Alien Covenant Review

The Plot

The crew of the spaceship Covenant find themselves unexpectedly awakened from hyper sleep while carrying 2000 people to settle a colony on distant planet. Discovering a strange message emanating from a mysterious seemingly perfect planet leads them to deviate from their carefully laid plans in the hopes of finding an even better new home for their new colony…

The Good

Prometheus was largely derided by the fans and critics for a lack of iconic Aliens in an Alien prequel, for Covenant the trailers and posters were emphatically clear that the recognisable monster would be horrifically present.

Covenant also retains one of the rare positives of Prometheus in keeping Michael Fassbender in the cast, this time in dual roles as prototype android David and his successor Walter. Alongside Fassbender the addition of the competent acting talent of Billy Cudrup, Danny McBride and Katheirne Waterston help give at least a little personality to the endangered Covenant crew.

Alongside these familiar faces the overall look, design and visual effect success of the film is evidently its strongest asset. The classic HR Geiger creature design and dark visual motifs of the saga, combined with credible future tech give the film at least a polished visual credibility.

The film’s expensively crafted science fiction world, frequent bloody action and unashamed philosophising will no doubt keep fans with those particular combined appetites entertained.

The Bad

The largest single criticism of Ridley Scott’s first prequel Prometheus from fans and critics was that it failed in its self-declared intention to finally explain and expand upon the more mysterious elements of the original film. Decades of fan speculation and intrigue surrounding possible explanations for the origin of the crashed alien spaceship and the actual ‘Aliens’ created a truly powerful mystique. Unfortunately it also created a very high level of expectation for revelations of actual answers. Prometheus utterly failed to provide those answers, leaving frustrated long term fans and bemused newcomers with yet more unanswered questions.

With Covenant Ridley Scott had a second chance to finally deliver a more satisfying and coherent film capable of filling a growing list of gaping plot holes, unfortunately this simply does not happen.  If anything Covenant further confuses and undermines the existing mystique of the saga in favour of predictable plot twists and heavy handed philosophising.

Covenant fails to resolve the Prometheus mysteries surrounding the alien ‘engineers’ or to neatly set up the origins of the Alien xenomorphs in a way that actually fits at all with the original film. Beyond failing to untangle the muddled mythology of the series, Covenant also has a plot driven by two dimensional characters making increasingly odd decisions. Audiences will be left largely bemused and frustrated by the antics of characters that recklessly walk themselves into obvious disaster. It’s particularly frustrating given the number of times the franchise has now seen mostly disposable casts prove the architects of their own gory demises.

In particular despite Michael Fassbender’s competent dual performance, Prometheus android David is again a major catalyst for much of the events of Covenant, but as with the first film his motivations remain ill-defined and largely implausible.

Leaving aside notably disappointing and at times confused narrative flaws, the film offers moments of blood splattered action. Unfortunately many of these moments of body horror and acid drenched mayhem will likely only have a powerful impact on those unfamiliar with the past films or truly hard-core fans of the series.

Covenant marks the 8th film in the combined Alien cinematic universe, so it’s safe to assume the saga’s signature scenes no longer grab audiences with the same shock factor they once did. Nothing in covenant comes close to matching the memorable suspense of Scott’s original Alien or the action packed adrenaline of James Cameron’s war themed follow up Aliens. It unfortunately feels like the franchise is drifting further out into the confused vastness of space without moving much closer to recapturing the iconic heights of these essential earlier films.

Scott supposedly has two more planned Alien prequel films to make, but based on the evidence of Prometheus and now Covenant it seems a real shame for fans that these films have killed off director Neill Blomkamp’s exciting plans for a direct Aliens sequel with Sigourney Weaver. There’s a growing sense that Scott’s desire to hang on to the franchise has probably actually cost fans their best chance of getting the actual Aliens film they have patiently craved.

The Ugly Truth

Alien Covenant mostly mimics the familiar and popular elements of the increasingly long running franchise, however slick CGI and repeating iconic moments can’t mask a general failure to live up to the high standards of the early classic films in the series.  The franchise which looms large over both the horror and science fiction genres is sadly still yet to truly deliver fans the brilliant sequel they have long awaited and deserved.

Review by Russell Nelson

Miss Sloane Review

The Plot

Elizabeth Sloane a feared and highly in demand Washington Lobbyist abandons her high powered post to instead champion a piece of anti-gun legislation that seems surely destined to fail. In so doing she faces fierce battles against public opinion, wealthy gun manufactures and even her former employers, testing the limits of her own ruthless resolve.

The Good

Jessica Chastain is a unique commodity as a performer, readily eschewing Hollywood stereotypes in the pursuit of genuinely complex and nuanced roles. Playing Miss Sloane Chastain deploys her full arsenal of ice cold composure and subtle fragility. The film deliberately avoids exploring exactly what drives her character to be so obsessively determined to win at all costs.

It’s rare for Hollywood’s dramas to leave its heroes or antiheroes ambiguous. It seems studios often lack the confidence to allow audiences to make their own imaginative assumptions and are usually instead determined to forcefully spell out character’s motivations and emotional backstories. Ultimately it’s refreshing to maintain a certain mystique behind some of Miss Sloane’s more reckless and self-destructive tendencies. The character makes vague hints about her clearly troubled past but then swiftly dismisses heavy handed attempts by others to make assumptions about her intentions and motives.

Another way in which Chastain’s performance aggressively defies expectations is by treading a fine gender neutral line. She manages to make Miss Sloane a shrewdly calculating designer dress clad alpha predator without ever fully succumbing to the lazy stereotypes that so often demonize or oversimplify figures of fiercely feminine power.

Around Chastain a solid supporting cast of familiar faces such as Mark Strong, John Lithgow, Sam Waterstone, Michael Stuhlbarg and Gugu Mbathat-Raw help flesh out the sordid world of Washington political dealing and power plays. Special mention should also be given to Jake Lacy for his brief but meaningful contributions as a surprisingly chivalrous male escort.

Overall the film works its way through a series of twists and dramatic turns as the two sides of the bitter American gun law debate fight for the hearts and minds of the public and consequentially the political elite. Independent of audience’s actual political leanings on the subject, the film is truly less about the moral arguments surrounding this issue and more about the way the powerful and determined seek to cynically control the outcome of seemingly broken political systems.

The Bad

There are endless big screen examples of amoral political power games making for exciting vicarious viewing. Indeed Netflix award winning House of Cards is about to delve into its fifth series based around the delights of following scheming power hungry characters operating without moral limits at the highest levels of political influence. Stacked against the endless array of similar tales there’s not necessarily quite enough to mark Miss Sloane out as something truly unique or essential in an already crowded genre.

Despite a solid cast and competent dramatic composition from director John Madden, ultimately the film’s supposedly jaw dropping moments never quite land with the full force expected from such punches. Supposed twists are perhaps a little too easily telegraphed by an audience overly familiar with these types of dramas. Perhaps predictability is one of the prices the film pays for creating instant confidence in Miss Sloane’s calculated efficient trickery.

The Ugly Truth

Miss Sloane holds audience attention firmly thanks mostly to Jessica Chastain’s composed star turn, a solid supporting cast and the timeless appeal of ruthlessly amoral political intrigue.

Love In Idleness Review

The Plot

As World War 2 draws to a close the domestic bliss between a millionaire Cabinet Minister and a widowed housewife is thrown into turmoil when her young son returns home from Canada. The situation triggers a series of fraught and witty exchanges about politics, love and the class system.

The Good

Though set during the dying stages of World War Two the emotional core of Rattigan’s tale of family drama and love are all immediately timeless and deeply current. In particular the awkward tensions in this newfound family are used to play out the angry philosophical frictions between far left and right wing politics. It’s a happy irony of history repeating itself that those economic and social backdrops fit almost perfectly with the news headlines of present day. Armed with this the revived production feels oddly more contemporary than ever.

Love In Idleness is built around charismatic strong performances from its three leads. Eve Best is a breezy delight as the middle class housewife revelling in her newfound upward social mobility and genuine love. Edward Bluemel is perfectly sulky as the adolescent son struggling to contain his immature contempt for the upper class and his mother’s newfound romance. Anthony Head is also typically well-polished as Sir John the successful tycoon and reluctant politician trying to stay calm in the face of a greedy former wife, wartime pressures and a genuine threat to his romantic happiness.

Special mention should also go to an alluring Charlotte Spencer, who shamelessly steals scenes as shameless Lady Fletcher, Sir John’s soon to be ex-wife. Armed with slinky dresses, flamboyant hats and ostentatious fur stoles she is a fun catalyst for dramatics.

Rattigan’s two act piece has generous amounts of fun by sparring its core cast against one another. Eve Best and Anthony Head capture perfectly the uninhibited honesty and comfortable affection amongst a mature couple learning from their youthful mistakes. By amusing contrast Bluemel’s melodramatic antics are a fitting caricature of misplaced teenage angst. Rattigan’s skilful work in gradually reconciling the two with laughter rather than genuinely abrasive squabbling is warmly enjoyable.

The combination of the cast’s readily available charm, Rattigan’s nuanced writing and Trevor Nunn’s expert direction helps to deliver a production that delights audiences with a rich blend of gentle comedy, perceptive social commentary and sincere satisfying romance.

The Bad

Those accustomed to the more typically outrageous comedy styles of more recent West End hits like Book of Mormon may find Rattigan’s 1940’s wit a little tame by comparison. However a steady stream of audience laughter on opening night illustrates the timeless appeal of good natured and well-crafted banter. Likewise a generous run time of 2 hours and 45 minutes is certainly value for money, though overly harsh critics might feel it lends for a more languid pace as the play works through a series of fairly simple dilemmas.

The Ugly Truth

Love In Idleness is a welcome slice of charmingly composed and good natured British comedy that feels timely and relevant in spite of its period setting. An outstanding ensemble cast breathe fresh life into Rattigan’s fine writing to deliver a triumphant West End revival.

Review by Russell Nelson

Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour Review

The Plot

Six rebellious convent schoolgirls take advantage of a trip to Edinburgh to compete in a choir competition by instead embarking on a series of increasingly wild misadventures shamelessly fuelled by booze and sex.

The Good

All-female productions and genuine originality are sadly both rare commodities even in the West End. Our ladies delivers both as it offers up a boldly puerile and poignant tale of dramatically misspent youth.

The cast members do a compelling job of not just portraying the six wanton schoolgirls but also simultaneously taking turns portraying the motley assortment of teachers, boys,  bouncers and weirdos  that they cross paths with their wild ride of bad choices.  The shows six young stars deserve significant praise for bringing an entire world to life with convincing impressions, smart staging and a splash of imagination.

Musically Our Ladies provides a unique juxtaposition of elegantly harmonised choral music and karaoke style classic rock. Numerous classic tunes from operatic rock masters ELO give the show regular injections of punchy toe tapping fun. The production does well to avoid the usual pitfalls of so called jukebox musicals by using the well-known pop hits to emotionally punctuate key moments in the story rather than heavy handily trying to construct a narrative around the songs themselves.

While the show regularly falls back on catchy musical escapes and a steady stream of naughty humour it also frequently injects flashes of bitter tragedy that immediately create an additional and perhaps more meaningful layer to what could otherwise have easily been merely a guilty vicarious pleasure.

Having grabbed amusing attention with the contrast between choir girl stereotypes and reckless uninhibited teen delinquency, the play thankfully proceeds to push further and gradually reveal each character’s genuine adolescent struggles. The production ultimately sneaks in surprising nuance and fragile sincerity amongst a barrage of brash shameless antics.

The Bad

The production sets out to be provocative, raucous and often downright filthy. This will amuse and entertain many but undoubtedly also prove less palatable for those with more conservative theatrical tastes. Strong Scottish accents and the relentless barrage of shamelessly fouled mouthed slang will also prove a special test for both those with delicate sensibilities and tourists.

Those with a natural ear and appreciation for fierce Scottish banter will be able to enjoy it and the six stories it gradually reveals, however it could easily prove a barrier for those that may struggle to either comprehend or condone it.

While Our Ladies has much to offer it’s sometimes unclear exactly which audience the show best targets. Filth ridden adolescent comedy and the vintage classic rock soundtrack potentially appeal to very different audiences. Older ELO fans may find the characters harder to connect with, while younger audiences probably wouldn’t be allowed to watch it in the first place.

The Ugly Truth

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour hits some impressive high and low notes to offer up a truly unique antidote for anyone bored with more typical safe and sanitized west end musical theatre.  Outstanding harmonies and a charismatic young cast help turn a challenging script and compact stage into an arresting display of wild entertainment.

Review by Russell Nelson

Lost In London Review

The Plot

A semi-autobiographical account of Woody Harrelson’s crazy night out in London as he lurches from one increasingly bizarre calamity to the next whilst trying to merely get home to his wife and family in time for a magical Harry Potter set visit.

The Good

Lost In London represents a truly unique cinematic achievement having been shot in a single take and screened live simultaneously to hundreds of cinemas worldwide. It’s a concept so ambitious and almost entirely unprecedented that irrespective of any other qualities the film may boast this alone makes it fascinating viewing. Even more impressive and praiseworthy is that not only does the film manage to succeed in delivering a seamlessly continuous experience but it does so across dozens of locations spread over the heart of one of the world’s most famous cities. The precisely choreographed and meticulously planned results are a big screen experience which is both compellingly real and convincingly cinematic.

With every single frame of the film crafted around the performance of writer, director and leading man Woody Harrelson it’s impossible to underestimate just how much weight placed upon his undoubted acting talents. In truth few actors would be capable of sustaining a single take feature length story which has so many complex moving parts and genuine mix of comedy and subtle tragedy. Harrelson is one of the rarely gifted performances with the range, nuance and natural screen charisma to hold something like this together.

The film adds another layer of meta intrigue by casting Woody in a semi-autobiographical tale that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. It’s certainly interesting for audiences to ponder just how much of the implausible misadventure is rooted in embarrassing fact. The mere fact that any of it happened is in itself an entertaining proposition.

Although Harrelson undeniably deserves extensive praise the strength of a varied and strong supporting cast shouldn’t be underestimated. The motley inhabitants of London’s nightly streets, clubs, cabs and police stations provide the film with plenty of laughs and some unexpectedly poignant moments too. Though cameos form Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson may be crowd pleasing delights it is the unsung heroes of the less recognisable co-stars that made this unique piece of film a successful reality rather than just a fanciful concept.

The Bad

Obviously the unique nature of filming imposes occasional limitations on the availability of camera angles and the pace of storytelling. Though thankfully it’s surprising just how barely noticeable this is. The film is also entirely built around Harrelson’s central performance. While undeniably impressive and charismatic obviously anyone who isn’t a fan of Harrelson’s may find the films entire duration a long time to spend exclusively in his presence. Similarly some audiences may marvel at the film’s technical achievements but for one reason or another find the slightly self-aggrandising tale of personal misadventure and largely self-inflicted calamity less appealing.

The Ugly Truth

Lost In London is not only a unique cinematic experiment but also an entertaining and emotionally subtle story the only serves to further cement Woody Harrelson’s status as an actor, storyteller and cult hero.

Review by Russell Nelson