Prometheus(6/9/2012)

6-9-2012Prometheus

It seems that there are (generally) two ways to go about making a sequel to a well regarded movie.  One is to regroup as much of the cast and crew as possible and try to recapture the magic as best as one can while also making the movie bigger and better.  This method works more often than you’d think, but it’s also risky.  Sometimes you just can’t come back to the well again and expect the same result.  Another approach is to go in a radically different direction with each sequel and use the same characters or environment to make a radically different film from its predecessor.  This is the approach that the Alien series took, when it ditched the methodical horror movie approach of Ridley Scott’s Alien in favor of a young James Cameron’s vision of large scale action movie that pitted dozens of angry Xenomorphs against a crew of determined space marines.  The results were, to put it bluntly, fucking awesome.  Aliens is an extremely fun and gripping action movie and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.  Still, fans of the series have long wondered just what would have happened if the series had stuck to Ridley Scott’s original vision in its successive installments rather than going off in divergent directions.  Now, some thirty three years later, we’ve finally got an answer to that question and we’ve got none other than Ridley Scott himself helming the project, an in-cannon prequel called Prometheus which seeks to better explore the wider world of the series rather than continuing the adventures of Ellen Ripley.

Set twenty-some years before the events of Alien, Prometheus centers on a pair of archeologists named Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who have discovered a pattern within ancient artwork and cave paintings across cultures in which men look up toward the sky toward a pattern of stars in the sky.  Believing this pattern to be a map to a distant solar system they’ve arranged, with the financial assistance of a trillionaire named Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in heavy makeup, for some reason), a mission on the titular space vessel to this solar system in the hopes that they may unlock the answers to age old questions like “who are we” and “where did we come from.”  They arrive at the planet after two years in stasis, accompanied by an eclectic crew including: an icy representative of Weyland’s corporation named Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an android named David (Michael Fassbender) programmed in language algorithms that may help with potential first contacts, and a hardy captain named Janek (Idris Elba) who just wants to make sure the mission goes smoothly.  As they land they see structures on the surface that seem to be constructed by sentient beings, but once they investigate they soon realize that they may have gotten more than they bargained for.

Visually, Prometheus is everything that a large-scale science fiction movie should be and is a return to form for Ridley Scott, who in recent years has been more interested in making things big than making them grand.  One of the most striking things about Alien was it’s sharp cinematography and brilliant set design, both elements that hold up very well to this day, were it not for the hair styles and computer monitor readouts a modern viewer would hardly be able to tell that it was made in 1979.  Consequently, Scott is able to stay very true to the look and feel of Alien and simply expand upon it in order to make a movie that feels both true to its source material and also quite modern.  The Prometheus itself feels very much like it’s from the same time period and culture as the Nostromo, though built on a bigger budget and for a more important mission.  Scott has also expanded on H.R. Geiger’s legendary designs for the Alien vessel found in the original film to strong effect, giving a better idea of the species that built it and what they’re all about.  Most importantly, Scott hasn’t turned the film into a wild CGI fest.  Make no mistake, there are computer generated shots to be found here (lots of them actually), but the film retains a tactile and “built” look.  He shoots on actual odd looking locations and has built actual sets, it doesn’t feel like it was shot in front of a green screen and the film maintains a mature tone throughout, retaining much of the speed and rhythm of his original film.

For all the visual continuity that Scott has maintained, Prometheus is actually a very different movie from Alien both in genre and objectives.  At the end of the day, Alien was a monster movie, albeit a very well executed one.  It was about a monster that found its way aboard a ship and killed a bunch of people before finally being killed itself.  That’s not exactly profound stuff, but Prometheus deals with significantly more weighty science fiction and is in many ways trying to be something more akin to Blade Runner than Alien.  The film opens with a beautiful (yet macabre) scene in which a vaguely humanoid alien creating life as we know it on earth by drinking a black liquid and then having his body dissolve into the genetic material that would one day turn into humanity.  Sort of like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with more gore.  Later we see the characters struggle with this concept and its implications, and also with what the quest for answers can lead to ruin.  It also deals with the differences between man and machine, the nature of family and reproduction, and also what humanity’s relationship with a deity would be if we aren’t the only intelligent life forms in the universe.

Those are some really heavy themes, and on some level I want to praise Ridley Scott for even trying to deal with any of them in a big budget Hollywood movie, but I also can’t help but think that the movie sort of bites off more than it can chew by trying to deal with them all.  The material about familial relationships, for example, is sort of interesting but it seems like kind of an unnecessary diversion in a movie that’s already trying to explain the goddamn meaning of life.  I also thought the material with David the android was a bridge too far, it was interesting, but it could have been its own movie rather than an element stuffed into an already packed movie.  Still, the basic idea of humanity being created by these aliens dubbed the Engineers (and the Xenomorphs being created by them as a sort of accidental byproduct) is interesting, but I’ve got to wonder if a fucking Alien movie was the best vessel for exploring any of these things.  There’s no way in hell that Scott had any idea when he was making a movie about a chest bursting monster back in ’79 that he was making the follow-up to a story with 2001: A Space Odyssey-like ambitions.

This brings me to the film’s biggest flaw, a weak second act in which it realizes that it does sort of need to give the audience some of the monster thrills that it expects but never really seems quite sure how it wants to do it.  I’ll say right now (and this could be inching into spoiler territory), through the entirety of the movie the crew of the Prometheus never sees a single one of the Xenomorphs that we know and love, but they do deal with an assortment of other creepy-crawlies.  These secondary monster attacks that occur through much of the film’s middle portion are the film’s weakest moments.  Firstly, they seem perfunctory, and secondly they aren’t particularly impressive monster attacks in the first place.  One of these scenes involves a rather poorly staged attack/gunfight, another involves a slithering monster reminiscent of the face huggers from the original film but without really matching that original scene.  The film probably would have been better served sticking to what I will vaguely call the “drop of ink/cesarean” sequence of events.

It also doesn’t help that most of the Prometheus’ crew doesn’t feel particularly well developed.  We get some idea of what Elizabeth Shaw is like and we get a decent amount of material about David the android, but most of the other characters are either relegated to types (Vickers/Janek) or they seem to be little more than disposable cannon fodder.  Of course the characters from the original Alien were probably even less deep, but that wasn’t a movie that claimed to explore the nature of humanity, when your movie does try to do that the bar sort of gets raised on the type of people you choose to populate your movie with.  What’s worse, it sort of feels like there actually is a lot more to these people that simply goes unexplored.  The film almost gets away with this if only because Scott has hired a talented cast that’s able to bring a lot out of some of these characters that isn’t necessarily on the page, but the film still could have benefited if it had just taken a little more time to get to know some of these people before killing them.  One wonders if there’s yet another Ridley Scott extended cut we’ve yet to see that fleshes some of these characters out more and maybe gives Elizabeth Shaw more of a complete arc.

What I’m left with from Prometheus are a lot of mixed feelings.  I absolutely love its ambition, its scope, its visual style, its continuity within the Alien series, and I feel like some of its best scenes really set it apart from much of everything I’m likely to see in a multi-plex all summer.  In spite of all that there are just too many nagging flaws in the film that keep me from fully embracing it.  It’s in many ways the opposite of a movie like The Avengers which managed to be perfectly solid throughout its running time if only because it was devoid of any true ambition.   Prometheus, whose very title is rich with thematic intrigue, has infinitely more potential and even though it doesn’t really achieve all of it, it’s still achieves enough to be every bit as successful if not much more.

***1/2 out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: Haywire(6/14/2012)

6-14-2012Haywire

I was a big supporter of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion last year, which I thought was a very well thought-out and perfectly executed simulation of what a globe-spanning plague would look like.  If nothing else, making a realistic and plausible depiction of the end of the world is a very ambitious prospect from a man who can do great things when he gets ambitious.  Soderbergh’s ambition has led him to make films like his excellent four-hour Che Guevara biography, his globe spanning and all-encompassing Traffic, or his interesting recreation of the 1940s Hollywood style in The Good German.  However, there’s another side of his career where he makes interesting but ultimately disposable experiments seemingly on a whim.  His latest film, Haywire, is unfortunately an entry into that second group.  It’s a film which he probably decided to make after waking up one morning and thinking: you know, maybe it would be fun to film a fight scene today.

The film begins with a man (Channing Tatum) walking into a café, sitting down at a table with a woman (Gina Carano), and after a short discussion blows are thrown and the two get into a big fist fight.  The woman, Mallory Kane, eventually wins the fight and escapes with a bystander (Michael Angarano) at the café and as they drive away the woman begins to tell the story of how she got to that point.  Mallory is apparently an agent-for-hire working for a mercenary group that is now out for her head after a job that wasn’t what it seemed to be went wrong.  Her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) has betrayed her and now she needs to escape from both Kenneth’s agents and normal police.

The film’s star, Gina Carano, is not a professional actress: she’s a mixed martial artist who was on the rebooted American Gladiators from a few years back.  This is not the first time that Soderbergh has cast people for their real life occupation rather than their acting experience: he did a similar thing with the porn star Sasha Grey in the film The Girlfriend Experience and with an entire cast of non-actors in his 2005 experiment Bubble.  In many ways Haywire feels like a similar experiment that has been disguised as a Hollywood action film.  Soderbergh seems to be constructing a de-glamorized depiction of the life of a mercenary in much the same way that The Girlfriend Experience gave us a de-glamorized depiction of the life of a high end call-girl.  To some extent this is a tough line to walk.  The movie runs the risk of being as silly as a Hollywood action film while also lacking the fun and excitement of a Hollywood action film.

To the film’s credit, the fight scenes in the movie really are pretty good.  They play out in a very direct and matter of fact way; there’s no music accompanying them and the fight choreography is blunt and brutal.  It’s clear that these combatants know what they’re doing but the fights they get into remain down and dirty brawls.  Other forms of action in the movie are a bit more hit-and-miss.  There’s a cool cat-and-mouse scene where Mallory is chased through a couple of buildings by police, and a somewhat amusing scene where She drives a car in reverse for a rather long distance through the woods, but none of these are stand-out set-pieces that can really compete with the best scenes from Hollywood’s top action movies.  For that matter there’s little here that will give low budget, but high achieving foreign action movies like The Raid either.

In short, I feel like there’s enough in Haywire  to please both Soderbergh’s devoted fans and those looking for a modest action flick to rent on a Saturday afternoon, but this is hardly Soderbergh at his best.  While Soderbergh is almost always able to bring at least a few good ideas to any project he works on, this is just too half-assed to really be saved by them.  We deserve better in our action movies and we deserve better from our iconic directors.

**1/2 out of Four

The Avengers(5/6/2012)

5-6-2012TheAvengers

It’s always odd to know a movie is coming years in advance and then finally reach the day when the damn thing finally comes out.  This is true to some extent of even moderate sized Hollywood productions, but the feeling especially prevails in the case of “tentpole” blockbusters.  Even amongst the biggest of blockbusters, I don’t know that there’s ever been a movie that had a longer and more intense buildup than The Avengers.  Audiences have been anticipating this movie since 2007, when the surprise mega-hit Iron Man ended with a surprise post-credit sequence with Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D agent Nick Fury.  Since then we’ve gotten not one, not two, not three, but four big budget feature length films to build up to this film were Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America would all team up to defeat a common threat.  That sounds like a sure thing but it really isn’t.  The movie needs to reintroduce each character, introduce a common threat, form the team, establish personal conflict within the team, and then solve said conflict in time for a finale, all the while being an effects extravaganza on a level that would justify all the hype.  That’s a tall order, but somehow the filmmakers actually do pull this off to a certain extent.

Threatening the world this time is Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was the main threat to Thor in his film last year.  That wouldn’t seem like a threat that would need the combined efforts of four major superheroes to defeat, but he’s allied himself with a group of aliens that are looking to invade and take over earth, and that’s the larger threat here.   After Loki steals the Tesseract (the glowing magical cube thing from the Captain America movie) Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to put the “Avengers” initiative into effect.  Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) are reluctantly brought together and put to work in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s base (which is a flying air-craft carrier!).  Given that it’s his brother causing all the trouble, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up shortly, and the team is also assisted by two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents: The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who was featured in Iron Man 2) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, who made a very brief cameo in Thor).

The man chosen to bring all these characters and elements together was Joss Whedon, creator of the cult T.V. series “Firefly” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  Whedon is something of a geek icon, but people familiar with my tastes will know that I’m not the biggest fan of the guy.  My problem with Whedon is his tendency to insert his own sort of snarky voice into his characters mouths, a trick that does tend to make his work fun but which undercuts any legitimate storytelling that he’s trying to do.  I was really worried that he’d hijack this movie and turn into another Whedon snark-fest, but fortunately that really isn’t the case.  There are some  Whedon one-liners and asides to be found here, but they actually seem to lend themselves pretty well to Marvel’s established world (specifically the Tony Stark character) and he doesn’t over-do it to the degree that he often does.

Of course one wonders just how much it really matters who directs these Marvel movies.  Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, and Joe Johnston might have brought a little bit extra to their respective movies, but for the most part the movies feel like they kind of came off the same assembly line.  It’s almost more like a T.V. series in which a bunch of anonymous directors helm each episode rather than a movie series where each film is a unique directorial vision, and The Avengers is no exception for the most part.  Whedon did show some clear affinity for visual effects in Serenity but he doesn’t have much of a signature visual style and he doesn’t develop much of one here either.

Instead he’s more or less picked up where the Iron Man series left off and simply made everything bigger, which is no easy task when you consider that the preceding films were all sizable productions to begin with.  Make no mistake, this movie is BIG.  There are a bunch of action set-pieces and they clearly spent a sizable amount of money on the visual effects.  In fact there are so many effects shots here that one wonders how Whedon and company were able to keep track of them all.  There’s a set-piece mid-way through the film which easily could have served as the finale of one of the earlier Marvel films, and that is itself eclipsed by the film’s actual finale, which is an excellent battle scene in the middle of New York.  The film never quite reaches the size and scope of a James Cameron or Peter Jackson epic, but it gets close at times.

If the film is lacking in anything, it’s a real sense of threat.  Loki is simply not a big enough threat to really justify the combined efforts of all four of these characters, and frankly I didn’t love the guy in Thor and I don’t particularly like him here.  On top of that, Marvel has so much invested in these characters that there’s really no suspense that any of them are going to die in this thing.  One could argue that this is true of pretty much any superhero movie, but it’s a bit more jarring when the film focuses on a team of heroes rather than one solitary hero.  The X-Men, for example, are a lot more expendable than The Avengers.  Sure, we know they’re not going to kill off Wolverine any time soon, but there is a sense that everyone else is fair game and that tends to add a lot more suspense to the proceedings.  In this movie, when a “good guy” is finally killed it’s such a throw-away character that it almost feels like a cop-out.

This all speaks to the core problem that generally holds this movie back from greatness: and aggressive lack of weight.  While Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, and Ang Lee have all tried, with varying degrees of success, to make superhero films that aspire to be more than a mere “comic book blockbuster” these Marvel movies have all been more or less comfortable being disposable entertainment.  That might be even more true of The Avengers than of the films that preceded it.  Still, it does what it does very effectively.  In short, if you liked the earlier Marvel movies (as I did) you’ll really like this one and if you didn’t like them you won’t like this one either.  It’s exactly the movie you think it will be and I suspect that’s exactly what most audiences will be looking for.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch-Up: The Innkeepers(6/6/2012)

6-6-2012TheInnkeepers

Toward the end of 2011 I suddenly started seeing a little movie called The Innkeepers showing up on “best horror movies of the year” lists, which confused me because the film was off my radar even though it was directed by Ti West, whose previous film (The House of the Devil) had intrigued me to some degree.  This is partly because the notion of it being a 2011 film was based on a dubious combination of festival screenings and a December 30 VOD release.  For anyone who resists VOD and doesn’t have access to festivals it’s pretty fair to call this a 2012 release.  The House of the Devil snuck up on me in a similar way in the year that it came out, and frankly I’m not a fan of these under-the-radar releases that seem to largely be geared toward the small screen.  To me a movie isn’t really a movie unless it first run is in a movie theater, and when companies do shit like this it sort of cheapens their wares.  Still, I won’t hold that against Ti West and his movie, which frankly deserved better treatment because it’s certainly a theater-worthy product.

Upon hearing the film’s title I sort of assumed that it would be about elderly hotel owners (possibly in the 19th century) who murder unsuspecting guests at their roadside inn straight out of Psycho, but pretty much all of those assumptions were dead wrong.  The film is set in an old-timey hotel, one that’s so old-timey that it’s kind of a dump and it’s about to be shut down.  The titular “innkeepers,” Claire (Sarah Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), are decent and relatable young people hired to work at the front desk during the hotel’s final weekend of operation.  For much of their time working at the hotel Claire and Luke have passed the time by exploring the legends that the hotel is haunted by the ghost of a young woman who supposedly killed herself there a hundred some years ago.  As the weekend progresses Claire comes to feel more and more like there’s something to these legends, which are exasperated by the arrival of an old TV actress turned psychic named Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who senses that there are indeed evil things in this hotel, especially in the basement.

The film has a pretty small cast so much of the film rests on the shoulders of Sarah Paxton and Pat Healy, and fortunately both actors hold their own.  Sarah Paxton (who is only distantly related to Bill Paxton) creates a very likable and down to earth character in Claire, who is a fun easy-going young lady but not an obnoxiously hip one.  If this were a romantic comedy rather than a horror movie you could possibly imaging the character filling the “manic-pixie-dreamgirl” role, and in that context she’s be annoying, but here she’s just an interesting presence and someone you want to root for once the scary stuff starts happening.  Pat Healy also creates a fun and realistic character and there’s good chemistry between the two characters as well.

The fact that there are two big characters here is probably the main differentiation between The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil.  These films are notable because they both have long build-ups before the actual horror stuff happens.  When The House of the Devil finally took off in its last fifteen minutes it did it in an awesome fashion which was probably better than anything in The Innkeepers, but the buildup in that film was significantly more tedious.  Much of the first three quarters of The House of the Devil involved a young woman, alone, walking around in an empty house as a whole lot of nothing happens.  I could see what Ti West was doing, but he just went too far with it and it was hard to recommend the overall film when such a large percentage of it didn’t amount to much of anything.  There would seem to be a similar dearth of plot progression in The Innkeepers for much of its running time, but this material feels a lot more watchable simply because the young woman at its center actually has someone to talk to and play off of during most of the build-up.

As the plot synopsis would suggest, this is sort of a haunted house (er, haunted hotel) movie, and while it doesn’t re-invent the genre per-se, its execution really does make it stand out among indie horror movies.  On a more primal level, the film feels like a sort of campfire story brought to life.  I was reminded a lot of a series of books I read when I was young called “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” by Alvin Schwartz, which adapted various urban legends into these perfectly spine-tingling and suspenseful tales which never watered down their effect in order to make them more palatable to young adult audiences the way that the R.L. Stine’s of the world did.  I think this story would fit right in alongside “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker,” “High Beams,” and “The Babysitter (AKA When a Stranger Calls).”  Ti West seems well aware of this as well given that there are at least three different shots where the heroine points a flash-light up to her chin in the classic camp-fire story tradition.

Of course a campfire story is just that, an effective story that gives you a couple chills before you go on to do other, more productive things like marshmallow roasting.  They’re not necessarily meant to be fully fledged works of literature that you return to over and over again, and The Innkeepers has a similarly transient feel to it: it’s a small production that gets the job done, but it’s by no means a classic.  Still, I think this is a much bigger success for Ti West than The House of the Devil and it further solidifies West as a worthy successor to the “horror director” throne and I hope to see further developments in his promising career.

***1/2 out of Four