Category Archives: Review

Prometheus Review

I have never been as confused by a film as I was after seeing the midnight showing of Prometheus. At first glance, Prometheus seems to be a beautiful film that was ultimately dragged down by a script riddled with plot holes. However, as time wore on (it’s been almost a week since that midnight show), it began to grow on me. After a second viewing in IMAX today, I’m happy to say that my opinion of Prometheus has changed, and that this will be a largely positive review. 

First of all, this is a film linked directly to the Alien franchise both in marketing materials (“Before there was Alien, there was Prometheus“) and creative staff (Director Ridley Scott from Alien and set/creature designer H. R. Giger, whose design for the titular alien may be one of the most recognizable pieces of filmic iconography ever created). As such, the standard Alien-style plot is both expected and granted: a ship full of people plunge into a “research mission” that quickly goes bad, eventually resulting in a lot of deaths and an epic face-off between the monster and the protagonist.

In the case of Prometheus, this plot is used to interrogate the notion of a creator or god as the crew of the eponymous ship travels to a moon with similar traits to our own Earth inhabited by a group of aliens known as “the engineers,” whom one particularly zealous scientist — played by the Swedish Dragon Tattoo‘s Noomi Rapace — believes fashioned us in their own image. Though this may sound contrived and ridiculous, it actually seems to serve quite effectively throughout the film as Rapace’s character finds her faith and personal strength tested.

The visuals in Prometheus are staggering. Though Ridley Scott is known for being a particularly flashy director, he always seems to balance this within good taste, and Prometheus is no different. From the lush blue and green landscapes, falling waterfalls, and dissolving flesh of the opening sequence to the incredibly disturbing scene of emergency surgery (If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about), no visual in Prometheus ever feels out of place, and most frames were so beautifully composed and colored that I would be willing to hang them on a wall as art. Even the 3D, which I usually despise, was so restrained and tasteful that I actually found myself enjoying it and — dare I say it? — becoming excited by the potential advantages that this technology could offer in the future. This has never happened to me in a 3D movie before and is a true testament to Scott’s taste, restraint, and skill. 

The audio work is equally well placed. Headlined by the absolutely phenomenal score by relative newcomer Marc Streitenfeld, no second of sound feels out of place or even generic. Prometheus both looks and sounds
like a more grandiose and sweeping version of Alien, which turns out to be a very appealing package.

The acting is also largely appealing, although some of it is just too good. As is true with almost every film that includes Michael Fassbender (who plays the android David here), there is just no way for the other actors to even come close to matching his performance. Even in this film, playing a character whom Old Man Weyland (Guy Pearce in heavy makeup) describes as soul-less, Fassbender shows more tenderness and internal motivation with his every gesture and statement than most of the actors do in this entire film. Rapace does a fantastic Sigourney Weaver impression that eventually forms into a formidable character and Pearce does a good job of hobbling like an old man in his incredibly brief stint on the screen, but then there’s Charlize Theron. While Fassbender, Pearce, and Rapace are largely authentic and natural in their characters, Theron — who plays the representative of Weyland Corporation — never seems comfortable in her role, hamming up important lines and constantly returning to the same pose like a high school drama student. Putting Theron on the set alongside real actors was a huge mistake.

The other thing that struck me as bothersome the first time I watched Prometheus was the script. Though the dialog was strong and the plot largely seemed to fall in place, there were areas when I didn’t understand a character’s motivations or why their actions resulted in a certain phenomenon. However, these didn’t seem to be a problem the second time through. Perhaps having the knowledge of all the twists and turns that were coming in the film gave me greater perspective in the characters’ individual narratives. Unfortunately, most people will only view the film once, and — unlike a David Lynch or Richard Kelly film — Prometheus didn’t appear to be trying to be confusing, it just was. This is a real problem and I hope it can be fixed in a future director’s cut or extended edition.

Ultimately, the script problems and Theron’s acting just can’t bring this film down. This is a great film that any fan of Science Fiction or Horror should go out and see right away.

I give Prometheus a 4.5/5.


Donnie Darko

For a while now, I have been wondering if there was a younger director willing to take up David Lynch’s legacy of the intellectual, mind-bending, and ambiguous thriller and create something truly ready for the twenty-first century. With Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly asserts himself as not only a likely candidate for the title, but an extremely capable one.

In Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the eponymous character, who is continually confronted by a six-foot rabbit whom only he can see. As they begin to develop a relationship, strange things start happening. Soon enough, Frank (yes, the rabbit is named Frank) is telling Donnie about the impending end of the world. 

Since the thrill of this film is largely plot-based, I shan’t continue to discuss the plot. Instead, I’ll focus on some of the more literal elements of the film.

The acting here is very impressive. Even Mr. Gyllenhaal, who often fills me with intense dislike when he is present on screen (Source Code being the other notable exception), seemed to be perfectly suited for his part. His eerie, probing eyes and intensely teenaged attitude created a definitive portrait of angst and intrigue. Less surprisingly, Mary McDonnell, an actress who has blown me away in the past with her work as the president in the Battlestar Galactica reboot and — ironically enough — the first lady in disaster film kingpin Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, puts on an incredibly touching and nuanced performances as Rose Darko, Donnie’s mother, possibly one of the best movie mothers I have ever seen. Despite her apparent cohesion to the omnipresent teen drama trope of the foolish parent, Rose Darko’s eyes constantly shine with an unmistakable air of understanding, empathy, and love. In a very real sense, Rose Darko reminded me of how wonderful my own mother is for putting up with me for so long.

Kelly isn’t just making this film for the drama, though; comedy abounds in this film, much of it provided by Beth Grant (No Country for Old Men, Little Miss Sunshine), who adds her name to the list of incredible performances in this film with the shockingly genuine Kitty Farmer: parent, health teacher, and creative director for “Sparkle Motion,” the amusingly lusty dance troupe where Donnie’s little sister plays a starring role. While the dance troupe hits tip top and gets invited onto a national talk show, Kitty’s favorite public speaker Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze, who is also great here) gets arrested for his “kiddie porn dungeon,” leading to an incredibly amusing and awkward encounter between the two acting powerhouses of the film as Kitty must ask Rose to attend the talk show in her stead:

This quirky sense of humor fuses with the dreamlike and creepy narrative in a unique and thrilling fashion, creating a vibrant and vivacious tone unlike any film I have ever seen; though the strategy employed here seems to be that staple of the “slow burn,” the humor breaks this up so well that you don’t realize you are being towed along until the Halloween party (naturally) near the end, when it suddenly becomes clear: the seeds of suspense were being planted all along. Like in his significantly less popular and significantly more expensive Action/Disaster/Comedy film Southland Tales, Kelly also makes good use of popular music to create his tone. Most notably, the popular cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” was composed for this film. Its haunting minimalism creates the perfect tone for the montage it supports near the end of the film. 

There’s so much more to be said about this film, like the fact that Richard Kelly’s prior life as a literary analyst of early postmodernist Graham Greene’s works is on display here, but I just don’t have the time or space. I plan on revisiting this film many times, though, so I may go into more detail about this in the future. 

There are two cuts of this film, one released in 2001 as simply Donnie Darko (this one runs 113 minutes), and Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut, a 123 minute long version released in 2004. This “director’s cut” includes additional film , but most of those extra ten minutes are dominated by the addition of visual effects showing pages out of a book which Donnie finds, further explaining his predicament. Though many people complained that the original cut was too ambiguous, I found that ambiguity refreshing and poweful, very much in the vein of David Lynch’s ambiguous thrillers. Don’t get me wrong: this film is still a thinker regardless of which edition you watch; you can just expect to come up with a much more grounded explanation for the events of the film if you watch the “director’s cut.”

I give Donnie Darko a 5/5 and Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut a 4.5/5. 

Melancholia (2011) Review

Sometimes, I come across a film that is so amazing that it totally redefines what I think is possible in the medium of cinema and threatens to totally change everything about the way I view the world. Melancholia was one of those films. 

In Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst gives an incredible and hopefully career-defining performance as Justine, a woman who suffers from terrible, numbing depression (also known as melancholia — see what he does there?).  

Throughout the first of two specially delineated acts of the film, Writer-Director Lars von Trier (Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark, The Idiots) seems to return to his former self, constructing a complex — but occasionally humorous — drama a lá The Idiots as Justine completely ruins her wedding (and marriage) because of her depression. Though I found this half refreshingly real, raw and biting, it was an enormous surprise to see this kind of film from von Trier, who has certainly transformed

The second part of the film is more like what I had expected going in to this film. Having completely lost all sense of hope and self esteem on her wedding night, the bereaved Dunst moves in with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her family. While father (Keifer Sutherland) and son (Cameron Spurr, who is adorable!) delightedly prepare for the upcoming fly-by of the rogue planet Melancholia (see what he did there?), Justine and Claire seem to share the belief that Melancholia is on a direct collision course with earth. In this shared fear of inevitable apocalypse, we see some of the most beautiful and complex sibling interaction that I think has ever been placed onto film. 

Despite all their differences, Melancholia and its sibling motion picture Antichrist share many elements. Both deal deeply with issue of shame, guilt, grace, and depression. Von Trier has said that Melancholia was an investigation of his battle with depression during the writing and filming of Antichrist, so these connections make a lot of sense. They both heavily feature one form of apocalypse or earthly annihilation, and they both use a slow-motion montage set to classical music as their beginning (Antichrist uses Handel; Melancholia uses Wagner).

Antichrist and Melancholia were also both filmed digitally, and you can tell. However, let me make myself clear: when I am saying this, it is NOT an insult. The Social Network, Take Shelter, Antichrist, Melancholia and many others share a particular look and feel that seems to be unique to digital. I can’t put my finger on what it is (I have an inkling suspicion it has to do with exaggerated color depth), but I love it and think it’s beautiful. If I ever get around to making a feature length motion picture, this is definitely an aesthetic which I want to recreate.

Though von Trier clearly intended Melancholia to be viewed in one sitting, I just couldn’t do it. The first part was so heavy that I felt compelled to take a ten minute intermission and then return. Personally, I don’t believe that this hindered the film’s ability to connect with me, but you can feel free to disagre in the comments.

Overall, I believe that Melancholia is a must-see. It’s one of the best films of 2011.

I give Melancholia a 5/5.

Immortals (2011) Review

This review is definitely behind schedule, but I have a good excuse: the movie was completely perplexing to me. I needed time to process it and understand the situation. Quite frankly, I still don’t understand why anyone would produce this schlock.

There’s a plot here somewhere (something about John Hurt being Zeus), but I quite frankly don’t think it remotely matters. The movie is really a series of cringe-worthy torture scenes and ridiculous action sequences strung together.

What seems to be emphasized in this film are the visuals. Unfortunately, this is like putting an empty picture frame on an entirely empty white wall: it highlights an enormous void. 

There are plenty of films that work with little to no plot. The first part in the Kill Bill saga has almost no plot and is entirely made up of action, but the action and visuals are so interesting and entertaining that they make up for this lack of story. In Immortals, the visuals are entirely unfulfilling and depressingly boring.

The first thing I noticed when I fired up this movie was the fact that, as opposed to most action films, or, for that matter, most modern films in general, Immortals isn’t shot in the 2.35:1 (Anamorphic) aspect ratio, but the 1.85:1 aspect ratio of a typical high definition television. Though this seems like a stupid nitpick and it’s certainly not something I would complain about from a film made before 2000, it seems to be symptomatic of a larger problem with this film’s cinematography at large.

Immortals seems to have been filmed as if it were a prime-time broadcast television show, and this is definitely not a compliment. Every shot seems to have been carefully formed by some sort of unintelligent robot sitting in as the Director of Photography. Sorry, Mr. Galvin, but you appear to be shit at your job. Everything interesting is centered instead of put on a third line, the dialogue is filmed in confusing and convention-violating manner, and scenes when there is both water and land seem to always orient themselves in a certain direction so that the water is on the right. These weird visual quirks single-handedly seem to suck all interest out of the visuals. 

There is a lot of interesting CGI and color correction work layered on top of this poor cinematography, but the old adage about polishing a turd comes to mind. Everything you do on top of this cinematography only highlights how painfully boring it is.

I haven’t even begun to talk about the action sequences, which seem to take up the vast majority of this film. Instead of simply showing us fighting, director Tarsem Singh seems to be obsessed with slowing down and speeding up the action as if he’s just playing back a video tape. This is not only annoying, but it actually makes some of the action nearly impossible to comprehend. These action sequences also seem to last forever. I can’t stand action sequences that are either poorly filmed and edited or self-indulgent, and these seem to be both.

To his credit, Henry Cavill seems to make it through this film with a straight face, which is better than I could do. If I were cast in this film, I would be laughing at Singh and the screenwriters all the way through.

My bottom line: if you want to see a movie about Greek people fighting, go watch 300. It sure isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than this.

I give Immortals a 1/5.

The Skulls (2000) Review

Sometimes, I come across a movie that has such a terrible script, I can’t help but wonder why on earth it ever got made. The Skulls is one of these movies. 

In The Skulls, Joshua Jackson (of Fringe fame) stars as Luke McNamara, a Yale student hard up for cash. When he’s inducted into the local secret society, The Skulls, life seems to take a turn for the better — at least until his best friend (Hill Harper) commits suicide after snooping around The Skulls’ inner sanctum.

If you think this sounds familiar, you’re right. Essentially, The Skulls is a bad rip-off of The Firm. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Firm (I felt it was far inferior to the book), but I would watch it a hundred times before I subjected myself to this tripe again.

The largest problem with this movie is the writing. It’s on-the-nose and stilted. Nothing ever seems to happen naturally. What’s more, things in the script just don’t seem to make sense. Despite the fact that The Skulls are a “secret society,” everybody knows who they are, where they are, and the organization’s history. Emotions change without warning. One moment, the characters are having a polite civilized conversation, then the next someone is storming out of the room. Since the writer, John Pogue, is best known for Rollerball, I  didn’t go in expecting David Mamet, but I definitely didn’t go in expecting this.

Even more ridiculous than the writing is the “clubhouse” that The Skulls call home. Enormous, painfully obvious to the rest of the campus (again, what kind of secret society announces their existence?), and decked out with everything from Indiana Jones-style stone slab doors to enormous chambers made entirely of travertine marble to complex theatre lighting rigs and laser light shows that seem to have been perfectly focused for every event that takes place, even the unexpected ones. Oh – and they have a neon green glowing crystal skull.

The technology in this movie is atrocious. I know it’s only a very small part of the overall movie, but I can’t just let these things go by. The Social Network proved that you could be true to the way technology actually is and still create an interesting movie, so now I expect that same thing from every other movie. Here, they say that a computer is random. The truth, of course, is that it’s just the opposite. Creating a truly random computer is nearly impossible, not automatic. They also do that thing where they “enhance” a surveilance video to get more detail. I die a little every time that happens in a movie.

Though the director, Rob Cohen, cannot be left blameless in the equation that created this piece of garbage, I think that this albatross should be around the neck of Pogue, who — in addition to writing — also produced this monstrosity. My bottom line: just don’t watch this. There are a lot of better movies that cover similar ground.

I give The Skulls a 0.5/5.

Jumper Review

When I went the theatre to see Chronicle, I found myself sitting behind a birthday party full of eleven-year-old kids. Chronicle was definitely not their kind of film; it’s mature and complex, dealing with the true ethical issues behind becoming a “superhero,” someone with paranormal powers and ending in one of the most tragic and depressing action sequences in recent memory. It was great, but not a film for an eleven-year-old boy and a half dozen of his closest friends. Exiting the movie theatre, I couldn’t help but imagine how upset the birthday boy’s parents were that they hadn’t previewed the movie beforehand. Chronicle clearly wasn’t their movie, but Jumper would have been. Jumper is, in just about every sense of the word, a prepubescent film.

In Jumper, Hayden Christensen plays David Rice, a boy (and I use that word on purpose) who finds himself imbued with the power to teleport, or “jump” from place to place by simply picturing the place he wants to be. This souds like an awesome concept, and it is. Unfortunately, there is a story to cope with here, and it isn’t good.

We open this movie on a fifteen-year-old version of David, played by Max Theriot, who does some of the best acting in this film. He has a crush on a girl named Millie (AnnaSophia Robb) and tries to give her a present. Unfortunately, the tough jock guy doesn’t want her to have it and throws it onto a frozen river. In classic film trope form, David falls into the frozen river trying to retrieve it, and somehow manages to teleport himself into the middle of the local public library. 

For the next fifteen minutes after these initial scene, this movie is an awesome ride. We watch as David escapes his callous and alcoholic father (Michael Rooker), travels cross-country, rents an apartment, robs a couple banks via teleportation (which has got to be the coolest way to rob a bank that I’ve ever heard of), and starts a life on his own. At this point, I was excited by the prospects this film had to offer. It was fun and, while all of David’s actions seemed incredibly childish, I had never seen any movie quite like this. 

Then, suddenly, twenty minutes into the movie, everything changes. The last title card (“Directed by Doug Liman”) shows (Why do these titles take fifteen minutes?), we’re transported eight years into the future, Theriot is replaced by the far less charismatic Hayden Christensen, and the movie gets really crappy.

Samuel L. Jackson shows up as the leader of a group of people who call themselves the Paladins. As he explains in his long dull opening monologue, the Paladins seem to believe that “only god should be in all places at once,” thus they’re trying to kill all the Jumpers. Jackson’s character finds David, and a typical cat-and-mouse game begins as the Paladins try to track down him and Millie (now played by Rachel Bilson), whom David inexplicably decides to drag into this mess. Another Jumper named Griffin (Jamie Bell) is introduced, although I’m not quite sure why. We travel around the world, and finally, we find ourselves in that inevitable epic battle scene between Jackson and Christensen. This plot makes no sense.

But it’s not just the plot that’s messed up. The characters are stupid too. If you’ll recall, I called David a “boy.” There’s a reason for this. Even in this “eight years later” future, he acts like a fifteen-year-old. Instead of leveraging his powers for socially responsible and interesting behaviors, David chooses to mess around with them, going surfing in Fiji, eating picnics on top of the Sphinx, and chilling next to the clock face on Big Ben. These are not mature or responsible behaviors. In fact, I’d like to think that they’re nowhere close to what a sound-minded twenty-three-year-old would do with his time.

David is even presented with an obvious opportunity for heroics. As he prepares for his day of fun, the news on the TV tells him about a tragic flood that has left people stranded on their roofs. All he would have to do would be to teleport there, then teleport to dry land with those people, a five minute job, and he could have saved lives. Instead, he goes surfing. 

All this said, the plot and characters aren’t the only things worthy of blame here. It seems like everyone involved in this film knew going in that it was going to be terrible, and as a result decided to phone it in. Even the great actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Rooker didn’t seem remotely interested in the movie. Their characters were flat and unmotivated. Visual Effects, usually the highlight of a film like this, also didn’t seem up to snuff. In scenes where actors teleported, I could often either see bits of a blue or green screen showing through their costumes or find that whole chunks of them just didn’t appear, the results of under- and over-zealous compositing, respectively. And for a movie about someone capable of traveling wherever he wants, we only seemed to visit a couple of different locations, as if nobody wanted to buy more stock footage. 

Overall, this film was a huge disappointment. I have typically been fond of Director Doug Liman‘s works in the genre of action, but this is just plain lackluster. 

I give it a 2/5.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes Review

This is a review prior to my project. It is provided here for archival purposes only.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes was, for a time, one of the most highly anticipated horror film releases of the year 2006. As it made a limited festival run at the big names (primarily Tribeca), it gained a small, eager following. After Tribeca, MGM acquired the film and planned for its release. However, as we know, MGM shortly after hit money troubles and the planned re-shoot of several major scenes was cancelled, making the film a lame duck in MGM’s catalog and causing an indefinite release delay. After four years, of sitting around, the original screener cut was given a limited theatrical release then shelved again. A DVD has been promised, but not delivered. I lost patience. My review here is, thus, not based on any official DVD, but a screener copy that I downloaded off of BitTorrent.

The plot of The Poughkeepsie Tapes centers around the idea of a serial killer who spent more than fifteen years active in the Poughkeepsie and Putnam counties in New York. After years of hunting, the FBI has finally caught a break when an IP-address trace on some of the killer’s internet activity provides them with a street address. The arrive at the home, bash in the door with SWAT Team members, and discover the house to be empty except for three things: cadavers in the backyard, a barely breathing past victim, and thousands of home-recorded VHS tapes depicting his crimes. These tapes become the basis of the film. Unlike most found footage films, however, The Poughkeepsie Tapescontinues to frame these tapes with narration and interviews from the various parties involved. This is, at heart, a deeply disturbing horror mockumentary.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes was directed by John Erick Dowdle (Quarantine, Devil, Quarantine 2: Terminal). He shows surprising agility and aptitude with storytelling and scare-delivery. There were no cheap “jump out of your seat” moments in this film. Instead, it relies on steady, building tension throughout the film. The collaborative script written by him and his brother, Drew Dowdle, creates the necessary atmosphere and only feel stilted once during the film. The quality of film wasn’t good, but in a mockumentary / found footage film, this was excusable.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a unique, riveting film about a truly terrifying idea. If you can stomach it, check it out.

I give it a 4/5.