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Sunday
Jun172012

Rock of Ages (2012)

The Ageless Wonder of Rock

This never happens. In the middle of Rock of Ages, I kicked myself for not having upgraded to an IMAX screening. Despite its many narrative and musical problems, you simply must see Adam Shankman's musical tribute to 80s hair bands on as large a screen as you can find, as soon as possible.

Howard Hawks said that a movie should contain three great scenes and no bad ones. By those standards, Rock of Ages doesn't hold up well. Plenty of scenes and songs advance the predictable, PG-13 plot* without stimulating the audience beyond, perhaps, a desire to hear the original version of head-bangin', Reagan-era anthems. But once Tom Cruise shows up as Stacee Jaxx, an aged rock god with a penchant for alcohol, group sex, and out-there non-sequitur mumbling, the film takes a number of delicious diversions into territory more closely resembling grown-up entertainment.

The problem is, Stacee Jaxx doesn't enter the story for quite awhile. In the meantime, we're stuck following Sherie (Juilanne Hough), an aspiring singer just off the bus from Oklahoma who hopes to make it big in Los Angeles. After getting mugged, she's befriended by a bar back named Drew (Diego Boneta), who gets her a job at the wacky rock club/cultural institution, The Bourbon Room, where he works. The owner, Dennis (Alec Baldwin), and his assistant manager, Lonny (Russell Brand), have the look of jaded, burn-out freaks. But because Rock of Ages is essentially Empire Records by way of Xanadu, they naturally take a liking to Sherie and help her and her future boyfriend (SPOILER!) achieve their dreams of rock stardom.

Meanwhile, newly-elected, philandering mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his Christian-values-spewing wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have launched a campaign to shut down the club and "clean up" the neighborhood (i.e. lay the groundwork for more profitable businesses to swoop in). It's clear from the get-go that these people have agendas other than what their public faces suggest, which makes them a lot more interesting than our squeaky-clean, one-note leads.

Will they succeed? Of course not! Does the up-tight moral crusader have some punk-rock skeletons in her closet? You bet she does! And none of it matters, because Rock of Ages isn't about story surprises. All its tricks are reserved for Stacee Jaxx, who rolls into town to perform a farewell show with his band, Arsenal, at The Bourbon Room. Once he arrives, the movie goes from bubblegum to brown acid and takes all its characters on a freakish descent into the depths of glam-rock Hell. In other words, it becomes really, really fun.

I'd like to back up and say that I appreciate what Justin Theroux, Chris D'Arienzo, and Allan Loeb do with the screenplay, which was adapted from D'Arienzo's stage musical. Rock of Ages will never escape comparisons to Glee or accusations of being mere celebrity karaoke, but looking beyond the obvious potshots, it's a great idea for a musical--one that Shankman handles deftly in the transition to the big screen. Using great rock and pop songs from the Era of Excess to tell a single story is a terrific technique that really forced me to pay attention to music I'd written off as catchy but forgettable.

When Cruise sings "Dead or Alive" while strutting through a sparse rock club, screaming about his lonely life on the road, I finally realized what Bon Jovi had been singing about all these years; I never even liked that song until two nights ago. While Cruise doesn't hold a candle to the original artist, the sheer passionate angst of his performance ensures that I'll never be able to hear "Dead or Alive" again without thinking of Stacee Jaxx being virtually pulled down into a crowd of needy fans.

Shankman achieves a different effect later on when Jaxx nails Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) on a pool table, to the tune of "I Want to Know What Love Is". The scene turns the melodrama of Foreigner's ballad into a kinky, comedic metaphor: Satan personified conquers a headstrong, feminist fan in order to shut her up, but her probing questions about his flagging career and unquenchable appetite for distraction plant the seeds of redemption--even as he voraciously sniffs her panties on a pool table mid-verse.

Jaxx infects every inch of the film's lame purity, and there's a terrific, gradual meta-reveal in the form of his manager's character arc. Paul Giamatti plays the slimy Paul Gill, who we first believe to be an over-the-hill-but-clinging-to-hipness slave to Jaxx's ego. Later, we realize that Gill is, in fact, the dark overlord that the protesters should be worried about, keeping Jaxx and all his clients rich, doped-up, and busy enough not to realize how completely he's screwing them, financially.

When Gill sees The Bourbon Room's reaction to Drew's rock debut, he instantly descends on the boy with promises of fame and fortune--offerable on the condition that he forget about the dreamgirl with whom he's in the middle of a silly fight. Giamatti plays Gill not as a mustache-twirling villain, but as a simple purveyor of all the things kids claim that they want: everlasting, complete gratification and world-wide notoriety. He provides proof that he can deliver, and they sign on the dotted line; their surprise at his misdeeds could have been avoided by either reading the fine print or simply looking into his wide, beady eyes.

Jaxx's influence on the story wanes the farther it strays from him, but its odd effects are still recognizable. Following their argument, Drew and Sherie break up and quit the club. She takes a job as a stripper in a joint run by Mary J. Blige; he signs with Gill on the eve of hair-metal's demise. Sherie trades her jean jacket and tall hair for fishnets and incredible pole athletics; Drew becomes the fourth lead in a New Kids on the Block-style boy band, complete with puffy, bright-colored jackets and the sacrificing of his curly locks for a close-cropped Supercut.

This stretch of the film finally gives our leads something interesting to do. Instead of staring into each other's eyes like Disney characters, they become unwitting metaphors for the death of rock 'n roll. The head-bangin' fun of dirty rock clubs gave way to marketing and music that could be enjoyed by as many cash-happy demographics as possible. In short, the characters and the industry grow up and sell out. We're meant to laugh at the stupidity of Drew's boy band, but it's hard to defend the non-conformist integrity of, say, Twisted Sister when "We're Not Gonna Take It" seems to pop up on any ad whose product promotes rebellion with the twist of a cap.

From what I understand, the film version of Rock of Ages sanitizes a lot of the stage play's edgier material, which is a shame. But the film reminds us that entertainment is 95% economics and 5% art, and you're not going to land this lineup, ad campaign, and these production values by going full-on Boogie Nights. But I think Shankman and the writers do their best to rope in teeny-boppers and suburban moms (and their eye-rolling, I-pick-the-next-one boyfriends/husbands) and providing them with a healthy bit of challenging material--buried in mounds of glittery pop sugar. There's a lot of Glee here,** but just enough unsettling malice to make a trip to the cineplex worth it.

By now, you've heard that the main reason to see Rock of Ages is Tom Cruise's performance. That's totally true (Baldwin, Brand, and Giamatti are also fantastic, by the way). Just as The Dark Knight was a boring mess of a movie that was propelled into the stratosphere by Heath Ledger's otherworldly, career-capping turn, Cruise makes all the great stuff in the movie greater, and shines a harsh light on everything that doesn't work--namely Hough and Boneta. Hough moves backwards from her roll in last year's incredibly surprising Footloose remake, and Boneta emotes painfully, as if he's constantly building an American accent instead of a character.

But let's get back to Cruise. Say what you will about his off-screen behavior, on-screen personae, and religious beliefs. In Rock of Ages, he brings an Oscar-worthy tornado of commitment and charisma that has to be seen to be believed. He's surrounded by lots of bad scenes, a few good ones, and probably three great ones--which he anchors. I'm not sure that meets Hawks's definition of a movie, but in Shankman's capable hands, it's provides a uniquely cinematic experience.

*Really? A movie about 80s rock excess where booze takes center stage and cocaine apparently never existed? I was reminded of How I Met Your Mother, in which a parent walks his kids through college flashbacks, safely substituting sub sandwiches for bongs.

**Particularly in Hough and Boneta's "Don't Stop Believin'" duet--which, I'm sorry, doesn't hold a candle to the William McKinley High kids; though I love Drew's line about the lyrics early on, which I won't spoil for you.

Thursday
Jun142012

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Restoration Hardware

Before this morning, A Trip to the Moon topped my List of Films I Should Have Seen By Now. Despite decades of pop culture references and Martin Scorsese's slobbering love letter to it, I'd somehow missed director Georges Melies's silent masterpiece. Fortunately, I received a copy of the new blu-ray last weekend--a gorgeous 2-disc edition that boasts a restored, hand-colorized version long thought to have been lost forever.

Many discussions about the movie center on the context and controversy of its release. I'm not well versed enough in the lore to get into it. You can find plenty of places on-line that discuss how Thomas Edison apparently invented douchebaggery as well as the light bulb, at least in his dealings with Melies's work. This is not one of those places, mostly because I knew none of this before a hefty amount of Googling after I watched the film--twice.

This review will touch on the film itself, partially, and my reaction to the new restoration, mostly. First, A Trip to the Moon:

Simply put, I can't believe how little filmic storytelling has advanced in the last one-hundred-and-ten years. Sure, the toys and techniques have become more impressive than I'm sure Melies and his cohorts could have ever imagined. But compared to the creativity and daring on display here, modern filmmakers are practically Neanderthals. In thirteen minutes, I saw a man execute a vision so ahead of its time and so unique to the art form that backwash like Prometheus and Avatar are lenticular packaging on a Happy Meal in comparison.

Loosely adapting his story from similarly themed novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Welles, Melies stars as Professor Barbenfouillis, a mad genius who plans to lead a manned expedition to the moon. He gets the permission of his local council, and off to the stars he goes. In the film's most iconic scene, the bullet-shaped vessel crash-lands in the eye of the moon--in this case, a literal face that drips viscous goo from the wound.

The professor and his crew find the air breathable and the terrain unsteady. Exhausted from the journey, they take a nap, only to be awakened by a lunar snowstorm caused by celestial deities unthrilled at the prospect of Earthlings growing too big for their rock. Forced underground, they encounter a race of bug-eyed humanoid lobster-things that burst into puffs of smoke when attacked. And there's a lot of attacking, on the part of the scientists and the creatures. Barbenfouillis and his men are overtaken and brought before the moon monsters' king.

Not one to take the prospect of imprisonment lying down, Barbenfouillis kills the king and ushers his men from the throne room. They escape the angry horde and board the rocket, which plunges off a cliff and lands safely in the ocean back on Earth. The explorers return as heroes and parade around the village square, proudly displaying a shackled alien, who'd been unfortunate enough to cling to the ship on its way down.

Like many modern sci-fi blockbusters, A Trip to the Moon makes up for an incoherent story with lots of visual thrills. Unlike those movies, Melies's quest is born of fantasy, which uses science as window-dressing in service of answering The Big Questions in nonsensical ways. I hate to keep bagging on Prometheus,* but when a director goes out of his way to establish his film's world as being believable, I have no choice but to call him out on letting so-called "scientist" characters get away with wholly unscientific behavior. In A Trip to the Moon, Melies's scientists are established as being a kooky band of aged pseudo-wizards, more akin to the classic Monty Python troupe than a NASA conclave. When they parade around the moon without helmets and smash every non-human thing in sight like they're Super Mario's lost New Jersey relatives, my suspension of disbelief remains firmly intact.

Story aside, A Trip to the Moon is a triumph of costume design, art direction, and special effects. The Earth setting appears to be a mash-up of Medieval village and Industrial-Age hamlet, with a bickering elderly council in one scene and a crew or technicians putting the finishing touches on a spacecraft in the next. Maybe this lack of concern for coherence and boldness of vision was a product of an age where focus-grouping, branding, and corporate notes hadn't yet infected mass art; whatever the case, Melies's goofy mini-adventure is perfect in its strangeness in ways that today's neutered directors can only hope to achieve. For me, it was also a marvel of optical illusion, as I was rarely sure what parts of the sets were paintings and what were objects that could be lifted from their apparent 2D state and put to use; it's Terry Gilliam as parlor trickster and imagineer.

Which makes the film's new blu-ray treatment such a let-down. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that the full movie has been restored to display in high-def, and is accompanied by a feature-length documentary on said restoration (which I haven't watched yet). But the marketing pushes the "Original Colors" angle hard, as well as a new score by the French band AIR.

I mentioned earlier that I watched A Trip to the Moon twice. Actually, I sat throught the opening two minutes three times. AIR's music isn't a classical accompaniment; it's a tech-y, new-wave abomination that has absolutely nothing to do with the action on-screen. It's so distracting that I had to stop the movie, mute the sound, and start over again--just to concentrate enough to figure out the story. In silence, everything popped, and I fell headfirst into Melies's crazy world.

As if the music wasn't bad enough, the colors reminded me of Ted Turner's "improvements" to classic films back in the 1980s. Weird pastels pervade, and the detail on many of the characters is splotchy, mimicking Photoshop's "sponge" filter. This is sacrilege, I know, but as a movie fan with no connection to the material, I can't just praise an accomplishment that's all feat and no fruit. This tribute to the "original" color version of A Trip to the Moon is just plain bad.

Fortunately, if you go to the disc's "Special Features" section, a cleaned-up version (I believe) of the black-and-white film is available with three soundtrack options. I watched it again with a traditional classic score and a real treat of a narrative track by Melies, which helped fill in some of the silent version's gaps. This cut is also two minutes shorter; from what I could tell, the excised material came from the opening bureaucratic meeting scene--I was glad to see it go.

I wonder who this re-issue was marketed towards. No one is going to fool a kid into buying this as a companion piece to Avatar. A Trip to the Moon is for cinephiles only,** and it seems really weird to me that the colorized version is shoved front and center--especially when it's more of an anti-selling point (for instance, in when Barbenfouillis draws an Earth-to-the-moon trajectory on his chalk board, I couldn't tell that the moon had a face--until I watched the scene again in black-and-white).

If you've never bothered with A Trip to the Moon--or if you've just never heard of it--I highly recommend taking a few minutes to give it a look. Considering the time, resources, and conditions under which it was made, you'll likely walk out of the next James Cameron or Ridley Scott picture wondering, "Is that all they've got?"

*No, I don't.

**If you doubt this, ask the next five people you see on the street if they'd be interested in watching a silent, French short-film from 1902. Feel free to post your results in the Comments section.

Monday
Jun112012

Aliens (1986)

Terms of Cocoonment

I've seen Aliens so many times over the years that sitting down to watch it fresh--for review purposes--was a strange challenge. For starters, I chose James Cameron's "Special Edition" (aka the director's cut) from 1992, instead of the theatrical version. While I'd checked out all the excised scenes on DVD, I never experienced the sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour epic as whole movie--which meant my vivid memory of the story's flow were constantly interrupted by stuff that didn't belong.

The second obstacle was that vivid memory. It's hard to write objectively about something that comprised large strands of my formative, pop-culture DNA. Even though I hadn't seen Aliens in years, my mind raced through the entire movie as I pulled the blu-ray out from its (gorgeous) packaging. I saw the picture so young and so often that I never got to experience it as a first-time filmgoer. The nuances of Cameron's screenplay and the furious awesomeness of James Horner's score, for example, were lost on a kid who just wanted to freeze-frame his VHS tape whenever one of the cool monsters popped up on screen. Watching now with other goals in mind, it's hard to see the forest for the chestbursting, egg-sac-exploding trees.

If you're unfamiliar with this series, Aliens is a continuation of Ridley Scott's groundbreaking, sci-fi/horror masterpiece. In it, a group of deep-space miners follows what they believe to be a distress beacon to an uncharted moon. There, one of their crew picks up a parasite, which evolves into a nasty creature that terrorizes their ship. The last survivor, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), escapes in an interstellar lifeboat--as does the alien. Following a climactic battle, Ripley falls asleep in a cryo-chamber as she makes her way back to Earth.

The sequel picks up fifty-seven years later. Ripley is found up by a salvage crew and made to stand before an inquiry board. The Weyland/Yutani Corporation is pissed that one of its officers blew up a multi-billion-dollar ship to get rid of a creature that they've found no evidence of. Ripley is suspended--until the company loses contact with a colony it has established on the very moon she and her crew had abandoned decades before. She agrees to return with a group of marines and a company executive named Burke (Paul Reiser) in order to locate the colonists and eliminate whatever threats they come across.

This being an Alien film, nothing goes as planned. On arrival, the marines patrol an abandoned terraforming complex littered with evidence of panic and battle. They find one person alive, a girl nicknamed "Newt" (Carrie Henn), who we last saw in a formerly excised scene involving her parents finding the derelict ship--her father was attacked by a facehugger, which ostensibly led to the colony being overrun by monsters. Ripley takes an instant liking to Newt, who she recognizes as both a resilient loner and a reminder of the daughter she'd left on Earth nearly sixty years ago--now dead of old age.

Soon, the marines find the other colonists--all dead or dying of alien-embryo implants--in an elaborate nest near the station's main nuclear reactor. The creatures lay dormant, nested invisibly in the walls, until one of the soldiers lights a chestburser on fire. After that, pandemonium kicks the film into high gear. Bodies pile up left and right as Ripley, Burke, Newt, and the very green commanding officer, Gorman (William Hope) watch the mission via video feed in a nearby armored transport. Ripley commandeers the vehicle and storms the nest to save what remains of the former badasses.

The rest of Aliens is a smart, gripping survival story that sees a small group of outmanned warriors fighting to return to their orbiting spaceship. This proves increasingly difficult due to a nastier, more resilient, and more populous breed of creature than we've seen before, as well as the fact that one of the good guys' number is actively working behind the scenes to sabotage what's left of the mission. Weyland/Yutani is very interested in adding the alien to its bio-weapons division, and Burke is eager to help out.

What sets this film above many other sci-fi action shoot-'em-ups is Cameron's gift for writing logical flows of action. He earns intensely violent outbursts by smartly placing obstacles in front of the characters, whose desperation often causes spectacular mayhem. An alien ambush leads to a close-quarters stand-off, which leads to a claustrophobic chase down an air-shaft maze, which leads to Newt slipping through part of a processor and getting kidnapped by an alien drone. This compels Ripley to arm herself to the teeth and go searching for her surrogate daughter--even as a remote-controlled rescue ship descends on the complex, which, by the way, has fifteen minutes standing between it and a multi-megaton explosion.

I've just described part of the climax, but there's so much more great material here. Aliens is the rare action/adventure classic that's packed with iconic moments based in genuinely interesting storytelling. It's more visceral than Scott's eerie and cerebral vision, but Cameron maintains the original's penchant for mystery. Towards the middle of the movie, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) posits that there's something more to the creatures, a version of them "we haven't seen yet" that must be laying the eggs. It's a passing comment that sets up the climax, but Cameron doesn't let us linger on that for too long, launching right back into the crew's survival struggle.

After all these years, the things that surprise me most about Aliens is the beauty and simplicity of Ripley and Newt's connection. Cameron specializes in macho dialogue, but I'd forgotten the dialed-back sincerity of his conversations between these two severely damaged characters. In any other film, Ripley's climactic return to the nest might have seemed contrived. But Weaver and Henn sell their characters' bonds so well that we can feel the intensity with which Ripley slaps magazines into her pulse rifle.

This comes full circle, of course, when she meets the alien queen, an oversized, crown-headed bug-beast perched atop an oozing egg-laying apparatus. Both mothers are very protective of their young, and despite a weird, implied-psychic-ability wrinkle involving a spontaneously opening egg, the extended fight between Ripley and the queen plays out like a bizarre but realistic nature special.

Despite these lofty accolades, Aliens isn't immune to criticism--especially in the concluding moments of the third act. Why, for instance, does Ripley waste several rocket-propelled grenades on blowing up the queen's egg sac, but not one on, say, a head shot?

And I still can't get behind the set-up for the film's second climax--yes, there are technically two:

Ripley, Newt, Bishop, and lone-surviving marine, Hicks (Michael Biehn) escape the planet with seconds to spare, leaving--they believe--the queen to burn up on the disintegrating platform. A little while later, they congratulate each other aboard the main ship, only to be attacked by the alien queen.

Now, I watched this movie on blu-ray--displayed on a high-definition computer monitor--and I still saw the queen come out from a doorway of some kind. For years, I'd blocked this out of my memory, hoping against hope that it had clung to the side of the ship or something (not that this would have made more sense). But no, it definitely came out of the ship--which makes absolutely zero fucking sense, no matter how you read the events leading up to the scene.

That said, the ensuing battle involving Ripley going head-to-head with the queen while driving a walking forklift is still amazing nearly three decades on.

Though Cameron's vision of the alien species and mankind's encounters with it is decidedly different from Scott's, Aliens proves to be an exceptionally worthy sequel. It goes above and beyond the duty of follow-up movies by not only building on the original's ideas, but also giving the audience more delicious ideas to mull on the trip.

Alas, we've come to the really unfair part of this review. I began writing about Aliens a few hours before watching Prometheus, Scott's prequel to the Alien franchise. I find myself trying to conclude this review, despite the bitter taste of pungent mediocrity still in my mouth. I've muscled through the last seven-hundred-plus words on willpower alone, so drained is my enthusiasm for this bled-dry universe.

I should have found some time to finish my love letter to Cameron's film. Instead, I'm stuck thinking about a movie that offers none of the juicy character work, suspense, score, scale, imagination, or technical artistry that Aliens has. Sure, Scott has state-of-the-art computer graphics to play with, but they're not as interesting as the brilliant model work on display here. There's a discipline and a craft to making puppets and model ships look like they belong in the same scenes as human characters, and that's lost on a generation who thinks staging an exciting monster fight is all about having actors dance around in reaction to things that have yet to be inserted.

I can remember the faces of each of Aliens' colonial marines, and even remember most of their names. Aside from Prometheus's main cast, I barely recall what happened to most of the crew. That's not a function of having seen one movie over the other; it's about a script and one set of actors making an instant impression on me, and another group...not.

I can also rattle off the themes that Cameron explores here in about three minutes, with evidence from the movie to back up my claims (motherhood, the military/industrial complex, masculine identity crises, etc.). Prometheus can only be explained, correctly, by watching interviews with Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof, then watching their movie, and then scanning thousands of Internet comment posts to find the three or four non-conflicting theories that kind of align with the previous two steps. Cameron knows--and Scott used to know--that a filmmaker can say a lot of really smart, deep things without uttering a Goddamned word.

When I'm ninety, I'll likely remember the distinct sound of the marines' pulse rifles firing and Horner's stirring music. But I'll certainly have forgotten Prometheus, beyond the gross manner in which it hastened the death of a once-promising film series. In the world of film, there are classics and then there's everything else.

Saturday
Jun092012

Prometheus (2012)

Do Androids Dream of Appearing in Better Movies?

Yesterday, two friends and I stumbled out of the theatre in a state of collective shock. We couldn't wrap our brains around the boneheaded awfulness of Prometheus, director Ridley Scott's prequel to his groundbreaking sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Alien.

Before we go on, you have to understand that Prometheus is, in fact, a prequel. The Marketing department at Fox has been in overdrive for months, promoting the movie as being a unique vision that "shares DNA" with the Alien universe. Scott has said as much himself--I'd guess on orders from studio executives eager to get enough asses in seats on opening weekend to justify backing this overwrought pile of garbage.* There are so many visual, thematic, and narrative call-backs to the franchise that to deny a direct connection with the original film is akin to insisting that a movie with lightsabers, stormtroopers, and Jedi mind tricks has nothing to do with Star Wars. Really, how stupid do these suits think we are?

Plenty stupid, apparently, if this is what they're selling us as entertainment.

Writing a proper Prometheus review is impossible for me right now. It would be five-thousand words long and consist largely of variations on the word "fuck". Instead, I'm going to revisit a therapeutic technique I used when discussing Quantum of Solace--a movie I loathed just as much, but which made me angry instead of despondent.

Seriously, kids, I haven't been this depressed since 9/11.

Without further ado, I present my Nineteen Spoilerific Problems with Alien Seven:

1. Future Tech/Past Tech. When the first Prometheus images hit the 'net, fan reaction was mixed. One of the biggest questions was why a movie set several decades before Alien looked like it was made a couple hundred years afterwards. I understand that the original's deep-space tanker was a mining ship and this movie's titular Prometheus is a trillion-dollar science vessel. But aside from the look of the sliding doors and the Weyland company logo, the design team seem to have gone out of their way to give fans lots to bitch about--rather than think through what future technology conceived in the 1970s might look like if retrograded in the new millennium.

2. Old Man Muppet. Let's talk about Guy Pearce. He plays ninety-year-old multi-gazillionaire Peter Weyland, whose main job appears to be funding science missions while distracting the audience at every turn. In close-up, parts of the old-age makeup look exaggerated in really cool ways. But they're pressed up against other cool and exaggerated features--making for a three-dimensional airbrush painting posing as a man. In wide shots, the result is laughable.

3. Old Man Cameo. If you don't know who Guy Pearce is, and if you're not paying attention to the scene where the ship's Android, David (Michael Fassbender), appears to be talking to himself while caressing a hypersleep chamber, you may be surprised to learn that Peter Weyland's early appearance as a hologram will not be the last time his character pops up--even though someone mentions that he's been dead for several years. If you've made the mistake of not switching off your cell phone and your brain as the lights go down, however, you'll realize what a colossal mistake it was to cast a well-known actor in a part that should have gone to an actual old person that no one in the audience would recognize.

4. What does God Need with a Starship? Let me get this straight: in the future, the only thing it takes for two hippie archaeologists to get a global leader of industry to fund their cross-galaxy trip is a holographic PowerPoint presentation about cave drawings? That's what Prometheus would have you believe, as there's absolutely no back-story regarding Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway's (Logan Marshall-Green) pitch to Weyland. We see the two lovers discover the ninth or tenth cave featuring identical markings, and the next thing you know, they're part of a seventeen-person crew, headed to God knows where on a lark.

Which reminds me of an idea I once tried to sell Bill Gates. After hundreds of un-returned phone calls, I resigned myself to the world never knowing the positively sinful delights of Dutch Raisin McWafflecake Souflée.

5. In Space, No One Can Seem to Remember Their Professional Training.  When the crew lands on a distant planet, they discover what look to be temples filled with giant head sculptures and a familiar grid of vase-shaped canisters laid out before them. They also find the bodies of several so-called Engineers, which you'll instantly recognize from the first Alien. The search team splits up and, following a horrific dust storm, find themselves either trapped in the temple or back one the ship.

After a few hours of wandering, the crew's biologist and botanist wind up back at the Giant Head Room, where they encounter a kind of faceless albino cobra. The biologist, completely unaware of basic animal behavior, approaches, teases, and then tries to befriend the beast. Apparently, the temple's atmosphere is thick with a consciousness-altering agent that makes everyone who enters act like they're in a horror movie (Cabin in the Woods, anyone?). The moment the snake shows up, Prometheus becomes a series of bad-decision skits starring morons that make the teens from any Friday the 13th movie look like MENSA candidates.

In case you're wondering, the snake doesn't make nice.

6. 17 Little Indians, aka "Body-count Math". When it's announced that Prometheus' crew numbers seventeen, I thought, "Geez, that's a lot of characters to keep track of!" Fortunately/unfortunately, most of them aren't characters; despite the Weyland-issued blue jumpsuits, ninety percent of the people on-board are red-shirts. The non-marquee actors are distinguishable only by skin color, accent, and frequency of leaving the ship. I swear, during the big Possession Brawl, eight more randoms I'd never seen before showed up, just to get killed off "creatively".

7. Possession Brawl. The botanist, who we last saw suffocating on the melted face-plate of his helmet and lying next to his co-worker, the idiot biologist, shows up later as a mutated supervillain. The black goo apparently got to him, too, taking over his mind and imbuing him not only with super-strength, but also the ability to run up walls and fold himself in half. He gets inside the ship (more on that in #9) and proceeds to smash most of the rest of the crew into mushy heaps before being put down. This scene rates a two on the Entertainment Scale, but at least the action music woke me up.

8. Where We're Going, We Don't Need...Rewind Buttons. In the future, Rewind buttons on video-display technology will be obsolete. I know this because Prometheus knows this. The biologist and the botanist have cameras mounted to their helmets and jumpsuits, allowing captain Janek (Idris Elba) to monitor them from the ship. The two fall victim to the black goo monsters about five minutes after Janek slips away for a quickie with company big-wig Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).

Even though no one is around to see the poor suckers get mutilated, you'd think that someone would review the transmission from their cameras the next morning, after they fail to report in. This would have certainly saved a few lives on the search team that's dispatched to go find them. If only they'd had the ability to review that footage!

9.  Security Cameras Are Only Useful if You Use Them. Preceding the Possession Brawl, Janek notices that the botanist's camera has come back on-line and is filming a pile of rocks. His personal locator thingy shows up as being right outside the ship. Sadly, the Prometheus is only equipped with a single rear-view camera with a fixed, inconvenient angle.

None of this explains why Redshirt Number Eight opens the loading dock door when he hears that the botanist is outside. It's doubly puzzling, considering that Number Eight was, I believe, present a few hours earlier, when the second search team returned and had to kill Holloway--who'd also been possessed by the black goo. It seems the Weyland Corporation can afford to throw around so much cash because they save a bundle on bargain-basement personnel.

10. Baby, Baby, Baby, Ohhhh! Moments after David slips a dollop of black goo into Holloway's glass of champagne (don't ask), Holloway visits Shaw's quarters for some celebratory, We've-Just-Found-God's-Laboratory sex. You won't be surprised to learn that Shaw becomes insta-pregnant.

Following Holloway's death, David tells her that the thing growing inside her is the size of a three-month-old, and she dashes to the ship's emergency surgery pod for an alien abortion. What comes out of her looks like Squidward with naughty bits, minus the interesting design possibilities that implies.

Honestly, I can't tell you everything that happened in this scene because I kept wondering how much cheaper and more realistic it would have been for Scott to hire a practical effects artist, rather than settling for cartoonish CGI meat. If the guys who executed Alien's chestbursting scene are still kicking around, would it have killed you to give them a call?

11. "Father". It Figures. Following the "big reveal" that Peter Weyland is on-board Prometheus is the equally puzzling news that Vickers is his daughter. Sure, maybe Viagra is super-potent in the future. Or perhaps Vickers was adopted. Whatever the case, there's neither text or subtext to warrant such Empire Strikes Back-lite hooey. I'd hoped that during Vickers' death scene we'd at least see her arm pop off to reveal some of that milk-and-eggs android wiring inside.

But then I remembered that hope is dead.

12. Science is Stupid (Just Look at Those Who Study It!). David discovers that one of the Engineers is still alive, and that his mission was to attack Earth with his payload of mutagen canisters. After waking up, the giant alien man beheads the android, and kills everyone in sight--except for Shaw. She runs away, and devises a plan by film's end to find the Engineers' homeworld in order to..um, ask them why they're so mean.

Seriously, this bald alien monster just wiped out a room full of curious Earthlings, and the best you can come up with is to play twenty questions with a whole mess of them? If an ant woke you up out of a nice, long nap and started asking about the meaning of life--in your native tongue--would you calmly hear it out? Or would you be more likely to stomp the shit out of it and get your house tested for gas leaks?

13. What's the Point of Alien Parts One Through Four? For years, we've understood the Weyland/Yutani Corporation to be an evil entity hell-bent on getting the alien life form back to Earth for use in its bio-weapons division. Did no one at the company review the Prometheus's transmissions? Or did they just think that the vastly superior species who developed these biological weapons of mass destruction just couldn't handle them the way human beings could?

Also, why did it take a hundred years, or whatever it was, for the company to find another craft like the one Prometheus encounters? The crew from Alien ostensibly found it by accident, and were ordered to investigate. But if Weyland/Yutani was so interested in the goo or the Engineers, couldn't they have just sent a contingent of scientists and colonial marines to Prometheus' last known location?

14. What's the Point of the Opening Scene? Prometheus begins with an Engineer being left on Earth with a small box. He opens it and is attacked by the black goo, which disintegrates his body. His remains fall into the sea, forming a mutagenic jambalaya which, I guess, became the basis for us, or something. The filmmakers aren't clear, and the scene has zero resonance beyond its gorgeous nature imagery.

15. Ram, Bam, No Thanks, Man! Janek learns of the Engineer's plan to wipe the Earth clean of humans and decides to dive-bomb its ship with Prometheus. In a matter of seconds, he's got two willing accomplices (we'll call them Redshirt Fifteen and Redshirt Sixteen) who decide that the captain will need lots of help pressing the "Accelerate" button.

It's a nice gesture, but a silly one, and I felt robbed of two more bloody CGI attack deaths.

No, really. Robbed, I tell ya.

16. George Lucas's Legacy of Puke. Ever since the Star Wars prequels were shat into cinemas everywhere, studios and filmmakers have been desperate to dust off their name-brand franchises and explain absolutely everything about them. Wait, you wanted some mystery behind Michael Myers? Lame! Move over, purists, here comes the Back-story Brigade!

Imagination is for suckers, apparently--especially when pop culture icons' secret origins are in the hands of clueless hacks that never fail to mistake repetition for mythology. Writers Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts are especially guilty of this, as they steal the story structure of Alien and claim to break new ground. Prometheus is recycled to a "T", with everything from a sinister robot to the entire landing-on-an-alien-planet-and-bringing-back-a-parasite-from-an-empty-structure bit--not to mention an escape-ship showdown with a creature the heroine had thought dead. Hell, these jokers even steal from Alien Versus Predator, shoehorning in a head-scratcher of a chestbursting scene at the very end.

I understand providing signposts to help the fan base feel at home, but this shit is ridiculous. Anyone who claims this movie can stand on its own in a world where the other Alien films exist should be put out of my misery immediately. Prometheus is nothing but a rip-off, hastily disguised by half-a-dozen coats of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek remake aesthetic and a parasitic-black-goo storyline from The X-Files--complete with creepy eye-worms.

17. If One is to Ask the Big Questions, One Must First Form Complete Sentences. Prometheus is packed with pseudo-science, pseudo-faith, and the Big Questions surrounding the origin of man--none of which add up to anything by film's end. I'm not being cute here. We're no closer to understanding the motivations of the Engineers, the scientists, or the corporatists now than before the film was greenlit.

Scott and company posit a lot of high-falutin', half-baked ideas that are, I believe, meant to distract us from the numbing familiarity of the movie's action. Only Janek has the good sense to not care about where we come from; given the people he'd likely have to spend the rest of his days with, his idea about ramming the Engineer craft seems less altruistic and blatantly selfish. Not that I blame him.

18. Baby, Baby, Baby, Nooooope! The only things Lindelof and Spaihts didn't take from the franchise's other entries were notes on continuity. Prometheus ends with the Engineer giving chest-birth to a more-or-less-fully-formed prototype of the alien queen--thanks to a run-in with a prototype facehugger. In every other Alien movie (except for Part Three, which was technically aborted, anyway), the baby aliens come out as nasty little worms that develp limbs and height later on.

I get that the creators are mucking about with origins here, and that we may have to wait for the prequel's sequel to find out what this new monster is (or how the aliens we know and love came into be in the first place, given the fact that they were ostensibly made from a DNA mash-up of Engineers, humans, black goo, and dirt worms from the temple--a temple housing a spaceship that is decidedly not the one discovered in Alien). The closing shot was meant to make fanboys cream their jeans, but it just made me mad.

I'm all for the alien making an appearance in the prequel, as long as it makes sense. This monster is just ridiculous, and its birth is an abomination in more ways than one.

19. In Space, No One Has Any Original Ideas. I wasn't kidding when I compared  reactions to Prometheus and 9/11. On both of those days, my hope and illusions were shattered and I wandered around for hours not knowing quite what to feel or say.

The problem with legendary directors like Scott and Lucas going to pot is that there's little indication of our generation having its own moviemaking heroes. Many of the classic big names are caught in this game of visual oneupmanship and philosophical drought. The images get prettier, more expensive, and extra-dimensional by the day, but the words and ideas they service aren't worth the paper the admission tickets are printed on.

It's impossible for a movie to live up to the stature and awe of Alien. Disappointment on some level is inevitable. But it didn't have to be this bad. In nearly every regard, Prometheus fails spectacularly, dumbly. It's science fiction for Tweeters, tweakers, and people who think that books are things you read on screens. If the Engineers are out there, I'll be the first one to welcome them and their precious, lethal cargo.

*When Prometheus' opening-weekend box office comes out on Monday, subtract between a quarter and a third of that amount to see how the movie really did. Tens of millions of those dollars will represent 3D glasses concessions and IMAX up-charging--not enthusiastic fans lining up around the block.

Tuesday
Jun052012

Piranha 3DD (2012)

I'll Have the Chicken

Call me crass, but it's impossible to talk about Piranha 3DD without exploring women's breasts--specifically, their effectiveness as male-targeted entertainment's go-to attention-grabbers in the Internet Age. Now that hour-long clips of men and women of every conceivable shape, size, race, and orientation doing absolutely everything you can imagine* are available on-line (for free), the notion of marketing a movie solely on the "spectacle" of fake-breasted bimbos baring it all while getting eaten by flying CGI fish just seems...quaint.

But here comes John Gulager, following up Alexandre Aja's surprise hit with a knock-off (knockers-off?) as unnecessary as the audition tape of the woman pictured above. This is exactly the kind of movie that the phrase "critic-proof" was invented to describe: people will pay to see it for any number of reasons--none of which have to do with hopes for a quality entertainment experience.

That's a sad reality, but the sadder truth is that Gulager and screenwriters Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Joel Soisson have used these low expectations as a shield instead of a weapon. Aja had a ton of fun with a remake that everyone was positive would suck--the results were fun, sometimes, shocking, and consistently entertaining. Gulager and company give us the remake audiences expected the first time out, a by-the-book horror movie with excessive boobs and blood and nothing else going for it.

We open with a news report describing the horrible piranha attacks at Lake Something-or-other a year ago (in movie time). At the end of the last film, the ancient killer fish appeared to have been defeated--until a cranky marine biologist played by Christopher Lloyd announced that they'd mutated and gotten bigger. Part one ended with a bloody cliffhanger that the sequel conveniently ignores: the piranha just went away for awhile, we're led to believe, laying eggs in other lakes and waiting for the box office receipts to tell them if and when they could come out and play again.

They reemerge, hungrier, nastier, and more computer-generated than ever, this time targeting a water park managed by sleazy entrepreneur Chet (David Koechner). In an effort to revitalize his business, he's announced a grand-re-opening, featuring nude decks and beaver cams. He's even paid off a local cop to keep his illegal siphoning of lake water off the authorities' radar. The lake, of course, is now home to thousands of razor-toothed predators, and Piranha 3DD ends in bloody heaps of silicone and sinew.

The filmmakers try their best to jazz up the colors they use to paint over all those numbers by injecting a "hilarious", "meta" David Hasselhoff cameo. But transforming a Z-grade horror film into Airplane! at the three-quarter mark reeks of desperation. It's especially upsetting because the movie's middle portion is relatively coherent, borderline entertaining. Danielle Panabaker plays the daughter-in-law of the sleazy water park owner as a sleuthing marine biology student out to stop the fish. She's joined by a nerdy friend (Matt Bush) and her ex-boyfriend (Chris Zylka), who also happens to be the shady cop. None of this rises above most slasher movie second acts, mind you, but you'll look fondly upon these scenes when suffering through the bit where a couple is mauled during sex because a piranha made its way into the girl's vagina--and sat there, unnoticed, until the moment of climax days later.

The big problem here is that Gulager and company want you to believe that they've made a fun, outrageous movie without actually providing anything to believe in. The severed penis gag was covered in Part One, as was the gratuitous nudity. And the sequel's gore is downright pathetic. I know that following KNB Effects' amazing, old-school, grand-scale meat factory is a difficult feat, but the people behind Piranha 3DD don't even try. They settle for mildly viscous red water filled with generic severed limbs that look like picked over Halloween Store clearance items.

Im not crazy for thinking the movie could have been much, much better. Dunstan and Melton wrote one of the more interesting Saw sequels (that would be Part Six), and I was shocked to see their names attached to this low-frequency garbage. I don't know if someone told them to turn off their brains, or if they tuned out after the check cleared. Whatever the case, the script fails at delivering solid "smart-dumb" gags; in a movie like this, that's about all an audience can hope for.

Piranha 3DD is more nut-buster than gut-buster, a hasty, blood-soaked excuse for naked girls to parade their cartoonish wares about the screen. Maybe I'm getting old, but none of them did a thing for me, outside of providing a subconscious reminder to check my tire pressure. It's depressing to think that a second sequel is probably in the works, and that it may do well enough to warrant a third or a fourth. At the end of this film, we learn that the killer fish can walk. So can I, and so should you--into any number of theatres showing better movies.

*And some things you can't and probably shouldn't.