Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau’s chronicle of the attempted career revival of Chet Baker after imprisonment for heroin abuse, avoids many of the musical biopic pitfalls. It revels in the character flaws of its subject rather than sweeping them under the rug. It ignores the facts when they interfere with a good story. Most importantly, its a damn film. Its opening shot of a tarantula crawling out of a trumpet is the most abstract it gets, but it plays with time in interesting ways and captures more than its share of fantastic frames. It falters strongly, though, in making its central relationship believable. Ethan Hawke’s Baker is an intriguingly infuriating figure, but he never exudes charm, and because of this his romancing of Carmen Ejogo’s Jane never quite gels, especially given her devotion to him. Both Hawke and Ejogo give individually great performances, and by the end their relationship is established enough to sell the hell out of a powerhouse climax, but it takes a long time to reach that point.

B-

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Born to Be Blue (2016)
Directed by Robert Budreau
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen McHattie, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

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Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory

The first horror setpiece of Alien: Covenant is a masterpiece of panic, a frantic and terrifying piece of body horror that builds a lack of communication, a lack of understanding, and a lack of precaution into a slowly unrolling disaster. It’s monster doesn’t look horribly convincing, but it doesn’t matter; the actors sell the hell out of the moment, and the camera movements put us right in the thick of it with them. It sets the film off to a fantastic start that it never comes close to reaching again. Afterwards, Alien: Covenant switches between a cheaper version of the extraterrestrial slasher (complete with a crew too dumb to live), a high-flying space trapeze act, and a half-baked pontification on birth and creation. It’s supremely unsatisfying on all counts. While Prometheus was flawed but promising, Alien: Covenant is proof positive that it’s time to put this franchise back on ice.

Notably, the aforementioned early setpiece does not involve the Alien series’ titular killing machine. The most surprising thing about Alien: Covenant might be that, after years of waiting and the tease of Prometheus, seeing the xenomorph again isn’t thrilling, scary, or even enjoyable. At least the Alien v Predator movies were moderately self-aware in their shallowness; Covenant aims to the standard of Alien and Aliens (particularly the first), but the central beast feels much lesser. Perhaps it’s because it spends most of its time in the open air rather than as a home invader; perhaps it’s because Covenant mimics iconic bits of its predecessors (rendering the intruder as a blinking dot on a map, multiple uses of construction equipment). Maybe it’s because the crew is particularly dumb this time, ignoring basic common sense by constantly splitting up in a crisis and investigating a mysterious planet during a high-force hurricane. Maybe it’s because the xenomorph is viewed in full light more often, making it look faker despite forty years of technological development.

Most likely, though, it’s because director Ridley Scott doesn’t seem to care about the xenomorph anymore, and every time it appear it feels like a distraction from is true intentions. Alien has always acted as a powerful rape metaphor, which in turn set up its hero well to become a feminist icon, and Covenant merges this not-entirely-unsuccessfully with Prometheus‘ undercooked exploration of creation. Covenant acts as a tale of impotence, as a dark-mirrored tale of man’s anger at their inability to create life, as told through Michael Fassbender’s dual performance. This provides Scott with fodder for plenty of eccentric scenes, which he made the most of in his heyday with Alien and Blade Runner but feel forced and awkward here. Alien took sexual anxieties and fears of personal invasion and spun horror out of it. Covenant tries to extend it a bit too far and in doing so exposes the limits of its structure.

D+

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Alien: Covenant (2017)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, and Michael Fassbender
Rotten Tomatoes (77%)

Alien: Covenant is more self-mimicry than return to glory

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Is there anyone out there who was clamouring for a new King Arthur movie? With certain standards, like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, there’s a real sense that there is a fanbase out there, and that those characters have stories in them to tell. King Arthur though? Sure, his story is the backbone to plenty of other stories, but the Knights of the Round Table themselves have never really popped onscreen (give or take a Holy Grail). Since no one is interested in seeing a King Arthur movie (a truth I will assume correct until proven wrong), it’s no surprise that Guy Ritchie had no interest in making one either. His King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword is really a sneaky way for him to make a familiarly Guy Ritchie Cockney crime lark, with some Arthurian legend in the margins to convince the studios to give him a budget. At least, that’s what it seems like, but far too often those margins grow and swallow the energy of the rest of the film.

After a ten-or-so minute intro on the backstory of kings and mages, King Arthur reaches its absolute peak: a wordless quick-cut montage that zooms through 20-odd years of history, showing us the maturing of Arthur on the streets and in the brothels of London (then Londinium) and the rise of the evil King Vortigern. It then catches us up with Arthur as he recounts an encounter with a Viking who assaulted a prostitute to the local leader of the guards, with a four-way narration between Arthur, his two mates, and the guard leader. Colorful names abound, from Goosefat Bill to the three Mikes (Flatnose Mike is the main topic of discussion), and energy pops off the screen, reminiscent of the best moments in Ritchie’s crime trifecta of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RockNRolla. It’s all very much like the second coming of A Knights Tale, just a bit less anachronistic and a bit less noble.

For these moments, King Arthur looks like a winner, but it loses steam when it tries to say something about the “King” part. There are moments here and there after Arthur pulls the sword from the stone that hint at some originality and some joy, but with the exception of a montage of Arthur dealing with rodents of unusual size, they all relate to the city and its crooked side. An assassination attempt midway through the movie is a blast for the most part (best one-line character in the movie: “I’m a target, aren’t I?”), but falls flat when it moves from talk to action. Mostly, this has to do with the use of Excalibur, which puts Arthur in some kind of fighting super-mode. It’s about as much fun to watch as someone play a videogame on the easiest setting. Jude Law doesn’t get much to chew on as Vortigern, although thankfully the magical elements of his character have been played up in the trailer; he’s at his best growling from the throne, collar open like some kind of medieval Elvis impersonator. It’s obvious from this movie that Guy Ritchie could make a really fun period piece if he focused on his strengths. Epic storytelling just isn’t one of them.

C+

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, and Jude Law
Rotten Tomatoes (26%)

King Arthur is great fun when it forgets about legends

Before I Fall is a melodramatic mess that I paid money to see for some reason

In the Paderborn cineplex, they often show movies as “Sneak Previews,” where the movie itself is a surprise. They start off with a variably animated emcee giving away popcorn to patrons willing to be a little silly; this led to a group of people enacting Dragonball Z poses while shouting in German serving as the opening act for Moonlight a while back. The key advantage, to myself, of these Sneak Previews is that, while the movie is unknown, there’s a big “OV” next to the listing if it’s going to be in English, and those two magical letters are attached more often to the mystery movies than the future showings. It’s a neat thought, but in reality, the choice of movie is dictated more by whatever non-blockbuster is coming out soon in Germany rather than the carefully considered selection of a cinephile. Sometimes, this leads to seeing Moonlight for a second time as a complete surprise; sometimes, this leads to seeing Before I Fall. I am assuredly not the audience for Before I Fall, as was clear pretty early on. But having that knowledge didn’t make sitting through Before I Fall any easier.

Before I Fall is essentially Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day, but played completely straight. Sam is part of a quartet of popular girls, while dating a hunky bro to whom she plans to lose her virginity on Valentine’s Day. She’s kinda mean to her mom, she doesn’t pay attention to her sister, she scoffs at the pining of Nice Guy Kent, and makes fun of loner Juliet. After a party night gets a bit too intense, Sam finds herself waking up to Valentine’s Day over and over again. Admittedly, not knowing what I was getting myself into, the time-loop came out of absolutely nowhere to me, since the previous thirty-odd minutes just seemed like an uninteresting slice in the life of a bunch of pretty insufferable high-school students. Getting to relive that over and over again doesn’t really add any depth to the situation; everything about everyone is pretty clear from the get-go to everyone except Sam. Instead, the audience gets to travel with Sam and share her deepest wish: that this will all just be done with already.

Nice things first: Sam herself is not an awful character, and Zoey Deutch gives an emotive performance, suggesting layers that the script doesn’t really earn. And there’s one scene in the second act where Sam has a laidback heart-to-heart with a gay classmate she made fun of that works weirdly well thanks to its chill, matter-of-fact honesty and willingness to laugh for once in the whole damn movie. The rest of this is mostly a melodramatic mess. While a high-school twist of the time-loop plot isn’t a horrendous idea, this whole thing only works when the people involved are having a little bit of fun with the silliness. Instead, the movie revels in melodrama and sentimentality, with some grade-school philosophy to complete the dish (Sisyphus and the Butterfly Effect both get name dropped, because of course they do). It also throws on a suicide plotline that is key to the final act, but is never less than extremely tacky and leads to a bafflingly shallow conclusion. Before I Fall may not be for me, but it’s target audience should be asking for a lot more than this.

D-

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Before I Fall (2017)
Directed by Ry Russo-Young
Starring Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, and Jennifer Beals
Rotten Tomatoes (66%)

Before I Fall is a melodramatic mess that I paid money to see for some reason