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There have been plenty of looks into the making of Ridley Scott’s Alien—most notably the director’s-cut Alien DVDs, followed by the special-feature-saturated Blu-rays.

Memory: The Origins of Alien, a new documentary from director Alexandre O. Philippe, is one of the best, although it lacks new interviews with the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Ridley Scott. (The film does include a handful of archived interview moments.) Instead, it talks to folks like Roger Corman, who almost made Dan O’Bannon’s original Alien script on a shoestring budget, and gets the likes of Tom Skerritt to sit down for some original insights on the filming. Veronica Cartwright is also interviewed, once again recounting the great story of witnessing the chest-burster scene live.

The movie goes beyond typical behind-the-scenes looks, tracing the origins of Alien back to some old-timey comics depicting Navy sailors accidentally eating alien eggs.

For fans of the movie and moviemaking in general, Memory: The Origins of Alien is quite fascinating.

Memory: The Origins of Alien is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner came out in 1982—35 years ago. Scott has tooled around with the movie numerous times, resulting in a final cut that was released about 10 years ago.

While there was a lot of monkeying around (in a good way) with the original, it didn’t seem there was much thought of, or chance for, an actual sequel. After all, the original was not a box-office hit, and it didn’t start gaining its classic status until a decade after its release. In fact, critics beat up on it a bit.

Here in 2017, however, we actually do get a sequel. Blade Runner 2049 is directed by Denis Villeneuve, the visionary behind Enemy and Arrival. (Scott remains involved as a producer.) Harrison Ford, who has classically complained about the original movie, has nonetheless returned to play blade runner Rick Deckard. Ryan Gosling steps into the starring role of K, a new blade runner tasked with “retiring” older-model replicants, the synthetic humans originated by the likes of Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah in the original.

Other than the presence of Ford in the final act of the movie, and the Pan Am and Atari logos still present in the Los Angeles skyline, this does not feel like a standard sequel. 2049 goes off on many new tangents, bending the mind when it comes to topics like artificial intelligence, what really constitutes love, and determining what is “real” in this world. Villeneuve, along with writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, have concocted a whole new world—a realistic evolution of the one presented in Scott’s original.

The film opens with a scene actually meant for the original Blade Runner, one in which a farmer (Dave Bautista) is trying to live a peaceful life before being confronted by K. K finds things at the farmer’s homestead that trigger memories, and the excavation of a body at the site triggers even more. At the behest of his boss (Robin Wright), K goes off on a mission to find a lost child and, eventually, that old, cranky S.O.B., Rick Deckard.

There are many twists and turns along the way, which is no surprise, seeing as the movie is almost three hours long. This is not a complaint; there is something to admire in every frame of this movie. Cinematographer Roger Deakins puts pure art in motion with his camerawork, giving us a dirtier, gloomier and yet still beautiful Blade Runner. K’s travels take him to the ruins of major cities, and ruined cities have never looked this gorgeous.

As in the original, there are things in this movie you have never seen before. Amazing sequences include a battle between two men in an abandoned showroom. The showroom used to house a hologram show starring the likes of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, and that show gets started up again after somebody flips a switch. It’s one of the more surreal scenes you will see in any movie this year.

The same can be said about a moment when K meets Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), who makes memories for replicants. Villeneuve crafts an eerily beautiful scene in which K observes her creating a birthday-party memory, which we see as a hologram. It’s one of those movie moments where you just sit there thinking: “Now that’s some hardcore, original shit right there.”

Gosling is in top form as K, a confused member of a future society in which one’s sense of identity can be a very confounding thing. His home companion is a very lifelike and cognizant hologram named Joi (Ana de Armas). Much credit goes to Armas for making Joi something far more than a glorified Siri/Alexa. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

The film has a few flaws. Jared Leto, while not awful, pours it on a little too thick as Niander Wallace, creator of replicants. While the film’s finale is fine, it doesn’t live up to the excellence that preceded it.

These are minor quibbles, because the wonders that Blade Runner 2049 delivers far outrun the missteps. Villeneuve has done the legacy of Blade Runner supreme justice with this offering. I actually doubt Ridley Scott could’ve directed this better.

Blade Runner 2049 is shown in theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

Ridley Scott’s third Alien movie, Alien: Covenant, is a good one. Sadly, it was not good enough to motivate a lot of domestic viewers to take it in—putting the franchise in jeopardy.

A direct sequel to his Alien prequel, Prometheus, Covenant tries to be both a gory monster movie and a philosophical meditation on the creation of man—with mixed results. It’s as if Scott heard all of the bitching by Alien fans who didn’t get enough monster madness in Prometheus, so he upped the ante on the gore and special effects, but did it with a smaller budget and the same kind of crazy plot holes that plagued Prometheus.

The movie still represents good Alien fun, with Michael Fassbender doing excellent work as not one, but two androids: Walter, the new, nicer android, and David, the dickhead android from Prometheus. Scott gets a little carried away regarding David’s overall role in the Alien universe. His new theory is relatively cool, but sometimes things are better left without an origin story.

The relative box-office failure of this one not only puts the other proposed Scott sequel in jeopardy; it almost certainly means the death of Neill Blomkamp’s proposed direct sequel to Aliens (a film that would’ve ignored Alien 3 and 4), which would’ve brought back Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn and Newt. Farts!

Special Features: The coolest thing you will find here is a director’s commentary with Scott. Watching the movie with Scott explaining his intentions makes the viewing experience a little more awesome. You also get a bevy of deleted and extended scenes, and a behind-the-scenes docs. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Ridley Scott’s third Alien film is an entertaining mashup of the overreaching-but-cool sensibilities of Prometheus and the old-school dread and “Ick!” factor that made the original Alien one of the best horror and science-fiction films of the 20th century.

Alien: Covenant continues the ruminations about the origins of man birthed in Prometheus while injecting a few more Xenomorphs into the mix. It will please fans of the first two films of the franchise who want the shit scared out of them, while also appeasing those who enjoyed the brainy (if somewhat confusing and inconsistent) ways of Prometheus.

While Scott leaned harder on the horror elements here, his budget is $30 million-plus less than what he had for Prometheus. That film constituted one of cinema’s all-time-great usages of 3-D technology, with flawless special effects. Covenant totally abandons 3-D (money saved), and features some CGI in the opening minutes that looks like something you would see in a low-budget Syfy channel offering.

The film more than makes up for that shoddy computer work once the crew members of the Covenant—a stricken colony ship in danger of not reaching its destination—sets down to scout out a new planet as an alternate, closer option. The expedition is led by a new commander (Billy Crudup) after the original captain passed away (in an eyebrow-raising cameo).

Things look encouraging at first: There is fresh water, breathable air and even wheat fields, on the plus side. After a quick search for a transmission they received drawing them to the planet, they discover the horseshoe ship piloted by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David the android (Michael Fassbender) at the end of Prometheus. After this discovery, the minus side begins to get a lot of check marks.

They are on the Engineer planet, the origin of Earth’s creation, and the place where they created the bio weapon meant to destroy us. David has been surviving on the planet for more than a decade, but where’s Elizabeth? Where are the Engineers? Only David knows, and David, as you might remember from Prometheus, is a bit dickish.

The film allows for another mind-bending performance by Fassbender: Not only is he playing David, but also Walter, the upgraded android from the new expedition. The two androids are essentially the devil and Jesus in this movie, and they share an interesting flute tutorial that suggests androids can have sexual/incest impulses. Fassbender, as with Prometheus, is the main reason to see Covenant.

That is, he’s the main reason to see Covenant besides the triumphant return of the Xenomorphs. The face-huggers and chest-bursters return, along with some new bad bastards including the back-burster and the face-burster. When they grow up (quite rapidly), they become all forms of H.R. Giger’s inspired creepy madness. Unlike Cameron’s Aliens, these Xenomorphs aren’t interested in cocooning. They are more interested in stuff like popping heads off and doing that claw-between-the-legs move that Veronica Cartwright endured in the original Alien’s most-horrifying moment.

Beyond Crudup and Danny McBride as ship-pilot Tennessee, nobody else in the cast really distinguishes themselves beyond being fodder for the aliens. Katherine Waterston is OK as the film’s main protagonist, Daniels, but her role ultimately feels like a greatest-hits compilation of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley and Rapace’s Shaw.

Where does this rank in the Alien franchise? I’d say fourth, behind Alien, Aliens and Prometheus, and just above the unfairly maligned Alien 3. It’s a good time for Ridley Scott and Xenomorph fans, and it continues the existential offerings of Prometheus. Had they taken the time to work a little harder on those early effects, and fleshed out the cast members a little better, it could’ve surpassed Prometheus.

Scott is promising at least two more films leading up to the events of his original Alien, while apparently putting the kibosh on the Aliens sequel that was in the works for director Neil Blomkamp. That’s the one that would’ve brought back Ripley, Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt.

Dammit! That would’ve been cool.

Alien: Covenant is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

While Luke Scott has definitely inherited some directing chops from his dad, Ridley, his feature-directing debut is hampered by a derivative script.

Morgan shows that Luke Scott knows how to produce some major visual flair (his dad is a producer, by the way) and has an ability to draw good performances from his cast—but the movie itself is a pastiche of other science-fiction and horror films, most notably his dad’s own Blade Runner.

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an artificially created humanlike being. She’s only 5, but she looks like a teenager and has superior intellect and physical skills. She’s been genetically engineered to age quickly, and while she is basically a well-meaning entity, her behavioral wires get a little crossed up sometimes—resulting in violent “errors.”

Morgan goes ape shit when she’s not allowed outside. This results in Dr. Kathy Grieff, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, being on pain meds for the whole movie while she wears bloody gauze on one eye. The “corporation” that helped create Morgan sends out an icy company woman, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara), to assess the matter and recommend a course of action regarding Morgan.

The setting for the film is visually pleasing; it’s an underground laboratory in the middle of a pine forest. This setting also gives the film a sense of isolation and claustrophobia, much like John Carpenter’s The Thing (minus the snow). Morgan is always monitored through a glass wall and video cameras (shades of Ex Machina).

Giving another great 2016 performance (after The Witch), Taylor-Joy gives Morgan some dimension. Dressed in a grey hoodie and sporting a silvery skin tone that makes her look like a skater girl with terrible makeup skills, Taylor-Joy rises well above the conventionality of the role. She delivers a tragic android who probably would’ve led an interesting life had her personality dials been turned down just a tad.

Mara’s presence always feels a little off, something that the story eventually explains in a fashion that isn’t as shocking as screenwriter Seth W. Owen wants it to be. Paul Giamatti shows up as a behavior therapist who intentionally pushes Morgan’s buttons during a personality test. His fate is rather easy to predict.

The cast is peppered with a few more greats, including Toby Jones as the lead scientist who has a big, unnatural attachment to his creation. Michelle Yeoh also shows up as another scientist and Morgan’s mother figure, while the aforementioned Leigh has a few scenes that she imbibes with her usual reliability.

It all looks good thanks to stellar work from cinematographer Mark Patten, who worked in the “camera department” while not leading the shoot for Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Exodus: Gods and Kings. It’s an impressive debut for Patten, while Max Richter provides an excellent soundtrack.

These good performances, great visuals and slick sounds make it more of a bummer that the movie feels a bit stale. I, for one, was not at all happy with the payoff—a big twist that felt completely unnecessary and cheap. Had the movie wrapped up on a more original note, it could’ve been decent-enough genre fare.

Morgan is a near-miss. A few too many scenes play out in a way that will have you correctly guessing what happens next. Scott will be constructing a scene with major tension, but then it will fall flat due to that predictability. It does continue the promising career of Taylor-Joy, who almost makes the whole thing worthwhile. She’s not done with horror films; she will headline the scary looking Split from the mildly resurgent M. Night Shyamalan next year.

As for Luke Scott, he’s a director worth watching. Daddy just needs to find his boy a better script to play with the next time out.

Morgan is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Last year, Matt Damon’s character in Interstellar got stranded in space and wound up doing some rather rude things to Matthew McConaughey.

This year, Damon’s character in The Martian gets stranded in space, but this time, he refrains from trying to kill Matthew McConaughey (in part because McConaughey isn’t in the movie), opting instead to grow potatoes using his own shit.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a fun—and funny—movie that’s lighter than much of the director’s often-dark fare. Yes, it’s about some poor sap getting stranded on Mars, but, no, aliens don’t burst out of his belly after breakfast.

Damon spends a lot of time onscreen by himself as Mark Watney, a botanist on a manned mission to Mars who becomes the unfortunate recipient of a satellite dish to the gut during a storm—a violent squall that results in the evacuation of the rest of his crew. After an attempt by his commander (Jessica Chastain, also a veteran of Interstellar) to retrieve him, the crew leaves, thinking Watney has bought the farm. (Yep … that’s a botanist pun I just dropped right there.)

Watney awakens to find himself alone on the red planet—with a piece of metal stuck in his gut. After another Ridley Scott-directed self-surgery scene (reminiscent of that yucky self-surgery scene in Prometheus), Watney starts trying to find a way to survive. He fashions fertilizer out of jettisoned poopy-packs, finds a way to make water—and is soon up to his ears in potatoes.

The Martian has fun with science facts, involving things like the creation of fertilizer, the surprising effectiveness of duct tape and tarps, and attempts to make fire out of mostly fire-retardant materials. Scott and his writers present these overtly nerdy aspects of the movie with great humor and the right amount of intelligence.

Damon’s performance can be compared to the lone-wolf work of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Hanks lost a lot of weight for that role, while Damon settles for an emaciated body double and digital overhauling in The Martian. It’s forgivable; Damon has done all kinds of body antics for prior films (most notably Courage Under Fire, in which he played an ultra-skinny drug addict). Let the special-effects wizards and body doubles handle the weight loss. It’s important to keep one’s heart healthy when in one’s 40s.

Damon has never been funnier before in a role, with his Watney constantly making light of his situation and using a running series of jokes to entertain himself. One of the storytelling gimmicks involves Watney videotaping messages for mission control, and each one of those messages is entertainment unto itself.

The supporting cast is terrific, from an icy Jeff Daniels (who is as cold-hearted and emotionally streamlined as they come—and he damn well oughta be) to Chastain as the mission commander suffering from guilt pangs after leaving a man behind. Michael Peña provides comic relief as a sarcastic crewmember, while Kristen Wiig does the same as a NASA spokesperson.

Scott has been in a bit of a rut lately, although I liked Prometheus despite all the plot holes and inexplicable behaviors. (By the way, Scott recently announced at least two sequels to Prometheus, so get ready for some more Noomi Rapace outer-space shenanigans.) The Martian affords Scott a nice chance to play around in his science-fiction sandbox while telling an optimistic story about humans, rather than one in which they are chased by a creature with acid for blood.

The Martian could be in play for some Oscar honors. It’s an all-around solid movie with a truly winning performance at its core. Yet again, stranding Damon on a planet and watching him squirm reaps big entertainment dividends.

The Martian is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Ridley Scott somehow makes the Old Testament quite boring in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a laborious treatment of the story of Moses (Christian Bale) and his tumultuous relationship with Ramses (Joel Edgerton).

There are stretches of the movie that look pretty good, including a massive gator attack that turns a river blood red, and the infamous frog plague that makes things unpleasant in Egypt. As good as some of these things look, however, they often sound really stupid, thanks to a pedestrian screenplay and an ever-wandering Bale accent. There are times when he sounds like straight-up Christian Bale, and others when he inexplicably sounds like an American rabbi from Brooklyn.

Scott can make great movies, but his period epics, including this, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood tend to stink. While he wastes time in this particular sandbox, he’s being taken away from more important matters, like getting the Prometheus and Blade Runner sequels into production and in front of my face. No more historical epics from Ridley Scott, please!

Exodus: Gods and Kings is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

You would think a movie written by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road) and directed by Ridley Scott (Alien) would be amazing. That is not the case with this bore-fest.

In The Counselor, Michael Fassbender—so good in Scott’s Prometheus—plays a character simply named Counselor, a lawyer who gets involved in drug-trafficking and puts himself and others in jeopardy. Cameron Diaz plays the girlfriend of his partner in crime (a wild-haired Javier Bardem)—and her acting is terrible in this movie. She’s required to be bad, and you can feel her trying so hard at every turn. Let’s just say she’s very bad at being bad.

Scott puts together some intense, violent scenes that feel like they belong in a movie in which the actors aren’t required to deliver long, boring, unrealistic monologues. Brad Pitt is OK as some sort of drug-deal sage, but he’s starting to look a lot like Mickey Rourke. (He actually references him during one of his speeches.)

Scott almost manages a good movie out of this mess, but Diaz and the preachy script prevail.

The Counselor is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews