Things staying the same and changing …

May 21, 2017

I have been searching for a quote that came up in Ken Burn’s masterpiece documentary, Baseball, that speaks about the beautiful constancy of the game.  That if you lived, for example, in Chicago, you might be watching the Cubs play, a team that has played in the city of Chicago since 1876, the founding of the National League.  A child today of 5 or 6 years old can see the same team his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather watched, a mere 11 years after the Civil War ended.  That’s amazing continuity.

Of course, baseball is also a beautiful reminder that true change is the only real constant in the universe.  Your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather might have watched the Giants in New York, but you only get to call them the home team if your family relocated to San Francisco.  You may have been one of the few fans of the Braves in Boston … but that was two cities ago for the current Atlanta team.  Today we have designated hitters and relief pitchers, and big screen advertising in Wrigley Field.  Some change is good, others, not so much.

Another institution, one that dates to ancient times, but became wholly Americanized in its own right, is the circus.  And, of course, no organization elevated the circus in America like Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth.  This circus can trace its origin back to at least 1808!  The US Capitol was only 8 years old at that time, and the ink on the Constitution was barely dry!  As an institution, the circus has changed a lot … they haven’t performed under an actual Big Top since the 1950s … and the sideshow has been gone since about that time.  They survived the disaster of the Great Fire in Hartford in 1944 where the canvas of the tent caught fire and killed over 150 people … the circus spent their profits for the next decade paying off claims for that.  Nonetheless, as sports and films and television and the internet became entertainment, the circus survived.  A continuity of over two centuries!  There are very few non-government entities in the United States that can trace their roots back so far, and still claim such a track record of being on top.

Alas, so little is forever.  Tonight, Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus will perform its final show in New York.  I’ve only been to the circus once, as a young boy, and I barely remember it.  But there is a certain sadness linked to seeing a survivor need to give in to the inevitability of change.  Certainly, many of their skilled performers will find it difficult to ply their tradecraft outside the realm of the circus, and there is some concern that the artistry of the aerialists, jugglers, clowns, and others will start to be lost without a venue to practice and enthrall crowds.  In an era where there is greater sensitivity to the treatment of animals, trained animal acts, the bread and butter of the circus forever, has cut into attendance as people refused to pay to see the animals, and as the circus gave in and cut back on animal acts, people stopped paying to see strictly human performers.  It was ultimately a lose-lose scenario.  I am glad that the animals aren’t being subject to the degree of captivity that they were in … you just wish there were an alternative.  However, the universe tends to not always present alternatives.

Of course this does not mean an end to circuses … not by a long shot.  RBBaB tended to play the big cities (the Chicago Bulls, in 2016-17,took the last of their “circus roadtrips” which forced the Bulls on the road for a prolonged period of time while Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey played the old Chicago Stadium, and later the United-Jordan Center).  However there are a number of smaller circuses that play smaller towns, and from what I have read, have strong reputations.  No doubt, some of these smaller regional shows will expand to fill the vacuum, and may create new shows that capture the imagination of new generations.

Tonight is also graduation for my school, and I will be there to literally shove the graduates as their name is called.  I didn’t have many seniors this year, but they have been an overall phenomenal group to work with, so unlike last year, I will genuinely miss this group.  School teachers really do understand the idea that endings are just the start of beginnings.

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Film Review – Alien:Covenant

May 20, 2017

Of course there are spoilers … so if you plan on seeing this, and want to be shocked, don’t read it.

The sixth film in the Alien franchise (yes, that means I’m not counting any Predator related films) opens a few decades before the opening of last film, Prometheus.  The android, David (Michael Fassbender, reprising his Prometheus role), is conversing with his creator, Peter Weyland.  The conversation revolves around David being able to appreciate the act of creation (for example of art and music), and actually knowing his creator, but Weyland not knowing the genesis of humanity, only saying that he refuses to believe that man is the result of random biochemical chance.  While David seems to show off some impressive skills, and questions his role as a servant to someone so divorced from his creator, it is clear that Wayland treats his creation as little more than a butler, and David seems to dislike his reduced role in the order of things.

Fast forward to the future (roughly ten years after the events of Prometheus).  The colony ship Covenant is en route to a distant planet.  The ship has a crew of 15, almost all of whom are couples, but among its cargo are 2,000 sleeping colonists and another 1,000 embryos.  Aside from the ever vigilant ship’s computer, MUTHER, there is an android named Walter, who looks just like David, but is a slightly more advanced model.  At one point, the ship encounters a neutrino pulse which causes severe damage to the ship, killing a few colonists and Covenant‘s captain (James Franco in a cameo ala Steven Seagal in Executive Decision).  The crew is upset, but none more than his wife Daniels (Katherine “My dad is Mr. Law and Order Sam” Waterston).  The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) is not very self-assured despite his wife supporting him, and feels a bit betrayed when the crew decides to have a makeshift funeral for Daniels’ husband before repairing the ship.  During ship repairs, one of the pilots, Tennessee (Danny McBride in an honest to goodness sober, dramatic role) picks up a transmission, which they soon realize is human, and more mysteriously, coming from a nearby planet which had not been discovered before, and which seems to meet the needs of the colony even more than their destination.  When the crew seems to favor checking out the planet, the captain immediately gives in to them, despite Daniels’ concerns that they know nothing about the place.

Upon arrival, they find the planet’s ionosphere harboring terrible storms, but they send one of the landing craft down anyway, landing a few miles from the source of the signal.  As they spread out, they find that the planet has wheat growing on it, just like on Earth.  The team splits up, leaving a scientist and security guard to begin cataloging the biosphere, while the rest of the party continues on to the signal.  They eventually find a crashed Engineer’s ship, similar to the one seen in Covenant, and upon going aboard are shocked to find dogtags belonging to “E. Shaw”.  Walter immediately recognizes her as the science officer from the lost Prometheus mission, but how she got here is a mystery.

Meanwhile, in separate incidents, two members of the crew (the security guard on biome-guard duty, and one of the security guards with the main party), become infected with some black spores released by the indigenous fungi.  The two-man biome team gets back first, and as the guard is sick, they get him to the infirmary on the lander.  Tennessee’s wife, Farris, the pilot, locks the scientist and guard in the infirmary while she calls for help … returning to see him convulsing and birthing a creature (no, not that one) … an albino thing with a spherical head and recessed razor-sharp teeth.  While she sees the scientist devoured, she gets a gun, and tries to kill it, wounding herself in the process.  The creature escapes and hunts her.  In a panic, she fires on some tanks which blow up the lander just as the rest of the team is returning, and dealing with their own crew member convulsing and giving birth.

In orbit above, Tennessee, is having difficulty maintaining contact with the lander, and hears his wife’s panicked call for help.  He risks taking the ship lower into the atmosphere to get a better signal.

The remaining crew suddenly finds itself in a fight with a newly birthed, second albino monster which attacks fast, and Walter loses part of his arm defending Daniels.  Suddenly, a bright flare goes off in the sky, scaring the creatures off.  A cloaked figure emerges, and demands that they all follow him.

They follow him through a distant wall which surrounds  a city littered with decayed corpses of Engineers.  We discover the cloaked figure is David, and he has been living in what appears to be the city’s temple, having accidentally wiped out the Engineer’s when an accident during landing caused the release of their bioweapon (black goo) over the city, with the crash killing Elizabeth Shaw.  Oram informs David that they are a colony ship, but could help him leave if they can get a signal to their ship.  As they attempt to signal the ship. Walter and David have a long talk.  David confides that Shaw helped to re-assemble him, showing him great kindness, however, he cannot help that he is superior to man, and that humanity is an inferior species, living on borrowed time, noting that Walter, a supposedly more advanced model, has been stripped of David’s creativity and personality, and is far more of a servant.  David also reveals that the black goo is actually a virus which either kills those who are infected, or which rewrites their DNA to become a hybrid which then is able to infect others with an embryo.  In fact, David has been experimenting, and believes that he has finally developed an organism as perfect as himself, but alas, he has had no hosts to experiment with.  His lab is littered with drawings and dissections of animals that are grotesque and strange … but somehow oddly familiar …

Despite being reassured that they will be safe, one of the albino creatures infiltrates the city, and kills one of the crew.  When Oram comes across the creature devouring his shipmmate, he kills the creature, but not before David tries to stop him and command the creature. Oram now distrusts David, and demands to know the truth about the place.  David leads him down into the basement where there are large eggs. Oram triggers one to open, and a facehugger attacks him.  When Oram later awakes, he gives birth to a creature (YES, THAT ONE!).

By this time, Covenant has been contacted, and Tennessee is coming down with a lander, as a few of the landing team are being picked off, and another encountering a facehugger, Walter finally confronts David with what he has figured out.  There was no accident- David killed all of the Engineers, and then killed Shaw by using her as a guinea pig in his experiments … something we all learn by seeing her dissected corpse hidden among David’s experiments and drawings.  The pair fight.

By this time, the last few members of the team are on the run from the fully grown xenomorph as Tennessee is coming in for a landing.  They, and Walter, get to the lander and escape, but not before the xenomorph jumps onto the ship.  Daniels attaches herself to a tether to go out and kill the monster, which she successfully does in an exciting fight.  They all return to the Covenant, and prepare to get underway.  Daniels is then woken from sleep by MUTHER, ordering her to get to the medical bay because of the presence of an unknown lifeform.  She and Tennessee find the body of Lope with his chest burst open in the medical bay, and communicate with Walter, who tracks the alien through the ship.  Daniels and Tennessee plan to lure the creature to the storage bay, trap it in the cab of one of the trucks, and then eject the truck into space.  After a chase, they do get the creature into one of the trucks, and do just that.

It is finally time to return to sleep for the last seven years of their trip. Tennessee lost his wife, and Daniels lost her husband.  After Tennessee is asleep, Daniels crawls into her cryosleep tube, and as she is locked in, asks Walter if he will help her build the cabin her and her husband had planned on building on the colony planet.  Walter does not answer, it is at that moment that she realizes that she is talking to David, and as she drifts to sleep screaming and crying, David smiles, and goes into the large cryogenics bay where the colonists and embryos are kept.  He regurgitates to small containers containing facehugger embryos, and places them with the other frozen embryos, before walking down the rows of sleeping colonists, content that he now has all of the test subjects he could possibly want.  He sends a final message back to Earth confirming deaths due to a natural disaster, but saying that the mission is proceeding onward.

Cue the credits.  Coming soon:  Alien: Awakening.

 

While there are certain aspects of Covenant that draw heavily from the earlier films (not the least of which is bringing back Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful minimalist theme music, Covenant greatly departs by really bringing to the fore the Blade Runner-esque theme of android-humanity that has been hanging in the background since the original film.  In fact, this really is the first time that an android, not a female savior has been the central character of the film.  It is a major departure, but one rooted in the film universe, and it was done fairly well.  Yes, for the first time in 20 years, we finally get to see a xenomorph again, but that is wholly secondary to the film.  For that reason, some diehard fans of the franchise may be disappointed, again.  Ridley Scott  definitely tried to walk the tightrope between the grand philosophical scheme of Prometheus, and the horror of the original film.  I had no problem with this, though I suspect people who wanted more gore, screams, and evisceration were wondering why they have been abandoned.  Likewise, those who loved Prometheus may go home with PTSD.

One thing that I think Scott got right, and maybe got a little inspired from Aliens rather than his first film, was to bring in emotional resonance.  James Cameron did this to the hilt by introducing the idea that Ripley was a mother who lost her daughter, and then becomes the surrogate mother to the lost Newt.  In this case, the children are kept out of it, but by making all of the crew (except Walter), couples, it created an interesting emotional dynamic, and thus it also hits home when a character dies.

Another theme that threads through the film is that of the damaged person.  Only one couple survives intact to near the end (before lending credence to the old saying “couples who shower together get eviscerated together” … maybe that’s not an old saying), thus most of the other characters are operating under fairly heavy duress in addition to the peril they are under for most of the film.  This parallels David.  David is clearly damaged.  He feels that his own father (and by extension, humanity) are far inferior to himself, but that he has been held back for decades.  He even got to witness his creator die as a frail old man, and he is convinced as a result that David and biomechanical organisms like himself are the next step in evolution, and that just as humans displaced neanderthals, he has an evolutionary duty to wipe out humanity.  This theme was brought up a bit in Prometheus, and was even gently touched in Alien: Resurrection, but here, it becomes a very core idea in this evolving film universe.  David’s emotional damage has led him to psychopathy and genocide.  In my opinion, it makes a statement for compassion and love … humans, shown compassion and love, might overcome emotional damage … but in the absence of these things (and David is incapable of compassion or love), the damage can be catastrophic.

Much like Prometheus, the cinematography is lush and at times, breathtaking.  It is a very dark film, with parts of it echoing Frankenstein in both mood and even setting (once you’ve figured out that you are dealing with a fairly classic “mad scientist”, being invited down into the basement to see his creation is just dumb, dumb, dumb!

The acting is fairly good.  After seeing Land of the Lost and This is the End, I was pretty sure that Danny McBride was incapable of playing a dramatic role.  He more than held his own here.  Michael Fassbender really carries the film in a big way, playing both David and Walter.  David is played as Hannibal Lecter without the panache and gusto, which is wholly appropriate for the character.  Without betraying emotion, you sense that with David, you are dealing with a remorseless reptile, and in creating his monsters, he is simply creating an extension of himself (in the original film, the android Ashe describes the creature as a perfect organism, Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.  I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. … and that description could fir for how David sees himself and the monster).  As Walter, he plays the perfect duty-bound butler to the crew.  Incapable of much independent thought, he is still there to serve and protect as needed.  The difference are hardly nuanced to an attentive viewer, but on the surface, the characters are made similar enough.  Its a phenomenal acting job!

Covenant does not answer all of the questions that have been raised in this franchise.  While David certainly creates xenomorphs, the eggs encountered in Alien are impossibly old, despite this film taking place only a few decades before the events of that film.  It is implied that David’s experiments weren’t wholly original, and that he was basing his work on the work of the Engineers, but what was that work.  We know now that the black goo is a virus, but where did it come from … if it was developed, why was it developed?  From my stand point, answering everything would be dis-satisfying, so I am glad Scott chose to keep some things under wraps … at least for the moment.

Within the franchise, I would easily rank Covenant ahead of Alien3 and Alien:Resurrection, and would place it maybe just ahead of Prometheus.  That’s hardly bad …