PROMETHEUS

By R. David

Published June 8, 2012

“Prometheus” is a maddening, frustrating, exhilarating, and challenging film.  Stately, even plodding, but punctuated by big questions, bigger themes and even bigger screams, the movie bites off a whole lot more than it can chew, but damned if doesn’t all taste delicious just the same.

There is no real defense for any of the more obvious criticisms that will no doubt be heaped upon this film by its detractors.  The movie is frankly kind of a mess.  Conversely, it will be tempting for some to overrate it simply because, in a time of such banal, generic and predictable blockbuster entertainment, it has the guts to be something completely different and reach far beyond the the simple and basic themes and questions of the average film.  That those themes ultimately exceed the film’s grasp is unfortunate, but there is no denying that there is pleasure to be had simply in trying to discern the movie’s meanings and implications, even if it doesn’t necessarily have a firm grasp on them.  This is certainly a film that will be served well by a director’s commentary, deleted scenes, analytical documentaries and whatever the hell else we can get our hands on to help piece together exactly what is being said.

And all that aside, it’s still pretty good as just a slam-bang sci-fi film if nothing else.

Ostensibly a prequel to his 1979 masterpiece “Alien”, Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” actually has more in common with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:  A Space Odyssey” than his own sci-fi classic.  Like “2001”, “Prometheus” opens with, I guess (and I may be wrong), the creation of life on Earth.  And like “2001”, it is a mesmerizing sequence:  Visually stunning, captivating, surprising and haunting.  And like “2001”  we are left to ponder its point as the film’s focus immediately advances millions of years to the crew of the Prometheus, a group of corporate-sponsored intergalactic archaeologists and scientists.  Like the characters in “Alien”, all the voyagers awake from ‘pod stasis’, except David (Michael Fassbender) who has no need for sleep because he is an android.  He has spent his time alone watching “Lawrence of Arabia”, dying his hair accordingly, and generally boning up on human nature.  The rest of the crew consists of corporate shark Meredith Vickers (Charleze Theron), in charge if for no other reason than because she’s looking out for the company’s bottom line (and because she could most likely dispatch with any of the other characters in a hand to hand cage match if necessary), Shaw and Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshal-Green), boyfriend/girlfriend scientists who hope to discover an alien race of beings they believe have been communicating with Earthlings (and perhaps other civilizations) throughout time by leaving mysterious pictographs in their wake, pilot Janek (Idris Alba), and a few mercenaries brought along for good measure.  When the crew arrives at their destination planet, they land and discover a pyramid of sorts protruding from the earth (sic) where they find alien humanoids in suspended animation with DNA that is a perfect match for our own.  The question becomes, did this alien race bring life to Earth, and what happened here and where have they gone?  (Oh, and they also discover a few of those nasty face-sucker things from “Alien”, among other things that tie the two films together.)

“Prometheus” has no less than the question, “Where Did We Come From?” as its central thesis.  This raises the stakes considerably on the outcome of the film.  After all, no less then God and Religion and Science and Darwinism hang in the balance.  Whatever the answer, whether you agree with it or not, and whether it convinces you to consider something other than what you believe or not, is all beside the point.  This is something we care about, something most of us think we have a hard and fast opinion on, so, in a word, we’re invested.  What do chest-busting, head-severing alien attacks have to do with it?  Well, that’s just good entertainment.  Or is it something more?  The movie may be implying answers to all of this, but it’s not telling one way or another.  In a sense that is its genius as well as its undoing.

Do I have criticisms of “Prometheus”?  You bet.  I don’t mind being challenged or even confused, but I’d rather it be because the film is so clever or deep that I can’t keep up with it and require repeat viewings to pick up on things I may have missed or to fully grasp all it is saying; not because the film is simply disorganized or has a flawed narrative, presenting ideas but not actually saying anything.  “Prometheus” has ideas to spare, but many will be baffled by the disorganized manner in which they are presented and assume they don’t ultimately mean anything.  I believe Scott is too good of a film maker and too deep of a thinker for that to be the case, but even knowing that, I can’t help but feel he is being deliberately coy about providing answers, not because they are there for those willing to dig, but because  – be it do to cuts or rewrites or whatever – somewhere along the line the script loses focus (probably right around the midpoint where it remembers it also has to be a sci-fi action film – an “Alien “prequel” no less – and things get all muddled and confused because now it has to be a different kind of film and takes its eyes off the prize).  Ultimately I think his point is made – somewhere in there – but I’m only assuming I get it; hoping my interpretation is what he was going for; instead of knowing because I can point to it somewhere specific in the script.  I’m just gathering up breadcrumbs and putting two and two together.  I welcome all theories.

And maybe that is ultimately the point.  It’s all up to the interpreter.  That would certainly serve as a commentary on religion.  But there is also the technical craft of the film making and performances to consider; and these things are all aces.  Scott provides us several amazing action sequences, awe inspiring visuals and some tense and terrifying moments of horror.  He takes these characters to some harrowing places, none more so than Rapace’s character, Shaw.  Rapace does an amazing job with what had to be an emotionally exhausting role.  And Fassbender is a revelation; a robot incapable of emotion but not immune to wonder and discovery.  How Fassbender can possibly straddle such a murky line – Scott: “OK, Mike, look surprised and amazed but show no emotion, got it?  And, action!” – is nothing short of miraculous.

“Prometheus” ends with a big action sequence and then an epilogue that explicitly ties the film to “Alien” where early moments of reference were more subtle.  Both feel inorganic and perfunctory.  It’s a real shame Scott felt the need to “climax” the movie way he does when everything leading up to these moments had been so ponderous and intriguing.  You almost wonder how the guy who wrote the first half of this movie couldn’t understand why resolving everything with a big destructive action sequence wouldn’t feel like a gip.

And still.  Still.  “Prometheus” sticks.  You want to discuss it, argue about it, rush out and watch it again.  It may be all for naught, but how can you not love a movie like that?

3 stars out of 4.

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

By R. David

Published June 1, 2012

Furthering the adage that Hollywood is completely bankrupt of original ideas this week is “Snow White and the Huntsman”.  This “reimagining” of the Disney classic is appropriately dark, as it was, after all, spawn from a Brothers Grimm tale.  But as is typical of summer studio fare these days, it is hardly dark enough.  At the risk of alienating the young teen demographic, this PG-13 rendering is typically toothless in its scenes of violence and terror, and places spectacle and cheap emotion ahead of story.

That’s not to say SWATH (nice) is without its redeeming qualities.  The look and tone are spot on, the performances are universally good and the film has some standout action sequences.  Unfortunately it also has its fair share of lulls, an unfocused narrative, allows SFX to overtake the climax and – worst of all – is hamstrung by Kristin Stewart’s typically indifferent and sleepy lead performance as Snow White.  She had a chance here, with the film’s take on the character requiring her to be more some sort of female Braveheart than the typical Disneyesque damsel in distress, to show she was capable of being a commanding screen presence; but she falls back on her usual mumbling line readings, foot shuffling, and glazed-over look thing she does in every movie.  She’s certainly not in the same league as Charlize Theron, who doesn’t leave much scenery unchewed as the evil Queen Ravenna.  She’s probably too over the top, but whatever, at least she’s doing something with the role.  Ironically, she may not have needed bother wasting her energy as she is perfectly capable of conveying menace in her quieter scenes or with just haunting look.  Either way, she blows most of the other principal actors off the screen.

You know the deal, Ravenna is in danger of no longer being the fairest of them all and it turns out it is Snow White, her estranged stepdaughter (I use both terms pretty loosely as Ravenna married SW’s father, killed him on their wedding night and then locked her in a tower) who threatens her claim to fairest in the land (though the film never makes the case that K-Stew would be any competition, other than for her goodness and purity and all that sort of thing…  If it boiled down to who looked hottest emerging from a milk bath, Theron would win hands down, that’s all I’m saying).  Snow White escapes her prison while Ravenna is busy terrorizing her subjects (a bad childhood and reliance on magic that is slowly destroying her are cited as reasons for her villainy) and winds up lost in the Dark Forest, a place where the trees come to life and magical creatures stalk her every step.  Ravenna meanwhile scours the kingdom for Snow White, laying waste to entire villages suspected of harboring her, ultimately commissioning a reckless, widower huntsman named Eric (Chris Hemsworth) who is well-traveled in the Dark Forest, to capture her.  Eric may be a tortured soul, but he’s also a man of honor (even against his greed, apathy and better judgement), so when he discovers Ravenna’s true intentions, he becomes Snow White’s guardian, and ultimately helps her and a crew of scrappy dwarfs (8 here, for some reason) attempt to overthrow the evil queen.

The first hour of “Snow White and the Huntsman” is filled with promise.  In his feature film directing debut, Rupert Sanders proves he a flair for arresting visuals and moody atmosphere.  The gray hues that smother the film are appropriate, and bursts of light and color often make for startling contrast.  Unfortunately, the bigger battle scenes and SFX sequences that the genre seems to demand these days undermine the elegantly haunting first half.

Predictable action and heavy CGI are only partly to blame for the film’s deterioration in the back half.  SWATH also insists on exploring a silly romantic love triangle between Eric (still mourning and pining for his deceased wife), Snow, and her heroic (but bland – actually, they kinda deserve each other) would-be beau William, among other genre cliches and tropes.  Hemsworth is good, but doesn’t exactly get to branch out as the huntsman, and the film collects an impressive group of thespians to play the dwarfs, including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, and Ray Winstone.  Best of all, they each make an impression as individulas and each get a nice moment or two that serves the story, despite their limited screen time.  It’s a shame SWATH had to concern itself with some of the more frivolous and predictable genre aspects of this tale, when more time in the Dark Forest, with the dwarfs and quiet scenes with Theron’s villaness would have made for a much more interesting film.  It would also have helped if the SFX and action sequences were applied more sparingly and given more weight.

Still, all things considered, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is far more interesting than word of a big budget “reimagining” of a fairytale staring the girl from “Twilight” would suggest.  It ultimately succumbs to many of the trappings that plague most calculated studio blockbusters, but thanks to Sanders’ keen eye and obvious intention to do as much as the studio would allow to present a darker, more fractured, adult take on the familiar tale, SWATH has enough interesting ideas and exciting sequences to – on balance – make up for its conventional third act.

2 and a half stars out of 4.

PIRANHA 3DD

By R. David

Published June 1, 2012

Double-D, get it?

Okay kids, I’m going to spend about as much time on this review as the writers of this sequel to the remake (got that?) spent on this script. Not that I don’t thoroughly enjoy writing at length about bad movies.  On the contrary, it’s some of the most fun writing I get to do.  But it is hard to muster much enthusiasm, even negative, for a movie as dull as “Piranha 3DD”.  The title is about as clever and inspired as this film gets.

2010’s “Piranha 3D” was a cheeky and absurd horror/comedy that simply wanted to exploit the current 3D trend to its fullest potential where flying appendages and bouncing boobs were concerned.  I can get behind that.  And while I don’t need a story any more complicated (and it wasn’t) than even the silliest explanation as to where these prehistoric, apparently super-powered piranha come from, I do need decent direction, establishing shots, some funny dialog, characters I give two shits about (whether it’s because I’m rooting for them or rooting for them to become fish food), and an overall idea as to why the film needs to exist.  Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha 3D”, however basically and offensively, provided all that.  A remake of the 1978 Roger Corman-Joe Dante cult classic, “Piranha 3D” was a loving homage to a film that was, quite frankly – necessary or not – begging for an update.  As beloved as the original is in some circles, let’s face it, if Hollywood must continue with this remake business and insists on exploiting 3D technology, a cheesy horror film like “Piranha” is the perfect sort to be scooped up for such a reboot.  And to that degree, “Piranha 3D” was a great success.  It felt like the kind of movie Corman would make if he were just getting his start today, and Aja obviously had true affection for the original.  That doesn’t necessarily make “Piranha 3D” a “good” movie, but it is great for the type of movie it is and for its intended audience.

“Piranha 3DD”, on the other hand, which replaces Aja with “Feast” director John Gulager, is the kind of cheap, slapdash, pedestrian cash-in fans of the original “Piranha” may have feared the remake would be.  Gulager not only lacks Aja’s ability to capably pull off a tone of satire and camp without descending into outright parody or lazy and obvious genre broad strokes, but he seems to lack even the most basic understanding of how to build a story and give it momentum.  Aja begins his film with a surreal sequence in which Richard Dreyfus is killed by a the titular chompers while aboard his fishing boat.  The casting and reference is not only clever, but it kicks the film off right; Aja saying to the audience, “I know horror movies, I respect horror movies, I have a sense of humor, the film that follows will be proof.  Granted, I’m going to ratchet everything to 11 and wink at you until my eyeball pops out of my head, but I care.”  Gulager’s sequel rips off the same sort of cold-open trick to set the tone, but he completely misses the point.  His opening sequence casts Gary Busey as a guy who gets killed by piranha in a swamp, as if to say, “Hey, we killed Gary Busey at the beginning of our movie, just like they killed Richard Dreyfus at the beginning of the first one.  Get it?  Celebrity death cameos!”  Gulager’s inability to grasp the concept here is pretty much a metaphor for what he does wrong with his entire film.

Whereas Aja channeled some of the Dante/Corman tropes and film making techniques, and obviously reveled in staging and shooting the film’s centerpiece bloodbath sequence, Gulager seems to have absolutely no inspiration or zest for this material.  He approaches making this film as a man tasked with a job to do who is going to do just the bare minimum to finish his work and go home.  That the camera doesn’t fall over or the boom mic isn’t visible in any shots seems to be good enough for this guy.  The first 40 minutes or so simply tread water, presenting a who-cares story invovlving a sleazy, greedy water park owner (David Koechner) who is more concerned with finding ways to gouge tourists and get his female lifeguards out of their swimsuits than heading his stepdaughter’s (Danielle Panabaker) warnings that something is amiss.  That’s about it.  Cue piranha carnage.  Except it takes an insulting 40 minutes to get to the action, and while the film’s last half hour is devoted to a full-on piranha orgy, none of it comes close to matching inventiveness of its predecessor.  The action sequences lack style, wit, tenacity and, with only a few fleeting exceptions, any sense of good gory fun.  There’s a surprisingly graphic and over the top kill here and there, but they don’t really leave an impression, and here again, a couple of these just steal from (sorry, “reference”) Aja’s previous film.  (And boys, if you’re wondering, yes there are boobs, but despite the second ‘D’ in the title, even in this department this film doesn’t match it’s predecessor – in quantity or quality.)

Besides a D-grade director taking over for Aja, this sequel also suffers from the loss of pretty much all the interesting cast members who made the original so surprisingly appealing.  Ving Rhames and Christopher Lloyd are shoehorned into this thing against all logic (because hey, paycheck!) but Adam Scott and Elizabeth Shue are nowhere to be found, and even though some (like Jerry O’Connel) couldn’t return for obvious reasons, “3DD” fails to find a match for them, never mind create clever or interesting characters of its own.  In their place are your usual gallery of stock horror flick characters and plot shenanigans.  Only David Hasselhoff playing himself seems to have been written with any sense of zestful self-awareness.  He gets the film’s best lines and moments.  But they are far from enough to salvage the rest of the script. On almost wonders if a good amount of his scenes and dialog weren’t written or at least ad libbed by Hasselhoff himself as they feel altogether different from the rest of the film.

But that’s what happens when you take a thrown-together script, a care-taker director and an interest only in capitalizing on whatever revenue momentum was created by the previous film, all while leaving out everything that made that film work and reduce it to its most banal elements and assume no one will notice the difference.  “Piranha 3DD” is a title in search of a movie.

1 star out of 4.

MEN IN BLACK 3

By R. David

Published May 25th, 2012

I was not the fan of the original “Men In Black’ that many were when it came out back in 1997.  I think I was already Will Smithed-out by that point and had no interest in seeing him take on aliens again only a year after the labored “Independence Day” in another bloated, FX-heavy SCI-FI yarn.  I also remember the film being somewhat imaginative, but far too silly and predictable for my tastes.  And I was only all of 18 at the time, so it has nothing to do with not being the target audience and everything to do with simply being over that sort of standard issue, summer blockbuster fare; which seems almost wistfully quaint to say now in an age where an endless barrage of soulless product dominates each summer (and now even spring and fall).  Looking back to the summer movie releases of the mid 1990s it becomes clear that, while the summer blockbuster may date back to the 1970s and likes of “Jaws” and “Star Wars”, this was where we started seeing summers overloaded with films similar to those of the previous year, and in many cases the previous month.  It’s all but expected now that there will be a handful of movies each year about aliens, a handful about some sort of supernatural possession, and a handful of remakes/reboots/comic book or television adaptations.  There used to be one of each of these each year at best, for fear of double dipping the audience.  I guess when Hollywood went ahead and released 2 giant killer asteroid movies within 2 months of each other in the summer of 1998 and realized both could be huge hits, the gloves were off.  But it was with “Independence Day” and then “Men In Black” the following year where I really began to feel like audiences were simply conditioned to show up for any sort of outsized, effects-laden, big star blockbuster.  Of course, that Pavlovian response to big stars in big vehicles has been going on since the inception of the Hollywood blockbuster, but it was never so obvious to me that Hollywood was simply dangling a stick with a carrot for us all to chase as it became with so many of the summer films in the back half of the 1990s.  Maybe I was just growing up and thinking more critically about such things, and had I been 18 in 1987 or 1977 I would have come to the same realization.  But I don’t think so.  Looking back on even the early 1990s, sure there were bad movies, and tentpole summer blockbusters, and bad tentpole summer blockbusters, for that matter; but there was not such an obvious and predictable pattern and routine to the sort of films that were produced and released in a coordinated three month span.

I don’t blame “Men In Black” solely for any of this, of course.  But it left a bad taste with me that summer.  I skipped the 2002 sequel, but by all accounts that was a smart move.  Of course by then we were already at a point where disdain for the original “Men In Black” and the summer movies of the mid and late 1990s was replaced by a fond remembrance for those simple days.  I mention all this to say that I approached “Men In Black 3″ with about as much skepticism as one can, and with zilch in the way of expectations.  Having only seen the original once – and 15 years ago (it’s been nearly as long between seeing these 2 films as the age I was when I saw the original… we’re old, people!) – MIB3 immediately reminded me of the look, tone and feel of the first film.  It was jarring, really; having forgotten all about the original (or thinking I had anyway), but within a few minutes of the MIB3’s opening, I suddenly recalled the first movie vividly.  Sure I couldn’t tell you much that happened in it, but the music, cinematography, performances – the overall ambiance created here – brought it all flooding back.  As it should, I suppose, with  Barry Sonnenfeld again directing.  His film’s always display a unique and personal visual stamp; and his MIB films, as well as his “Addams Family” adaptions before those, have a style of Tim Burton art deco meets Sam Rami’s kinetic camera moves and action sequence choreography, with a nod to the playfully macabre tone both relish.

Sonnenfeld revels in that twisted tone perhaps most fiendishly in MIB3’s opening sequence in which the film’s imposing villain, Boris the Animal (“Flight of the Conchords'” Jermain Clement, stretching nicely outside his usual low-key comfort zone), breaks out of his prison on the moon in  a squirm-inducing scene involving some nasty-looking critters that enjoy burrowing under their people’s skin.  Boris’s voice, all croaks and gurgles, is equally unsettling.  He is an all around terrifically designed and conceived villain, and it’s a great opening sequence.

Cut to the introduction of Agents J (Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones), still going about their usual business of hunting fugitive aliens and still bickering about the same things they always have (K is irritated by J – and most people – and J is irritated the K doesn’t treat him as an equal), when they get word Boris has escaped.  Since K blasted off Boris’s arm and is the one who landed him in prison way back in 1969, he figures Boris will most likely be out for revenge.  Boris’s plan is to go back in time and kill K before he arrests him and loses his arm.  This causes a shift in the fabric of time (I guess) which means everyone at MIB headquarters, including it’s new head of operations, Agent O (Emma Thompson), forgets all about Agent K.  So, of course, it’s up to Agent J to travel back to 1969 and stop Boris from killing K, not ending up armless and arrested, and thereby free to sick his entire alien species on us Earthlings and overtake us (I assume).  This all leads to the film’s most amusing device and original idea which is J will now meet and have to forge a relationship with a 29 year-old K.  In stroke of casting genius – and a performance to match – Josh Brolin’s deadpan but sincere take on a young Tommy Lee Jones is a thing of inspired beauty.  His performance is more of a tribute to Jones than a mere impersonation, and he nails every single vocal and facial tick.  Great stuff.

Less great are the time travel logistic plotholes that undermine the film.   Time travel plotlines are always a tricky narrative construct to pull off because anytime one character is eliminated or an event is stopped, the filmmakers need to go back and ask themselves if these changes wouldn’t result in other characters or their motivations ceasing to exist, thus undoing their entire film.  As far as MIB3 is concerned, I can’t get into specifics without spoilers, but they never address the most obvious question that even audiences simply watching the trailer might be asking themselves:  Since K recruited J, if someone were to go back in time and eliminate him, why would J still be MIB in present day?  Also, no one really bothers to explain why time travel must involve jumping off really high structures, but I imagine it’s simply because it adds additional scenes of humor and excitement.  And the film’s ending is either a bit of a cheat or a nice bit of full-circle closure depending on how you want to look at it.

Questions and dubious scenes aside, the film is mostly entertaining.  It’s fast-paced, has a breezy tone and a good amount of clever ideas and lines up its sleeve, including a character named Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who has the ability to see all the possible outcomes of the choices characters make ahead of time.  The movie more simply presents ideas like this than fully explores or integrates them into the plot.  But considering there are five (!) writers credited to MIB3, it’s a wonder the movie is as organized and coherent as it is.  Word that filming began on MIB3 without a finished script no doubt gave fans of the series a great deal of trepidation, especially after the universally maligned second chapter.  But every once in a while a gamble pays off.  MIB3, despite its flaws, is flashy, frivolous fun.  I don’t know if I would have felt this way a decade or two ago, but in a time of summer movies like “Battleship”, MIB3 actually succeeds as something of a welcome throwback to a simpler time.  God help us all.

3 stars out of 4