fans.

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Slightly before this, our female lead Vivian gets into an argument with her elder female family members about why she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she gets into a car and reads a note, but the car is a Transformer which immediately kidnaps her!  Why did she just climb into a random car?  Beats the crap out of me.  How did she know there was a note inside that was for her?  Who knows?  But she needed to get kidnapped and whisked away to Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) otherwise how could we have a good looking woman in the movie to gawk at?

This is the intelligence on display throughout the entirety of Transformers: The Last Knight‘s running time.  It’s not too uncommon for the cast and crew of a film to miss an important detail or two and leave behind plot holes to annoy their audience, but Transformers: The Last Knight never bothers to make any sense of anything from the get-go.  A character motivation is whatever Michael Bay incorrectly believes will get the biggest laugh and nothing more.  Occasionally it’s whatever will let him blow things up, but not a single action taken on the part of a single character is tied to any exposition, world laws, motivation, nor anything else other than the law of what would titillate a teenage male of very low intelligence.

Transformers: The Last Knight is the cinematic equivalent of a cat chasing a laser pointer where the audience is the cat.  It’s staring at a screen, drooling, and exclaiming “Oooh colors!”, and if that were all there was to this movie I would simply chalk it up as a bad movie, tell you I don’t recommend it as anything more than the possible subject of a do it yourself MST3K party, and leave it at that.  But, Transformers: The Last Knight takes it one step farther and actually crosses the line from horrible into downright offensive.

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Yes, it does have the racist undertones of previous movies, but those jokes are at least a little toned down here, not that that’s an excuse just an explanation that this isn’t the film’s biggest problem.  Transformers: The Last Knight includes two characters amongst its cast that are touted as smart people.  One is the female lead Vivian mentioned a few times earlier.  She has a PhD in history and archaeology and is a professor at a prestigious English university, I can’t recall exactly which one.  The other smart character is a scientist of an unknown discipline who people in the Earth military call on when it’s found that Cybertron is making its way directly toward Earth.

Throughout the course of the movie, Vivian makes snarky comments to Cade, falls in love with Cade because he has abs, screams, wears skintight clothing and glasses (because she’s smart), finds out she is the last descendant of Merlin, gets kidnapped, and ends the movie when she touches the staff she’s supposed to touch.  It’s bad enough that so much of this is incredibly sexist, but it’s made worse by the fact that her multiple advanced degrees and prestigious employment are in the movie purely so Michael Bay can say he has a smart woman in the movie and so she has an excuse to look down on people arrogantly until she sees their abs.  The unnamed military scientist’s role is even worse, put into the film only to play an obnoxious, arrogant nerd stereotype and to scream about how physics are more dependable than magic only to then be wrong and screw up every single thing he does.  Transformers: The Last Knight does not settle for merely being stupid, it goes all the way to straight out anti-intellectual.

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Final verdict:  If Tom & Jerry cartoons confuse you due to the high amount of intellect required to understand them, then perhaps this is a movie for you. Otherwise, Transformers: The Last Knight is a movie that is not content to be simply terrible and a jumbled mess of confused actions and images, it is also racist, sexist, and paranoid of anything with an IQ greater than the mid double digits and any degree of any kind.  Transformers: The Last Knight should not just be avoided, it should be shunned, as it is the embodiment of exactly the attitude which is running through American culture right now that makes us so susceptible to charlatans and those who seek to exploit anyone they can for their own greed and narcissism.   This film is worse than bad, it’s downright irresponsible and evil.

 

 

Rough Night (Aniello; 2017)

I had some serious reservations regarding seeing this movie despite really liking the cast.  How many mishaps at a party comedies do we really need?  This looked to be a remake of Weekend at Bernies, The Hangover, Very Bad Things, Bridesmaids or any of a number of other more forgettable films along these same lines.  Plus, it has a title so rote and uninspired you have to wonder how good the writing can possibly be, and bad writing makes for a film which is D.O.A.  However, the other films coming out this week were Cars 3, talk about rote and uninspired ideas, and All Eyez on Me, which did interest me the most initially, but its complete lack of critic screenings in addition to some very bad word of mouth made me decide to take a chance on Rough Night.

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Rough Night is the story of Jess played by Scarlett Johansson who is running for state senate and whose wedding to Peter (Paul W. Downs) is impending, so Jess’ four closest friends from her college years played by Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon throw her a bachelorette party in Miami complete with palatial beach house, cocaine, a stripper, and various penis shaped party favors.  When one of the five ladies accidentally kills the stripper, we find that each of the women has a good reason why they don’t want the police getting involved and so hilarity ensues as they try to dispose of the body in a manner no one can find it.

Rough Night‘s tone is all over the place.  We have sly humor as we see the juxtaposition of the wild party atmosphere of the bachelorette party versus the more cultured bachelor party going on back in Jess’ unnamed home town.  We have the over the top characterizations of the always horny and very open neighbors of the beach house played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell.  Jillian Bell is also very much playing a stereotype more for laughs than character, but Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Kravitz, and Ilana Glazer give us some performances that toe the line between comic and dramatic, and McKinnon’s performance can go in any old direction depending on the scene and her mood.

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But, while the tonal inconsistencies do stand out like a sore thumb, I can’t say that they don’t work.  The film’s story does go all over the place.  The death of the stripper and the immediate aftermath isn’t played for laughs, and that actually gives the situation some gravity.  While the acting styles are all over the place, they all work for the character actress combination.  You look to Bell and McKinnon for the belly laughs, to Kravitz and Glazer for the smarter, more subtle comedy, and Johansson is the anchor that holds it all together.  It doesn’t work perfectly, some scenes such as a bit where Jess’ fiance panics over not being able to get a hold of Jess and decides he must get to her as soon as possible is completely out of character for everything we’ve seen earlier and is not funny largely because of this, but the tonal shifting works well enough that it seems to be the right fit for this particular film.

The rest of the writing in Rough Night is just as inconsistent as its tone, in a way.  We have one of the most worn out, mundane stories in existence with the raucous party gone wrong plot, and nothing about the story itself elevates it all above the banality of the premise, but the dialogue and the deft handling of the overused situations are actually very well done.  Each of the characters really is a character beyond just being a different level on the slapstick scale.  The lesbian and bisexual issues are handled without delving into stereotype and are nuanced, sensitive to the topic, but still absolutely hilarious.  McKinnon and Bell despite being the closest characters to caricature actually end up having very nice payoffs and we find there is a reason they acted the way they did which makes sense.  The only poor writing to be seen here is, again, with the character of Jess’ fiancee who never seems to have any consistent personality aside from the fact that he’s madly in love with Jess.

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Final verdict:  Rough Night is a mundane film, that fortunately manages to overcome its own mundanity much of the time.  The plot is nothing special in the least, and is ultimately completely forgettable, but the charm of the characters and the actors portraying them in addition to the snappy and often truly insightful dialogue make Rough Night a film worth seeing.  It’s not worth running right out and seeing it in the theater, however.  There is nothing about the visuals that would make this any better on the big screen, and while Rough Night is better than I imagined it could have been, it’s still nowhere close to a great film, so waiting for it to come to Redbox or Netflix is probably the way to go, except possibly for a group girl’s night.  Then the theater could be a blast.

It Comes at Night (Shults; 2017)

While genre is a necessary tool helping us to classify film, it’s a far from perfect one.  Comedy and drama as genres are so broad as to be nearly no help at all in letting us decide if a film is one we want to check out.  Even more narrowed genres like science fiction can mean a multitude of things – is it a movie about space exploration? artificial intelligence? fantasy which uses faux technology in place of magic?  I’m glad I got to see It Comes at Night with a small crew of friends, for as we were leaving the theater one of them remarked, “I was expecting a horror movie.”  I completely understand why she said that, because It Comes at Night uses gore very sparingly, and what little it does use is either unrealistic or flashed on screen so quickly our brains can’t process what our eyes just saw.  The director goes out of his way to avoid anything resembling a jump scare, going so far as to change camera angles when a character is walking up behind another just to make sure the audience isn’t startled.  There is no supernatural creature stalking a group of protagonists taking them out one by one, nor a psychic worming their way into anyone’s head.  But, It Comes at Night is still most definitely a horror movie.  In a way, it’s one of the most horrific movies I’ve ever seen.

It Comes at Night is an incredibly low budget movie.  If it weren’t for the obvious quality of the cameras used to capture the story and the fact that Joel Edgerton plays our lead character (former history professor Paul) this could be a movie that a very talented amateur could film in their own home.  It Comes at Night uses no CGI effects, the sets are very barebones – just an oldish house and the woods surrounding it, and while this isn’t the first film for the majority of the cast, not a one is an instantly recognizable name and face.  This means that the entire story hinges on acting, script, music,  and cinematography, and all four of these elements are absolutely top notch.

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The horror in It Comes at Night comes from feelings of claustrophobia, isolation, and being kept in the dark both literally and figuratively.  Drew Daniels through his cinematography paints the perfect picture to keep us in a state of dread by showing us that not only are we stuck in a world made up largely of bare, long, dark corridors with no handy exits, but even when we are not in that closed in world there is still no help anywhere to be found in the outside world.  Camerawork when done well can be art, it can excite, and in this case, it can instill in us paranoia and hopelessness as everywhere we look there is no escape from the trap gradually closing in on us, but never giving us any real clue as to what that trap is, just that it’s there.

The performances in It Comes at Night are amazing in their understatement.  This again, isn’t a typical horror film as there is very little panic, screaming, nor speeches about the thing out there that’s going to get us.  The people here are very real – the father who is devoted to protecting his family, but not always knowing the best way to do that and having to keep a brave front (Joel Edgerton).  The mother who wants the same, but feels the best way to do that is to back up her husband and lend him guidance but never undercut him (Carmen Ejogo).  The seventeen year-old boy who has no companions excepting his mother, father, and dog until they let another family move into their house and he finds himself being drawn in the way seventeen year-olds are to the young wife in that family (Kelving Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough respectively).   Every performance here is nuanced and realistic and never once goes over the top.  We get that these are real people, we get why each acts the way they do, and all this is again absolutely necessary in amplifying our dread.  We not only feel for the characters, we allow them to become stand ins for ourselves.

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Then there is the script.  This is a story that doesn’t rely on the usual scares nor a lot of dialogue, it’s a story that relies on making sure the audience doesn’t know anything more than the characters in the story do, which is really what makes them our perfect stand ins.   Many of the events in the story take place because of something that happened outside of our protagonists field of vision and thus outside their knowledge, and these events are never explained to us.  Trey Edward Shults, both writer and director of It Comes at Night, said explicitly that while he knows the impetus of everything that happens in the film’s running time, he very purposely left us without any clues that would let us know anything more than our characters do.  This is the element that truly solidifies It Comes at Night into the realm of horror more so than any other.  Even in films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity which It Comes at Night has a lot in common with we are given some sort of release in the end as we find out what it is that’s been tormenting us throughout the film.  It Comes at Night gives us no such release.

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Final verdict:  It Comes at Night is a film for film critics and auteurs more than for general audiences.  There is little to no fun to be had in this movie, as it is a non-stop barrage on your emotional state with never ending dread, claustrophobia, paranoia, and powerlessness.  This elevates horror to a level we rarely see and makes it some of the most realistic, and therefore least fun, horror ever seen in film.  The true enjoyment to be gleaned from this movie is the dissection of it – the study of how such minimalist pieces done so well can make for such an intense film.  If that is your thing, then I can nearly guarantee you will love It Comes at Night.  But, if you are going in to see a standard scream fest, you will not only be disappointed, you may honestly be devastated.  It Comes at Night is not for the faint of heart, and it’s one I recommend to only a very select few, but for those select few who can really get into how a less is more take on film making can get to us on such a deeply emotional level then this suddenly becomes a must see film.

 

The Mummy (Kurtzman; 2017)

Everyone wants to get on that train to big money which Disney/Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Brothers are on by starting up their own cinematic universe.  The Mummy is Universal Studios attempt in which they bring out their classic era horror movie monsters such as Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man and, of course, The Mummy,  into the modern day with a series of films known as “The Dark Universe”.  Right out of the gate they are making the same mistake Warner Brothers made with their DC Comic Universe by starting in the middle of a story already well underway and expecting their audience to just run with it.  However, unlike DC the characters they are using are not so iconic and ingrained in our culture that they can get away with stumbling out of the gate based on the draw of the characters alone, and with The Mummy the Dark Universe may be doomed before it even begins.

The Mummy starts out in Iraq with Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson playing Nick Morton and Chris Vail respectively, both soldiers in the U.S. military who use the fact that ISIS is destroying monuments in the area as an excuse and a cover up for their own activities of stealing precious artifacts from sites in the area and selling these artifacts on the black market.  This unfortunately is everything there is to these two characters, they have no families we know of, no ambitions beyond selling artifacts, we don’t even know the branch of the military they are in nor their jobs within that branch.  This is true of every character in the film, they are merely a reason to be in the film attached to a good looking countenance and absolutely nothing more.  Russel Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jeckyll runs a mysterious organization and occasionally turns into a monster, we know nothing more about him nor his nor his organization’s history even though they have apparently amassed astounding numbers of trophies and pieces to study from a great many monsters over the unspecified amount of time they have been around.  Anabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey works for Dr. Jeckyll and likes Tom Cruise for some reason.  Sofia Boutella was an Egyptian Princess who got angry at her family and is now an evil mummy.  If you want to learn any more about any of these people, you’ll have to hope this universe continues and these characters are in future movies, because that is all you’ll learn about any of them here.

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The Mummy is billed as an action/horror, but it is definitely much, much more action than horror.  There are three major action set pieces in the movie along with quite a few minor ones, and this is where the movie excels.  While the action scenes are insanely over the top to the point that they shatter suspension of disbelief even in a film of this nature, they are still creative in their execution and reasonably well shot, though they do rely far too much on quick editing for my tastes.  The horror half of that equation is lacking, lacking to the point that I think the only reason it’s labelled as such is because there is a mummy in the film, and mummies are classic movie monsters.  Aside from that factoid the only thing even bordering on the horror genre is the mummy’s ultimate plans for Tom Cruise’s character, which I won’t go into detail on as doing so would spoil one of the few interesting parts of the story’s plot.

That plot manages to somehow be at once incredibly simplistic and confusingly convoluted at the same time.  The main story of the mummy wanting to destroy or remake the world, we’re not really sure what she’s trying to do, actually, is a really straightforward chase movie.  She threatens, the protagonists run, she follows then threatens again, repeat until end.  But, due to a lack of any motivation on the part of any of the characters and a world steeped in lore which we the audience have not been introduced to and know next to nothing about, the reason for this chase and reason for anyone beyond the three who initially find the mummy’s tomb getting involved is next to impossible to fathom.  How did Dr. Jeckyll start his shadowy monster hunting organization and how do they know all these things in the first place?  Why can this random military officer order Tom Cruise around and how do they know each other?  If the mummy has the power over life and death, why does she need to murder people with a knife and fight them hand to hand karate style?  None of this makes any sense.

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The movie does have some charms, and is even able to surprise you once in a while with its sense of humor.  While the characters make cardboard look layered, they do manage to milk them for all they are worth giving us humor which really works on a more than superficial level despite the fact that there is nothing more than superficial to them.  As I mentioned, the mummy’s plan is also interesting, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot sense, and the way they end the film makes for an intriguing enough situation that, while I won’t go so far as to say I want to see more of these films, I wish the rest of the movie could have been creative and engaging enough to live up to the premise set up in its climax.

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Final verdict:  The Mummy is not the worst movie of the year as its horrible Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest, but it’s certainly not good enough to recommend seeing.  It does have some quality humor and action, and it’s finale sets up interesting sequels, but everything else is so simultaneously rote and poorly thought out that these few good elements can not overcome The Mummy‘s myriad and overwhelming flaws.   This should be a lesson to other studios wanting to start a cinematic universe out there – think long and hard about whether it’s a good idea, because it probably isn’t, and even if you feel it is you can not rush the story to the “Avengers” stage within the first couple of movies.  Cinematic Universes need time to germinate and develop in the minds and hearts of their audiences, and rushing to the “fun part” is only going to end in failure.

Wonder Woman (Jenkins; 2017)

Last November, I wrote on article on what the Marvel film universe is getting right, and the DC film universe is getting wrong.  To sum it up, I stated that Warner Brothers and DC don’t understand their own characters, are starting their stories in the middle giving us no frame of reference, and they are focusing solely on action and using no other elements of genre.  We are shown a Batman who unthinkingly kills, a Superman who couldn’t care less about collateral damage, a Lex Luthor who acts like a clown, and a Joker who doesn’t.  We have a story where Batman has been fighting the good fight for a long time and supervillains are filling the prisons, but no one seems to have heard about any of them until now for some reason.  And, every movie has been little more than excuses for people wearing unusual clothing to punch and otherwise injure each other.   I am happy to announce that for at least one movie every single one of these issues has been fixed in a DC Universe film, and the result is a movie comic book fans, action film lovers, and women everywhere have been anxious to see for a long, long time.

The character of Wonder Woman has been a tough one to crack for a very long time for some reason, probably because until recently the comic book business has been all boys, and even now the number of women working in the superhero creation industry is a very, very small percentage.  The history of the character is a long and interesting one, but until the last decade and a half or so, her personality hasn’t been much more than a desire to do good, a mission statement, and some superpowers.  Modern writers have started to latch onto the fact that she is an Amazon warrior and have used that very element of her backstory to give her a role very different from her male counterparts and very well defined.  The film Wonder Woman captures those elements of her character perfectly and expands upon them, giving us the first protagonist, or really character of any size, in a DC film that is true to her source material and also captivating.

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This film is also an origin story, which means we actually start the story at the beginning.  We get to see Diana’s (Gal Gadot) training on Themyscira, her relationship with the other Amazons as she was growing up, and her meeting with Steve Rogers (Chris Pine) which inspires her to leave her sanctuary and enter the world of men.  You would think giving characters motivations would be  an obvious element of story telling, but until now the motivations in the DC films have been muddied at best.  Not so here.  We get to see what inspires Diana, what her life was like growing up, and more so that we end up with a fully formed character we can relate to and root for rather than someone who is just fun to watch.

Wonder Woman is not just an origin story, it is also a film that takes place during World War I, giving us not only an additional genre of war film to work with, but also an interesting historical period as a backdrop, one not used nearly often enough in film.  We get to see a Europe ravaged by war, battles in which chemical weapons are an ever present threat and victories are measured in inches, and technologies which are nearly obsolete today are state of the art.  Throwing a fierce demigoddess into this mix works wonderfully, and gives us a truly original superhero origin story not quite like anything we’ve seen before.

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The one thing DC has always gotten right is its visuals.  While the stories are messy and the characters confused, watching the action on display in the DC Universe is a wonder to behold, and that is no different in Wonder Woman.  The sharply angled viewpoints, the technique of making some colors vibrant and others dull, and the use of slow motion to concentrate on detail rather than just being a cheap trick is all on display here.  This time around the battles are not just fun, though they certainly are that, but most are also inspiring.  Where most superhero action sequences are really a well choreographed dance with special effects mixed in, the battles here feel like battles, grittier than your usual comic book fare, and Wonder Woman herself feels less like an untouchable icon and more like a badass general leading and inspiring her troops to their best.

The relationship between Diana and Steve Trevor is handled as well as it possibly could be.  Chris Pine pleasantly surprised me last year with his tour-de-force performance in Hell or High Water which showed the world he had a lot more talent than just a pretty face and a decent Captain Kirk impersonation, and he brings that level once again here giving us just the right amount of confidence, smarts, self effacement, and wonderment to make a real person out of this character in a most surreal situation.  Chris Pine and Gal Gadot have some real chemistry going on, and half way through the film we feel it’s absolutely natural that this American spy and demigoddess should be so attached to and inspired by one another.

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The film does have a handful of minor issues, and two fairly major ones keeping it from being absolutely the best superhero film I’ve seen and only meaning that it’s in that conversation.  The film is fairly predictable.  They try to be clever about a major plot point which I won’t go into any more detail about, but if you’ve seen more than five movies in your life you will see a certain major reveal coming from miles and miles away.  The other major issue is that the climax of the film is a bit of a let down with a sort of deus ex machina of a type I thought movie studios were done with using a couple of decades ago giving Wonder Woman her ultimate victory.  These two disappointments were certainly not enough to sour the overall film’s effect for me, but they did make me sigh a bit.

Final verdict:  DC and Warner Brothers finally got it right, and in doing so they outdid themselves to a level that can only add pressure to both themselves and Marvel for the future.  Wonder Woman is exciting, inspirational, thoughtful, and visually stunning.  It makes a few missteps, but not fatal ones by a long shot, and I am so happy that the first superhero film in one of the comic universes starring and directed by women is one of the best films ever seen in the genre as a whole.  Wonder Woman is a must see movie.

 

War Machine (Michod; 2017)

While they have been making original films and television shows for some time now, Netflix seems to have decided that with budgets of up to $100 million dollars and stars like Will Smith and Brad Pitt that 2017 is the year they are officially throwing down the gauntlet in Hollywood’s direction and declaring themselves a real player in the business of blockbuster movies.  War Machine, starring the aforementioned Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, is arguably the highest profile film to come from the DVD rental and video streaming service to date due to the star power on display.  Brad Pitt is most certainly the most recognizable name and only A-lister among the cast, but you will also see Meg Tilly, Griffin Dunne, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Alan Ruck gracing War Machine with their presence in more than just cameos throughout the film’s story.

It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes, for War Machine to remind me of two other films: The Big Short and Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb due to the tone it uses to handle the very important issue of the War in Afghanistan.  Its similarity to The Big  Short is no coincidence as these two films have the same producers and its similarities to Dr. Strangelove, unfortunately, do not continue throughout the entire film and disappointingly really only rear their heads when Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley (he’s in the movie, too, as Afghani President Karzai) are on screen together.

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When I say it reminds me of them, though, it is only because of tone and what it is attempting to do, not due to quality.  I felt The Big Short was a flawed and overrated film largely due to its tonal inconsistencies and the way it tackled big ideas without making sure we understood the foundation of those ideas first.  It was like it tried to teach calculus without first giving us basic addition.  I applaud it for what it accomplished and even more for what it was attempting to do, but I just felt it was a little off the mark in succeeding in its mission.  War Machine doesn’t have the second problem The Big Short did, but the tonal inconsistencies which reared their head due to tackling deadly serious subject matter with humor are even more exaggerated here.  War Machine has no idea if it wants to be a satire or honest look at The War on Terror and that unfortunately makes for a film which can easily lose your attention.

The film starts with voice over for almost the entirety of its first eight and a half minutes, and it will continue to return to this voice over again and again throughout its running time.  We learn the reason for this is that we are hearing the voice of a Rolling Stone reporter quoting the text of an article he has written about General Glen McMahon and the information being given in the voice is pretty dense, but no matter how good and relevant the reason, a voice over is a crutch which makes for an experience far more dull than if we could learn the same information by watching the characters act and react to the situation around them.  We are also given some scenes with greatly exaggerated acting, situations, and dialogue early on in the film before ultimately settling on a more standard narrative which certainly contains humor, but if not for the opening would most likely not be labelled a comedy.  Finally, add the fact that the first battle scene doesn’t take place until an hour and a half into the film, and the average movie goer is going to have to battle a bit to keep their attention glued to War Machine since there are usually plenty of distractions going on at home where the movie is most likely to be seen.

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Which is sort of a tragedy, because while the movie isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to be and relies too much on talk over action, the rest of this script is incredibly insightful, important, and fascinating.   I have never seen a film so well describe the difficulties and absurdities of fighting a war against an enemy which doesn’t have a standard military nor even a country or distinct ideology as this one does.  The civilian governments have their goals, the military has theirs, and the Aghan citizenry has theirs, and none are spared from either mockery nor sympathy.  When all is said and done, War Machine does an amazing job at showing the nuance and complication of what’s going on in Afghanistan and why even those most intimately involved with it are confused.  How can you fight a standard war when killing your enemy just makes more enemies?  How can you convince people to trust you when you have to do it at gunpoint?  How do you even know who the enemy is when people in the same household can be working for and against you at the same time?

One of my favorite scenes in the film shows a low ranking soldier addressing the general during a speech he is giving the troops.  The soldier asks McMahon if it’s true that they are giving out a medal for restraint.  The general confirms this and explains that since the enemy don’t wear uniforms, can be anywhere, and don’t stand out among the general citizenry that its important not to use violence until its proven to be warranted.  The soldier then declares, “So, we are getting awards for not being marines?  I’m confused.”

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This difference in viewpoint between the military and civilians shows up all over the film, and is quite interesting in the relationship between McMahon and his wife (Meg Tilly).  When we first see them, they are also seeing each other for the first time in a very long time.  Their encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, they are acting like they think a married couple should act but seem to have forgotten how or even whether the other person truly is their spouse.  While this relationship does change throughout the course of the film and they do become comfortable with each other again over time, this opening scene between the two just adds emphasis to what we have been seeing the whole film whenever McMahon and his men interact with government attaches, reporters, and the like which is that military men and civilians have very different mindsets and don’t seem to be able to fathom what the other side’s motivations are.

War Machine also remains very up to date and topical with the way it handles the topics of the media and military relationship to the President of the United States.  Obama is constantly mentioned throughout the film as a seemingly uncaring shadowy figure who would rather not get his hands dirty with Afghanistan and leaves that up to his generals while the media and leaks to said media make for some of the more entertaining bits in the movie, but also in the end make up the bulk of the film’s message.  And, before I move on to my final verdict, I have to mention that if you don’t understand the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan after the scene in which McMahon is speaking to an Afghan father and his young son in their home after a skirmish took place there, then I would suggest psychiatric diagnosis to make sure you are not a complete sociopath.

Final verdict:  War Machine is a slow paced, tonally inconsistent story, but it’s one that you should make an effort to watch – and it will take a bit of an effort for most – due to its much stronger than usual understanding of all the major parties involved in our military actions in Afghanistan.  It’s all talk, very little action, but that talk is some fantastic, important talk.   After all is said and done, you will never be able to look at that Rolling Stone magazine cover with Lady Gaga wearing nothing but assault rifles as a bra as anything other than the perfect metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan again.

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Alien: Covenant (Scott; 2016)

In 1979, Star Wars had recently made science fiction a very cool genre and studio after studio was looking to capitalize on that by giving the public bad clone after bad clone of the film that had inspired so many to flock to the theaters for swashbuckling space opera.  Ridley Scott took a different tack.  Instead of flashy pulp action heroes jetting through space in fighters and fighting off bad guys with blasters and laser swords, he gave us a horror movie which just happened to take place light years away from Earth starring blue collar grunts hauling ore and machinery on their space semi tractor-trailer.  Needless to say, with Alien he hit a nerve where movies such as The Black Hole, Starcrash, and Laserblast failed, and now 38 years later Ridley Scott once again returns for his third installment in the franchise he started – Alien: Covenant (the second installment directed by Scott would be 2012’s Prometheus).

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after the events which occurred in Prometheus.  After a brief prelude, the real action of the film opens on a colony ship making a seven year long journey to its final destination.  All of the colonists and ship’s crew are asleep in cryostasis for the duration of the journey and the only the ship’s android Walter (played by Michael Fassbinder) and the ship’s computer “Mother” (voiced by Lorelei King) are active.  During a routine recharging stop, a freak accident damages the ship forcing the crew to be awakened prematurely to deal with the situation.  While repairing their vessel, a message is received from a nearby planet which should be uninhabited and uninhabitable, but upon further investigation the crew finds that this planet is in fact a sort of paradise world that their deep space scans somehow missed and this may be a perfect place to start their new colony rather than going back into cryogenic sleep and continuing their journey.

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If this all sounds familiar, be prepared to feel that a lot throughout the course of the film.  The major problem with Alien: Covenant is that far too much of the film feels less like an original plot, and more like a “Best of Alien” special in which we get to see all the best scenes from Alien movies of the past shown again except with different actors.  They even go out of their way to make Daniels, our main female protagonist played by Katherine Waterston, look a hell of a lot like Ripley.  No spoilers, but throughout the course of the film you can practically make a checklist of Alien tropes as they appear over and over.

Another of Alien: Covenant‘s flaws which is hard to overlook is the premise that the ship’s crew is made up almost entirely of couples.  Now, couples being sought out as the focal point of starting a new colony makes a lot of sense, and is a smart idea, but extending that to the crew who does emergency maintenance on the ship if it is in trouble is problematic.  While it makes sense that a crew member would have a spouse or loved one making the journey with them, to be a coworker making decisions upon which the fate of the entire ship rests is a less logical choice, and this very dynamic is what leads directly to the majority of the bad decisions which drive the crises which make up the plot of the movie.  Heck, couples usually aren’t allowed to work together in a modern office or retail environment, who the heck would look to hire couples specifically for a dangerous job in which many lives depend on the quality of their decisions?

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While these two flaws are large enough that Alien: Covenant becomes a movie impossible to recommend to everyone, the rest of the film is very well done.  The special effects are really impressive, the aliens themselves have never looked better, and the art direction and scenery is at worst effective and often is a straight out wonder to behold.  This is, to date, the best looking film in the Alien series in every way except for cinematography.  Though, while Alien and Aliens are both a little better in the cinematography department, this one lags only a small distance behind making for an entire visual package which is a wonder to behold.

The acting on display here is also fantastic with even minor characters whose only jobs are to be gruesomely killed managing to project a personality using little more than facial expressions and body language.  The main cast really outdo themselves, though, with Billy Crudup embodying the ship’s captain thrust into a situation he couldn’t have predicted and is not prepared to deal with, the aforementioned Katherine Waterston chanelling Sigourney Weaver as the incredibly strong “with it” protagonist, and Michael Fassbender gives us a true tour de force playing two roles, both androids, who have to be similar enough that we recognize them as similar model mechanical creations, but different enough that we can tell the two roles apart at a glance.  I won’t go so far as to say Michael Fassbender outdoes himself here, but he does prove yet again what an incredibly talented and dedicated actor he is.

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How would I rate this film compared to the myriad other Alien films?  I haven’t seen the Alien vs Predator movies, and they aren’t considered canon regardless, so I will leave them out of the equation, but Alien: Covenant is nowhere near the masterpiece which both the original Alien and the perhaps greatest sequel of all time Aliens are but it is a good deal better than both Alien 3 and Prometheus and light years ahead of Alien: Resurrection.

Final verdict:  Aside from Michael Fassbender’s performance(s) there is nothing in Alien: Covenant that hasn’t been seen before in the Alien Franchise, and it has a plot which relies too much on people making bad decisions.  However, it also as some eye popping settings and special effects and impressive performances from every single actor who appears on screen.  Alien: Covenant is not a film I recommend unequivocally, but if you’ve somehow never seen an Alien film before in your life, this could be an excellent introduction to the series.  If you’ve seen every entry so far, then your mileage may very.  It could be a fun action packed bit of nostalgia or it could merely be a shameless retread.  I personally found it to be the former, but your mood upon entering that theater could greatly influence how you feel about what you’ve seen upon exiting even more so than with most films.

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