Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Film Review

Scholars of Greek mythology have differing views when it comes to the subject of Poseidon’s Trident. Some talk of it being a thunderbolt. Others talk of it having three prongs. The one talked of and eventually found in the fifth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise resembles less a bolt and more a crooked looking pronged fork, a really large one. Either way, whomever finds the Trident has control of the world’s oceans, and that’s what everyone’s searching for in Disney’s messy new ocean-going pirate swashbuckler, Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Much of the publicity for the new film talked of Disney going back to the beginning and building its new plot from the original template, aiming to make whatever dynamic worked in the first to work in the fifth. Had the filmmakers truly stuck to the rhythm of the original and ignored the incoherent, bloated disasters that followed, maybe we could believe the hype. But that’s not what’s happened. Part 5 is going to hit big at the box-office, that’s for certain, but parts 2 and 3 were also hits, and they were, frankly, exercises on how not to tell a coherent story.

When The Curse of the Black Pearl was first released in 2003, the box-office bonanza came like an unexpected breath of fun, fresh, sea-front air; a lively concoction of adventure, thrills, surprising humor, and a supernatural ghost story to boot. True, it was about fifteen minutes too long and didn’t quite know where to end the story, but the goodwill felt towards the film was enough to forgive adding on yet another extra chase after the tale was already done. Plus, it echoed much of the famous theme park attraction upon which it was based.

There were all kinds of elements recreating scenes familiar to those who had taken the ride, like the dog with the keys to the pirate jail hanging from between its jaws, and the chasing of wenches on land by drunken, lustful pirates. Even Johnny Depps’ engagingly foolish Captain Jack Sparrow hummed a bar of the ride’s recognizable yo-ho signature theme during the closing seconds of the original adventure as he set out once again to see the sea. The only element in this new, fifth adventure that even acknowledges its origins is the title, Dead Men Tell No Tales, a recorded phrase that can be heard as you float your boat into the cavernous, underground theme park exhibit. Everything else, sadly, is an unattractive miscalculation.  It goes for the visually spectacular, but ends up spectacularly busy, smothered in Geoff Zanelli’s non-stop roaring soundtrack.

Things begin well. A young cabin boy named Henry (Lewis McGowan) purposely jumps ship and sinks into the ocean, knowing he’ll find the wreck of The Flying Dutchman resting on the floor below. Young Henry, it turns out, is the son of those two lovers from the previous adventures, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly), and the boy knows that his dad is still down there, lying at the bottom of the sea, cursed as a rotting, decaying corpse and doomed to remain in the fathoms below with the rest of his living-dead crew and the face-eating barnacles.

All that can help dad and his men is finding the Trident of Poseidon, which the boy Henry vows he will do, no matter how long it takes. “The Trident can break any curse at sea,” the boy insists. And there’s the setup, and it’s a perfectly fine beginning, though due to the smoky dark and low-lit nature of this nighttime, underwater introduction, it’s not always easy to see what’s occurring, made all the more difficult if you view the film with the diminishing light of 3D glasses where image is sacrificed for gimmick. But despite the promising introduction, once we jump to eight years later and the boy Henry is now a young man (Brenton Thwaites) and still looking for ways to find Poseidon’s underwater Trident, the film tells its story almost exclusively through chase, action, and a lot of shouting, and it never stops.

There are several visual effects to be admired. The slo-mo way the clothes and hair of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead pirates swish and sway as if they’re underwater, even when characters are out above in the open, is particularly effective; the decaying zombie sharks let loose in the ocean by Salazar’s men look terrific, and the image of the bow of Salazar’s skeletal ship rising up out of the water shows great creativity; it looks as if it’s about to swallow the vessel before it, like Bruce the shark from Jaws. But they’re technical achievements. They’re supposed to enhance the story. Instead, they dominate. There’s never a build-up or a scene-setter, no atmospheric sense of mystery, and never that quiet moment required to build tension, or create anticipation of what might occur. Instead, it’s one lengthy spectacle after another, drenched in a score that practically drowns everything, following the trend of so many action films of recent years that fuel the low-attention span of young movie-goers raised on continuous movement of CGI-created mayhem.

And I’m guessing there’s also no turning back. In a continuing effort to be bigger and louder, as if bigger and louder equal better, the incredible no longer astonishes. Action films will continue to outdo each other, with a resulting effect that nothing engrosses; scenes just happen. You might nod and think to yourself after another visual effect, now, that’s clever, but it’s an emotionally passive response; unless you’re a child new to PG-13, nothing engages or transports.

Even Depp’s popular and permanently slurred Captain Jack Sparrow feels less than he was. There’s no difference in performance and delivery, and he remains amusing, but there’s something curious about the character several movies later. His indignance when plucky astronomer Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) makes an escape as he declares, “How dare you do exactly what I would do if I were you,” gets laughs, as does the moment when he wakes from a drunken night of debauchery and finds himself in front of a crowd, then asks, “This may seem like a peculiar request, but could someone explain why I’m here?” But the act seems tired, and like a comic performer in a sitcom that execs should have canceled a season or two ago, the drunken pirate has overstayed his welcome. What should we do with him? Sparrow is best enjoyed in the original.

There’s also the cliched approach of continually presenting officers of the British Royal Navy as uncompromising, privileged fools who jump to conclusions, listen to no one, consider neither logic nor reason, and who either imprison or execute anyone who even dares to offer advice. It’s tiresome. If everyone in authority truly acted with the ruthlessness and narrow-mindedness of a Captain Bligh, as they do here in the Pirate franchise, Britannia would never have ruled the waves for as long as it did.

Those who see the film in IMAX 3D will see a different screen ratio than regular theatres. There’s more to the picture as it fills out the massive, almost square canvass, but you’ll miss out on the widescreen letterbox image of a regular screen, which, personaly speaking, is actually better looking. IMAX may be bigger and the image huge, but letterbox creates a more sweeping, wider, epic feel.

Statistically, here’s where things stand: Part 5 is marginally better than Gore Verbinski’s 2 and 3, less engaging than director Gary Marshall’s part 4, which, to be fair, almost redeemed the franchise, and is nowhere close to The Curse of the Black Pearl. If you’re a fan of the original outing and live in the hope of re-experiencing what you enjoyed in 2003, you’ll want to judge things for yourself and hope that this review got things wrong. I understand that. I was hoping the same. I loved the 2003 original. But if you’re going, here’s some advice, and it will benefit your local theatre who surprisingly makes little on actual movie rentals, only on concessions. Ignore the expensive presentation gimmicks where the volume is turned up to 15, the image is darkened by 3D glasses, and the admission price is fast growing cost-prohibitive. Rather than huge for size’s sake, enjoy it widescreen in a regular theatre; the screens are still big, it will look overall brighter, and for a family outing, the cost is considerably less. You can either save, pocket the difference, or buy yourself and the family a larger soda and an extra helping of popcorn. Your local theatre will thank you.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 135 Minutes    Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Wakefield – Film Review

Ever wanted to switch off? Maybe press the pause button, put your life on hold, then disappear, if only for a moment? Howard Wakefield did. But for Howard, it wasn’t a moment, or even a few minutes. It wasn’t even days. He switched off, said nothing to the family, and disappeared for months.

In fact, his vanishing act went on for so long there was even a service in his memory. Yet, there he was, watching the whole thing. And it wasn’t that he was hiding in plain sight, not exactly, but if anyone had looked up and focused a little, there was always a chance they might have seen him. From the opening moments in the new drama Wakefield, Manhattan lawyer Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) has clearly had it with everything, and probably everyone.

It’s the end of another working day in the city and already it’s getting dark. The roads are packed bumper to bumper, headlights on, all running a slow gauntlet between the stacked, sky-high buildings, trying to get out of the city; the sidewalks are jammed with pedestrians getting in each other’s way as they hastily trot towards the nearest subway, or in Wakefield’s case, Grand Central Station. And it’s while on that train, heading out into the suburbs, back to his wife and children, when something happens.

The man is nearing the end of his journey when there’s a power cut. The train stops. The lights go out. Everywhere is in darkness, and after a long wait and no sign of a fix, Wakefield, along with everyone else, climbs off the train and wearily walks the rest of his journey home. “Can I be blamed for thinking things were a little strange that night?” he narrates.

It’s when he finally gets home that he notices a raccoon rummaging through the trash outside. The critter disappears into an opening in the side, detached garage, and Wakefield follows. That garage has a second floor, an attic. Wakefield climbs the stairs, shoos the raccoon away, then pauses. Peering through the small attic window he discovers he has a perfect view of both his front yard and of his house. He can see the kids eating dinner. He can see his wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) looking concerned that her husband is late while she makes calls on her cell that remain unanswered. And all Wakefield does is passively watch. And he continues to watch.  He’s finally pressed the pause button and put his life on hold, and for the next several months, while his hair and beard grow to crazy Howard Hughes proportions, he remains there, up in that attic, watching family life through the window from one season to another.

For most of the time, it’s only Wakefield’s voice that we hear. When he recalls a past event, there are certainly other voices. In a flashback, Garner’s Diana argues with her husband, telling him how she’s sick of a constant surveillance. “All I think about is just getting through the day,” she declares. But other than those brief moments, it’s Cranston’s Wakefield that does all the talking, making observances to himself, remarking on what he thinks might be happening. When friends and neighbors drop by to console Diana, Wakefield gives them voice, imagining what they’re probably saying, like someone who fills in the empty dialog balloons above strip-cartoon characters.

We never know what anyone is really saying, it all comes from Wakefield’s imagination, and there’s no way to know for certain whether he’s interpreting what he’s seeing as being the truth, but his words shape his thoughts – “They’re much happier without me” – and dictates how long he’ll remain in the attic. At one point he admits that he’s completely stranded himself, then later, when observing Diana looking happy at the dinner table, wearing her hair long again, and getting ready for dancing lessons, he states, “I love my wife now as I’ve never loved her before.”

Like that raccoon who was earlier rummaging through the trash, Wakefield emerges from the attic at night, going through the bins, foraging for food. Occasionally he might even find a decent pair of shoes. And during those arranged bulk-trash collection times, when unwanted over-sized articles are left discarded on the sidewalk and they’ve disappeared before dawn, Wakefield witnesses who those overnight neighborhood gremlins are, ominously roaming the suburbs, looking to fill the backs of their pickups with whatever others have left.

There’s no doubt, Cranston is terrific. It takes a certain kind of performer that’s able to hold your attention for almost two hours while doing little other than passing the time, reading copies of National Geographic in storage, peering through the attic window and making dismissive, low-key remarks, but Cranston does it, somehow making even the smallest of gestures appear important. After humming a tune while peering through a pair of binoculars, he pauses, considers something, then remarks, “You know, I never used to sing. That’s worth noting.”

But despite Cranston’s ability to keep you interested, almost two hours is a lot of time to invest in a concept that continually feels in danger of not concluding narratively well. How do you end a situation like this this without returning to normalcy? And what will the reactions of others be? In the end, the film let’s itself down.

The hibernating lawyer considers two situations; one where Diana and the kids are thrilled that after all this time, daddy has returned, then another when surprise turns to a look of horror. Both might work, but they’re the fantasies of his imagination; finally, after two hours, it’s the reality we want to see and hear. Wakefield will emerge from the attic, and he will return to the family – he has to; there’s no other way to end this – but there’s no sense of satisfaction in how it’s presented. Perhaps writer/director Robin Swicord intended audiences to discuss possibilities, but it doesn’t work. You’re looking for something definite, but after all this time you just feel cheated.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 109 Minutes     Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Book of Mormon (2017) – Theatre Review: National Touring Production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

In recent years, standing ovations have become standard practice in valley theatres, handed out like free samples, even with mediocre productions less deserving of them. With The Book of Mormon, 2015 audiences at ASU Gammage in Tempe were cheering and leaping to their feet long before the show was over, often at the conclusion of some of the songs. This is not altogether unusual with Gammage audiences who love to show their enthusiasm to a visiting production, but with The Book of Mormon, there was a constant, practical gladiatorial feel to the house, every night.

With just one season to separate visits, the musical returned last week, and it came on press-night with hand-written notices taped to the box-office lobby doors notifying that the evening’s performance was full. Having seen not only the previous visit to Tempe, but subsequent versions of the show before the tour, it’s safe to announce that the musical remains the same exuberant, hilarious, fast-moving production that came to town two years ago with little or no changes in its telling and no visible cutbacks on production values. Though perhaps there is one thing to note, other than the expected cast changes.

The show actually seems to possess more energy than it did before. It’s as if everything and everyone was given a shot of adrenaline with an extra shot for the heck of it, resulting with an even faster-paced and slightly broader version than the one remembered. This current tour began in Chicago, then after a run that lasted almost 11 months in the one theatre, it took to the road. The Book of Mormon arrived in Tempe last week and continues until Sunday, May 28. It could probably stay longer.

As mentioned in this column before when the show first came to town, those two bad boys behind TV’s South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who teamed with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez to write the musical’s script, might possibly have read the fascinating investigative account of the Mormon faith as revealed in the 2003 Jon Krakauer book Under The Banner of Heaven. From the perspective of outsiders, the book was one of the first to document in such detail the origins of the Mormon Church. There were things revealed that perhaps were never known to those outside the church. And in some cases, there were things revealed but kept from those within the church; after all, the book’s subtitle is A Story of Violent Faith. Once the work was released, it was later in that same year when South Park presented an episode called All About Mormons, incorporating elements that happened to be disclosed in Karakauer’s compelling chronicle.

For those who have yet to see the musical, the show revolves around the notion that there is no time in a young Mormon boy’s life more important than the two-year commitment for missionary work, whether it be within the United States or overseas. (For the record, it was two female missionaries that once knocked on my door, but the show is concerned with young males only.)

After a brief introduction in “Ancient, Upstate New York,” a parody of the Hill Cumorah Pageant performed annually in Palmyra, New York, audiences are brought up to date with the church’s foundation. Then we’re off to the Missionary Training Center, Room 7B, in Utah where a class-full of hopefuls rehearse their doorbell ringing technique in an attempt to encourage conversion. As with the whole score, the introductory number Hello is a bright, tuneful, and immediately catchy song with lyrics both witty and extremely clever, containing its own, built-in, big finish harmony, the kind that practically demands applause. Listen to the original cast recording with songs back to back and you’ll notice that all of them have the same construction; big, brash, arms-wide-open finishes. Try not applauding. It can’t be done. They’re designed that way.

For his missionary work, the somewhat pious though popular, all-American boy with the million dollar smile, Elder Kevin Price (Gabe Gibbs, playing the role broader, though funnier than usual) has prayed to God that he be sent to Orlando, land of theme parks, Sea World and Putt-Putt Golfing, but evidently God was busy listening elsewhere that day. By the booming, off-stage voice, fashioned after the late Rod Roddy of “Come on down!” fame from The Price is Right, Elder Price is awarded Uganda, Africa. To make matters doubly worse for the visibly disappointed missionary, the young man is teamed with the slovenly and desperate-to-please classroom doofus, Elder Arnold Cunningham (the very funny Conner Pierson). Arnold, it turns out, has several issues, and two really bad ones. One: he’s never actually read the Book of Mormon, and two: he lies a lot. But he does have enthusiasm, and when told he’s going to Africa, he declares, “Oh, boy. Like The Lion King,” land of disease, brutality, murderous war lords and huts with no air-conditioning.

You can just imagine those two South Park writers rolling around the room in fits of laughter, slapping the floor with their hands when they came up with the idea of sending two idealistic, whiter than white but green-in-the-gills, Mormon missionaries to Uganda. As Elder Price sings with unwavering conviction in the comically inspirational song with the big finish, I Believe, it wasn’t until 1978 that God changed his mind about black people. For the Mormon church, Uganda was, generally speaking, uncharted territory. The mere idea of sending Elders Price and Cunningham to Darkest Africa where the dilapidated village huts have no doorbells to ring is the best joke in the show.

As before, the touring production brings its own proscenium arch designed to appear like a construction of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, complete with the angel Moroni perched at the top (obstructed from view for some audience members by a large, hanging speaker) and glimpses of the solar system, including, presumably, the planet Kolob, which in Mormon faith is the heavenly body nearest to the seat of God. According to Richard Bushman, professor of Mormon Studies, the planet Kolob is not doctrinally accurate, but is does have roots in Mormon belief. For the record, it’s also the name of the studio in Los Angeles where The Osmonds recorded their ‘73 album inspired by Mormon beliefs, The Plan.

For the benefit of those who are still unaware of the show’s content but are curious enough to want to see The Book of Mormon – and you should; it’s genuinely hilarious – keep in mind that it might shock. No, correction: it will shock. But as this column noted before when the musical was here in 2015, it’s the kind of shock that inspires big laughs, depending on your sense of humor. But the thing is, from all the advance words, you must know going in that even though the opening lines to I Believe have a couple of sly nods to Julie Andrews singing I Have Confidence, The Sound of Music this is not. And it’s not Mary Poppins, either. If you know this and you still leave offended, the question you should be asked is, why did you go?

Pictures courtesy of Joan Marcus

Posted in Theatre

Aida – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

Entering the theatre-in-the-round for the new production of the musical Aida at Gilbert’s Hale Centre Theatre is like being seated within the walls of a museum exhibit. Hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt, or the words of gods, surround the house walls against a backdrop of painted stone. And there before you, centered on the small stage area where the action will soon take place, is what appears to be an Egyptian tomb, flanked by two, tall glass cases, home to statue replicas of those believed to be entombed within the bricks of the box-like, brick-built, ancient apparatus.

The statues standing there in the Egyptian Wing of present-day Chicago’s Field Museum are meant to be that of Aida, Princess of Nubia, and Radames, Captain of the Egyptian army, and it is their love story, introduced in song by the third member of the tragic love affair, Amneris, Princess of Egypt, that takes us and everyone else in the museum, back in time, when Pharaohs ruled.

The musical is always referenced as being based on Verdi’s Italian opera Aida, but it’s really based on a children’s storybook version of Verdi’s work. The rights to that book, written by celebrated American soprano Leontyne Price, were bought by Disney with the intention of turning it into an animated feature. It was Elton John, fresh from his success with The Lion King, that suggested making the animated film a musical.

By taking the story not from the opera but from a children’s version helped streamline the work and narrowed the tale of the love triangle between a soldier, a princess, and a princess slave into an engaging and relatively uncomplicated account of what occurred in ancient Egypt. The animated feature was never made, but after a critically savaged live production that opened in Atlanta, with adjustments, a new set design, a tweaking of songs and score, plus an emphasis on the spectacular, the show opened to great, Tony-award winning success on Broadway.

The continual headache of all seasonal programming for an enterprise like Hale Centre, as with Scottsdale’s Desert Stages, is finding the right material that will work in a theatre-in-the-round without losing the essence of what made the production succeed on a traditional stage. Not all shows lend themselves to the round, particularly when a show’s reputation is built on its grand-scale, full-on visual splendor. Surprisingly, Aida translates well.

For obvious reasons, absent are the eye-popping, theatrical tricks of Broadway, but what remains is a nicely directed, well-blocked production from M.Seth Raines who uses all areas of the house in order to tell the story. Again, with the occasional exception of the extreme north-west corner where some theatre-goers have to crank necks in order to see a brief moment enacted on an elevated balcony area, Raines has his actors continually turn to all four sides of the house without making the direction appear unnatural. Performers entering down the aisles to the centre, sometimes even exchanging dialog from the stadium-like steps among the theatre patrons, engage audiences in a way that makes them feel like secret observers to the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the Pharaohs.

But while the show can be admired for its invention and its in-the-round adaptation, it lacks in excitement, and that has a lot more to do with Elton John’s score with lyrics from Tim Rice than Hale’s production. Despite winning a Tony, John’s music is mostly back-to-back power ballads, and not particularly memorable ones, either. Imagine hearing repeated variations of Ann Wilson and Mike Reno’s Almost Paradise, and you get the idea. There are no clever or melodious hooks that leave you humming the tunes once you exit the theatre, though the upbeat, Motown infused My Strongest Suite sung by Amneris (Victoria Fairclough) aims high and hits the mark. Presented with a keen sense of humor, just when you think the song is over and the applause begins, the Egyptian princess gives the audience a subtle admonishing finger wave as if to say, “Uh,uh,” and the song continues, incorporating a fun costume parade as if all of her servants are walking the fashion runway. With that exception, and a haunting ensemble number, The Gods Love Nubia, overall, the score is less Broadway and more a slow day on VH1 as it was presented in the 90’s.

However, while the score drags to the point where minds are occasionally in danger of wandering, director Reines effectively builds drama and tension in the love-triangle story, particularly during the attempted escape of King Amonasro (Aaron Pendleton) where theatrical smoke and fog masks the stage and creates the illusion of a boat with occupants floating slowly across water from a wood-built dockside. Plus, the framing of the story at the present-day Chicago museum concludes on a satisfying high note as the same museum attendees unknown at the beginning are now familiar at the end, suggesting that maybe Ancient Egypt was right when it came to reincarnation.

Ben Mason’s Captain Radames conveys an effective sense of personal torment and conflict when torn between his duty and his love for two women, even if his singing voice lacks that extra punch required for these power ballads to come alive, while Victoria Fairclough’s spoiled daughter of Pharaoh injects much needed humor in the proceedings, describing herself as a princess with fabulous hair.

But it’s with the show’s Aida, the princess taken into slavery, where the producers and casting directors, David and Corrin Dietlin, have hit the jackpot. With long, braided hair framing her handsome, attractive features, making her Hale Centre debut, Ashley Jackson is simply glorious. She shines, with or without a spotlight. Casting her in the ensemble would never have worked. On appearance alone she stands out among others, drawing the focus of attention without effort. But she acts with confidence, projecting her voice with extreme clarity, and clearly possessing the production’s best and most powerful singing voice. The fact that she can perform something as ordinary a ballad as Easy As Life and make it sound emotionally affecting with a big finish takes something more than just talent; it’s the it factor that talent scouts look for, and it’s there with Ashley for a scout to discover.

Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw

Posted in Theatre

Alien: Covenant – Film Review

For the dedicated follower, there can’t be a more frustrating series of films with such varying, unequal results as the Alien franchise. After the original and its sequel, there are no other continuing big screen adventures that promise so much yet deliver so many ultimate disappointments. The audience is there; it always is, the box-office returns tell us so. But it lives in the ever continuing hope that what made those first two films work will eventually happen again. It never quite does.

If you’re among the many who saw 2012’s Prometheus, walked out with a sense of letdown, and have never given the film a second thought, there’s a fair chance you can’t remember how it ended. It doesn’t matter. Alien: Covenant updates as plot points and their association with the prequel are required.

Once you skip over Covenant‘s prologue that presumably took place before Prometheus began, where genius inventor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) has a philosophical discussion with his android David (Michael Fassbender) about life, the universe, and everything – “If you created me,” begins David, “Who created you?” – the new film really starts when the colony ship Covenant is on its way to colonize a remote planet.

It’s ten years after Prometheus, eighteen before the first Alien, and there’s a new, more advanced android on the ship. This one is Walter (again, Fassbender), who has the same looks and the same voice as David, but the accent is different. Where the earlier model had a clipped, cultured, English accent and was good on the piano, Walter is all-American and can’t play a tune.

Even though the setup is different, there’s a familiar arc to the Covenant that follows Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. In fact, there’s a feeling that the movie-makers were only too aware of how audiences felt about the franchise after the release of Prometheus. They must have decided that what was needed for the new film was something a little more familiar, like an alien.

The interior of the ship, its design and its passages are lit and shot as in the ’79 original.  The new crew, gathered around the table after having awakened from their sleeping pods too early look something like that first crew, just more of them. There’s a new, strong leading lady in the vein of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley; an unexplained signal received from a remote planet that needs investigating; and unlike Prometheus, this one even includes those alien pods that peel open at the top, the neck choking face-huggers, and the alien itself. It even has some earlier, undeveloped versions of the creature that are born, not of those face-hugging things, but of spores that float unobserved in the air and enter into human orifices, such as the ear canal or up the nose. There’s even an on-board toy-bird pretending to drink water from a small cup, just as in the original, plus a faint echo of Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting 1979 score incorporated at intervals into Jed Kurzel’s new soundtrack.

The film certainly looks good. Before he was a film director, Ridley Scott spent more than a decade designing and filming commercials for British television, homing his presentation and decorative visual skills on the selling of products, the kind of filmic commercials that won awards. And you can see that sense of design, lighting, and his use of color from the beginning. His first film, The Duellists in 1977, set during the Napoleonic Wars, is simply beautiful. Look for the Blu-Ray and you’ll discover the amazing images for yourself. With the clarity of those military uniforms and the remarkably well framed shots that were never less than perfect, almost any segment of the film could be used as a backdrop to a commercial for Napoleon Brandy.

That extraordinary look and design continues into all of his films, as it did with Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and everything else he has made, including the original Alien. Somehow, everything has the clarity and the high gloss of a well-sheened image; no one can make the inky blackness of space look as shiny as Scott. Look closer at the screen and you’d swear you just saw your own reflection looking back. Fans of the franchise must have felt a sigh of relief when it was announced it would be Ridley Scott in the director’s seat for Prometheus. But even though the film looked great with all of Scott’s visual hallmarks, it felt distant, uninvolving, and didn’t quite deliver. Too much philosophizing, perhaps, and not enough tension, even though it certainly had its moments.

An overall plot explanation to Alien: Covenant is not required. The enjoyment of the story is allowing things to reveal themselves as it goes along. After all, once you know there’s a new ship, a new crew, and a mysterious message intercepted that needs to be investigated, familiar groundwork is established. But once an away-team is dispatched to the new planet’s surface, it may still not be what fans want in their Alien adventure, though it’s certainly close.

While the faces of several of the crew members blend indistinguishably among each other, there are standouts. As Daniels, Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) impressed in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and does even better on the good ship Covenant. She’s the plucky heroine around whom the nail-biter of a climactic action sequence is built. Billy Crudup is equally good as Senior Officer Oram, a man reluctantly forced to assume captain duties once the real captain is accidentally killed in his sleeping pod during a storm.

The real surprise, however, is Danny McBride who has shunned his usual boorish comedic persona in favor of someone who actually seems close to a real character, though there’s still a shade of humor. As crew member Tennessee, he’s the man who deciphers the crackling emergency radio message the ship receives, declaring it’s not so much an SOS but a woman’s voice singing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. When asked if he’s sure, Tennessee replies, “I never joke about John Denver.

But there are lengthy moments on the planet with explanations of origins, life and death, and of an android playing God that, while interesting, don’t always feel as though things are heading in the direction that an Alien audience are really looking for, nor want. Plus, that concern of director Scott’s disconnect from storytelling in favor of a well-designed image occurs when the crew discover a large arena filled with the scarred and tortured bodies of thousands from another race who look as though they all died in agony at the same time. In a flashback we see what happened, but upon the arena’s initial discovery, none of the crew remark upon the horrific site.  You’d think that someone would declare an “Oh, my God,” or at the very least, “I wonder what happened here,” but there’s nothing, just the images.

Maybe here’s the problem. In the original Alien and the sequel Aliens there was no theorizing on the meaning of life, and no lengthy philosophizing on creation and our creator. The stories were simple, shocking, and effective with two very different styles from two very different directors, Scott and James Cameron. One was an atmospheric, high-gloss, haunted-house story with a killer boogey-monster hiding in the shadows; the second, a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges looking, war-in-space action thriller where the Marines were sent in to clean up the horrifying mess. Even though there are more Alien features planned that will eventually circle back to where it began, everything we really needed from an Alien film was already covered in the first two of the franchise. Nothing else ever seems to satisfy.

MPAA Rating: R   Length: 122 Minutes   Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Holmes & Watson – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

It begins with a crack of thunder and ends with the haunting, fading strings of a violin. And with that simple description of such a Gothic sounding framework, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re reading the intro and outro to a Hammer Horror production, the kind that chilled film audiences from the late fifties, into the sixties.

It is, in fact, the opening and close to the new Arizona Theatre Company production of Holmes & Watson, a new mystery adventure from playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, now performing at Herberger Theater Centre until May 28, though the Hammer connection should be understandable; it was, after all, Hammer Films that produced the first color version of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1959, a film that, today, remains one of the most acclaimed productions in the film company’s history, and at the time, they were good at that sort of thing.

Once seen, the more you think back on ATC’s handsome, dark, and exceedingly gripping final production of its current season, the more you think of film. Hatcher’s Holmes & Watson has a continuing cinematic feel throughout, beginning with a startling 3D projection of a train engine arriving at a station, complete with the hissing of steam that appears to spill out from the stage into the house, an effect that caused a gasp from the opening night audience, followed by applause. But it didn’t stop there. That sense of cinema continued with a back screen projection of a ferry boat ride across a choppy sea, a journey towards a small, rocky island seen in the distance, home to an asylum in stormy Scotland. Indeed, the adventure begins as all the best Hammer films begun, on a dark and stormy night.

If this was a Penny Dreadful, it would be a ruse to lock me up,” declares Dr. Watson (R. Hamilton Wright). The good doctor has arrived on a remote Scottish island that was once the setting of a lighthouse but is now an asylum, complete with a couple of evil looking gargoyles at its entrance for good, creepy measure, though due to worsening weather conditions, Watson is forced to stay the night. His reference to the 19th century publication of sensational and often lurid tales is because his host, the somewhat suspicious Dr. Evans (Philip Goodwin) has insisted Watson hand over his gun. Feeling vulnerable in such an intimidating and potentially dangerous setting, Watson’s light-hearted remark comes not so much from a place of humor but of unsettling nerves. And it makes us nervous and unsettled for him.

The plot is simple, which is good because other than the setup, the less you know going in, the better your enjoyment. Here’s what’s important. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story, The Adventure of the Final Problem, Sherlock Holmes and his enemy Professor Moriarty grappled together atop of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. They fell to their deaths. At least, that’s what was always believed, but no bodies were ever found. Our new adventure picks up three years later.

Watson is asked to drop everything and journey from London to Scotland’s coast, to an asylum. It seems there are three patients there, all under lock and key, and all insisting they are the famous private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Neither Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, nor his Baker Street landlady, Mrs. Hudson, are available, so it’s up to Watson to journey north alone and identify which one, if any, is the real Sherlock Holmes. And that’s all that can be told.

Clearly, writer Jeffrey Hatcher has a fascination with Conan Doyle’s character that won’t quit. Throughout his writing career, he’s adapted many great works of literature for the stage, but with Holmes, his fascination has lead to a couple of original tales rather than adaptations. In 2011 his Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club premiered at ATC; in 2015, his screenplay, the underrated Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellan as a 93 year-old Sherlock with a fading memory was released on the big screen (adapted from a book by Mitch Cullen), and opening this past weekend in Phoenix, after a three-week run in Tucson, is the new Holmes & Watson. All three works have resulted in varying degrees of success – for personal taste, despite its considerable merits, The Suicide Club remains the least successful – but with Holmes & Watson, Hatcher not only succeeds in keeping us guessing right up until that violin fade, he’s also written a crowd-pleaser.

Supported by Carrie Paff as a stern, no-nonsense Matron of the asylum and Stephen D’Ambrose as an equally stern, no-nonsense and even threatening Orderly, director David Ira Goldstein has crafted a piece of theatre that plays out like the movies, and for this material, that’s a plus. When characters talk of a past event important to the plot, we not only get to witness a brief moment of that telling acted out upstage against a scene-setting, back-screen projection, you can practically see the visual sweep of a 50’s style cinematic flashback, then once concluded, another screen sweep back to present time. And when the two doctors, Watson and Evans, disagree on a point and both their temper and voices rise, another dramatic clap of thunder shakes the set, exactly as Hammer would have concluded an argument that was getting dangerously out of hand.

If there’s anything you might question, it’s the case of Watson not immediately recognizing which of the three patients (James Michael Reilly, Noah Racy and Remi Sandri) is really Holmes. Considering the doctor has lived with the man for years, shared adventures, and written about him in detail for those Strand Magazine publications, you’d think recognition would be instant. When it’s not, you’re left with a nagging feeling that somehow what should be logical is suddenly wrong; a weakness in the narrative, perhaps, that’s hard to overcome. But hold that thought. This is not only a mystery, it’s a Sherlock Holmes mystery, and while Holmes and Watson may not be the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, its inspiration springs directly from the source material; with Jeffrey Hatcher, like Conan Doyle, the clues are in the details, no matter how small, and if something feels oddly jarring, you can bet it’s intentional.

Told in 90 minutes without intermission, Holmes and Watson is a thorough delight; a play that keeps you committed to its machinations from beginning to its unexpected end. It’s as if that opening crack of thunder is a demand for us to pay attention, which we do. With twists and turns, followed by more twists and turns, like the 3D effect of the train that appears to be coming towards us, the play reaches out and grips; there’s never an opportunity to relax. But once seen, don’t discuss; at least, don’t reveal the ending. To do so would be committing a criminal act of Moriarty proportions.

Picture Courtesy of Tim Fuller

Posted in Theatre