Film reviews round-up: Alien: Covenant, Frantz, Jawbone, The Levelling

The sixth instalment in the 'Alien' series, a heartfelt love story by French director François Ozon, Ray Winstone in yet another boxing movie, and Ellie Kendrick as a long suffering daughter on a farm 

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Alien: Covenant (15)

★★★☆☆

Ridley Scott, 122 mins, starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Guy Pearce, Billy Crudup

It’s almost 40 years now since that phallus-like succubus burst out of John Hurt’s stomach in Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979). There are plentiful scenes of equally repulsive creatures clinging to or exploding out of the bodies of the galactic explorers in Alien: Covenant, the sixth instalment in the Alien series. They’re inspired by the work of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger but, as conceived here by Scott and his team, they often bear more than a passing resemblance to the figures in Francis Bacon’s Three Studies For Figures At The Base Of A Crucifixion

The new feature certainly delivers what you’d expect from an Aliens film- spectacle, body horror, strong Ripley-like female protagonists and some astonishing special effects – but there’s also a dispiriting sense that the film isn’t at all sure of its own identity. The very portentous screenplay, co-written by John Logan (Coriolanus, Skyfall), throws in references to Shelley and Byron, Wagner and Michelangelo, and lots of philosophising about human origins and identity. In the meantime, the crew members pitted against the monstrous creatures are trying their darndest to blast them to kingdom come, just as they would in any run of the mill sci-fi B movie.

After so many films set in deep space or on distant planets, the sense of wonder that audiences used to feel when first watching, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is beginning to dissipate. Here, the spaceship Covenant is designed with painstaking care and craft. Nonetheless, all those holograms, corridors and computer terminals are familiar from countless other galactic adventures that we’ve seen before. The starting point here isn’t so different from that of the recent Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt sci-fi film, Passengers. Again, those aboard the ship wake far earlier than they should. The Covenant is en route to a distant planet with over 2000 “colonists” aboard. There has been a “neutrino burst” which has called terrible damage to the ship and which has forced the Jeeves-like robot Walter to wake up the crew early. The ship has barely survived this calamity than the stand-in captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) gives the order for the crew to visit an uncharted planet which looks as if it can sustain human life.

The scenes on this planet are very different from those in space. The new terrain is green and fertile. There seems to be wheat growing. As the crew members make their reconnaissance, they’re like conquistadors or pioneers ready to take over a civilisation. There are no obvious threats to them.

Alien: Covenant is a sweeping epic but it opens with a huge close-up of an eye and some of the most disturbing scenes are those focused on intimate body parts. Among the most chilling are of tiny, malignant spores entering the humans either through their nasal or ear ducts.

Gradually, links are made to the Prometheus, the ship that went missing in the 2012 Alien film. We again encounter David, the robot from that film. He is nearly the spitting image of Walter. (Both ‘droids are played by Michael Fassbender.) David, though, has grown both more camp and more sinister than when we encountered him first time round. He is a music-loving, pipe-playing robot with a mind of his own. In spite of his affection for Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, he has very mixed feelings about humans in general and frets that they may be a dying species. The film starts with an eerie conversation between David and his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce.) What vexes David is the paradox that Peter, who has given him life, will die while he himself can potentially live forever. David is an earlier model than Walter. He has quirks that Walter lacks but his survival instincts are stronger.

A lot of blood is spilled in the course of the movie. We see creatures attaching themselves like limpets to crew members’ faces or, in one especially creepy scene, slithering around a couple making love in a shower, ready to devour them. The Ripley-like heroine this time round is Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, a recently bereaved wife who is as adept in the lab as she is at using the heavy artillery to try to blast the aliens into space.

Alien: Covenant is stylishly made and combines mind-bending ideas with plenty of action. As no-one ever ties of pointing out, Ridley Scott began his career in commercials and has an extraordinary visual sense. He is working here with a strong ensemble cast and he pays exhaustive attention to character – to the relationships between husbands and wives or between lovers and friends even at the most fraught moments.

The result is a perfectly acceptable sequel that should satisfy the die-hard fans of the series while also entertaining newcomers. What it isn’t, though, is remotely original. There’s nothing here that comes close to surprising or shocking us in the way that the original movie did when John Hurt first started having those stomach pains.

Frantz (12A)

★★★★☆

François Ozon, 114 mins, starring: Pierre Niney, Paula Beer, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow, Anton von Lucke

Early in his career, François Ozon was one of the flashiest, most irreverent young directors in French cinema, continually changing style and often seeking to outrage or provoke audiences. His latest feature Frantz is one of his very best – but also one of the least characteristic. It’s a subtle, beautifully observed and very restrained melodrama, loosely inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 feature, Broken Lullaby. Reflecting its elegiac mood, the film is largely shot in black and white but bursts occasionally into colour as its characters try steal at least a few moments of happiness.

The setting is a small German town just after the First World War. The locals are in a state of bewilderment and near despair both over Germany’s defeat and the fact that almost every family has lost a loved one in battle. Anna (Paula Beer) is living with the parents of her fiancé, the eponymous Frantz who was killed in the trenches. A stranger arrives in town and begins to keep vigil by Frantz's grave. This turns out to be the very highly strung Adrien (Pierre Niney), a French man who claims to have been Frantz’s close friend. The townsfolk are deeply suspicious of this enemy in their midst. The old men in the bar still curse the French and toast their own army in wildly chauvinistic fashion, blinding themselves to the extent of their defeat. 

Adrien is a fragile, sensitive type, deeply traumatised by what he witnessed in the war. He's a musician who claims to have known Frantz well. 

Ozon's trick here is to take a melodramatic storyline and to treat it very soberly. Anna is played by Beer in restrained fashion, as someone who is terrified of giving in to her own emotions and so does everything she can to keep them in check. Inevitably, she is as attracted to the Frenchman as he is to her. Neither, though, can escape the bad faith and deception in their relationship. The tensions between them are mirrored by those between the French and German people. In the latter part of the film, when Anna ventures to France, she encounters exactly the same hostility that Adrien endured while in Germany. 

Ozon shows how his numbed and grief-stricken protagonists are able, just occasionally, to forget their suffering. A swim in the sun or some time spent looking at a favourite Manet painting in the Louvre provide moments of respite and colour. There are multiple levels of irony here. The Manet that Anna and Adrien so admire – and that seems to give them the resolve to keep on living – is Le Suicidé, an image of a young man crumpled dead on his bed with a revolver in his hand.

After the shock tactics of early Ozon movies like Sitcom and the prurient voyeurism of his more recent features like Young & Beautiful, Frantz shows him in a reflective groove. It’s one of his most heartfelt films, beautifully made and very moving in its own quiet, self-effacing way.

Jawbone (15)

★★★★☆

Thomas Napper, 91 mins, starring: Johnny Harris, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Michael Smiley, Dean Williams, Atul Sharma

The storyline here is strictly generic. This is yet another boxing movie about a fighter fallen on hard times and looking for redemption. Its scriptwriter Johnny Harris plays the fighter in question, former junior champ turned middle-aged alcoholic, Jimmy McCabe. What makes the film special in spite of its formulaic elements is its pathos (admittedly ladled on very thick), the very robust character turns from the likes of Ray Winstone and Michael Smiley as gnarled but good as gold old boxing coaches, and the inventive and impressionistic cinematography. Director Napper switches tactics throughout the film, moving between scenes shot in familiar social realist fashion and certain sequences which are far more lyrical in tone. We’ve been this way countless times before, in films from John Huston’s Fat City to Shane Meadows’ Twenty Four Seven but the filmmakers bring enough craft and conviction to their material to get away with their multiple acts of larceny from other fight movies.

Harris himself looks convincingly battered and washed up as McCabe. His mother has recently died. The council is about to evict him from the flat in which he has lived for years, and he is drinking himself toward oblivion. Winstone, mop in hand, is the gym owner who runs the Union Street Boxing Club, where he has trained up generations of kids who, otherwise, might have hit the reefs. Against his better instincts, he allows Jimmy to come back and train. 

All the familiar elements are thrown into the mix. Alongside sparring sessions are grim scenes at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. One character is suffering from a terminal illness - but shows extreme stoicism in the face of death. Ian McShane is the dapper and Mephistophelian promoter who’ll offer Jimmy a pay day – but only if he is prepared to head up north and fight unlicensed against a vicious younger boxer. Jimmy is being served up as cannon fodder but, of course, he doesn’t have any choice in the matter.

The fight itself is shot in very brutal fashion with lots of slow motion close-ups of Jimmy soaking up punishment, grimacing in agony but never throwing in the towel. We can spot from the outset just which way the film is headed but just because we can see punches coming, that doesn’t mean they stop from landing.

The Levelling

★★★☆☆

Hope Dickson Leach, 82 mins, starring: Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton, Jack Holden, Joe Blakemore

You can feel the mud squelching under your feet as you watch Hope Dickson Leach’s impressive, if dour and dark, debut feature. The film unfolds on a farm in deepest Somerset. A young man, Harry, has died in mysterious circumstances. It’s almost certainly a suicide but his father, Aubrey (David Troughton), who owns the farm, can’t bring himself to accept this. His estranged daughter Clover (Ellie Kendrick), a highly educated woman in her 20s who is studying to become a vet, returns home for the funeral. The house is flooded. (Aubrey is reduced to living in a trailer.) The blood from the “accident” hasn’t been cleaned. The farm is close to bankrupt and Aubrey is preparing to sell off livestock to keep the bailiffs away.

The real focus of the film is the attritional relationship between father and daughter. Years before, Aubrey sent Clover away and made it clear to her that he didn’t want her on the farm. She, though, is ideally qualified to run it. For all their hostility, it is apparent that there is a strong bond between them. “One in a million,” Aubrey says of the daughter he pretends to despise.

The Levelling is nothing if not authentic in its depiction of the unrelenting grind of daily life on a working farm. Whether it’s milking cattle, tending calves (and having them killed if it doesn’t make economic sense to keep them), digging trenches, disposing of dead badgers or simply trying to work out the accounts, everything is a struggle. There’s the bereavement to deal with too and the arrangements to be made for the funeral. It doesn’t help either that in this corner of the West Country, the sun never seems to shine.

Kendrick is impressive as the long suffering daughter who turns out to have far more steeliness and common sense than her overbearing father. Troughton’s bluff and pompous behaviour can’t disguise his obvious sense of hurt and yearning. Inevitably, as they’re forced to spend time together, the father and daughter have to acknowledge feelings that they would rather keep deeply buried. 

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