Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prometheus Review

Directed by Ridley Scott
Released in 2012

Is there a god? Does god hate us? What is god? Is Michael Fassbender god? Prometheus asks all of these eternal questions, pondering with a grandiosity now only seen in vapid summer movies. It is easy to admire Prometheus for what it dares to accomplish. In the same breath, it is easy to dislike the film for supplanting the wonder of these unanswerable questions by setting up answers and, naturally, botching their delivery. The film believes it is smarter than it truly is, meaning that it believes it is smarter than us. Prometheus buckles under the weight of its own mangled but beautiful ambition.

The plot behind Ridley Scott’s “space epic” has been kept under wraps, or so they say. The stirring trailer, replete with those Alien wails and stroboscopic cuts to black, actually reveals most of the movie. Not in context, of course, but the most memorable images of the film’s latter half are already in the marketing campaign. It is a mixed blessing that the images in the trailer are so captivating that it is hard to forget them.

Prometheus opens with the inception of life on Earth. The theory proposed is a rather clumsy variation of panspermia, wherein life originates from elsewhere in the universe. The first shots are beautiful, not unlike some of The Tree of Life’s stellar second unit work. Fast-forward so many years to 2089, where scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are searching caves on Scotland’s Isle of Skye for paintings that carry extraterrestrial secrets, pointing to life in the distant stars. Boring. Snap to the spacecraft Prometheus four years later, where Shaw and Holloway awake from stasis alongside a collection of mercenaries and scientists. There is that initial crew dinner scene you have seen in Aliens, Star Trek and every other sci-fi ‘space soldier’ flick, except the jokes fall flat. There are two knuckleheads, Millburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris), both poorly written and supplied weak banter. You know what is going to happen to their characters; you do not protest.

The mission at hand is to land on the moon LV-223 and see if these aliens were even there at all and why. They were there, of course. These proto-human “Engineers” manufactured a base on this moon long ago and … it is best to let the film tell the rest.

Dialogue is the obvious misstep. The most memorable line from the film is one from another. Android David (a wonderful, Bowie-esque Michael Fassbender) occupies part of his time on the ship watching Lawrence of Arabia and even styled his hair after Peter O. Toole’s. Before stepping onto the alien surface, he repeats the haunting quote, “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.” To be fair, it is tough to beat that. But the lack of humor (a memorable aspect of Aliens) and perceptive discourse (in a film with such ideas) is what will keep an audience five or 50 years later from connecting with a film so graphically dependent.

There is one laughable scene when Janek (Idris Elba), the ship’s callous pilot, runs into a room where Shaw is suiting up for the final mission. He lists a number of crucial details regarding the Engineers that he would have no way of knowing. It is a lazy excuse to advance the story and a screenwriting blunder.

The problem with Prometheus comes down to the way it chooses to tell its story. Clearly, it is an action-adventure film, and a pretty good one at that. Scott stages compelling entertainment. Older audiences tired of the politically correct PG-13 blockbuster standard will find a violent spectacle with production values normally reserved for safe bets like Avatar. The visual team crafts some of cinema’s most sweeping and striking moving images. A shot of the Prometheus gliding across the stars and another dwarfing the ship against the moon affirms the movie’s epic scope, an inverse of the slow pan over the Nostromo that commenced the self-contained Alien.

Scott sees this as his 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the opening shot of a shadowed Earth not too subtly suggests. Communication breaks down, however, when addressing philosophical questions about god, man’s purpose and the Copernican principle within a generic action movie structure. The film’s climax could carry a sense of wonder — without spoiling much, it relates to a “first contact” with superior beings. Instead, it is an action scene with nothing to say. Not ‘nothing’ in the nihilistic sense, nor even an ambiguous, interpretative one. Prometheus just botches the landing, feeling limp and disconnected.

Take the film’s half-baked commentary on religion. Deeply pious, Shaw demands her cross back after it was confiscated. Bombarded with death and destruction, she still insists on believing simply to put a positive spin on all this tragedy. There are plenty of critiques of religion at hand, from the Engineer’s dark plans for mankind to expedition CEO Peter Weyland’s (Guy Pearce) god complex. To balance the debate, a religious protagonist is thrown in, but she comes across as naïve and senseless. Maybe that is the point. In any case, Shaw is either an incomplete character or a degrading attack on faith. I'm not sure which one is worse.

I levy these criticisms only because the filmmakers have brought these expectations upon themselves. Once upon a time, madmen like Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick were granted millions to create intellectual epics like Apocalypse Now and 2001. Ridley Scott was one of those crazies, as Blade Runner was made under similar circumstances. You do not see cinema of that ambition and allowance today.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


This is the first post in Film Stock, a series of reviews appreciating the greatest films of all time. In the spirit of the just-released Prometheus, inaugurating this collection is Ridley Scott’s 1979 opus, Alien. A choice like Casablanca would be more classical and an essay on The Tree of Life would appear more legitimate, but I would like to start with a film that is a masterpiece by all accounts yet also thrilling entertainment and a hallmark in modern moviemaking. Film Stock will update periodically, as per my schedule (I don’t get paid for this, after all). The criterion for a film selected is at least two (often more) viewings several months (often years) apart. I aim to cover a wide range of film history. To prove this, no Christopher Nolan … for now.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Released in 1979

What I would give to know nothing of Alien and watch it again for the first time. Unfortunately, that can never happen. I imagine few people are out there [reading this] who do not know that scene — that scene, when the whole movie changes. If you have no idea what I am getting at, by all means stop reading this and watch this movie untarnished while you still can. But for the rest of us, the alien — later labeled “xenomorph” — and its gruesome method of reproduction are as close to public domain as R-rated science fiction can reach. There is no scene in film history with such an unexpected punch. Psycho’s shower scene. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” “Nobody’s perfect!” Alien’s Last Supper owns it.

It speaks to Ridley Scott’s brilliance, then, as to why watching Alien for the third time the other day, with the same foreknowledge of the twist as my first viewing, remained as shocking as ever. For that infamous dinner scene, in particular, the suspense relies mostly on the framing of the shots. Scott does not rely on quick cuts to artificially escalate tension; he sustains a shot on Parker (Yaphet Kotto), Dallas (Tom Skerrit) and the ill-fated Kane (John Hurt, perfect as always), only to cut to his friends dining around him. None of them realize what is really happening until it happens, or even after. The characters are not fleshed-out to the extent of a character study a la Raging Bull, but the agonizing, sustained duration with which Scott forces us to watch Kane’s brutal demise, and his friends struggling to save him, defines corporeal and emotional pain.

Consider that it takes about an hour to reach this point. It is a horror movie, and there is not a drop of blood until it is halfway done, and truthfully not much after that. As the alien picks off the remaining crewmembers, most of the deaths are depicted off-screen (shadows against a cat’s head, for instance) or through rapid, almost subliminal shots of gore (usually the alien’s phallic inner mouth pulverizing a head). One of the most notorious jump scares in film history — Dallas’ trek through the ventilation system — is also one of its most craftiest, fooling the viewer with a tracking shot that focuses on the foreground, only for Dallas to illuminate the background with his flashlight and *!!!* *static*. Scott tells the story from the parceled viewpoints of the Nostromo’s inhabitants, only quickly cutting when a vantage point, no, when a friend, has been terminated. The steady pacing, before, during and after duress, is the film’s secret weapon, acclimating the audience to the ship’s confines and acquainting us with our fellow humans, who we are powerless to save. We just watch. Or don’t.

With Sigourney Weaver’s prolific acting schedule in the many years since this film, often starring as a yappy bureaucrat or fast-talking heroine, it is easy to forget this understated performance in her first leading role. Aliens would give her more lines and cement Ripley as the quintessential female action hero. But here Weaver tackles the part without any camp, transcending the admirable benchmark Jamie Lee Curtis set in Halloween two years earlier. Scott certainly dreamed of greatness for Alien, but his dreams only came true with Weaver’s talent and willingness to break ground beside him.

What a remarkable character they created. Ripley revolutionized Hollywood and all those who watched and continue to watch her. Without Alien, we may not have ever seen Clarice Starling, Sarah Connor or Beatrix Kiddo.

Here was a woman, beautiful she may be, not typecast as the clueless female caricature awai
ting her male savior. She organically takes charge above her peers, each of whom could surely do the same (except Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) … poor Brett). But only Ripley had the foresight of the fatal contamination Kane’s alien contact would wreck and the strength to persist with such a tough verdict, even if the literally corrupt Ash (Ian Holm) bypassed her wishes. And only Ripley made it to the end, not by superiority or radical political correctness, but because she was coarse enough to think like the alien and take the bitch out herself.

Some fem
inists decried the sexualization of Ripley once aboard the escape vessel, when she takes off her clothes aboard the escape vessel she believes is safe. “Stripping her narrative competence with her uniform,” Vivian Sobchack writes in Alien Zone, a collection of essays on science fiction cultural theory, “Ripley no longer represents a rational and axesual functioning subject, but an irrational, potent, sexual object — a woman, the truly threatening alien generally repressed by the male-conceived and dominated genre.” Whoa now. Sobchack makes a good point on the ‘uncovering,’ be it will, of the true woman, who is also alone and captured in low, voyeuristic camera angles. But she does not see the true critique and brilliance of the sequence, where Ripley must adorn the spacesuit no woman had worn to the point, become the ‘man’ and kill the hermaphroditic male rapist for good. 

With such subtle imagery, Scott is not substituting Ripley for a male surrogate to win the day but thrashing the expectations the sci-fi audience already conceived for her character. The littl
e striptease is almost sinister in its intention: For the first time, the film incites cheap arousal from the predominantly male voyeurs yet then reintroduces the sexually relative monster and robes Ripley in men’s clothing for a bloodless finish. Scott’s provocation makes for the most satisfying unsatisfying climax in thriller history, no pun intended.

Someone with a familiarity in art history, design and sculpture could speak in more impressive terms, but as a construction leader of my high school production, I know the work it takes to create a set and Alien’s little world is a fully realized, nuanced masterpiece of the craft. The utilitarian hallways Ripley sprints down, with their monotonous pipes and wires that run in stark contrast to Star Trek’s primary colors. The stark geodesic bubble where crewmembers access the ship’s computer, Mother. The resistance of the failsafe levers that Ripley fails to overcome in time. Overwhelming with detail, the Nostromo’s design stands an unparalleled achievement in art direction to this day. Scott, who had a hand in the visual design with Roger Christian, Leslie Dilley, Stan Winston and the essential H.R. Giger, makes love to the set with his camera. Every scene captures an area of the ship from a new viewpoint. The lens flare illuminating the crew during the ship’s descent likely inspired J.J. Abrams. It is a grimy, empty, dreary ship, yet never a depressing or boring view.

There is a complete universe inside and outside the Nostromo. Today, that means “sequels!” and it did in 1979, too, as three successors bore the Alien name over the next 18 years. While James Cameron’s Aliens remains one of his greatest accomplishments (among many, I should clarify), it is a decidedly different film, expanding the mythos while losing its mystery. Meanwhile, the final two films fumble a little too much with their legacy. Alien, Ridley Scott’s perfect film, one with Jaws and Psycho, transcends its genre with multiple levels of meaning on image and soundtrack. Like Spielberg and Hitchcock’s best, the thrills survive without attention to its politics or ideology or aesthetics. But they are all there, ripe for discovery upon each viewing, dealing naked thrills and scary truths.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Men in Black 3 Review

Men in Black 3
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Released in 2012

Reflecting on Men in Black 3, my mind, for some reason, keeps jumping to comparisons with The Avengers. Marvel’s blockbuster is still Hulk-smashing every box office record out there, so the film is probably occupying every Variety subscriber’s thoughts for some reason or another. But the two movies share a similar premise — banding together estranged heroes to stop an alien threat — and a love of comic foreplay that faintly nestles them side-by-side. In that case, MiB 3 is without a doubt the superior film. With a $225 million budget, MiB 3 has all the bells and whistles of your typical summer hit yet still possesses a warmth missing in so many others. This film does not succeed by flaunting what it has but by having all it needs and letting it sing.

What MiB 3 has is genuinely great acting, a sharp, economic script and director Barry Sonnenfeld’s clutch balance of such quality. The story is independent of the first two films in the franchise, scrapping Agent Zed, Frank the pug and 90s artifact ‘the worm guys’ except for fleeting cameos. Agent J (Will Smith) assumes the lead, tracking down Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones, with Josh Brolin playing his young self) back in 1969 via time machine after an evil alien Boris the Animal (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement) erases K’s entire existence. There are dozens of plot loopholes and continuity errors but to dwell on such trivia is to ignore the film’s characters, tone and, really, its whole point.

It is reasonable, however, to complain about the outrageous salaries some celebrities receive, especially in these tough times. But, really, the $20-plus million upfront and 20-percent backend thrown at Will Smith is doing some good, because the man earns it. Besides not aging one bit since 1997, Smith still jokes, brawls and charms in league with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. There is a moment when Agent J stares at Brolin’s young Agent K when they are driving through 1960s-era New York City after meeting for the first time — the shot is prolonged enough that Smith’s grin is supposed to be construed as awkward. The theater laughs; it’s a joke. But there is a real sweetness to this gesture, of seeing your best friend for the first time, again, before you ever met — Smith is capable of blending a joke with humility and love, in the span of just a few seconds.

Tommy Lee Jones proves again why he is one of his generation’s most gifted and enjoyable actors, with a face as cratered as the moon and a presence equally bright. In the beginning, K infuriates J by withholding secrets that J feels entitled to know. “I promised you the secrets of the universe, nothing more,” K says over the phone, ensconced in his apartment’s leather chair, fireplace smoldering behind him. J and K then share a moment of silence, with a close-up on K’s face. He does not look indifferent but sad that he cannot speak the truth (the reasoning, of course, is revealed later). After they hang up, K nonchalantly presses a button that raises the wall and fireplace behind him to unveil a vast arsenal of ‘space guns.’ He picks one up, snaps it side to side, sits back down and awaits the dangerous Boris the Animal who has a score to settle.

It is not so much a juxtaposition as a natural coexistence of comedy and drama, light and heavy, deft and steady that this film — with much credit to the directing — continuously pulls off. Josh Brolin nails the clip of Jones’ voice, but thanks to a script that actually lets K smile for once, he develops a character richer than the one we started with. The joy K radiates recounting a night spent with Agent O (Alice Eve, dressed like a Mad Men secretary working at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum) brings more humanity to a character in ten seconds than all of MiB II.

Then there is Griffin, a fifth dimensional alien who can read and live in all seemingly infinite alternate realities. Played by A Serious Man’s Michael Stuhlbarg, he probably pillaged a thrift store to hide his unknown alien appearance under layers of secondhand sweaters. His introduction at The Factory — yes, The Factory, Andy Warhol’s (Bill Hader) bastion for counterculture extraterrestrials — lets loose a string of possible immediate futures that all spell doom, only to conveniently end up on the most improbable historical line on which our heroes are still alive. When not tortured by clashing apocalyptic realities, Griffin revels in the remarkable events when everything works out, like the “Miracle Mets” 1969 victory at Shea Stadium. Stuhlbarg, a brilliant actor Scorsese recently tapped for Boardwalk Empire and Hugo, legitimizes a supporting role with all the debilitating neuroses and yearned-for optimism we share.

I have not even mentioned the zany futurist set and costume design, remarkable time travel sequence or nods to modern and 60s pop culture (Lady Gaga now adorns the MiB headquarters’ monitors; “The Viagrans have an amazing new pill…”). Nor have I yet admitted that the 3D in this film actually works; it does not desaturate the overly bright shots but rather exaggerates the rapid digital action scenes, with flying projectiles and long-exposed motion blur. Men in Black thrives on the characters it develops and the connections they make with one another. Studios love to pile different genres onto one film to reach everyone — which is effectively no one. This film proves that at least a few wealthy filmmakers can see past the gloss and craft with their own human hands, as the bittersweet ending bears witness. This is a sci-fi action time travel comedy, yes, but don’t hold that against it.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link