SPECIES (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence, Strong Sexuality and some Language

Directed by: Roger Donaldson

Written by: Dennis Feldman

Starring: Natasha Henstridge, Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker & Marg Helgenberger

H.R. Giger has become known for his trippy illustrations and creatively horrific designs. He’s most famous for creating the Xenomorph in ALIEN, but he’s also made other contributions to cinema…like the antagonist in SPECIES. This science-fiction/horror blend is about as generic as generic can be. SPECIES is what happens when a subpar creature feature is mixed with a softcore porno, and there’s barely an original bone in its Giger-designed body.

After scientists send out signals to outer space and receive a reply, they decide it might be a good idea to cook up a science experiment with DNA codes that “friendly” aliens have given them. The result of this experiment is Sil, a human/alien hybrid that rapidly matures over the course of mere months. When something deadly appears to be manifesting itself inside of Sil, head scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) decides that its time to terminate their pet. Unfortunately for them, Sil escapes and evolves into a sexy adult version of herself (Natasha Henstridge) who’s ready to mate. If they wish to save the world, Xavier and a special team of hunters must exterminate Sil before she gets her rocks off and gets pregnant.

Many cast members seem embarrassed to be starring in this film and that comes across in their performances. Ben Kingsley (who was in SCHINDLER’S LIST two years prior to this mediocre mess) seems in a rush to say his lines and leave the set. There’s not one ounce of believable emotion injected into his performance, even when he’s trying to look sad or scared. Alfred Molina plays a nerd stereotype (with a godawful haircut) and comes off as borderline creepy. Meanwhile, Forest Whittaker is a useless psychic who can feel other people’s emotions (kind of like Mantis in the recent GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2). This leads to a few laughs, but not many profound insights. In the end, he’s a totally useless character.

Only three people seem to be having fun with the cheesy material: Michael Madsen, Marg Helgenberger, and Natasha Henstridge. Madsen is typecast as a tough guy (what a shock) and manages to inject his rough-around-the-edges charm into this clichéd one-note “hunter.” Helgenberger is solid as a scientist who contributes exposition about Sil’s biology and serves a love-interest for Madsen. Dare I say, the two of them have believable enough chemistry to seem charming together. They also serve as the only two potential victims who are worth giving a shit about.

The real show-stopper is the sexy model-turned-actress Natasha Henstridge. I wasn’t expecting much from her performance, but she did a damn good job with the cheesy material. Henstridge’s acting abilities and unexpectedly clever writing make Sil into a bit of a sympathetic antagonist. It’s a little sad to watch her naively make her way through the outside world, but it’s fun when she snaps into full-blown predator mode and begins taking people out. One scumbag’s death scene is pretty damn cool, even if it seems like the sexier version of an ALIEN kill.

Speaking of which, the creature design for SPECIES is not one of Giger’s shining moments. I appreciate that there are freaky things about this monster, like spikes that come out of her back (when she’s aroused), a cocoon (that eats an unfortunate passerby), and her reptilian-succubus appearance. However, the CGI used to bring this character to life is scattershot to say the least. The film takes a less-is-more approach for its first half, resulting in the practical version of the creature looking neat and the computer-generated version looking like total garbage. Also, it certainly doesn’t help that the monstrous version of Sil sounds like Stripe from GREMLINS.

SPECIES loves to shoe-horn in pointless nudity and erotic sex scenes. Yes, the film revolves around a group of people trying to take down a monster before she’s able to mate…but that doesn’t mean that we need to see Natasha Henstridge’s boobs every five minutes. There are scenes that seem like they exist only to cram more sex and skin into the film. Movie sex for the sake of sex isn’t sexy if there’s no emotional appeal to both characters. Sil is on a quest for a baby, but the men she’s making out with are merely lambs to the slaughter. I wouldn’t be surprised if SPECIES started off as a Skinemax script and then someone tweaked it into a sci-fi/horror film for the big screen.

SPECIES is one of those films that banked in the 90s, but seems laughably silly and mediocre now. It’s a hodge-podge of science-gone-wrong plot points and creature feature clichés. There are redeemable qualities in three performances and attempts to make the alien seductress into a sympathetic character. However, the film mainly languishes away in territory that ranges from mediocre to full-blown bad. SPECIES is a mess.

Grade: C-

ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sci-Fi Violence, Bloody Images, Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: John Logan & Dante Harper

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo & Amy Seimetz

The ALIEN franchise has had ups and downs. Ridley Scott created 1979’s ALIEN as a creature feature that featured A-list talent and nightmarish scares. James Cameron took 1986’s ALIENS in an entirely different, more action-packed direction and wound up with one of the best sequels of all-time. Then Fox screwed up ALIEN 3 with endless meddling and ALIEN: RESURRECTION felt like goofy fan fiction on the big screen. Ridley Scott returned to the series that he created with PROMETHEUS, a prequel that was divisive among fans. Personally, I loved it. ALIEN: COVENANT falls marginally below PROMETHEUS and far above the third and fourth installments in the series. This is a good time that hits familiar beats, but contains enough originality to be compelling, creepy and entertaining!

Set between the events of PROMETHEUS and ALIEN, COVENANT follows the crew of the titular spaceship Covenant. Aboard this massive spacecraft are lots of hibernating colonists and a handful of crew members to ensure that the mission goes safely. However, the smooth sailing takes a dangerous turn when a power surge erupts and results in some casualties. Not exactly eager to jump back into possibly faulty sleep pods, the crew receives a signal from a nearby planet that seems perfect for colonization. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Soon enough, body-bursting aliens are running around, androids are pondering the meaning of their existence, and bloody horror ensues.

At certain points in its plot, COVENANT seems content to repeat familiar beats that worked in previous installments. There are visceral frights in the vein of the 1979 original, action-oriented scenes that echo excitement from 1986’s sequel, and ambition that was seen in PROMETHEUS. Though pieces of the plot are predictable, Ridley Scott effectively toys with the viewer’s expectations. For an ALIEN film, COVENANT takes a sweet amount of time giving explanations and touching on the dark mythology of the Xenomorphs. The serves as a direct sequel to PROMETHEUS (I won’t spoil any of the nasty specifics or surprises) and also had me wondering where the hell certain developments were heading (in a good way).

COVENANT falters when it comes to the victims, er, I mean characters. It’s clear that most of these people are only here so that more gory kills are included in the body count. While that was the case with earlier films in the franchise, those characters’ deaths meant something because we cared about them. The same cannot be said for many of the folks in COVENANT. Katherine Waterston gives the best performance as the strong female lead and her character seemed like a more vulnerable version of Ripley. Meanwhile, Michael Fassbender shines as new android Walter and Prometheus survivor David.

The rest of the characters are either bland or stereotypes. Danny McBride seems to be giving his all in this film, but his character’s personality only seems to consist of a cowboy hat and love for country music. Meanwhile, Billy Crudup plays the self-centered mission captain as a one-dimensional scumbag. There are attempts to flesh him out as being religious and a scientist, but these points feel half-assed and underdeveloped. He also makes the single stupidest decision in the entire film. It’s eye-rollingly terrible. To make matters worse, certain lines of dialogue feel unnatural as characters frequently identify their relationships with each other. The words “my wife” are used to the point of annoyance and this keeps occurring in order to remind us that there are couples in the crew. It doesn’t elevate any emotional impact when heads literally roll and people have creatures bursting out of their bodies though.

Budgeted at a whopping 97 million (about 30 million less than PROMETHEUS), CONVENANT looks amazing. The settings are brought to life with real locations and fantastic special effects. There are many haunting images in this film that far surpass the material at points, kind of like PROMETHEUS did in many respects. The various Xenomorphs are all appropriately freaky and fun to watch, even when the final third of the film boils down to a condensed version of ALIEN. The money is clearly on the screen and the production values are spectacular!

Even though it repeats familiar beats from the series’ best moments and half of the characters seem worthless, ALIEN: COVENANT is still a solid film in the long-running science-fiction/horror franchise. This sequel/prequel answers questions that people were left when PROMETHEUS concluded and leaves enough mysteries for future installments (supposedly two more movies are in the works). The story and visuals combine bold ideas with ghoulish spectacle. I imagine that COVENANT won’t exactly win over people who despised PROMETHEUS. If (like me) you were a fan of that film and enjoy the ALIEN series (in spite of its weaker entries), COVENANT is a lot of fun and delivers the chills that we’ve come to crave from these films.

Grade: B+

THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sci-Fi Violence, some Sexuality and brief Nudity

Directed by: Luc Besson

Written by: Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen

Starring: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Charlie Creed-Miles, Brion James, Tricky, Tommy Lister Jr., Christopher Fairbank & Lee Evans

There are people who love THE FIFTH ELEMENT and people who loathe it. This sci-fi cult classic is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary and has been enjoying a big screen revival at various movie theaters. Having never actually sat through this entire movie (I know, shame on me) and being (mostly) a fan of director/writer Luc Besson, I decided to give his odd opus a go. THE FIFTH ELEMENT is goofy and some elements haven’t stood the test of time, but it remains fun and humorous nonetheless.

In the distant future of 2263, an ancient prophecy is coming to light. The fate of the world is near as a planet-sized evil approaches Earth. The only thing that can stop the deadly giant orb has come in the form of four ancient stones and a gibberish-speaking alien, nicknamed Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). When Leeloo crashes through the roof of down-on-his-luck cabbie Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), this average guy is sucked into an adventure that involves a rogue priest (Ian Holm), an obnoxious radio host (Chris Tucker), a violent alien race, and evil weapons-dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman).

THE FIFTH ELEMENT doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The film opens with a prologue that nicely sets up the main premise, but also includes loads of comic relief and silly-looking aliens (they appear like they inspired the a few designs in 2005’s HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY). There’s a constant sense of cheesiness throughout the film that feels deliberate and there’s rarely (if ever) a dramatic moment. Besson’s focus is on fun and he nails that aspect of this film, even if others fall by the wayside.

The visuals, aided by many special effects, bring an imaginative vision of the distant future to life. There are space cruises, layers upon layers of traffic (cars literally passing above each other), and compact apartments (that push furniture into the walls). Besson’s cinematic universe is cool to look at, but not all of the effects hold up. This is mainly true of CGI that looks very dated. The menacing evil planet appears to have come out of a Syfy Channel movie, though to be fair it was created with 1997 computer graphics. The evil alien race is brought to life through a combination of occasionally crappy CG, but mostly giant rubber suits that look pretty damn good.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT has two modes: action-packed and funny. It’s occasionally the former, until it reaches the end of a chaotic crescendo on a massive spaceship that sees many subplots colliding. The latter is a constant in the film as even gunfights have laugh-out-loud bits. One running joke about Korben’s nagging mother never ceases to be funny, while there are visual gags that are sure to guarantee a few giggles. Another series of mishaps at a space airport (in which many people claim to be Korben) is easily my favorite comedic scene in the entire film. With so much humor and action set pieces, the plot seems almost inconsequential. That’s a plus in this case, because there are convenient developments, half-assed mythologies and minor plot holes.

As far as performances go, everybody seems to be having a good time and that comes across in their acting. Bruce Willis plays Korben with his usual tough guy persona, serving as both an action hero and delivering well-timed comic zingers (a few of his best bits were improvised). Model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich gives probably the best performance of her career as an incoherent alien. Though she gets a few lines of English as the plot goes on, Jovovich’s heroine mainly acts through body language and facial expressions.

On the supporting side of things, Ian Holm is goofy as an exposition-spouting priest and occasionally gets to deliver a good laugh. Gary Oldman is allowed to ham it up as the villainous Zorg and effectively steals the show. Oldman’s over-the-top baddie gets many great scenes and I sort of wish that he had been the main antagonist, as opposed to the badly animated fiery planet that’s heading towards Earth. Mark my words, Chris Tucker (who usually annoys me to no end) actually made me laugh frequently throughout this film. This and the RUSH HOUR series might be the only films where Chris Tucker is actually funny. So there’s something to be said for that alone.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT suffers from cheesy CGI, muddled writing, and convenient plot developments. Still, this is a fun watch for viewers who are craving sci-fi entertainment that doesn’t take itself too seriously in any way, shape or form. Action and laughter are the two main elements of THE FIFTH ELEMENT. For the most part, it delivers both of those in spades. If this sounds up your alley, then this love-it-or-hate-it sci-fi cult classic may just be for you. You won’t know quite where you stand on it until you’ve seen it.

Grade: B

CON AIR (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language

Directed by: Simon West

Written by: Scott Rosenberg

Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey, Nick Chinlund & Dave Chappelle

Even though the 80s was home to lots of cheesy R-rated action flicks, the 90s seemed bound and determined to churn out increasingly ridiculous action entertainment. Originally released in the same month as another outrageous Nicolas Cage action vehicle FACE/OFF, CON AIR is a crazy ride. It’s stupid and ludicrous, but it’s also funny and enjoyable. The material’s cheesiness lends to the entertainment factor as we get one hell of a cast, competently directed action, and unrealistically high stakes. If you want explosions and Nicolas Cage (in a mullet, trying to pull of a bad accent), then CON AIR is for you.

After killing a man to protect his wife, Army Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) has been handed a ten-year prison sentence. Being a good guy at heart, Poe quietly serves his time and waits to go home to his loving wife and daughter (who doesn’t know him yet, but still writes him adorable letters). When he’s granted parole, Poe boards the massive prison aircraft Jailbird. Things go awry when the evil madman “Cyrus the Virus” (John Malkovich) and the rest of the dangerous convicts wind up taking over the plane. If he wishes to ever see his wife again and hopes to save some lives in the process, Poe will have to carefully help take down the prisoner-hijacked plane. Meanwhile, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) attempts to stop folks from simply blowing up the plane.

CON AIR is stupid, ridiculously stupid. There’s the whole prisoner revolt sequence, which seems to rely on an unlikely series of coincidences (with a prisoner smuggling gasoline on board) and a series of easily-accessible levers. As if the hijacked airplane wasn’t enough for the plot’s high stakes, they also throw in a subplot about Poe’s cellmate being diabetic and all of the syringes on the plane being smashed. To boot, the laws of physics are frequently defied and you know what? All of this stupidity and the sheer ridiculous nature of the film are the bombastic fun to watch! This is a big dumb popcorn movie and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than that.

As the heroic Poe, Nicolas Cage has horribly wooden line delivery and evokes a cheesiness that remains unrivaled in his filmography. Cage’s serious moments are hilarious and they’re not supposed to be. He also sports the worst mullet in the world and tries to pull of a terrible Southern accent (which downright disappears during a few scenes). As a so-so supporting character, John Cusack sweats on the ground level and gets involved in the finale when the action leaves the confines of the plane. Colm Meaney plays a hot-headed higher-up and adds to the tension as he seems just a tad too trigger-happy.

The convicts are the real show-stealers though, because each one of these colorful characters adds something memorable to the film. Ving Rhames plays intimidating gangster henchman Diamond Dog, while Danny Trejo (who was once a real-life convict) has the role of a rape-happy thug. M.C. Gainey is a huge highlight as hyperactive pilot prisoner “Swamp Thing” and delivers one of the cheesiest jokes in the entire film. There’s also a miscast Dave Chappelle as junkie “Pinball.” Steve Buscemi stars as serial killer Garland Greene (whose murders make the Manson Family look like the Partridge Family), coming off as both creepy and unexpectedly funny. John Malkovich gives the best performance in the film as “Cyrus the Virus.” He’s such an entertaining baddie and his death scene is probably one of my favorite action deaths ever (as it goes on for a while and he bites it in three increasingly over-the-top ways).

In terms of action, CON AIR never once gets repetitive. There are one-on-one fights, plane crashes, car chases, explosions, midair combat, and showdowns in various locations. The film is also shot in a way wherein the viewer can make out what the hell is going on and which characters are giving/receiving the blows/bullets. To say that the film gets over-the-top in its action would be a huge understatement as one scene has a broken propeller flying between Cage and Malkovich…to break up their confrontation in the most insane way possible.

CON AIR has lots of goofy details and obvious flaws. There’s the silly performance from Nicolas Cage and the colorful prisoners (who all contribute to the humor and action). The film’s soundtrack seems downright strange in places (Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live” is incredibly out-of-place for this film, but still received an Oscar nomination) and the same guitar riff is played around a hundred times throughout the score. For all of its faults and stupidity, CON AIR is fun and succeeds at being entertaining from start to finish. If you’re into action movies (especially ridiculous ones) and you haven’t seen CON AIR, you owe it to yourself to sit through this one!

Grade: B

THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Written by: Shaun Grant

(based on the books KILLING FOR PLEASURE by Debi Marshall and THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS by Andrew McGarry)

Starring: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway, Aaron Viergever, David Walker, Louise Harris, Richard Green, Beau Gosling, Bob Adriaens & Anthony Groves

Aside from maybe Ivan Milat (a.k.a. the backpacker murderer), Australia’s most infamous serial killer is John Bunting. John had a violent hatred for pedophiles, extremely homophobic beliefs, and a fascination with dead bodies. Bunting was the charismatic ringleader of a group (three others) who committed heinous murders from 1992 to 1999. THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a chilling film based upon their notorious crimes. As you might guess from its subject matter, SNOWTOWN isn’t an easy movie to watch and will likely leave you depressed. Instead of functioning as a gory serial killer biopic, this film works as a disturbing drama about a psychopath, his murderous buddies, and a vulnerable young man sucked into Bunting’s dark path.

In a poor South Australia suburb, teenage Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) is living in a crappy situation. His mother Elizabeth (Louise Harris) is constantly working to make ends meet, while he suffers abuse from his brother Troy (Anthony Groves) and his mother’s pedophile boyfriend. Jamie’s distressing existence takes a turn when charismatic John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) walks into his life. John becomes Elizabeth’s loving boyfriend and offers to be a role model/father figure for Jamie. However, things take a dark twist when two people go missing and John brings Jamie in on a bloody mission to rid the world of pedophiles, homosexuals, and “weak” people.

For a film about graphic killngs, SNOWTOWN is remarkably restrained and lets the viewer’s imagination fill in its worst gaps. There’s only one corpse glimpsed on-screen and another bloodied victim is briefly shown in a montage. SNOWTOWN’s most brutal moment has elongated torture of a character who was developed early on in the proceedings, making that scene even more tough to sit through. This film isn’t an easy watch to say the least because we know exactly what is happening off-screen. The titular murders are mostly given through recorded messages that John forces his victims to say in order to cover his/their tracks. These audio bits further add to the movie’s bleak feeling of hopelessness. It’s also worth noting that the film has scenes of sexual abuse in the first twenty minutes that will make some viewers shut the film off immediately.

SNOWTOWN’s best quality comes in its believable performances. Daniel Henshall is easily the major stand-out as John Bunting. Henshall gives instant charisma and likability to this stranger who’s seemingly helping out Jamie’s family. When he takes a dark turn early on (in a scene that’s guaranteed to upset animal lovers), the viewer instantly gets a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach. Henshall’s portrayal of a psychopath who doubled as a “family man” and “vigilante” is convincing and terrifying to behold.

As the most vulnerable character in this story, Lucas Pittaway does a phenomenal job as Jamie and gets the viewer to feel a seemingly-impossible amount of sympathy towards his victim-turned-killer. Though they’re smaller in their on-screen time, Aaron Viergever (as not-the-actor Robert Wagner) and David Walker (as hobo-looking Mark Hayden) are creepy as John’s murder buddies. Louise Harris also sells her role as Jamie’s emotionally damaged mother and John’s abused girlfriend.

Besides great acting and a restrained approach, SNOWTOWN MURDERS also succeeds as a film thanks to stellar direction from Justin Kurzel. This filmmaker has gone on to direct the excellent MACBETH and the okay-at-best ASSASSIN’S CREED, but he made a strong impression through SNOWTOWN’s gritty storytelling and intense visual style. The cinematography is beautiful, making the horrific events stick out even more in contrast. There’s an atmosphere of dread and despair from the opening minutes that lasts until the haunting final scene. However, the film encounters minor hiccups in occasionally running a tad long in spots. There’s a doctor’s visit that feels plain unnecessary, while another moment has some possible child abuse that’s hinted at but is never referenced again.

THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS is a purposely uncomfortable viewing experience that made me feel dirty. It’s a true-crime serial killer film that also functions as a highly dysfunctional family drama. The minimized on-screen violence approach works extremely well, especially because loads of gore and torture scenes could have possibly made the film into a pretty-looking exploitation B-flick. The performances are brilliant from everyone, especially from Daniel Henshall and Lucas Pittaway as the two leads. If you’re going to watch SNOWTOWN, then I highly recommend on reading up on the case or watching a short documentary beforehand. If you do either of those things (or both), then the movie becomes ten times as disturbing. SNOWTOWN MURDERS comes highly recommended to true-crime buffs.

Grade: A