Friday, June 29, 2012

BRAVE: Can Pixar Stay On-Target?

BRAVE Review:

- Brave has inevitably been discussed in terms of its place in the Pixar pantheon, and, given the knack for quality that Pixar has displayed over the years, that comparison to the company's previous efforts is likely inevitable. On the surface, Brave doesn't set off any warning signals to the naysayers who fear Pixar's track-record is at risk. It's not a sequel, it's not a cynical-feeling film. In fact, Brave had been touted as all sorts of things: the first Pixar film with a female lead, a feel-good film about empowerment, a bold, original vision. Oddly, while Brave has many good, and many Pixar-ish qualities, it also felt like the least Pixar-y Pixar film to date. In fact, its princess-in-peril storyline is more classic Disney than anything else. And the very traditional, fairy-tale esque story makes Brave a little more kiddie, a little less thematically-sophisticated, than the likes of Wall-E, Cars, or Ratatouille. Maybe it's unfair that we've come to expect Pixar films to be equally-appealling to adults and kids alike. But regardless, the level of storytelling and depth here simply doesn't hit the best-in-class level that I expected.

Set in a vaguely medieval Scottish kingdom, BRAVE tells the story of teenage princess Merida, who hates the rigidly-structured and thoroughly predetermined life that her station entails. Merida is a free spirit. She'd much rather be off exploring the woods, caves, and waterfalls of her kingdom, and practing her archery skills, than attending ceremonies and royal functions. So Merida is especially beside herself with anger when her parents inform her that it's time for her to start thinking about marriage. Specifically, they've arranged an event during which princes from three neighboring kingdoms will compete in various physical challenges in order to win Merida's hand. The uniting of kingdoms is politically a big deal, and so there's added pressure for Merida to get married - not just as a way of fully entering into womanhood, but also as a means of solidifying political alliances.

The fundamental problem here is that Brave sets up a pretty intriguing main character in Merida - who has the potential to be a fun and pretty kickass leading lady - but then, very quickly, the film devolves from more realistic, epic-seeming adventure to dumbed-down Disney stuff. Point being: Brave sets up Merida as an epic hero, but then places her in a story that's decidely less-than-epic. Without spoiling too much, Merida's reluctance to pick a suitor for marriage leads her into an angry conflict with her well-meaning but backwards-thinking mother. Merida storms off and, in the dark forest, is led by ghostly will-o-wisps to the cottage of an old witch. In classic fairytale fashion, Merida asks the witch for a spell that will change her mother. But of course, the spell doesn't work as Merida assumed it would, and suddenly, Merida finds herself in the midst of a very ugly mess of her own making - a mess that could put her, her mother, and the kingdom in jeopardy.

Again, without spoiling ... the somewhat silly results of the witch's spell never seem to gel with the more sweeping, lyrical tone established at the movie's outset. And I'll admit, given the relative lack of story info in the movie's marketing / trailers, I found myself pretty surprised and somewhat disappointed with the direction the plotline took. Brave turns out not to be an epic adventure movie as hinted at, but instead a coming-of-age romp with all sorts of cartoonish shenanigans driving its main plot - mistaken identity, magical hijinks, and many a moment of "seriously, you guys, this is all one big misunderstanding!".

Now, I sort of see what the movie is going for in its second act. It reverses the roles of Merida and her queen mother, putting them into a situation where the Queen's regal, proper manner is rendered useless, and Merida's survival skills, adventurous spirit, bravery, and quick-thinking are what keeps them safe. But this segment of the film sort of drags, and without a truly great villain or source of conflict, the characters seem to meander. Sure, the fearsome bear Mord'u - the monstrous beast that long ago took the leg of Merida's father - lurks in the shadows, threatening to strike. And I give the movie credit - some of the scenes with Mord'u are really exhillerating, dark, and intense. But the movie's mythology is too sketchy to give the bear - or many other elements of the film's backstory - the weight they need to really resonate.

To that end, I was surprised at how relatively one-note a lot of the characters in Brave turned out to be. Like I said, Merida has all the elements to be a great new character (even if the free-spirited female archer thing now seems a bit played out post-Hunger Games). But to me, the number-one most important relationship in the film was the one between Merida and her mother Elinor, the queen. But Elinor felt flat as a character. Some shred of backstory might have helped us understand her, but as presented she's just the typical stern-mom-with-a-stick-up-her-bum. To be honest, the movie tries for something very, very tricky. Because the way it's set up, Merida is presented as the rebellious teen who needs to learn a lesson in responsibility and growing up. But, the twist here is ... even though Merida acts out and rebels, she's also basically right about everything she says. She's rebellious, but in a way that makes her seem - to us, the modern audience - less like an obnoxious teen and more like a perfectly-in-the-right modern, empowered woman fighting against an oppressive society that treats objects like women, man (sorry, obligatory Big Lebowski reference). But what I'm getting at is: the movie makes it very difficult to know who to root for. We root for Merida, of course, but the movie's structure keeps making it seem like Merida's the one who needs to learn a lesson, not her mom. Afterall, Merida is the one who ran off and made a deal-with-the-devil and ended up endangering her family in the process. And yet, anyone with an ounce of liberalism in their veins will hate Elinor and sort of hope she gets what's coming - it is she, afterall, who's keeping her daughter from being all-she-can-be.

And that's the weird thing about BRAVE that left me with mixed emotions. On the surface, it's got a positive message for young girls - you can be whatever you want, you can be kickass, you can be brave, and a hero, and don't have to conform to outdated gender roles. All of that is great, and I support it 100%. But Brave presents this message awkwardly. Like I said, Merida is both a fight-the-power feminist and sort of a punk teen. We're never quite sure how much of her behavior is true equal-rights liberalism and how much is just brattiness. What's more, the movie's girl-power message is pretty on-the-nose. It's so spelled out, that it almost feels outdated. Like, it's 2012, shouldn't an animated kids' movie now just, you know, take it for granted that a girl can kick ass and be smart and tough and independent? I don't remember, say, Hunger Games sermonizing about how Katniss could be a badass despite being a girl - she just was. You know? Now sure, I recognize that a.) Brave is aimed at younger kids, and b.) it's set vaguely in the past, at a time when presumably women had less independence (though *that* is never really spelled out). Still, the message of the movie, to me, was delivered in a somewhat awkward, and maybe even outdated fashion.

All that said, BRAVE is a gorgeous film. The Scottish highlands and landscapes are breathtaking to behold, and the quality of the backdrops is incredible. Similarly, the character animaiton is wonderful - full of life and personality, and ultra-expressive. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I loved the look and feel of Brave. When it wants to be dark and scary (i.e. the parts with Mord'u), it oozes spookiness and shadow. When it wants to make us feel like we're there with Merida, exploring caves and waterfalls, the camera pulls back and sweeps us away in almost overpoweringly epic fashion. And when the film first introduces the ghostly blue will-o-wisps, the effect is understated yet haunting. As Merida follows the trail of wisps, each evaporating as she passes, there's an immersiveness to the action that was positively Nintendo-esque in its whimsical sense of discovery, mystery, and wonder. I also loved the very-Scottish soundtrack, thunderously boistrous at times and hautingly low-key at others. Again, Brave is quite simply an audio-visual marvel.

I also really loved the voice-cast. I've beocme a big fan of Kelly MacDonald from Boardwalk Empire, and she is fantastic as Merida. Emma Thompson is quite good as Elinor, and Billy Connelly is a hoot as the loud, mirth-making, revenge-seeking King Fergus. There are a number of other Scotts in the mix as well - Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd ... if only some of the other supporting characters really jumped out. As it is, the suitors and their families are all sort of one-joke characters. There's the nerdy suitor, the douchebag suitor, and the weird suitor who talks in an unintelligible mumble. None really gets a great moment to shine or to develop or change. But look, Kelly MacDonald is the star here, and no complaints about her great and memorable turn in the lead role.

BRAVE had a lot of fun moments. And at times - as in the harrowing final confrontation with Mord'u - it was downright riveting. But it just didn't wow me as I hoped and expected it might. A big part of that is that Pixar films tend to be seamlessly-realized animated universes. Characters, aesthetics, and narratives super-integrated to tell a very specific story in a very specific way - a way that tends to work on multiple levels for kids and for adults. Brave seems like more of a mash-up. Elements of classic Disney-style fairytales, elements of Pixar's more progressive aesthetics and thematics. In that way, it doesn't feel as visionairy, thematically cohesive, or as impactful as Pixar's best, and it also lacks the pure magic and sense of wonder of the timeless Disney animated films. There's a lot to admire in BRAVE, but it feels like a well-intentioned, yet flawed film from Pixar - perhaps the closest they've come to a misfire in a long while.

My Grade: B



- It seems that there are two kinds of people in this world - those who embrace the idea of a movie about a vampire-slaying Abe Lincoln, and those who are repelled by such an audacious mash-up of history and fantasy. To the second group of people ... well, to me those are the people who keep pop-culture boring. No, I don't want to live in a world where every movie cut from this cloth. But I'm happy to live in a world where Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter exists, and is somehow a big-budget summer studio tentpole. And you know what? This may not be a *great* film, but hey, it delivers on the promise of its title. It gives you exactly what you want from a movie called Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and it does so in highly entertaining fashion. I dug it.

One thing that's clear from watching this movie (if it hadn't been already), is that director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) is a certifiable madman. He fills this movie with a metric ton of crazy-ass $#%&, fully-embracing its over-the-top nature. It's funny, because I've heard people say that this movie takes itself too seriously, but I didn't find that at all. Instead, it hit a nearly note-perfect tone of B-movie cheese-filled goodness. I mean, there is a protracted fight scene that sees Abe chasing after a rogue vampire amidst a horse stampede, with the two adversaries jumping *from horse to horse* in pursuit of one another, climaxing in the vampire THROWING A HORSE at Abraham Lincoln. There is no way the movie takes itself too seriously. But Timur gives us plenty of over-the-top money shot moments, from the aforementione equestrian action scene, to some ridiculous-yet-awesome axe-fu from a not-yet-President Lincoln. At the same time, Timur brings the faux-gravitas when needed, treating the movie's Big Moments - like an aged Prez Lincoln digging up his old axe for one mo' bout of vampire-slaying - with a melodramatic sincerity that made me smile like a schoolgirl.

I also give a ton of credit to star Benjamin Walker. This guy is fantastic as Honest Abe. Like, this guy needs to be in more action movies, stat. He's got that mild-mannered Christopher Reeve-esque thing going on, where he nails Abe-as-awkeard-nice-guy, yet also grits his teeth and kicks ass like a boss when called upon. Even if it's sort of a silly role, I see this as a major star turn for Walker, as he is awesome in this part. The cast is also filled out with some excellent supporting-player types. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd is quite good - she's another actress who may bea bit under the radar, but who always seems to deliver the goods. Meanwhile, I've been a fan of Rufus Sewell since Dark City, and he is a lot of fun here is Adam, the Big Bad vampire adversary. Anthony Mackie is good as Abe's trusted friend Will Johnson, and Dominic Cooper - on a roll of late - is also excellent as Abe's enigmatic mentor Henry.

For the curious, the film basically inserts vampires into the Abe Lincoln origin story, positing that the undead had taken root in the American South, terrorizing the Confederate states and even playing a part in slave trade. When Lincoln's mother is killed by a particularly nasty vampire, a pint-sized Abe vows vengeance - but it isn't until ten years later that Abe learns about vamps - and how to kill them - from a mysterious mentor named Henry. So by day, Abe works in a shop, courts Mary Todd, and begins to become a player in the local political scene, preaching his late mother's credo that "until all men are free, we are all slaves." By night, he takes his special silver-coated axe and goes a-vampire huntin', carryong out seek-and-destroy missions given to him by Henry, all the while waiting for the day when he'll be able to find the vamp who killed his mom and wreak unholy vengeance on his undead kiester.

The movie spans a pretty substantial amount of time, starting with Abe as a boy, lingering on Abe as a young man (pre-iconic beard), and then delivers a super-fun third act with a 50-something President Lincoln forced to wage one last battle with his undead enemies, a battle inextricably tied to the ongoing Civil War. It makes for a surprisingly epic story. Yes, the movie can be a bit narratively jumpy, and tends to speed through a lot of key plot points (Abe and Mary's courtship, for example) ... but I mean, come on, this isn't Ken Burns' Lincoln, it's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I was okay with it.

Sure, the movie occasionally fumbles, or delivers a real groaner of a scene or line of dialogue. But mostly, it's all in good fun, and it hits all the right beats. The action is crazy and satisfyingly brutal. The cast is good. Even the ending is pretty much note-perfect in terms of how I imagined a movie like this might end. This is just fun, funny, good-time-guaranteed insanity at the movies.

My Grade: B+

Saturday, June 16, 2012

SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED = A Hilarious Summer Surprise


- Here in LA, there are so many indie movies playing in so many theaters, that it can be hard as a film fan to discern what's actually worth seeing. Sometimes, you've just got to take the plunge. And with Safety Not Guaranteed, the combination of good word of mouth, a premise that intrigued me (quirky time travel comedy) a cast that includes numerous actors I'm a fan of (Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Kristen Bell), and the fact that it was playing nearby my apartment ... all drove me to check it out. Well, I'm damn glad I did. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is one of the best movies of the year so far - an absolutely hilarious, charming, and original comedy that is most definitely a must-see.

Much has been discussed about the origins of the movie's plot. Apparently, there was a real, minor news-of-the-weird story a few years back about a guy who placed an ad in the paper looking for a companion to go back in time with him. The movie takes that idea and runs with it - and in doing so, it tries to imagine just who this guy is that would place such an ad. Is he legit? Crazy? A little of both? Why does he want to go back in time so badly, anyways? In the film, we follow Darius (Aubrey Plaza), as she investigates these very questions. Darius is a twenty-something in quarter-life-crisis mode, stuck in an unpaid internship at a Seattle-based magazine, living at home with her dad (a briefly-seen but very funny Jeff Garlin), and trying to figure out what to do with herself - how to get out of her current funk. One day at the magazine, thirty-something reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson, best known as Nick on New Girl) pitches doing a story about a guy who's placed an ad in the paper about time-travel (very similar to the real-life ad described above). Jeff takes Darius and another intern - nerdy braniac Arnau (a hilarious Karan Soni) - to track down the guy who placed the ad and see if there's a story to be found. Jeff, however, has his own agenda. He sees the story as an opportunity for a paid vacation. Also, it so happens that his old flame from high school lives in the same town as the time-travel guy, and Jeff has hopes of a hook-up. He also decides to take Arnau under his wing and show him how to loosen up and party. Meanwhile, it's Darius who ultimately meets and gains the trust of the would-be time-traveller, Kenneth (Mark Duplass, in an amazing performance). And while everyone else views the story as a sort of weird joke, Darius begins to wonder if there's more to this Kenneth dude than meets the eye.

Mark Duplass as Kenneth is ridiculously funny in this. He's like some weird mashup of Kenny Powers, Napoleon Dynamite, and 80's-era Kurt Russell (he wears a denim vest with cutoff sleeves and upturned collar at all times, and sports an awesomely retro mullet to boot). Kenneth is just a great character - with a naive-but-steadfast belief in his mission and purpose that rarely wavers. He's also supremely paranoid, slow to trust Darius and convinced that people are out to get him. And he's also a geek - a guy who seems to be overcompensating for years of being a weirdo and outcast by haphazardly training himself in martial arts, firearms, etc. with a delusional belief that those skills will be crucial when he travels to the past. But ... there is also a sense that, for all his delusions, there just might be some weird sort of genius buried within Kenneth. And also, there's a real sadness that occasionally bubbles up. Kenneth is a great character because he's over-the-top and really, really funny - but also because there is genuine humanity at his center.

And honestly, that's what's great about this film - it isn't afraid to get serious and emotional - but it's never cheesy about it ... the emotion feels earned. And the seriousness also never comes at the expense of the comedy. I can only evoke such classics as The Simpsons, in terms of comparable comedy that still managed to gut you at times when the tone would become more sincere.

To that end, I did feel like there was something deeper going on with this movie, despite the comedic sensibility. It felt like a movie about being in your 20's, about figuring out where you're going, and about figuring it out in spite of what others think. In fact, the three main characters (other than Kenneth) each sort of represent a different stage of being a twenty-something. Arnau is the naive nerd who's still really sort of a kid (he's inexperienced with the ladies and has lightning bolt decals on his laptop). Darius is the girl who's ready to make her mark in the world and take that next step into adulthood. And Jeff is the guy who's older and jaded, and nostalgic for the days before the world had beaten him down. It's interesting to me that the movie spends as much time as it does with Jeff and his quest to rekindle his old romance with his girlfriend from high school. At first, when he sees she's put on a few pounds and aged a bit, he balks. But soon enough he realizes that he needs to get past the fact that nobody looks like they did when they were eighteen. At the same time, Darius has to get over her cynicism about Kenneth - slowly but surely, she realizes that he just may be one of the more genuine people she's met, even if everyone else thinks he's crazy. Arnau tries to overcome his annoyance with Jeff's fratboy ways, and realize that maybe he does need to man up and face the world a bit more than he has.

In some ways, this is also a great companion film to the recently-released MOONRISE KINGDOM - both are about outcasts finding each other, and both have an "us against the world" theme at their core.

Getting back to the cast for a second though ... while Duplass gets a lot of the best lines and moments, the ensemble here is really pretty remarkable. Aubrey Plaza obviously tends to play a certain type of character, but she does it so well, and can bring so much nuance to these types of roles, that you can't really complain. She's great here. Jake Johnson is really good too - he brings the same sort of barely-bottled-up rage and emotional instability to the film that he does to New Girl, and he's a guy who just has amazing comic timing. Same goes for Karan Soni - hilarious and spot-on. There are also some nice little appearances from fan-favorites like Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Garlin, and Kristen Bell.

Most of all, the movie just has a really funny, really well-done and multilayered script from Derek Connelly. These are just great characters, given hilarious dialogue - but there's also that underlying sincerity and heart that makes this a multidimensional and highly rewarding film. My one complaint is that a key plot-point about Kenneth's relationship with Kristen Bell's character felt a little too ambiguous for me. The truth about their relationship motivates a lot of the movie's plot - and provides the backstory for *why* Kenneth wants to go back in time in the first place, and I felt like the script left us hanging a little bit with the reveal there.

Overall though, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is one of the nicest film surprises of the year so far. Laugh-out-loud hilarious yet oddly poignant, this is a must-see for those looking for something a bit more substantial and unique this summer. Seek it out and see for yourself. And hey - it's also got time-travel!

My Grade: A-

Friday, June 15, 2012



- There are sparks of awesome in Snow White and the Huntsman, but those sparks never quite add up to a greater whole. This is a movie that gets certain things right ... but also one that feels inconsistent. To preface - I love a good dark fantasy movie - and there aren't many of 'em made these days. But I suppose there's two strains of pop-culture fantasy that this Snow White reimagining draws from - the more whimsical, fantastical, dark fairy-tale worlds of films like Legend, and the grittier, more grounded fantasy of, say, Game of Thrones. The movie tries to be both whimsical and gritty ... and it's a bit of an odd combo. The tone, therefore, shifts wildly from scene to scene. And it begins to feel like things were just lifted assembly-line from other films, just for the hell of it. "Hey, guess we need a major battle to make this movie feel more epic." "Hey, guess we should sort of hint a love triangle, because that's what the kids are into these days." "Hey, let's get the girl from Twilight, the dude from Thor, and a bunch of odd-looking British thespians to play the dwarves." I guess that's what I'm getting at here: somewhere deep beneath the surface of this film lies a fantastical, Legend-esque movie that feels authentic and the product of one man's vision. But at some point, this feels more like a collection of studio notes and market research than a bonafide blockbuster.

What works best in the movie are the parts that dare to go big and over-the-top. Namely: Charlize Theron is awesome in this, as uber-villainess Queen Ravenna - the classic Evil Queen who speaks to her mirror and asks whether she is, indeed, the fairest of them all. Part of the reason this movie reminds me a bit of Legend is that Theron's ranting, writhing, tormented, seething-with-evil performance reminds me a bit of Tim Curry's iconic, demonic turn in that film. Here, Theron goes for broke, goes big, and is endlessly entertaining and mesmerizing. In short, Charlize Theron's kickass turn is THE reason to see this.

The problem is - the rest of the movie doesn't really match the tone set by Theron with her gleefully over-the-top performance. As Snow White, Kristen Stewart does a fine job - and the movie wisely minimizes her dialogue early on, adding to the film's storybook quality. But eventually, Stewart is forced into some pretty half-hearted attempts at angst, romance, and later - big, rousing speeches to an amassing army of rebels. The escalation in the story's scale feels a bit forced, for one. But it also asks a lot of Stewart - I like her a lot as an actress, actually, but the script's tonal shifts don't do her any favors - forcing her to go from wide-eyed innocent-on-the-run, to romantic foil, to a leader of men in a mere two hours. At the same time, Stewart, I think, has a hard-time pulling off the sort of timeless fairy-tale tone that the movie is going for. Stewart's goth-girl-next-door quality doesn't necessarilly lend itself to playing an iconic fairy-tale character (ironically, I could actually see her doing a good job as the more jaded, modernized version of "Snow" from Fables ... but that's another story).

Now, at this point, I think Chris Hemsworth can do "brooding, noble fantasy-dude" in his sleep. And he lends the movie a certain gravitas with his natural charisma and fantasy-hero street-cred. But the Huntsman character is pretty forgettable. Literally - I barely remember what his deal was and why, exactly, he goes from drunken loner to team player. The movie is also pretty weird when it comes to any implied romance between him and Snow White. I am always against forced romances in movies (Chris Nolan's Batman films come to mind as offenders), but this movie keeps hinting at romance but never delivers - it just felt off. Worse is the fact that Sam Claflin pops up as a pretty useless character - a childhood friend of Snow's who returns as another possible love interest as an adult. Claflin is just sort of there, and the one interesting twist around his character turns out to be a red herring. So yeah, the relationships between Snow and the Huntsman, and Snow and William, both ultimately prove to be pretty devoid of intrigue.

And the dwarves ... oh man, when you look at the list of actors who play them, it's pretty staggering. Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Ray Winstone ... all of these guys are fantastic, but here they do ... very little. A couple of comic-relief moments, a couple of moments of semi-forced poignancy, and a couple of "cool, dwarves kicking ass" battle scenes. Again, with such a great cast assembled, and with so many *hints* of what might have been ... it's disappointing that these characters ultimately feel so underdeveloped. And look, a movie like this one needs its quality supporting characters ... but you can't help but feel like much more was planned for the dwarves, but it ended up going on the cutting room floor. So we're just left with the scraps - scraps of ideas and character arcs that aren't wholly fulfilling.

On the visual side, it's similarly frustrating, in that director Rupert Sanders clearly has some tricks up his sleeve that he's eager to show us. The movie has some fantastic visuals, and there is a really nice, almost surrealist quality to some of the creatures and f/x. I loved, for example, the shimmering amorphous liquid-metal being that was the Queen's mirror in this film. The CGI used to bring him/it to life is artful and unique. I also liked some of the imaginative creature design - a troll that Snow White and the Huntsman fight, for example, is really cool. And all of the f/x used around the Queen are really well-done. I liked the way Theron ages grotesquely as her power drains, and the way she turns into a fock of ravens at will. These sorts of scenes hint at Sanders' eye for artistic detail, and willingness to bring something a little different to the table visually. It's too bad that it never quite feels like this unique vision is allowed to flourish consistently over the movie's entire running time. Just as the tone shifts, so too does the visual style of the movie - at times, it's eye-popping and fantastical - as in an awesomely imaginative scene in a secret forest haven - filled with magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, and yet at other times, the movie feels much more generic. Again, makes you wonder if Sanders was told to reign in some of his more outlandish visual ideas in the name of commerical viability. I don't know, maybe I was spoiled having seen this one soon after the visual feast that was Prometheus, but it seemed like Snow White had long droughts between its more spectacular moments.

Ultimately, I like the overall sensibility of the movie (I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, what can I say), and I like that Sanders seemed to be going for an old-school, 80's-ish fantasy vibe. But the movie never truly delivered on the promise shown in certain scenes, and ends up being all over the map in terms of quality. Theron knocks it out of the park, but there's no other performance that can match hers, and no other character nearly as engaging. Almost everything / everyone else feels a bit bland and boring in comparison. Maybe a sequel can patch things up. And certainly, Sanders shows a lot of promise here in his directorial debut, and his visual flourishes hint at someone just waiting to truly cut loose on a more experimental film. But Snow White, while entertaining, feels just a bit too safe and tentative to me.

My Grade: B-

Monday, June 11, 2012

PROMETHEUS - Ridley Scott's Mesmerizing Yet Frustrating Return to Sci-Fi


- This is going to be a hard review to write. The fact is ... I immensely enjoyed Prometheus. In some ways, it completely blew me away, and from a purely visual/aesthetic viewpoint, it was one of the most spectacular and beautiful films I've seen ... ever. And there were ideas here that I loved, moments that were mesmerizing and memorable. Just sitting back and watching this film in glorious IMAX 3D and being swept away by its grim and majestic sci-fi universe ... was one hell of an experience at the movies.

And I've been thinking about PROMETHEUS. Since I saw it, I've been rolling it over in my head. I want to make some sense of it - I want to believe that the film is great and that it simply demands multiple viewings to fully comprehend. But I've come to realize that this is a film that simply has to be taken down a peg for its flawed storytelling. Even though I was able to "just go with it" for much of the movie, this is indeed a film that arrives to us diminished from what it might have been.

The thing is ... Ridley Scott became a sci-fi icon on the backs of films that told stories in broad, at times almost abstract strokes. Alien, Blade Runner, Legend ... these are films that have a lot of ambiguity and that leave much to the viewer's imagination. They are films more about ideas and imagination and visual world-building than complex plotlines. And that's what makes them so resonant and captivating. Prometheus is almost the equal of those films in terms of sheer sense of imagination and visual wonder. Of course, Blade Runner and Alien never had the advantage of coming out in IMAX 3D. Prometheus, meanwhile, has perhaps the best use of 3D yet in any live-action film - silky smooth and seamless, yet completely immersive. But, back to the storytelling ... what's so frustrating is that Prometheus COULD have been a simple and more abstract story if told in a slightly different manner. But writer Damon Lindeloff had a couple of major obstacles in terms of crafting the script: a.) he was tasked with creating a story that - seemingly more for commercial reasons than anything else - had to tie-in to the mythos and continuity of the Alien films, and b.) he had to grapple with his past history as a TV writer and as a writer of highly episodic, serialized content.

Because, man, PROMETHEUS feels in a way like an incredible TV pilot. But as a movie, that means it's less than fully satisfying. The problem is, Lindeloff structures the plot like an episode of LOST. Throughout the film's running time, questions are posed that seem to demand specific answers: Why did one character betray another? Why were certain secrets kept? What are the true motivations of various characters? What is the explanation behind some of the various creatures that terrorize the cast - how did they come to be? Now, the movie COULD have been written in a manner so as not to pose these sorts of specific questions. But instead, it's LOST all over again ... one shoe drops, but the other shoe doesn't. The whole plot is built around key question marks practically flashing on the screen - "why did he do that?", "where did those come from?" - but they all end up being red herrings, because the payoffs never come. I've been thinking a lot about the film, as I said, and trying to figure out what IS in the movie and what ISN'T. Some may say "it's all in the movie." But that simply isn't true. And that's frustrating, because there's no room for interpretation - ALL interpretations are equally valid because we just don't have enough information to posit anything except pure guesses. And at some point, you have to wonder: how much of Prometheus was meant to be ambiguous, and how much of it simply got gutted in the development process? At what point do you draw the line between feeding an audience's imagination, and simply crafting a film that's full of swiss cheese-esque holes?

Ridley Scott is no stranger to these sorts of debates. BLADE RUNNER contains one of the all-time most talked-about ambiguous endings in film. But the genius of that ambiguity is that it presents us with two possibilities - each casting the story and the character of Deckard in a different light. Is Deckard a replicant, or isn't he? But Prometheus never sets up that sort of narrative framework to go off of. I'll talk more about the plot in a second, but I'll just quickly mention the arcs of two key characters: Weyland - an elderly CEO and billionaire (Guy Pierce) who travels the cosmos in search of the key to eternal life, and David - an android who serves Weyland. In short, we're left to infer just about everything about these characters and the motivations behind their actions. It hurts, because both are potentially awesome characters. Michael Fassbender in particular plays David so well - he kicks ass. But why does David do the things he does in the movie? I have no idea. I can guess - there are a dozen possible and sort-of plausible reasons. But we just don't know, and the answers aren't between the lines either. But what's weird is that Scott and Lindeloff seem to *want* to say something profound with David. They clearly want us to - through him - think about life and death and creation and destruction and good and evil. But David ends up as a total cypher - we want to latch on to this amazing performance from Fassbender, but we end up just transplanting concepts from other stories about robots and artificial life onto his character - because he's such a blank canvass. Now again, in the original ALIEN, there was an android character who played a similar role. But let's face it, Ash in Alien - and Alien as a whole - never had much pretension of being the sort of philosophical mind-trip that Prometheus wants to be. Alien just wanted to be a futuristic survival movie, thick with atmosphere, that scared the hell out of you. Prometheus is trying to be more than just a horror flick. It aims to be about life, the universe, and everything ... but at that, it only partially succeeds.

So let's back up for a minute, and talk about the plot of Prometheus. Essentially, this is the Alien-verse, but in a timeframe just prior to Ellen Ripley's infamous encounter with the deadly xenomorphs aboard the Nostromo. Where we're at now is the several decades in the future, at a time when huge advances have been made in space travel. Even as humans now have the capability to explore deep space, a quest comes up worthy of our newfound capacity for insterstellar discovery. A husband-and-wife team of scientists - Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green) - has been tracking ancient etchings across the globe, and have found common-denominator depictions of godlike alien beings descending from the heavens. Accompanying each of the etchings is what the scientists believe to be a star map. Now, they are convinced that they've found a roadmap to another civilization - a civilization that just might be our creators, our gods. They've also conviced Peter Weyland, an aging innovator whose company seems to have pioneered advances in both robotics (producing a line of lifelike androids) and space travel/exploration. Weyland funds a journey to the stars in search of the alien beings and their secrets. He deploys Weyland Corp. representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) to oversee the scientists and their mission. Vickers, Shaw, and Halloway are also accompanied by a crew that includes Janek (Idris Elba) - the ship's world-weary captain, an erratic geologist named Fifield, and David - Peter Weyland's personal android assistant, who oversees the ship while the crew goes into hypersleep for the bulk of their journey.

What more you need to know is simply that the name of the ship is Prometheus, named after the Titan of myth who sought the secret of fire and got burned for his hubris. Very quickly, amidst mixed motivations both spiritual, scientific, and corporate, we realize that the crew of the ship Prometheus may be in for more than they bargained for with this mission.

The thematic scope of Prometheus is vast and epic. While ALIEN only hinted at its larger universe, Prometheus tries to define the very nature of the universe itself. The movie even begins with a mesmerizing Genesis scene that is its own alien-infused version of the creation myth. Soon enough, the film hints at revelations about not just the iconic aliens of ALIEN, but of the secret origins of ALL life. Yep, this is one cosmic, grand, ambitious film. And honestly, there are two areas where Prometheus absolutely excels. One is when it's simply in planetarium mode, dazzling us with sprawling alien landscapes, burning our retinas with eye-melting techno-wizardry, and sweeping us off our feet with grand visions of the far reaches of outer space. Ridley Scott, at 74, is still THE MAN when it comes to crafting evocative sci-fi visuals. And with this film, he also proves to be the anti-Michael Bay. Those of the ADD generation may not have the patience for the methodically-paced opening act of the film, but I loved it. I loved that Scott lingers and lets us soak up the epicness, and immerse ourselves in this cosmic playground. The semi-retro-sounding, epic-cosmic score only adds to the grandeur, with bombastic, haunting tones that give the film even more of a larger-than-life, operatic feel. Forget for a moment every critique I mentioned earlier - story complaints aside, make no mistake - Prometheus is pure audio/visual awesomesauce. The brilliant visuals here deserve an Oscar. The score is fantastic. And Ridley just directs the hell out of this film as only he can. The man knows how to create a mood of foreboding otherworldliness, and he does so here in legendary fashion. The images that this film assaults you with are truly the stuff that dreams - and nightmares - are made of. The CGI is elegant and artful, and the shot composition is crafted for maximum impact. On that note, the second area where the film really nails it is in the Alien-esque moments of action-horror. Scott crafts some true holy $%&#, nightmarish moments of otherworldly terror, and when business picks up, the movie delivers with some crazy human vs. creature showdowns that will leave your jaw hanging.

As mentioned, there are so many little moments in the film that are GREAT. Some of these moments are quiet and contemplative ... Fassbender as David watching Laurence of Arabia and trying to emulate it ... Idris Elba being badass and telling Charlize Theron what's what ... an absolutely incredible sequence where David uncovers the secrets of the alien race that the crew has sought out, and is literally surrounded and engulfed by the knowledge of the ancients. On the other hand, some of thes film's great moments are balls-to-the-wall insane ... a riveting and squirm-worthy scene of Noomi Rapace having to self-operate ... and a final, Alien-esque showdown with a hideous Lovecraftian monster.

I also thought that most of the cast was excellent, even if their characters had rather thin backstories at times. Rapace was quite good in the lead. Theron was suitably cold and calculating. Elba was a badass. Marshall-Green seemed a little in-over-his-head though. And Guy Pierce, while good, was hampered by some very odd f/x to make him seem aged.

So I'll be honest ... in writing this review, I was hoping that I'd come to some sort of internal consensus about the film. But now that I've talked about its merits and its flaws, I still feel torn. Prometheus is an incredible, state-of-the-art aesthetic experience. I can't recommend enough going to see it in the theater on the biggest and best screen possible - and yes, in 3D. And I also give it credit for being so thematically ambitious and daring. This is a movie that's going to be talked about and debated for a long, long time. And of course, you never know ... a sequel that follows up on some of the questions posed here, or even a couple of choice re-inserted or re-cut scenes (there's already talk of a director's cut on blu-ray) could be enough to force a reexamination of the film and force it to be looked at in a different context. But who knows. Was this film intended to be Part 1 of a multi-part epic? If viewed as the first chapter of a serialized story, then hey, a lot of my concerns might be a moot point. I also dont know if this is simply a film that got hacked to bits by the studio. We all know that Ridley Scott has a long history of having his films butchered upon release. And yet ... I've seen some interviews with Scott and Lindeloff, and I haven't seen any comments in the vein of "what happened was ____, and don't worry, that will be further followed up on in the imminent sequel." And then I also think back on LOST, and think about how that show was so effective at posing questions, yet ultimately - frustratingly - unable to provide satisfying follow-through. And I can't help but wonder if Prometheus is a similar beast - a movie so wrapped up in building up its mysteries that it forgets that mysteries alone don't make for a satisfying narrative. But as I said, it's extra-frustrating because the aesthetics of the  film are so strong, so powerful on their own, that the film probably would have worked better had it been *more* minimalist. Instead, it feels like the plot is only given to us in half-measures - wanting to craft a cosmic mythology, but not having the vision to go all the way. Prometheus is so close to being a classic that it hurts. And I may just end up having a soft spot for it over time ... we'll see. But right now, my feelings are too conflicted to call Prometheus unequivically great, given the less-than-wholly-fulfilled potential of Ridley Scott's return to the world of science fiction. That said - Sir Ridley - more, please. You're too brilliant of a filmmaker not to return to this genre, and Prometheus teases us that, with the right script, Scott can still be as good as ever.

My Grade: B+

MOONRISE KINGDOM is One of Wes Anderson's Best!


- Say what you want about Wes Anderson, but the guy is a unique and creative voice in the world of film.  Seeing a new Anderson film always feels like a breath of fresh air - in a marketplace full of me-too's, his movies are personal and wholly his own. Some criticize Anderson for his trademark whimsical aesthetic. And I get it - if quirkiness is used as a crutch, as a replacement for smart writing and great characters - then it can be a drag. But when Anderson is making movies as charming and as funny as Moonrise Kingdom, his eccentricities are more than welcome in my book. This is one of Anderson's most rewarding, heartfelt, and most accomplished films yet.

Moonrise Kingdom is a story of young love - told, of course, through Anderson's oddball lense. The film takes place in the 60's, and is set in a small New England coastal town. In this town lives Sam (Jared Gilman), an eccentric orphan who lives with disapproving foster parents and who is part of a boy scout troop, where is categorically the least-popular of all the boys. Sam loves the outdoors and honing his survival skills, and would be a great scout if not for the fact that he tends to wander off on his own private adventures. He's not exactly a team player. One day, while his troop attends a play, Sam wanders off and stumbles into the dressing room of some of the girls in the pageant. One of the girls is Suzy (Kara Hayward), a sullen, wise-beyond-her-years bookworm who's prone to fits of rage when she's annoyed. For Sam, it's love at first sight. He begins writing letters to Suzy, and the two become pen pals. Given that both of them lead somewhat lonely lives, they agree in their correspondence to meet and run away together. Sam flees from his boyscout troop, sending his erstwhile Scout Master (Edward Norton) on a quest to retrieve him. Suzy escapes from her bickering parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Meanwhile, a local policeman (Bruce Willis) is on the case, in search of the two missing kids.

Anderson has long had the ability to get great, memorable performances from his actors - often inspiring them to do amazing work in against-type roles. We see that again here, as Moonrise is just packed with fantastic turns. Edward Norton is hilarious and just plain great as Scout Master Ward, the Dudley-Do-Right-esque troop leader whose bible is the scout's handbook. Bruce Willis is also great as a the schlubby policeman whose quest to find Sam and Suzy brings to light his personal relationship with Suzy's mother. And Suzy's mom, played by Frances McDormand, proves to be yet another great turn for the actress. Bill Murray - now an Anderson regular - is subtle and understated as Suzy's dour dad. It's yet another Anderson-Murray collaboration that brings out the best in Murray.

And the two kids - they're great. Gillman makes Sam into a classic Anderson protagonist - he's a weird kid, yet he feels relatable because he's that weird, awkward kid in all of us. And Hayward makes Suzy into a dreamer - a girl who's quickly maturing into a woman yet still very much just a kid. The kind of girl who Sam would easily fall in love with, and yet who just might love him in return. Just as Sam uses his Boy Scout skills to fashion himself into some sort of would-be explorer and adventurer, Suzy wants to be like one of the girl-heroes in her pulp sci-fi novels that she carries with her everywhere. Both live in a mundane world, but both use their imaginations to become heroes in their own great adventures. To that end, this is a story that's perfect for Anderson's left-of-center storybook style.

Moonrise has some very funny deadpan humor - and it's no surprise that guys like Murray and Norton - as well as supporting players like Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban - are able to pull if off pitch-perfectly. But the film also surprised me with just how much it wore its heart on its sleeve. Some of Anderson's more recent works may have felt a bit detached, but Moonrise feels like one of his more personal films. It's a movie about finding your partner in crime - about finding someone who will stick by your side when it's just the two of you against the world. Sam and Suzy may just be kids, but Anderson uses that fact to great effect, because their budding young romance is in stark contrast to the crumbling - adult - relationship between Murray and McDormand. Suffice it to say, there's a lot going on here just below the surface.

By the same token, this is a very, very smart script. As written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, the film continually surprised me with the turns it took, and though it is a love story, and a pure one at that, it avoids cliches and has a lot of moments that are both out of left field yet also perfectly in tune with the world that is created here. Each character is just beautifully-drawn, and the dialogue is spot-on. The movie also looks amazing. Anderson's usual eye for detail is on full display, with meticulously crafted sets and costumes. There are some gorgeously-composed shots here as well - throughout the film, the colors pop and the visuals shine.

All of Wes Anderson's movies tend to have a degree of melancholy in them. But I was surprised and pleased to find that Moonrise Kingdom is, in its own way, a pretty joyous film. It has moments of real darkness, and it continues the Anderson tradition of shining the spotlight on outsiders and outcasts and eccentrics. But it also posits that the eccentrics, the dreamers, and the weirdos may be just one awkward conversation away from finding their soulmate and partner in crime. And that - that may be all they need to stand tall and take on the world. Moonrise Kingdom is a funny, quirky, charmer that will leave you smiling, and happy that Wes Anderson is out there letting us get a glimpse into his one-of-a-kind imagination.

My Grade: A-