Blu-ray: ‘Alien: Covenant’

You may recall Prometheus with both awe and astonishment, a film with astounding moments of beauty and horror and brilliance bumping up against stupidity and sloppiness and half-baked ideas. Alien: Covenant (2017), the second film in the Alien prequel series, takes place a decade after the events of Prometheus (2012) and continues writing the xenomorph origin story with a new cast of potential hosts (a colony ship with a population on ice waiting to wake on a new world) put through a plot that borrows elements from both Prometheus and the original films. It’s a smarter film, and if it never quite matches the conceptual and visual genius of Prometheus at its best, neither does it slip into the foolishness of its worst moments.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

This is the sixth official film (we’re ignoring the Alien vs. Predator films) in what is becoming a galaxy-spanning franchise, the second film in the prequel story, and the third directed by Ridley Scott, director of the original film. It opens with the skeleton crew awakening early, just as it did in Scott’s original Alien, and sending a search party down to a nearby planet sending out a distress signal, which this time is a verdant world teaming with plant life but, eerily, no animals or insects or birds. What it does have are the insidious spores of Prometheus (also directed by Scott) which colonize the unlikely humans as hosts for this alien life form, and a lone humanoid living in the ruins of a dead civilization: David (Michael Fassbender), the android of Prometheus who walks the wasteland like a rogue prophet and makes contact with the human team.

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Blu-ray: X-Men Apocalypse

xmenapocX-Men Apocalypse (Fox, Blu-ray, 4K HD, DVD, VOD), the sixth in the official X-Men big screen franchise (the ninth if you count the Wolverine and Deadpool spin-offs) and the third film in the prequel trilogy, is cut to fit into the big screen mythos as carved out of the source comics by director Bryan Singer. He directed the first two films in the series and now, following his time travel-based X-Men: Days of Future Past, he wraps the series with another end-of-the-world battle. The villain this time is an ancient mutant, a big blue baddie from ancient Egypt played by Oscar Isaac. He fancies himself a god and, after being roused from a nearly 6,000 year hibernation, decides to raze civilization and start over with the survivors. You know, Darwinism as a global reset.

We jump from his backstory, an extended prologue that looks like a CGI version of an Egyptian epic, to 1983. It’s ten years after the end of Days of Future Past and we begin again introducing and/or reintroducing what seems like dozens of characters destined to line up behind either Apocalypse, who goes in a recruiting drive for his Four Horsemen, or Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the telepath who runs the covert mutant academy called the School for Gifted Children and believes that man and mutant can co-exist peacefully. Frenemy and future nemesis Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), sides with Apocalypse (in every sense of the term) after his experiment with co-existence ends with, once again, his family killed in front of his eyes.

His is merely the most dramatic of tragic pasts and traumatic events that define the dramatis personae, which include the young versions of future X-Men leaders Jean Grey (Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones, bringing conviction to a role that largely calls upon her to look tortured and intense while projecting psychic powers) and Scott Summers, aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), the man with the laser eyes. There are also young versions of Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), new characters like Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy; we’ll pretend that The Last Stand isn’t part of the X-legacy), and best of all a return visit from Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Peters brings a playfulness to the role and contributes the wittiest and most enjoyable action scene in the film, a supersonic rescue mission speeding through a slow-motion explosion. And it’s surely no secret anymore that Hugh Jackman makes a startling cameo as Wolverine in a scene that plugs right in to his own elaborate history.

It’s overloaded, to say the least, but if it gets a little clumsy at times and leaves potentially fascinating characters neglected (Storm and Psylocke are particularly underserved), it’s still kind of impressive how much information screenwriter Simon Kinberg (who plotted the original story with Singer and others) crams in with the spectacle of the 143-minute film. Singer’s direction brings out character beats and suggests relationships in the heat of action and he adds touches of humor and humanity throughout, which helps add texture to the increasingly familiar spectacle of CGI-assisted battleground demolition and battles of superpowered figures.

In this sea of cool costumes, colorful powers, and epic destruction, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence (as Mystique / Raven, the face of mutant liberation on a one-woman campaign to save her people from human oppression and exploitation) bring some much-needed gravitas and grounding. They suggest strength and power even before the digital effects and stuntwork are unleashed. Isaac, buried under enough make-up to make him unrecognizable, doesn’t fare so well but he makes a credible villain by virtue of his commitment to his stony confidence and absolute belief in his divine right.

Like the Avengers movies, the X-Men films don’t really work outside of the franchise—there’s too much character history woven through story for it to stand alone—and the visual overload of so many characters buzzing through the chaos is better suited to the big screen than the home screen. But as the final piece in the self-contained screen mythology of the X-Men, it’s quite satisfying, even with the timeline adjustments (time travel twists are so forgiving!). It surely won’t be the last X-Men film but it’s likely the last to feature star players Lawrence, Fassbender, and McAvoy. Expect the next generation of young heroes introduced here to lead the next chapters.

Rated PG-13

On Blu-ray and DVD, with filmmaker commentary, a gag reel, and a gallery of stills. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is the hour-long documentary “X-Men: Apocalypse Unearthed,” deleted and extended scenes, and a wrap party video.

X-Men: Apocalypse [DVD]
X-Men: Apocalypse [Blu-ray]
X-men: Apocalypse [Blu-ray 3D]

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Blu-ray/DVD: The Cosmic Mysteries of ‘Prometheus’

Ridley Scott has taken pains to explain that Prometheus (Fox) is not a prequel to Alien, but a film that comes from the same DNA. That’s a bit disingenuous, considering how meticulously (and often very cleverly) it sets up the building blocks of Alien, but his pointed use of the term DNA is telling. It opens with a very different answer to Genesis, where Earth is seeded with alien genetic material, and then jumps ahead a few billion years to follow a crew of scientists (including Noomi Rapace) retracing an ancient trail through the stars left behind by the ancients.

Mirroring Alien, we have a colorful crew (this time mostly scientists), a corporate directive (monitored by Charlize Theron), and an android (Michael Fassbender, superb) on the bridge charged with completing that directive, but otherwise this is far from the gothic monster movie of the 1979 original. At its most ambitious, Prometheus plants suggestions of the extraterrestrial origins of life on Earth, a Godlike race sowing genetic seeds across galaxy, and even an Old Testament-like sense of retribution, or at the very least a feeling of failure that calls for a reboot.

With all this happening, I’m left with a nagging question: How can Ridley Scott have such a sophisticated visual intelligence, creating screen worlds engineered in such detail as to suggest entire cultures behind the designs and technology, and then fill those worlds with characters who are supposed to be scientists yet act like kids in a playroom? Seriously, the reason these supposedly top scientists of the late 21st century keep yelling “Don’t touch anything” to each other is because otherwise they’ll fingerpaint their way through the most important scientific discoveries since the mapping of the human genome.

The script fails to match its ambition, but at least give it credit for big ideas, unexpected conceptual turns, and a dense and dramatic visual experience. “Prometheus” hints at something bigger, more cosmic and philosophically daring, than what the characters actually manage to grapple with on screen. And for all its failures in the realm of human behavior, the cosmic mystery behind the story is enigmatic and remains so to the end. In leaving us with mysteries, it offers something far more satisfying than a reductive answer. It leaves us with possibilities.

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New review: Inglourious Basterds

Is there another American filmmaker who takes such joy in telling stories and spinning cinematic spells as Quentin Tarantino? I don’t mean tackling big issues or making epic statements. I’m talking about the sheer pleasure of telling audiences a tale that takes them places they don’t expect and ways they haven’t quite experienced before. The directors who try to ape Tarantino’s quirky scripts and movie lore-loaded direction miss the point. His love of movies comes out not simply in his references to other films. It’s all in the way he digests the ideas and images and music and narrative points he’s stored during a life of movie going and reimagines them in new contexts, reworking them until they become an organic part of his movie.

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt prove their Basterd credentials
Eli Roth and Brad Pitt prove their Basterd credentials

Inglourious Basterds (yes, that is the spelling) takes its name from an Italian war caper by Enzo Castellari (itself a shameless knock-off of “The Dirty Dozen”) but the story is pure Tarantino, a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes resurrected with fresh takes and twists, all deliciously scripted into dialogue dances and verbal jousts and set against a historical informed more by the movies and Tarantino’s own “what if”? narrative doodling than any historical record. “Once Upon a Time… in occupied France,” reads the opening chapter title, which is as good a cue as any to Tarantino’s intentions. This isn’t any World War II history you learned and Tarantino doesn’t care that he’s rewritten the end of the war as a magnificent Hollywood mission movie, a revenge fantasy not so much come to life as bigger than life.

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