Prometheus

I don’t know that many movies can live up to one’s expectations when you have been amp-ed up for a year. The anticipation I felt for “Prometheus” was much like that of a kid with Christmas just a couple of days away. Once all the presents have been opened, the sugar rush dies down and you begin to assess the outcome. There is so much about this movie that I liked and can’t wait to experience again, but there are also some elements that feel incomplete to me. This is an incredibly intelligent, well made science fiction horror story. There are some big questions that it asks and the answers are not as complete or satisfying as they ought to be. There are several harrowing and horrifying moments in the film, but just as tension starts to build, there is a shift in story focus that makes the flow of suspense feel less powerful than it should be. I have done my best to avoid knowing too much about the story and as usual, my comments will be about the film making and story telling, without giving away any important plot elements. I will say however, that the connections to the “Alien” universe are tangential. You need no familiarity with that series to enjoy this film. There may be some satisfying speculation at the end of the movie about how all of this ends up connecting the stories, but that is not the issue that anyone going to see this should focus on.

If you just watch the trailer, you will be able to see that from a visual point of view, this movie is amazing. There is some incredible imagination that goes into the imagery of the planet that our explorers visit, and the tools they used were innovative and based on some clever future visualizing. The ship “Prometheus” is itself, a wonder to behold. The exterior design is rugged and at the same time practical in a way that some engineer with too much time on his hands might come up with some interesting solutions. The concept of the probes that the geologist character in the story refers to as his “pups” is also one of those things that seems to make sense even though we do not have the technology available. There is a medical capsule that would be at home on the Star Ship Enterprise, that is if Dr. McCoy was demented and uncomfortable with a human touch being part of the healing process. Some of this technology is closely tied into the horror elements of the story and so I don’t want to say too much.

The greatest technical innovation in the story line is the android “David”. There is inevitably going to be a problem when robots are involved. I can’t think of a science fiction film, that had robots as a part of the story, in which the robots were simply part of the background in the universe. If a robot is in a humanoid form, it is almost always going to be an issue for someone in the story. David is a great character, despite the absence of any obvious human emotions. Our feelings in the movie in regard to events and other characters is often determined by the way David approaches their presenter in the story. Androids are not good or evil, they are programmed. David sometimes gives off the impression of being emotionally and intellectually superior to the humans on the mission, but those hints of personality simply reflect the character’s own expectations. There is a scene in which David and Charlie, one of the lead scientists, engage in a discussion of theology, and it is clear that David is simply reflecting back the attitudes he is perceiving from Charlie during their conversation. It does not make it less creepy but it was a subtle way to to make Charlies opinions less than hopeful.

If there is a failure of emotional elements in the story, it starts with the relationship between Charlie and Elizabeth. She is Charlie’s lover and the other main scientist/hero of our story. Their connection needed to be stronger early in the film, and it does not feel as important as it should be in the later spots in the film. She is just intelligent enough to ask good questions but she was not emotionally invested in the relationship until it felt a little late in the process. The relationship she had to their mission was more clearly realized. Charlie on the other hand, starts off as an enthusiastic leader of the mission, but somewhere on the expedition, he becomes a disillusioned alcoholic for no reason at all. When he and she should be comparing notes and arguing over their discoveries, we instead get some sullen reflections from him with other members of the crew. Vickers, the no nonsense manager of the expedition is an enigma until later in the story. That makes some sense if we get more about the revelations at the climax, instead, we just have another character with some background that should be more involving.

There are two or three very good terror sequences, each of them with some good visualizations to give us some nightmares. My daughter, who was as pumped up for this movie as I was, felt a little let down because it was not as scary as she was expecting. Part of this is the problem with expectations, but part is also due to the lack of character development for most of our cast. David and Elizabeth are the only characters that get much chance to develop a personality that we would care much about. We need more investment in these people for the horror to be meaningful. Without a context, they are simply images and that is not enough to racket up the anxiety quotient to the heights we achieved in Scott’s original Alien and the Cameron directed “Aliens”. These sequences will get you but not in the same way as Kane’s chest bursting or Dallas’ demise in the ventilation shaft. There was a pretty good set up of one scare sequence with some secondary characters, and the good humor and personality that came in putting that moment together needed to be repeated in other spots in the film.

There were some good surprises in the story. The search for our past is not the only motivation for the expedition, that will probably not be a surprise, but the actual motivation will be a bit of a kick. Both the Charlie and David resolutions are nice and dramatic as well. The pacing of the movie felt right to me, you don’t want to plunge into action before you have some background, but not everyone in our group agreed. We did all agree that once the events on the alien planet start unraveling, the movie does indeed take of and is at it’s most effective. There is another little treat at the end of the film as well, so we can see how much of what has gone on before us will play out, even though we will not witness it. There is a possibility for a sequel, I don’t know if one is necessary but it would probably be welcomed as a chance to further explore the ideas and story lines raised in this film.

The theological implications of the movie are not resolved and there is plenty of room for speculation. I liked the fact that the movie takes a point of view and runs with it, although the fact that our team runs in the wrong direction does provide us with some room for thought. Those elements of the story are not ponderous, the way they have been in films like “2001” or “tree of Life”. We are pushed into the story by a desire to answer the unanswerable and the result is an exciting action film. The horror elements work, but are less intense than you may be expecting. Oh, and for the second week in a row, Charlize Theron is overshadowed by the visual elements of the movie that she is starring in. “Prometheus” is as provocative and amazing looking as you could want, but the horror elements don’t always live up to the hype. I am looking forward to seeing this again so that I can put my perceptions to the test a second time. If you have an interest in the movie, I think you will be satisfied, and if you have no expectations I think you will be thrilled.

Bel Ami

Once upon a time, a movie like this would have been Oscar bait, released in the fall in upscale independent movie houses. It features accomplished actresses, a rising young male lead, and a story based on a classic novel featuring politics and sex. The movie business has changed however. The lush setting and story line are not enough to draw in large crowds. The economic factors that influence movie funding and distribution, now put a small well crafted film like this on the same plane as a piece of exploitation like Piranha 3DD. Bel Ami is playing in a limited number of theaters but can be had for ten bucks as a video on demand presentation, the same day it opened in those theaters. Somewhere a bean counter made the calculation that the best way to recoup the money invested in this film was to cash in quickly and with as little outlay of marketing dollars as possible.

I guess that is a little ironic because the character at the center of this story acts in much the same way. He is aggressive in pursuit of money, and short sighted in regard to status or emotional commitment. Some of his actions are understandable, but many are cruel and carry negative consequences for him as well. This film reminds me of the Scorsese version of “The Age of Innocence” crossed with the Glenn Close/John Malkovitch version of “Dangerous Liaisons”. Each of those movies had critical champions and award pedigrees. You will not find that next year for this film, not because it is unworthy but because it will be perceived as damaged goods because of the new Hollywood economics. This is a shame because Bel Ami is an outstanding costume drama that is well acted and extravagantly visualized.

Let me begin with the performances. Christina Ricci plays a young but knowing social wife who truly falls for our hero. She is gamine and sexual and still feels like she has a backbone of steel. The reason she keeps coming back to him is love and Ricci conveys that love with her soft eyes and delicate mouth. The expression on her face at the end of the movie tells us exactly what is coming next, even though we will not get to see it. Uma Thurman has the larger more central role, and she effectively conveys a woman with a secret agenda. She has two or three emotional scenes and gets the tears and tone right for those moments, but it is in those sequences where her true motives are revealed that she creates a complete character, one much more complex than the protagonist ever expected. Kristin Scott Thomas is a little too fragile and naive to be as effective as she could be. The fault is partially in the script which requires her to be the one insipid character in the movie. She also plays the character as being so brittle that that you expect her to crack the first time she is touched. Colm Meaney at first appears to be a minor character with an easy disposition. We discover in the story and in his distainful expressions what a rat bastard he truly is. This was simple good casting.

The main attraction is Robert Pattinson, the star of the “Twilight” movie series. Inevitably, he will be memorialized in his obituary as the brooding Edward Cullen. The success he has had in that film series will allow him to work for the rest of his life on the more serious and unusual parts he appears to be drawn to. It is easy to dismiss him as a pretty face because of those movies, but here, as he has shown in a couple of other parts, he is a good actor. It is true that much of his work here is done without dialogue, which would suggest that he is cruising on his looks, except the expressions are of longing and frustration and avarice. He manages to get those feelings on the screen without shouting most of the time. There are points where his character must act out as well, but the best work he does is really quite subtle. There is a quick clothed sex scene with Uma Thurman’s character, and you can get everything you are supposed to know about the relationship out of his facial expressions. He does an excellent job.

I was not familiar with the original story, but it fits right in with the political and social morality tales I mentioned earlier. The costumes are striking, the women’s clothes are detained and reveal much about their characters on the surface and underneath. I also found the score to be quite haunting and effective, although there was no distinctive melody that I can now recall. The photography and lighting are up there with the best period pieces, sometimes there were small changes in lighting that magnified the emotions very effectively without turning the scene into a cartoon.

My wife said she could spot at least a dozen women in the audience who were probably there because they were reading “50 Shades of Grey”. The sexualization of this actor through the character he plays in the vampire movies, is drawing an audience in, but it will probably blind people to the talent he he trying very hard to develop. Bel Ami is a well made costume drama, that has a lot more going for it than just some butt shots of the star. It is an adult film made with good intentions and a great deal of skill by those involved in putting it together, it is just too bad it won’t be treated that way for the reasons I have pointed out.

Rocky III

I had every intention of doing a post on Blade Runner next as part of the retrospective of the Summer of 1982. One of the bloggers that I follow reminded me on his page, what a great year the Summer of 82 was. His list of Top Ten Films from that summer would do any pop movie lover proud. I think both of us would agree that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was the most influential film on the list. But her’s what happened, I started surfing on my satellite channels and Rocky III was starting at that very moment. It was on the list and I have not watched it in at least a dozen years, maybe more, so I committed to the two hours and soaked up the early 1980s feel of this Sylvester Stallone Directed sequel.

Stallone wrote the original Rocky and the story of how it became a film that he starred in is legendary. He came back to this character repeatedly during the eighties and ran it dry by the time we get to Rocky V. The first three films in the series are the freshest and most soul satisfying. When Rocky Balboa came out a few years ago, I think he managed to redeem the character for one last hurrah and put the character to rest with some dignity. Rocky III is the commercially and artistically successful middle story. I was disappointed in Rocky IV which felt manufactured to me, and I barely remember the fifth one. My comments on Rocky II can be found here.

Eric’s blog post on Rocky III, seemed dismissive to me. His main criticism being the acting in the film. He does however point out the great emotional punch that comes from the resolution of Mickey’s storyline, and I think Burgess Meredith sold that pretty well. The charismatic Mr. T makes his first movie or TV appearance in this film and he is a character you love to hate. Clubber Lang was Mike Tyson before Tyson was Mike Tyson. In addition, Clubber lacked the charm of Mr. Tyson as a boxer. His voice was as scary as his looks were. The small amount of time that was spent on his backstory is told primarily through montages during the story. We see him growling in the background while Rocky defends his title against lesser contenders. When their first match is set, we can see the loner hunger that drives him to be the animal he is in the ring. This was solid movie storytelling, showing instead of telling. It built up an antagonist for Rocky to have to measure himself by.

The three act structure of the story is really apparent, and the best acting moment comes at the conclusion of act two. Adrian has had little to do up to this point and Rocky’s self doubt is preventing him from committing to the rematch the way he needs to in order to succeed. She gets a very good scene in which she gets to confront those unexpressed doubts and put them up for the audience to confront as well. The dialogue is not perfect but the tone works and Talia Shire sells it enough to justify the next moment, the start of the third act. Stallone is no idiot, he knows exactly what emotional button to push then, and we get the more intense training sequences underscored by the triumphant horns of the original theme song from the first film. At that point what follows is inevitable but it was also very satisfying. We have been hooked for an hour and a quarter and now are ready to be reeled in in the last twenty minutes of the movie. Stallone’s performance may be the weak link here, but I think it is due primarily to the bad haircut that Rocky sports for the whole film. Only during the last fight does he start to resemble the palooka we fell in love with in the original film.

Rocky III is not a great piece of art but it is a rousing piece of entertainment. It lacks much of the grit that both of it’s predecessors had, but by switching in a new opponent and creating a different relationship with Apollo Creed, it manages to have some solid emotional heft to it that goes beyond the fight sequences. Of course the fight sequences are staged the way we always wish a heavyweight fight would be, with two aggressive opponents willing to trade vicious blows and keep on fighting.  This movie also features the second of two great music themes from the Rocky films. Both the original title score and the rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger” have been used by sports teams and competitions of all kinds for the last thirty years. The movie may feel a little dated in the directorial style of Stallone. He is very straight forward and direct, but the music cues are timeless and we get to enjoy our hero one more time .