U.S.: Ridley Scott, 2012, 20th Century Fox
Prometheus is Ridley Scott's first science fiction movie since Blade Runner three decades ago, and a prequel of sorts to his first science fiction picture, Alien (1979) -- and it shows how much the genre has missed him. It's a stunner -- a space epic that truly has an epic feel, a horror movie that's really horrifying, a science fiction show that doesn't skimp on either the science (or pseudo-science) or the fiction -- and an action film that's just as good or better between the action scenes. It's a movie with good actors (Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce) playing sometimes juicy roles with smarter-than-usual dialogue.
On a technical/visual level this movie is a knockout. Scott and company transport us to another fantastical world of wonders and amazements: a distant barren, desert-like moon where, somehow, life on Earth may have begun, and where, for some of the characters in Prometheus, it will almost certainly end.
Scott's new movie is extremely violent, and the last half (if not the first) is full of the body-ripping, stomach-heaving, jump-out-of-John-Hurt shock scenes that were the hallmarks of the whole Alien series. Prometheus supposedly shows you what happens before the rocky voyage of the Nostromo, and it takes place mostly in 2093 -- after one scene in unrecorded pre-history, and another in 2089. And it's about a voyage undertaken under the auspices of departed (but present through digital recording) zillionaire/philosopher/entrepreneur Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, under tons of latex) to travel to a distant moon where the mysteries of the universe may be unraveled.
The prehistorical scene shows a mysterious silver man-like being poisoned by a blackish liquid and expiring to bits in a vast waterfall, scattering his DNA to the winds of Earth. The 2089 follow-up shows Shaw and others musing over cave drawings or ancient space maps or pictograms that all seemingly point to one place, the moon to which the ship Prometheus is now headed.
Aboard, and blissfully unaware of the troubles ahead -- is a team that includes Noomi Rapace as religious explorer Elizabeth Shaw, Shaw's love interest and fellow explorer Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), the hard-ass boss of the expedition Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), cool Captain Janek (Idris Elba, in a very keen performance), doofus geologists Fifield and Milburn (Sean Harris and Rafe Spall), stalwart crew guy Ravel (Benedict Wong), and others, notably Michael Fassbender as blue-eyed David.
What lies in store for this bunch are a barren landscape that resembles Monument Valley after a blitz, and the remnants of the lost humanoid civilization they're seeking -- beings called Engineers whose DNA perfectly matches ours, and whose cave-dwellings and conference rooms and tombs are gorgeous and Giger-like and almost certainly inhabited by something squiggly and alive that means our fellow humans on screen serious harm.
Noomi Rapace burned up the screen as the punk hacker/heroine of the Swedish Steig Larsson Millenium movie trilogy, and her performance here -- committed and passionate and screamingly present -- suggests that it might have been smart to rehire her for the American remakes.
Charlize Theron, as the tough-boss-in-distress, isn't used enough, for my money. And we could use also some more of Idris Elba's cocky hipster captain
But the top player in Prometheus is Fassbender, as the angelic-looking android-robot David. Scott and his writers make David seemingly the most sensitive, humane, caring guy aboard ship, a kind of blue-eyed Gandhi, while Fassbender adds a subtle, slightly mechanical edge that suggests there's really a computer brain inside. There are other levels to the character we discover only gradually.
Prometheus shows why Scott belongs in a small select group of great adult science fiction moviemakers that includes Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, Andrei Tarkovsky. And it shows why it's a happy event that, in his 70s, Scott has resumed work again in the genre he does best.
Rock of Ages (C)
U. S.: Adam Shankman, 2012, Warner Bros.
Rock of Ages is a rock movie for people who still have their old Foreigner and REO Speedwagon album collections intact, but can't really feel the beat. Based on a long-running off-Broadway transplant from Hollywood, it's a show that takes the backstage boy-star meets girl-star plot of the usual '30s Hollywood Warner Brothers musical, resets it on the Sunset Strip in its 1987 glory days, borrows a score from a lot of '80s-or-so rock standard stuff by Foreigner, Journey, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, REO Speedwagon and a number of other bands not on my personal playlist, and has them played and sung by the likes of Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand and other major Hollywood stars, impersonating rock people -- and in most cases, impersonating singers.
The movie, directed by Adam Shankman (of the 2007 Hairspray remake), has as its leads, two actual singers: blonde cutie-pie ingénue Julianne Hough and boy singer Diego Bonata, as Sherrie Christian and Drew Boley, two prospective rockers who work on the Strip as waitpeople at the Bourbon Room (read Whiskey-a-Go-Go).
The other stock types include Stacee Jaxx, the troubled tattooed superstar (Cruise), Dennis Dupree the harassed club owner (Baldwin), Lonny the Bourbon emcee (Brand), Paul Gill the sleazy rock star manager (Paul Giamatti), Patricia Whitmore the bluenose mayor's wife who's trying to shut down the Strip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Malin Akerman as Constance Sack the wise-ass lady reporter (from Rolling Stone). Zeta-Jones and Mary J. Blige (as Justice Charlier, bombshell dancer) have the only good numbers.
Does this sound like something you want to see? Well, knock yourselves out -- but there's something fatally wrong with the whole strategy here. Great movie musicals are built around top-grade exhilarating numbers sung or danced by great singers and/or dancers. And good movies musicals are built on good numbers, etc., etc. Here is a musical with a lot of mediocre, if famous, numbers, sung by famous performers who are mostly professional actors, but non-professional musical performers, apparently having a lark. It's like Celebrity Karaoke, with the stars lip-synching themselves -- when, in most cases, you'd rather they were lip-synching the original bands. Why watch it, or listen to it? Yeah, I know, Mamma Mia sort of clicked, but those are better, more tuneful songs, and Meryl Streep is a better actor. Better singer too. (Extras: featurettes; Def Leppard performing live at the movie premiere.)
Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding (B-)
U.S.: Bruce Beresford, 2011, MPI Home Video
In Peace, Love & Misunderstanding -- a cinematic salute/love ballad to the survivors of the '60s -- Jane Fonda plays Grandma Grace, whom you might describe as a permanent ambassador from Woodstock Nation. A devotee of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll -- as well as peace, love and understanding -- she's still a sexually adventurous old gal who claims she was once in a threesome with Leonard Cohen... and when Fonda says that, you wonder. Grace lives in Woodstock in a combination pot farm and upscale painters studio that looks as if it were designed by somebody famous for somebody like Jane Fonda.
Low-slung, expensive-comfy, colored as exquisitely as a fine art print, and flooded by the sights of greenery and sunlight from outside pouring through the huge windows like a Joni Mitchell sacrament, it's a beautiful place. And Fonda looks beautiful in it, her hair a tawny, gray-tinged Woodstock mass, her face and frame as Fonda-ish as ever, even in her mid-'70s. It's a strange observation to make about somebody from the AARP generation, even if she's a movie actress, but Fonda's bod seems almost as lithe and limber in this movie, and her mood almost as lively and quick, as when she played Bree the call-girl-in-distress in Klute in 1971, or the daughter of Hank Fonda and Kate Hepburn in 1981's On Golden Pond. She's, well, ageless.
But there's also a new gentleness, mellowness and relaxation in her acting and persona. It's fun to watch her in a part like this -- one where she kids herself and lets her hair down, with a good cast (Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Olsen and others), and a good cinematographer (Andre Fleuren) and working for a good director (Bruce Beresford) -- even if the over-obvious, cliched script lets her (and everybody else) down.
Peace, Love and Misunderstanding is a cross-generational family drama-with-laughs, and it doesn't waste time harvesting the schmaltz. So to Grandma Grace's house goes her daughter Diane (Keener, very good), who hasn't spoken to her mother for 20 years, even though Diane just lives downstate in New York City, where she's a conservative attorney with two children, married to an uptight asshole (Kyle MacLachlan as Mark). Mark has decided to pursue his career as an asshole elsewhere and divorce Diana and leave his kids and fulfill his role of making nasty, stupid dinner party remarks about Eugene O'Neill's plays in some other movie. The reason for the mother-daughter break: Grace was caught dealing pot at Diana's wedding.
Upset by the impending divorce, Diana immediately departs for Woodstock and Grandma's, taking along the two children whom their grandmother has never seen: committed vegan Zoe (Olsen) and geeky camcorder filmmaker and Werner Herzog enthusiast Jake (Nat Wolff). Given how uptight Diana became , the two kids seem more laid-back. And they all have a lot to lay back for at Grace's -- including three perfect ready-made romances just waiting to get sprung, as well as an earth mother's night of the crazy moon (with a welcome cameo by the still gorgeous Rosanna Arquette), cannabis galore (thanks to Grace), and even a musical festival (not as big as the other Woodstock Peace and Love festival, but it's heart is in the right place).
The romances? Diane finds a folk-rock singer named Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who's not shy about skinny-dipping or flashing his Javier Bardem lazy smile. Committed vegan Zoe naturally falls for sexy butcher Cole (Chace Crawford). And over-inhibited Jake, who's shy with girls even though he's always shoving his camcorder in somebody's face, gets a Donovan makeover from Grandma Grace, and tests his new peace and love agenda on friendly coffee-shop lass Tara (Marissa O'Donnell).
There's one big flaw in the movie. It tends to ignore many of the contemporary socio-political issues you'd expect Grace and her friends to be involved with today. Watching Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding, you might get the impression that the only current hot button political issues were vegetarianism, decriminalizing pot and ending the war -- and you might even get confused about which war they want to end. Afghanistan or Vietnam?
This new movie is well-directed, well-acted, well-shot, but not really well-written -- which is par for the course for a lot of movies these days, even the serious ones.
The Raven (C)
U.S.: James McTeigue, 2012, 20th Century Fox
On a dark day in October 1849, the greatest poet America ever produced was discovered wandering, distraught and probably dying, on the streets of Baltimore. Feverish, delirious, he was the victim of brain congestion and a host of other possible illnesses including tuberculosis, rabies and the DTs, as well as all the dissipations and deterioration wrought by his addictions to alcohol (absinthe especially) and possibly to opiates -- and the victim also of the literary jealousy and venomous literary politics that kept him poor and notorious for most of his career.
Four days later, on October 7, this piteous wreck of a man -- the flame of his genius guttering out as he lay, mostly silent, or collapsing on the sweaty sheets of a Baltimore hospital bed -- died at the age of 40. He was, of course, Edgar Allan Poe.
What could be more horrible? Pits? Pendulums? Premature burials? The last few days of Poe's life --- when he found himself increasingly swallowed up by the kind of darkness he had evoked so intensely in his stories and poems -- this is something to make you shiver and weep. Horror! Horror indeed.
But wait a minute. This isn't the kind of horror that puts money in your pockets. A loser roaming the streets and expiring in a hospital? Not in our bottom-line, money-obsessed, failure-hating age. Let's imagine something more horrible -- and certainly more modern, more suitable to contemporary tastes.
Suppose that Poe's last days, as imagined in the new movie The Raven by writers Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare, directed by by James McTeigue and enacted by John Cusack as Poe, along with Luke Evans, Alice Eve and Brendan Gleeson, were not spent with Poe wandering sick and lonely through the chill autumn streets or expiring on a charity hospital bed, but instead with the great, self-destructive poet in a livelier, feistier incarnation: running all around Baltimore in pursuit of a serial killer who kidnaps and kills helpless ladies and hapless critics and subjects them to Saw-like tortures and executions which replicate the tortures and murders in Poe's own stories, playing grisly serial killer variations on the plots of "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Premature Burial."
Suppose that this murderous fiend and crazed Poe-fancier, wrested bodily from the bosom of Se7en and supplanted to 1849 Baltimore, also kidnapped the young lady whom Poe adored -- Lenore-like Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), supposedly-protected daughter of grim-faced, wealthy Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson) -- buried her in a coffin, threw dirt on it, and fills the other murders with elaborate clues to where Emily is hidden?
Now, we're cooking! Now we've found real horror, real chills. Now we've replaced sick loser Poe with sick but lively detective/adventurer/romancer Poe, fiercely pursuing the killer though dark woods on horseback, and into bustling theaters with backstage assassins and fearlessly into charnel houses of dread. This Edgar Alpha Poe picks fights in taverns and verbally assaults his irreverent and cheap editor, Henry Maddox (Kevin McNally), while tolerating the adoration of his biggest fan, creepy typesetter Ivan (Sam Hazeldine).
It's not that the movie has been totally botched. Though you can't believe a second of it, The Raven looks and occasionally sounds fantastic -- thanks to McTeigue's hyper-kinetic direction, Roger Ford's swank production design and Luc Vidal's pop-percussive-Herrmannesque score. Even the travesty of a script by Livingston and Shakespeare has its moments, sort of.
Though John Cusack has the brains and vulnerability to play Poe, he's somehow a little too emotionally healthy for the part. The others, especially Gleeson and Hazeldine, do about as well as anyone could. But you'd be better off knocking off a case of absinthe and then wandering around Baltimore raving -- or simply finding a copy of the 1963 Roger Corman-Richard Matheson-Vincent Price-Boris Karloff-Peter Lorre-Jack Nicholson version (or even the 1935 Landers-Karloff -Lugosi one) -- than expecting any real entertainment from this one.
Red Lights (C)
U.S.: Rodrigo Cortes, 2012, Millennium
Movies, like many another thing that goes bump in the night, can cloud your judgment -- especially it seems, if they're about paranormal activity. In the beginning, I was so happy to settle down to Red Lights to see Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver playing substantial lead parts in a fairly smart-sounding movie by a Spanish auteur, that it took a while before it dawned on me how awful the movie was, how, despite all that talent -- which included fellow actors Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones and Joely Richardson and writer-director Rodrigo Cortes (who made the Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin picture, Buried) -- Red Lights was flaming out: an arty thriller that made little sense, and was leading us all to a terrible, mind-boggling, but not necessarily scary, resolution.
Still, De Niro and Weaver make parts of it sort of worthwhile. He plays Simon Silver, a blind psychic and one-time glowering mega-media star, who retired several decades ago from communicating with the beyond, but has now returned for a gala comeback farewell appearance, while also cooperating in a huge scientific investigation into the veracity of his spook jobs, run by Toby Jones, who plays a sniveling academic opportunist named Shackleton, snivellingly. Weaver plays Margaret Matheson, once Silver's prime nemesis and now a celebrated paranormal activity debunker and phony-ghostbuster who -- together with her loyal and mysteriously obsessed assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) -- exposes phony séances and fake spiritualists.
Buckley is gung-ho to take on Silver and show him up. Margaret is wary of crossing him again, thanks to a family tragedy in which Silver was distantly involved. Meanwhile the ridiculous academic investigation into Silver's paranormal powers wends its way forward, becoming more ridiculous by the second. Olsen pops up occasionally, to little avail. The film's most memorable scene is a vicious fight in a mostly empty men's room. There's a twist ending that would have worked better if it were twisting something else.
The first half of this movie is pretty good -- which may be a case of digging yourself a fine hole and then getting trapped in it. Cortes knows how to tighten knots and turn screws. But he's not that good -- at least here -- at untying and unscrewing.