Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prometheus (2012) Review

“Prometheus” is a damn tough movie to write about, namely because it’s still jostling in my brain days after seeing it. It’s not a confusing movie to follow, but I want to see it again to make sure I understand certain details correctly. It’s an “Alien” movie that’s also not an “Alien” movie. It wants to combine both the philosophical aspects of its original story with the body horror gross outs that come with the franchise. It wants to get these story threads up and running while at the same time clearly leaving some of them to be explained in a continuing sequel. How do I begin to approach a film that I definitely think is good, but still has me debating about it in my head?

Right from the get-go throws in a whopper of a concept: that the beginnings of human life on Earth originated from extraterrestrials of another world. After scientists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway find cave drawings with matching star maps that point to one planet, the Weyland Corporation agrees to fund a space expedition to that planet and possibly learn about humanity’s start. What they find there astounds them, although something more sinister and dangerous is waiting to happen.

It’s heavy stuff, and I won’t deny that “Prometheus” doesn’t address most of these at length as the films divisive reception has pointed out. While some more explanation definitely could have gone down, I’m not sure that was entirely the films intent. There are a couple points where the characters ask whether it’s right to find all the answers to mankind, and whether it is worth answers that may not be entirely satisfying. The android David, who is played by the excellent Michael Fassbender and easily the most interesting character, asks why he was built by Weyland. Charlie replies, “Because they could.” David then further asks, “How would you feel if that was the reason why you were made?” This goes back to that old adventure story adage about cursed treasure that some things were never meant to be found.

This is not meant to be a cover I’m making for all of the movies unexplained pieces. There is a line between ambiguity and vagueness, and “Prometheus” treads over the wrong side of the line at times. Some explanations can be easily inferred (one drastic action of a character gets some light after a late movie twist), while others are just plain ignored. What I love about the movie though, even if things don’t entirely line up, is its sheer cojones within a Hollywood blockbuster. That a modern day sci-fi blockbuster could be made where the focus is more on the big ideas and actual science fiction writing rather than grand action is quite amazing in its own right.

Yes, the second half eventually gives audiences the excitement that they want, but it’s done with such style and panache by director Ridley Scott that the shift never felt jarring or that it overwhelmed the movie. Make no mistake though, while I believe that “Prometheus” is NOT a horror movie overall, there are multiple scenes where I was squirming. The standout surgery scene is filled with tension and suspense, and recalls the classic chestburster scene from the original “Alien.” The famous alien being that most people recognize is not at the heart of the story (although it does figure in the story in some ways), and Scott and his visual effects designers have created some really creepy and inventive looking new creatures to fill the void.

Complaints about the lack of character development honestly perplex me, as I thought the main characters had just the right about of attention. Idris Elba’s Captain Janek has some well-placed comic relief moments, Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers is revealed to be a little more than just a cold person, and Noomi Rapace’s Shaw is a very sympathetic protagonist who isn’t just a replica of Ripley from “Alien.” As I said before though, Fassbender is far and away the best of the bunch, proving his worth as one of the most reliable and dynamic actors of this generation. However, there are a large number of tertiary characters that are merely blank faces and should have been whittled down to a reasonable number instead of being figures in the background.

All in all, “Prometheus” is both a pleasing return to form for director Ridley Scott after several duds, but at the same time could have felt more complete with some tweaks and slight additions. As Scott has proved in the past, his director’s cuts of his movie are for the most part improvements on the theatrical releases, and that seems like the perfect opportunity for there to be a smoother, more fully formed film to exist. I wasn’t disappointed in what I got, although my time to reflect has evened out my reaction.


Top 10 Scariest "Alien" Franchise Scenes

Top 10 Scariest "Alien" Franchise Scenes
Before I pump out my "Prometheus" review (I know, I'm not exactly a timely writer), I have been curious about what I thought were the scariest moments in the "Alien" movies, which really turned into a list of the scariest moments from "Alien" and "Aliens," with a dash of "Alien 3" for some variety. Don't expect anything from the silly "Alien Resurrection" or the shoddily made "Alien vs. Predator" movies though.
10. Infested colony- "Aliens"
This is the point where we learn that "Aliens" is not merely going to be a retread of "Alien" with guns. After a long stretch of walking through deserted corridors in the colony, the marines eventually come across this bizarrely creepy living hive, with bodies adorned all over the walls with petrified screams on their faces.
9. That's Inside the Room- "Aliens"
The numerous monster movies that followed "Aliens" have made this moment rather predictable for virgin viewers, although its hard to top the subtle use of the beeping motion tracker as a suspense device. The moment of silence as Hicks goes to take a peek leads into a wonderful shock moment before descending into utter chaos.
8. Space Jockey- "Alien"
I don't care if everyone calls them Engineers now thanks to "Prometheus," because I still consider them Space Jockeys (as Ridley Scott once called them). Before "Prometheus," the Space Jockey was one of the greatest unanswered mysteries of cinema. That moment where Kane, Dallas, and Lambert walk into the room, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's eerie score, and come across this extraterrestrial is filled with both wonder and uneasiness, especially once we question why there's a giant hole in its chest. Now that's how foreshadowing is used to the best effect.
7. First Alien Appearance- "Alien"
The first appearance of the alien in its full form is also one of the best. It's an alien monster of the likes that we had never seen before, with it's phallic shaped head, mutated killer tongue, skeletal body, and mysterious lack of eyes. But seriously, screw Jones the cat. That sneaky kitty deserved it much more than Brett.
6. Cornered with the Facehuggers- "Aliens"
The facehugger was certainly a thing of grotesque imagination in "Alien," but it didn't really have much to do. With this fantastically confined sequence from "Aliens" where Newt and Ripley are locked into a room with two of those things, we learned just how lithe, cunning, quick-footed, and relentless they can be when let loose in the wild. Even when Hicks manages to pry its tough tail from Ripley's throat, the feisty thing is strong enough to fight in his hands.
5. Ashes Speech- "Alien"
There's no alien in this incredibly well-written scene, just the android Ashes troubling fascination with the beast. His description of the monster as a "perfect organism" is both ironic and chilling at the same time. "I admire its purity," he said.
4. Newt Trapped- "Aliens"
The last half hour of "Aliens" is one of the most relentlessly intense third acts in action movies that I can think of, but this moment halfway through the act puts the kabosh on all others. We're already on the edge of our seat from the battle in scariest moment #9, and then James Cameron throws another element our way by trapping Newt underneath a walkway for Ripley and Hicks to cut through, while listening to that incessant motion tracker beeping as an alien gets closer and closer.
3. Face to Face- "Alien 3"
"Alien 3," by and large, is not a very scary movie. It has some great mood and atmospheric moments thanks to director David Fincher, as well as a fine climatic chase, but nothing outright scary...except for this scene. Ignoring the badly done special effects on the alien in the previous shot, the following one where it's right up on Ripley's face is unspeakably terrifying, with the hissing, drooling alien aided by Sigourney Weaver's very believable performance.
2. Chestburster- "Alien"
A classic horror movie scene that I'm sure you've already read a lot about already and needs no further explanation.
1. Lambert's Offscreen Death- "Alien"
This scene perfectly illustrates how the scariest things are often those left to the imagination. After taking out Parker, the alien slowly makes its way over to Lambert, who is paralyzed by shock and fear. There's a very strange image of the alien tail crawling up her leg ("Alien" has a lot of sexual subtext), and then we cut to Ripley running through the ship to save her. As Ripley runs, we hear Lambert's screaming voice and heavy breathing on the intercom, and then a piercing shriek followed by unsettling silence. It's unnerving in a way that few other horror scenes (and entire movies too) have achieved.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) Review
Snow White and the Huntsman

Movies like “Snow White and the Huntsman” are the toughest to come to a decision on. There’s nothing overtly bad about them and quite often, as in this case, there are multiple things about them that make it recommendable. What these movies are the kind that rest in the nether region between good and enjoyably flawed. After immediately coming out of “Snow White” I thought, “Nice, I enjoyed that more than I expected.” After being able to mull over my thoughts for a while (and checking back with my ratings criteria page), I’m going to end up going slightly lower than the initial impact.

Despite being updated with an epic fantasy tone complete with dark visuals and elaborate special effects, the plot remains much the same as the story everyone knows so well. The magic mirror says Snow White is fairer than the evil queen, the queen wants the huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart, the huntsman changes his mind, Snow White eats the poison apple, etc. It follows that basic through-line but with some tweaks to shake things up. The biggest change is the fleshing out of the huntsman character, who now joins Snow White instead of just refusing to kill her. He’s complete with a more detailed backstory, and Chris Hemsworth channels much of his burly “Thor” charisma that makes him such a commanding screen presence.

The evil queen also gets her fair share of extended screen time, and Charlize Theron chews up every piece of scenery and dialogue with icy cold glee. She was the driving force behind the movie’s marketing, and sure enough is absolutely the best thing going on. Whenever she shows up you can practically feel the movie spring more to life. One issue though is that the filmmakers wanted to add more character development to who is essentially a pure evil villain, but couldn’t find an organic way to do it. The two scenes in particular, the milk bath scene that is also in the trailer and a flashback to her childhood, are either weirdly unnecessary and strange (milk bath) or awkwardly shoved in between the Snow and huntsman adventure (flashback).

Meanwhile, Kristen Stewart has a lot to go up against when it comes to sharing the movie with Hemsworth, Theron, and the wide variety of great British actors playing the dwarves. If nothing else, this movie proves that Stewart is in fact a decent actress when not restricted by the melodramatic and stilted writing of her “Twilight” role. She’s definitely trying much more than I’ve seen her do recently; her problem is the same problem with Taylor Kitsch in “John Carter.” They both put in fine performances that get the job done, but are so overshadowed by everything else around them that the main character is comparatively boring. It also doesn’t help that the Huntsman and the queen get more screen time than her, often shoving Snow White to the sidelines in her own story.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to has complained about the pacing and that it should have been tightened up. There were definitely places where it slowed down in the second half, especially once Theron is offscreen for a significant portion, but there was never a point where I thought things should have been cut. The real issue is that the first half is packed with so much action and plot that when the characters finally get to spend real time with each other and interact in the second half, the second half feels slow when it actually hits about the right balance. The first half should have focused on less sword fights and chases and more on getting us engaged with the story.

That said, to first time director Rupert Sanders’ credit, those action scenes are really well executed. Every action bit with the Prince character contains some of the coolest choreographed archery work I’ve seen in a long time. The multiple entanglements between the queen’s creepy brother and the Huntsman have dynamic swordplay, and Sanders’ visual effects department fills out this fantasy world with some very creative designs. The sections in the forest strike the right chord of dark and creepy fantasy that the original Grimm’s fairy tale evokes in its story.

The real issue with “Snow White and the Huntsman” is that, despite all these admirable things to say about it, it never fully leaps to life. Sanders is clearly a decent director, but he’s the kind of director that needs a strong script to carry him through the movie, and “Snow White’s” script is merely adequate. The drama written in to fill in between the action and special effects is serviceable, nothing more. It doesn’t help that there are at least a couple scenes that are blatantly and laughably ripped off from both “The Neverending Story” and “Princess Mononoke.” If a derivative story can make me care about the characters and absorb me into its unique variation of that story, then I could look past that, but “Snow White and the Huntsman” never quite reaches that marker.

2.5/4   Ratings Criteria

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Men in Black 3 (2012) Review
Men in Black 3

While I am a huge fan of the original “Men in Black,” I wasn’t particularly clamoring for this third installment. In the time between this and “Men in Black 2,” which was no great shakes but not terrible like so many others think, I had moved on from the franchise to other things. On top of that, the first movie, despite having a franchise-worthy premise, works surprisingly well as a simple one-shot story that didn’t absolutely need to be continued. But, the powers that be said otherwise, and now we have “Men in Black 3,” ten years after part two.

After escaping from a prison made just for him on the moon, Boris the Animal returns to Earth to get his revenge on Agent K, who took away Boris’ arm over 40 years before. Once an attempted attack on K and his partner J fails, Boris gets control of a time travel device and returns to the year where K would stop him. Boris kills K, which screws up the timeline, and now Agent J has to follow Boris back to 1969 if he is to bring everything back to normal. There, he teams up with the younger K, and the two have to track down both the younger and older versions of Boris.

I’m going to go out on a limb and ignore the big plot hole that J can remember K but nobody else can because, quite frankly, I wanted to get out of this part as fast as possible. The first half hour or so before the 1969 segment is terribly done, with limp jokes and a tired Tommy Lee Jones dragging things down. Any previous investment Jones had in the character of K is gone now as he goes through the motions. It’s a chore getting through this segment, but once J goes through the time jump to 1969, in a well-designed and cool sequence through time, the movie gains some traction.

The jokes still don’t hit all that often, but the hit/miss ratio is much more evened out here. The new partner dynamic between Will Smith and Josh Brolin, who plays the younger K, breathes new life into the K/J duo. Brolin nails down Tommy Lee Jones’ mannerisms in a creepily perfect way, although at the same time adding his own touches that flesh out the character. While still stern and serious, Brolin’s K still has excitement and youthful energy in him, much to the surprise of J. Smith, despite being absent from the big screen for four years, easily slips back into his role, bringing the usual charisma and comic timing that people love him for, even when he has to rise above the weak script.

For about three quarters of the movie, I was mostly shifting in my seat as the movie would continually fall flat with the occasional neat element. The sequence at Andy Warhol’s Factory is excellent, and Bill Hader was hysterical as Warhol. This is also the same scene where we meet Grif, played with cheery glee by Michael Stuhlberg, who is easily the best new character in the story (since Brolin is technically not playing a new character). Grif is an alien who can telepathically see all possible outcomes of the future, which adds a new piece to time travel to jazz things up.

And then at the very end, when I thought the movie would merely limp to the finish line, it pulls out a wild card ending that was surprisingly emotional. It changes how we look at K’s relationship with J, and brings the whole series full circle not necessarily for the main series storyline, but for these two characters that we love. It’s too bad that “Men in Black 3” in its entirety could not live up to the way it concluded, as there are some parts that nearly live up to the fun creativity of the 1997 original. I want to give it an extra rating because of the ending, but I’ll have to settle with my gut instinct of the overall picture.

2/4    Ratings Criteria