Alien: Covenant Review

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I hate Prometheus and I don’t say that lightly. Part of this resentment towards Ridley Scott’s 2012 sci-fi opus is that it was sold as an Alien prequel. I fed into that promise and gleefully went to a midnight showing (actually 1:30 am because all screenings earlier were sold out) at Arclight even though I had to be up at 6 am for work. Needless to say, I was more than disappointed when I was delivered this black goo, giant space engineers bullshit and one lousy pseudo xenomorph in the finale as a consolation prize after enduring two hours of unanswered questions. I left the theater tired and pissed. Even if the effects were astounding and Charlize Theron was a bad ass, that couldn’t excuse that this was a movie of all setup, no payoff, and horrid Guy Pierce old man make up. Would I see the sequel to this lie? Of course! With the outrage that befell Prometheus on its release meant that the successor would have to ACTUALLY be the Alien prequel we demanded. Dropping the P name, Alien: Covenant aims to regain the fanbase being more action packed and aligned with the structural style of the original series.

The spaceship Covenant is on track to a newly found habitable planet to start a colony with the 2,000 hyper-sleeping passengers on board. After an unforeseen accident that forces the crew awake and burning up the captain in his hibernation pod, the reeling crew takes an abrupt side mission to an unknown planet they receive a cryptic signal from. This opening act in space is a lot of Scott flexing his muscles showing us the breathtaking recreation of space as if he didn’t get enough of that in The Martian. It’s also an opportunity to learn about the team, only half being of interest, that includes freshly appointed leader Oram (Billy Crudup), his second in command and the girlfriend of the burned up corpse Dany (Catherine Waterston), synthetic Walter who is more stilted and robotic than Prometheus’ David (both Michael Fassbender) and Danny McBride in a cowboy hat. We follow the expedition unit onto the lush green landscape that has some hostile beings that we’re quite familiar with. The chaos that catapults the team in motion is by the Prometheus introduced slimy xenomorph-adjacent and leads to more than just brutal attacks and body bursting. Without giving too much away, Covenant bridges the 2012 film or at least the remaining bits of it with the beloved Alien mythos.

What I want to get out there is that I think this is an ok movie, a serviceable Alien prequel and light years better than Prometheus, at the same time this movie can’t exist without it. It makes Prometheus the vegetables you had to eat first before you got to the steak that is Covenant, or more appropriately the quality of a turkey burger. The new film amps up the action and the energy that the previous film lacks because it’s a solemn mood piece. Covenant is delivering quiet horror followed by monumental fight sequences in the style of the original Alien. It’s more of the violence and gore that I wanted but at the same time incorporates the philosophical subject matters spearheading Prometheus. A major overarching theme of the entire series is the idea of playing God especially when it comes to this strange extraterrestrial species. With Alien and Aliens, it was Weyland Industries wanting to harvest the xenomorph for testing and bio-weaponry at the expense of the company casualties then in Alien: Resurrection its cruel genetically modified Sigourney Weaver-xenomorph hybrids. While Covenant’s goal is to deliver the familiarity you have with the series it does get to dig deeper into the God complex that the founder of Weyland Industries passed onto his prized possession, David. Corrupted with power and egomania, David becomes an uneasy figure to survivors which I liked as an alternative threat to the usual double mouthed creature.

Because there’s such a strong focus on this storyline when we actually get to the xenomorph it filled me with elation because it’s the cherry on top of this heavy tenuous enclosed horror of being trapped with an android. While I’m glad they don’t overuse the xenomorph, the turn into the third act doesn’t really know what to do with David. The narrative closure of this film is muddled in its intentions of what is meant to surprise you and I never need to be an hour ahead of a twist. In general, the film is filled with very little surprise because this franchise is so played out. This new millennium diverging series has trapped itself in a corner of being tied with Alien. It seems like Riddley Scott is trying to expand the universe, explore this future of uncharted galaxies and questioning human’s place in the cosmos but if it’s connected to Alien we demand xenomorphs and then it’s the same movie over and over again. You can’t win. Hell, I find AVP is a better side project because it’s a different space to play in, it’s ridiculous and at least the tagline is upfront with the fact that we all lose. With Scott signed on for two additional sequels and considering the cliffhanger the film ends on, theoretically, there is a story there but it sounds pretty similar to Aliens and I’d prefer to have no one touching a remake of that.

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The Vintage Gets Around to Batman Forever

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Recently I received a lot of flack for watching the much beguiled Batman & Robin. It wasn’t just because I was making a bad decision in how I should spend my time, it was that I skipped over an important and questionably superior piece of the Batman mythology, Batman Forever. My friends who berated me for my discretion maintained strong adoration for the third installment in the series, so much so my compadre in superhero cinema, Mari, brought over her well-worn VHS copy and clunky VCR for a nostalgic viewing experience at my home (we had no way of hooking that relic up so we resorted to HBOGO). With a highly informed guide, I embraced this journey and returned to a simpler, less gritty DC universe for the 1995 hit, Batman Forever.

Structurally, Forever and Batman & Robin are nearly identical. One villain is already established and reeking havoc in Gotham. The former is Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face rocking some dope makeup and playing a Joker adjacent lunatic, already a better choice than Schwarzenegger’s uninspired Mr. Freeze. Then we witness the second villain’s origin story, here Jim Carey as fuck boy The Riddler who is dying to be the next Bruce Wayne. He and Uma Thurman both win me over as seductive masterminds (Carey cleans up well) and clearly on board with this wacky pursuit. The beats of fighting their sworn enemy Batman play out exactly the same but Forever just has better execution. Two Face has devil and angel henchmen played by some of my favorite actresses in thankless roles (Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar) which at least is better than blow up doll Bane. Both films have the introduction of a new hero as well, once again Forever winning out with Robin (Chris O’Donnell) who witnesses maybe not gory but still the haunting demise of his acrobat family. I stated before that O’Donnell sells the plucky yet rebellious character in B&R better than Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl who is Cher but if she traded shopping for motorcycles. O’Donnell’s 1995 wardrobe doesn’t age well with his single earring and bad boy 90210 get up but it supplied me with countless laughs.

 
Once all the characters are in place, the movie is the simple formula of villains hatch plot to take over Gotham and Batman must foil them. At least one thing to knock down Forever’s credit if it seems like I’m praising it too much is that this evil genius plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Riddler has this brainwave device that can look into people’s mind and extract their knowledge which, sure is pretty invasive but our villains don’t harness that resource for any kind of gain. It comes in handy once when used on Bruce Wayne to reveals that all he thinks about are bats, hence proof he’s Batman. I at least wanted Riddler to be able to have special powers or something epic caused by his invention. Obviously, these are less than perfect motivations than what we get from the previous films (Penguin running for mayor). I was very disappointed that Two Face was relegated to B villain status as Riddler’s machine made for the central focus. Tommy Lee Jones is a great hammy actor who I was so excited for from the start but then is downgraded to grunts and snarls as Riddler spits out his surprisingly sexual puns. It’s a shame to waste such good Jones. Aside from the villains which has always been DC’s biggest strength, the narrative arc is Batman’s growth as a pair/father figure with Robin but in all honesty, Lego Batman achieves this ten times better and with actual humor. Nothing in the series is quite funny and rather Schumacher’s goal is for it to be enjoyable for kids and then later to sell toys which this doesn’t do as blatantly. I haven’t even mentioned Nicole Kidman who’s forth billed because her character is essentially the poster of To Die For. Her role as Dr. Chase Meridian is as empty as all the other female parts because she goes completely goo-goo over the sight of the caped crusader. She beckons him with the bat signal and welcomes him in a slip. I’m not judging her for being thirsty but at least give her some other drive than sex because yeah, she’ll settle for Bruce. As for the man himself, I’ve avoided discussing the Bat because I’m not too impressed with Val Kilmer though he’s got the look of a playboy billionaire than anyone to come before or after him. He’s slightly more invested than Clooney but not much. It’s hard to blame him when his given such uninteresting material. Kilmer works better when eccentric and Bruce Wayne is a dry steak amongst the more juicy criminals.

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So there’s some concrete evidence this isn’t a landmark piece of cinema but the reason I’m writing this whole review anyway is to retroactively confirm that it is better than B&R. Burton is at least on as a producer for Forever which may be why it’s limited to only one butt shot and that there are no extreme sports included. The quality overall is better. All the sets look professional and I like the inclusion of a real location for city hall. There’s one scene in which Robin explores the seedy part of town that includes the neon graffiti that permeates all of B&R and I applaud that there only that scene to remind me of the paintball arena sets that I despise so much in the sequel. Batman Forever has a little more self-respect than the garbage fire that was to follow. Due to my backward choice in viewing, it gets rated on a curb, working in its favor but that doesn’t make it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t trade it in for any Burton or Nolan work. But better than Batman v Superman? Now that’s a conversation worth having…

Testing the Waters with Cecil B. Demented

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I’m still dipping my toes into the world of iconic anarchist director John Waters’ filmography. I liked the rawness of his early work 1971’s Multiple Maniacs but years ago when I tried to watch the Tracey Ullman sex comedy, A Dirty Shame, I couldn’t even last thirty minutes. Water’s MO for his decade-spanning career has been to push the boundaries of censorship and social norms. His films are known for depicting vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. It’s why his films can be hit or miss for so many audience members, it depends on if you’re willing to embrace that uniqueness as well as enjoy it. I’ve been on the side of respecting his boldness and experimentation but finding the finished product either mildly boorish or boring because of the narrative’s focus on the gross-out rather than a compelling story. His new millennium entertainment satire Cecil B. Demented is somewhat of a departure than what I expected from a John Water’s joint. While crying “rebellion”, Demented has a very clear engaging plot and exceptional production value. The unorthodox characters and casting are what give it Waters signature feel.

The film opens at a local Baltimore movie theater prepping for a red carpet premiere of a new major motion picture starring aging actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). It’s established she’s kind of a bitch, shown by how poorly she treats her assistant played by Ricki Lake, and that all her movies are mainstream trash. During the lavish event, she is kidnapped by a group calling themselves SprocketHoles, a youthful terrorist organization who want to send a message to Hollywood that they must stop making schmaltzy garbage and indie, radical filmmaking is the only true artful cinema. Honey is held hostage in their bohemian dwellings and transported to locations across the city to film guerilla style scenes for director and rebel leader, Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff). Their unethical practices lead to shootouts and all participant are willing to die in the name of cinema, even Honey as she becomes indoctrinated into their cult. It’s very obvious that John Water’s wanted to make his version of the Patty Hearst Story and structuring it as a Hollywood satire is a great way to channel his message through. It does stand as one of the more grabbing aspects because I immediately delved into a K-hole of reading about Patty Hearst details and it’s as bananas as this movie makes it out to be. I should also note Hearst plays a small role as a concerned mother of one of the anarchists and it’s both off-color and fascinating.

I need to take a second and breakdown some of the cast because it’s intriguing. First, Melanie Griffith is both the worst and best choice for the lead. I’ll say it here, we give her a pass for Working Girl but she’s a terrible actress. Her delivery is always flat and unconvincing. I like this in scenes when Honey is acting for the camera because it’s a statement that Hollywood will turn no talent pretty faces into a star but I wish for all the other scenes she could be a real person but Griffith always sounds stilted. It makes sense that Waters would want her because he loves offbeat performances. Patty Hearst can’t sell a line to save her life but it’s weird and that’s what he wants. Yet the supporting cast is astonishingly good due in part to the casting of youthful up and comers like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon (credited Mike). The collective, in general, contain the most fun characters, each representing an aspect of the filmmaking process, Gyllenhaal’s Raven is the makeup artist and Shannon’s Petie is the driver and they all have codenames tattooed on them of famous independent directors, Fassbinder, Almodovar, etc. Each member is a little crazy either by drugs (Adrian Grenier’s glue huffing Lyle), sex (Alicia Witt’s porn star Cherish) or Satan (Raven is a satanist). I will say the two black members of the team Lewis (Larry Gillard Jr) and Chardonnay (Zenzele Uzoma) while during the kidnapping are essential but once out of disguise become troubling stereotypes of what someone in the year 2000 would call “urban”. They are relegated to providing a hip-hop score to the residence and when Lewis speaks (Chardonnay has very few lines other than rapping) he has an unnecessary ebonics dialect. Can’t say it’s much of a surprise that writing black characters isn’t John Waters strong suit.

As much as this is John Waters criticizing the Hollywood system, this feels closer to a studio movie. It’s a large budget than his initial projects so it’s all around better quality than the grainy amateurishness associated with his early work. But that’s the changing of the industry. Movies like Mondo Trasho and Pink Flamingos were edgy in the 60’s and 70’s because they were perverted and unlike anything that a studio would be willing to create but as society progressed his debauchery was less groundbreaking. Cecil laments that mainstream cinema “stole our sex and co-opted our violence” referring to the boundary pushing that underground cinema pioneered. This film isn’t that revolutionary or avant-garde because as Waters sees it, it’s almost impossible to do so anymore. Hollywood embraces weirdness in a way it wouldn’t 40 years earlier. The unforeseen twist of it all is that if this movie came out a year later, it would be seen as very divisive. Cecil B. Demented is wholly a pre-9/11 movie. With the amount of terrorism and mass shootings this film contains, it really struck a cord as a 2017 viewer. Gun violence in a movie theater is less of something to laugh about now and radicalization as much more significant connotations. I hope Waters’ finds solace that retroactively this movie becomes tasteless.

Cecil B. Demented is a decent gateway into the foray of John Waters. It gives you a gist of the of extremes he incorporates like the fact the climax of the film is people literally climaxing in a rooftop orgy. Like all his films it’s about outcasts and perverts and how life is better with eccentricities. There is a lot of accessible parody for a laymen viewer like the sequel hating stance towards “Forrest Gump 2”. The tone is overall silly which makes it highly palatable to watch these brightly colored sets and over the top characters try to make a movie. The wackiness of the crew running into and hiding out in different movie theaters in the city (family friendly, action oriented and porno) makes for Scooby-Doo level hijinx which is easier to convince someone to see than a movie that has a fetish rape (a John Waters standard). Yeah, it’s a little demented, but it’s mostly a lot of fun.

The Vintage Revisits: Batman&Robin

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Wow, how Batman can go off the rails when put in the wrong hands. I recently rewatched the 1989 Tim Burton Batman and was blown away by its bold style, dark humor and everyone’s level of commitment to this heightened universe. I know Nolan gets all the credit for making the gritty, realistic Batman, but I don’t need him to exist in my world. Burton’s vision of a 1930’s cartoonishly drawn Gotham works because the peril feels real and the visuals are corrupting. Jack Nicholson’s disfigured Joker with his plasticy face that is more creepy as a normal skin tone or the two bit crooks Batman encounters in the opening who look like Tommy in Trainspotting post-AIDS are really disturbing. I was so impressed that the first swing at making a Batman movie post Adam West cult classic TV show, managed to still have that childlike appeal of a comic book but have this sinister edge. After the well-earned success of this blockbuster, sequels were bound to follow and the bar was set insanely high. You may ask why I decided to jump all the way to the end of this quadrilogy bypassing Batman Returns which has the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and penguins with bombs strapped on their backs and then Batman Forever a movie I’ve never seen so I can make a comment on how great the villains are and ending up at the notoriously panned nail in the coffin that is Batman & Robin. Is it because it was all that was available at the library? Who’s to say but there is some small connection I have to this forlorn entry. While I didn’t see it upon release when I was the ripe age of 5 (the target demo) I did have the coloring book which made me aware of the characters and broad design of the feature. Twenty years later the images in that book pay off and I saw that world animate in front of my eyes, and boy is it a shit show.

Joel Schumacher is definitely the person I’m gonna blame for all of this. Taking over the reigns from Burton, there is a huge visual and tonal shift that accounts for the downfall of this film. The stories are always the same, Batman comes up against some big baddies, usually two wackos that got their powers from falling into a vat of fill-in-the-blank and their plans for overtaking Gotham must be squashed. Because of the simplicity, it all comes down to the execution. Burton’s color pallet was hues of black and when there would be splashes of color like in the Prince scored Balloon Parade it really pops. That’s why the Joker’s white and green face is so striking because it’s contrasted against a black backdrop of the city. Here, Schumacher takes that cartoon element and runs with it more literally. Every set is painted in heavy neon. The movie never feels dark because there’s so much neon light pouring in at every angle. Just looking at the poster itself, it’s very honed in on the fact that if Mr. Freeze is around, everything is super blue or Poison Ivy, it’s painfully green. He then also tweaks the tone to fit that brightness. Gone is the disturbing grossness you get with a creep like Penguin. Every inch of this movie has to be bubbly, big and kid friendly. All the henchmen do extreme sports which relegate our heroes to having to fight on roller skates, motorcycles and sky diving surf boards. It’s a clear reminder at how lame extreme sports are but that they were studio shorthand for “cool” in the late 90’s. All the sets look like cheap paintball arenas compared to the well crafted, gothic scenery of Burton’s landscape. As someone who loves a hand built, practical set I found myself cringing at locations like the artificial icicle lair and Poison Ivy’s Audrey Two puppet.

It’s pretty obvious that what makes Batman so great are his villains and it has been stated already that it often stands as the best way to judge a Batman movie. I definitely wouldn’t want to have this movie solely be judged by its heroes because they’re pretty abysmal. George Clooney taking over the role filled first by Michael Keaton then Val Kilmer, the salt and pepper haired gentleman seems less than thrilled to be taking on the iconic caped crusader. Clooney sleepwalks as Bruce Wayne made only more clear by the high energy, chipper demeanor Chris O’Donnell brings to the boy wonder. The newest edition to their crew is Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl and she’s never been the greatest actress to begin with but when saddled with dialogue only written in quips, she can not sell the contrived lines like “watch and learn, little boy.” The quips and puns are a staple of the campy Batman era and are in full swing here as that is only way Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy know how to communicate. Mr.Freeze is the central villain with his diamond robbing needs and character motivation of trying to find a cure for his cryogenically frozen wife. Schwarzenegger has the natural build for a super villain but due to the goofiness of the environment, he never feels like a threat, just a rogue agent of the Blue Man Group. Poison Ivy (played by Uma Thurman) becomes the nastiest of the baddies mostly because she’s a woman and her transformation from nerdy scientist Pamela Isley to a vivacious seductress in a coded sexual awakening makes her be fit for ultimate punishment. Antiquated sexual politics strikes again! Uma Thurman is by far is my MVP because she’s having a grand time delivering every line with a slice of ham. Least valuable player goes to Bane who is played by a luchador Stretch Armstrong which is one of the most disappointing characters I’ve ever seen put on screen. Once you’ve had Tom Hardy do it right, you can’t turn back,

From the word go, my reaction to this was “is this a joke?” It literally begins with ass shots of Batman and Robin suiting up. I wish I could say that the juicy homoeroticism continues throughout but it’s just this weird note to kick off the action. This is a children’s movie that starts like a gay porn. It’s so hokey and the campiness isn’t fully embraced by the cast and ontop of that is overshadowed by the obvious angle that this movie exists to sell toys. It’s caught in such a limbo of intent. Lost Boys is a better example of Schumacher’s ability to make a children’s film that can balance the camp and the darkness while appealing to a broader audience. Batman & Robin dissolved the 90’s incarnation of Batman, only reviving its credibility with the animated series then getting a second chance with Batman Begins. I find myself enjoying the muddled mythology and vicissitude of Batman’s on-screen history which all pays off in Lego Batman. Suprise! Didn’t expect this review to be a ploy to praise Lego Batman but that’s the kind of chaos the Joker would unequivocally approve of.

The Vintage Revisits: The People Under The Stairs

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Now no longer a Moviepass member, podcasts predominantly dictate my film watching decisions. The Next Picture Show podcast, run by former Dissolve critics, upon the release of Get Out in March paired it with Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs. While Stepford Wives is the more direct link, they chose the 1991 adventure horror for its racial themes which are very specific to its era. It’s still an odd choice because as much as I love Wes Craven, he is a hit or miss kind of guy. People Under the Stairs falls somewhere in the middle, not the masterpiece of Scream or the trashy mess of My Soul to Take. It’s unique that it’s not particularly scary and more satirical. At the same time being told from a child’s perspective as he tries to escape the maze of a boobytrapped mansion, it becomes a weird violent Home Alone alternative. Within this genre mishmash, there’s a lot to dig into even if it’s not all fully realized.

In the black slums of Los Angeles, a 13-year-old Fool (Brandon Adams), his sister and sickly mother are about to be evicted from their dilapidated apartment complex by their evil white landlords. Family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) enlists Fool’s help to rob those same landlords who are reportedly hoarding mounds of gold in their creepy house in the suburbs. The robbery goes sour fast and Fool finds himself trapped in a house that’s more concerned with breakouts than break-ins as there are cannibals in the basement, a mute in the walls and a porcelain doll of a daughter being tortured in her own bedroom. This is a film filled with so many strange details, it’s difficult to cover in a brief summary. What’s important to know is that the landlords referred to as Man and Woman in the credits are Reagan era allegories and they’re into some fucked up shit. Podcasters Tasha Robinson, Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias found the metaphors quite blatant while for me as the credits rolled I turned to my boyfriend and said: “what were the people under the stairs supposed to stand for?” It’s a very clear generation gaps as Craven’s film is preying on the 80’s conservative, moral standards of the Republican-run government who preach purity but happily disenfranchise minorities. This shines clearest with the performances of Man and Woman played in extremely broad strokes by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie who are dolled up to be incestuous surrogates of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Their greediness and racism which is more overt than the white liberals in Get Out are very real for that time especially when the LA riots would happen only a year later.

Out of all the obstacles that Fool faces in the house, the titular people under the stairs are the least imposing which is what contributes to the flaws of this film. If I were to rank the threats it would go Mommy Dearest Nancy Reagan, simpleton Ronald Reagan in a gimp costume, the Cujo Rottweiler named Prince, abject poverty and lastly the Romero-esque zombies lurking in the basement dungeon. The Reagans are enough of a menace with the Woman’s bitchy white woman stares and the Man IN A FULL GIMP LEATHER DADDY GET UP running around with a shotgun hunting down a child. They are more effect villains due in part to how the film is shot. The initial breaking and entering is a daytime occurrence and a majority of the story takes place in an afternoon. This isn’t a dark and shadowy mise en scene, there’s a lot of light pouring through windows, a reminder that there is a world outside of this prison. Because of that choice, the powder-faced mutants in the basement look cheap and silly because we can see them too clearly. The Reagans look like normal people but behind closed doors are the ones to fear.

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So we’ve got the political commentary, the parts that are intended to be scary but then this is also a poorly planned children’s film. I know not all films with a young protagonist have to be then geared towards children but even with murder and cannibalism, the tone has a playful energetic mentality that would appeal to a 13-year-old audience. It’s that Goonies spirit of treasure and adventure but misplaced here when there are more grounded stakes. Yet at one point when Fool and the mute Lost Boy, Roach (Sean Whalen), are being chased by Prince, Roach releases a trap door that shoots the dog down two floors and through the kitchen that might as well be accompanied by a slide whistle. Craven wants to have his cake and eat it too by making a Little Rascals and a Dawn of the Dead crossover but gets so muddled when you have this little kid saying the word “fuck”.

I know Wes Craven is a director capable of making horror movies with deep seeded messages. I consistently return to Last House on the Left, a brutal rape/revenge narrative but with clearly expressed commentary on 60’s counterculture and the Vietnam War. I respect his interest in branching out and wanting to talk directly about race but being a white man doesn’t make him the best candidate to do so. This kind of winking at the camera tone he would nail down a few years late with Scream. I wouldn’t say The People Under the Stairs is a failure (Ving Rhames in a movie is nothing to scoff at) yet the social awareness lacks a deep comprehension and the metaphors come off as half-baked in a 2017 perspective. Of course, the curiosity I end this review on is, is Vampire in Brooklyn any better?