Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Haywire (2011)

Like a bear in hibernation, I rarely venture out to a movie theater in the first few months of the year. After all, I’m not a professional critic, I’m a hobbyist, and the months from January through early spring are notorious for turning local theaters into landfills for last year’s leftovers. But if Haywire--a January release I just caught up with--is someone's idea of leftovers, I wish we'd see more like it.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Lem Dobbs, Haywire delivers the kind of rogue agent story you'd find in a Bourne movie, except in this case the agent in question isn't Matt Damon or another Hollywood leading man, but Gina Carano, a real-life MMA fighter. Far from the damsel-in-distress type, Carano's steely athleticism brings to mind another heavy-hitter: the Hulk, from this summer's smash-hit, The Avengers. Different in many ways--she's not green, for one--part of the fun of watching Haywire is waiting for Carano to turn. Beneath her unassuming facade is a woman of animal instincts and precision. Of course we want to see what happens to her, but mainly we just want to see the gloves come off.

When they do, it's nice having Soderbergh at the helm. His workmanlike precision adds a crackle to Carano's pop, imbuing Haywire with a controlled energy. He knows how to keep things moving, but he also knows when to get out of the way and let Carano do her thing. Even though Haywire only earned $18 million domestically, I wish more directors would follow Soderbergh's lead. Where others would rely on shaking the camera or use quick cuts to convey action, Soderbergh's fight scenes are clearly staged and photographed. We don't have to wonder what's going on because we can see it all right in front of us. The result is more than just sustained tension--it's awe. Filmmakers look to CGI for that all the time, when really, you can look a lot closer than that, at us.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012)

Caution: SPOILERS below.

I'm a little late to the Alien party. I didn't see the Ridley Scott classic until just a couple of weeks ago, before Prometheus finally lumbered into theaters, and I still haven't seen AliensAlien 3, or Alien: Resurrection. I have seen Prometheus, though, and what I can tell you based on these two films is that I don't think I'll ever be all that passionate about the Alien series. I don't think either one is a bad movie--Alien is effectively paced and still effectively thrilling, while Prometheus delivers moments of cringe-inducing anxiety--but I do have a few issues with both of them, and in general they left me a little cold.

Part of my problem is that I just don't have a feel for the world they take place in. I don't need to know everything, but I would like to feel that the writers and Ridley Scott do. Instead, I feel like we're missing out on a lot of valuable information that would help us understand these characters and give us some kind of grounding. Scott did a great job of giving us just about everything we needed to know about Blade Runner's world by simply showing us Deckard's Los Angeles. But in Alien, we never see Earth, and the crew never has contact with anyone living on it. In Prometheus, we get the briefest of looks at our home planet, but it doesn't seem any different than it does now. Whatever these versions of Earth are like, they must be radically different if we now have robots as advanced as Ash and David, not to mention enormous spaceships and suspended animation, but you just wouldn't know it from either movie.

Maybe if Alien or Prometheus had given us a strong sense of their world, I might not have been left with as many questions as I was with both. In the case of Alien, I wanted to know about the company behind the crew's mission. How did they know about the signal the crew found? Did they know what was there? If they did, what were they hoping to do with that information? Why did it all matter to them?

Now, these questions aren't directly pertinent, because Alien isn't about any of that. It's a thriller, so it's about atmosphere and creating a sense of terror. Scott's gorgeously framed shots and his limited use of music enhances the tension by creating a realistic, fly-on-the-wall feel. And then there's the beautifully streamlined screenplay. There's absolutely no fat on those narrative bones. All of which is why I won't contest its reputation as a classic. Alien is a very well made movie that has stood the test of time and will continue to.

But. That doesn't change the fact that when I was done watching it, I didn't understand anything about its world. Are corporations controlling everything now? And if we have robots as advanced as Ash, would it really be so surprising that there's one onboard the Nostromo? And does Ash (or David, for that matter) have to be a robot? Is he only important because he doesn't have the same kinds of concerns for human life that a human would? How much is the story really improved by him being a robot?

Well anyway, as I said, I won't try to go against the flow too much here. Alien is much more well-regarded than I am, and it is a good film, I just can't shake these question. Nor can I shake the feeling that once you get beyond the scares and the eery atmosphere, you're just not left with much to come back to.

Which leads me to Prometheus, which I also can't fault from a formal perspective but which I will fault from a storytelling perspective. The script, by Jon Spaights and Damon Lindelof, feels too busy. Alien may have left me with questions, but at least its streamlined plot kept me distracted until it was all over. I was so focused on Ripley's fight for survival I didn't have time to wonder anything else. Prometheus, on the other hand, wants to come off as complex, but it's really just complicated, which isn't the same thing. A movie can be straightforward and complex at the same time, but a complicated movie can never be anything but all over the map. Moments of Prometheus are effective, like Shaw's emergency caesarian and the scene where the crew's lost team members are horrifically killed, but these moments either sprung from or resulted in incidents that felt like a distraction. We couldn't have had Shaw's cringe-inducing surgery without David infecting Charlie, but did David really need to do that? The scene involving the two lost crew members was terrifying, but did a zombie version Fifield need to return to Prometheus to wreak havoc? This seems to be the new movie's major flaw--it's most effective moments are closely tied to others that, in the grand scheme of things, just really don't matter.

What can a blogger really do, though? There's already talk of a sequel, and yes I'll go see it, if only because the summer movie season feels like a game that you just can't resist. And who knows, maybe none of these questions will matter to me if I go back and watch both of them again. Opinions do change, after all. That's part of the fun of going back to movies you loved and movies you hated. You have the chance to find out just how much you've changed, and how much the movie has stayed the same. 

Finding God in Science Fiction

In anticipation of Ridley Scott's Prometheus, I highlighted a few of my favorite science fiction movies and TV shows last Friday in this feature for RELEVANT.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Forget About the Gold Standard, What About the Godfather Standard?

This weekend, 20th Century Fox releases Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated prequel to Alien (1979). I haven’t seen it yet, but the buzz around it is mostly good and expectations are high. As a result, I've been thinking about prequels in general and wondering what they should do, besides give us a story with familiar characters and a familiar world. I don't have a concrete answer yet, but the model I'll be holding Prometheus up to this Friday is none other than The Godfather Part II.

Of course, this is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, The Godfather II is technically a sequel, not a prequel. And second...well, if you've seen it, you know how great it is. I really don't expect Prometheus to come anywhere close to matching what Coppola does in that film.

Still, despite all this, you can't deny that The Godfather Part II isn't at least a sort-of prequel. After all, once you take away Michael Corleone's storyline, what are you left with if not all the makings of a prequel? You've got a young actor (in this case Robert De Niro) playing a familiar character in a storyline that traces his roots and shows us how he became the man he did.

What makes it more than just a sort-of prequel, though, is that young Vito's storyline isn't there just for the sake of giving us more; it's there to add meaning and context to Michael's downward spiral. To understand what kind of monster he is, we have to see him in the light of another violent man--his father--who acted as he did to survive and to make a better life for himself and his family. Technically, I think we can say they're both "bad men" in that they murder and steal, but their different motivations force us to view one as better than the other.

It's this dialogue that so many prequels and reboots are missing. The Star Wars prequels gave us more characters, more set pieces, and a few great thematic and visual allusions, but did they force you to reevaluate the original trilogy in a significant? Or how about movies like Red Dragon or Hannibal Rising? How well did they engage with Silence of the Lambs? Or to keep the discussion on Prometheus, what about the two Alien vs. Predator films? Did they just give audiences more, or did they add context and meaning to the original films?

Your answers may differ on a few of these, and that's fine, but my overall guess is that none of these did. Which is part of why critics and film lovers often equate words like "prequel" and "reboot" with a word like "cash-grab." When one movie fails to engage with the other in a meaningful way, it often just feels like a chance for the studios to take our money.

All of which is my long-winded way of saying that as I head into Prometheus this weekend, I'm hoping that it does more than just give me more. I'm hoping that enters into a dialogue with its famous predecessor, Alien, and that it creates a more complete picture. To turn a Ridley Scott-themed quote on its head, yes, I'm sure I'll be entertained, but is that all I can expect?