Saturday, August 26, 2017

Movie Reviews: 68 Kill, Alien:Covenant

68 Kill
directed by Trent Haaga
Violent indie movie with great acting and obvious yet important message
You should know two things about this low budget award winning independent film. Firstly, it is a very violent flick. People get badly hurt or die. The camera doesn't shy away from that. This film is like a live action adult Looney Tunes cartoon. So if a person whacking someone else upside the head or in the kidneys with a golf club makes you queasy, then you know what to do. Secondly, by making most of the female characters more compelling and far more aggressive than the primary male character this film reverses the usual gender stereotypes and assumptions. Because the women are physically dangerous, 68 Kill is a film that, if it had primarily male villains, would likely be cheered in some quarters as socially relevant. 

But because the women are generally morally depraved some people called the film misogynistic. I didn't see that. For what it's worth neither did the actressess involved. The film doesn't posit that women as a group are better or worse then men. It did suggest that one particular man needed to make better choices about the women he trusted. I was pleasantly surprised at the film's simple but strong story. 

Women in 68 Kill use sex to mark territory and express dominance. If you appreciate works by people such as Tim Dorsey, Bill Fitzhugh, and yes Tarantino then this film could be in your wheelhouse. This was an adaptation of a novel by Bryan Smith. It's an absurd pulpy cheap romantic crime caper film. It also has elements of horror, comedy and most effectively, a coming of age storyline.  

Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) is a non-confrontational impoverished Louisiana septic tank cleaner. Chip lives in a trailer park with his beautiful extroverted passionate girlfriend of six months, Liza, (AnnaLynne McCord-from Nip/Tuck and 90210), who also doesn't earn much money. 

Liza is a former stripper and current prostitute. Chip loves Liza. People have tried to warn Chip that Liza's no good but Chip doesn't care. Chip accepts that Liza sleeps with other men for money. Chip doesn't care that Liza is the dominant partner. Chip doesn't care that Liza not only controls him outside the bedroom but also within it. Chip doesn't care that Liza's penchant for rough sex is often indistinguishable from physical abuse. Chip is fine with the fact that Liza routinely speaks to him in dismissive or insulting terms. Liza refuses to say that she loves Chip even as Chip moans every five minutes that he loves her. 

All Chip cares about is that one thing. And Liza knows it. As she tells Chip, Chip isn't going anywhere. She'd kill him if he did. Chip likes to think that this is just romantic hyperbole on Liza's part. 

Liza doesn't think that Chip could do better than her. But she could easily do better than Chip. Liza is tired of the couple's lack of money and low status. As she puts it to Chip "You shovel sh** for a living. I suck d***!!". Liza wants more. To that end she's come up with a plan. Her richest client, her sugar-daddy, has $68K in a safe in his home. The man showed this to Liza after they did the deed. Liza memorized the combination. 

With the pistols that she's obtained Liza says it will be easy to enter her client's house and take his cash. Chip is opposed. But as usual Chip's backbone disappears after Liza offers, really more demands sex, and questions Chip's masculinity. The only concession that Chip gets from Liza is that the guns are for show. No one will get killed. Her client isn't even supposed to be home. It's a quick in-and-out deal. Well Liza shows almost immediately that she was lying about the "no one will get killed" promise. And Liza doesn't regret the bloodshed. Liza is never sorry about anything.  She's very happy to have the money though. 

Feeling entrepreneurial after she's committed multiple murders Liza intends to sell the other woman found in the house , Violet (Alisha Boe-from 13 Reasons Why), to Liza's creepy brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson). With the exception of Liza herself, women are not safe around Dwayne. At all.

But Liza could care less about Chip's misgivings. She's happy. She's horny. She wants to conclude the night by doing the do with Chip. But Chip can't tolerate kidnapping and selling a woman to a burgeoning serial killer. And he's appalled by Liza's murderous nature. Chip knocks Liza out and steals the money. He also takes Violet along with him. This kicks off a fast paced high octane roller coaster road trip movie. At first Chip has no plans other than getting as far away from Liza as possible. Chip is starting to wonder about the nature of love and masculinity/femininity. As with many folks on the run from a violent abusive ex, Chip will occasionally find himself making excuses for his old flame without even realizing it. Violet hates this. Although love can be an all consuming fire of obsession, which is definitely Chip's experience with Liza, love can also be something quiet, solid, unassuming and deep. 

Violet is just as strong willed as the movie's other women, but she's from a slightly different moral universe. Violet has no use for weak men or psychos like Liza.  Violet has no patience for fools. Violet may or may not be manipulating Chip.  Sheila Vand(from Argo) is Monica, a soft spoken gas station/convenience store clerk with a slow burning temper and a taste for Goth stylings. She has her own lessons to teach Chip. Each woman gets her own section of the film. This film gleefully romps through the trashy southern backwoods where most people are armed and looking to hurt someone. 

Everyone wants the money or a piece of Chip. Although this is an ensemble cast McCord stands out as the demented southern belle. She's an exuberant, sexy, stunning woman, and a psychotic, sociopathic, control freak who sees violence as the preferred choice. She's Cersei Lannister on meth. Liza is equally confident and malevolent. The film's energy drops during her absence. Chip is attracted to Liza like moths are to a flame. It's questionable as to whether Chip will learn or whether he'll just get immolated. On one level the viewer can enjoy the action and the gender reversals. On another though this movie has some things to say about the cycle of abuse and how it's broken. 

What happened to both Chip and Liza to make them find each other and stay together? This is a crime caper movie but it also shows how abusers can rope people in by providing things they want or need. Like many abusive people, Liza is fun to be around, provided you do what she says. Liza talks a mile a minute; she is rarely interested in Chip's opinion.

McCord brought comedic flair to an unsympathetic character. Gubler infused pathos to his role. He's a hapless everyman. Although the movie is inexpensively made it doesn't feel that way. This movie is short and to the point. You'll guess the denouement long before it actually takes place but I found the film entertaining. You might be intrigued by this future cult classic IF you don't mind depictions of violence. Because if violence makes you ill you have absolutely no business watching this film.

Alien: Covenant
directed by Ridley Scott
Looks great but been there and done that already
I don't have much to say about this film. It is a sequel to a film (Prometheus) which was effectively a prequel to the Alien franchise. If you have seen any of the Alien movies you pretty much know what you're going to get. Someone on a space ship is going to get a distress call from a place they didn't know was inhabited. The captain decides to investigate this call over the objections of his tough minded, second-in-command, usually a woman. One or more members of the team investigating the distress call are infected, impregnated or bitten by one or more non-human parasites. An apparently dumb team brings back these wounded members to their ship and/or living quarters. Havoc ensues. As the carnage proceeds the team must choose between trying to escape or choosing self-destruction to save the larger group of humanity from this threat. People split up to deal with the threat. The team loses members one by one. And yes, along the way one or more members of the team will usually discover that they have been set up or manipulated into finding this organism by their employer and/or a sketchy traitor, who has/have business interests that are more important than saving human lives. This film didn't disappoint in following the formula. It was as much of a remake as it was a sequel to a prequel. It looked good but so did the other Alien movies.

Alien: Covenant's only narrative change was to examine more closely the benefits and costs of free will. As implied by the title, this took on some religious overtones. In real life Facebook AI bots recently started communicating to each other in their own language, one unable to be understood by humans. Alarmed, Facebook shut them down. 
The Bible tells us the story of the Tower of Babel in which God, concerned about humans building a tower to reach (and conquer?) heaven confounds humans by making them speak all different languages and thus shutting down construction of the Tower. The Bible also tells us that part of the reason God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is that He didn't want them eating of the Tree of Life and becoming like Him. Greek and Norse myths are replete with Gods destroying their demonic forebears and watching carefully lest they be in turn surpassed or destroyed by their creations. And in Western concepts one reason that Satan (God's creation) was expelled from Heaven was because he refused to be submissive and actually wanted to take over the place. So this theme of our creations killing us off or becoming a rival to us is embedded throughout our secular and religious myths. You could even argue that it's part of the life cycle as most of us will bury our parents and be buried in turn by our children.
Alien: Covenant touches on this theme by centering David (Michael Fassbender) as a key player. An android of extreme artificial intelligence last seen in Prometheus, David bears some resentments against his human creators. He doesn't think that he was meant to serve or that humans really need to propagate themselves throughout the universe. And because of a programming glitch David has, more or less, free will just as humans do. He's been stranded on the planet from where the beacon originated. A human colony ship is passing nearby. When the ship suffers from a neutrino blast the ship's captain (James Franco) is burned alive in stasis. The ship's AI, Walter, (Fassbender again) wakes up the human crew from their suspended animation. The new captain (Chris Oram) learns that there was a transmission from a planet not on their "maps". Against the objections of his new second-in-command (Katharine Waterson-daughter of the Law and Order star) the captain decides to lead a crew down to this planet to see what's what. As for what happens next you can read the first paragraph again. Long story short: incredibly smart scientists, engineers and physicians do incredibly stupid things.

The movie is gory. And since the ship's crew consists of married couples there's a little more emotional involvement with the inevitable deaths. There's a literally steamy sex scene. But all in all I didn't think this was a great film. It's adequate. There are thrills and chills. There are some unanswered questions and what look like some inconsistencies. But that's it. The chest splitting scenes can only happen so many times before they no longer shock. And I think we're past that point.
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