Posted on 6/10/12 07:59 AM
I'd like to sum up Prometheus with a few adjectives to describe (in order) what it was like to watch this movie in IMAX 3D: Beautiful. Spellbinding. Curious. Mesmerizing. Thrilling. Horrifying. Unsettling. Perplexing. Disappointing. Underwhelming. Intriguing. Exciting. And in the end, again, Disappointing.
All of the above make for a very mixed experience. When taken solely on its strengths, Prometheus is a marvel to behold. It adds a dimension to the Alien universe that feels both fresh and right at place. But thematically, this film is NOT Alien. And fans hoping for such will be more than a little disappointed. There are ties to Alien. Some very nice ties, actually, but where Alien was a small, arty, grotesque, claustrophobic nightmare of a gem, Prometheus is almost all spectacle. The bombastic score is more reminiscent of Star Trek in places than it should be. Not that that's a bad thing, but at times when Prometheus strives to be more like Star Trek, or aspire to the visuals of Avatar, it feels somewhat removed from the first Alien. Perhaps that's the point. Fans should prepare themselves because this movie shares very little in common with Alien other than (as Scott has been so famously quoted) its DNA. And for the more OCD among us, connecting the dots between the prequel events of Prometheus and the facts of Alien proved to be quite confusing at times. For instance, the moon on which the crew of the Prometheus lands is called LV-223, not LV-446 as in Alien and Aliens. Is this an oversight? Probably not. Prometheus predictably sets itself up for a sequel in which some of the inconsistencies will likely be addressed.
Ridley Scott shows some remarkable artistry in setting the film up. The opening shots over the credits are jaw-dropping as is the sequence that follows them. The problem is that in the film's final act, all of the wonder, fascination, intelligence, and potential established in the first 2/3 just isn't paid off. Is that enough to derail the film? Not for me. I came out of it disappointed that it wasn't all it could have been. But the wonderful stuff more than makes up for the disappointments.
As for the secrets and twists? I managed to avoid nearly all of them. Yet I was not particularly surprised or impressed by the "surprises". In fact, if anyone was hoping there would be an mind-blowing explanation for the existence of the crashed ship and the dead Space Jockey in the Pilot Seat, they will get their answers, if not in ways that fully satisfy, surprise, or even make much sense.
Prometheus is highly recommended as a piece of ambitious sci-fi film making not often seen. As high art, it misses the mark. As a satisfying link to events in Alien, it sort of manages. Sort of. As a stand alone story? A bit underwhelming. But as a whole it's an "almost masterpiece".... it just could have been a full one.
Posted on 9/10/11 08:49 PM
A movie that succeeds at maintaining its offbeat tone, even at the cost of some of its characters, particularly the villain played by Cate Blanchett (who seems to be channeling her earlier cartoonish work in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Hanna plays as much like a fairy tale on steroids as it does an action thriller. I admired the scope of the movie and the performances were great, especially that of Ronan. But some of the imagery (such as a rundown amusement park) were a little too obvious for its own good. Entertaining and different if somewhat hobbled by style and heavy-handed metaphor.
Posted on 8/13/11 08:14 PM
So close. So very close.
"Insidious" has a great cast and a pretty cool premise. A family begins to experience some creepy happenings shortly after moving into their new home. When the eldest child falls into a coma under suspiciously creepy circumstances, dark demonic entities come calling.
When this movie tries the less-is-more approach, it manages to get under your skin. Problem is there's not much of that. Instead, the more-is-more approach takes over and the film's ultra low budget severely undercuts its tension. It's like spotting the zipper on the monster costume jumping out at you in the haunted house attraction. Once you've crossed the threshold from frightening to laughable there's no going back.
Let's be honest: "Insidious" is a not-so-thinly veiled remake of "Poltergeist" right down to the introduction of a team of ghost busting tech nerds led by other worldly eccentric psychic. "Poltergeist" is a film that begins creepy too, but at least when it jettisons those ambitions it goes for epic fantasy spectacle (and has the budget to pull it off). That's what made "Poltergeist" such a ghoulish treat.
Instead, the makers of "Insidious" took a gamble that subversive imagery would ratchet up the scares after subtlety ran its course. No better scene illustrates this than the one where an old woman puts on a gask mask in order to communicate with the dead. You read that right. Believe me, I appreciated the effort. In more deft hands, this kind of kinky hard turn could have really worked. Sadly though, this is where the movie descends into the ridiculous.
But for a while anyway Insidious accomplishes some of what it sets out to do -- scare the pants off of you. If you want to preserve that effect, just be sure to turn the film off about an hour and 15 minutes in.
Posted on 7/23/11 10:12 PM
Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the more successful and entertaining installments in the Marvel roster of films, even as it suffers from some of the same problems that hampered films like The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, chiefly as a vehicle to promote the upcoming Avengers ensemble event of 2012.
When Captain America focuses on its pulp roots and period details, it shines with old-fashioned aplomb. Even anachronistic details like Nazi's with lasers don't seem out of place in the stylized deco world that Director Joe Johnston (who also directed the wildly likable period actioner The Rocketeer) strives for. The digital effects that render Chris Evans as the 90-lb. weakling Steve Rogers at the start of the film are exceptionally good. A fantastic host of actors including Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, and Tommy Lee Jones round out the cast. Some of the action feels pedestrian and uninspired, namely some montages and motor bikes chases. But other scenes like a raid on a moving train and a fight taken to the air aboard a giant flying-wing warplane are thrilling and well choreographed.
My favorite part was a light-hearted nod to Captain America's comic origins during a montage in which Steve Rogers is recruited to suit up in retro tights and promote America's War efforts in a traveling show featuring show girls and a mock Hitler look-alike. The sequence balances humor and nostalgia with irresistible charm.
Not as effective are the inevitable tie-ins to the Avengers. A modern day intro and epilogue feel tacked on for the sake of pimping next Summer's Marvel mash up.
At one point Steve Rogers rescues a group of American GI's and allies who quickly become his backup on future missions. This team includes a Frenchman and both African and Asian Americans. Such racial diversity seems less organic and more calculated to appeal to audiences in international markets. Although, in all fairness, since I'm not familiar with Captain America's comic book roots, I could be wrong.
Evans makes a likable hero and is well cast to depict the physicality of Captain America, but as an actor he lacks the kind of charisma that would have beefed up the character as much as his biceps do. Weaving has fun with the part of Red Skull, but his German accent could use a little work and Red Skull's part in the movie just didn't interest me very much aside from providing some cool action sequences. I had no idea why the glowing McGuffin cube was important nor did I care. And since every Marvel film these days includes a post-credit sequence, I stuck around for that and was rewarded with a sneak peek of the Avengers movie that left me wondering "was that supposed to be exciting??" Comic Book fans will certainly have a different reaction and that's fine. But I find these movies more entertaining when they meet their own stand alone responsibilities than teasing something yet to come.
Posted on 7/17/11 05:51 PM
A decade of imagination and whimsy in the most elaborate and consistently excellent film series in history has come to an end.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is the way a series should go out: with epic battles, stirring emotion, and some bittersweet nostalgia. For the purpose of my review, I'll address the film generally and then go into specifics later with spoiler notices.
The movie picks up literally where Part 1 ended, with Voldemort slipping the elder wand from the cold pale grip of Dumbledore's corpse and lifting his prize triumphantly to the sky. The opening sequence that follows the WB logo is quiet and beautiful. Alexandre Desplat's music is haunting, evocative, captivating as we see the silhouette of Severus Snape standing silently in a window at Hogwarts.
The first 15 minutes or so of Deathly Hallows Part 2 feel like leftover scenes from Part 1. Several horcruxes are still unaccounted for. After some necessary exposition, Harry, Ron and Hermione are off again on their quest to find and destroy them.
From then on the movie flexes its muscle as the action-packed finale it is. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves allow the action to slow long enough to give our beloved heroes time to shine and then the plot dives back into breathtaking spectacle. This is a Summer blockbuster that is determined to develop its characters as much as it means to thrill and entertain. There is no excuse for a film shortchanging its audience with endless action at the expense of storytelling or emotion. An audience needs to feel SOMETHING while caught in the midst of CGI chaos. It may be fine sometimes to check your brain at the door, but never your heart.
Since I read the book and knew the story well, the film had a different effect on me than others in my group who were only familiar with the movies. Much of what I thought might be confusing to them was easily processed and understood. The movie does a pretty decent job of explaining enough not to leave the uninitiated completely confused. However, I will say that seeing it with a group of "casual" Harry Potter fans also meant that there were little to no reactions at big character moments. I suppose I should have attended the midnight screenings to experience that kind of audience reaction. But everyone was happy with the film and walked out with smiles on their faces. Was it as epic for them as it was for me? Probably not. But everyone was satisfied.
Now for the spoilers. If you don't know the story or you wish to go in without too many specifics, stop reading here.
DH2 improves upon the book in many respects. Professor McGonagall felt like more of a weighty presence in the film even though Maggie Smith's scenes were brief and economic. The dragon in Gringott's is a sight to behold in IMAX 3D. When Harry, Ron, and Hermione escape on its back and take to the air, it was a beautiful moment of awe and wonder that gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that we got to see Ron and Hermione enter the Chamber of Secrets to destroy one of the horcruxes. That scene happens out of sight in the book, which feels like a shortchange to Ron and Hermione as characters. Thankfully, in DH2, their big moment -- the kiss -- is theirs and theirs alone rather than happening in the presence of Harry (as in the book). Snape's death occurs in the boat house rather than the Shrieking Shack, another smart change of location considering we've never actually seen the boathouse except in long shots of Hogwarts. It's a more logical locale given the urgency of the events.
There were moments in the film that made my blood run cold in ways the book didn't. When Voldemort speaks to masses, he does so in a form of mental telepathy that is rather unsettling. And when we catch a glimpse of Greyback, the werewolf Deatheater, feasting on the neck of a dead student, it is quite disturbing to realize it is Lavender Brown, and not some nameless background extra.
Snape's backstory is handled much as it is in the book, with a marvelously heartbreaking performance by Alan Rickman. Some of my group were a little unclear that Snape and Lili had never actually been boyfriend/girlfriend. Their childhood friendship and subsequent teenage estrangement was handled with more clarity and care in Rowling's telling. Speaking of Snape, I also thought Snape's "tears" were a far more effective way of revealing his memories than the way the book had him bleed silver liquid.
Another change from the novel was when Harry prepared to leave Hogwarts to face his destiny with Voldemort. In the book, Harry sneaks away under his cloak of invisibility without telling Ron or Hermione. The film allows him to say goodbye to his friends. It was a powerful heart-wrenching moment that I felt all three characters deserved.
Mrs. Weasley gets her "moment" and her wonderful one-liner while fighting Bellatrix , but it happens so fast you could easily miss it. For a moment built up by so many fans, it just barely happens in the film and wasn't the show stopper I anticipated.
And what about Neville Longbottom? While I certainly enjoyed seeing him come into his own, I didn't quite get the sense that he stole the movie as some critics and fans have suggested. He's a highlight, yes, but no more so than he was portrayed in the novel.
The hallows themselves still do not play a clear role in Harry's resurrection from the dead, but I suppose there are more educated fans than myself who know if that's true.
The epilogue is going to be a divisive element indeed. There are many who hated it in the book and some are calling the scene "laughable" in the movie due to the unconvincing age makeup on the young actors. I strongly disagree. I thought Radcliffe especially looked the part of a 37-year-old parent. Emma Watson not as much, but it's not distracting. Was the epilogue mawkish? Yeah, sort of. But it earned it. Was I moved to tears by it? No. But I think that has more to do with the fact that I didn't literally grow up with these books and films like many younger viewers. I found myself misty eyed more with Snape's death scene and The Prince's tale than anything else.
DH2 benefits as much from its epic scope as DH1 benefitted from its gloomy, quiet angst. While neither of them make a wholly fulfilling movie experience on their own, I'm not sure they will work as one single film either. The tone of each is just so different. Time will tell. Time will be kind to the entire series, in fact. When all is said and done, this is a remarkable film achievement, and the series concludes with a crowd-pleasing climax worthy of the title "classic."
Harry Potter, we will miss you.
Posted on 7/17/11 04:43 PM
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is not a movie made for someone with just a passing familiarity with the franchise. It begins with the understanding that its audience is up to speed on who the players are, how high the stakes have risen, and why we should care about what happens to the characters. The predictable beats are gone: no jaunty trip on the Hogwarts Express, no introduction to the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, and no classroom mischief. This break from convention allows it to stand apart in ways that no other Harry Potter film to this point has.
Deathly Hallows 1 easily rates as my favorite next to The Prisoner of Azkaban, for many of the same reasons. Like Azkaban, Deathly Hallows 1 establishes a darker and more mature tone with such grace and confidence it's impossible not to admire.
David Yates has infused his penultimate Harry Potter with gothic bleakness and a sense of dread that begins with a decaying Warner Brothers logo and doesn't let up until the end credits roll. Violence, suspense, and some sensuality show just how far these films have come from the cheery wish-fulfillment days of Chris Columbus. One particular segment involving a visit to Harry's home town manages to include a heart-breaking scene in which Harry finds his parent's grave followed by a sequence in which Harry and Herminone are lured into a trap that is - without a doubt - the closest this series has gotten to genuine horror.
The plot unfolds at a pace that feels natural and not rushed. The much-criticized "camping" act is probably my favorite portion of the movie since it relies solely on showcasing the strong young actors that Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson have become. Some of the Potter Babble does get a bit tedious, but no more so than usual (since every Harry Potter film contains at least several minutes of characters sitting around talking about this bit of history, or that clue, or what so-and-so did). Yates even took the heaviest bit of exposition and transformed it into a beautiful sequence of animation that stands as a high point in the series.
Make no mistake, Deathly Hallows Part 1 is not a stand-alone movie. It was never meant to be. It is a prelude to a conclusion of 10 years of movie magic. Part 1 turns the conventions of its saga upside down and does so with admirable style. It sets up what will inevitably be a magnificent, spectacular conclusion.
Posted on 7/17/11 04:43 PM
Director David Yates has certainly redeemed himself after the ho-hum Order of the Phoenix. The Half Blood Prince is the most mature, foreboding, and confident film in the series to date.
HBP functions on the assumption that the viewer has either read the novels or at least kept up with the films. That's certainly not a bad thing since there is no exposition required or needed at this point in the series; at least not pertaining to the world of wizards.
The weaknesses of this sixth installment come from abrupt shifts in tone, slow sections, and a somewhat abbreviated climax. While a darker mood hangs over this movie related to previous installments, I couldn't help but think the most horrific elements were toned down to keep the rating PG, including an attack by Death Eaters on a bridge in London and a lake filled with re-animated corpses. But these are minor gripes.
Where the film excels is in the acting and in numerous emotional punctuations that add to the film's charm, poignancy, and menace. Voldermort sits this one out, but his presence hangs over the characters like an axe waiting to fall. In the midst of this gloom, the students turn their attention to matters of attraction (as teens usually do) It is fun to watch these characters who have literally grown up on screen navigate the sexual politics of adolescence.
Half Blood Prince was the first Potter book I chose to read before seeing the movie, and it certainly influenced how I viewed it. Dumbledore and Harry's quest into Voldemort's cave made for a very powerful experience because it was almost exactly how I remembered the scene from the book. However, I only read it once and it's been a couple of years, so I did not have a sense of how much was ommitted, and that makes my experience different from someone who has relished the book numerous times. The battle in Hogwarts was missing, but I suspect that is because a similar conflict takes place in Deathly Hallows and Yates is saving the best for last. Wise choice.
Over all, I rate Half Blood Prince just behind Prisoner of Azkaban in terms of quality, and I like to think of it as the first part of a trilogy that will be continued with Deathly Hallows Parts one and two in 2010 and 2011.
Posted on 4/02/11 08:38 PM
"Source Code" is a strange mix of conventional thrills and unconventional, almost cerebral existentialism. The latter shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who saw Director Duncan Jones' debut "Moon." That head trip of a film suggested that Jones was a genre director with a smart head on his shoulders.
While "Source Code" is a bit more accessible to the mainstream (due mostly to its casting of the likable Gyllenhaal), it's by no means dumbed down, and requires a good bit of concentration to follow the science if one is so geekly inclined. The script is taut and engaging if not emotionally satifying...Well, not until the final act. The powerful ending left me with an unanticipated lump in my throat. When a movie about quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and terrorism can do that, it's a rare and special treat.
Vera Farmiga delivers another smart, nuanced performance in which she delivers most of her lines staring into a television monitor. She is the epitome of understated brilliance.
Michelle Monaghan is smart, fresh, and endearing, which is pretty amazing considering we only get to know her character through a series of 8-minute repeated intervals.
Jeffrey Wright, however, was a bit of a disappointment. I usually dig Wright in most anything, but here he seemed miscast in a cartoonish role that felt out of place in this kind of film.
"Source Code" is the antidote to the oft uttered phrase "Just turn off your brain and enjoy it" and proves that turning ON your brain yields the most unexpected rewards of all.
P.S. - Anyone who gets a kick out of inside jokes will appreciate how Duncan works in (yet again) the epic pop anthem "One and Only" by Chesney Hawkes. Not since John Landis' "See You Next Wednesday" or Hitchcock's cameos has a cinematic gag been this much fun.
Posted on 1/17/11 01:50 PM
Beautifully shot, gorgeously realized with sensual detailing. "I am Love" succeeds where many European films do in taking its time to establish a mood, a pace, and a story. Tilda Swinton portrays the matriarch of a wealthy Italian family with grace and longing, but ultimately (as does the script) she falls victim to a third act that trades the film's sumptuous tone for overwrought melodrama. It's really a shame when the final scene of a movie manages to erase all of the goodwill that came before it. "Black Swan" is a great example of a film that goes off the rails by the end, but is careful to prepare its audience for that inevitability.
Posted on 12/18/10 09:14 PM
Darren Aronofsky doesn't paint with a fine brush. He uses a mop dipped in the lifeblood of his protagonists. Black Swan is a heavy handed melodrama, complete with over-the-top hallucinations, homo-erotic sexual awakenings, and a sense of dread that pitches head first into a final 10 minutes that make it all worth it.
Some people will see it as nothing more than art house camp. Others will applaud the brilliant directing and the superb performance of Natalie Portman, and others, like myself, will not be entirely sure what they just saw, but will feel on some intrinsic level that it was ingenious.
Being an artist, I recognize the themes of sacrifice, drive, and self destruction that an artist sometimes endures for the craft. I also understand the quest for perfection and how maddening it can be when elusive. Even though I've never been a dancer, Black Swan showed me the kind of pressure that hangs over the life of a ballerina in the spotlight.
Portman's character Nina is shy, naive girl who is absolutely unprepared for the demands of a leading role in the New York City Ballet performance of Swan Lake. Yet that role is thrust upon her under questionable circumstances. Mila Kunis plays a rival dancer, Lily, who may (or may not) be after Nina's role as the Swan Queen. Nina and Lily's relationship dances on the edge of erotic surrealism with both characters often inhabiting light and dark roles in a very deliberate mirroring of the white and black characters of Swan Lake. All characters in this movie are, in fact, representative of their figurative counterparts in the ballet. Aronofsky doesn't bother to keep that the least bit ambiguous. The soundtrack that plays over the darkest and most dramatic turns in the narrative is literally the music of Swan Lake. By getting that out in the open, Aronofsky is able to instead focus on the horrors that lurk under the surface of Nina's fragile psyche.
Nina's break from reality is handled quite superbly. Neither she nor the audience can ever trust their own eyes and the result is a dark and twisted exploration of paranoid madness. When Nina finally goes over the edge, she loses herself in the art and quite literally transforms into something that is both grotesque and beautiful. Black Swan, the film, is very much the same kind of creature.