Sunday, July 27, 2014

Prometheus (2012)

Director: Ridley Scott

Imagine you're really hungry and you sit down for dinner in a restaurant where the chef is a known master. You are then brought out a small amount of a phenomenal appetizer. You ask for more from the waiter, but instead he brings you a small plate of stale SPAM. You'd rather not eat it, so you just hold your nose and wait. Eventually, the waiter removes the SPAM and brings out another small plate with a tiny portion of a masterfully prepared soup. You quickly devour the four or five spoonfuls of this masterpiece, again asking for more. Once again, the waiter refuses and instead brings out a cup of cold ramen noodles. On this goes, all the way through your meal, alternating excellence and baffling inadequacy.

If you can imagine this strange hypothetical, then you have some idea of what watching Prometheus is like. It tantalizes you with moments and elements of brilliance, and then gives you something that makes your eyebrows want to dance right off your face.

When you look at the basic plot structure of this prequel to the Alien canon, it looks good: a team of scientists treks several light years across the galaxy to find creatures who not only left messages on Earth ages ago, but which also may very well have planted the very seeds of life on our planet. Once the team gets there, they discover not some benevolent creator race, but rather a bizarre structure that seems to exist for some unspeakably horrifying purpose. Once the methods of interfacing with the structure are puzzled out, it starts to reveal its history to the explorers, though not in ways that they had hoped.

David, as he puzzles out the aliens' interfacing system.
Unlike the costumes, sets, props, and visual effects in the
movie are beyond reproach.
Sounds decent, right? And honestly, it is decent. More than decent, actually. If you focus solely on the major story points, it's actually a pretty good one. And if you allow yourself to be dazzled by the amazing visual effects - and they are truly spectacular - then you might not see what so many people have complained about, and you might think Prometheus is fantastic.

To the critical movie-goer, though, there are more than a few problems with the movie. One is that the de facto protagonist, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), is a bit annoying. For some reason, the writers saw fit to make hers some sort of religious crusade to prove the existence of some benevolent God based on the death of her missionary father on Earth. Why? The story is fascinating enough without it becoming some form of religio-psychotherapy for one of the characters. On top of that, her love interest and colleague, Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), is a total snoozer of a character.

Which brings us to one of the major problems: the human characters. Essentially, not one of them is well done. The scientists - you know, the ones who were supposedly hand-picked by a company that invested a trillion dollars in this venture - are either fully idiotic or a oddly detached. Not very realistic, if you ask me. The pilot, played by the ever-magnetic Idris Elba - is ridiculously "too cool for school." So much so, that even when the crew first set eyes on the the very first proof of alien life, he simply gazes passively and cracks off a few flippant one-liners. Absolutely no sense of the wonder and awe that he should be feeling with the audience. It's as if the writers were trying to give each and every person some kind of quirk or cliched personality trait just to make him or her interesting. The result is a crew of 2-dimensionals that I mostly didn't care about. What happened to scenes like the classic dinner table one in Alien (before John Hurt's chest pains), or even some of the more casual humor of the space Marines in Aliens? There was virtually none of this in Prometheus.

Of course, the movie wouldn't have been complete without
a little teaser at the end to create the obvious link to
Alien movies. This happy little guy gives it to us.
If we really want to nerd out with our critique, we can talk about David. David is the ship's android member. Androids have always been a major part of the Alien narrative. With Ash in Alien and Bishop in Aliens, the bar was set extremely high for interesting synthetic humans. David does play a key role in the story, is interesting enough, and is played extremely well by Michael Fassbinder. However, David is noticeably more advanced than either Ash or Bishop, both of whom are created many decades after David. On top of that, there are far too many of David's bizarre actions that are never fully explained. He exhibits clear signs of human emotions, which speaks either to sloppy writing or unresolved implications. What it amounted to was frustration for me as a viewer.

These problems are impossible for me to ever overlook completely, but the movie is not terrible. It ends on an interesting note, and it all but guarantees a sequel, which is scheduled to come out in 2016. Honestly, I'll go see it. Prometheus had just enough to it that I'm willing to give Ridley Scott a chance to right the wrongs of the first one. After Alien and Blade Runner, the man has earned at least that much. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Europa Report (2013)

Director: Sebastian Cordero

This movie is incredible. And it's not for everyone.

Europa Report is probably the most sober, carefully-researched film tales about space exploration that I've ever seen. In other words, it truly puts the "science" in "science fiction." For people who like verisimilitude in their movies, this is more than welcome.

This tight, 90-minute movie follows the fictional tale of a privately-funded mission to explore Jupiter's moon, Europa, where signs of water have been found. This evidence opens the possibility that life may be found, as well, which leads to a half dozen astronauts being sent on the epic 22-month flight to reach it and attempt to add to mankind's knowledge of the solar system.

Of course, things do not go as planned. However, unlike 99% of space exploration science fiction out there, the perils depicted in Europa Report are all very realistic. Never mind the numbing boredom that must ensue when one is stuck for 22 months straight with five other people in a spacecraft the size of a modest apartment. In space, when a very real problem occurs, there is no margin for error. If an error is made, chances are that someone is going to die. Such threats are a very real part of Europa Report, as they are with space journeys in our own real history. And with only six members in the crew, each life feels that much more precious and vital to the mission.

One of the most realistically conceived and presented science
 fiction crews ever assembled. Though fictional, what they
represent commands the respect and admiration of us
viewers throughout the film.
The characters are great. The writers avoided the pitfall of trying to make everyone "a character," and instead gave us six very natural people who do nothing to create any of the drama themselves. Each of the six is incredibly smart, capable, and dedicated to the mission of learning in the face of extreme risk. Yes, a few of the crew are a little more amiable than others, but there are no "villains" here. There is nothing to root against in this movie. Rather than seeking heartstrings to pull on, the writers and director wrap us in the intensity of dealing with high-stress situations in order to save comrades and contribute to mankind's greater good. It's a far more noble theme than what is presented by the vast majority of science fiction movies.

The final thirty minutes of the film are astounding. Once the craft and crew reach Europa, accidents and wonders converge to create the suspense, awe and terror that the great explorers of human history must have felt. Vespucci sighting the North American coastlines. Magellan discovering the massive native peoples of Patagonia. The first hunters to set sights on a blue whale. The power of these immense discoveries is echoed in the climax of Europa Report, and its something to be treasured.

Some people might watch the movie through to the end and clamor for a sequel. Though the film certainly sets up in a way that a sequel would seem logical, this would be misguided. The point of this film was not to set up some kind of sci-fi movie franchise series. The point was to remind viewers of just what may be lying out there in the farther reaches of our own planetary system.

If you're expecting Alien, Aliens, or Star Wars, you'll be bitterly disappointed. If you truly love science and the scientific process of adventure and discovery, then you will definitely want to check out Europa Report

Monday, July 21, 2014

Before I Die #514: Say Anything... (1989)

This film is the 514th of the 1,149 "Films to See Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.

Director: Cameron Crowe

I know that I probably was supposed to have my credentials as an "80s kid" revoked for this, but I had actually never seen this movie. Chalk it up to being more interested in Arnold Schwarzenegger movies at the time. Say Anything... was one of a few of those staple, "coming of age" movies that so defined U.S. pop film culture at that time and that I flat-out didn't see. I didn't see The Breakfast Club until well into the 90s, and I have still never seen Pretty In Pink (probably never will). Really, though, these movies are rather dated to me, and they smack of what some social commentators and comedians have referred to as "white people problems." As an adult, how much can I really care about some well-to-do suburban kid whining about not getting the attention of their dream girl or guy? Not much, actually.

I don't mean to completely hate on the genre. John Hughes was a funny guy, no doubt, and the dialogue actually helps most of his and "brat pack" copycat films hold up over time. But the cliches become more painful to see with every passing year, so I never really go out of my way to watch them these days.

While I can't say much for Ione Skye's character or
performance, John Cusack certainly brought the effortless
charm, quirkiness, and vulnerability needed to make
Lloyd one of the most well-rounded of the archetypal
80s "coming of age" protagonists. 
All that being said, Say Anything... was a nice little surprise. No, I probably wouldn't watch it again any time soon, but I enjoyed how it avoided so many of the cliches that the Hughes movies from previous years had created. While teen love is still at the heart of the film, the characters are not the typical set. John Cusack does an excellent job playing the enthusiastic, quirky, and charmingly confident Lloyd Dobler. It's a character that threatens to be a cliche of the genre, but somehow avoids it by being well-rounded. He's definitely the high point, character-wise.

The story itself is also a relatively novel take on the familiar theme of the charismatic, semi-odd fellow who sets his sights on his "It Girl." In Say Anything..., though, his "It Girl" is not the drop-dead gorgeous, overdeveloped prom queen, but rather the quiet, overachieving valedictorian, Diane Court. The path of their relationship feels genuine, organic, and special. When you add in the complications of Diane's father, who suggests but never becomes the overbearing, nay-saying, protective father, then the tale becomes even more unique.

I can't say that I loved every character. Actually, Ione Skye as Diane Court didn't do much for me. I find something bordering on flighty about her performance. And flighty is a quality that some find charming, but I find mildly annoying. In similar fashion, I found Lloyd's gal pal Corey (Lili Taylor) a nuisance. She was clearly meant to be a comedic parody of an emotional musician, but I found her mostly an irritant.

So Cameron Crowe put together a solid film that, in retrospect, bridged the gap between the teen movies of the 80s and 90s. It's not hard to see why so many of my fellow Generation X-ers still have an affinity for it. Take it from a guy who wasn't terribly enthusiastic about watching it - it's worth seeing if you haven't.

635 more films to see "before I die."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Director: Doug Liman

This was a damn fun movie. My expectations were fairly high, too, considering it had garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews from all over the place. They were merited.

It's already been used a million times, but I can't escape the description of the movie as "Groundhog Day" meets     insert classic high-octane sci-fi flick here   . That is pretty much what you're getting, and director Doug Liman does it up right.

Without giving anything away, I'll offer this very brief summary: Major Cage (Tom Cruise) is a walking billboard of recruiting advertisement for a world military at war with an invading alien race. Cage, while an incredibly photogenic and charismatic recruiter, has no interest in any actual fighting. So when he's forced to the front lines by his commanding officer, he first balks, then refuses, and then attempts blackmail to get out of it. Rather than buckle to the blackmail, the general railroads him, labels him an AWOL enlisted man, and sends him into battle.

Just one of the many, many times that Major Cage has to
try and live through a battle that it may or may not be
possible for him to win.
As you can imagine, the craven and untrained Cage stands little chance on the battlefield. Shortly after he's dumped onto the beachhead, his squad is overrun by their alien adversaries. Cage manages to survive just long enough to see every person around him get annihilated, before he too is overtaken and killed.

But then...Cage wakes up. In fact, he not only wakes up alive, but in the exact same spot he was 24 hours earlier: on the barracks getting rousted by a hyper-vigilant drill sergeant, screaming the same things at him and forcing Cage into actions that he has already performed.

And thus begins the mystery/sci-fi/action/adventure that is Edge of Tomorrow, and it is a hell of a lot of fun. I won't spoil it by giving any details. Rather, I'll try to allay any concerns that you might not like this movie. First off - no, it does not get boring. Yes, there are some scenes that get repeated, a la Groundhog Day, but they never become tiresome. You actually find yourself waiting to see just how Cage will change his actions in order to either figure out what the hell is happening to him or how to solve the many problems that confront him.

Secondly - even people with little to no interest in science fiction will probably dig this movie. My Mom and my wife really enjoyed it, and they couldn't care less about science fiction. They both simply enjoyed the careful pacing and construction of the story. The steady dashes of humor also go a long way towards carrying along the non-nerd crowd.

Bill Paxton on the front. Anything that evokes Bill's turn as
Hudson in
Aliens is a thing to be cherished. No, he's not
the lovable whiner from that earlier classic, but he's a great
addition to this movie.
Third - Tom Cruise does just fine. I'm no fan of the guy, as I find that he basically plays the same character about 90% of the time, and I find him dull. I can't say that he necessarily enhances the movie in any notable way, but he surely doesn't take anything away from it either. If nothing else, you will get to see him die plenty of times (perhaps this is the true reason for the film's success?). In case you're worried that it's all about his character, have no fear - Emily Blunt is awesome as the ass-kicking uber soldier who is with him through many of his odd experiences. And she's not just some contrived, PC super femme. There's actually an imaginative explanation for her martial prowess. Sprinkled in are some sly performances by Bill Paxson and Brendan Gleeson, two guys who can essentially do no wrong in such a fun film.

Unless you are categorically and irretrievably opposed to science fiction or action, you need to see this film. Even if you are opposed, you should still seriously think about seeing it. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Last Action Hero (1993)

Director: John McTiernan

Last Action Hero was a good idea that couldn't quite pull off the execution (cue the Jack Slater bad pun here).

The movie tells the story of Danny Madigan, a 12-year-old who's obsessed with movies, especially action flicks featuring his hero, Jack Slater. Slater is a virtual parody of the already-over-the-top action hero that dominated the box offices through the '80s and early '90s, and the character is played by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. On one particularly tough evening, Danny is given a magical ticket that transports him into the latest Jack Slater sequel, where he quite literally becomes a part of the world of the big-budget action film as Jack Slater's sidekick.

The real trouble begins when one of the arch villains in the picture - an icy-cold assassin named Benedict (played brilliantly by Charles Dance, whom you may know as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones) - finds Danny's magical ticket and transports himself into "our" world, the realistically dour and dingy New York City. Benedict's master plan involved using the ticket to go into various films and bring other villains into this world where, as he puts it, "The bad guys can win." Danny brings the fictional Jack Slater into the real world to try and stop Benedict. The problem is that Slater, no longer in his world, is now vulnerable in ways that he has never been in his own movies.

The icy-cold and wonderfully sarcastic Benedict - probably
the most consistently excellent thing about this movie.
Last Action Hero does have its moments. It was certainly a parody that was due back in 1993, as that particular style of action movie had reached untold heights of commercial success and featured no end of formulaic and often downright silly elements. These elements are spoofed in both obvious and subtle ways, in turn. A prime example is when Danny is first transported into the latest Jack Slater movie, right into the back seat of Slater's speeding muscle car. As he looks around at the ridiculous and cacophonous action unfolding around him, he takes note: "Wait a minute. The bad puns...the explosions...the hard rock soundtrack...I'm in the movie!!" And with those observations, Danny was unwittingly giving Michael Bay his formula to mindless action movies that net disgusting amounts of money (for those counting, Bay's latest Transformers movie grossed $100 million on its opening weekend, despite being labelled all but worthless by any critic worth his or her salt).

The ideas behind the movie are good, and some of the intentionally cheesy dialogue is funny enough. Among the highlights are the police station in Slater's world, where we see an amalgam of every action movie police station cliche in the book. An added gag is the pair of lines of mismatched cops who are being partnered up for their "buddy movie" pairings: old cop + young cop, real cop + cartoon cat cop, living cop + Humphrey Bogart's ghost cop, and on it goes. Such jokes border on Zucker brothers zaniness, but never quite go all the way, which is probably for the best.

While the gags are pretty good, the movie does lose steam about halfway through. I attribute this to just how much time Danny spends in Slater's movie world. Sure, a lot of the gags are pretty funny, but not all of them hit the mark. And there are actually moments when you get the sense that the director McTiernan fell into his own trap - he actually wants us to be enthralled by Slater's ridiculous exploits, rather than simply ask us to keep laughing at them. This incongruous tone is completely at odds with the point of the movie.

The Ripper - one of several uninspired elements of the film.
The idea of using villains from movies is great, but they
could have done far better than this bland parody.
This same shift into a real attempt at action movie intensity carries into the end of the film, at which point its lost any impact. The one saving ingredient is that of Benedict's attempt to draw various fictional film villains into the real world. However, even this intriguing plot device isn't used to much effect. What we end up with is simply one already-introduced Jack Slater villain and the personification of Death (in a pretty cool little cameo by Sir Ian McKellan, incidentally). Otherwise, why is the film asking me to take seriously the very thing that it just spent over an hour mocking? Poor planning, if you ask me.

To me, this is the textbook mediocre movie. I didn't feel like I wasted my time watching it, but I feel no need to ever watch it again. There's just enough merit to see you through the two-plus hour running time, but it's too inconsistent to be called anything more than a really good idea that couldn't quite live up to its vast potential. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2008)

Director: Anders Ostergaard

This is one harrowing documentary. One that makes me appreciate a great many things that I often take for granted.

Burma VJ is a documentary focused on the 2007 protests in the streets of Rangoon, Burma (presently known as Myanmar) - a large country in Southeast Asia between Bangladesh and Thailand. Though conditions have since improved somewhat, through nearly every decade following World War II and up to the making of this film, Burma was ruled by one of the most oppressive military regimes in the world. It was almost on par with North Korea in terms of how little freedom of speech its citizens were allowed. The only method of getting their stories out was through guerrilla-style street reporting done undercover and at great risk to those video journalists (the V.J. in the title of the movie).

Patched together by the journalists and sympathetic groups based mostly in Oslo, Burma VJ depicts the struggle of the Burmese people to stand in the face of the totalitarian rule of the military and demand a truer form of democracy. It's a situation that we've seen unfold in may countries in the world, especially within the last ten years. Whether it's in Burma, Thailand, or any of the many countries involved in the Arab Spring, the fight of an oppressed citizenry over tyranny has become common enough that we in more privileged countries can often become jaded to it.

That's where a film like Burma VJ comes in.

One of the many images that the Burmese military
government does NOT want outsiders to see - the standoff
and violent reaction to pacifist monks who move for
social justice.
It's one thing to read about it (as I have a few times in National Geographic or the occasional newspaper story about Aung Sun Suu Kyi), but when you see the collage of video footage of the brutality and the average people who stood up it, it becomes all too real. When you see citizens grabbed by thugs and stuffed into waiting government vehicles less then three minutes after they try to criticize the government in public, you truly do start to understand what "police state" and "living in fear" truly mean.

The real meat of this film comes during a time in the protests when the Buddhist monks, usually completely removed from politics due to their beliefs, actually take up the mantle and join the citizens in marching for freedom. Seeing these pacifists and the people who stuck with them through ruthless beatings certainly gave me some perspective. I'll probably think twice the next time I want to gripe about not getting the NFL Network as part of my cable package.

File this one in the same category as films like Waltz With Bashir, The Square, Dirty Wars, and any other documentary about the brutal realities in which many people live. No, you won't "enjoy" these movies, but you really should watch them to have an understanding of just what a large portion of the global population has to live through and fight against. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Coraline (2009)

Director: Henry Selick

Spoiler-Free Summary

Coraline is a precocious 10-year old girl who is bored out of her mind. Her parents move their family to a new town, into a large, shared house, where her mother and father can write gardening books. The house also gives residence to a few other odd denizens, including a former circus performer who trains mice to perform acrobatic feats, and two former burlesque performers who are now in their advanced years and have a fetish for Scottish Terriers.

On their first afternoon in the new apartment, Coraline discovers a small door covered over with wallpaper. After finding the key, she crawls through and finds a bizarre alternative universe, which appears much like her own but with startling differences. In this "other" world, her parents, who look the same except for the unnerving feature of having buttons for eyes, pay the utmost attention to her, give her whatever she likes, and dazzle her with various eye-catching antics and spectacles. Coraline goes right along for the fun-filled ride, right up until she grows tired and goes to bed in this happier version of her own world. When she wakes, she finds herself back in her own humdrum surroundings, complete with her dull parents.

Coraline's "other" parents sure act friendly and caring,
but those button eyes are creepy for a reason.
After a few more night of retreating to the other world, Coraline starts to figure out that something is amiss with her new-found paradise. Between her own intuition and hints from a mangy cat, she realizes that the "alternative" family's intentions are far from benevolent. She soon has to use all of her cunning and resources to evade the various traps set up by the other mother, who is far more terrifying than Coraline could ever have known.

What Did I Think?

Coraline is a wonderfully imaginative and novel children's tale that I would hesitate to show many children. To put it plainly - it would freak them the hell out.

I guess this is to be expected from the director that brought us The Nightmare Before Christmas. Obviously, Henry Selick is not afraid to mix elements of horror in with the more light-hearted whimsical tales that appeal to children. Pairing him up with Neil Gaiman - the brilliant storyteller behind many a popular children's and adults' tale - was bound to produce a singular type of film. And it did, in all the right ways.

The story is truly the stuff of an imaginative child's fantasy: an alternate world where your parents have all the time in the world for you and are interesting and fun. Of course, this veneer of paradise masks an insidious terror, but we can't know exactly what it is until Coraline does. Her uncovering of it carries the film along nicely.

Just one of the many lush, vibrant sets in which the story
takes place. The three dimensions truly do add a more
palpable sense of place, which is something that even
the very best 2D animated films lack. 
The stop-motion animation is wonderful. It's a labor-intensive art form, but one that sets films like this apart from most other animated movies. It may not have the smooth graphics of a Pixar movie or the simple majesty of the classically hand-rendered films popularized by Disney, but the three-dimensional settings and characters do add a sense of tactile richness to Coraline. There is something that I think we viewers, on an unconscious level, see as more impressive about these films. It enhances the wonder that is already a major part of the tale.

And like all great animated movies, this one is hardly just for kids. Sure, young people (who don't scare easily) will follow along with glee and amazement, but there's plenty of "adult" humor. The retired burlesque performers who live downstairs from Coraline are prime examples of this, but there are plenty of others.

Coraline is a really fun film that I would gladly sit down and watch with a kid who hadn't seen it before, provided they can handle some dark and scary imagery that might give a nervous youngster some serious nightmares.