Monday, June 25, 2012


“WATTSTAX” (1973)
Directed by Mel Stuart
**** (four stars)

For reasons I will never understand, I have to admit to having an uncontrollable urge to flip cable channels very late on weekend nights before heading to bed. Perhaps it is a bit of a last hurrah for me but there’s just this fascination I have with seeing if there’s something just off the beaten path that may give me one more surprise in those wee hours. On one night at the beginning of this month, I stumbled across a brief promo on Centric, the African-American themed cable channel, announcing and celebrating the entirety of June as Black Music Month. While the advertisement lasted perhaps less than one minute, the amount of inspiration it provided to me has been priceless.

As some of you have already known abut me, and now for those who previously have not, I had the blessing of spending my four years of college working as a DJ on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus radio station WLHA-FM. It was indeed a childhood fantasy fulfilled and I have often wished that I could return to that DJ booth and spin tunes deeply into the days and nights for listeners everywhere, hopefully weaving a musical spell that enraptured. On my Facebook page, I have (sort of) accomplished that very wish by occasionally posting songs linked from You Tube. This month, and taking my cue from Centric, I wanted to house my own tribute to Black musicians, singers and songwriters throughout the month using the handle of WSPC as my mythical radio station’s call letters. This enterprise has been a supreme blast for me and has also blossomed in ways I had not imagined. Originally, I had planned to post perhaps one or two or maybe even three songs a day for the month but as one song inspirationally leads to the next, the one to three song limit was tossed from the proverbial window. At this time, and with five days remaining, I have posted over 200 pieces of music featuring and celebrating Black artists throughout a variety of musical genres and the overall response, and subsequent conversations, have been enlightening and uplifting.

And then, lightning struck again…

Recently, I found myself in my “archives” digging out a DVD I owned but never really found the time to devote to it properly as my cinematic spirit just wasn’t in the mood before. The film in question is the critically acclaimed documentary from Director Mel Stuart entitled “Wattstax,” which focuses on the 1972 Wattstax Music Festival organized by, and starring many acts from, the legendary Stax music label. Often compared with and referred to as “the Black Woodstock,” I feel this is an unfair description that is as profoundly unobservant as it is lazy. On the real, “Wattstax” is exactly and powerfully as advertised: “A Soulful Expression of the Black Experience.” The film is a musical, socio-political event that provides everyone who chooses to enter a wonderful window into a vibrant piece of the African-American community with a treasure trove of hopes, plights, frustrations, and musings all on display. If you live near a video store, head out to it and rent it. If you belong to Netflix, then place this film into your ever-expanding queue. The 30th anniversary, fully remastered DVD looks gorgeous and even features not one but two commentary tracks, one with Stuart and the other with Public Enemy’s Chuck D. "Wattstax" is a very special film that should not be ignored.

After a brief introduction from none other than Richard Pryor, “Wattstax” opens with The Dramatics “What You See Is What You Get,” as Stuart presents us with pulsating visions of what Isaac Hayes calls “Soulsville,” a selection he performs during the film’s climax. We see the people of the community, the fashions and natural hairstyles of the day set alongside the barbershops, the churches, the record stores, restaurants and other local businesses. Regardless of the fact that this film takes place in Los Angeles, I was immediately struck with vivid memories of my own upbringing in Chicago as from moment to moment, I felt as if I was looking into a window of my own past.

Soon those sunshine images of the low income Watts community are intercut with imagery of the 1965 Watts riots (or “rebellion,” as the people of Watts recall the event). “Wattstax” then finds the Watts community during the seventh annual Festival, at which the concert, to be held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20, 1972, serves as the event’s culmination as well as commemoration of communal togetherness. With performances from ranging from The Staple Singers to Albert King to The Bar Kays and the climactic powerhouse of “Black Moses” himself, Mr. Isaac Hayes, you will be treated to some of the very finest of soul, gospel and rhythm and blues has to offer. But, the music exists as a catalyst for a community’s continued healing, pride strengthening, deep contemplation and ever evolving self-awareness. For the film, the music exists as connective tissue between the candid conversations and interviews with every day people, the very voices that are almost never, ever heard on a large scale…especially on a movie screen.

What made “Wattstax” resonate so powerfully with me is that the film is just so much more than a concert film. This is a film where my lifelong interests in film, art, music, journalism, plus a newfound awakening and consciousness with the country’s socio-political landscape have all converged magnificently. Much like Director Michel Gondry’s outstanding documentary, “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2006), this is a film about an entire community and for that matter, an entire race. “Wattstax” is essentially an oral history of the African-American experience that just happens to be juxtaposed and augmented with tremendous music. The music may bring you in but the commentary and conversations between the everyday people of Watts and peppered with the brutal racial/political comedy of Richard Pryor, are truly electrifying. The film contains no narration and never tells you what to think or feel. Stuart just films and presents and allows the hearts, minds and spirits of the people of Watts to speak and sing loudly.

How fascinating it was to watch this movie in 2012, and truly acknowledge the sad wake up call that although an African-American man currently sits as President of the United States, not that much has truly changed within the low income areas of the Black communities around the country, despite some people’s views that we now live in a post-racial society. Most importantly, the interpersonal and individual conflicts within the Black community are essentially the same as they were in 1972. “Wattstax” explores the ever-shifting self-perceptions of who we are, what we are able to be and where we fit within a Caucasian society.

“Wattstax” is also an exploration of language concerning the labels we place upon ourselves. Just listen to how many of the interview subjects deal with addressing themselves and others as “Negroes,” “Colored,” “Black” and even “niggers.” In fact, just think about how the prevalent usage of the word “nigger” existed in 1972 and compare it to the (largely) cartoon hip-hop world of 2012. Even in the segments featuring Richard Pryor’s comedy, where he uses the word frequently, “Wattstax” immediately took me back to the time when I saw his concert film “Richard Pryor: Live On the Sunset Strip” (1982) on opening night in a predominantly African American movie theater. During a sequence where Pryor detailed a trip he had taken to Africa, he shared how he would never, ever use the word “nigger” to describe Black people any longer. The wave of emotion in that movie theater was undeniably powerful, even as I sat at the age of 13. I am detailing that cinematic memory to illustrate a point about “Wattstax.” This film is not one that solely exists as a time capsule. It feels so up to the minute about being Black in America as we can easily look to the past and ponder just how far we have traveled collectively and individually. The language contained in “Wattstax,” while often extremely harsh, displays a tremendous element in our continued evolution.

But then there is the concert, which in and of itself was a grand political statement as much as it also served as entertainment. The six-hour event, attended by over 100,000 African Americans, where all of the security guards and police were African Americans, and the security police inside the stadium were all unarmed. Not even one incident of violence occurred. Just this fact alone is a powerful political statement in a film loaded with them.

Just witness the stunning, matter-of-fact moment where soul singer Kim Weston performs the National Anthem and absolutely no one rises to their feet and places their right hands over their hearts. Yet, when Weston performs “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” forever known as “The Black National Anthem,” the stadium rises to its feet, sings alongside Weston and raises a right fist into the air in solidarity.

And then there is the formidable presence of Rev. Jesse Jackson who provides the stirring invocation to the concert which concludes with the eternal chant of Black pride and power, “I am SOMEBODY!! I am SOMEBODY!! I may be poor. But, I am SOMEBODY!! I must be respected! I must be protected! I am SOMEBODY!!” I’m telling you, dear readers, when you watch that sequence it feels as if the heavens will part due to the sheer power of Rev Jackson’s words and delivery. And on a more personal note, those words have existed as part of the iconography of my life as those particular words from Rev. Jesse Jackson permeated the house in which I grew up as my Mother listened to the Operation P.U.S.H. radio broadcasts religiously every Saturday morning, while I valiantly attempted to watch my cartoons. Through osmosis, the seeds, which contained a certain sense of self-affirmation and political worldview, were planted and seeing this invocation forced me to reflect in ways that I had not anticipated.

But of course, in “Wattstax,” music is the central element. In addition to existing as a celebratory film featuring the art and artistry of African-American music, the film is crucially about how the power of music is able to bring communities together in healing, pride, communication, negotiation and the sublime art of shared conversation and existence. And make no mistake, “Wattstax” is loaded with one terrific musical performance after another.

In addition to those great sequences with The Bar Kays and Isaac Hayes, I especially loved The Emotions performing “Peace Be Still” set during a church sequence that begins as a slow burn and builds to a veritable roof raiser (and just catch a member of the congregation catching the Holy Ghost). “Lying On The Truth,” performed by another Gospel band, The Rance Allen Group, provided another showstopper. The enormously entertaining (and most questionably fashioned) Rufus Thomas brought the stadium down during the “Funky Chicken” sequence, as the crowd storms the field and then, just as quickly, returns to the stands once the song completes. Blues artist Little Milton, who was not able to attend the actual concert, is also featured in the film during a sequence that is basically a precursor to music videos as he performs “Walking The Backstreet And Crying” next to a trash can filled with burning embers—perhaps a visual reminder of the 1965 riots. In fact, I was very excited to see how Stuart stitched the film together where the musical content would often reference and comment upon the interview segments, making the exchange and dialogue especially riveting.

I could go on and on about the wonders that are contained in Mel Stuart’s “Wattstax,” but I really want for you to make the discovery on your own. This is an expert documentary that captured a time and place of African American culture where civil rights, soul music and the spiritual are all intertwined. Beyond that, “Wattstax” unearthed feelings that lined the past, present and potential future together so seamlessly that it ended up creating a world of the human experience that is excitingly and explosively right now!!

As I ruminate over the film and this review, I just have to acknowledge one more thing: I just knew there was a good reason for me to be flipping cable channels that night!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

FAIRY TALE FAILURE: a review of "Brave"

A Pixar Animation Studios Film
Story by Brenda Chapman
Screenplay Written by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman   Co-Directed by Steve Purcell
* 1/2 (one and a half stars)

Dear readers, I deeply wish that I were not about the write what I am going to write. Believe me, I never really thought this day would come but on Savage Cinema, I have to call it as I see it. I have just witnessed Pixar Animation Studios first bonafide failure.

“Brave,” the latest effort from the wizards of Pixar, is a resounding and shocking disappointment, the very type I never imagined would or could ever roll out of a studio that has set the gold standard for American animated features over and over again. However, in recent years, I have felt some bumps in the road as I felt they began to coast on their reputation a bit with their strong yet padded “Toy Story 3” (2011) as well as the decidedly underwhelming “Cars” (2006) and “Cars 2” (2011). “Brave” is unfortunately the weakest Pixar effort to date. While some of you may be feeling that I am being overly harsh, I must explain to you that I am being this harsh because the potential for greatness was blindingly apparent. Yet, sadly and surprisingly, the filmmakers missed the mark by an extremely wide margin through muddled, messy storytelling when all of the ingredients for a great story and film were right in front of them the entire time. My disappointment is not due to not receiving the film I may have wanted. It is entirely due to the fact that for a film where everything felt so right for a good stretch, it suddenly transformed into a film where everything felt so wrong.

Set in 10th century Scotland, “Brave” centers around the life and adventures of Meridawinningly voiced by Kelly MacDonald), the teenaged princess of a clan led by her Father, King Fergus (Billy Connoly) and her Mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Mother/daughter tensions reach a fever pitch once the time has arrived for Merida, who wishes to experience life on her own terms with her trusty bow and arrows at her side, to be arranged for marriage with one of the three adjoining clan’s sons. In defiance, Merida breaks tradition with her clan’s historic customs and consults with an elderly witch (Julie Walters), bringing disastrous consequences Merida could never have imagined.

As far as the basic plot line is concerned, all of the elements necessary to create Pixar’s first fairy tale are all supremely in place. And without question, the film’s visual landscape is rapturous from the very first image. The rolling hills of Scotland, the greenery, the skies, water, cobblestones, clothing and certainly Merida’s luxuriously designed mane of long, wavy red hair  goes a long way to re-confirming exactly how in the field of American animated films today, Pixar’s vision is untouchably sumptuous. But, the filmmakers know very well that now since they have long proven themselves as technical giants, that simply looking good is not nearly enough…or at least they should know by now.

Truth be told, for the first third to perhaps the first half of “Brave,” I was completely won over. I fell in love with Merida and her story instantly, as she, her family, her home and her internal conflict were all clearly defined, making for a story that may not have been necessarily revolutionary but one that looked to be a simple story superbly told. Merida’s desires to escape an existence not of her choosing and claim her own fate perfectly illustrated classic teen angst and the tensions between herself and Elinor were also compelling and touching. The action sequences contained a visceral thrill, the magic of the recurring Will O’ the Wisps were enchanting and the film’s comedy seemed to be well placed and completely organic to the story’s environment. All of these factors had me in such a fanciful state that I was beginning to feel that perhaps Pixar not only had creatively rebounded from “Cars 2,” that perhaps I just might be witnessing one of the year’s best achievements.

And then, Merida goes to visit the witch…

Now, for me, it was really not the moment when Merida and the witch meet where I felt the film began to nosedive. It was the events that occur immediately after their meeting, which involves bears, curses, forgiveness and redemptions. All of those aforementioned elements would have been fine as well but it was not a matter of what was included but how it was included and utilized. In many ways, from this point until the conclusion, “Brave” began to feel like a completely different movie as what was once enthralling became predictable, problematic, and pretentious when it needed to be portentous. Essentially, once you see where “Brave” is headed, all you can do is just wait for the inevitable to happen and not only does that not make for exciting filmmaking in the least, it completely undercut and undervalued all that came before.
From Pixar’s first feature “Toy Story” (1995) all the way through to Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” (2004), these storytellers have basically re-invented the storytelling wheel time and again by not falling into the conventional traps of ensuring that every film they make will appeal to a mass audience. They have been fearlessly creative, obviously creating films they would see themselves, regardless of their potential appeal to children and families. These filmmakers functioned as artists and discovered ways to make art and commerce combine and co-exist in harmony. “Brave,” by stunning contrast, felt like a film that began one way and was then market researched within an inch of its life as it added long stretches of needless slapstick, some out of place and extremely forced sexual innuendo by way of a busty servant, and a conclusion you will see coming, all the way down to the dialogue, from miles and miles away.

Really, dear readers, I could not stop you from seeing this film if I tried. A new Pixar features is veritably critic-proof. But still, just take a moment and think about the great risks taken in films like Bird’s “Ratatouille” (2007), a film so sophisticated that it was essentially an enchanting dissertation on the nature of art itself. Or how about “Wall-E” (2008), which presented a daring and dark future vision combined with the hallmarks of silent films. Or even “Up” (2009), which featured one of the best love stories and heartbreaking whimsy in recent years. All three of those films completely re-wrote the rules on what an animated film could actually be. That films aimed for children could be artful and non-disposable. That if they did not respond to them immediately, it could be the very type of film they could grow with. “Brave,” on the other hand, felt as if the powers that be sat around a table and determined what would potentially work best, not for storytelling purposes but for financial purposes and the end result grew so tiresome as this was a film ready to take flight and head for the stars.

Worst of all, poor Merida was seismically let down by her creators. For all of the ink spilled over such a novelty of having a female protagonist as the lead, why did she have to lose her independent streak and fighting spirit and just become a cipher, a victim of storytelling circumstance so quickly. After a spell, it almost didn’t matter if Merida was in the film or not as the curses, witches, battles and bears all took center stage and batted the girl around depending on whichever whim it decided to take. I loved Merida’s feistiness, her moxie, her hopes as well as her deep flaws of which she would have to face, overcome and learn from. But it was such a tremendous shame, as again, all of the elements were in place for a great film and for whatever reason, the Pixar team just did not trust themselves. Look, I certainly do not have anything against curses, witches, battles and bears by any means but I have to stress that it was the way in which those elements were included that I had major issues with. Simply stated, absolutely nothing felt true to the story’s beginnings. It all felt monkey-wrenched in, whether it made narrative sense or not, and it was unfathomable to me why the filmmakers could not remain on their storytelling path confidently enough.

Honestly, we have seen the themes of parent/child conflicts merged with supernatural worlds before in films like Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders’ spectacular “How To Train Your Dragon” (2010) and most especially, Hayao Miyazaki’s timeless “Spirited Away” (2001). Yet, in both of those films, all of the events unfolded in ways that were organic to the worlds the filmmakers devised, not to any perceived audience expectations. The dangers of being granted the very wishes you asked for combined with one central conflict of “Brave” strongly reminded me of the inherent anguish contained in the children’s book, William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970). Yet here, those themes felt to be tacked on, painfully contrived and unfelt.

What went so wrong? I am not so certain but I have a feeling that the answers lie within the film’s credits where “Brave” had no less than three directors and four writers. There have even been reports that Brenda Chapman, who originated the story and was the film’s initial director, was actually replaced due to that beast known as “creative differences.” Perhaps, this was a case of having too many cooks and jazzing up a story that just didn’t need it at all. Whatever the reason, it just made me sad that the filmmakers sold out Merida and her story. She deserved much, much better and therefore, so did we. 
When it is all said and done, the irony of ”Brave” is all in the film’s title as the filmmakers seemed to not be brave enough to just follow the story’s inherent convictions and allow it to rise on its own cinematic feet. Instead, we have been given Pixar’s most dishonest and prefabricated effort of all. Pixar has achieved greatness before and I am certain they will again but for now, I am very worried for them as they seem to be chasing the dollar instead of chasing the muse.

“Brave” is one of 2012’s biggest disappointments.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

INSIDE A HOUSE THAT IS HAUNTED: a review of "The Woman In Black"

Based upon the novel by Susan Hill
Screenplay Written by Jane Goldman
Directed by James Watkins
** (two stars)

Dear readers, I would like for you to gaze at the above photo for a few moments. As you gaze, I would like for you to then, mentally add in some quietly ominous music and a few booming sound effects designed to make you shiver and jolt upright. And voila! You have essentially seen this entire movie!

Now, I certainly did not mean to sound so harsh. That opening was merely a bit of fun from me to you but I can understand that based upon that above paragraph and description, you would think that Director James Watkins’ “The Woman In Black” would easily end up on my 2012 Worst Of The Year List. Well…truth be told, the film really isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s not a bad film at all. It’s just one that really did not leave much of an impression upon me in any way, and that was despite the obvious skill, artistry and most of all, restraint that was on display throughout. “The Woman In Black” is an old-fashioned horror film, the kind that is meant to elicit chills up and down the spine and not created to bludgeon the audience with unspeakable depravity and over the top violence. While that is admirable, and at times quite enjoyable, it was also a film that unfortunately did not stick to the cinematic ribs by any means.

Set during the Edwardian period, Daniel Radcliffe stars as Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer and widower consumed in the deep throes of grief after his wife died while giving birth to his son Joseph, now aged 4. With his mournful distractions now placing his career on the line, Arthur is dispatched to a small remote town set just outside of London to obtain and compile all of the paperwork from a recently deceased eccentric in order to sell her large manor known as Eel Marsh House. Yet, tragically strange occurrences have enveloped the town and all of the residents are mum to any of its dreadful secrets and more than a little wary of this new visitor except for the kindly Sam Daily (a strong Ciaran Hinds) who quickly befriends Arthur.

While Arthur spend copious amounts of solitude at the Eel Marsh House, he soon discovers that the mansion is haunted by the tormented spirit of a woman still desperate to reclaim what was once lost…and to forever wreak her vengeance upon the town

As an old-fashioned gothic thriller, “The Woman in Black” is a handsome production. It is an elegant film that is well guided and orchestrated under Watkins’ rock steady directorial hand. The film does accomplish an impressive job of evoking a tense, grim atmosphere and it provides more than its share of “Don’t open that door!,” “Don’t go up the stairs!,” and “Don’t go into that room!” moments. Much praise should be delivered to Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones, as well as the members of Watkins’ set design and most notably, the sound effects team, for successfully enveloping the audience in a cloud of encroaching doom.

I found it to be a very classy move that “The Woman In Black” operates and relies mostly upon a slow burn rather than falling back on gratuitous gore, of which there is none in this film. Watkins remains ever tactful and tasteful, especially when confronting the issue of having the lives of various children in jeopardy, typically a cheap and mean spirited cinematic trick. Although, the film possesses these fine qualities, they do, however, work against the film’s overall impact.

Dear readers, you all know so very well about me that my relationship with horror films in general is an extremely tentative one at best and that I tend to give that genre an enormously wide berth as I just do not enjoy the sensation of being frightened. All of that being said, and I am certain that you will be mighty surprised by the following statement, but for me, “The Woman In Black” is just not that scary! While I have to say that I did jump up from my seated position several times throughout the film, I do think that it had much, much less to do with actually being trapped in a state of fear and dread and much more to do with the effectiveness of that aforementioned sound design team. While I loved how Watkins utilized the sounds of silence throughout the film, it seemed to exist just to have loud sounds jolt and shock you and when attempting to create horror, technical effects just aren’t enough for me.

Beyond any technical issues, and while the film overall does contain a certain level of suspense and functions well as a decent ghost story, I just had this nagging feeling that “The Woman In Black” was all much ado about nothing. This feeling really became enhanced for me by a hokum ending that for me, deflated the proceedings when I would gather, the suspense and terror needed to rise to a fever pitch. In this way, “The Woman In Black” reminded me very much of my reaction to Director Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others” (2001), another atmospheric, gothic, disturbingly psychological, visually arresting yet decidedly underwhelming thriller. Watkins definitely has storytelling skill and visual panache but somehow, someway, the film never delved underneath my skin or burrowed deep into my psyche to make me really feel unhinged or at least troubled. Everything in the film seemed to sit very attractively on the screen yet it all felt to be superficial as I just did not have much of an emotional response.

From an acting standpoint, all of the performances are right on point and work in complete conjunction with the darkly spectral surroundings. I really liked seeing character actor Ciaran Hinds as he always elicits strong performances and his scenes with Daniel Radcliffe showed that the two men make for a strong acting team. But of course, there is the work of Mr. Radcliffe to speak of, which also contains some pluses and minuses.

In his first, post “Harry Potter” film role Daniel Radcliffe performs a worthy job, although most of his role has him exist in an often wordless and mostly reactionary position. On the positive side, Radcliffe is showing a newfound sense of maturity on-screen. He is able to easily convince that he is of a certain time period and his ability to seem authentic is good. Additionally, as Radcliffe is often alone during lengthy stretches of “The Woman In Black,” it is commendable that he has shown the growth to be able to hold the screen and our full attention regardless of the supernatural suspense occurring around him. His growing skill as an actor is always a pleasure to watch and makes me anxious to see what else he just may be able to pull off.

The downside is really not Radcliffe’s fault at all. Perhaps his casting in this particular film was somewhat of a canny Hollywood move as the supernatural elements of the story do happen to cross paths with the supernatural elements of the “Harry Potter” series, therefore creating an easy bridge for potential audiences to cross in regards to accepting Radcliffe in a new role. But, that did present some minor problems here and there. As Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps creeps through a dark, shivering, foreboding haunted house seeking answers to the truth of the titular “woman in black,” there were several points when I could not help but to think that he just might utter an ”Accio Wand!” or “Lumos!” for old time’s sakes. That close character/conceptual proximity did make for a distraction that, at times, took me out of the story. Beyond that, there really is not much within the character of Arthur Kipps that I found to be truly compelling, which unfortunately gave Radcliffe not much else to do other than creep around the dark, shivering, foreboding haunted house and again, react to whatever the special effects and sound effects team hurl at him. It’s a role that I felt to be quite underwritten as well as a little bland, which makes for a performance that is kind of empty as there is no real sufficient weight to latch onto.

Before I put this review into the hopper dear readers, I have to ask if any of you remember an old comedy routine by Eddie Murphy pertaining to the role of African Americans in the horror film genre and essentially how no films of that sort would exist with Black people on the leads. Why not? Well, Murphy reasoned, after a Black family entered and adored their new, wonderfully luxurious home and then heard the very first disembodied howl of “GET OUT!!,” any sensible Black person would simply say, “Too bad we can’t stay!” Thus, the movie would be over instantly. I shared that memory with you because I actually thought of that very routine as I watched “The Woman In Black.” Not as a way to denigrate or poke holes through the experience but to illustrate that despite its flaws, the film does have its share of suspenseful sequences that are fun to wade through.

But if you are looking for horror, and I mean true, debilitating horror, this film is just not quite up for the job.

Monday, June 18, 2012

FIRST LOVE AT SUMMER'S END: a review of "Moonrise Kingdom"

Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Directed by Wes Anderson
*** ½ (three and a half stars)

“You don’t know how much I love you
But I love you like the sun
I like to put my arms around you
And we could run, run, run, runaway…”
-Jefferson Starship “Runaway”

Not that long ago, I read a film critic’s detailing of Writer/Director Wes Anderson’s oeuvre, which he described as “dollhouse movies.” While I have no real idea if that description was meant with any sense of derision or not, I would not be surprised if it were.

While Wes Anderson and his work—which ranges from “Rushmore” (1998), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (2004), “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) and the animated “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)-- has been highly celebrated, over recent years, I have detected a sense of fatigue with Anderson’s specialized artistic vision. In some respects, I can understand the description of his films as “dollhouse movies” as Wes Anderson has created a collective of works that are meticulously and artfully designed to the letter, from the most seemingly insignificant objects to even the combined performances from his trusty band of actors. Never in any of his films, is one item ever out of place, Yet, for me and my sensibilities, Wes Anderson’s movies are not hermetically sealed by any means. As I have stated on this site many times, the worlds contained in the films of Wes Anderson may be strikingly artificial but they are emotionally true as they all have huge, open and thunderously beating hearts that match the inner lives and desires of his characters. Wes Anderson’s movies just may be “dollhouse movies,” but for me, these dollhouses are ones where Wes Anderson not only gleefully designed the landscape, inner workings and boundaries but he has also joyfully invited us all to join him in play.

Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson’s latest escapade, is a particularly lovely experience as it delves deeply into the pangs of first love at the end of a long ago summer. For fans of Wes Anderson, his new film possesses all of his trademark touches and I am certain that you will enjoy this film as much as any of his past efforts. For Anderson novices, I highly recommend that you give this film a try as you would be witness to a filmmaker working at full command of his cinematic storytelling powers and craft. And for all of you, “Moonrise Kingdom” is a vivid reminder that in today’s homogenized world of cinema, there is nobody, absolutely nobody who makes films that look, sound or feel like Wes Anderson’s movies. They are universes unto themselves.
Set in late summer 1965, on the island of New Penzance, just off the coast of New England, we meet orphaned and friendless Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a 12-year-old attending a “Khaki Scout” summer camp lead by Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton). Also on the island lives the equally troubled and friendless 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who resides with her distracted and dysfunctional attorney parents Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three younger brothers.
During the previous summer, Sam and Suzy met while backstage at a church performance of Benjamin Britten’s composition “Noye’s Fludde” and subsequently became pen pals. The twosome, now having fallen in love, have decided to run away together, an act which initiates a frantic search party of scout troupe members and parents and led by Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis).

As with all of Wes Anderson’s films, “Moonrise Kingdom” almost functions as sort of a fable or storybook enchantment mostly due to Anderson’s visual aesthetic and cinematic storytelling style. “Moonrise Kingdom” is a dream world wonderland version of the real world. His 1965 seems to be one of fantasy made up entirely of the iconography of the time period and reconfigured in ways that never feel to be entirely realistic but somehow it also never feels like some 1965 thrift store version of reality either. As off kilter as it is, everything somehow feels to be just right as each image and frame of the film could almost exist as a still photograph or a snapshot memory from someone looking back upon a seemingly idyllic summer.

Anderson is aided tremendously through the expert cinematography of Robert Yeoman as well as his incredible set design team. All of them work wonders in ensuring that everything that exists in the world of “Moonrise Kingdom,” from the sets and costumes and locations all the way to Sam’s artwork to even the book covers and content of the novels Suzy religiously reads, convincingly creates an entire world unlike anything else you can currently see in modern cinema. I especially loved the occasional usage of Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra,” a piece of music Suzy’s younger brothers listen to on an archaic record player. The sonic pulling apart and merging together of the instruments that make up an orchestra seemed to also function as an equivalent of Anderson’s films as a whole, as each individual element fits with other elements like a puzzle, creating a unique and completely individualistic accomplishment. By pulling it all apart only to bring it together again, we are all invited to become part of the process which ultimately adds to the overall enjoyment of “Moonrise Kingdom.”

Crucial elements in all of Wes Anderson’s films are the performances and “Moonrise Kingdom” is no exception. Everyone has arrived ready to work, play and bring to life these oddball, very left of center, almost cut out characters and again, like a puzzle, every single performance works in conjunction with each other. Every actor is on the same plate, working together never threatening to upstage anyone else at the expense of the entire experience. Bruce Willis, in particular, was very impressive to me as he has been an actor whom I have felt has grown tiresomely lazy in recent years. Thankfully and so enjoyably, Willis has arrived to the Wes Anderson aesthetic ready to work and completely committed. And I have to say that I also very much enjoyed the sly pokes he and Anderson just may be taking with his movie action hero status.

Most importantly, “Moonrise Kingdom” hinges upon our pre-teen love struck leads and in their debut performances, both Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are beguiling. As Sam Shakusky, Gilman has captured a jewel of a role as this boy seemed to be another representation of Anderson’s signature character, first represented by Max Fisher from “Rushmore” and also as an older man in “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.” Sam is intrepid, headstrong, clever, endlessly creative and certainly houses a mean streak that explodes during times of extreme frustration or whenever he feels cornered and his worldview is threatened. And through it all, he is truly a dreamer, a heart-on-sleeve romantic whose head is perpetually in the clouds and is nearly always led by his emotions. If he had a sense of better judgment, it would serve him well but remember, he is 12 years old and simply does not know better quite yet. He just is not mature enough.

Kara Hayward was especially impressive as Suzy Bishop as she not only represents that highly idealized version of first love but the slightly harder reality that she is more grounded and therefore, she almost seems to be too much young woman for our hero. And like Sam, she also carries quite a nasty, violent temper. While she is the same age as Sam, she appears older as she nurses a deep penchant for the world outside of her home at the appropriately named “Summer’s End.” Suzy carries a set of binoculars at all times. She is a voracious reader. And she harbors a love for all things French as evidenced by her favorite record, Francoise Hardy’s “Le Temps De L’Amour,” as well as her blue eye shadow which makes her look like a pre-teen Brigitte Bardot, despite her knee high socks and “Sunday school shoes.”

Certainly Suzy’s smoky visage and penetrating far away stare is one that would disarm Sam or any young boy for that matter. But, as the film progresses, we can see that Sam and Suzy exist on equal footing. Where Sam initially takes the lead by encouraging Suzy to run away with him in the firs place, he also serves as an expert wilderness guide due to his scouting experience. We see Suzy taking the more emotional lead in later sections. One sequence I particularly enjoyed was one where she reads aloud to Sam and his scout mates by campfire, which evoked nothing less than author J.M. Barrie’s Never Never Land with Wendy caring for Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. The love story of Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop is contained within their mutual restless spirits and hungry desires to make their own world for themselves and away for any outside influences, emotions that truly capture the nature of the age and perhaps even Wes Anderson’s artistic dreams as well. It is a couple to root for and more often than not, I was wishing for them to maintain their dream world together forever, although it could never last in the ways that they wish the most.

And here is where “Moonrise Kingdom” stretches far beyond any sense of artifice and exquisitely into painful realities. There is a resounding sense of melancholy that permeates all of Wes Anderson’s films and that feeling is in full bittersweet effect in “Moonrise Kingdom.” Anderson presents us with a group of sad, disappointed people who are all forced to confront their individual states of loneliness and sorrow once Sam and Suzy recklessly take off, fully determined to make their future, whatever that future may be. Captain Sharp is wounded by an unrequited love, while Walt and Laura Bishop grow increasingly estranged and Scout Master Randy ward, against all of his efforts, attempts to hold feelings of failure at bay. With Sam and Suzy’s disappearance, all of the adult characters are given opportunities to spring back to life from whatever states of dormancy they have existed in for however long. Quite possibly, they just may be able to exhibit the same sense of brazen and bold moves that the “lost” children have made for themselves.

And then, there is the film’s final image, of which I would never think to reveal here, that “Moonrise Kingdom” really hit home for me. Above all else, the image took me back to the Middle school days and actual places of my past when I was experiencing for the first time exactly what Sam and Suzy are experiencing. I will never, ever forget that patch of grass and dirt underneath the windows of the Lower school in the courtyard separating the Lower, Middle and High schools. There were moments that became supremely formative in regards to the nature of relationships and falling in love that were pivotal, for better or worse. I would gather, that if you allow the magic of “Moonrise Kingdom” to work its spells upon you, you will also find yourselves traveling back to your days of first loves and painful hurts. The film’s final shot certainly provided a lump in the throat as it perfectly encapsulated a time and place that I would think exists inside all of us.

If I were to have even one quibble with the film, it is that there is just not nearly enough Bill Murray, for everything is made better with Bill Murray. Aside from that, “Moonrise Kingdom” is another success for Wes Anderson, a filmmaker who I firmly believe shuodl be championed a bit more than he already is as he represents true artistry, entertainment and vision when all movie goers need to be witness to such a personal touch the most.

Moonrise Kingdom” may seem to be nothing more than a charming, touching romp through a nostalgic dream world. But, trust me, it is so much more. And besides, what a beautiful dream world it is.

Monday, June 11, 2012

JUMP THEY SAY: a review of "Man On A Ledge"

Screenplay Written by Pablo Fenjves
Directed by Asger Leth
½ * (one half of one star)

Whoooo boy!!! I’m going to try and write this review for you between laughing fits.

How I wish that I could tell you that Director Asger Leth’s “Man On A Ledge” is a propulsive, razor sharp, outlandishly exciting, furiously paced thrill ride filled from beginning to end with a collective of compelling characters and action sequences so extraordinary that you will forget to breathe as you are so enthralled. Unfortunately, what I do have to tell you is actually that “Man On A Ledge” is the true definition of a cinematic howler!!

Dear readers, if this film were a comedy, my star rating would be decidedly much higher than it is simply because I laughed so hard throughout this absolutely boneheaded film and I was undeniably entertained. But, this film is not a comedy. “Man On A Ledge” is a film attempting to exist as an action thriller, and even more laughable is that this film actually wants to align itself with no less than Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” (2006) and mostly, Sidney Lumet’s classic “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), as it is a crime caper set within the characters, color and culture of New York City. The fact that a movie this preposterous, this flabbergasting, this ridiculous even thinks it could be in the company of either of those movies would truly send Lee into a knee slapping, fall off of the couch, tears streaming down the face explosion and if there is a cinematic afterlife, Lumet would be doing the same. “Man On A Ledge” is truly, truly awful!

I guess I now have to describe the plot, such as it is. Sam Worthington stars as Nick Cassady, a former police officer and escaped convict, who checks himself into the Roosevelt Hotel under an assumed name, eats supper, scrawls a note, and then exits the window to stand upon the ledge, apparently ready to commit suicide. But oh no, Nick has no death wish. He is in fact plotting revenge against cold fish businessman David Englander (a slumming Ed Harris), who framed him for the theft of a $40 million dollar diamond. Nick’s plan is to distract the growing crowd on the streets of New York through media manipulation and also through the presence of disgraced negotiator Lydia Mercer (a profoundly miscast Elizabeth Banks) who seeks to talk Nick down from the ledge.

Unbeknownst to Officer Mercer, the police force, the television news crew and the crowd below, Nick’s brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and his saucy girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) are breaking into Englander’s offices and vault with the hopes of finding the diamond, thus clearing Nick’s good name and revealing the truth about Englander.

Ok…to be fair, I would suppose that there is nothing really wrong with this plot on the surface. In fact, I would offer that conceptually, the film is not terribly far removed from F. Gary Gray’s superior thriller “The Negotiator” (1998). Yet, in reality, the film is indeed a very close cousin to Joel Schumacher’s idiotic “Phone Booth” (2003), a would-be nail biter that piled one clumsy move onto another until the entire movie crashed to the ground like the rapidly descending pieces of a Jenga game.

In my previous review of the hugely disappointing “Safe House,” I expressed how that film was nothing more than another Hollywood assembly line feature that was an uninspired jumble of “stock characters, clichéd dialogue, unimaginative action sequences and beyond obvious villains and duplicities.” I only wish that “Man On A Ledge” were just that bad. This movie is much worse, so much so that it makes “Safe House” look like a Shakespearian masterpiece.

How many ways did this film go wrong you ask? Well, allow me to count the ways. In addition to the car chases and shoot outs that virtually make no narrative sense whatsoever, and the GIANT SIZED cliché of Banks’ character seeking redemption for a past tragedy, I have to really poke holes through this movie by mentioning Sam Worthington.

While he struck me as being numbingly bland in James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009), I did not want to close the acting book on him prematurely, especially as most of the performances in that film were subpar. Well, after viewing “Man On A Ledge,” my early suspicions considering his questionable talent were sadly proven correct. Never did he convince me of his predicament, or that he was standing upon that ledge, let alone fighting for his life, freedom and innocence. It certainly didn’t help that his extremely shaky American accent was punctured, seemingly through every other word, by his natural Australian accent.

Additionally, the so-called frisky, romantic banter between Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez (whose “performance” functions as eye candy to the point that I think that even Megan Fox would turn down this role) is extremely painful and story halting as they elicit no chemistry whatsoever. And besides, if these two clowns were racing against time to break into Ed Harris’ office and secret vaults, plus knowing all the while that Worthington is just hanging around on some high rise ledge for them to complete their task, you would think they would just focus on the business at hand. 

By the time they do get to the business at hand, Bell shockingly announces to Rodriguez, “It’s just like we practiced!” What?! Where oh where and furthermore, when did these three characters even begin to practice safe cracking, wire cutting, evading heat sensors, mastering explosive techniques, utilizing liquid nitrogen, and pretty much anything you’ve ever seen in either a “Mission: Impossible” or James Bond movie and especially since Worthington’s character has been in prison for two years???

Then there’s Ed Harris, obviously making a paycheck movie, who looks like he was not even on the set for more than a week at most, and I think that I am being generous. And Lord help me, who’s bright idea was it to cast WASPY Kyra Sedgwick as Suzie Morales, who is...brace yourselves… a LATINA newscaster!!! When I heard Sedgwick announce herself with an outrageously exaggerated pronunciation of her name as “Suzie Morrrrrraaalllllles!!,” I damn near fell onto the floor!!!

The confounding stupidity of “Man On A Ledge” mounts itself higher and higher, making for a film that unintentionally flies off the rails the longer it remains on screen. Sometimes those kinds of movies are very enjoyable. So enjoyable where they almost elevate themselves into kitschy, guilty pleasures. But, no, “Man On A Ledge” is a complete time-waster for you and I think so as no to waste any more time thinking about this movie, I’ll draw this review to a close.

“Man On A Ledge” has easily earned a spot as one of 2012’s worst movies.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

CARBON COPY: a review of "Safe House"

Screenplay Written by David Guggenheim
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
* ½ (one and a half stars)

Dear readers, I am beginning to worry about Denzel Washington.

Allow me to clarify. My worries are not in the least referring to Denzel Washington’s actual level of talent and skill as I firmly believe he is one of our greatest acting treasures. My statement is also not related to his box office clout, as he is still one of the few actors who remains able, despite his advancing age in Hollywood, to open a film just based upon his sheer presence. When I say that I am worried about Denzel Washington, what I am referring to are his acting choices and the possibility that he has reached a stage where he may be beginning to coast on his unquestionable legend.

To offer some comparison, I would like for you to look at the career of someone like Robert De Niro. His cinematic legend will always remain solid and unshakable due to his landmark performances in films like Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part II” (1974), Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The King Of Comedy” (1983), and “Goodfellas” (1990), for example. But as of late, it seems as if DeNiro level of quality control has flown out of the window, as he seems to have forgotten the ability to simply say “No.” Even worse is someone like Nicholas Cage, once one of our riskiest and most thrilling actors but has also in recent years has seemingly become incapable of appearing in films that are remotely watchable let alone good. In both cases of De Niro and Cage, the scent of money is very present and it just makes me sad to see these two immensely talented people take one paycheck movie after another. What is I fear for Denzel Washington is similar as the quality of at least four of his most recent films have been increasingly underwhelming artistically but have produced hefty box office dollars. I worry that Denzel Washington is becoming artistically lazy.

That feeling rose right to the surface once again as I viewed Director Daniel Espinosa’s action thriller “Safe House,” which pits criminal mastermind Washington against Ryan Reynolds’ green CIA agent. When this film was released early this year, it was yet another box office smash for Washington but as I watched, the movie itself just felt to be the same type of loud, bombastic, overblown yet profoundly under thought copycat, carbon copy experience that Hollywood releases every few weeks during the calendar year. Who knows why Washington is attaching himself to these projects that truly fall far below his skills and abilities. Yes, I can completely understand if he would like to simply have some fun and not wrestle and wrench himself for every acting role he takes. But for an actor, who, in my humble opinion, should have received FIVE Oscar awards for is performance in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X" (1992) alone, I just think that he, and therefore, we the audience, deserve much better.

Set in Cape Town, South Africa, “Safe House’ introduces us to the legendary and infamous rogue CIA agent and now international criminal Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), who is attacked by a band of mercenaries and surrenders himself to the American consulate after acquiring a mysterious computer file. Frost is quickly taken to a CIA safe house where very the low-level agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) serves as “housekeeper.” After being unsuccessfully interrogated and water boarded by a team of CIA agents, the safe house is infiltrated by the same team of mercenaries who attacked Frost earlier. While the CIA agents are slaughtered by the mercenaries, Weston reluctantly releases the uncomfortably cool and cunning Frost and the twosome escape.

The remainder of “Safe House” becomes a chase film filled with conspiracies, double crosses, revealed identities and hidden motives, flying bullets, epic car chases and crashes, escapes, reunions. And all the while, Weston desperately tries to stay one-step ahead of the enigmatically brilliant Tobin Frost, while also holding onto his integrity and innocence in an increasingly dark and ethically murky world.
Where “Safe House” could have and should have been an intricately designed and executed pulse pounder fueled by terrific performances, what we actually end up with is an unfortunately  ho-hum, pedestrian, assembly line feature filled to the very top with stock characters, clichéd dialogue, unimaginative action sequences and beyond obvious villains and duplicities. It is yet another Hollywood features that offers an immense amount of sound and fury but the result is tiresome and surprisingly boring.

“Safe House” is essentially nothing more a mishmash. It is a film made from the spare parts of other, and in some cases, better films from Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day” (2001), a number of Tony Scott’s films, a dash of Hannibal Lecter here and a walloping amount of the Jason Bourne films there. Now, this would be all fine and dandy if Espinosa had made any conceivable attempt to ensure that “Safe House” became a fresh and invigorating experience that could confidently stand upon its own cinematic feet. Sadly, it did not. 

Of course, I am not against the idea of recycling familiar material and thematic concepts. In regards to the action thriller, just look at films like Joe Wright’s “Hanna” and especially Brad Bird's superior sequel “Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol” from last year and see how inventive and creative those films were. Or how about Josh Trank’s “Chronicle,” which took very familiar elements from comic book and science fiction and merged them all into a uniquely resonant whole. Or most smashingly, look at the works of Quentin Tarantino who, above most filmmakers working today, knows how to take cinematic archetypes and genres and spin them in a way where they become uniquely “Tarantino-ian”! None of that originality and flat out sense of fun is to be found within even one scene of “Safe House.”

While it is competently made and Epinosa shows that he indeed has some skill with piecing an action thriller together, I really hated his usage of the dreaded shaky-cam and chop-socky editing techniques, which was just so irritating and did nothing to provide any sense of adrenaline to the proceedings as the action was so difficult to follow. And even worse, the acting talents of no less than Brendon Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Ruben Blades and Robert Patrick are all wasted in tiny, underwritten roles. Like I have often said, if you are lucky enough to have actors of that caliber in your film, then give them something to do!!

Even from a pure storytelling standpoint, “Safe House” falls, time and again, into laughable territory. While Ryan Reynolds gives it all he’s got as Matt Weston’s emerging action hero, he is undone by the hackneyed screenplay by having him exist as so unconvincingly innocent, naïve and crucially untested yet, he is somehow able to spring into action and drive a getaway car with the skill of the most seasoned stuntman, while also being choked from behind! Also, once Weston has Tobin Frost in his custody, it was improbable to me, to say the least, why he would allow a man so dangerous to have steering control of any vehicles they tended to share throughout the film.

Every time Frost escapes from Weston or any other pursuers, there just conveniently happens to be a massive 99% VS. 1% protest march to hide inside of. Or how about a well-populated match at a soccer stadium for that matter? It seemed as if anyone just closed their eyes to blink, frost escaped again and we are to believe that it is because he is a criminal genius and not because his captors are just not very observant or that the screenplay just dictated what is supposed to happen and we should just accept it all at face value. The suspension of disbelief factor was not in evidence.

Now perhaps it could be argued that “Safe House” was trying to delve a tad deeper by being a two-character piece that explores the inner lives of these two men as the film illustrates how one can become compromised and lose oneself in the uncompromising industry of spies and government secret intelligence. But, that is a huge stretch to take for a movie that is missing several brain cells.

And then, there is the issue of Denzel Washington, who deserves to be in films that are nothing less that the best of the best. While his acting abilities remain supremely intact in “Safe House,” and he again shows us how effortlessly he can slide from dapper elegance to menacing fury on a dime, for me, there was the sinking feeling that we have seen all of this before and much better. Just take some time and really think about his films in recent years. I loathed the ridiculous “The Book Of Eli” (2010) and his collaborations with Tony Scott, which include “Déjà Vu” (2006), “The Taking Of Pelham 1,2,3” (2009) and “Unstoppable” (2010) were all lackluster and only “Man On Fire” (2004) showed both men working in peak form. Even Ridley Scott’s crime epic “American Gangster” (2007) contained nothing but Washington’s greatest hits instead of a full, rich performance of the level we know he can deliver.  

Basically, Denzel Washington has delivered one populist action piece after another and “Safe House” felt to be more of the same dull pap with Washington’s trademark Cheshire cat grin and nuclear charisma at the core. But, this time it all increasingly felt to be presented with a “Yeah, I got this!” attitude therefore making “Safe House” nothing more than a sad, paycheck movie.

How sad it would be for all of us if Denzel Washington just showed up for the money in spite of the art. I have not throw in the towel by any means but I have my doubts that he has reached at stage where making movies may not hold for him what it may have in the past. We’ll never know for certain but I do hope that he will knock it out of the park once again. But, for now, “Safe House” just is not that movie by a long shot.   

And besides…when the most intensely felt moment in the entire film was hearing Kanye West and Jay Z’s collaborative “No Church In the Wild” during the film’s closing credits, you know that you’ve been had.  

ASHES TO ASHES: a review of "Prometheus"

Screenplay Written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
Directed by Ridley Scott
**** (four stars)

“Did You make disease and the diamond blue? Did You make mankind after we made You?”
 -XTC ("Dear God")

Leave it to the masters to get the job done!!

“Prometheus,” Director Ridley Scott’s return to the science fiction universe, which he has not visited since “Blade Runner” thirty years ago, is sensational! For all of the ink spilled about whether this film is a prequel or side story set in the universe that gave birth to Scott's “Alien” (1979), I will neither confirm nor deny, as I want for you to head out as soon as you are able and experience this film for yourselves. But I cannot express enough what a hell of an experience “Prometheus” happens to be as this is science fiction performed with a brain, heart, inventiveness, imagination and a feral intensity. While I have not necessarily been eagerly awaiting Scott’s return to outer space, what I have been anxiously awaiting is his return to creating the type of excellent, visionary films that have creatively eluded him in recent years, in my opinion. That said, it is obvious the return to the stars and far away planets has rejuvenated him heroically and most surprisingly, for a film that contains such a bleak and even fatalistic view of humanity and beyond, it is amazing how rapturous the experience actually is.

For the purposes of keeping a conceptually tight lid on the proceedings, I’ll be brief. “Prometheus” is set, very appropriately, near Christmastime in the year 2093. Focusing entirely upon the 17-member crew of the eponymously named spacecraft, we follow the shared scientific journey of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Dr. Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), lovers who seek the answers to our existence but through fundamentally different ideological beliefs as Shaw is driven by her faith while the skeptic Holloway is fueled strictly through science. In addition to Shaw and Holloway are Janek (the smoldering Idris Elba), the ship’s captain, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), the embittered icy corporate suit and David (Michael Fassbender), the ship’s android with his own agenda.

Following a star map made from cave drawing from ancient civilizations, the Prometheus is led to a distant and advanced world hoping to discover our origins but instead find the deadliest threat to humankind of all.

That is actually as far as I feel that I can go with the plot description without producing spoilers. But, I will say this: “Prometheus” is thankfully yet another big budget Hollywood feature released this year that is focused upon story and storytelling, characters and performances, and combined with supremely delivered sound and vision. While the film more than fulfills any sense of scares, thrills and excitement, “Prometheus” is not designed to be a soulless, bludgeoning movie going experience. This film sets out to give you nothing less than awe, and while some of the pieces do not fit together entirely smoothly, the overall effect was blistering and boldly operatic. This particular stylistic tactic feels more than appropriate as Scott and his screenwriters have hefty philosophical issues and debates on their minds from man’s sense of uncontrollable hubris, our simultaneously joyous and terrifying desire for discovery and dead center is an emotional and intellectual war between science and faith. 

In many ways, “Prometheus” reminded me very much of science fiction films from the pre “Star Wars” past, that were devoted to ideas rather than interstellar bombast and to that end, Scott has envisioned an extremely unforgiving existence. For the characters, who are hoping to find a discovery meant to uplift and explain why we exist, Scott counters those sentiments with a cruel world of duplicitousness, destruction, death, and the potential for absolute nothingness after we pass on.

“Prometheus” illustrates a world of unrepentant meaninglessness where in one’s potentially final moments, you can find yourself literally watching your dreams projected upon a video screen while your most horrific nightmares are hunting you down in the flesh. The mass of ironies pile upwards throughout the film, yet wisely, “Prometheus” provides no absolute answers and frankly, how could it really? But, the feverish pursuit of answers is highly effective and deeply compelling and I will offer the following: I did love how “Prometheus” not only shared but merged themes he previously explored in both “Alien” and “Blade Runner” in regards to our relationship with machines and whether machines possess any sense of soul at all.

Yet, for all of the philosophical debates, Scott certainly does not skimp with giving the audience a fantastic post “Star Wars” bang for its collective buck. One sequence, which finds Shaw trapped inside a pod with a nasty invader, is flat out jaw dropping. A battle inside the ship’s loading deck area between crew members is a true pulse pounder. And the film’s mammoth climax shakes the theater valiantly. Ridley Scott executes a first rate production with gorgeous set design, crisp visual design from ace Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, top of the line special effects, and a propulsive music score from Composer Marc Streitenfeld.

The casting, overall, was terrific as well. Theron and Elba made the very most of their archetypal characters and injected true moments of realistic human behavior. Michael Fassbender, as the android David, who fashions himself after Peter O’Toole from David Lean’s “Lawrence Of Arabia” (1962), gives one of the film’s finest performances as his motives are understandable but not always readable. He is sinister yet sympathetic and provides the film’s best counterpoint to the woman of faith, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, as they both show unstoppable survival instincts, for surprisingly similar reasons.   
But the true star of the film is Noomi Rapace and kudos to Ridley Scott for giving her an avenue to show American audiences, who may have not seen her in the original Swedish “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (2009) and it two sequels, what she’s made of. Scott beautifully rights the cinematic wrongs done to Rapace in Guy Ritchie’s underwhelming “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows” (2011), where he had someone as formidable as Rapace relegated to just playing “the girl sidekick.” For “Prometheus,” Rapace is front and center and her performance is a marvel physically and emotionally. This is how you utilize someone of Rapace’s voluminous talents in a film and she shows again that she is a force of nature. Noomi Rapace will blow you over!   

Oh, but enough from me for now. “Prometheus” is the real deal, an awesome roof raising ride into the mouth of Hell. And it was a spectacular reunion for me with the artistic vision of Ridley Scott who has truly not impressed me with a feature since his iconic “Thelma and Louise” (1991). Here, Ridley Scott is ready to shake you up again. To give you even more than you may be expecting. To forge ahead into the darkness completely unafraid and armed with a malevolent grin, testing us to see if we can handle what he’ll dish out for us.

Not only will you be able to handle “Prometheus,” you will most likely ask for seconds!!