Alien: Covenant

★★★★
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It’s generally acknowledged that the creature in the Alien franchise is the scariest monster in all of science-fiction cinema. Based on original designs by Swiss artist H.R. Giger, it’s a triumph of sinister design—a Freudian nightmare of biomechanical sex and death.

Alien: Covenant, the latest installation by veteran sci-fi director Ridley Scott, burrows into the psychosexual roots of the monster to present a bloody, baroque, deeply weird story. A sequel to 2012’s inscrutable misfire, Prometheus, the new film concerns yet another spaceship crew encountering yet another alien infestation. All the franchise elements are present: derelict ruins, extreme body trauma, a strong female lead, and lots of dripping water, not to mention other fluids.

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arthur

In the would-be franchise starter King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, director Guy Ritchie gets medieval on our collective asses by twisting Arthurian legend into a British caper film. Hunky Charlie Hunnam is our hero, Jude Law is the baddie, and the future Knights of the Round Table are portrayed as a gang of streetwise fixers from the mean streets of Londinium circa 573.

Critics are slamming the movie as a ridiculous attempt to transpose august mythology onto a laddish action picture. They’re not wrong, but they’re mad for the wrong reasons. The ridiculousness is the fun part. Legend of the Sword is chock-full of signature Guy Ritchie maneuvers—frantic montages, switchback time signatures, tough-guy dialogue—and it’s a kick to see Arthurian legend so gleefully abused. The effect is similar to watching radically updated Shakespeare. What’s the problem? Besides, as a visual stylist, Ritchie is genetically incapable of being boring. The film’s opening sequence will flip ya for real, as black-magic siege engines and colossal war elephants stomp Camelot. The mystical elements are creative and convincing, and the script provides some intriguing speculation about how that sword got stuck in that stone.

Spanish actress Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey is just this side of hypnotic as a persecuted sorceress, and Arthur’s motley crew functions as the medieval equivalent of a heist gang, complete with nicknames like Flatnose Mike and Goosefat Bill. The key is to embrace Ritchie’s goofball riffing and try to ignore the more egregious flourishes, like Jude Law’s designer jackets. Tune in to the film’s anachronistic wavelength and Legend of the Sword works just fine.

Land of Mine
★★★★
Now playing

In the final months of World War II, German forces buried more than 1.5 million landmines on the western beaches of Denmark. Germany believed that the Danish shore was one of the probable landing spots for an Allied invasion.

After Germany’s surrender, Danish officials commandeered four thousand German POWs to remove the landmines. By then, most of the original occupying forces were dead or gone. The final wave of German soldiers sent to Denmark were mostly teenagers—children, essentially—conscripted by Hitler in a cruel last gasp.

This largely forgotten episode of World War II history is dramatized in the Danish film Under Sandet (Under the Sand), nominated for an Academy Award and generally acknowledged as among the finest Danish films of the last several years. For some goddamn reason, the film has been retitled Land of Mine for its limited U.S. theatrical release. What were they thinking? This film does not need a pun in its title.

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gifted

GIFTED
1/2
Now playing

So this happens sometimes at the movies: a film comes along and does things you’ve seen a hundred times before. You know you’re being worked over emotionally, with cinematic tricks and techniques that have been around forever. But the story soars anyway, and you walk out genuinely moved and entirely satisfied.

Such is the case with Gifted, the story of Mary, a seven-year-old math prodigy caught in a custody battle that will determine the trajectory of her life. Chris “Captain America” Evans plays Mary’s uncle and guardian, Frank, a former philosophy professor turned boat mechanic. Mary’s mother (Frank’s sister), a math prodigy herself, committed suicide just after Mary was born. The trauma sent Frank spiraling out of academia and into the bars and harbors of coastal Florida. (He’s the “damaged hot guy,” as one tavern admirer says.) Frank and Mary live in a trailer park, where Frank tries to provide his niece with a poor-but-normal, nongenius life.

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Table 19
★ ½
Now playing

Science has yet to identify the precise biomechanical workings of the cringe. A function of the sympathetic nervous system, it’s an involuntary muscular reaction that occurs when we see or hear something embarrassing or unpleasant.

Watching Table 19, the new ensemble comedy starring Anna Kendrick, I’m pretty sure I strained several important cringe muscles. It’s a surprisingly bad movie, the kind that usually get detoured into foreign markets or a DVD/digital release well before any U.S. theatrical distribution is negotiated. It’s a genuine curiosity to see a specimen like this on the big screen.

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get_out_universal_pictures
from Indy Week

The go-to synopsis for Get Out, the brilliant new horror film from writer-director Jordan Peele (Key & Peele), is that it’s Look Who’s Coming to Dinner crossed with a racially charged update of The Stepford Wives. That’s about right, but Peele’s game-changing film is more than that, and it’s the best thing to happen to the horror genre in 20 years.

The set-up: Brooklyn photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to meet the parents of his new girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), on a weekend getaway upstate. That’s stressful enough as it is, but Chris has deeper anxieties. He’s black, she’s white, and the Armitage family lives in the kind of tony suburban enclave where people of color feel conspicuous and vulnerable just walking down the street.

This last observation is confirmed in the film’s (seemingly) unrelated opening scene, where another young black man finds himself lost in those same suburbs. Bad Things Happen, and the sequence establishes the film’s nervy tone: This is a story that’s as aware of Treyvon Martin and Oscar Grant as it is of Halloween and Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Back in Brooklyn, Rose assures Chris that her parents are not racists, and indeed Chris is warmly welcomed by neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) and psychotherapist mom (Katherine Keener). The ‘rents seem harmless and square, making clumsy attempts to connect with Chris by conspicuously name dropping President Obama and Jesse Owens. “We’re huggers!” dad says, embracing Chris on the front porch of the house.

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ARRIVAL

from Seeker

The opening scenes of the new sci-fi film “Arrival” cover familiar territory, as we see enormous spacecraft hovering over cities on our troubled planet Earth.

But soon the film reveals that it’s not going to be like other alien movies. The spaceships have no weapons. Our hero is a linguist. Cerebral narrative puzzles take shape. A procession of subtle and intriguing ideas ultimately blossom into a story of profound insight and hope.

“Arrival” is the best sci-fi movie of the year because it does what science fiction does best: It encourages thoughtful conjecture and lateral thinking. It asks us to project our hopes and anxieties out to some notional event horizon, then see what develops. In the choppy wake of this terrible and divisive election season, it’s the one movie you should take the time to see, and process and talk about afterward.

Warning: There are some moderate spoilers ahead, but nothing much past what you can see in the trailers, and I’ll stay far away from the film’s central mystery.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the U.S. government to communicate with the aliens. Twelve spaceships — ovoids that suggest seed pods, significantly — have descended over countries around the world. The aliens show no signs of aggression, but the world’s nation-states respond with varying defensive postures, scrambling jets and aiming weapons at the ships.

Banks is partnered with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who hopes that the language of numbers will help in establishing contact with the aliens. Each day, the ships’ portals open briefly and Earth sends its various delegations aboard. Inside the ship, director Denis Villeneuve creates a minimalist marvel of art design, an extradimensional space with sideways gravity. It feels like a prehistoric cave, those sacred spaces where our species first experimented with language and art.

We see the aliens, eventually, but they’re cleverly obscured and the visuals underline a storytelling strategy used throughout the film. “Arrival” isn’t really interested in the aliens; it’s interested in our reaction to the aliens. How will we reach out to this new entity, this ultimate Other? What will we choose to communicate, and how?

In the end, “Arrival” is all about communication. “The language we speak determines how we think,” Louise says, referencing a fierce debate in the field of linguistics. Without spoiling too much, the aliens present us with a new kind of language, a new way to communicate. It’s a language that imparts meaning directly, does not represent sound or speech, and is not bound by time.

It’s so nice to be treated as an adult by a science fiction movie. This is a film that asks us to think, and presents delicious mysteries concerning ideograms, palindromes, game theory and the significance of the number 0.083.

It’s said that providence moves in mysterious ways, as does Hollywood, and the timing of “Arrival” is auspicious. The film addresses that nagging suspicion, perhaps you’re familiar with it, that the promise of the Digital Age is fading fast. Our precious devices and networks aren’t bringing us closer together. They’re driving us apart. We sit in public spaces, staring into the tiny screens in our palms. We gather in online cliques and echo chambers with those who share our history and opinions.

Despite our space-age communication technology, we’re not talking to each other — not really. We’re projecting digital versions of ourselves. We aren’t connecting in the important ways. We’re fractured and divided, as evidenced by the world’s escalating conflicts and even our own domestic elections and referendums.

Thoughtful science fiction like “Arrival” can help us approach this existential dilemma from a sideways vector. As a genre, as a mode, sci-fi provides us with the opportunity to think laterally about ideas and issues. Movies are one of the ways we process change, as a culture, on some unknowable level of collective consciousness that transcends rationality and intent. When a movie like “Arrival” comes along, we should pay attention. We’re telling ourselves something.