Prometheus Review

As soon as Ridley Scott announced he was making a new science fiction movie, fanboys immediately dubbed it the quintessential Alien prequel. Even after its release, people are citing ways in which Prometheus relates to Scott’s original film. I cannot emphasize more that Prometheus has almost nothing to do with Alien. The two movies don’t even take place on the same planet. Admittedly, Alien will be seen in a different context after viewing this movie, but it is not at all essential to understanding the 1979 classic. Instead, Prometheus stands on its own as a solid genre piece, but is that really a bad thing?

Alien, a personal favorite of mine, works so well because an explanation of the origins of the planet and the grotesque, violent monster that abides in its depths is never provided. Like Hannibal in The Silence of the Lambs and the Joker in The Dark Knight, some of the greatest characters manifested on film have mysterious origins. Giving the xenomorph an intricate origin story would have been a grave misstep, as most prequels usually are. Even though there are nods to the alien in this movie, the mysterious element present in Alien is preserved.

The year is 2089. Archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her boyfriend Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a series of cave drawings from a number of civilizations who shared no contact with one another but each containing a map of a solar system billions of miles from earth. Five years later, the multi-trillion dollar ship known as the Prometheus lands on the distant moon LV-223. Their mission is to find what they call the Engineers, extraterrestrial beings who created human beings. As evidenced by its opening scene, the movie operates under the assumption that aliens were responsible for our entire existence. The mission of the Prometheus is not to prove this fact, but to meet their makers.

The script, penned by Lost‘s Damon Lindelof and relative newcomer Jon Spaihts, takes its time setting up its story and characters. The film is relatively uneventful for its first hour or so, introducing us to the world of LV-22 and masterfully building intrigue and an impending sense of doom. Almost all of the characters are believable and interesting, and the story never goes flat. Though that isn’t to say that the script doesn’t have its issues.

“How far would you go to get what you came all this way for, your answers? What would you be willing to do?” David, the android aboard the Prometheus played masterfully by Michael Fassbender, proposes this question to Charlie. This idea of meeting our maker and discovering our reason for existence is touched on multiple times in the film, but inexplicably abandoned by the third act. In fact, many of the movie’s plot lines are left unresolved by the film’s climax.

Decisions made by some of the characters make no sense at all and exist only to aid the plot and transition to the next scene. This adds a dose of detachment from the characters because we don’t understand why they are acting this way. For example, if you were a biologist and encountered a new extraterrestrial being, would your first reaction be to try and pet it? If a woman covered and a recently stitched surgical incision stumbled into the room would you act unphased and pretend its just another day at the office? It’s just lazy writing. While this doesn’t destroy the movie altogether, it does turn the film into a good movie rather than a great one.

On a technical level, the look of the film is breathtaking and full of detail. The visual effects are top notch, from the set design aboard the Prometheus to the mysterious depths of LV-22. The cast does a wonderful job with what they are given, and Fassbender in particular shines in yet another dynamic performance. The movie is full of memorable experiences, from a chilling operation scene to the destruction of an alien spaceship. Scott’s decision to film the movie with 3D cameras was a successful one and provides an even greater depth to the visual aesthetics in the film.  After less-than-stellar movies like Robin Hood and Body of Lies, it’s wonderful to see Ridley Scott remind us why he’s one of the best directors out there.

If you haven’t seen Prometheus yet, I urge you to do so. The fact that a summer blockbuster is generating conversation should be reason enough to check this movie out. After mindless outings like Snow White and Battleship, isn’t it nice to finally have a movie that gets people talking. Plus, we don’t get many science fiction films of this caliber. Prometheus has its flaws, some of them gaping, but it is still worth a look.

Snow White and the Huntsman Review

I’m sure there’s a good movie hidden somewhere in Snow White and the Huntsman. Some are sure to find this movie an enjoyable summer outing, but this reviewer found himself shoving popcorn into his mouth of out sheer boredom.

Imprisoned in a tower since childhood by the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), Snow White (Kristen Stewart) spends her days reciting the Lord’s Prayer and building fires to keep her warm. Her decision to finally escape her captors conveniently coincides with the Queen’s decision to kill her, and she escapes into the dark forest. Desperate to remain the fairest of them all and keep her immortality, the Queen hires a hunstman (Chris Hemsworth) to track Snow White down.

It should be noted here that the only thing keeping me in my seat was Charlize Theron’s performance. She creates a compelling villain that is terrifying and at times even sympathetic. She is responsible for some of the film’s more creative sequences, including a creepy transformation into a flock of crows. Sadly, she is inexplicably absent after the film reaches its halfway point, showing up briefly to remind us that she still exists and longs for Snow White’s death.

Hemsworth is also fun to watch as the axe-wielding, mead-chugging Hunstman. He’s perfect for action-oriented roles like this, but he still brings a certain amount of depth to his character. Kristen Stewart, on the other hand, is given almost no dialogue at all. What little dialogue she has in the film is delivered in cringe-inducing emotionless staccato. I haven’t given up on Stewart as a decent actress yet, but she needs to find a better acting coach.

First-time director Rupert Sanders never seems to find a comfortable pace. The movie’s second act is far too long and its finale too short and frustratingly anticlimactic. Nothing ever seems at stake. We know that Snow White defeats Ravenna, but the way it goes down in the movie is ridiculously easy. When the seven dwarfs finally do show up, it’s almost as if it was an afterthought. The action scenes, which are something of a cross between Robin Hood and The Lord of the Rings, are bereft of excitement. The whole movie’s a mess.

There’s no denying that Snow White and the Huntsman sucessfully creates a dark world full of magic and mystery at every turn. If only the people who inhabit this world were just as interesting. While it has a pretty commendable cast, the movie doesn’t employ them well enough. The movie’s meandering plot, combined with an anticlimactic finale and bland protagonist, transform this adventure into more of a boring lullaby than an epic adventure.

The Avengers Review

For lack of a better word, The Avengers is badass. Easily the best Marvel adaptation since Iron Man, the movie teams up Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye up against the villainous Loki and his army of robotic alien beings. Opening tonight at midnight in theaters nationwide, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers packs a wallop.

Chances are you’ve seen at least one of the previous Marvel movies that establish the characters I listed earlier, but it won’t be an issue if you haven’t – unless you’re my girlfriend of course. The movie is solid blockbuster entertainment for anyone, whether they are a comic book geek or not. This movie has everything you need in a summer movie. There are laughs, spectacular action scenes, a dash of romance, and for some people maybe even some tears.

The fact that the movie is not an origin story like almost all superhero movies is rewarding because it allows the film to jump right into the action. That being said, it takes a strangely longer amount of time for the movie to gain traction than I expected.

The movie’s first act lays out why such an impressive list of people would be summoned to fight evil and then introduces them to the picture one character at a time. This is a bit tedious and could have been trimmed down just a bit, but once the movie gets rolling there’s no stopping it.

The second act focuses on the group’s struggle to work together as a team. After all, when you bring a bunch of invincible warriors together, there’s going to be a bit of conflict. Part of the fun of the Avengers is that we get to see our favorite superheroes duke it out with each other. By the time the last act rolls around, you’ll be firmly rooted to your seat. The final action piece is a jaw-dropping action sequence that will have you cheering.

The movie’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t center itself on one or two of the characters. Nobody is put on the backburner or is turned into a supporting character. Each is given ample screen time and dialogue. Thanks to Whedon’s script and solid direction, the characters are even given further characterization, most notably Black Widow. First introduced in Iron Man 2, Black Widow was nothing more than a hot babe who packed quite a punch. Whedon, who has a history of crafting strong female characters, transforms her into a multidimensional character with a dark past. Loki isn’t as dark or mischievous as he was when we first saw him, but he is one of the highlights of the film and works as a great villain. Iron Man and Thor are enjoyable as ever, though I was slightly disappointed we didn’t see more from CaptainAmerica. Last and most certainly not least, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk is easily the best version adaptation ever. Ruffalo plays the part of the mild-mannered scientist perfectly, and the way he is implanted into the action scenes helps him to steal the show.

I should mention that I was very disappointed in the way that the movie presented Hawkeye. Jeremy Renner is a very capable actor and Hawkeye is a fairly interesting minor playing in the Marvel comics. After his brief appearance in Thor last summer, I was looking forward to seeing what he would be given to work with in The Avengers. While he does shine in the action sequences, we are given a boring character that spends half the movie as Loki’s zombie and the other half spouting out dull one-liners.

Overall, The Avengers is an immensely enjoyable cinematic experience, solid blockbuster entertainment from beginning to end. Not only is it big screen entertainment at its finest, but it reminds us why the big screen experience is essential to enjoying some movies. I don’t care how good your entertainment system at home is. This is a must-see on the big screen. The Avengers starts summer off with a bang and was very much worth the wait. It might even turn you into a comic book geek.

REVIEW: Howl

Howl
Directed by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Written by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Starring: James Franco / David Strathairn / Jon Hamm

Written and directed by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl is a special kind of movie that espouses different filmic styles. The first ten minutes of the film set up the groundwork for the rest of the story, opening on a black-and-white scene where Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) reads the opening lines from the nominal poem in a dusky building to a rapt audience of his peers. After the line “floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz” we transition to kinetic, jazzy opening credits.

We then cut to an interview with Allen Ginsberg, this time in color, followed by the court case regarding the obscenity in his poetry in 1957. After that we jump back two years to a black-and-white Ginsberg intently typing on a typewriter, which transitions into another animated sequence, where his letters become musical notes. The opening lines of the poem are again heard, this time accompanied by an animated sequence inspired by graphic artist Eric Drooker, which attempts to bring Ginsberg’s poetry to life.

This combination of documentary, narrative, and animated styles work well as individual pieces, but are inharmonious as a whole. Epstein and Freiedman excel in their documentary look, for sure, but also during the court case. While a considerable amount of time is focused on Allen Ginsberg’s life as it pertains to his writing, Howl is not a biopic. It’s more focused on the poem itself, and the censoring of art, which it is most known for. The court case, which is at the heart of the story, is a great example of the director’s ability to make the mundane intriguing, especially with the back-and-forth between David Strathairn (Prosecution) and Jon Hamm (Defense).

During the court case, many literary critics are brought to the stand and questioned about the literary qualities of Howl, and it’s staying effect. When one critic is asked by Strathairn, “Do you understand what ‘angel-headed hipsters yearning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night’ means?”, he replies with a brilliant line: “Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it is poetry.” Coupled with the animated sequences used throughout the film, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of this interaction.

The animation is well done, but doesn’t belong in a film about poetry, especially one that is defended in court in this manner. James Franco’s performance as Allen Ginsberg is incredible in the way he delivers the lines from Howl. There is an energy and excitement behind every word. I love the scene near the end of the film where Ginsberg reads the “I’m with you in Rockland” portion from Howl. Franco’s reading is emotionally sparked, and is one of the finest scenes in the film. The animated sequence of this reading that was shown earlier doesn’t carry the same weight. The viewer is shown images rather than getting caught up in the rhythm, the words, and the performance. As Ginsberg says during his interview, “Poetry is a rhythmic articulation of feeling.”

It’s a feeling that begins in the pit of the stomach and rises up through the breast, and out the mouth, and…and it comes forth as a croon or a groan or a sign. So you try to put words to that by looking around you and trying to describe that’s making you sigh, to sigh in a way, you simply articulate what you feel.

Allen Ginsberg

REVIEW: Hanna

Hanna
Directed by: Joe Wright
Written by: Seth Lockhead, David Farr
Starring:, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett

It’s only three months into the year, but Hanna is current favorite. Hooking me from the first frame, it’s a hyper coming-of-age action film that’s simultaneously unbelievable and identifiable.

Hanna is the latest film Joe Wright, who’s previous cinematic ventures leave you wondering how he came to be in the director’s chair. Pride and Prejudice and Atonement (also with Ronan) are period dramas, and The Soloist is a modern-day drama. Wright handles the material well, and ends up with a fun, smart film.

Hanna (played by Saoirse Ronan) is a 16-year old girl who has lived all of her life secluded in a small cabin with her father (Eric Bana), who has trained her to to survive: “Adapt or die” is a repeated warning. At the beginning of the film, Hanna is faced with a decision which will impact the rest of her life. A decision that will bring her in contact with a woman named Marissa (Cate Blanchett), question her very existence, and the struggle to survive in the world at large.

The film is a well-constructed jumble of action and drama with an art-house flourish. The pace, rhythm, and editing style feed off of each other’s energy, and appropriately adapts from scene to scene. Wright is clearly a fan of long one-take shots (See Atonement), and this shows up in a killer scene with Eric Bana that brutally plays out on the screen. However, the scene where Hanna encounters a plethora of sounds she’s never heard before near the beginning of the film felt overtly bombastic and should have been toned down. The recurring theme of Hanna experiencing new sensations is, aside from the one scene, handled well with profound impact.

In an interview with KBPS, Joe Wright says,

It’s very much a fairy tale. I wanted a kind of atmosphere to the film that was difficult to pin down. It doesn’t quite happen int he real workd but it’s not an all out fantasy.

The fairy tale aspect works really well for the film. It’s impressive how fairy tales influence the characters, story, and setting, but don’t dictate everything. It’s a subtle influence that increases with the film.

The talent is great in this film, especially Cate Blanchett and Tom Hollander as the villains. They brought some great nuances that made their characters stand out and define who they were. Cate’s original encounter with Hanna (seen in the trailer) plays much creepier in the actual film with her reactions to what’s going on. Hollander’s recurring whistle and jaunt add to his eerie persona.

Also impressive was the lead performance by Saorise Ronan, who revealed a lot about her character from her rapt curiosity. Hanna reminded me of Peter Seller’s character Chance in Hal Ashby’s film Being There, where he plays a character who has never left the confines of the residence where his father is the butler. Where Hanna has learned everything she knows from books, Chance learns from his television set. (Granted, Chance isn’t a trained assassin. Parallels have to end somewhere) :)

If you’re looking for a smart popcorn film, Hanna is the one for you.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: The Fighter

The Fighter
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo

David O. Russell’s new boxing film The Fighter opens with the character of Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), a shrunken, twitchy boxer who seems to talk excessively about his past accomplishments and preeminent return to greatness.  He’s the pride of his hometown, and they all seem to show up whenever Dicky is out and about.  Dicky’s mother (Melissa Leo), who also acts as his manager, has nothing but praise for her son, and HBO has chosen to document his remarkable comeback.  Dicky is even training his younger brother, Micky (Mark Wahlberg) to follow in his footsteps as a boxer.  The story seems to be set around an interesting character that would follow the typical boxing plot line, charting Dicky’s comeback and ending it with a climactic championship fight.  But that’s where The Fighter breaks ranks from its genre.

The film is hardly about boxing, and it sure isn’t about Dicky.  He’s plagued by abusive drug use, and is often too high to train Micky properly or form any chance at a comeback.  His mother is too selfish and proud to realize Dicky’s problems, her apathy toward Micky’s career, and her unfounded disapproval of Micky’s equally brash girlfriend (Amy Adams).  Even the HBO crew isn’t exactly what they seem; they’re certainly not interested in Dicky’s comeback.  The beautiful backdrop suddenly becomes a harsh and unkind reality.  Yet, in that setting, we find solace in the story’s real hero, Dicky’s younger brother, Micky Ward.  In a film where everyone is vocal and brash, Walhberg’s Micky is a relief; he’s tough as nails, yet a shy and quiet person. He’s a talented fighter, yet has a history of being a disappointment.  He will fight any man, yet is intimidated by his family.  The contrast is not only interesting, it’s quite endearing; we love Micky for it. We pull for him to win his fights.  We cheer for him to stand up to his family.  And, while Micky learns how to take a stand and fight against the life problems he is facing, he becomes the catalyst of redemption for his family, pushing them to look beyond themselves and fight against their own issues.  The title is not referencing his boxing, it’s referencing his life.

The movie, which is based on a true story, has been a project Mark Wahlberg has been personally pushing for years.  As a friend of the real Micky Ward, he was the one who got the story rolling, and even got David O. Russell involved.  Wahlberg even said he’s been preparing for the role for four years.  Most would find this surprising; since Micky is so low-key, many will forget Wahlberg’s performance all together.  After all, The Fighter is a solid movie under David O. Russell’s direction, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo are contending against each other in the best supporting actress category, and Christian Bale may wind up with an Oscar thanks to his incredible performance as the strung-out Dicky Ecklund.  However, in the end, it’s Wahlberg’s quiet and likeable Micky that connects with the audience, and ultimately makes The Fighter one of the biggest successes of the year.

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Guest reviewer Zach Scheller is a freelance videographer who also likes to write about movies and tweet.

The Way We Get By

TWWGB_POster

The Way We Get By
Directed by: Aron Gaudet
Written by: Aron Gaudet

The Way We Get By is a fantastic documentary by writer/director Aron Gaudet. It is about three older people and what they’ve gone through in the last five years as the self-appointed welcoming committee for American troops as they return to native soil. The film is predominately set in the Bangor Airport in Bangor, Maine, and the homes of the welcomers.

The Way We Get By is a short documentary that was made for the long-running PBS television series P.O.V. It’s a film about nothing, and yet, everything. By that I mean that the stories don’t seem to be as heavily influenced by the director as other documentaries might be. And the many themes that come across in the film (loss, loneliness, family, spirit, etc.) are universal themes.

The style presented in the documentary keeps these stories fresh and interesting. There’s an amazing rhythm from story to story that keeps it going. One style in particular reminded me of David Lynch’s on-going Interview Project, which centers around individual stories. The similarity lies in the edit, where the interviewee’s audio track is dubbed over a different shot, trying to capture the right emotion for what is being said.

Each person in The Way We Get By is a dear soul, and I instantly connected with William, Joan, and Gerald on an emotional level. There’s so much pathos here. Heck, the preview itself had me tearing up. I found one line from Gerald to be especially poignant. When asked why he was doing what he was doing, he replied, “Be nice to somebody and that makes you feel nicer. That’s the only way you can deal with it.”

I loved seeing the different attitudes and opinions of the greeters as well. I love how these people, even the ones who don’t support the war, are there to support the troops regardless of their stance. That in mind, I wouldn’t call The Way We Get By an anti-war film. Rather, I think anti-loss would be a more fitting term.

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Lovely by Surprise

Lovely_By_Surprise_poster

Lovely by Surprise
Directed by: Kirt Gunn
Written by: Kurt Gunn
Starring: Carrie Preston, Austin Pendleton, Reg Rogers, Michael Chernus

Charlie Kaufman’s absurdity meets the style of Wes Anderson in this quirky look at humanity and the art of storytelling.

Carrie Preston plays Marian, an author who is struggling with her latest novel about two man-children (No, this is not a Will Ferrel movie) who live together in a landlocked boat in the middle of nowhere, surviving on cereal and milk.

Faced with writer’s block, Marian goes to Preston (Austin Pendelton) for help. Encouraged by her mentor, Marian attempts to off her main character. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that Humkin has other plans in mind, and literally leaps into our world.

Marian confides in Preston

I hesitate to say too much about the iconoclastic story for fear that it would take away from experiencing it for yourself. It’s a mixed bag of emotions, and first time director Kirt Gunn (also the writer) handles it delicately. It reminded me of Stranger Than Fiction and Adaptation, but only in plot. Kirt’s story is unique, fresh, and well worth watching.

At times grandiose and overacted, the decidedly idiosyncratic story has a peculiar blend of fiction and reality that works surprisingly well. The title of this film is very apt, and wonderfully absent from the film. It’s a title that makes sense in retrospect, which is a credit to the film.

The range of acting talent on display in Lovely by Surprise is, in my mind, the film’s greatest component. Carrie Preston, Austin Pendelton, and Reg Rogers perform admirably. I would love to see more from them. Michael Chernus brought a great amount of charisma to his performances as Humkin, and a What About Bob? quality to the character.

It’s a great little film with a lot of heart.

Lovely by Surprise comes out on DVD July 7th, 2009.

(Originally posted at MovieZeal.com)

PDQ Reviews (6/9)

RKO

Title: RKO 281
Directed By: Benjamin Ross
Starring: Liev Schreiber / James Cromwell / John Malkovich
PDQ: Tells the story behind Citizen Kane. The casting is genius, but the story was too bland and already covered.

Love

Title: Love and Death
Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen / Diane Keaton
PDQ: A fun, epic romp with Woody Allen. (You might want to watch The Seventh Seal first)

Cassandra

Title: Cassandra’s Dream
Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Ewan McGregor / Colin Farrell
PDQ: More in the style of Match Point than Allen’s earlier films. Not much going for this cautionary tale.

Nashville Film Festival Report, Day 2

Capturing_Reality

Day 2 of the Nashville Film Festival started with the 1:00 showing of a documentary called Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary. The overall format of the film was interviews with a host of documentarians around the world broken up by clips from their films. I appreciated the range of talking heads, as there were many faces that I didn’t recognize. After the film was over, I came away with two cemented ideas: Errol Morris continues to fascinate me (Especially with his interviewing device showcased in Fog of War), and I appreciate Werner Herzog more and more…but trust him less. He blurs the line between fact and fiction too much for my tastes. His point that all film in a sense is fictionalized, but I don’t think that should stop filmmakers from trying to portray truth in the films. This is a discussion that I would have liked to see more interaction with between the interviewed.

Mothers and Daughters

After a quick lunch, I watched Mothers & Daughters at 3:15. This film followed the mother/daughter relationships between several characters, overlapping in some areas. Overall it came across as being overly dramatic in several scenes, but there were a few gem moments that really touched me. The older woman (pictured above)  in the film was fantastic. The emotionality of the character was portrayed with such subtelty.

Gonzo

I admit that William Shatner was one of the selling points of the festival for me. I’d read a little about the William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet here and there, but wasn’t quite sure what it was about until watching it at the festival. In short, it’s a documentary that tells the story behind choreographer Margo Sappington’s ballet Common People. The performance fuses the ballet with Has Been, a recent album by William Shatner and Ben Folds. The documentary, which works more as a DVD special feature than a feature-length film, tells the story through interviews with the artists involved in both productions, which is a great story to tell. It also features footage from the ballet, which was riveting to say the least. I would have loved to see it performed live. After returning from Nashville, I purchased a copy of Has Been, which is quite a treat.