Prometheus

Prometheus (2012), directed by Ridley Scott

I have so much to say about Prometheus, and yet, at the same time, really I have no idea what to say.

Let’s start with the experience of seeing it. This is the first film I have ever seen in IMAX 3D. There is only one word for it: intense. I saw Piranha 3DD in Real 3D last week and even though I realize they are two vastly different films in terms of budget and care and attention, I thought Piranha looked like hell. Prometheus on the other hand looked amazing and almost (almost) made we want to take back everything I’ve ever questioned about 3D.

It just sucks you in. Everything is so clear, and so…well, three dimensional. Normally I avoid the 3D because I find most modern action films chaotic and sensory assaultive enough without the added stimulation of 3D. I know, I know, my friends call me Old Man Wells for a reason. But for Prometheus, which is well paced, thoughtful and yet still packed with incredible special effects, the 3D really blew me away.

I came to Prometheus a mid-level Alien franchise fan. I have seen them all (except the vs. Predator films because…come on) but Aliens more than any other, and not for many years in the case of Alien. I re-watched it after seeing Prometheus though (it’s amazing). I adore the first two films, and Ridley Scott as a sci-fi director in general (Blade Runner ftw), and was incredibly excited about Prometheus for both reasons.

For those who didn’t follow it, they (the Hollywood gods) have been talking about doing another Alien film for years. Both Scott and Aliens director James Cameron worked on ideas. Eventually Scott got the green light for this one but the question was, how related to Alien would it be? Would we see a xenomorph (a fan name for the alien)? Would Ripley be mentioned in it? Does it tell the story of the “space jockey” found in Alien? Dammit Ridley, tell us!

Well now we have it and now we know. Sort of. This will inevitably have spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want it ruined, don’t read past the sentence after this one. Just know that it is a hell of a watch and even though it’s imperfect, I really have to say what an intense and amazing experience it was to watch.

Moving on, the film, although definitely related, is incredibly different than the other Alien films. I mean, on one hand it’s not, because it’s about a spacecraft full of people who go to check something out on a far away planet and end up getting in over there heads with extraterrestrial life forms that want to kill them. So that’s familiar territory. But Prometheus goes so much further.

While Alien is probably the best haunted house movie ever made, and Aliens is easily the best sci-fi action film ever made, Prometheus shoots for a more theological, philosophical highroad, making it far more complex and rich, but also a little more convoluted in purpose. While certainly no B-movie, I like the kind of fundamental storytelling approach of the original two films. They’re pretty clear in what they’re out to accomplish, and they do so incredibly well.

Prometheus is a little more murky and at times too ambitious for it’s own good. It has that same kind of need to explain everything to the power of whatever that ruined Cabin in the Woods. Prometheus is about gods and man and evolution and creationism and the meaning of life. While Alien hinted at that stuff, especially with Ash’s speech on the xenomorph being a perfect life-form (“unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”), Prometheus takes it straight on, complete with religious imagery and big-picture questions.

It’s also a little busy and complicated for its own good, and creates a great more many questions than answers.

Even just in terms of logistics. I mean, you have the oil ooze stuff, which evolves into facehugger like creatures, but at the same time, when ingested, takes over the host entirely and has the potential to make a person into a rampaging zombie. I didn’t quite get that. And how did he impregnate Shaw with a facehugger without her getting sick like he did? How did it get in his semen but not in her blood? I didn’t understand the physiology of that one.

And why did Shaw give birth to a facehugger? Don’t they come from eggs? And how come it grew so big? Or was it an evolving queen? It seemed like a two step process (egg to facehugger to xenomorph) got turned into a three step process (oil to impregnation to facehugger to xenomorph). I’m sure this is all stuff that Alien nerds (which I am apparently becoming one of) can debate endlessly. I’d welcome any thoughts from y’all. Is Shaw acting as the egg? Maybe that’s it.

Also it raises a bunch of questions about the origin of mankind. You know. That stuff.

Its complexity, and even confusion, though attests to its intention, which is to create a sci-fi epic that inspires what space has always inspired in us: questions of the origins of life and our place in the universe. And of course, terror. After all, in space no one can hear you scream. At times magnificent, at others terrifying and bleak, Prometheus is an incredible film to behold, even if difficult to fully understand. I felt as I left the theatre that I had had an experience, rather than just watched a movie.

And hey, do go back and watch the original Alien films, or at least the first two. I mean, good Lord are they ever good.

Prometheus is in theatres now.

Haywire

Haywire (2012), directed by Steven Soderbergh

Now this is my kind of action movie, I have to say. People have been going ballistic over The Raid: Redemption this year, and while I sort of get why (sort of) I’ll take a stylish, tense, slick film like Haywire over the balls-to-the-wall insanity of The Raid any day. Straight up.

Haywire is a fabulous action movie. It’s got this great combination of an international spy thriller, but mixed with genuinely impressive hand-to-hand fight sequences and thrilling chase scenes. It’s moody and tense but knows how to amp it up when needed.

Helping “amp it up” is its star Gina Carano, who is a former MMA champion. She kicks ass. She has great screen presence and is extremely deadly. There has been admission that her voice was altered post-production to make up for somewhat stiff delivery of dialogue, but that’s not noticeable in the film and her deadpan style fits the material. She’s a no-nonsense, deadly serious, kicking ass, taking names dynamo.

Soderbergh likes to take risks on unknown actors, or more specifically, people who aren’t actors. He got a great performance out of former porn superstar Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, and non-actors in Bubble. Those choices worked out there, and they work out here too, with Carano playing Mallory, a gun for hire. Carano isn’t some actress pretending to be hardcore, she is hardcore. She could beat the living hell out of any of us, and that really shines through.

Being surrounded by some of the best of the business helps. Along with Carano the film features Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender. It’s like a who’s who of modern male actors. And Soderberg turns them, especially Fassbender and McGregor, into action stars.

The fight sequences are fantastic. They are well shot, avoiding that post-action, motion sickness, handheld thing that is all the rage. You can actually tell what is happening in the fight scenes, and can appreciate the complexity and execution of the choreography. And they’re thrilling, and have that match-up feel to them. Who wouldn’t want to see Fassbender fight an MMA star? I mean, really.

I also like how Soderbergh approached the kick-ass woman action genre. I like exploitation films with sexy girls with guns, I admit it. Obviously I don’t dig them if they’re overtly sexist, but, although I’m sure many would disagree, there’s an empowering aspect to them. But I also appreciate this approach. Carano is obviously gorgeous, and quite curvy, something that could have been easily exploited. But Soderbergh takes the high-road and just lets her be her character, not some sexpot for the male viewer’s enjoyment.

The best line in the film is when McGregor’s character tells a would-be assassin that he shouldn’t think of Mallory as a woman. That would be a mistake. I like that, and it characterizes how the film approaches that tricky bit of business. Not that thinking of her as a woman is a bad thing, but the line means that you shouldn’t think of her as being weak (as a “woman” in an action film typically is). Because she is anything but weak and the film treats her with the same respect as any of her male costars.

Let’s talk about Steven Soderbergh. My approach to film, and directors in particular, is a little heavy on the auteur side at times. This means that I follow certain directors and enjoy learning their style, their themes, their tell-tale trademarks. I totally believe in it, but sometimes it means that amazing directors have trouble getting on my radar if they happen to have an eclectic approach to their films.

So i want to rectify this now and say that Steven Soderbergh is really one of the best directors of the last twenty years, even if I haven’t really noticed. I haven’t noticed because the guy can do everything.

Really, I mean look back on his career. He basically started the early 1990s indie film wave with Sex, Lies and Videotape, his first movie. He’s directed cult classics like Out of Sight and The Limey. Into impressive, edgy art films? Well, there’s Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. How about an Oscar-bait films? There’s Traffic and Erin Brokovich. Or maybe you’re up for a huge, profitable Hollywood film. Well, he’s got you there too with the Ocean’s Eleven series and Contagion.

When you look at that list of films it’s hard not to be blown away by what this man has achieved. I think Traffic is an absolute masterpiece, and Bubble is one the best small indie films of the past decade. Seriously, check it out if you haven’t seen it. And who can resist Out of Sight, or even Ocean’s Eleven. I could have done without Oceans Thirteen, but they can’t all be home runs.

And now he’s made a top-notch action film. I’d highly recommend this. It’s a great blend of story, action and impressive performances. It’s slick and action packed but never gratuitously violent or sadistic. Just like it’s main character it kicks some major ass but with style and grace.

Haywire is avialable on DVD and Blu-ray.

Shame

Shame (2011), directed by Steve McQueen

I think we’ve found a great new voice in cinema with Steve McQueen. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it when he used to jump over stuff on motorcycles and get into car chases, but as a director he’s really shining. Sorry, what? Different guy? Oh, this is an old joke? Not funny? Okay, let’s move on.

This Steve McQueen is a UK director who in this film, along with his debut Hunger, is proving himself to have an amazing sense of character, tone and cinema. Hunger, a rather abstract film about a hunger strike by a group of Irish prisoners in protest of English rule, not only heralded the arrival of Michael Fassbender as a great contemporary actor, but introduced us to a director poised to take over where past explorers of human extremes, such as Scorsese and Schrader, have left off.

He also seems to have a thing for one word titles. Just saying. And very serious films. Maybe his next one should be a comedy entitled Humour.

Shame has more of a linear, move-it-along type pace then Hunger but is equally as powerful and, ultimately, more accessible. If you don’t mind some on-the-verge-of-hardcore sex. Then again it’s trailer makes it look like the creepiest Woody Allen movie ever made, for what that’s worth.

The film is about sexual addiction, which is a bit of a hot topic these days and even still up for debate over whether it’s a real thing or not. I wasn’t sure what to expect the character of Brandon (Fassbender) to be like, but if there is such a thing as a sex addict, it’s this guy.

I won’t get into summarizing how deep in this guy is, because I try to avoid summary in my reviews, but let’s just say there is no rock unturned.

And it’s not the sex itself that’s the problem. I’m in that sex-positive bandwagon. You’re adults, you agree on what you’re doing, you’re not hurting anyone else…go to it. But the thing is that for Brandon it’s not even about the sex. It’s about escape, about running from the anger, the despair, the depression that is obviously at the core of his being. This is a deeply disturbed man who uses orgasms as his means of escaping himself.

Oh, and he breaks that first set of rules by hurting other people. He’s a total jerk. That’s about the nicest way I can put it.

The essential plot point is having his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) come visit. She isn’t there to be a positive influence or to even shake him out of his sex-filled haze. She is as screwed up as he is, it just comes out in different ways.

Her presence and their interaction is a great way of divulging just how messed up their childhood must have been. That they are so comfortable naked around each other, and have such thick layer of sexuality that exists between them, is both incredibly uncomfortable to watch and confirmation that Brandon is not just a normal person gone wrong. There is something deep and dark within him that marks his every moment.

And we see this. Brandon isn’t dressed up as some Alex, Clockwork Orange type character who revels in his depravity. This is a deeply unhappy, lonely, angry man. He never laughs during sex, never cares about who he is with. He uses people, but he also uses himself, his body, as a way of avoiding anything even remotely related to feeling. And when he does meet someone he likes he can’t perform.

If you’ll excuse the pun, there’s no shame in Fassbender’s performance. He’s a great actor because he does not hold back. His intensity as Bobby Sands in Hunger was something to behold, and here again he inhabits this deplorable character in such an entire manner that it can be truly frightening to watch.

So here’s the deal, Shame is a hard watch, but it’s a rich and fascinating one. It’s rich for the performances and the directing, but also for its portrait of the dark side of human sexuality. Sex is complicated, we all know that. But if it wasn’t, if it was purely functional, as Brandon treats it, it would be horrendously boring and unfulfiling. And if it was purely loving it wouldn’t spawn interesting films like Shame.

In the end Brandon can’t treat sex as purely functional. It catches up with him. Life and despair and feelings catch up with him. We see the years of built up torment come through. Is he a changed man? I think so. The illusion is broken. While he might still carry on his evil ways he will not find the same dark distraction in them. Maybe something worse is on the horizon, or maybe he will grow. That’s hard to say. But his addiction, like all others, is not sustainable. It has a bottom. He has found it.

Shame is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011), directed by David Cronenberg

Somewhere around the early 2000s David Cronenberg must have decided it was time for a change of pace. After a quarter century of directing some of the most creepy and challenging psych-horror movies ever made, that typically revolved around external manifestations of internal strife, David (do you mind if I call him David?) decided to go to the source.

It started with Spider (2002), in which, unlike other Cronenberg features, it turned out the guy actually was crazy. Then came the masterpiece A History of Violence (2005), where average man Tom Stall turned out to be hiding a violent and psychotic past. Now we have A Dangerous Method which is just straight up academic psychology. And a lot of letter reading.

I guess it makes sense but it seems as Cronenberg moves forward he is more interested in the core of things. I don’t think this is a conscious choice or that he is on some personal quest to discover the key to human psychology, but his choices lately do suggest a change of pace. I didn’t see a single gun coming out of a stomach vagina in this movie. What up with that?

A Dangerous Method is the story of the relationship between three of the pioneering psychologists at the turn of the 20th century. Two of them we’ve all heard of (Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud) and the other mostly nobody has heard of (Sabina Spielrein). Viggo Mortensen plays the father figure Freud, Michael Fassbender plays the young Jung (ha!) and, in a surprisingly brave performance, Keira Knightley plays Spielrein.

The film is about Jung and Freud’s professional relationship and Jung and Spielrein’s personal, albeit somewhat academic, relationship. She comes to Jung as a tortured young woman, contorting her body uncontrollably and acting stark raving mad. He decides to employ a revolutionary new tactic: he talks to her. Turns out her father beat her and this excited her sexually and now she is paralyzed by feelings of guilt and shame.

Jung helps her get over this by spanking her, naturally. It’s not quite that simple of course but they do engage in a power play relationship, which helps her to normalize her desires and function as a regular person.

For a film so devoted to sex there is little of it, just to warn you. A couple scenes of spanking and Vincent Cassel feeling up a nurse are about it. The rest is a lot of talking, which is appropriate. And letter writing. Jung talks to Spielrein and then to Freud. Spielrein writes a letter to Freud. Freud writes a letter to Jung about Spielrein’s letter. Spielrein talks to Jung, asking him to write a letter to Freud. He does and then Freud writes back. They sail to America and talk on the way. You get the picture.

If you’re studying psychology or are particularly drawn to its origins then this might be the film for you. I’m sure this says a lot about the relationship between academics and “real life”. For everyone else, quite honestly, it will be a little boring. And that’s not something you often hear me say. I like slow movies. This perhaps is a bit much.

There are many things to like about A Dangerous Method. The acting is fabulous, especially Fassbender, who I am liking more and more with every film I see him in. Also, in a surprising turn of events, I quite liked Knightley here. Normally I find her performances shallow and dull, but she really pulled out all the stops to play this complicated woman and not have her come off as some sort of sexy, objectified character. She comes off as a person and that must be hard to do in a film that revolves around you getting spanked.

Still, that being said, even at just over an hour and a half the film is a long haul. There are some very interesting ideas and theories being batted around, and it is compelling to see the way that these characters, with such a deep understanding of human drives, interact with each other. It is also at times riveting to see how they develop the theories of human psychology that would come to define the field, as they sort of make it up as they go along. And how their own personalities influence their work.

By the end though I’d had enough. Cronenberg is pretty straight laced in his presentation and there were few visual touches to keep me engaged. His attention to detail is impressive, as is the lighting, but this is a very conventionally filmed period piece that I’m afraid doesn’t have enough going for it in terms of content to support its pace. Not only that, not a single head explodes. I mean come. on.

A Dangerous Method is available on DVD and Blu-ray.