Friday, June 29, 2012

Prometheus: A Journey Into Outer (and Inner) Space with Ridley Scott

The best science-fiction movies offer interesting stories & ideas along with their action & special effects. Ridley Scott directed two films that are considered among the genre’s best: Alien (1979) & Blade Runner (1982). Scott revisited both films with director’s cuts; Alien in 2003, and Blade Runner in 1992 with “The Director’s Cut” & again in 2007 with “The Final Cut.” Those films (and their various versions) have legions of loyal fans, and are still discussed and debated in the fan community. Alien went on to spawn several sequels, including James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), but Scott had never returned to the Alien universe with a new story: until this summer.

His newest film, Prometheus (2012), is full of big themes & high concepts in the grand sci-fi tradition. In 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway make an amazing discovery. Pictograms in caves around the world, from different time periods and civilizations, seem to contain the same image. Shaw & Holloway believe the similar drawings may be a star map leading us to the superior beings who created the human race. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation (the “Company” from the Alien films) funds a deep space mission to the site, hoping to discover the origins of humanity.

Once they arrive at their destination, the crew of the Prometheus discover the remnants of an ancient civilization...and something far more dangerous. These “Engineers” not only created humans, but also a bioweapon of terrifying ferocity. Shaw & Holloway investigate the origins of these beings, and find themselves with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, other members of the crew, including Weyland-Yutani representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the android David (Michael Fassbender) are pursuing their own mysterious agendas.

Fans of Alien will enjoy the visual cues & references to the original film. If you’ve ever wondered about the “Space Jockey” discovered by the crew of the Nostromo, you’ll get some answers here. And we also get some clues regarding the origins of the nasty creatures Ellen Ripley battled in the four previous films. But the most intriguing ideas here are the larger ones: Who created humans? What if those creators decided we weren't worth having around anymore? And if you designed an ultimate weapon to wipe out an entire race, what if turned on you instead? It's no accident that the Prometheus is named after the immortal figure in Greek mythology who stole fire from the Gods as a gift to man. His punishment was to be bound to a rock, where each day an eagle fed on his liver, which then grew back and was consumed again the following day for all eternity.

The concept of “who created us?” has often been explored in science fiction novels and films, including some memorable episodes of the original Star Trek series, novels like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as well as one of my personal favorites, Five Million Years To Earth (1967)Prometheus does a good job of combining some classic science-fiction ideas, and filtering them through the fabric of the world of Alien. The script by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (co-creator of TV’s Lost) answers some questions, while allowing you to draw some of your own conclusions. Though some elements of the story are a bit predictable, and it seems somewhat over plotted at times, it’s an entertaining journey; an interesting combination of thoughtful science-fiction, action movie and horror tale.

The cast does a good job, with Theron turning in her second solid performance in a genre film this summer (after Snow White & The Huntsman) and Idris Elba (TV’s Luther) nicely underplaying the role of the Captain. Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” film trilogy) who is very effective as Shaw, conveying the delicate balance between the character’s religious beliefs & her scientific curiosity. And then there’s Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) who is excellent as David, the android who knows more than he's telling about the mission, and may have some secrets of his own. Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) appears in an important supporting role.

Scott’s direction is excellent in this visually stunning film. He’s a master craftsman at the head of a great team, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and editor Pietro Scalia (both of whom have worked with the director on previous projects), and production designer Arthur Max. The entire technical team has done a marvelous job, giving you a real sense of being in another time & place. This is a science-fiction film that looks like a science-fiction film. It’s a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed in widescreen, with expansive use of the frame in some well-designed shots.

I’ve purposely stayed away from revealing too much of the plot & story elements here, so you can enjoy Prometheus on its own merits as you view it for the first time. One note of caution; there are a couple of sequences (like the Chest Burster in the original Alien) that are not for the squeamish. Prometheus is currently in theaters. It’s tentatively set to be released on home video (in an expanded edition from director Scott) in October. Feel free to post in the comments section below if you’d like to add anything, or discuss any of the points I brought up in this review. Prometheus can stand alongside Ridley Scott’s other two science-fiction projects as an example of what can be accomplished when a talented filmmaker is working at the top of his game.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Snow White, Warrior Princess?

Fairy tales seem to be back in vogue on the big & small screens recently. ABC launched a successful series this year called Once Upon A Time that delivered a modern spin on classic fairy tale characters. That series will be back for a second season this fall. Julia Roberts starred as the evil queen in the recent big screen release Mirror Mirror, a comedic take on Snow White. While the Roberts film wasn’t a big success at the box office, it didn’t stop Hollywood (as it often does) from releasing another version of the story, right on the heels of the first film.

Director Rupert Sanders’ Snow White & The Huntsman offers a different, darker version of the story.  In this adaptation, widowed King Magnus falls for Ravenna, a young woman that he & his army rescue from some marauding soldiers. He’s hoping she will bring him happiness, and be a good stepmother to his young daughter, Snow White. But Ravenna (Charlize Theron) is an evil sorceress, and murders Magnus on their wedding night. She imprisons Snow in a tower, and takes over the kingdom, with her loyal brother at her side. Ravenna begins an evil reign of terror, draining the life of young women to preserve her own youth & beauty, and consulting with her magic mirror on who is “the fairest of them all.” The once prosperous kingdom falls into ruin.

As the captive Snow White grows to adulthood, the mirror warns the evil queen that Snow’s beauty will surpass her own. Before Ravenna can absorb her life force, she escapes. Ravenna sends a Huntsman named Eric (Liam Hemsworth, Thor) to track her down, promising to reward him if he succeeds. During her escape, Snow goes on a perilous journey, and grows up in the process. She gathers some friends to help her fight the evil Queen’s tyranny. Her allies include some exiled rebels from the kingdom, a group of resourceful dwarves and Eric, who realizes he’s been tricked by Ravenna. Is Snow White the fulfillment of a prophecy that foretells Ravenna’s downfall? Will the forces of good triumph over the forces of evil?

Sander’s direction is solid, and he elicits some decent work from his cast: Hemsworth is good as the stalwart hero; Twilight star Stewart is fine as Snow White, playing the character a little tougher and more self sufficient than the usual interpretation. Several normal sized character actors (with the help of some impressive movie magic) including Bob Hoskins and Ian McShane, appear as the dwarves. But the standout here is Theron as Ravenna, who is every inch the villainess in a fantastic performance. She steals the movie right out from under her younger co-stars.

This is a great looking movie, with excellent production design, costumes & effects. You really feel like you’ve been transported into this fantasy world where heroes & villains and magic & menace exist alongside each other. The film's script falters a bit on character development & some story elements aren’t as well played out as they could be, but it does succeed as a different, more Grimm-like interpretation of this classic story. Worth seeing for a standout performance by Theron, some good work by the supporting cast & an excellent job by the production team. Snow White & The Huntsman is currently in theaters.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Debt: A tense, well-acted thriller

Many of the choices we make in life have repercussions. But what if one of those choices was a matter of life & death, and the result was living with a lie for years afterward? That’s the intriguing setup behind The Debt (2010). In the mid 1960s, three Mossad agents are in East Berlin hunting a Nazi war criminal known as “The Surgeon of Birkenau.” Their mission is to capture him and bring him back to Israel to stand trial. But something goes wrong, and agent Rachel Singer is forced to shoot him as he tries to escape. Still, the trio is hailed as heroes upon their return, for bringing such an evil man to justice.

Fast forward to 1997, and Rachel’s daughter has written a book about the operation, and her mother’s part in it. Then, one of the agents who was on the mission commits suicide. Rachel begins to doubt the group’s actions back in the 60s, and the truth about what really happened slowly begins to emerge. The film moves back and forth in time between the 60s and the present, allowing us to see the mission unfold. As Rachel struggles with her feelings about what occurred, a ghost from the past re-emerges, and forces her to make a difficult decision.

This is a tense, emotional thriller, with great performances by a talented cast. Helen Mirren (The Queen) plays the older Rachel, along with Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) as Stefan and Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) as David, the other two agents from the mission. Jessica Chastain (The Help), Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington (Avatar) play their younger selves. Mirren & Chastain standout in their shared role, as does Jesper Christensen as the manipulative Nazi.

The flashback structure works well within the context of the film. We’re given just enough information (sometimes from different perspectives) as the story moves forward, so we gather our own conclusions about events. Then the true resolution of what happened in the 60s, and its aftermath, come to light. It’s an old school film that recalls some of the thrillers of 70s, including Marathon Man (1976) and The Day of The Jackal (1973).

The movie is tautly directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) & co-written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman & Peter Straughan, based on an Israeli film titled Ha-Hov (2007).  Vaughn & Goldman also co-wrote X-Men: First Class (2011) and Stardust (2007). If you’re looking for a smart, literate spy drama with some good performances, The Debt is worth seeking out. The film is now available on Blu-ray & DVD.

Friday, June 1, 2012

AM/FM: A beautiful tour of 60s & 70s pop/rock from Rita Wilson

The used CD bins of record stores are filled with copies of albums by celebrities who attempted a music career: I’m looking at you, Don “Heartbeat” Johnson and Bruce “Bruno” Willis. But once in a while, one of these releases is a worthwhile listen. AM/FM (2012), the new album by Rita Wilson (aka Mrs. Tom Hanks), is a pleasant surprise from start to finish. She’s better known as an actress & producer, but Wilson did a stint in Chicago on Broadway in 2006 (as Roxie Hart), and has always had a deep love of music. The record is a well-chosen collection of covers ranging from 60s pop tunes like The Association’s “Cherish” to 70s singer-songwriter fare like Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues,” which features Jackson Browne on vocals.

Browne isn’t the only guest on the disc, which also includes turns by rocker Chris Cornell (who duets with Wilson on The Everly Brothers “All I Have To Do Is Dream”) as well as support from Sheryl Crow, Faith Hill and Vince Gill. Wilson also scored a coup by having legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb play piano on his composition “Witchita Lineman,” previously a hit for Glen Campbell. And Patti Scialfa (Mrs. Bruce Springsteen) turns up to co-produce and sing on a cover of The Supremes hit “Come See About Me.” Wilson also does a version of an unreleased Scialfa song entitled “Every Perfect Picture," which is only available as a bonus track on the iTunes version of the album.

Ms. Wilson has a sweet, lovely voice, with a hint of underlying sensuality. Her style recalls artists like Linda Ronstadt, Karla Bonoff & Alison Krauss, which is quite appropriate given the material. The spare arrangements are a good complement to her versions of these classic songs. And she takes a few chances, including covering the Eric Kaz and Libby Titus number “Love Has No Pride,” which is a signature tune for both Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt, and manages to give it her own spin. Wilson also successfully tackles such iconic hits as Carole King's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and Joni Mitchell's "River." AM/FM is a well-produced tour of these fondly remembered songs, and baby boomers (and fans of the genres featured here) will find much to enjoy on the album. It’s a gentle, sonically pleasing record that recalls a simpler, yet still enduring, musical era. Ms. Wilson's fine effort won't be visiting the cutout bins any time soon.

Here are links to a recent live performance of "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues" by Rita at Joe's Pub in New York City, and an interview with her about the album