Saturday, June 16, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

So that's where babies come from.

Let's pretend that it's early 1982. Three years ago, Ridley Scott's Alien became a runaway success and his newest science fiction film, Blade Runner, is gearing up for release. Scott is poised to become the premiere voice for mature, science fiction film-making for years to come. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned and, despite he successes, Blade Runner would Scott's last science fiction movie for nearly twenty years.  Fast forward those twenty years and Ridley Scott's Prometheus, which was to be his triumphant return to the genre that launched his success, has finally be released. While Scott has lost little of his prowess as a visual artist, Prometheus' greatest failing is that it simply doesn't live up to what it could be.

Prometheusjourney from concept to screen is nearly as complicated as the concepts it explores. A project several years in the making, it was originally pushed aside in favor of pursuing the Alien vs. Predator cross-over films and after the financial failure of the second movie in that series, the idea of reinvigorating the Alien film series with a Ridley Scott directed prequel resurfaced. Somewhere down the line, the film became it's own entity set in the Alien universe. The story primarily follows Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, Noomi Rapace of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame, whose discoveries on Earth lead to her to seek out an alien race that may have created all life on Earth. Joined by an eclectic crew of misfits and scientists, headlined by Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron, the crew of the spaceship Prometheus land on the moon of a far away planet and find more than they bargained for. A fistful of Alien references and an awful lot of carnage ensues as things go from bad to worse. What Scott does well, he does really well but, while many of the component parts of Prometheus are fantastic, it simply spirals out of control.

There are elements of Prometheus that deserve significant praise. The performances in Prometheus, especially that of Michael Fassbender as the android David, are quite good. The rest of the assemble does admirably, but it's Fassbender who steals scene after scene with his calm intensity. Ridley Scott is a master at building suspense and crafting beautiful films and both of those skills are on display here. Prometheus is, through and through, a gorgeous looking movie. Everything from the art direction to the cinematography and lighting work together to make a visually stunning film. This is supported wonderfully in the first act, by the great pacing. Like Alien, little happens in the first hour of the film. Scott uses this time to build the suspense and the mystery of this journey and an impending sense of dread creeps into the film that is quite effective. While the second half of the film tries it's best to capitalize on this feeling, it is far less successful.

While the first half of Prometheus runs marvelously, the film's second half seems to fall apart for no reason other than a lack of focus and clarity. The later events of the film come with a rapid fire intensity that is appealing, but they become disjointed as Scott attempts to build more and more layers of complexity and symbolism on a foundation that simply isn't there. It's not always essential to provide answers for the viewer, but following a consistent set of logic and causality goes a long way in creating a cohesive final product. The best example of this lack of consistent logic is demonstrated in the black substance and it's effects on the various beings it comes in contact with. The substance is first seen dissolving a creature into it's component genetic pieces to begin life on earth. Later it causes severe illness in humans, it also seems to alter some reproductive traits of humans, and after that it seems to alter maggots into huge worm-like creatures with the ability to make humans they attack into some kind of zombies. Ultimately, this becomes a source of confusion for the audience because it simply lacks consistency. Rather than focusing on the themes that Prometheus explores, the audience is trying to wrap their brains around the logic of the world they are viewing. Good science fiction is clear about the elements of the world that are foreign to the viewer so that they can understand how the characters react to situations that simply never occur in the world that they currently reside in. Simply put, Prometheus tries to do too much in it's final hour and the result is a muddy, even if it is sometimes exciting, conclusion.

Ultimately, Prometheus is an ambitious return to science fiction for Ridley Scott. It succeeds at times, fails at others, and is, ultimately, a mixed bag. There are some great moments and some solid performances, but it's simply a disappointment for those who were waiting to the spiritual or literally successor to Alien.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Despite everyone's best efforts, you can't totally ruin Indiana Jones.

Let's try and remember 2008. It was almost May, the summer movie season hadn't started yet, but there, looming in the distance was a golden treasure. It had been more than 20 years since the last Indiana Jones movie and almost nothing could dim my excitement. Then the early reviews came and they were rough. My excitement became tempered with fear and somehow I avoided seeing the movie for nearly four years. I won't put this bluntly, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is one of the most upsetting film watching experiences I have had in a long time. As an action movie, it's fairly mediocre, but as an Indiana Jones film it's an abomination.


Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)

These are real people?


Saturday, February 25, 2012

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Jack Nicholson goes nuts again.

I'd love nothing more than to stir the pot by giving one of the few movies to ever win the Academy Award grand slam, that's best director, screenplay, actor, actress and picture in the same year, a luke-warm review, but that's simply not going to happen. Even a disgruntled, bitter critic like myself can be dazzled on occasion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is, simply put, one of the greatest film-making achievements in cinema's history. It's an nuanced, touching and powerful look at human nature that's so powerfully acted and beautifully crafted that it demands your attention.

Based on the novel of the same name by renowned counter-culture author Ken Kesey, One Upon the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of R.P. McMurphy, a man who's been in and out of prison for the vast majority of his life, and his grand plan to avoid hard labor by getting committed to an asylum. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, succeeds in getting committed and ends up on a ward with an exceptional number of familiar faces, including Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd, that is run by his soon to be arch-nemesis, Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. Needless to say, McMurphy's plan doesn't really work out the way he planned it and he doesn't take it too well. The film was released to decent, but not remarkable reviews, but it cleaned house come Oscar time by winning all five major awards. Since then, it has become one of the best loved American films ever made, even if Ken Kesey claims to despise it, and it finds itself as an obviously inclusion on the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list.

Just what makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest so good is hard to say, but the performances are clearly the right place to start. Nicholson, Fletcher and Dourif have all received enormous amounts of praise for their performances, all of which is deserved, but the entire ensemble is just so completely bought in that the movie is compelling no matter who is on screen. That said, the movie's success can be almost entirely attributed to Nicholson's captivating performance as R.P. McMurphy. You can debate for hours about whether or not his character is truly mentally disturbed and it's a tribute to the nuance of his performance that this debate persists to this day. Ultimately, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest is, arguably, the best achievement in acting in the history of film. Beyond the performances, Director Milos Forman does a phenomenal job of highlighting the performances by cleanly crafting a movie that is beautiful to watch and doesn't feel overworked.

I could lump praise on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest all day long, but I won't bore you by doing it. The film's reputation speaks for itself. What I can say is that the movie deserves every bit of kudos it receives and by not seeing it, you are doing yourself a disservice. If there is a single film on the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list that deserves it's spot more than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I haven't seen it.


Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis fights some vaguely European thugs and things explode.

There are times that I long for the 1980's and those times are usually while I'm watching 80's action movies. I haven't been able to put my finger on why the actions films from this decade are as good as they are, but the truth is that, more than 20 years later, filmmakers are still trying to recapture this success. Despite all the advances in movie making technology no one has been able to recreate Die Hard. It's not that Die Hard is the best movie ever made, far from it, but it is a great way to spend a couple hours.

Simply put, Die Hard is the story of an average guy trying to make things right with his estranged wife. There's also a bunch of German terrorists holding her hostage at the office Christmas party. It's up to Officer John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, to handle the hostage situation in the most American fashion possible; by single-handedly taking out every stinking Kraut he sees. The terrorists, led by the diabolical Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman in his feature film debut, are really just out for some quick cash and it's up to McClane to save the day. Needless to say, things explode and strikingly tall, blonde Germans get pumped full of lead. Directed by John McTiernan, who also gave us the joyful 1980's action experience that is Predator, Die Hard was a runaway success spawning multiple sequels and it was nominated for four Academy Awards. The movie continues to endure as a pop-culture sensation which is probably the reason it landed itself on the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list.

It's hard to argue with Die Hard from a basic filmmaking standpoint. The writing is decent enough for an action film. Combined with Willis' solid performance, the writing keeps the film from being too dark. The lighter moments, mostly the ones where Willis makes wise-cracks to himself, are where Die Hard really shines and the biggest reason why the film is still a crowd-pleaser. In addition to the solid balance of humor and violence, the writing is perfectly efficient. There is very little superfluous dialogue and some of the character back-story actually pays off in really meaningful ways. There are quite a few moments of lunacy where suspension of disbelief is essential to the continued enjoyment of the movie, but that's something that most action movie fans are accustomed to. In fact, these ludicrous moments are some of the movie's best sequences. Really, the only complaint I have with the film is the underdevelopment of it's villains. Hans Gruber is played fantastically by Rickman, but his motivations are muddled and he lacks any real depth other than being wonderfully maniacal. He's a really excellent Disney villain in movie that probably demands a little more depth from it's antagonist.

Die Hard doesn't really belong on a list of the greatest movies ever made, but it does certainly belong on the 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list. It's one of the best 80's action movies, it continues to permeate pop culture and it influenced most every action movie made after it's release. Ultimately, Die Hard is a well crafted and exciting way to spend two hours even if it's a simple experience at it's core. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

Well that was awkward.


Rock-A-Doodle (1991)

That's quite a cock.


Death Becomes Her (1992)

Being immortal would be awesome, unless you had to deal with these bitches.