Tag Archives: Michael Fassbender

Review: ‘Alien: Covenant’

dfn-alien_covenant_-00Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) set a high-water mark for its fusion of horror and science fiction. After that, both Scott and the eventual franchise went their separate ways. Scott’s sense of style reached new heights in Blade Runner (1982) and James Cameron made Aliens (1986) distinctive by transforming it into an action extravaganza.

When Scott returned to the series, he appeared determined to make Prometheus (2012) in his own image, only tangentially related to what the sequels had wrought. Watching it again in that light, it’s a perfectly fine action exercise that’s more attuned to his 2010 Robin Hood than anything else, a sturdy and churning machine that wants to ask the big questions in life but doesn’t know how to formulate them properly.

As sequels to prequels go, Alien: Covenant is more like Hannibal (2001) than anything else, a movie that is not intended to build suspense or develop terror. Rather, at its core — the often-nonsensical action sequences — it’s a juicy, handsomely-mounted, expertly-made B-movie, which then allows for belabored philosophical examination of the ideas behind horror tropes to be laid on top.

Though Scott repeats certain motifs that have been present in his other films, and though the screenplay — credited to John Logan and Dante Harper, based on a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green — pays homage to other films in the Alien series, Alien: Covenant veers into its own territory by pairing up all the crew members into relationships. The crew’s mission is to transport hundreds of deep-sleeping people to a planet that has been determined to be suitable for a new human colony. Evidently all the sleeping future colonialists have been paired up, so why not the relatively few crew members, too?

The answer to that question is answered in the rash and usually foolish decisions made by those crew members when their spouses are placed in danger. They have no qualms or second thoughts about placing their own personal feelings above anyone else, which makes them spectacularly unqualified for a mission of this sort. As with Prometheus, the crew members are also spectacularly unqualified as explorers, prone to making stupid decisions as though they have never received any survival training at all back on Earth.

Still, I very much enjoyed the ride because I made a split-second choice to go with the idiocies on display. Very bad decisions make it much easier to watch bodies being torn apart because those bodies are not attached to believable human personalities; it’s more like a video game aesthetic in which style and movement is paramount.

When it comes down to it, Scott is extremely talented at composing action sequences. They may not make much sense and they may not always be easy to track, but they flow into the narrative stream in inevitable fashion, an essential element that doesn’t ever slow things down.

What slows things down are the philosophical musings about man and the nature of his survival and the ramifications of things he has made. Mostly, this is left up to Michael Fassbender to argue about with himself as he embodies two different artificial creatures, one that is more independent than the other.

Katherine Waterston is playing a strong character who should be the lead of the movie, but very often she must give ground to Billy Crudup, a conflicted soul who is thrust into the captaincy and proves why he wasn’t selected as leader in the first place. It’s a good performance, though, matched by Danny McBride, who is surprisingly competent in a serious role. Other very good actors, such as Demian Bichir and Amy Seimetz, enjoy only limited screen time, which is a disappointment, though Callie Hernandez makes a positive impression in one of the supporting roles.

Alien: Covenant could lead to one or two more prequels, but it’s fine for what it is. As is often the case, keeping expectations in check is advised.

The film is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.

Review: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

dfn-xmen_apocalypse_ver18-300The best superhero movie of the year (so far), X-Men: Apocalypse is a reflection of director Bryan Singer’s strength in storytelling.

Based on a screenplay by Simon Kinberg — with story credit to Singer, Kinberg, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — X-Men: Apocalypse makes it easy enough to pick up the story threads from the film’s two immediate predecessors in the long-running series. The initial sequence follows on directly from a post-credits scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, providing an origin story for the titular, all-powerful mutant En Sabah Nur, also known as Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac).

Events then move forward to 1983, ten years after the main thrust of X-Men: Days of Future Past. The primary heroes are introduced: Mystique, aka Raven (Jennifer Lawrence); Professor X, aka Charles Xavier (James McAvoy); and Beast, aka Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). They are soon joined by neophytes Nightcrawler, aka Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Jean Grey (Sophie Turner); Cyclops, aka Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), as well as the more experienced Quicksilver, aka Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters) and Havok, aka Alex Summers (Lucas Till), the older brother of Cyclops. There’s also the human CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who stumbles upon the resurrection of Apocalypse.

The heroes are introduced as Apocalypse gathers his villainous forces. He needs only four: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). In the decade that has passed since the previous episode, Magneto has attempted to live as a human, moving to Poland, getting married, having a daughter, and taking a job at a steel factory. Things do not work out, however, making him ripe for Apocalypse’s overtures.

On paper, the film to this point sounds rote and mechanical. On screen, however, it is anything but that. Singer is marvelous at creating a universe that makes superheroes feel very human. For the most part, they do not consider their powers to be a positive but a negative, something to set them apart from mankind as objects of ridicule and fear.

The thrust of the current trilogy acknowledges the many reasons the mutants have to be unhappy with the state of affairs on Earth, and with their own place in it. Yet it argues in favor of selfless service, of putting the needs of others ahead of their own. True, Moira is one of only two non-mutants who play any kind of role in the movie, and both are kept in the background.

Yet the shared humanity of the mutants unites them in opposition to Apocalypse. Humans have their faults and cannot always be trusted, but compared to Apocalypse, who is determined to wipe away the vast majority and allow only the strongest to survive to build a new civilization with him as their leader, well, humans don’t seem so bad after all.

Despite its title and overall theme, X-Men: Apocalypse maintains a doggedly optimistic viewpoint, incorporating character-based comic relief to keep things from feeling too oppressive. The film also benefits tremendously from Singer’s ability to direct exciting action sequences that are easy to follow from a visual standpoint and also inform the characters and overall narrative. Every scene has a point to make and a purpose to advance, which keeps the film engaging throughout its running time.

Based on comic book characters as it is, X-Men: Apocalypse exudes an essential simplicity — the good guys must defeat the bad guys — and enhances that to the next level of storytelling with elegance, polish and power. That makes it a compelling and satisfying experience.

The film will open in theaters throughout Dallas/Fort Worth on Friday, May 27.

Review: ‘Steve Jobs’

'Steve Jobs'
‘Steve Jobs’
Less a bio-pic than an essay on the nature of genius, Steve Jobs
takes a refreshing approach to the subject of the Apple co-founder.

Adapted by Aaron Sorkin from an authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, the movie is divided rigidly into three acts, following Jobs and his co-workers as they prepare for key product launches. A minimum of context is provided, beyond the identification of dates and locations; the first segment kicks off in 1984, as the Macintosh is about to be introduced, the second episode moves forward to 1988, after Jobs has been ousted from his company, and the final portion leaps ahead to 1998, after Jobs has been restored as Apple’s leader.

The products are easily categorized as good, bad, and good, respectively; what really matters are the characters. Yet Sorkin resists the tendency to show that any of them have changed, fundamentally. Throughout the movie, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is an arrogant, supremely-obsessed perfectionist; Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his director of marketing, is a thankless, supremely-efficient enabler; Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), an Apple engineer, is a supremely-cowed tech guy; Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple co-founder, is a nerdy, supremely-self righteous tech guy; John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), former Pepsi executive and Apple executive for a time, is a polished, supremely-corporate corporate guy.

Even without researching the veracity of the tale, it quickly becomes evident that Sorkin has narrowed things down to a few key characters who serve to lob opposing viewpoints at Jobs. In essence, the film boils Jobs down to a man who denied the paternity of his daughter Lisa for many years, and uses that to shine a disapproving light on the things Jobs supposedly felt were more important than fatherhood (i.e. Apple products).

It’s a supremely-reductive approach that might have worked in theory (or on the printed page). Brought to life by director Danny Boyle, however, Steve Jobs talks but does not sing. Filled with often-scintillating conversations as it is, Boyle struggles to transform the material into a cinematic experience, leaning on odd photographic angles and irregularly added visual distractions that tend to diminish the impact of the words slinging across the screen.

The most intriguing, visually, is the decision to film the individual segments in 16mm, 35mm, and digital, respectively, to represent the changing eras. But, again, it serves as more of a distraction than anything else, as though Boyle didn’t trust that the material and the performances could stand on their own. It reminds of too many stage-to-screen adaptations of the past, in which the film versions pushed characters outside for no apparent reason.

Steve Jobs does that, too, which makes the movie kind of a drag, something that might play better as a straight dramatic presentation on stage. The story of Jobs and the technological changes he foresaw is a fascinating tale, one that is shortchanged in a movie that is more obsessed with a father’s shortcomings.

The film opens at AMC Northpark 15 and Cinemark West Plano on Friday, October 16, before expanding wide on October 23.

Review: ’12 Years A Slave’ Probes the Problematic Psyche of America

Steve McQueen's '12 Years A Slave'
Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years A Slave’

What is the cracking point of the human psyche?

Visual artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen has explored the answer to that question with unflinching honesty in three sober-minded dramas: Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and now 12 Years A Slave. Based on the real-life account of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the middle of the 19th century, 12 Years A Slave is McQueen’s most piercing, most distressing, and least visually distinctive film to date.

Stripping away any kind of pretense to objectivity, McQueen invariably keeps the action within the frame, which gives the story a subliminally documentary feel, and also makes it painful to watch when brutal punishment is meted out to enslaved humans. We are meant to bear witness to their suffering, and to observe their mental anguish, and to empathize with their emotional agony. Or we can look away so as to minimize the possibility of fellow feeling, or become infuriated that past national atrocities are not allowed to rest, perhaps similar to how modern-day Germans might react to seeing one more picture about the Nazis.

Yet there is no shortage of pride in the U.S about past triumphs, no matter how far distant from the 21st century, and the subjugation of a minority race by a majority race has never been confined to the U.S. or to the 19th century. Truly, 12 Years A Slave probes an issue that is universal: How did such cruel, inhumane behavior become the law of the land? And how might it happen again?

On that score, the film, written by John Ridley, is entirely convincing in presenting the brutal realities of slavery, as experiencing in a horrible waking nightmare for a dozen unrelenting years by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). When he awakens, chained, he cannot believe what has happened to him. One day he was living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York, and then two men offered him the opportunity to earn money for his violin-playing abilities. He toured and played with them for two weeks, and at the conclusion of the trip, they got him drunk and sold him.

He is packaged up and delivered to a slave trader (Paul Gimatti), who prepares his haul and shines them up for display in his home as though they were products in a store; some are forced to stand naked, others must fiddle on demand; all must know their place. Solomon is sold along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye), whose children are torn away from her, to a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the bayou country of Louisiana. Ford is kindly, as far as a genteel Southern plantation owner can be in that time and place. Solomon’s dignity and education shines through the degradation he must endure, which makes him a natural enemy to Tibeats (Paul Dano), who glories in his evil and feelings of superiority.

Events transpire that prompt Ford to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose villainy is far more complex and diabolical than the simple-minded Tibeats. Solomon’s sorrowful situation is compared and contrasted with that of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an incredible hard worker on the cotton plantation who is a favorite of her despicable owner. Epps is goaded along by his nasty-minded shrew of a wife (Sarah Paulson), whose repulsive behavior is accompanied by a disgusting, self-righteous attitude. Incredibly, Mistress Epps is jealous of Patsey, because her husband gives her attention that he refuses her. Later, Brad Pitt makes an appearance as a hired hand who lends Solomon a listening ear.

Make no mistake, these are evil people, but it must also be acknowledged that they were in no way atypical; they were products of their upbringing, environment, and personal, unquestioning, unthinking inclinations. How, then, does Solomon survive? That is a question that the film tackles head-on, and it is one that must be addressed by everyone, sooner or later.

The film opens on Friday, October 25, at Angelika Dallas, Angelika Plano, Cinemark USA Cedar Hill, and AMC The Parks at Arlington 18.

Review: ‘The Counselor,’ Deranged, Dazzling, And Diabolical

Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt in Ridley Scott's 'The Counselor'
Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt in Ridley Scott’s ‘The Counselor’
I was slack-jawed and spellbound while watching Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay unfold on screen. Diabolically unpredictable and wildly discursive, problematic yet bold, the story itself is not the thing: it’s the characters and the words, and the twisted criminal universe in which they exist, standing apart from anything resembling a conventional legal thriller.

A desert-washed noir, The Counselor is set in the modern day, in the twilight zone where Texan bravado and Mexican fatalism collide with a woman who is an ice-blooded, fever-dream fantasy figure straight out of Jim Thompson. Waking up on a lazy afternoon under the sheets with a lawyer and his lady, the facts of the case are laid out plainly. The counselor ignores warnings raised by associates, enters into a drug deal, and pays the price when things go bad.

The fat is sliced from the plot bones and simmered in a philosophical stew served to the Counselor by a series of characters who form, collectively, a Greek chorus of doom. An Amsterdam diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz), a colorful middleman (Javier Bardem), and an impassive middleman (Brad Pitt) wax poetic to the lawyer (Michael Fassbender), who listens but does not hear what they are saying. An imprisoned mother (Rosie Perez) banters and bargains. And Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the colorful middleman’s femme fatale, a brilliant mastermind of uncertain Latin origin and overwhelming drive, prowls about like an imprisoned cheetah, biding her time until someone forgets to lock the cage.

To read the entire review, please visit Twitch.

The film opens wide throughout the Metroplex on Friday, October 25.

Review: ‘A Dangerous Method’

Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender in 'A Dangerous Method' (Sony Pictures Classics)
Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender in 'A Dangerous Method' (Sony Pictures Classics)

A new film by David Cronenberg is always reason to celebrate, but ‘A Dangerous Method’ dampens expectations, offering up a curiously muted object, one to be admired rather than embraced, a fascinating academic discussion that remains resolutely distant from any sort of easy interaction.

Centering around Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), the story takes up his life at a point where the young psychiatrist is drawing favorable attention from Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the father of psychoanalysis. When they meet for the first time, they easily talk the night away, the hours racing by like minutes. Jung is willing to (respectfully) challenge Freud, who enjoys the intellectectual curiosity of the younger man.

What serves to highlight their increasing differences of opinion is the case of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), a young Russian woman who arrives with a bundle of tics and spasms to receive care from Jung and his revolutionary new “talking cure” method of treatment. Freud sees every psychiatric problem as a manifestation of sexual issues, while Jung believes that doctors should get at whatever the root causes of aberrant behavior prove to be.

At least, that’s what I got out of it. Lacking a foundation of knowledge about Jung, Freud, psychiatry, or psychoanalysis, ‘A Dangerous Method’ comes across as very impersonal. It seems determined to address only a limited audience, and takes a low-key, quiet approach in the conveyance of information and (presumably key) plot points and character revelations.

More than incidental pleasures can be found in the performances of Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender. Mortensen’s impersonation of Freud is spirited and sly, suggesting a man who is well aware of his own position in the community, and only open to new ideas up to a point, a point that might threaten his standing and/or reputation.

Fassbender, in what is for him an (almost) straightforward lead role, embodies the personality of a principled man who struggles through various crises. First he must deal with his sexual attraction to a patient, while maintaining emotional fidelity to his devoted wife Emma (Sarah Gadon). Then he must contend with the challenges thrown at him by Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), a psychiatrist with new, bracing ideas about psychoanalysis, coming from his own personal experience. And he must come to terms with the chasm that develops between him and his mentor, Freud.

Definitely worthy of investigation by fans of Cronenberg, Fassbender, and Mortensen, ‘A Dangerous Method’ may play better on repeat viewings, but even a single viewing will reward the dedicated psychoanalytic movie buff.

‘A Dangerous Method’ is now playing at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.