Tag: michael fassbender

Alien: Covenant


Alien: Covenant (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Considering that Ridley Scott helmed “Alien,” one of the most memorable and craftily made sci-fi horror pictures in the last fifty years, one has a certain level of expectation coming into “Alien: Covenant,” a disappointing prequel to the masterful 1979 classic and a sequel to “Prometheus,” a widely misunderstood but intriguing attempt to extend the series’ mythology.

In an effort to deliver scares designed to impress the modern masses, Scott’s signature techniques, like employing long takes even—or especially when—it’s unnecessary and playing with extended silence to build a sense of mystery and/or dread, are missing here. As a result, one gets the impression that the work could have been made by any other filmmaker who understands what makes horror movies marginally effective but not yet have a specific voice of his own.

For instance, when several crew members of the colony ship Covenant, led by Oram (Billy Crudup), decide to explore a planet after receiving a radio transmission, the picture does not bother to genuinely establish a sense of place. There is a line uttered by one of the characters, pointing out that they haven’t encountered or heard any animal after already having walked several kilometers, but aside from this creepy detail, everything else about the setting looks generic, CGI forests for miles, could have been any forest on Earth. On top of this, the images look dark, bleak, desperate to come across as atmospheric. I felt no interest in exploring this place. I craved for the aliens to appear finally and pick off the characters in the most gruesome ways imaginable.

There are more than ten crew members and only one of them is borderline worth rooting for. Surprisingly, and not in a good way, it is not Daniels (Katherine Waterston), clearly the heroine of the film, one who must undergo an evolution from a background personality to one who is supposed to lead her team in the foreground as the possibility of them becoming alien hosts escalates. Instead, it is Tennessee, the chief pilot of the Covenant—a person who stays on the ship for the majority of film. He is played by Danny McBride, a performance so natural and convincing that I caught myself feeling glad that I found a new side to his talent.

Daniels’ arc is forced and unconvincing. Later in the picture, as she goes head-to-head against an alien, I found the script to be bland and predictable in its attempt to make the heroine tough and resourceful. The supposed one-liners fall flat; they do not work because the character’s evolution is simply not there. While Waterston is capable of summoning the necessary emotions when required, the screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper fails to establish a protagonist who is able to think on her feet or one who commands a fascinating way of thinking, of being. It merely relies on the established template of the final tough girl.

“Alien: Covenant” showcases different forms of the alien and some of the kills are truly horrifying. Disappointingly, however, the material fails to create a balance between imagination and brutality, violence and contemplation—clearly one of its goals because the subject of meeting or surpassing one’s creator becomes a recurring theme. Here’s to hoping that Scott, if he were to craft another installment in the series, would aspire to make a film that would impress him as an artist first… and then the audience. He needs to follow his instincts rather than what he believes the viewers want from his work.

Steve Jobs


Steve Jobs (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

One of the most beautiful elements in “Steve Jobs,” based on the screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, is how the relationship between the Apple Inc. co-founder and his daughter is portrayed. Sure, there are numerous technical jargon involving products, how businesses work, and machines but when it matters the most, the picture, in its rawest form, is painfully human.

It is most refreshing that the father-daughter relationship, which starts off devastatingly sad, is allowed to change over time but there are no apologies, superfluous tears, hugging, or even an arm around someone’s shoulders. In the final shot we are only shown a decreasing distance between them. The filmmakers lead with the assumption that the viewers are intelligent.

Such an assumption can be found in many instances. For example, the material dares to drop us in the middle of the action in 1984 prior to the unveiling of the Apple Macintosh. No explanation is offered as to how we got there, who came up with what idea, and the sort of hardships required to make the final product. This way, we are immediately drenched in the core of the human drama and everything else, although still important to our further understanding of what is going on, are supporting details.

This is no standard biopic. It is the correct decision to focus only on three different product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac 1998. The material is episodic, working almost like a play, but it works. For example, because we do not see Jobs between, say, 1988 and 1998, we notice immediately the changes in him, not only when it comes to aging but also in how he interacts with people.

And yet these changes do not feel sudden or complete turnaround. In the very first scene, we observe that Jobs is highly demanding, unpleasant, certainly ambitious, and in need of control. One might he argue that he is a bully. Later in the picture, he remains to embody such qualities but to a slightly lesser degree, perhaps a thirty to thirty-five percent decrease in intensity for each characteristic.

Michael Fassbender does a tremendous job at communicating the subtleties of the character despite a consistently intense and technical script. I loved the way that throughout the years, Fassbender’s version of Jobs moves slower, quieter in his confidence (but still sort of up himself, in parts), but remains cunningly smart. Equally strong is Kate Winslet, who plays Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ marketing manager, because she is able to find a balance between strength and softness while standing up to Jobs. Although Jobs and Hoffman’s relationship is strictly professional, their chemistry crackles and pops.

Based on the biography by Walter Isaacson, “Steve Jobs” is a highly watchable portrait of Apple Inc.’s former co-founder, chairman, and CEO because the writing is sharp and specific. It is supported by excellent performers who have the talent and experience when it comes to translating what’s on paper and making them cinematic by using varying intonations in their voices and modifying body language depending how a scene’s mood changes. The film engages all of the viewer’s senses from beginning to end and it rarely gets better than that.

Slow West


Slow West (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Sixteen-year-old Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travels from Scotland to America so he could be with his one true love, unaware that there is a bounty of two thousand dollars for the heads of Rose (Caren Pistorius) and her father. Silas (Michael Fassbender) offers to aid Jay to reach his destination for a fee of one hundred dollars. Soon, however, a group of bounty hunters have figured out that all they have to do is follow the the boy and his guide and the reward will soon be theirs.

“Slow West,” written and directed by John Maclean, is a western with quirks and so although the pacing deliberately moves at snail’s pace, there are numerous small moments that are quite amusing and entertaining. The western genre is not my cup of tea but this one surprised me on almost all levels, from the pleasing performances to how the story unfolds. The writer-director has a knack for showing beautiful images.

One of the surprises involves the colors having the opportunity to stand out. Because Jay and Silas are constantly on the move, the environment always changes. We notice the hue, texture, and dryness of the desert background, how the water is blown by the wind during a flashback, and how the temperature of the temporary shade of interior structures must be like relative to being outside under the blazing watch of the sun. This is the kind of movie I can watch without sound and it is likely that I will still enjoy it.

I had doubts about the casting of Smit-McPhee. His look is so distinct—some may even claim bizarre because some of his facial features are so large relative to his bone structure—and I have not seen him do anything particularly outstanding. I was glad that these doubts were quickly dispelled. His character is quiet, polished, and thoughtful. I enjoyed Jay’s quiet musings and the way he looks up into the night sky and the stars. This young man is a dreamer and it made me wonder if people like him had a place in the American frontier where a person’s life is determined by a gun pointing at him.

The action sequences are nothing special but they do command a level of tension. The showdown at the very end is the loudest and the most complicated to execute, but the one that I will remember most is the scene in a shop where a couple busts in, pulls out a gun, and demands the owner to hand over the money. The scene resonates because the violence is used to remind the audience that there is a consequence to every death even though we may not remember a person’s name or face right after he or she hits the ground. A sense of melancholy creeps in when we least expect it.

I wished that “Slow West” had been more poetic because that is its strength. There are musings about love, death, and living—with a sense of irony tying them together—but none of these are explored thoroughly or enough to make a lasting impact. Also, I wanted to get a stronger sense of Jay and Silas’ relationship. What they share only becomes really interesting toward the latter third. At one point I imagined how the picture would have been different if Terrence Malick had a hand in co-directing.

The Counselor


The Counselor (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Most of the time, I preface my reviews with a brief plot summary as to what one might hope to expect from a movie in question. But approximately fifty minutes into “The Counselor,” written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, I still had no idea what was going on. There are images to be seen and dialogue to be heard but there is nothing to be processed and compiled to create a sensical narrative arc.

Still, I did not find the movie to be egregious on every level. On the contrary, there are a few scenes dispersed throughout that inspired me to look closer to the screen either due to a strong performance or the rhythm of the dialogue being effortless and magnetic.

Two scenes stand out. The first involves the meeting between a man only referred to as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and an even more enigmatic gentleman called Westray (Brad Pitt), the latter of which has been involved in the drug business for years. The magic between their interactions lie in the performances. Fassbender and Pitt play their characters cool, calm, and collected—like reunited old buddies sharing a drink—but the unsaid—silent moments where they measure each other up—suggests that something very bad is going to happen to one or both of them. And it does.

The second involves the counselor’s visit in prison because he is appointed by the court to deal with a woman (Rosie Perez) whose son is in jail because he is unable to pay a speeding ticket. It is memorable in a different way—with respect to Westray and Counselor’s meeting—because one is playing a certain level of toughness, almost aggressive but never completely obvious and the other is more relaxed, almost taking his job lightly or as a joke. The interplay between Fassbender and Perez is executed with a whiff of playfulness but at the same time we are left wondering if there is more to it than meets the eye.

Figuring out how subplots interconnect is a challenge because the script offers very little connective tissue as the picture moves from one scene to another. It is like being given an incomplete mathematical formula and expecting us to arrive at the right answer. I wondered if the writer intended it to be this way. Is the big picture not supposed to matter? Are we only meant to understand or be entertained by individual scenes? What is the target audience? It functions as a thriller but is not accessible enough to be a good one.

The film should have been called “Westray” because I did not at all care about Counselor. Though Fassbender attempts to emote by invoking desperation, fear, or grief, I felt nothing toward his character. The problem is that the central character is not written to pass as a whole person. He has the charm, the confidence, and sexual magnetism but we never get the chance to get to know him on a personal level other than the fact that he loves a woman (Penélope Cruz). As a result, the emotions come off false. On the other hand, Westray is played straight—a smooth talker, very little emotion. And yet I cared what would happen to him. He talks big but can he back it up when it counts most?

“The Counselor” is a mess but I was never bored by it. It made me laugh when I probably was not supposed to but it is much better than just waiting for the film to be over. There is a very funny scene where Fassbender engages in a sort-of phone sex—awkward, pointless, and amusing. There is also a pair of horrifying sequences involving beheadings. It dares one to keep watching. It is really too bad that the material fails to form a coherent whole.

A Dangerous Method


A Dangerous Method (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

A hysterical woman, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), is taken by horse carriage to the clinic of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), hoping to be cured of her mental affliction. Psychoanalysis, though popularized by Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), is not yet considered an official form of treatment. By taking careful notes of Spielrein’s verbal accounts and eventual behavioral changes while using psychoanalysis, Jung and Freud become optimistic that psychologists will learn to embrace the value of the new concept.

“A Dangerous Method,” directed by David Cronenberg, aims to balance the science that contributed to the commercialism of psychoanalysis, the affair between Jung and Spielrein, and the professional chasm between Jung and Freud, but the picture fails to excel in any of them. Though the subjects are alluring on the surface, they do not have enough details. As a result, watching the picture is like reading a textbook that offers nothing but summaries.

Christopher Hampton’s screenplay only touches upon the various relationships superficially. For instance, while there are about three or four scenes where Jung sits about a foot behind Spielrein and asks her questions about her childhood and the point when she has come to discover her sexuality, the filmmakers’ decision to jump forward in time—several times and without warning—is, to say the least, careless. The picture inadvertently makes it look like psychoanalysis is a magical panacea. I was afraid that people who may not have a background in psychology would watch the film and assume that psychoanalysis itself is an effective cure. It is not.

Psychoanalysis, broadly speaking, is a form of treatment—one that is not universally accepted by many professionals back then or nowadays. It is accompanied by other techniques but it is not a cure. For some, it works; for others, it does not.

The film might have benefited from highlighting the flaws and intricacies of Jung and Freud’s methods, like not having a big enough sample size, instead of simply dropping a slab of answers on our plate and expecting everyone to know what makes a good scientific method. Jung and Spielrein’s relationship is mildly interesting, reaching high points when the camera zooms toward Spielrein’s face and she looks as if she is about to regress to her scary hysteria every time her advances are shut down.

Knightley does a wonderful job in playing a woman who is out of control. The way she contorts her lower mandible, accompanied by a barrage of ticks, made me feel very uncomfortable. On the other hand, there are times when I sensed that Fassbender is trying too hard in illustrating personal, romantic, and professional betrayal. While it is ultimately up to him to balance the subtle emotions, the screenplay is equally at fault since it does not spend adequate time in exploring each angle it pursues in order to provide necessary support for the story and the performers. Lastly, while Mortensen is successful in portraying Freud’s confidence and arrogance, we do not discover much about the character. The screenplay assumes we already know Freud, what he represents, and why he remains to be an iconic figure.

“A Dangerous Method” is relatively dry in tone and mood. It makes a lot of assumptions. Halfway through, I wondered if we were all better off reading a more informative book about Spielrein, Jung, and Freud in a library instead of having to sit through tired melodrama being stacked together like pancakes.

12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★

After sharing a meal with two men who promised a well-paying job, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up in a dark room with chains around his limbs. As he tries to piece together what happened the night prior, two men he has never seen before go through the door and one of them claims that Solomon is to be sold for the right price. Solomon insists he is not a slave, that he is in fact a free man who has a wife and two children waiting for him in Saratoga Springs, New York. The man chooses not to hear another word and soon Solomon, renamed Platt, is taken to New Orleans to work in a plantation.

Perhaps the most interesting and effective technique utilized in “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen and based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, is a certain level of detachment when it comes to its treatment of the characters. Notice that there is barely a trace of a character arc with respect to the protagonist. Instead, emphasis is placed on the grueling circumstances that Solomon, as well as the other black men and women he comes across, is forced to endure for more than a decade while keeping in mind that there is a psychological complexity to white folks who deem themselves superior. A shameful time in American history is told through a microcosm.

The scenes involving humiliation make a lasting impression. It is most appropriate that the picture concerns itself with details, from naked black men and women standing side-by-side while being examined by potential buyers to being woken in the middle of the night just so their owners can watch them dance. We are encouraged to think about the mindset of a group of American people who once thought it was morally acceptable to treat their fellow human beings as objects or playthings.

To question whether the film’s level of violence is suitable to the story is to miss the point completely. The brutal lashings—which are very explicit, from the sharp snap of the whip to the droplets of blood in the air upon impact on the body—are not meant to be pretty as the subject is not meant to be digestible. It is supposed to make us uncomfortable; it is supposed to be upsetting; it is supposed to make us angry. The level of violence is never gratuitous because it functions as a symbol of the white man exercising his power over his property, the taming of what he considers to be his animal when it does not do what he wishes.

Ejiofor’s face is one I can study for days. His approach to the character is silent indignation. The script requires scenes in which he must emote in big ways that our complete attention is demanded but his performance is most interesting when he is subdued. The decision to compartmentalize Solomon’s suffering is one that feels loyal to an educated character with many thoughts, just waiting for the right opportunity to escape.

Songs and music being allowed to bleed from one scene to another is a stroke of genius. It is not simply done for the sake of flow, as a lesser film would have, but to remind us that the horrific occurrences from one moment in time is carried through the next—just as how the body may heal from physical wounds but the memory of how one gets that injury and how it feels afterwards, a psychic scar, is remembered with clarity. The events of the past are placed in a modern context: that slavery in America is one that should never be forgotten.

Every year, there are only but a few movies that ought to be remembered—despite whether it should win accolades or whether it ultimately did (or did not)—and “12 Years a Slave,” based on the screenplay by John Ridley, is deserving of that honor. It is admirable because it is uncompromising, unrelenting, and a rewarding piece of work.

Jane Eyre


Jane Eyre (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

After Jane Eyre’s father passed away when she was a child, she was sent to live with Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), the aunt who had given up loving her because she often caused trouble. Mrs. Reed eventually sent Jane to a boarding school where her behavior was expected to be corrected. When Jane turns of age, now played by Mia Wasikowska, she works as a governess in Thornfield Hall where she meets the respected Edward Fairfax Rochester (Michael Fassbender). One of the reasons why people around them believe that they shouldn’t be together is money: he is rich and she is poor. Other than his attraction to her, there is another, darker reason which Mr. Rochester is willing to keep a secret no matter what.

Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë, “Jane Eyre” surprised me in the best ways possible because it’s actually sexy, a quality I rarely expect from period films. Part of it is due to the performances. Wasikowska nicely embodies a plain beauty who can easily hide on the background. But when her character has something important to say, she has the ability to change her mannerisms in a nuanced way, whether it be brightening her eyes a little bit or just parting her lips so delicately that she gives off an air of aristocracy. It is impressive to watch her make small changes in her body language yet they are enough to make a statement and allow us to consider what she might be thinking.

Fassbender injects his character with complexity that we cannot help but be suspicious. While it is mentioned that he has a volatile personality, we are actually able to experience his fluctuating warmth and coldness. We want to like him because he is a good fit for Jane, but we approach him with reluctance because of the lingering possibility that he simply wants to use her. After all, he has no problem dangling her in front of his elegant company mostly consisting of women with vile tongues. I loved that each time Fassbender enters a scene, I never could predict how he will play his character.

When the two finally admit their feelings for each other, the cinematography comes into focus but it never overshadows the emotions. While it highlights the aspect of beauty in the way the wind rustles the leaves of trees, caresses the grass, and surfs through the characters’ detailed clothing. Meanwhile, thunderstorm and lightning can be heard and seen from afar which signals that maybe the beauty that we see is a transient, illusory thing.

There is an element of darkness despite the picture’s emotional highs so it kept me curious and cautious. The supernatural elements are deftly handed by the director. We hear ghostly whispers and voices, characters acknowledging curses and bad luck, and we even see unexplained phenomenon like chimney spewing out ash inside a mansion. However, these elements feel like a natural part of this specific story. It helps us to get into a certain mood when Jane goes about the mansion in the middle of the night holding only a candle in her hand and courage in her heart.

There are times when I felt as though the pacing of “Jane Eyre,” based on a screenplay by Moira Buffini and directed by Cary Fukunaga, is a bit rushed. I would have been happy, even if it means adding an extra thirty minutes, to have gotten to know more about Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and what she really thinks about Jane and Edward’s relationship. Furthermore, the scenes with St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) toward the end feels tacked on. What is exactly the real connection between he and Jane?