ALIEN: COVENANT (USA / Australia / New Zealand / UK, 16, 122 mins)
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo.
THE PLOT: Deep space. The spaceship Covenant is en route to a new world, carrying over 2,000 colonists looking to start a new life. That includes the crew, which is woken up 7 years too early after the ship is damaged by solar flares. Oram (Billy Crudup) has command thrust upon him, with reliable Daniels (Katherine Waterston) his second in command. Also among the crew are pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), Lope (Demian Bichir) and Karine (Carmen Ejogo). There’s also a non-human onboard – android Walter (Michael Fassbender). When the crew receives a signal from a nearby planet, they investigate in the hope that it might be habitable and shorten their journey. Upon arrival, they find that it’s a paradise lost with a deadly, perfect organism on the loose…
THE VERDICT: This is Rumour Control. Here are the facts. When Prometheus was released in 2012, it more than hinted at grander ambitions for the ‘Alien’ franchise. Ridley Scott wanted to explore the origin of the species and develop an evolutionary through-line to his original film. While this reviewer quite liked Prometheus, it lacked one essential element – the xenomorph that we all know and love / fear. Scott included it as more of an afterthought in the closing seconds of the film. Perhaps sensing the disappointment of some fans, Scott has gone back-to-basics.
Originally titled ‘Alien: Paradise Lost’ and then ‘Alien: Covenant’, there’s a theme running through the film about hope and new beginnings. Not for long though. This being an ‘Alien’ film (for sure), it’s not long before all hell breaks loose and the crew of the Covenant find themselves fighting for survival against a superior force. The recent snippets of footage released to sate salivating fans work in conjunction with the film, rather than being part of it. To say too much would be to spoil its many twists and turns, but it’s enough to say that Fassbender has a ball portraying the motivations of his character(s).
For the first time in 20 years, the xenomorphs in all their guises are back in full force (let’s forget about the risible Alien vs Predator films). However, Scott mixes it up and plays around with audience expectations. Forget about a chestburster. What about a backburster? The xenomorph is still evolving to some degree, so there are a variety of xenomorphs here. He succeeds in recapturing that terror-in-space atmosphere of his original film, with the excellent Waterston picking up Ripley’s flamethrower as the crew’s reluctant heroine. It’s a throwback which works well.
The film is not without its flaws though. After spending so long setting up the Engineers in Prometheus, Scott gives them a backseat here. A bit more Engineer mythology wouldn’t have gone amiss in the screenplay, particularly in relation to the grander ambitions for the franchise. Just to balance it out with Prometheus. Observant viewers will see the ending coming but what a brilliant, nausea-inducing ending anyway. Scott has already said that four (!) more films are in the pipeline, connecting the dots to Alien. On the strength of the new film, Scott is taking the franchise in a bold and exciting new direction. ‘Alien: Covenant’ certainly delivers on the icky terror front. In short, it’s terror-ific.
Review by Gareth O’Connor
MISS SLOANE (France | USA/15A/132mins) Directed by John Madden. Starring Jessica Chastain, Alison Pill, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jake Lacy THE PLOT: Powerful and formidable lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of the most sought after people in her field, but when she switches sides during a campaign to change the background check policy for gun ownership, she finds herself up against one of the most powerful opponents of her career. THE VERDICT: There is something of ‘Michael Clayton’ about Jessica Chastain’s latest film, and a touch of a mid-2000s feel, without the film feeling dated or old fashioned. There are times when the film gets a little caught up in itself, but it is, on the whole, a taut and engaging thriller.
Jessica Chastain leads the cast as the titular Miss Sloane, and the film is framed around her deposition to a Senate hearing about her potentially breaking the law and engaging in illegal activities for the sake of winning. Chastain makes Sloane an abrasive, cold and calculating character, but also allows the audience to root for this closed off and focused character. The rest of the cast features Mark Strong, Jake Lacy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, Alison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sam Waterston, who all support Chastain wonderfully.
First time screenwriter Jonathan Perera had the script for ‘Miss Sloane’ picked up and on the road to being produced within a year, and his singular voice shines throughout the screenplay. The characters are all well drawn and have a purpose in the film, and the relationships feel real and relatable. There are times, however, when this tightly scripted and engaging political thriller gets a little too caught up in jargon, and with double cross after double cross, it is often difficult to keep track of just who is against whom throughout the film. That said, ‘Miss Sloane’ is a tight and enthralling political thriller, and a decidedly female story, albeit not a feminine one.
Director John Madden tries his best to keep the pace of the film moving throughout, but gets caught up and tangled toward the start of the second hour, giving ‘Miss Sloane’ a slightly flabby and slow feeling. That said, the performances in the film are strong, with Jessica Chastain shining in a role that is different than what we have seen her in of late. The tension and danger in the film feel real, with the audience being given a chance to root for a character who would certainly be treated differently if she were a man.
In all, ‘Miss Sloane’ is a taut and exciting thriller. Jessica Chastain shines in the lead role, and is backed up by a wonderful and powerful supporting cast. The screenplay and direction of the film are strong, for the most part, but there are times when a tighter directorial vision could have cleared up the slower parts of the film. RATING: 4/5 Review by Brogen Hayes
FRANTZ (France | Germany/12A/113mins) Directed by François Ozon. Starring Pierre Niney, Paula Beer, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow THE PLOT: Germany, 1919. Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman who is grieving for her late fiancé, Frantz (Anton Von Lucke). Having died in the killing fields of WWI, Frantz also left behind his parents Hans (Ernst Stotzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber). While visiting Frantz’s grave, Anna notices a young Frenchman leaving flowers. She gets to know him as Adrien (Pierre Niney). He was a friend of Frantz’s whom he knew before the war during their time in Paris. As Anna and Frantz’s’ parents get to know Adrien, it appears that he is harbouring a dark secret, but is unable to tell them… THE VERDICT: Never one to sit on his laurels or make the same film time and again, Francois Ozon’s latest film ‘Frantz’ is arguably his best in the past decade. It’s partially based on the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film Broken Lullaby, with Ozon adding his own elements to the screenplay with Philippe Piazzo. It’s an elegant and evocative film from the beginning, capturing the tension of Franco-German relations in the wake of the devastation caused by WWI. The real war is between politicians, not young men who have to die for their country to prove a point.
All of this is on a deeply personal level though, as we follow Anna’s journey through grief, despair, confusion and hopefully a realisation that life has to go on. Beer is excellent at capturing that quiet sense of grief here. She’s tender and quietly self-contained, saying much more than what’s actually on the page. Equally good is Niney, in a much more involving role than the vacuous Yves Saint Laurent biopic. As Adrien says at one point, ‘my only wound is Frantz’. It’s a wound that runs deep throughout the film, with Frantz himself becoming a shadow that never leaves the frame of the camera and is felt throughout.
While it’s ostensibly a black and white film in both look and tone, Ozon makes some subtle use of colour here and there. He uses it for flashback sequences to happier times and also for echoes of the past into the present. It’s a nice stylistic touch. While it looks like the story wraps up half-way through, the second half of the film sees Anna travelling to Paris as the mystery of Adrien and Frantz’s relationship deepens further. A lesser director might drop the ball here, but Ozon ensures that the second half is every bit as dramatically satisfying as what came before. A very fine film indeed. RATING: 4/5 Review by Gareth O’Connor
JAWBONE (UK/15A/91mins) Directed by Thomas Napper. Starring Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Jonny Harris, Michael Smiley, Anna Wilson-Hall THE PLOT: Jimmy (Johnny Harris) is a boxer who is on the wrong side of 40. A former alcoholic, he hit rock bottom a year ago and is slowly trying to claw his way back to his younger glory days. Returning to his native London, he tries to re-connect with the two boxing mentors that coached him – tough but sympathetic boxing club owner Bill (Ray Winstone) and his no-nonsense trainer Eddie (Michael Smiley). However, Bill warns him that any whiff of drink or attempted luring of the younger boxers into the underworld of unlicensed boxing will see him being kicked out. When old friend and boxing promoter Joe (Ian McShane) offers Jimmy a chance at an unlicensed fight, Jimmy will have to shape up if he’s going to survive… THE VERDICT: ‘Jawbone’ is clearly a labour of love for London-born Harris. The multi hyphenate not only stars in the film, but also writes and produces. It’s a film of firsts, as not only is it Harris’ first screenplay, it’s also the directorial debut of Thomas Napper, who has worked as a second unit director for nearly 20 years. Given the potential for it to all go wrong and just be another random Brit flick, ‘Jawbone’ wisely dodges the potential pitfalls and instead concentrates on building a strong character portrait.
Harris’ script is sharp and pared down to the bone, mercifully shearing away any sentimental boxing sub-plots like an estranged ex-partner and child. It’s enough to suggest that Bill and Eddie are family, though Jimmy is very much living on the rugged kindness of these two characters. There’s a lot of history between this trio and there’s also a sense of sadness as to how far Jimmy has fallen. Homeless and tempted by drink, Jimmy is a combustible character at times – a Raging Londoner of sorts. That’s not just a character flaw, but unfortunately a flaw in the script. Harris does more than enough to say that Jimmy is smart, but yet Jimmy keeps making the same mistakes. A more rounded character arc would have been welcome here.
That said though, there’s a lot to admire in this gritty, low-budget debut. Harris gives a strong, bruising performance that gets you on Jimmy’s down-on-his-luck side early on. It’s a very physical performance that doesn’t even need a boxing match to suggest how damaged this character is, both internally and externally. Winstone and Smiley are reliably stalwart in roles that could have reverted to boxing movie stereotypes in a lesser film. Napper’s direction is unflashy and is all the better for it, preferring instead to get his camera in close with the characters. ‘Jawbone’ doesn’t try too hard to impress, preferring to go for a low-key right hook. Not quite a knock-out, but it does have its moments and a star-in-the-making in Harris. RATING: 3.5 / 5 Review by Gareth O’Connor