Saturday, June 30, 2012

Magic Mike

MAGIC MIKE: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn (110 min.)

The marketing campaign behind Magic Mike has done a great disservice to swarms of women all across the country.  This is not the feel good dance flick with male flesh in abundance and tons of laughs.  This is not a night at the male strip club.  There are laughs, there is male flesh - and plenty of female flesh to go along with it - but Magic Mike is more than what the advertisements lead us to believe.  And that is a good thing.  It is a real film, with style and flair, and with magnificent performances from two of the most unlikley actors. 

The story is an age old narrative about a young man seduced by an old pro into a life of glitz and glamour, until things go wrong in one way or another.  It is the rookie cop and the seasoned vet, it is a story you have seen.  But it's told with some interesting characters and instead of the police station we have the background of Xquisite, a "male dance revue" in Tampa, Florida.  That is where Mike (Channing Tatum) moonlights to make the big bucks while working various jobs during the day.  At his construction day job, Mike runs into Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a wayward young kid living with his sister and aimless in just about every aspect of his life.  One night, Adam hitches a ride with Mike and is pulled into the nightclub; he sees the women laughing and clawing and swooning over Mike as he dances on stage, and before long he is reluctantrly thrown onto the stage himself.  His timid undressing act is taken as just that, an act, and from there he has the taste of the night life.  He never looks back.

The club is run by Dallas, an aging stripper played by Matthew McConaughey as a desperate, but consistently amusing has been.  In ridiculous costumes and with that thick Southern drawl, Dallas runs the show like a circus ringleader.  There are various other dancers floating like satellites around the central story of Mike and Adam.  Mike strikes up a thin romance with Adam's reluctant sister, Brooke (Cody Horn).  One of the best scenes in the film is when Brooke stops by the nightclub to spy on her brother stripping, then stays to catch Mike's routine.  The intercut between Mike's stellar dance moves and Brooke's softening face as she slowly lets her guard down is a fascinating and wonderfully edited scene.  All the while, Mike longs to get a loan to start up his own small business while Dallas plans on uprooting to Miami, where the real action lies.

Magic Mike is not alway a raucous good time.  It rarely is, for that matter.  There wouldn't be much of a movie to discuss had it been an endless series of stripteases.  In a world of all nighters and the obsession to look good, drugs are never far away and Adam falls into a downward spiral.  Mike struggles with his own issues, and perhaps the only thing he realizes is he doesn't want to be the next Dallas.  Which leads me back around to Matthew McConaughey.  This is the type of unguarded, selfless, energetic performance that grabs Supporting Actor nominations.  I don't imagine he will be remembered when the time comes, and that is a shame because he honestly deserves it.  The way Dallas shifts, without an ounce of self awareness, between cockiness and humor and desperation and darkness, is a revelation.  It's also proof that McConaughey has changed back into the actor we all thought he might be ten years ago.

Channing Tatum is not far behind in his own performance.  The film relies on him, and his charisma and continual ability to evolve as an actor has taken another step.  And it didn't hurt things that he started out as a male stripper - you can see that talent in his stunning dance moves.  Unfortunately, Alex Pettyfer cannot manage to keep up as Adam.  Through big stretches he is forgotten, then when he reappears he is less and less interesting.  I wanted more of an impact with his character, since he is the one with the darkest and most daring arch.  And, as I mentioned earlier, the romance between Mike and Brooke is a bit thin, but I suppose I could live with that when it's all said and done.

Director Steven Soderbergh has always been a fan of natural lighting, and he uses it in Magic Mike to great effect.  The day scenes look almost bleached from the Tampa sun, stained with shadows, and the nightclub scenes are full of spotlighting.  It adds a sort of effortless depth.  Soderbergh is one of the most interesting directors around, impossible to categorize, and he has branched out once again (although echoes of Boogie Nights rang through my head throughout, which is fine.  It makes sense).  I have a feeling there will be a few groups of confused women leaving theaters expecting a wild and wooly time of male stripping and hearty laughs.  This is more of a film about the side effects of fun and games than the fun and games themselves.  It's no way to kick off a bachelorette party, and if you ask me that's not really a bad thing.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

If the original Die Hard is a film that I grow nostalgic towards each December, as Christmas rolls around, Die Hard With a Vengeance seems to cross my mind as the temperature rises in the summer time.  This second sequel in the franchise has a hot, steamy feel to it as John McClane battles his enemies in a sun-baked Manhattan.  Of course, the original Die Hard tried to be as realistic as it could and still succeeded in pure adrenaline and entertainment.  The second Die Hard, directed by shameless action hack Renny Harlin, was a brainless mess of bloodletting and noise for the most part.  Die Hard With a Vengeance, however, is a creative and fun entry into the franchise, reuniting the character with director John McTiernan who was in charge of the first picture. 

The film wastes little time getting to the action, as The Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" is cut short by an explosion at a department store.  The explosion is a warning sent by Simon, the villain of the picture.  He will detonate another one unless Detective John McClane is brought in to participate in a sordid series of games.  The thing is, McClane is on suspension, and frequently drunk.  The mental state of John McClane is vital in the success of these films, in my opinion, but more on that later.  The chief rustles up a hungover McClane, who must wear a sandwich board in Harlem with an unfortunate racial slur written across it or else Simon will blow up another building.  Luckily, before the local riffraff can kill McClane he is rescued by Zeus, a reluctant shop owner played by Samuel L. Jackson.  Zeus is pulled into the game with McClane, as Simon begins sending them on tasks all over the city, leading them in different directions with riddles and clues.  Yet he always seems a step ahead, and he always appears to have a watchful eye on the two men.

This entire set up is, of course, a Rube Goldberg device used to pull off an elaborate heist.  Send them here, send them there, detonate a subway train, creating a hole in the ground to nab some gold, then set up a bomb in a school plotline to distract the police, and so on.  Simon, who is only heard over the phone for the first hour, is played with delightful European smarm by Jeremy Irons.  Turns out he is the brother of one Hans Gruber, Alan Rickman's character in the original Die Hard, and toying with an ultimately killing McClane is just a nice little addition to his heist.  The entire plot is put together seamlessly and is a lot of fun, despite the laughable moments like McClane surfing atop a dump truck in an aquaduct or the two men shimmying down a cable onto a moving freightliner.  It doesn't make things any less enjoyable.

There are no bad characters here.  Even the police trying to track down the school bomb, and the chief himself, are not annoying naysayers like the versions in the first two films.  And it was a clever move adding Jackson's character to go along with Bruce Willis.  John McClane is as easy as breathing for Willis at this point.  Naturally these two men start off on the wrong foot and have cultural boundaries to cross, but the way they begin to bond and focus on the task at hand feels natural and unforced.  And back to the McClane character, who in this film is down on his luck, separated from his wife, Holly, and basically a miserable drunk.  Think about John in the original film, on the outs with Holly again.  In the second film, however, they are back on and in love, and the film doesn't seem to work as well.  Then move forward to Live Free or Die Hard; they are divorced, but they have moved on from each other.  Things are stable at home, and again the film doesn't work.  I don't know if this is a coincidence, but the mental state of McClane lends itself to the success of these films.  Maybe I am reaching.

Die Hard With a Vengeance is an example of pure 90s action, when CGI had yet to dominate the screen and there was still time for face-to-face gunplay and set pieces.  And director John McTiernan understands the importance of making McClane vulnerable to gunfire, fists, and hard hits.  By the time the fourth film comes along, McClane seems indestructable, and this is all wrong.  Die Hard With a Vengeance doesn't stop, so it doesn't allow the audience time to question the preposterous nature of the events.  It is pure summer fun, and easily the second best film in the franchise.    

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Actor Profiles: Benicio Del Toro Can Do More.

I have always held Benicio Del Toro in high regard, even before his much-deserved Oscar win as Javier Rodriguez, the morally conflicted and ideologically compromised Mexican police officer in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic.  Years before, in the mid nineties, he was sharp as a tack and a standout in The Usual Suspects, a wild maniac in the Gonzo adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But if you were to examine his career a bit closer, in more detail after his Oscar win, would it not feel less remarkable than you first thought?  That isn't to say Benicio Del Toro is a poor actor.  My opinion is just the opposite; Del Toro is one of the most interesting faces in film, whose ability to look simulataneously disinterested and fully engaged has always added that layer of mystery.  He is a shadowy figure, both on and off the screen, who can make his mark just smiling in an elevator in a cameo (Somewhere), and his aura of slick coolness has seemed to carry him across a wasteland of absolute cinematic trash at times.  No, I am not saying he is a bad actor, I am saying he is a fantastic actor in need of a comparable role.

Born in Puerto Rico in February 1967 to lawyer parents, Benicio Del Toro found acting at the University of California in San Diego.  Like so many actors, the big break wasn't easy as Del Toro fought his way onto television shows like Miami Vice in the 80s.  And if anyone else enjoyed Big Top Pee-Wee as a child, go back and watch it again; Benicio is the Duke, the boy with the dog face.  Everyone gets their break somehow.  Somehow Del Toro worked his way out of Pee-Wee and into the 1993 James Bond thriller Licence to Kill where he played a henchman.  Throughout the early nineties Benicio worked hard to get noticed in pictures like The Indian Runner and Fearless.  But finally, his break was Bryan Singer's critically-acclaimed The Usual Suspects.  Playing part of an ensemble, Del Toro was the rattling, mumbling, hotshot thief Fenster amid a rogue's gallery of hoodlums.  From here, Del Toro would only get more notice and accumulate more praise on his way to the top.

Del Toro starred in some more smaller films like The Funeral and Excess Baggage before portraying the laywer to one Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam's drug-fueled oddysey Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Almost unrecognizeable beneath a mustache and about fifty extra pounds, Del Toro held his own against the skittish fantacism of Johnny Depp's portrayal of the famed author.  2000 was Benicio's breakout year, with Traffic garnering deserved praise and, specifically, praise for his role as Rodriguez.  What is so impressive about Del Toro's performance is it is the most memorable role in an ensemble cast including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, and a whole myriad of other fine actors.  It was Del Toro who shone through.

Now look at Del Toro's career post Oscar.  It's nothing along the lines of the disastrous career Cuba Gooding Jr's, although none really are, but Del Toro has still remained a presitigous and notable star even though very few of his pictures garner such acclaim.  There was his follow up, The Hunted, a messy and forgettable chase film with - who else - Tommy Lee Jones.  It's a film I genuinely hate.  21 Grams is a great film, and he is wonderful as a recovering alcoholic, and Sin City is, well, whatever.  Sometimes it is easy to overrate this one.  But the sap-filled melodramatic disaster of Things We Lost in the Fire played out like a duel between who would lose their clout after winning an Oscar faster, Halle Berry or Del Toro (answer: it was Berry).  Then there was Che, a heavy, bloated, mostly bland two-part epic about the revolutionary.  It had a tough time finding an audience.

Of course, the 2010 Joe Johnston adaptation of The Wolfman took the cake as a disaster, nearly stealing all of Del Toro's credibility.  Nothing much needs to be said about this film anymore.  Ever.

Now, it could be worse, I get that.  But couldn't it have been so much better?  I think so.  I am genuinely excited for Savages next month, and once again it finds Del Toro on one side of a drug war.  Now, of course, this time around the drug war in question is highly unrealistic and a little less likely to unfold that the very real, very raw events of Traffic.  But he finds himself teamed up with Oliver Stone, a director who almost mirrors Del Toro in potential once met, and not quite met again.  Not to say that either of them are bad, I want to make certain you get that point.  All I am saying is, this cool cat, one of the coolest in Hollywood, could do so much better on a more consistent basis.  Maybe I am being too hard on him, but sometimes it's worth it to want more out of certain actors.  Sometimes, it's easier to expect nothing from Cuba Good.... er, some actors. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER - Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell (105 min.)

When a movie has a title like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the plot description pretty much writes itself.  There are no questions walking into a film like this.  It is also a strict test of the theory that films require suspension of disbelief.  If you're walking into this film expecting historical accuracy, you need to first get your head examined, then you need to wait for December for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln before you get anything resembling history lesson.  Walk into this one expecting an acute interpretation of the title itself, and you may be pleased.  All of the players are here, Honest Abe, Mary Todd, etc.  But I seriously doubt the real Lincoln was this skilled with an axe.

Benjamin Walker plays Abraham Lincoln, and he looks so eerily like Liam Neeson I found it as no surprise he actually played a 19-year old version of the actor in Kinsey.  Lincoln is narrating the story, from a journal he has kept with him since childhood, when his mother was killed by a vampire.  This attack fueled his desire for revenge, though at first he had no idea what he was up against.  As a young man, Lincoln is drinking, angry, at a tavern when he meets Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), the mystery man required in films like this one.  Henry will become Lincoln's mentor, teaching him the skills required to destroy vampires.  Never much of a marksman, Lincoln opts to wield a silver-plated axe to do his hunting, and he learns to spin and pirouette with the axe like a martial artist.

The vampires in the story are Southern slave owners, naturally, and when the Civil War is in full force later in the picture the vampires fight for the Rebels.  The leader of the vampire society is Adam (the creator of all vampires, get it?), played with effective menace and sincerity by Rufus Sewell, who really should be in more films.  Adam and his vampires use the slaves as dinner basically, and when they here about this Lincoln scoundrel killing vampires in Springfield they cannot wait to meet him.

Henry sends Lincoln to Springfield where he practices his killing on local vampires and, at the same time, takes an interest in the law and studies to be a lawyer.  Against Henry's demands (no family, no friends), Lincoln falls in love with Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and the two marry.  Lincoln continues his moonlighting gig for a while, but soon finds he has strength in leadership and power in words. He puts away his axe and grows into the 16th President of The United States.  The final act of the picture has Lincoln facing off against Adam and his Southern rebel vampires, and a thrilling chase and battle sequence atop a train - albeit one that gets confusing and overcooked in the end - which leads us directly to Gettysburg and Lincoln's famous address.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is, if anything, solidly entertaining.  I never read the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also penned the script, but I imagine this is what he had in mind.  That isn't to say the film is particularly memorable.  Director Timur Bekmambetov, who directed Wanted, has a unique visual style for his action scenes which are effective here.  And the film itself, shot in rich sepia tones, is always nice to look at save for a ridiculous and poor-looking CGI scene amid a stampede of horses.  This is just laughable.  Walker is solid as Lincoln, as is Cooper, and Sewell is a formidable foe.  But the rest of the cast is unremarkable.  They have very little to do when all is said and done.  And of course the material is absurd, but played straight with little room for laughter was the best idea.  Had there been the slightest hint of tongue in cheek, the entire thing could have gone up in flames.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday Scatter: Raging Bull II, other nonsense, and some non-nonsense too...

* Look, you and I both know this Raging Bull sequel with William Forsythe is a joke.  Not a joke in the sense that it isn't happening, it most certainly is.  But it's straight to DVD.  Just pretend it isn't happening.  I doubt there will be a bluray box set with the original anytime soon.  No need to get fired up over a direct to DVD sequel.

* I was just thinking to myself that there hasn't been very many black and white movies out lately, and I was wondering why.  Then it hit me that the Best Picture winner this year was black and white.  It's amazing to me how quickly The Artist slipped out of everyone's mind.

* The Amazing Spider-Man may very well be amazing.  But I still don't see the point.

* Casey Affleck is slated to direct a biopic on Texas Ranger's outfielder Josh Hamilton.  For anyone who doesn't know Hamilton's story, think Christian Bale in The Fighter times three and with the talent of Mickey Mantle.

* Wanna know why Clint Eastwood stays so busy working on so many movies all the time at his age?  Watch five minutes of Mrs. Eastwood & Company and you'll find your answer.

* The Savages may be the best and the worst film ever.  Simultaneously.

* Anybody hear from Adrian Lyne?  Did he die?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


What began as an innocent attempt to be cool and funny and popular turned into a disaster the likes of which we have never seen.  This may seem like the nutshell synopsis of Project X - and it is - but it's also a description of the film itself.  It starts off with some promise, some wit, and a nice energy level that might sustain barely ninety minutes.  Alas, it does not, as the filmmakers opt to take Project X down a dark path, much too dark for a film marketed as this one has been.  It is a high school party film with a mean streak, with disturbing things mistaken for comedy, with a terrible string of messages, and with very little regard for America's youth.  On top of everything, it attempts the found footage bit to try and give the film some immediacy, but if you abandon the whole idea half the time what was the point to begin with?  As a matter of fact, I asked myself that very thing more times than I should.  What's the point?

Three friends have a plan, a plan that will make them popular forever.  Well, forever in the meaningless world of high school.  The friends are not really that popular or lucky with the ladies, so this birthday party has to be the biggest and baddest party ever.  The one having the birthday is Thomas, played with some actual charm by Thomas Mann.  His closest friend, Costa (Oliver Cooper), is the man with the plan.  Costa is a hybrid of every annoying high school movie friend ever, with a splash of Vince Vaughn at his most grating.  Costa has one thing on his mind, getting laid.  He is rude and crass and hateful, but at first it's amusing.  That doesn't last very long.  The third friend is JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), the chubby friend along for the ride.

Costa sends out mass texts, emails, and even posts invites on craigslist and calls a local radio station to ensure people will show up to the party at Thomas' house (his parents have split town for the weekend).  Of course people show up, then more people, then a second DJ, a midget, a few adults, and the party spirals out of control.  Saying it spirals out of control, however, is really not the best way to describe it.  Anarchy ensues to the point of real danger. A neighbor pleading for the sake of his wife and child is tased and threatened.  Teenage girls are nothing but objects swimming topless in the pool.  Drugs are introduced, followed by hard drugs, and the events which transpire fly past the line of reality and never look back.  If a film is to consider itself "realistic" in the cinematic sense, then it must stay in the realm of reality.  If not, if it wants to go totally nuts, it can't pretend to exist in the Suburbia of Southern California.  And it most certainly should not employ the documentary-style home video that has become a craze of late.

Using the home-video approach is tricky, because as a filmmaker you are bound to that camera.  Sure, director Nima Nourizadeh works around this problem by having a second or third character with a small camera or a camera phone.  But occasionally there is no character with a camera, it's just a random scene.  And if it were the same person with the camera, it's impossible he could be everywhere he needs to be all the time.  It's a poor design.  But what bothers me more than any sort of technical failures is the tone, the attitude, and the message of Project X.

This is a film about teenagers.  I had to remind myself of this at every turn, because the filmmakers - and producer Todd Phillips - turn this into an extended episode of Girls Gone Wild with ecstasy pills and a maniac with a flame thrower thrown in for good measure.  The movie grows increasingly hateful, taking a real turn after the scene with the father being tased on the porch.  What began as funny and witty erases everything with a dark look at teens doing drugs, vomiting, destroying, burning, and eventually rioting.  And then, when all is said and done, after these kids have ruined their future and are facing charges that could stop all future plans, all they really care about is how awesome the party was?  The swelling moment at the end is them being recognized at school?  What a shallow finale to a shallow and hateful film.


Monday, June 18, 2012

THE BOND VOYAGE: #4 - Thunderball (1965)

The James Bond Factory was in full force in the sixties, with films being pumped out every year and finding even more success than the previous one.  Thunderball had a tough shadow in which to emerge from, with Goldfinger as the best of the bunch a year earlier.  Despite its flaws and the chinks in the armor, Thunderball still became the most successful and popular in the young franchise, as Sean Connery embodies the character with even more ease and grace.  There are elements of Thunderball which are thrilling and, considering the year, well crafted technologically.  But there are some fundamentally weaker elements to the film, and a strong need for editing. 

SPECTRE is back in Thunderball and up to no good.  This time around, the super power plans on blackmailing both Britain and the United States.  The plan is to steal two nuclear warheads and aim them at the countries, forcing them to pay a ransom for their lands' safety.  This, of course, prompts the action of the "00" agents to seek and destroy this plan.  And wouldn't you know it, 007 just so happens to land the Bahamas as his investigation region.  Ah, some have all the luck.  But I must mention that before he heads to Nassau, Bond fights off some baddies in the famous jet pack scene which, however antiquated it might seem, still works today.

In Nassau Bond finds the baddie in charge, Number 2 from SPECTRE, Largo (Adolfo Celi).  Complete with menacing eyepatch, Largo is less threatening than any of the previous villains.  His mistress, however, serves as a solid adversary to Bond in a number of departments.  Domino is her name, and played by Claudine Auger she is much more intriguing as a villain than Largo.  And perhaps this is due to the Austin Powers influence of my younger years, but Robert Wagner's Number Two (obviously influenced by Celi's character) spoof made it difficult for me to truly buy into the menace of the villain.  And here I am harping on Number 2 as if he was a terrible villain; that isn't the case at all.  But when you have to follow Goldfinger, the warts show a little larger.

Naturally Bond wins the day and saves the world, but these early Bond pictures have begun to understand by this point that it isn't necessarily if he wins, it's how.  We get another meeting with Q where he collects some Bahamas-friendly gadgets like a flare gun, and infrared camera, and a breathing apparatus.  The major action sequence in Thunderball comes in an underwater chase scene that is dragged out far too long.  The film itself runs over 130 minutes, and this scene feels like the main reason why Thunderball wears out its welcome.  It could have been cut significantly. 

Although it is flawed in a few ways, this fourth Bond still has the advantage of having Sean Connery as the title character.  In Thunderball Connery has little use for a tuxedo and more use for swim trunks and beach gear.  It feels like the next Bond picture, but it still works differently than Goldfinger.  Not perfect, but far from a poor entry.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Savages: Oliver Stone's Next Misfire, or A Return to Glory?

Typically, I do not like to discuss at length a film before it is released.  I may mention a film here and there, discuss anticipation, or take a look back at films directly related, but rarely do I spend a segment on an upcoming film aside from a review.  Now that I have my pointless disclaimer out of the way, I must say I am intrigued by Oliver Stone's Savages to the point of an obsessive curiosity.  And there are a number of reasons behind my piqued interest, most notably Stone's about face in his recent career path.  For several years, Stone has gone political with mediocre films like World Trade Center and W., or he has dipped back into the well with a sequel to Wall Street.  None of them have worked completely.  Savages feels like something in between Natural Born Killers and U-Turn, and that ground is anything but sturdy.  Natural Born Killers is a bit overrated in its excess, U-Turn is an unmitigated disaster.  But what if Savages finds the sweet spot?

The film, based on a novel by Don Winslow, revolves around a pair of pot growers who square off against a drug cartel when their "shared" girlfriend is kidnapped.  The premise is outlandish and something outside of what I consider to be Stone's most recent comfort zone.  But the trailer is a fascinating watch, and it has pulled me in.  the cast is strong and the energy in the two minute clip is engrossing.  But I remember feeling this way about U-Turn... and then I saw it.  I find a strange fascination with Oliver Stone when he veers off the path, and perhaps that is the reason I am looking forward to this more than any other picture this summer.  Look, I know The Dark Knight Rises, regardless of how great it may be, will be a good film.  I know nothing of how Savages will turn out.  And it hasn't been advertized very prominently as of yet, so take a look at the trailer and let me know what you think:

Sunday, June 10, 2012


PROMETHEUS: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron (124 min.)

Going into Prometheus expecting to see Alien is a mistake.  There are indeed direct links between Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece and his latest film, but as these two are held up in comparison, there is very little similar.  Alien aimed towards a calm, quiet, nerve-jangling tension and hit the mark with an eerie and seminal film.  Prometheus has the director pointing the other direction, aiming for bold and broad strokes of a science fiction epic with its eye on bigger questions.  It is a masterful opus where the ambition and energy of Ridley Scott returning to space can be felt in nearly every scene.  Ultimately, the philosophical picture may never come into focus.  Where it may aim high and miss at times regarding the dawn of man, Prometheus makes up in the pure power of spectacle, beauty, and ambition, and a nice mixture of talent.

Prometheus is the name of the ship carrying a seventeen-member crew across outer space to a faraway planet.  The year is 2093, and two Doctors, Elizabeth and Charlie, have discovered a code in cave paintings from around Earth.  They see the same pattern in each of the paintings between societies that would have never shared the same space.  It must be a message.  It could have answers as to where we came from as a human race, and it could give us insight in to who made us.  Thus, the symbol has led them to a star system in the far reaches of the universe where there may be a planet able to sustain life.  Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) is a "true believer" who wears a cross around her neck and chooses to believe in a higher power.  She is dating Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), the second doctor, and a sceptic who supports Darwinism and cannot understand Elizabeth's beliefs.  "It's what I choose to believe," she says.

The crew of the Prometheus includes Meredith Vickers, the corporate representative behind the ship's company, Weyland.  Vickers is played by Charlize Theron, and she is cold and selfish, looking out for the company over the crew.  Idris Elba plays Janek, the streetwise pilot of the ship who has his moments in the film.  But the most intriguing crew member is David, a robot played by the increasingly impressive Michael Fassbender.  David is vital to the success of the ship, and subsequently the film itself.  He adores Lawrence of Arabia, fashions himself after the blond Peter O'Toole, and desperately wishes he were human.  Well, of course David is not given a soul so he cannot technically feel or want, but there is a yearning behind David' robotic eyes.  And that is the power of Fassbender in the role.

They find a structure clearly made by higher intelligence so they decide to land and explore, uncovering a detailed structure with an interesting statue.  Without giving anything away - and there are a great number of details and developments within the structure - I will say the crew runs into intelligent life in different forms, and things do not turn out to be what Elizabeth had hoped.  Events begin to spiral out of control as the crew discovers at every turn they are out of their element.  This is where the questions are put on hold in order for Scott to flex his muscle and do a little blood letting.  But he keeps his focus in these action sequences and keeps the intensity ramped up.  The creatures our crew runs into is like nothing I have seen in alien films, and is quite a daring species aesthetically... But I don't want to ruin it.  There are so many wonderful moments and scenes I could discuss, but they would spoil the film.  Let me just say its a good thing that automated self-surgery machine is on board.

Prometheus aims at the highest most intellectual levels of science fiction, which exists on more sturdy ground as a genre when there are ideas and questions being asked.  It asks questions, and doesn't quite answer them.  Which is fine, because an answer is not as important as getting the question out there.  There may be some threads dropped and a few logic and spatial distractions I had at times, but it is hard to pick on a film as creative and imaginative as this, a film that is hypnotizing in its beauty at times, and a film that begins with a bold and compelling opening scene and honestly and truly attempts to go bigger with every scene.  And the performances are right in line with the picture.  Perhaps Scott has uncovered a new Ripley in the strong and sharp performance from Rapace.  It is an energetic film with the audacity to aim high in a summer season where it would be much easier to aim lower.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott's compelling science fiction opus questions what it is to be a human, and where the line is drawn between man and machine.  These questions at the heart of Blade Runner make me believe Scott's latest foray into sci-fi, Prometheus (also his only sci-fi picture since Blade Runner), shares just as much DNA with this film as it does with Alien.  Sure, there is a direct tie to the orignal Alien movie, but the philosophies may belong more to Blade Runner.  I digress.  Connections are not important when examining the scope and the marvel of Blade Runner.  Initially a maligned picture, tweaked by studio execs, retooled over and over by Scott over the years, the DVD release of Blade Runner carries with it five versions.  The original theatrical release was accompanied by a voiceover from Harrison Ford, who plays the hero Rick Deckard.  Ford has said since that he did the voiceover poorly on purpose, in hopes they would scrap it and go with Scott's initial vision.  Alas, they did not (executives are not creative for sure), and it was some years later before Scott was able to deliver his final director's cut, a breathtaking look at the future in America, a taut thriller, thoughtfully constructed and beautifully bleak.

In Los Angeles, 2019, Tyrell, a mega-corporation, has created Replicants, human clones whose lifespan has been fixed to merely a few years.  Imbedded with memories and a false history, these Replicants have been created to mine colonies outside earth.  Rick Deckard is an LA cop, a Blade Runner specializing in keeping these Replicants in check and terminating them when necessary.  The picture opens with an awe-inspiring look at a dreary and sprawling Los Angeles, drenched in rain and infused with an Asian cyber-reality.  Four Replicants have escaped an off-Earth colony and are said to be in the city.  Deckard is called in to hunt them down and destroy them before they upset the nature of this world and bring down the Tyrell Corporation.  Deckard visits the Tyrell corporation and meets the ominous Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel, the eerie bartender from The Shining), and Tyrell's "companion," Rachael, a Replicant who has no idea she is not human.

Meanwhile, the Replicants are working their way to the Tyrell Corporation.  Led by the Replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), these clones are after their creator to try and save their shortened lives.  Hauer is effective, focused, and stern as Batty, a wonderful antagonist.  There is also another Replicant, Pris (Daryl Hannah), who has arrived in Los Angeles and manipulated an architect of the Replicants.  The second act of Blade Runner is a cat-and-mouse pursuit between Deckard and the Replicants, but it is not without a deliberate pace where questions are raised and doubt creeps in regarding the existence of Deckard himself.  It is no surprise today to say that Deckard is a Replicant, but the mystery is effective in the film. 

There is action in Blade Runner, but this is far from a fast-paced sci-fi action picture.  This is a philosophical film where lines between human and Replicant are blurred until perhaps there is no more line in the end.  What makes us human?  Is it our memories?  The moral conundrum is what adds so much depth and intrigue to the picture.  The climax between Deckard and Roy Batty is a thrilling final showdown, but there are still questions to be answered in the end.  Scott's final version answers these questions in a roundabout way.

Told in noir fashion, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is a visual feast and another example of Scott's ability to create an entire world around his characters.  Look at his best films, Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and consider the universe surrounding the plot and the players.  They are magnificent and fully realized, and Blade Runner is perhaps the best example.  The film was a maligned endeavor, with cast and crew groing weary of Scott's controlling direction, and it was met with wide indifference upon its initial released.  But thanks to the director's cut, one of the first of its kind, the film has become something much bigger and more important in the history of cinema.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

TRAILER ALERT: Tarantino's Django Unchained

Everyone else is doing it... Might as well join in.

This trailer doesn't particularly excite me, but I don't really think Tarantino trailers ever have done much for me.  I am sure it will be one of the best written films of the year if anything else.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Snow White and The Huntsman

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth (127 min.)

Snow White and The Huntsman is a roller coaster ride of good ideas, wonderful visuals, sharp individual scenes, but a great deal of poor execution.  It might be considered a fresh take on the story of Snow White, but in reality this is the original story before Walt Disney shaped it into a cartoon classic.  Snow White and The Huntsman is a dark and brooding film, aggressive and energetic, loaded with fantasy, but too soggy too early.  The cast does what it can, and not all is lost thanks to them.  But I saw a good film here, amongst the bloat and the uncertainty of a new director, but for me things didn't quite come together.  Close, but no cigar.  Well, maybe a small cigar, thanks to the actors involved.

Kristen Stewart, working her way out of the shadows of Edward and the Twilight universe, plays the fair maiden with blood-red lips, pale skin and hair as black as night.  As a young child however, Snow White is captured by the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron, embellishing), an obsessive narcissist who kills Snow White's father and spends her days absorbing the hearts, or maybe the souls (one of the vague elements of this world) of the beautiful women in the land in order to keep her own youth.  Ravenna consults the "Mirror Mirror on The Wall" to be certain she is the most beautiful of all.  The mirror itself has a new twist to it as it materializes into a liquid, golden cloak standing in front of Ravenna.  The answer is always the same, it is the queen who is the most beautiful.  But one day, once Snow White (being held captive in the ominous North Tower) comes of age, the mirror tells Ravenna Snow White is now the fairest.  This, of course, will not stand.  Ravenna sends her wicked brother and his absurd haircut to get Snow White.  But she escapes and flees into the vaguely-named "Dark Forest."

Not anyone can hunt her through the Dark Forest, a foreboding and aggressive land of death and danger, so Ravenna sends for The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, quickly becoming a favorite of mine), an expert on the region who spends most of his days drinking and getting into bar fights, to hunt her down and bring her in.  I won't go into the rest of the story details, as you can probably guess the arc of the story.  The opening scenes of Snow White and The Huntsman seem rushed , choppy, unexplained, almost upending the story before it starts.  Great visuals cannot deflect attention from a thin screenplay and clumsy edits.  It's as if director Rupert Sanders was in a hurry to get to the second half of the film, because once we meet the dwarfs everything seems to settle down and the film gets better almost instantly.

Yes, there are dwarfs here as well, eight of them, but there is no Sneezy or Grumpy or Doc.  These are rough and tumlbe drawves played by regular-sized actors like Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, and Bob Hoskins among other famous faces.  The CGI for the dwarfs is seamless, and their characters inject instant life into the film.  A visit to their land is a journey to familiar fairy-tale territory, but it is a relief to see colors and sunlight where all of the early scenes are bleak and drab.  Everything leads to the inevitable clash between Snow White and Ravenna, and thankfully Sanders finds the right tone in time before the movie melts away.

Stewart is fine as Snow White.  She gets more to do for a change, and I root for her to break out of her Twilight phase and into meatier roles.  She embraces the hero and appears to enjoy swinging a sword and raising her voice.  Theron is having a lot of fun as Ravenna, the heftiest of the three leads.  And Hemsworth is, as usual, all charm as The Huntsman.  The three central performances keep the picture afloat through a shaky first half.  Cool visuals are thrown out and unexplained, like the strange milk bath Ravenna takes.  And her powers seem written in on the fly without any real rules.  Finally, ideas come together and the film is much more entertaining.  It's just too bad to think what an entire film could have been.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

SATURDAY SCATTER: BIg Years for some Big Actors

* I want to like Kristen Stewart but why is she the female Crispin Glover in interviews?

* Chris Hemsworth is having a big year.

* Charlize Theron is going to have a pretty big June.  I don't remember the last time an actor had two big-budget movies in back to back weeks.

* That being said, I'm pretty sure Leo Dicaprio has two Christmas movies (The Great Gatsby and Django Unchained) releasing this year.

* Matthew McConaughey is right in the middle of a career renaissance.  And it's pretty exciting, because McConaughey can be a great - yes, great - actor when he applies himself.  Magic Mike will be... something... but Killer Joe is the one getting all the buzz right now.  The William Friedken thriller has been saddled with an NC-17 rating, which is unfortunate for distribution. But whatever keeps him away from Kate Hudson is fine by me.

* Joaquin Phoenix might be back at the Oscars this year with The Master.  Thankfully he came out of retirement (eye roll).

* Eddie Murphy should have a big year this... Wait for a second I thought it was 1986.

* That may seem like an unnecessary shot at Eddie Murphy, but I just saw the giant freeway head from his recent failure Meet Dave, so it's fresh in my mind.

* Guy Ritchie to direct Treasure Island - where are all the outraged Gatsby trailer haters when you need them?