movie reviews May 2017

The transfigurationGuardians of the Galaxy vol. 2hounds of lovealien: covenantpirates of the caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a zombie movie. I don't mean a movie about zombies, though there are plenty of zombies — even zombie sharks — on screen. I mean a movie that, like the walking dead, has the outward appearance of life but lacks an active brain, heart or soul.

Like its four increasingly tiresome predecessors, there are pirates a plenty, sword fights galore, naval battles, a hidden MacGuffin with super powers, a larger-than-life villain, and gazillion-dollar CGI effects. Yet rarely has so much frantic motion felt so leaden, so pointless, so dead.

A new bland young couple steps up to take the place of aged-out originators Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly (who lend cameos to the proceedings; Knightly, just barely). Brenton Thwaites plays Henry Turner, son of Will Turner (Bloom), who believes he can lift his father's curse by finding the fabled Triton of Poseidon. Kaya Scodelario is Carina Smyth, an astronomer whose intelligence and independent nature have landed her in prison, branded a witch. Smyth believes the Triton of Poseidon will help her discover the identity of her long-lost father. It's not long, of course, before their paths cross.

To find the Trident, both require the services of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), the character who, over five films, has grown from a refreshing, off-beat ensemble member to the series' break-out star, seemingly cursed to recycle his popular shtick for eternity.

Like TV's Henry "Fonzie" Winkler, over the years, Depp and his creation have been required to carry an increasingly larger share of the plot with an increasingly codified routine. Ancillary as Sparrow is to this plot, Depp remains front and center, his character basically a collection of "bits": the vaudevillian drunken stagger, the mumbled one-liner, the confused wide-eyed scamper.

Around this weak center revolve additional plot strands existing solely to introduce Javier Bardem as new villain Captain Armando Salazar, a pale, rotting computer-generated zombie pirate who moves in slow, tide-like motions as tendrils of hair float perpetually about his head and black liquid spills from his lips as he speaks. Salazar, for reasons that are neither important nor well explained, wants revenge on Sparrow and has enlisted the services of franchise regular Captain Barbosa. A highlight of the film is the initial appearance of Geoffrey Rush as Barbosa, now living as a pirate of leisure, his cabin walls lined with glittering golden skulls, a jewel-encrusted peg at the end of his leg, and a coiffed do that lends him the appearance of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion.

The plot by Jeff Nathanson, who has scripted sequels for the Speed and Rush Hour franchises, offers less character development than segue between the action set pieces, some of which are diverting enough: a bank robbery during which the crew hauls the entire bank building through the narrow streets of town; an execution which puts Sparrow's head at the end of a guillotine spinning wildly out of control.

It's with the terrestrial set pieces that Swedish co-directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg seem most comfortable. Strangely, despite their combined experience at the helm of 2012's Kon-Tiki remake, the duo make a mess of the sea battles, the action all but lost amid computer-generated spray, fog, and murky darkness.

By the time Salazar's zombie pirates release the zombie sharks (one of which literally jumps Sparrow's dinghy; take that, Fonzie!), one realizes that Dead Men Tell No Tales is as empty as its characters, shambling mindlessly and mechanically to its predetermined end. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 05/30/17)


Alien: Covenant
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In 2012, Ridley Scott returned, after more than 30 years, to helm a prequel to the franchise he had initiated with his iconic sci-fi/horror movie Alien. That film, Prometheus, made it clear that the franchise's creator was no longer particularly interested in the deadly critters he had thrust into our collective psyche but in the larger ontological issues of humanity's engineers and the relationship between creators and their creations. Audiences, by this point accustomed to an increasing focus on the xenomorphs (to the point that the Alien vs., Predator spin-off films virtually relegated humans to spectator status), were largely unimpressed.

Alien: Covenant, then, feels like a reversal of course, a compromise (a covenant, if you will) between creator Scott's high-minded aspirations and Fox Studios' desire to satisfy audiences’ insatiable appetite for those nasty little beasties. The resulting film somewhat awkwardly shoehorns philosophical contemplations of Milton and Shelley (Percy and Mary) into what is essentially an "Alien's Greatest Hits" revue.

From the opening cryptographic title and quotes of Jerry Goldsmith's elegant original score, Alien: Covenant trades in the familiar. A decade after the events of Prometheus (and still a couple of decades before the Nostromo sends a crew down to LV-426), we have another cavernous space vehicle (complete with an onboard computer called Mother and a novelty Drinking Bird), carrying another rag-tag crew who are prematurely awakened from hyper-sleep and lured by a beacon of unknown origin to investigate an uncharted planet only to discover a horseshoe-shaped derelict ship.

Covenant also brings back the critters, lots of critters — critters of all shapes, sizes, colors, and stages of gestation. A facehugger surprises a crewmember that asks to peek inside a large leathery egg. Embryonic xenomorphs burst not only from chests, but also from backs and mouths. Four-legged varieties prowl the wheat fields, and towering two-legged adults make short work of their human prey.

Those humans, for the most part, are once again expendable and thus defined in only the broadest terms. Acting captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) is a man of faith; we know because he tells us so. Covenant's pilot (Danny McBride) is the earthy country type because he's nicknamed Tennessee, wears a cowboy hat, and can identify John Denver songs. With one exception, the remainder of the crew (including Demián Bichir, Amy Seimetz, and Jussie Smollett) serves as just so many redshirts. And Katherine Waterston as the pragmatic heroine Daniels, despite the requisite tank top and cropped hair, hardly measures up to Sigourney Weaver's trailblazing embodiment, as Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, of the female action hero.

Still, true to Scott's original dark vision, accomplished sequences abound. Crewmembers cross a Forum-like clearing, threading their way among hundreds of charred humanoid figures frozen in their death throes like victims in Pompeii. And the well-orchestrated, tightly edited xenomorph encounters are gruesomely effective. Still, one can't shake the air of familiarity that lingers over the proceedings.

The story that director Scott really wants to tell emerges only in the film's subplot, a Gothic tale of two synthetics, the true sequel to the events and themes of Prometheus and an extension of ideas first raised in his 1982 film Blade Runner.

Among the crew of the Covenant is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an upgraded model of the synthetic David 8 who accompanied the Prometheus. Walter and company are rescued from alien attack by David, who in the intervening decade has exerted his dominion over the planet and its inhabitants, a creative act for which Walter has not been programmed. David’s subsequent temptation of “brother” Walter, a mesmerizing dual performance by Fassbender, carries overtones of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (its subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, keenly appropriate) and even “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Their discussions of humanity, perfection and existentialism, as well as the lure of creative power, lead to moments of perverse horror as the seduction verges on the physical, a deep-seated shock that transcends the merely visceral terrors lurking out in the darkness. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 05/22/17)


Hounds of Love
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Mickey and Mallory. Kit and Holly. Sailor and Lula. Cinema has long had a fascination with killer couples and their twisted relationships.

The feature debut of Australian writer-director Ben Young revolves around a married couple that abducts, abuses, and murders high school girls. Reportedly based on a true case that occurred in his native Australia in the late ‘80s, the film does not follow the entire series of crimes, but focuses on a single victim and the dynamics that develop between captive and captors.

Like the case that inspired it, the film unfolds in Perth in 1987. Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a teen struggling with her parents' recent separation, slips out of her mom's new place and heads to a party. An offer of pot and a ride entices her into the car of Evelyn and John White (Emma Booth, Stephen Curry), who stop back by their house and in short order have drugged and chained her to a bed. The remainder of the film follows events inside the White home, with brief interludes as Vicki's mom attempts to get Aussie police to investigate.

Young avoids the most graphic violence in an attempt to portray the dysfunctional relationship between Evie and John. Unfortunately, most of what is revealed fails to illuminate much more than an average episode of Criminal Minds. We discover that John is also abusing Evie and that he preys on her insecurity and dependence to gain her reluctant assistance. Vicki sees this, too, and attempts to drive a wedge between her captors with subtle suggestions to Evie.

Young attempts to dress up this routine content with the camera and soundtrack: opening slow-motion shots of the suburban setting and high school girls playing netball on a sun-drenched playground feel more than a bit reminiscent of the idealized images that open Blue Velvet, and the extended scene in which the Whites restrain Vicki then engage in virtual foreplay in front of her, all set to "Nights in White Satin," verges on the exploitative. Throw in a bit of editing misdirection stolen directly from The Silence of the Lambs (and, hence, ineffective for all but the most inexperienced viewer), and you have a film not half as clever or shocking as it thinks it is. Unrated. Rating 2.5 (Posted on 05/12/17)


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Marvel's major releases as the redheaded stepchild thumbing its B-movie nose at its more dignified A-list brethren. Yet unencumbered by narrative connections to the big-league Marvel story arcs and unburdened by high studio expectations, writer-director James Gunn was free to shake up the Marvel Cinematic Formula with a mix of absurd minor characters, irreverent humor, and real heart. This new recipe ultimately attracted a huge audience and huge box office revenue.

Vol.. 2 feels like the stakes are higher, and not in good way. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not a bad film, yet it disappoints — not because it fails to deliver what its audience wants, but because it delivers exactly what they want.

Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 2?

Check.

What's not to love about another dozen-tune soundtrack of guilty (and some not-so-guilty) pleasures, such a Looking Glass' "Brandy" and ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky?" Except this time around, the soundtrack feels so insistent, so pervasive, so relentlessly demanding of our recognition and admiration.

Our motley bunch of lovable antiheroes?

Check.

Everyone's back: green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana); brawny yet sensitive warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), irritable, gun-toting raccoon Rocket (wonderfully voiced again by Bradley Cooper); even a tiny sapling version of the original's bipedal and vocabulary-challenged tree creature Groot called Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and, of course, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the human-alien half-breed leader of the gang. Also along for the ride is Gamora's psychopathic cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan),

Humourous bickering?

Check.

However, while nearly non-stop this time around, the barbs have lost their edge, too often landing like sitcom punch lines. And frankly, some of the humor just falls flat. Does the abrupt announcement, "Excuse me, I gotta take a wiz" really deserve a laugh?

Action?

Check.

Loads and loads of space fights and action sequences from beginning to end. Several of these are creative and breathtakingly rendered, particularly two that involve Baby Groot: the opening scene in which the camera steadfastly follows the little sprout dancing to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" as a Jack Kirby-esque epic galactic battle unfolds in the background; and later as he attempts to free two prisoners, resulting in a nod to early Hollywood gag comedy. The action set pieces, however, tends to overwhelm the film, frequently unfolding as empty spectacle with little sense of suspense.

This emptiness seems a result of the film's core plots being only tangentially related to the surrounding action. Quill's sense of abandonment by his unknown alien father and search for a surrogate, subtext in the first film, is the central plot this time around. Peter and Co. encounter a being ‑— actually, a living planet and maybe a god (with a small g, he explains) — named Ego (charmingly embodied by Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter's long-lost dad.

Also made painfully explicit is the latent attraction between Quill and Gamora. Time and again, Peter refers to the "unspoken thing," the "Sam and Dianne thing" between them.

These relationship dynamics are presented with such a heavy hand that when events eventually transpire involving them, they carry little weight, feeling more like plot points to be checked off.

The first film, as an origin story, saw a bunch of misfits thrown together and forced to negotiate their differences and suspicions to bond and survive as a unit. This time around, despite some occasional grumbling, it seldom feels like anything is truly at stake (besides the survival of the galaxy, obviously). It never feels like someone might really walk out on the Guardians. Instead, more than once, members of the team feel compelled to profess that they are the family each of them never had. Without this tension underlying the group dynamics, the vibe begins to feel suspiciously like the “SuperFriends.”

In fact, there's a lingering ingratiating vibe throughout the film that is ultimately off-putting. One senses the corporate Disney presence here, loathe to offend or to taint the brand, and that undermines the very sensibility — the surprise and anarchic attitude — that made the original Guardians matter. PG-13 Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 05/11/17)


The Transfiguration
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a 14-year-old African American kid living in a desolate Brooklyn housing project. Orphaned, he lives with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a former vet who never leaves the apartment, endlessly watching TV all day and night in an attempt to numb his PTSD.

Small and friendless, Milo is bullied at school and harassed by the gangbangers who roam the complex. He spends his time at home holed up in his room, watching horror films from stacks of VHS recordings that fill his shelves, films such as Near Dark, Fright Night, and Nosferatu.

Milo, however, is not just anesthetizing his pain like his brother; he's doing research. See, Milo may be a vampire. Or he may just think he is.

Similarly, featuring an equal mix of real-world and fright-film horrors, writer-director Michael O' Shea's accomplished first feature film The Transfiguration may or may not be a horror movie. In truth, the film it most closely resembles is 2016 Academy Award Best Picture-winner Moonlight.

Both films follow the efforts of a young black kid in an impoverished neighborhood to survive and acquire some sense of power over his circumstances. Moonlight's protagonist Chiron finds power by adopting the drug-dealing persona of surrogate father Juan. With no such role model, Milo has turned to the supernatural power represented by the vampire.

Milo does drink blood. The film's opening scene introduces Milo on his knees, sucking blood from the neck of a middle-aged man in a Central Park toilet. Later, we see him vomit it back up. We soon learn that once a month, Milo goes out on such hunts to quell his growing bloodlust.

We also learn that Milo has been having regular sessions with the school counselor because of previous incidents of animal torture, an interest he now satisfies with YouTube videos of animal-on-animal violence and elaborate entries and drawings in a series of spiral notebooks designated "The Rules."

Milo's solitary routine is interrupted by the arrival of Sophie (Chloe Levine), a slightly older white girl who has moved into the building to live with her abusive grandfather. Sophie, it turns out, is a self-harmer who bonds with Milo over a shared interest in vampires.

Their ensuing conversations point up the differences in their use of the vampire mythology. Sophie is drawn to the idealized, romanticized beings of the Twilight series. Milo, however, is concerned with only one criterion: realism. He tells Sophie he doesn't believe that vampires sparkle. He also doesn't believe in sunlight or garlic. He recommends the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, in which a bullied school kid befriends a young female vampire. He is also a fan of George A, Romero's Martin, about a young man who attacks people and drinks blood, but may or may not be a vampire. (Both films also seem to be among O'Shea's biggest influences.)

As Milo and Sophie's awkward relationship slowly blossoms, Milo is faced with the dilemma of what to do about his terrible secret.

O'Shea presents events with a realistic, documentary feel. Many scenes appear to have been shot live on the street with no Foley work and little editing to artificially crank up the tension. Cinematographer Sung Rae Cho routinely frames the couple amid abandoned lots and dwarfed by gray anonymous buildings. Milo's acts of violence are likewise portrayed with matter-of-fact realism, rendering them all the more disturbing.

The film's success ultimately turns, however, on Eric Ruffin, who delivers an impressively underplayed performance, conveying Milo's roiling interior with subtle gestures and eye contact.

O'Shea never reveals whether Milo is a vampire or simply a budding young sociopath, but the clues he has dropped along the way about Milo's background, the origin of his bloodlust, and his concern for Sophie lead to an ending that is both shocking and absolutely inevitable. Unrated Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 05/11/1) *Showing at the Screenland Crossroads at Tapcade.

 

 


 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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