Review – Alien: Covenant

Not an outright disaster for a franchise that has been much maligned since Alien 3, but still frustrating. Here’s the Sunday Indo review…

***

Alien: Covenant
Cert: 16

THE mechanical shark in Jaws was so shoddy that Spielberg left it out wherever he could. Less very much proved to be more, with the unseen, implied threat freezing viewers’ blood that summer in 1975. Alien, Ridley Scott’s space-slasher classic, did a similar trick three years later by minimising the screentime of the man in the monster suit.

These days, it’s cheaper to just CGI in the horror rather than pay costume designers and make-up artists, so the imagination takes a back seat. This return to the spirit of Scott’s original thus can’t compare to the abject terror that audiences – and uninformed fellow cast members – felt in 1979 when the late John Hurt suffered one of science-fiction’s nastiest stomach cramps.

With Alien: Covenant, Scott looks to make amends for the bloated, muddled anti-climax that was Prometheus and get these much-discussed prequels back on track. In this, he largely succeeds. Elsewhere – character development, suspense, the element of surprise – less so.

The old “a ship, a crew, a signal” recipe is used for the umpteenth time. En route to start a colony on a distant planet, Billy Crudup’s proxy captain diverts to investigate a signal from a much closer and seemingly ideal planet. His deputy (Katherine Waterston) thinks it’s too good to be true, and, lo and behold, she’s right. Obligatory ship’s android Walter (a show-stealing Michael Fassbender) and the others ignore her and naturally pay for it.

A strong first half that reaches an appropriate level of crawling menace and presents a couple of impressive scenarios eventually succumbs to what is ultimately a safe and by-numbers bow at the Alien alter that takes the more-is-more attitude to the monster.

Oh well. Still, beats Prometheus.

3/5

First published in the Sunday Independent

Hil List 2016: Books

Lots of reading done this year. Yes, lots of time on my ass, but also lots of time doing something I love and getting paid for it so there. Here’s a small handful of highlights. Blurbs/links where possible.

 

Non-fiction

The Lonely City – Olivia Laing (Canongate)
“Art can’t bring people back from the dead, she concludes in the final chapter, nor can it mend arguments between friends or cure Aids. It does, however, “have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly”. One could argue that brilliantly rendered non-fiction can perform a similar feat.”
Full Irish Independent review

I’m Not With The Band – Sylvia Patterson (Sphere)
“One would devour this bulky tome in a couple of days were there not so many intermissions needed to put the thing down and emit a bellylaugh for a few minutes before reading on. Patterson’s patter, assembled from those absurdist days tracing Bros and Kylie in Smash Hits, is as full of rhythm, melody and crescendo as the very acts she was charged with covering. And every bit as entertaining too.”
Full Irish Independent review

Play All – Clive James (Yale University Press)
“If this is to be James’ swansong – and pray it is not – the only spoiler alert worth mentioning here is that Play All will be a reminder of what the world will be deprived of once the sword of respite falls from Ibrutinib’s tofu-like hand. This snug body of writings will enrich your appreciation of TV drama’s big hitters, and help elevate discussion on them to a level beyond the pub chat.”
Full Irish Independent review

The Battle – Paul O’Connell with Alan English (Penguin Ireland)
“The earthy but fiercely proud and determined Munster disposition is rife. He’s opened his soul to English, the obvious trust between the two perhaps an unexpected symptom of the added years the project kept taking on. What has come out the other side is a psychological profile that is almost shocking at times in what it reveals about the bloody single-mindedness of the competitive gene.”
Full Irish Independent review

 

Fiction

Minds of Winter – Ed O’Loughlin (Riverrun)
“O’Loughlin doesn’t so much pan back as leap about, threading together an extraordinary tale that warps actual history into something conjoined, poetic and thrilling. At the epicentre of these interlocking narratives, these living and breathing jigsaw parts, is a McGuffin that sings with intrigue and a historical riddle that has never been solved.” Full Sunday Indo review

The Pier Falls – Marc Haddon (Jonathan Cape)
“This first foray into the medium by the 53-year-old is a nine-strong assembly of compassionate, engrossing, often hard-edged tales of isolation and hunger (for love, safety, food itself). A housebound obese man and a local tearaway forge a touching friendship without a hint of mawkishness. On a tiny island, ancient Greek mythology and the stark cruelty of nature combine as a woman is abandoned and left to fend for herself. Scenes are constantly scorched into your mind with Haddon’s dexterous linguistic branding iron.” Full Sunday Independent review

The Lonely Sea and Sky – Dermot Bolger (New Island)
“Whatever about the timely ways this extraordinary novel will speak to a nation currently undergoing a mature reassessment of its epoch-defining insurgency, this story of selflessness, duty and a young lad’s emergence into manhood via his actions is a universal hymn that will chime with anybody who understands that while good and evil are nebulous concepts, right and wrong are not. That it does this without sermonising is testament to the lofty skills of this national treasure.” Full Irish Independent review

 

Crime

Lying In Wait – Liz Nugent (Penguin Ireland)
“It is remarkable for a thriller to toggle between freezing the blood and sweating the brow without the use of blades, bullets or bloodletting.”
Full Irish Independent review

Trouble is our Business: New Short Stories by Irish rime Writers – Edited by Declan Burke (New Island)
“Crime fiction lends itself especially well to the format, you feel, due to the breadth of styles and tones that it can employ. The 20 authors here were given free rein with the brief, and the variety of styles, backdrops and registers that duly winged its way back to Burke is this superb collection’s strongest card.”
Full Sunday Independent review

Woman Of The Dead – Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld and Nicholson)
“Woman of the Dead beats with an immediacy and tangibility that is frankly rare” Full Sunday Independent review

 

 

 

 

Hil List 2016: Music

Despite the small matter of Mother Nature trying to kill every last musical icon, it was a fine year for tuneage. Here’s what rocked my proverbial boat. Blurbs/links attached where possible.

 

Gigs of the year

At The Drive-in / Vicar St, March 26
“Chaos and petulance have made way for generosity and focus. With this first night of their huge 13-week tour triumphing, the quintet genuflect back to the troops with sincerity. Both parties walk away feeling tonight had no right to be this good.”
Full State.ie review

The Gloaming / National Concert Hall, February 2
Soon in danger of having a wing named after them, The Gloaming swept into Earlsfort Terrace and reminded all in attendance why this is one of the most exciting musical concoctions this island has ever witnessed. Martin Hayes’ quintet have fashioned a musical colour palette all their own.

White Denim & Wyvern Lingo / Whelans, Aug 16
“I’m standing in a glacial queue to enter Whelan’s on the last night of summer. From inside, the burnt-sugar groove of ‘Sweet Life Ruiner’ wafts out between the gaps in the shuffling ticketholders. Wyvern Lingo are opening proceedings tonight, which given everyone’s giddiness about the headliners’ return to these shores is a bit like being told you’re flight to the Maldives is getting a free last-minute upgrade.”
Full State.ie review.

Whole Lotta Zepp / Sugar Club, Oct 8
It’s becoming an annual chore thinking up superlatives for this hallowed night every October. Like the best things in life, the recipe is simple – three drummers, the country’s finest rock musicians and a classic Led Zeppelin LP to worship communally. Simon Freedman’s Sugar Club militia are redefining the phrase ‘tribute act’.

Cathy Davey / Whelans, Oct 22
A welcome return for Lady Davey, who took a night off from being an animal-welfare heroine to show that all that hay and manure have not dulled her artistry or stage chops one iota. Like flicking on a lightswitch, she and her brilliant backing band put more hard-touring acts to shame.

Wyvern Lingo / Button Factory, Dec 3
“So yes, eff you, Dingle. You may have offered botanical gin, propeller-scarred dolphins and Girl Band for sustenance this night but we’ve been served the most nourishing thing to come out of Bray since the Kilruddery Farm Market.”
Full State.ie review

 

Best Albums
1. Blackstar – Bowie / 2. Human Performance – Parquet Courts / 3. Mangy Love – Cass McCombs 4. Peel Sessions – The White Stripes / 5. The Gloaming 2 – The Gloaming

 

Best Irish Albums
1. The Gloaming 2 – The Gloaming (my State.ie interview) / 2. Is – Bleeding Heart Pigeons / 3. IIVV – All Tvvins (my State.ie interview) / 4. At Swim – Lisa Hannigan / 5. New Forest – Cathy Davey

 

Best Songs (this changes every day so… yeah, right now, like)

1. Drive It Like You Stole It – Sing Street

2. Dollar Days – Bowie

3. No Tomorrow – Suede

4. Europe is Lost – Kate Tempest (my Sunday Independent interview)

5. Too Young To Live – All Tvvins

6. Berlin Got Blurry – Parquet Courts

7. Sweet Life Ruiner – Wyvern Lingo

8. Mrs Dwyer – The Gloaming

9. To The Rescue – Divine Comedy (my Sunday Independent interview)

10. Scared Money – NxWorries (my indirect nod to the passing of Prince)

 

Hil List 2016: Film pt2

After yesterday’s overall Top 10, here’s the rest of the accolades and honourable mentions

Best Director

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1. Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant) / 2. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) / 3. Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader)

Best Irish Film

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1. Sing Street / 2. Room / 3. Atlantic

Best Comedy

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1. Hunt for the Wilderpeople / 2. Sing Street / 3. The Young offenders

Best Horror

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1. The Witch / 2. Bone Tomahawk / 3. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Best animation/childrens

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1. When Marnie Was There / 2. Pete’s Dragon / 3. Zootropolis

Best Documentary

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin at the press conference announcing his intention to stay in New York’s mayoral race despite new revelations about his explicit text messages to women sent after a similar scandal in 2011 that had forced him to resign from Congress, New York City, July 23, 2013

1. Weiner / 2. Atlantic / 3. Bobby Sands: 66 days

Best Actor

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1. Adam Driver (Paterson) / 2. Tom Hanks (Sully) / Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)

Best Actress

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1. Amy Adams (Arrival) / 2. Adriana Ugarte (Julieta) / 3. Brie Larson (Room)

Best Screenplay

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1. Eric Heisserer (Arrival) / 2. Emma Donoghue (Room) / 3. Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High water)

Best Cinematography

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1. Jarin Blaschke (The Witch) / 2. Bradford Young (Arrival) / 3. Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul)

Best Breakthrough

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1. Brady Corbett (Childhood of a Leader) / 2. Robert Eggers (The Witch) / 3. Grímur Hákonarson (Rams)

Hil List 2016: Film

The top 10 films of the calendar year (according to yours truly), with blurbs from my Sunday Independent reviews.

  1. Spotlight66914


    “An irrefutable argument for longform journalism is made. Process, procedure and exposition define the narrative, but this Oscar hopeful is full of the quiet detail and thematic nuance that grant it “classic” status. There is no arch villain cackling in the shadows. No gory flashbacks and no all-American grandstanding. The cast is an impressive ensemble but
    Spotlight’s genius is in its calmly urgent take on historical events. In doing so, it makes them all the more sobering and gravid. Compulsory viewing.”

  2. Hell or High Water

    hell_or_high_water_ver3

    “Always an actor of huge vitality, Ben Foster gives a career best while Chris Pine shows he’s far more than just a pretty face. The landscape belongs to Jeff Bridges, however. The veteran brings much sensitivity and nuance to such a trope character, and is mesmeric when quietly observed by David Mackenzie’s masterful lens.”

  3. Arrival

    screen_20shot_202016-08-16_20at_204-07-15_20pm-0

    “Stealthy signals, unforgettable moments and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score coalesce magnificently as an iconic classic of sci-fi cinema, something to cherish for life, is created before your eyes.”

  4. Sing Street

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    “A glorious and irresistible teenage dreamscape opens up before our eyes. It’d be nothing if John Carney didn’t slow the rhythm and let the pulse of young love, and indeed brotherly love, shine through. Between this and the soundtrack – penned by Carney and Gary Clark – expect to be charmed to tears between the bellylaughs. A classic, and yet another durable blossom in Irish cinema’s current purple patch.”

  5. The Childhood of a Leader

    childhood_of_a_leader_ver2
    “US actor Brady Corbet’s first outing behind the lens is an oddly chilling study of the conditions that can create a fascistic ego. Beneath peering camera direction, chiaroscuro cinematography and Scott Walker’s seismic score are ominous discussions on control and rebellion that are handled with a Haneke-like poise belying the 27-year-old’s lack of film-making experience. He secures superb performances from his cast (including Robert Pattinson), most impressively that of his smouldering young lead.”

  6. Paterson

    adam-driver-paterson
    “Lean back and let this graceful protracted tremor of a film slow you down to its speed. Paterson will be looked back on as something of a career high for Jim Jarmusch, and also as a signpost that in 2016 screen acting had uncovered something unique and supremely adaptable in Adam Driver.”

  7. Anomalisa

    anomalisa_ver4
    “There’s much to take from Anomalisa that belies its soft-eyed dolls and dry wit, not least its meticulous mix of the whacky with hard, uncompromising realism. Even David Thewlis’s bleating feels like “textbook Kaufman”, which is saying something. It’s great to have him back.”

  8. Room

    room_nws2
    Room feels like the culmination of Irish cinema, a sublime interplay of story, talent, vision, sound and feeling that pushes rare buttons. As for Lenny Abrahamson? Well, for many years I swore he was among Europe’s finest film makers. Make that the world’s.”

  9. El Club

    the-club-poster
    “Pablo Larrain’s roving direction and cool framing, Carlos Cabezas’s strings and a roundly excellent cast combine to stunning effect in this magnetic and highly original critique of the Church. Rarely does a drama balance a range of colours – intrigue, repulsion, beauty, dread, humour – with such brazen confidence.”

  10. The Revenant

    the_revenant_trailer_alexa_65_footage

    “Some men have all the luck. Others, like Leonardo DiCaprio, are preyed upon by man, beast, element and Alejandro González Iñárritu. In The Revenant, the Birdman director put DiCaprio, his co-stars and the crew through such endurance feats that there was talk of breakdowns and walk-outs on set. Iñárritu’s steel has paid off, however, because this mud ‘n’ blood survival-revenge epic is a genuine masterpiece of 2016 and deserves any further awards coming its way after its Golden Globes rout.”

Every Venue a Cathedral

Those lucky sods going to see Low tonight in Christ Church Cathedral are in for a hell of a treat. With about ten viewings under my belt, they are one of my favourite live acts of all time. Here’s a review I did way back in 2012 of their set in the Button Factory to get you in the mood. Merry Christmas, everybody. 

***

Low
Button Factory, Dublin / July 10, 2012

IT NEVER sounded quite right; “Explosions In The Sky. With special guests Low.” The touring agreement may have suited both bands financially but the suspicion was that it would have curtailed a supporting act that had a good name when it came to showstoppers. With a family illness forcing Explosions In The Sky to drop out, the Minnesota three-piece stayed the course to visit long-time friends in Dublin. While our sympathies are with the original headliners, by the end of this exquisite performance the point has been proven – Low are just too commanding an outfit to play second fiddle. The Gig Gods had conspired wisely.

“Are they awestruck or just polite”, you ask of the quiet heads filling every inch of the venue. “Ssshhh,” someone quips allowed and everyone laughs. Awestruck it is, then, and why wouldn’t they be? Now reigning over a hallowed country that sits on the map somewhere between the prairie harmonies of Fleet Foxes or Bonnie Prince Billy and noise royalty like Dinosaur Jnr and Sonic Youth, Low turn every venue into a cathedral.

‘Pissing’ crashes glacially into view, a tense, deep-water stalk that erupts into a sky-shredding, glistening guitar voyage from the visionary Alan Sparhawk. ‘Nothing But Heart’ soars on similar thermals, his voice interlocking ever-seamlessly with percussionist wife Mimi Parker and floating off into the beyond. Other newer fare like ‘Especially Me’ and ‘Witches’ warp their choral beauty with lyrics about Al Green, baseball bats and moot elixirs. Even an old B-side such as ‘From Your Place On Sunset’ seems imperious on this night, like the most important thing you’ve heard all day.

The spirits are forcing Sparhawk’s brow to furrow and his body to writhe and spasm. Parker and bassist/keyboardist Steve Garrington lilt and sway along with the audience. No one takes their eyes off Sparhawk. When the time comes for an encore, a multitude of song requests are flung stagewards. ‘When I Go Deaf’ shimmers into life, the congregation quickens for the umpteenth time and the Gig Gods smile down at all they have created.

@HAWhiteK

A storm coming

I had an idea in my head of Kate Tempest as an intense lyrical warrior who wouldn’t suffer fools lightly. What a relief to find that the poet/ rapper/ laureate was, in fact, quite lovely when I sat down to interview her a while back for the Sunday Indo. She plays Whelan’s tonight and those with tickets are in for a major experience.

***

WHAT did you call it?” Kate Tempest squints, leaning into the phrase.

“Sean-nós,” I reiterate. We had been talking about the idea of “sung language” when I mentioned the Irish a cappella tradition whereby stories are made song. She loves the concept. “I feel very close to that idea. My experience of telling stories or poems is that communication is a musical thing. I need to hear that.”

This relish from the 30-year-old poet, rapper, novelist and playwright is typical. It is this hunger along with a ceaseless work rate and sheer white-hot talent that saw the Londoner push past the somewhat snooty, academia-led literati to become a new laureate for a new age.

By 27, she’d won the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry for Brand New Ancients, an epic about inner-city life that drew its energies from antiquity. Fellowships and curatorships sit next to a Mercury Prize nomination for her 2014 debut album Everybody Down. As a teen, she was as comfortable in the company of Sophocles as she was Q-Tip and Lauryn Hill. She is at home at both Glastonbury and the Old Vic. Does she lean more to one side?

“It’s not for me to classify myself,” she says, stirring her coffee. “At first I found the term ‘poet’ a very big term I didn’t deserve. Then someone told me it’s a praise word. It’s offered to you. You can be described as a poet by another, but if you describe yourself as one you’re probably not.”

I know a few people who fit that description. “Yeah right,” she laughs. “That rings in my ears every time I say, ‘Hey, I’m a poet!’. It’s more a characteristic, a personality rather than a profession. It’s the way you experience the world. Something will happen and I’ll be like, ‘God, you’re being such a poet, f**king hell!’”

You only have to listen to her speak to know Tempest burns with a conviction all too rare in “showbiz”. Like any artist that matters, she sees the world through a viewfinder all her own. It can lead to moments of localised elation, such as in anecdotes about a friendly itinerant who talked literature with her in a park in Portland, or how at a poetry slam in a Rio favela she saw four generations of a family in the audience.

But for each nice memory there is a thorn in the side. The Brazil story is finished with: “It’s not elitist in a way that in Britain especially is so f**king elitist.” On the encounter in the park, she sighs: “You’re doing a ‘literary tour’ in libraries to ‘literary types’ but the most profound and interesting conversation I had about a book was with this homeless guy.”

Tempest is warm, thoughtful company, but pluck any verse from her catalogue and a leonine heart snarls back at you, one sickened by injustice, greed, waste and violence. In “Europe Is Lost” on brilliant new LP Let Them Eat Chaos, she rails hard. “Massacres massacres massacres/new shoes, Ghettoised children murdered in broad daylight by those employed to protect them, Live porn streamed to your pre-teens’ bedrooms, Glass ceiling, no headroom, Half a generation live beneath the breadline.” Does disillusionment come to us earlier in life these days?

She nods. “Youth is still as difficult and enjoyable as ever but the stakes are much higher. The prospect of catastrophe looms pretty large for this generation in a way it did a couple of generations previously with the prospects of nuclear war. I take comfort in positioning myself on a line that goes back to the beginning of time but it does feel like – and this is my rational mind talking – my emotional core is rattled by the present times. It’d be impossible to be born into these times and not be aware of how potentially disastrous they are in a way that many years ago you couldn’t. It’s in our timeline but it’s also actually happening.”

Let Them Eat Chaos was cut in a studio with super-producer Dan Carey before Brexit trampled into the picture but it is of course on her radar. “It speaks of a worrying trend that in times that feel chaotic and close to crisis you blame others and create divisions rather than heading towards a realisation – which is what the album’s all about – that we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that blame is not useful. And the idea we’re heading towards a surge in nationalism in Britain I find worrying because it doesn’t make any sense with how I understand human experience.”

A pause. One of many today. “That was a really laboured way of saying something simple!” she says, letting through a flicker of goofiness that you doubt Tempest gives enough airtime to. A very becoming sunny smile also breaks out on her face when I ask her about her professed love of the Big Three of Beckett (“He completely cloaks you in his humour and way of seeing things so that you can’t leave the house”), Joyce (“A huge influence. He probably directly led to Brand New Ancients, those ideas about the mythology of the everyday, the immediacy and the eternity of very tiny moments”) and Yeats, for whom all she can do is mime a miniature mushroom cloud exploding in front of her.

There were other inspirations, however, long before the highly literate primary-school girl or the rebellious wordsmith who gravitated towards the hip-hop and dub-reggae communities. Born Kate Calvert, she grew up the youngest of five in a south-east London hotspot of teen pregnancy and violence called Lewisham. Both her father (a lawyer and a glass-blower) and grandfather read Greek and Roman classics to her as a child. There was a teacher – there always is – who pushed her. More recently, there was also a wife who “challenged” all she knew (that relationship, she tells me, is no more). It was her aunt, however, who became a very special kind of role model.

“You’ve done your research…” she smiles. “Yeah, she’s amazing. Women visual artists face a very particular struggle. She would say to me that they only give you your own exhibition at a big gallery as a woman if you’re dead or too old to cause any trouble. If there’s any hint of anything slightly radical, they’ll wait until you’re dead. I think her experiences are not consciously directly related to mine but you look around and you learn about the possibility of living for art. The drive is very familiar; the compulsion, the frequency at which we operate, is so raw and open that until you make some sense of the world, it’s too much.”

Kate Tempest plays Whelans, Dublin tonight. Let Them Eat Chaos is out now on Fiction Records.

First published in the Sunday Independent