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.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
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