Out on Friday May 12
Ridley corrects the wrongs of Prometheus. The boxing genre receives a 4-star workout. Jessica Chastain stalks the corridors of power. Hope Dickson Leach makes a promising debut.
Yes, here's this week's new releases. Click on for our reviews of Alien: Covenant, Jawbone, Miss Sloane, The Levelling, Frantz, Away, and Manhattan.
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Let’s not bury the lead: Ridley Scott’s Alien resurrection is exactly the film all but the most ardent apologists wanted from 2012’s Prometheus (opens in new tab). Indeed, at times, Covenant feels less like a sequel and more like a do-over. It’s smarter, scarier and boasts a nightmarish atmosphere comparable to Scott’s transcendent ‘79 original. But with this comes a crippling reverence for the past – Covenant too often plays it safe in a way that Prometheus (opens in new tab), for all its faults, rarely did.
Set a decade after the events on LV-223, it centres on the 15-strong crew of the colony ship Covenant: pioneers responsible for transporting 2000 passengers to Origae-6. After intercepting a signal from an undiscovered planet a landing party is dispatched to investigate. Among their ranks are Katherine Waterston’s proto-Ripley Daniels, Demián Bichir’s military man Sgt. Lope and Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram. But this apparent paradise has a dark heart - albeit a mechanical one possessed by its sole inhabitant, Michael Fassbender’s surviving android David.
Few filmmakers can rival Scott’s world-building and Covenant’s lush planetoid – all vertiginous mountain ranges and precipitous forests – does offer something strikingly new for the series. Entirely devoid of organic life, it’s a haunted house on the grandest possible scale, with all the biomechanical stylings, otherworldly architecture and creeping corridors of Aliens past lurking in its dark corners. The Covenant itself, meanwhile, skews much closer to the lived-in, retro-future feel of the Nostromo than the Apple Store sheen of the Prometheus; Scott’s sci-fi future is grounded by convincing science.
Populated by a blue-collar crew, the Covenant’s inhabitants are a thinly sketch, but largely likeable bunch of ET-fodder, the group dynamic complicated and enriched by the fact that everyone on board is married. Crudup’s nervy, staunchly religious replacement Captain stands out as a believably human creation. And Waterston proves a suitably resourceful and empathetic lead.
But it’s Fassbender who once again makes the biggest splash as both new artificial person Walter (effectively a robot Spock) and duplicitous droid David. The scenes between the two bots are some of the most compelling and poignant, cutting to the heart of Scott’s thematic mission with his Alien prequel series – an exploration of the relationship between man and his creator. But David’s entry into the story sees the film’s propulsive pacing grind to a halt, the script crumbling as it hurtles towards a climax that plays out like a mini-remake of Alien, with some clumsy leaps of logic in service of predictable surprises.
But what of the xenomorph? H.R. Giger’s biomechanical beauty is back in Covenant, its re-introduction expanding the mythology in satisfying ways for long-term fans. But the xeno encapsulates the film’s disappointing dependency on past glories. Not only has the man-in-a-suit been replaced by unconvincing CGI, the pharyngeal-jawed phantom is wheeled out for set-pieces that deal in underwhelming bombast rather than nevre-shredding dread.
It’s never used as effectively as you’d hope, and is upstaged by new nasty the Neomorph, a creature modelled on a Goblin Shark. The jittery critter’s entrance has a literally visceral impact the rest of the film can’t rival for pulse-pounding terror and bum-clenching body horror. A shame, then, that the Neo is quickly forgotten when plot and audience expectation dictates the xeno occupy the limelight.
Also problematic: Jed Kurzel’s score, which lifts motifs and entire tracks wholesale from Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic Alien soundtrack. What starts as a goosebump-inducing nod quickly has you wondering if someone forgot to replace the temp track. As with much of Covenant, it gives you more of what you want from an Alien film, but proves it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
THE VERDICT: Ridley’s Alien redemption rights the wrongs of Prometheus (opens in new tab), but owes too much of a debt to the ‘79 original. Third time lucky?
Director: Ridley Scott; Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup; Theatrical release: May 12, 2017
In decent boxing movies, it isn’t the muscle that keeps us on our toes. Vulnerability is the suckerpunch of the genre’s canniest entries, reminding us that something is at stake – be it flesh, pride or a life. And the stakes run high in London to Brighton (opens in new tab)/Fortitude actor Johnny Harris’ multi-tasking debut as writer and lead in a London-set drama delivered with one-two wallops of stylish force and feeling.
Drawing on personal history for Jimmy McCabe, an ex-boxer on his uppers, Harris doesn’t go soft on his lead character. Sprawled on his floor in a block of flats awaiting demolition, Jimmy doesn’t look like he’s built to last, either. As first-time feature helmer Thomas Napper rams the camera up close to every life-etched crease on Jimmy’s face, Jawbone is established as an unforgiving, interior character study more than a straight genre workout.
McCabe once had class and bottle as a fighter, we hear, and wants to regain both (plus two grand) in an unlicensed bout up north. But another kind of bottle might kill him first: as he makes phone calls about training, the shop-lit off-licence shelf is a twinkle in the corner of his eye, signalling his losing battle with the booze.
On paper, the plot points sound as familiar as some of the script’s lumpier metaphors. “Get off them ropes,” McCabe is ordered as he trains. But the words resonate coming from the weathered support cast. As cornerman Eddie, Michael Smiley doesn’t say much, but invests every word with craggy authority. Ray Winstone is heart-breaking as Jimmy’s old trainer, his knees so worn he makes getting up from the washing machine look like a 15-round title bout. And Ian McShane makes devilish work of a pungent, pivotal cameo.
As for Harris, time spent training with Barry McGuigan pays off in a fully invested performance. As Jimmy sweats out his toxins, Harris ensures we swallow his damage and his determination. And he’s terrifically framed by DoP Tat Radcliffe’s images, which navigate their way between harsh close-ups, alcoholic-eye views of a rain-sodden London, and pulverising final bouts with an expressive fluency.
When that climax arrives, the combination of buffeting direction, Harris’ tender-tough commitment, and a demonic-looking opponent (name: Damian) keeps your eyes locked on the ring and your heart in your mouth. With the conclusion not remotely foregone, Harris nimbly dodges glib catharsis.
His emotional and interior pitch matched all the way by Paul Weller’s poignant and anxiously throbbing score, Harris serves a smartly sobering send-off. Facing giants in the ring isn’t easy. But facing your weaknesses head-on? Now that’s scary.
THE VERDICT: Gives the boxing pic a vigorous workout. Harris commits himself fully, both emotionally and physically.
Director: Thomas Napper; Starring: Johnny Harris, Ray Winstone, Michael Smiley, Ian McShane; Theatrical release: May 12, 2017
Arriving in US cinemas just as Trump swept to office, this left-leaning story of a ruthless Washington DC opinion-former who takes on the might of the gun lobby didn’t misjudge the prevailing wind so much as miss the boat entirely. Dismal box office duly ensued, a fact gleefully interpreted by some right-wing gasbags as damning evidence of how out of touch liberal Hollywood had become with the rest of mainstream America.
Having failed to make much of an impression on the awards season as well (Golden Globe nod for Jessica Chastain notwithstanding), Miss Sloane will surely be seen as damaged goods by some now that it’s finally crossed the Atlantic.
To allow bad buzz to deter you from catching John Madden’s (Shakespeare In Love (opens in new tab)) latest, however, is to deny yourself a twisty, tense and engrossing look at Washington’s underbelly, which may actually benefit from having a little bit of distance between it and last year’s election and referendum upsets.
For as much as Miss Sloane is about politics, it’s also about a woman – the titular Elizabeth Sloane, a driven lobbyist who freely admits she’s “a gold medalist in ethical limbo”. (In case we don’t get the message, she’s also called “the personification of an ice cube” and “the poster child for the most morally bankrupt profession since faith healing”.)
Tough, smart and obsessed with victory, she enters the frame at the top of her game: the ideal person, in other words, to slap down a new piece of gun-control legislation that’s anathema to her company’s roster of wealthy blueblood clients.
When tasked by boss Sam Waterston to vanquish it, though, Liz unexpectedly jumps ship for a non-profit outfit determined to get it passed. Is this a sign there’s a warm heart beneath that tough exterior? Or is she simply in it to win it, regardless of what it means for her principled new employer (Mark Strong), or a young associate (Gugu MbathaRaw) with a tragic history that’s ripe for exploitation?
That we’re never sure which is a testament to Chastain’s riveting central performance – her finest, indeed, since Zero Dark Thirty (opens in new tab) – and an accomplished first script by ex-lawyer Jonathan Perera that unsurprisingly made it on to the fabled ‘Black List’ of promising unproduced screenplays.
OK, so any film whose plot involves a robot cockroach, an honourable gigolo (Jake Lacy) and an inflatable rat can’t help having a few credibility issues. Put them to one side, though, and you’re guaranteed a sleek thriller, in the Michael Clayton mould, whose classy ensemble (see also John Lithgow, Michael Stuhlbarg and Alison Pill) means Chastain has to work very hard for every one of her scene-stealing moments.
THE VERDICT: Chastain stalks the corridors of power with steely aplomb in Madden’s coolly compelling incursion into House of Cards territory.
Director: John Madden; Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jake Lacy, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston; Theatrical release: May 12, 2017
Making her feature debut, British writer-director Hope Dickson Leach paints a bleak but bold picture of familial discord and economic uncertainty amid the Somerset farming community. Game of Thrones’ Ellie Kendrick is young vet Clover, the prodigal daughter returning to the struggling farm where she grew up after the suicide of her brother.
The heart of the film is Clover’s testy relationship with her father (David Troughton), and Dickson Leach truly captures the pain of unresolved wounds. Likewise, the minutiae of running a modern farm – facing floods and diseased livestock – is neatly sewn into the film’s fabric.
Yet what stands The Levelling above the next social-realist drama is its aesthetics. Cinematographer Nanu Segal finds poetry in the ravaged landscape and brooding skies; the unexpected music cues – including work from Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra – are similarly beautiful.
With the intense but engaging Kendrick hugely impressive in this breakout role, it’s a film where what’s left unsaid is just as important. As strong in its own way as Lynne Ramsay’s debut Ratcatcher (opens in new tab) or Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (opens in new tab), it suggests Hope Dickson Leach will be a filmmaking force to watch.
THE VERDICT: With a fantastic lead and tremendous aesthetics, this is a potent piece from a very promising filmmaker.
Director: Hope Dickson Leach; Starring: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden; Theatrical release: May 12, 2017
A young woman, Anna (Paula Beer), grieving for her dead soldier fiancé in post-WW1 Germany, receives a mysterious visitor: it’s a handsome Frenchman (Pierre Niney), claiming to have been a close friend of her beloved in pre-war Paris.
François Ozon crafts a sombre monochrome melodrama, which adopts its female protagonist’s perspective and skilfully plays with viewers’ expectations.
Director: François Ozon; Starring: Pierre Niney, Paula Beer; Theatrical release: May 12, 2017
Blackpool’s faded grandeur is the setting for David Blair’s low-key drama of two lost souls united in dire circumstances.
Writer Roger Hadfield’s jigsaw-structured tale takes some figuring, as we see how Ria (Juno Temple) and Joseph (Timothy Spall) come to be together (platonically) in the Vegas of the north. While you’ll be reminded of better Brit movies, it still leaves an emotional mark.
Director: David Blair; Starring: Timothy Spall, Juno Temple, Hayley Squires; Theatrical release: May 12, 2017
“We both felt New York was a black-and-white city,” said DoP Gordon Willis, and now Woody Allen’s monochrome masterpiece gleams anew in a 4K restoration.
The tale of a middle-aged TV writer (Allen) dating a 17-year-old student (Mariel Hemingway) and falling for his friend’s mistress (Diane Keaton) is a touch icky given Allen’s personal history, but the quips about life, love and art are ageless.
Director: Woody Allen; Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton; Theatrical release: May 12, 2017