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‘Alien: Covenant’ Review – A Second Act for the Series

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Alien: Covenant follows the nearly forty year-old template that defines the Alien franchise. Claustrophobic dread is punctuated with a series of inventive grotesqueries, while characters split up when they should stay together, land on planets when they should fly by, and venture down hallways when they should stay put. In a clever callback to Aliens, one monster is vanquished by industrial machinery, and another is strategically coaxed through a labyrinth in a sequence that recalls the climax of Alien 3. Covenant is an unmistakable, quintessential Alien film. It does share DNA with its predecessor, however, and is prone to some of the trite contemplation and cumbersome mythologizing that comprised the least interesting portions of Prometheus. Still, director Ridley Scott gives Covenant a new balance, informed by the understanding that the opaque, borderline-incoherent philosophies of Prometheus compel only when coupled with the terrifying presence of the series’ titular villain.

Alien: Covenant makes one narrative departure from the Alien blueprint by concluding with a sequence that stands out as the most foreboding end to any film in the saga. The film tells the story of the Covenant, a colony ship shepherding two thousand colonists to a new home in space. The mission derails when the crew follows a beacon to a habitable planet, only to discover David (the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission) and a series of escalating horrors. The conclusion cements David as the series’ true focus, and ominously foreshadows the influence he may have in the future of the Alien saga. These films rarely end “happily” – mostly everybody just dies – but Covenant stands alone as an Alien film without an ending at all. Whereas the series’ founding trilogy was episodic (More Aliens! The Alien Returns!), these new installments are cohesive, connected by David’s arc and the clunky mythology director Ridley Scott first attempted to establish in Prometheus, and similarly packs into Covenant.

That mythology is interesting at times, but at others remains incoherent and contrived. David’s development in Alien: Covenant is a symptom of the series’ facile creation theories, but it feels organic to film’s narrative. Motivations that appeared arbitrary and confounding in Prometheus clarify in Covenant, both in conversations between David and Walter (the Covenant mission’s identical android) and an emotionally stark prologue that contextualizes David’s rage. He is plagued by dueling sensations, scarred by emotional isolation from a creator that he deems inferior. Such elements of the character’s psyche were withheld in Prometheus, and these revelations crystallize the saga’s investigation of the interplay between creator and creation – extinguish your creations (as Prometheus‘ engineers intended), lest they extinguish you.

The film falters when Scott broadens its purview to mirror Prometheus’ affinity for asking existential questions without offering any answers. David’s antagonistic evolution is a fitting canvas for a study of human creation, but similar explorations of faith in Covenant lack focus and impact. Chris, the ship’s captain, is a True Believer – a fact that takes the place of real characterization and allows the film to conveniently position his religion as a counterpoint to the search for fact that surrounds him. His character echoes Elizabeth Shaw, the protagonist of Prometheus, except that his character is hardly a character at all, and his faith – erroneously referenced in dialog throughout Covenant – doesn’t figure into the film’s dramaturgy or mythology in any way, except to signal that Scott is wrestling with big ideas. Alien: Covenant isn’t faithful or secular; the film doesn’t have a hypothesis about our creation. Its prevailing ethos is a fatalism that gives way to a sort of nihilism: everyone – ship crews, colonists, entire species – is going to die, and beliefs are just the curious details of lives destined to end in horror.

That horror is plentiful and masterfully rendered in Alien: Covenant. Chests, spines, and mouths burst in sequences that update the series’ defining mode of death with a new degree of stomach-turning revulsion. The entire alien gestation cycle unfolds in the film, from the over-sized, seeping eggs that resemble mutant vegetation, to the blood-thirsty adult that terrorizes the last half hour. New monsters appear in the film before the showstopper arrives, aliens that move like the Jurassic Park’s raptors and have the milky skin and circular mouth of a Lamprey. These creations appear in sequences that have no series precedent. A shootout in an expansive wheat field recalls Zero Dark Thirty and Jurassic Park in equal measure – a new and exciting choice in a series that normally unfolds in confined, mechanical settings. Covenant invents new ways for aliens to infect humans, rip forth from humans, and kill humans, while presenting new ways for those aliens to look, move, and behave. As with the film’s philosophical leanings, however, the evolution of these monsters is difficult to track.

The signature alien in Covenant is a “Xenomorph,” same as the iconic H.R. Giger creations that terrorized the series’ first two films. Or is it a “Protomorph,” an unofficial term that surfaces in the Alien fan community? The lamprey-raptor aliens are “Neomorphs” apparently, but it isn’t clear within the film if they are a distinct species or a singular aberration within the larger evolution of the Xeno-species. The alien at the end of Covenant certainly resembles the monster in the original Alien, but attention to detail reveals that the new edition appears less mechanical and behaves more spastically. A more pressing question: are any of these distinctions relevant to an understanding of the saga? Scott seems to believe they are; Covenant, after all, continues the origin story of Giger’s original creation. The lack of a coherent taxonomy detracts from that story, however, puncturing the foreboding ambiance of Covenant by forcing the viewer to catalog the film’s new threats without informative context.

Of course, Covenant departs most strikingly from series tradition by giving its gravest threat a human face. In the film’s prologue, David plays piano for his creator, Peter Weyland. Weyland requests “The Entry of The Gods Into Valhalla,” from Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.” The ominous, grandiose tune suits the atmosphere of the film, and it’s no coincidence that “Das Rheingold” is a prelude to Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” a four-part epic that fixates on the destructive nature of absolute power. Weyland (and later David) refers to the “second act” of “Das Rheingold” in error – “Das Rheingold” has no second act. It is the briefest segment of Wagner’s cycle, serving only as a prologue. After all its gruesome deaths and terrifying alien action, Covenant makes one thing clear: the Alien saga is David’s story now, and in Alien: Covenant, he forces a second act into existence, both for himself and the entire series.

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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