Billy Crudup

Alien: Covenant

13/05/17

Prometheus was one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of recent years. After several underwhelming Alien sequels, fans of the series were eagerly anticipating Ridley Scott’s return to the world that he originated in 1979, but what we actually got was some distance away from that premise – perhaps a few steps too far. So Covenant is very much Scott’s attempts to make amends for that misstep and to some degree, he’s been successful in his ambitions – even if too much of the film riffs on earlier ideas. Oddly, this one feels closer to James Cameron’s brilliant second instalment, Aliens – which Scott still feels was arranged ‘behind his back.’

This film is set ten years after Prometheus and the colony ship Covenant is making its way towards a new planet where the passengers hope to start a whole new world. While the crew are deep in hyper sleep, the day-to-day running of the ship is left to ‘synthetic’ Walter (Michael Fassbender). But an unexpected incident means that the crew are woken seven years too early and, even worse there are a couple of fatalities – including the Captain, the husband of Daniels (Katherine Waterston). The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) isn’t exactly relishing the idea of getting back into those unreliable pods, so when the crew happen upon an inexplicable signal issuing from what appears to be a nearby habitable planet, he feels it’s worth going in to investigate…

Sound familiar? Well, yes, very. Pretty soon an advance party are making a landing on the planet and realising that it really isn’t a safe place to try and make a new home – and Walter meets an earlier model of himself, David, who has been surviving alone on the planet since the events of Prometheus. But can the advance party make it back to their spaceship alive?

Ridley Scott’s films are nearly always good to look at and he manages to crank up enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat through much of this. The planet locations are beautifully set up, Waterstone steps gamely into Ellen Ripley’s boots and there are enough chest-bursters, face-huggers and Xenomorphs to keep the fans happy. There’s also an interesting trope set up between caring, artful David and his cooler, less compassionate successor, Walter. I’m delighted to see that the project has finally gone back to the designs of creature-creator H.R. Giger for its look. But there remains the conviction that we’re simply revisiting territory that has already been well and truly trodden flat. The news that Scott is planning to expand the Alien universe with another three films does not exactly fill me with excitement. He’s done what he should have done last time out. Surely now, he should let this idea rest and move on with his many other projects. After all, at 79, who knows how many more he will achieve?

For my money, Alien: Covenant would make a decent swan song for the franchise. Leave it, Ridley. Step away from the franchise. There’s nothing new to see here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Advertisements

20th Century Women

18/02/17

Not so much a film about women as their life-changing influence upon one young man, 20th Century Women has the great misfortune to be released amidst a crop of bigger, more hard-hitting films, which means it isn’t really getting the degree of attention it  deserves. This is a shame as it many ways it’s one of the most remarkable releases in what has already been an exceptional year.

It’s 1979 and teenager, Jamie (an appealing performance from relative newcomer, Lucas Jade Zuman) lives in a great big crumbling house in Santa Barbara with his eccentric mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), a divorced woman who lives by her own quirky set of values. Fearing that Jamie might be missing a father’s touch, and after he fails t0 bond with live-in handyman William (Billy Crudup), Dorothea enlists the help of two young women to help her son broaden his horizons. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s girl friend, a wayward spirit who sneaks into his room and shares his bed most nights but resolutely refuses to allow things to go any further, even though he clearly longs for more. She teaches him about friendship and the importance of looking good when you smoke a cigarette. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is the artistic lodger who has recently survived a run in with cervical cancer and who is an absolute authority on clubbing, gender theory and the importance of speaking your mind. All three women submit powerful performances that linger in the mind long after the closing credits have rolled.

The story is presented as Jamie’s memories as he looks back on the events of 1979 from some unspecified point in the future and the resulting film, written and directed by Mike Mills, has a gorgeous elegiac feel, with Jamie’s occasional voiceovers commenting on what happened then and in some cases, what will happen to the lead characters later. The cinematography helps to reinforce this feel – it’s a series of shimmering images, brilliant, evocative, almost iridescent at times. I should also add that the script is very funny in places, though nobody would describe this as a comedy – it’s a lovely, life-affirming jewel of a picture, which I would urge you to see at your earliest opportunity, before it escapes the cinemas and heads for the small screens, where it will inevitably lose some of its mesmerising power.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Jackie

24/01/17

Jackie Kennedy was a celebrated style icon when I was growing up but, I must confess, she’s somebody I haven’t given a great deal of thought to… until now.

Pablo Larrain’s somber and affecting film looks at her experiences during and just after the assassination of JFK. Framed by an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) it shows how her life was transformed and marginalised by her husband’s death. Indeed, within minutes of his demise, as his successor Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in, she suddenly, shockingly finds herself an outcast, a woman totally defined by her husband’s former role. Without him she is an encumbrance, an embarrassment, somebody deemed to be without value.

The film concentrates on her stubborn attempts to ensure that the memory of Jack Kennedy lives on. She insists that he is given a state funeral and that she be allowed to walk alongside her children behind his coffin in an elaborate funeral cortege – and she ruthlessly manipulates everything that is written about him and her.

In the lead role, Natalie Portman delivers an eerie impersonation, capturing Jackie’s style and her weird drawling voice with uncanny precision. It’s a barnstorming performance, one that is likely to win her a well-deserved lead actress Oscar next month. If the film itself does not quite measure up to that stellar performance, it’s nonetheless pretty assured, uncannily cutting between genuine historical footage and skilful recreations without putting a foot wrong. Just look, for instance, at the recreation of Jackie’s famous ‘tour of the White house’ television programme, which is chillingly accurate in every last detail. Most of the other actors have to be content with cameo roles but Peter Sarsgaard shines as Bobby Kennedy and there are winning turns from Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and from John Hurt as the elderly catholic priest that Jackie pours her heart out to in a couple of key scenes.

But make no mistake, this is Portman’s film and she absolutely relishes the opportunity to inhabit a role that allows her to stretch herself as an actor. If she does get to lift that Oscar statuette, it won’t be the night’s biggest surprise.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney