Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Movie Review: Haywire

Director:  Steven Soderbergh

Reviewed: 18 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Steven Soderbergh, the Academy Award winning director of Traffic, must live the life.  He has done a two-part unseen epic biopic of Che Guevera, a modern horror film with an A-list cast more than willing to die for him about the danger of not washing one's hands, and a trilogy of quasi-caper films which are really fun excuses for George Clooney mugging with Brad Pitt in casinos and fancy locales.  For whatever reason, Steven Soderbergh turned his attention this year to crafting a Jason Bourne-level action thriller and stripped it down to its most essential parts in Haywire, a propulsive, hollow, fun film which is instantly forgettable.  So, in a nod to Steven Soderbergh's deconstruction of this genre, I'll deconstruct my review into ten pieces.

10. I've forgotten the name of the lead actress, but as a former boxer, Gina Carano brings a physicality to the lead performance as Mallory Kane (which I forgot and had to look up), doing her own stunts, jumping and grappling with every male in the film even if her charisma is shaky or her line readings are flat.  Mallory Kane is The Bride from Kill-Bill with even less dialogue and no Hanzo swords.

9. The year of the Fassbender continues as the most exciting actor in film today dresses nicely, drinks Scotch nicely, and fights nicely.  Whenever Daniel Craig wishes to walk away from Bond, he'll do nicely.

8. Construction-wise, Soderbergh plays with the genre, whisking us to and from Barcelona, Majorca, upstate New York as well as a bulk of the scenes in Ireland, shuffling pieces together with a jazz-infused score.

7. Death by ocean tide is always fun.

6. Ewan McGregor is always fun to watch as is a bearded Antonio Banderas.

5. Michael Douglas, as an elder C.I.A. bigwig, is fun to see chewing the scenery, while Bill Paxton dials it down as Mallory's older, military expert father.

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy this isn't.  Stab, choke, kick-in-the-head, and head-butt is more like it.

3. A surprise low-level chase through the New York woods with border patrol, bad guys, snow, and animals is a highlight!  Long wordless sections are common.

2. Any movie that has the first and last line "Shit!" uttered by a character is bound to be interesting.

1. "The motive is always money," utters one character.

So, Steven Soderbergh clearly proves that he can put a thriller like this together, and the film moves at an intense clip.  Technically, his editing is propulsive towards the finish line, and the director's eye for colors (his palette at times consists of yellows and oranges, as well as icy blues) and locations (beaches and rooftops) are memorable.  When I say forgettable, I don't mean that as a pejorative; however, there's not much there there for me in this film, but it sure is fun to watch as a cinematic adventure and an exercise.  Does Steven Soderbergh have a genre checklist?  What's next for him?  Magic Mike, the Channing Tatum stripper-dance film.  No one can ever accuse Steven Soderbergh of not being willing to stretch his talents and abilities.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Interrupters

Movie Review: The Interrupters

Director:  Steve James

Reviewed: 17 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

My first teaching job was at an inner-city school located on the border of Fifth Ward and Denver Harbor, a line of demarcation in Houston between a predominantly African-American population and a Hispanic population.  McReynolds Middle School was not as violent as it could have been.  Yes, there were fights in the cafeteria.  Yes, there were rocks thrown from one side to the other over the railroad tracks. Yes, there was tension.  Years before I arrived, Ms. Shapiro, our sixth grade level chair who helped guide me through my first year of teaching, recalled getting chipped in the face with cement from a bullet that passed through her window.  My classroom, room 202, faced Market Street, and during my four years at that remarkable and terrible school, no bullets were fired into or around the school.  But Fifth Ward and Denver Harbor remain neighborhoods in Houston where students are more likely to be awakened by the sound of gunfire.  Journal entries touched upon cliques, getting jumped, protecting one's self, as well as drugs.  It was a world unfamiliar to me and my suburban Chicago upbringing.  Sure, I saw fights occasionally, bullying on a nearly daily level, and in my four years at my high school the school had nearly been burned down once and tear gas released in the hallway once.  But the school year of 2000 to 2001 was one of the first times that I started to realize the hidden America, the hidden communities and stories that didn't appear in the newspaper, Hollywood films, or my rudimentary understanding of life.

Steve James's remarkable documentary The Interrupters exists in the unseen neighborhoods of Chicago (Englewood, Altgeld Gardens, Little Village) in places I had to look up on google maps to see if I knew where they existed or had ever driven through them.  Often times, I had never been to or through these places.  This documentary is not a Chicago film in the sense that there are recognizable shots of Soldier Field, the Lake, deep dish pizza, Grant Park, or Michigan Avenue.  The closest this world of Chicago resembles my world is when a person wears a Back-To-Back Bulls Championship t-shirt from 1992 that I remember my uncle selling or the omnipresent Chicago White Sox hats (which has moved far beyond being a sign of fandom or regionalism).  This film really depicts the unseen neighborhoods of any major urban center (a Houston, a New York City, a Philadelphia, an Atlanta, an Oakland) and its focus on a fresh solution offers promise while tempered with the utter brutality of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.  Steve James dives deeply into these difficult ideas, offering no easy solutions.  His landmark documentary Hoop Dreams captured the zeitgeist of the nineties and the Jordan era in Chicago as he chronicled for many years two young inner-city basketball players tried unsuccessfully to make it to the NBA.  A follow-up film Stevie dealt with Steve James's complicated relationship with a troubled mentee from his times in college through the Big Brothers program and their reunion years later as adults.  Never one to shy away from the unseen and unvoiced communities in America and their stories, in this film, Steve James and his camera crew follow three members of the violence prevention program CeaseFire as they work from their base at UIC and target specific neighborhoods with their goal of interrupting violence.  CeaseFire's audacious goal is to disrupt the automatic, almost Pavlovian response of violence to violence (Stop the Killing! read the stickers), as well as serve as a sounding board for the community who at times feels abandoned and neglected.

Mediators Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are the heart of this film, and James follows them as they approach the mean streets of Chicago with the full force of their perspectives and life choices.  Ameena hits the hardest, marching into a group of young men gathering for possible retaliation after a funeral of a fallen friend, barking out commands and questions to them; Ameena, the daughter of a top drug lord in Chicago and a current Muslim woman and mother, exists as fearless and undeniable.  Cobe may cut the deepest, with his low-key, lower-the-temperature-in-the-room conversational style, at one point just trying to get Flamo, a man hellbent on retaliation, to just go grab food with him, distancing the man from the emotions driving him to seek revenge.  Eddie, a convicted murderer, strikes at the younger generation, working with elementary school students at Namaste Charter School, channeling their emotions and responses to violence through artwork, as well as counseling a middle school girl navigating her grief and culpability regarding her brother's recent murder.

Steve James infuses the film with a natural sense of the microcosm and the macrocosm.  Ameena takes a young girl to get her nails done, reminding her that she is beautiful, and has to support her return to school.  Cobe returns to the scene of an armed robbery with a guilty young man who wants to apologize to the people he hurt and look them in the eye.  Eddie visits a gravesite of a young man, delivering a white rose to them to place on the grave, hearing that the family prays there everyday.  Occasionally, the documentarian zooms out of the community and shows Mayor Daley at a press conference or Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responding to a brutal killing caught on cell phone camera or Jesse Jackson organizing a march, but for the bulk of the film, Steve James sticks with the community, the founders of CeaseFire, and the men (predominantly men) sitting around a table batting around solutions and talking through tactics.  I drew parallels to the scene in Moneyball this past year where Billy Beane and his baseball scouts wrestle with unconventional thinking and modern sports.  In The Interrupters, CeaseFire wrestles with the unconventional stopping incidents of violence before they happen, counseling grieving families, healing  (albeit sometimes temporarily) rifts where no church or support system seems able to make a dent.  Two powerful moments in the powerful film include a fight breaking out in front of a CeaseFire headquarters during a meeting which Steve James captures in riveting footage, as well as a family argument among two warring brothers from different cliques and their frustrated mother all taking place in the back of a mini-van driven by an increasingly worried Cobe Williams.  These scenes punctuate the severity of the disease of violence (brother versus brother, families abandoning each other, resignation), as well as the need for dialogue, for counseling, for acknowledgement of pain and for listening.

One tactic that raises this documentary to an even more philosophical level is the consideration of violence as a disease, and Steve James zooms in for two of the stories on the notion of work giving a person value.  Two men seem invigorated by their honest work, one a security worker at the Racine El stop, one an assistant at a day care center.  Honest work, honest jobs, being valued are undercurrents to this documentary, and unpacking the roots of violence and handling disrespect is far greater than one film can tackle.  As one politician seems poised to ask the National Guard to swoop in and provide security, an angry community member asks, "Where are the jobs?" suggesting that breakdown of family, breakdown of infrastructure, breakdown of community are all interrelated with lack of employment and investment.

Why does it take a thoughtful, methodical movie documentary from Steve James and acclaimed writer Alex Kotlowitz to push these issues to the forefront?  One of the strengths of The Interrupters is the ability to see the brutal facts that their organization does good work and makes a difference while also showing it as a band-aid to a gushing wound.  CeaseFire may not be the answer to such a complex issue, but their work on a molecular level in the community is helping people and saving lives.  As any good film does, it raises many more questions than it answers, particularly CeaseFire's tenuous relationship with the Chicago Police Department.

A film that provokes deep thought and continues to affect public policy and social change, The Interrupters is one of the finest films of the year, a film that needs to be seen.

Friday, June 15, 2012


Movie Review: Prometheus

Director:  Ridley Scott

Reviewed: 15 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Prometheus wrestles with philosophical questions unusual for a science fiction thriller of its pedigree and budget.  Who made us?  Why did they make us?  Where does life come from?  Why chose to extinguish said life?  Although I admire its scope and its overreaching, there is simply not enough cohesion for the film to work brilliantly as a work of art that Ridley Scott intends it to be.  How strange that 33 years later, the director with unparalleled visual effects and budget cannot approach the level of terror and artistry and fun on his cat-and-mouse game on a darkened Nostromo?

Prometheus is a film right in my wheelhouse: I don't remember a time NOT being scared of H.R. Giger's alien creatures.  Aliens was my first exposure to the series when I spent the summer with my cousin Chris in Ellicot City, Maryland, and a friend of his was obsessed with the film.  Obsessed.  I knew the names of all of the marines, as well as the types of aliens attacking them on that planet where colonists had mistakenly set up a base.  Alien 3 was a film that I responded to in high school for its darkness, nihilism, and its seeming ending to the Ellen Ripley story.  In high school, I also went backwards to watch the original Alien film, watching it and thinking about how slow it was to get going, how 45 minutes into the movie nothing had still happened.  But its visceral punch (spray of blood, swishing of tails, mouth inside mouth) got me.  My dad told me that Alien was the first film he and my mom went to see after I was born.  Our neighbor Retta babysat me as they went, maybe to the Hillside Square Theater, maybe to the Hillside Mall, both gone.

So, why the extended build up and lack of payoff in this review?  Well, that's the trouble with Ridley Scott's film.  It begins with an alien of some kind (not the kind we're used to seeing) ingesting something and having the DNA dissolve itself into the water.  Opening shots reveal a landscape that from above resembles the human body: arteries of water, cracks of rock, flowing of waterfalls.  We're in deep right from the beginning.  Cut to a picturesque Scottish archeological dig where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, very good) discovers cave pantings thousands of years old which point to large creatures beyond the stars and a sort of welcome invitation for humans to find them.  Cut to the Prometheus, a gigantic vessel with 17 crew members aboard in hypersleep heading towards LV-223, the planet seemingly indicated in the cave paintings (and multiple other sacred sites throughout the planet).  Well, I guess 16 members are asleep.  Ridley Scott curiously focuses on David, the Weyland Corporation's android (the predecessor to Ash and Bishop, presumably) meticulously cleaning the ship, learning alien languages, riding a bike while spinning a basketball (?), and modeling his hairstyle after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, a curious connection to a story of conquest, a stranger in a strange land.  His fingerprint has a W for the Weyland Corporation engraved into its whorls.  David engages in his own scientific discoveries, reads dreams, and engages the crew member with philosophical wordplay (though nothing is as wildly fun as Lance Hendricksen's android Bishop putting his hand over Bill Paxton's marine's hand and playing the knife game!).  Scott's focus on David makes him one of the most interesting members of a motley crew that sadly is less interesting than both the crew of Alien and Aliens.  Charlize Theron, introduced dripping wet from hypersleep and crunching out push-ups, emerges as Meredith Vickers, representative of the Weyland Corporation who funded this trillion dollar trip to the stars, and stands out as does Idris Elba as Janek, the Captain of the ship who seems to have conflicted loyalties and a few fun lines of dialogue but not enough.  Nearly everyone else fades into the background.  A make-up encrusted and nearly unrecognizable Guy Pearce appears via hologram as Peter Weyland, mysterious benefactor of their trip, founder of the company responsible for sending the Nostromo and the Marines into harm's way in previous (later, chronologically) films.  

In an astonishing unbroken sequence, Prometheus majestically banks and lands on the planet near a stunning array of pyramid hives and straight lines ("Nature doesn't make straight lines" one scientist muses) with a long take that evokes the spookiness and beauty of Mayan temples, Egyptian pyramids, and Easter Island statues.  I think Prometheus is at its best when Scott is showing these long shots and evoking the sublime and the beautiful, drawing parallels between Egyptian sarcophagi and the pods used for space travel, the runes on the doorways that are both old technology and new.  The build-up is quite intense, and as a viewer, the fear of an alien popping out is always omnipresent.

For Shaw, a Christian as evidenced the cross necklace that she prominently wears, this trip into the unknown is a spiritual one, one that will answer the unanswerable questions that opened this review.  Alas, the film then becomes bogged down in its own tropes (bad weather causing the group to fragment, crew members making reckless decisions, violations of quarantine, David being David, etc...) it swerves farther and farther away from those questions.  Yes, there are dune buggies (cool!), red flying soccer balls that scan the area and form a video game like hologram back on the ship (double cool!), as well as spooky shots of dark caverns being explored which always make the people look like they are in the esophagus of a larger beast.  Shaw is subjected to the single scariest sequence in the film, which I won't spoil, but I will admit to squirming in my seat during it.  The way Ridley Scott and his script addresses motherhood and abortion is both riveting and disturbing.

Yet, for all of its intrigue and gorgeously dark visuals, Prometheus stumbles.  Ridley Scott drops Meredith Vickers' character for about 30 minutes straight only to have her reappear and pick up as if nothing has happened.  Explorers who get lost (despite a plethora of technology) and are forced to stay overnight in the cave act nonsensically (maybe we're supposed to believe they are hypnotized?). A final action sequence seems rushed unnecessarily, so the decisions by major characters, from suicide to fleeing, seem curious.  The conclusion never seems ind doubt.  And, Ripley-I-mean-Shaw's final confrontation with an alien again feels rushed and shot clumsily as to drain the suspense and fear from the scene.  Although the payoff is quite good and fitting.  I like both Rapace and Fassbender's performances in this film, and I remained disappointed in a late choice regarding Theron's character.  It seemed like there was more potential to be explored and a possibility of a double-heroine attack duo.  But, alas.  

I will admit to the breathtaking aspect of seeing moments from Alien referenced in this film in terms of sets and production design.  There are moments of great suspense and horror and much leaning forward in my seat.  Yet, the very last shot of the film seemed superfluous as well as not as well-made from a production standpoint in an obvious and unnecessary piece of exposition (If a viewer cannot connect the dots without that, I don't know what to say).  For me, it was unnecessary.  However, as a film, the ideas in Prometheus are interesting and raise questions about biological warfare, creating and destroying a species or planet, as well as the David factor, the android questioning its makers about why it was made, a nice touch.  The barren woman who suddenly becomes pregnant, the possible reasons why earth would be targeted, the infusion of Christian symbols and motifs of sacrifice are all similarly thought-provoking and cloudy.  I remain a fan, yet frustrated.  Why didn't Scott have the boldness to wrestle even more deeply with these ideas?  Who made us?  Why did they make us?  Where does life come from?  Why choose to extinguish said life?  Ridley Scott clumsily telegraphs a potential sequel; here's to hoping Prometheus makes enough money to enable someone, maybe not Ridley Scott, complete this grand vision.  Is there a director's cut of this film that will answer some of these non-commercial questions?

The 1979 tag line for Alien, one of the best of all-time, states "In space no one can hear you scream," but I wonder if they can hear you become frustrated and confused.  I'll have to ask David.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Movie Review: Alien

Director:  Ridley Scott

Reviewed: 12 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Alien is a tremendous achievement in filmmaking.  33 years after its creation, Ridley Scott's masterpiece still casts a shadow over the entire science fiction genre for both its technical brilliance as well as its horrifying subtext, and Ellen Ripley remains one of my favorite cinematic characters ever created.

I forgot how quiet this film is, how prosaic and slow the pacing, the cinematography, the performances are in the first half of the film.  The opening shots of the massive ship are both evocative of the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope as well as Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Both are touchstones throughout Alien which ultimately reveals itself to be a model of sound architecture, restraint in filmmaking, and scariness in ideas as well as visuals.

The commercial towing vehicle The Nostromo awakens her seven person crew from deep hyper-sleep to investigate a signal from a beacon from a nearby planet.  Mother, as they call their central computer, has redirected their course and wants them to investigate.  With slow panning shots and time to develop personalities, The Nostromo is seen as a hotbed of class warfare, conflicting priorities (science vs. safety), some vague sexual tension, as well as clear leadership struggles.  As a microcosm of society, The Nostromo does as its told, lands rockily on the eerie, wind-swept planet, and three crew members leave to discover the source of the beacon.  Their sojourn takes them to an apparent crashed spaceship of immense size with what appears to be a gigantic desiccated alien corpse perched on a targeting mechanism or a telescope staring out into the stars.  A further exploration underneath the ship leads Kane (John Hurt) to a vast hall of infinite alien eggs ominously guarded by some kind of force field.  Kane touches one curiously, a facehugger jumps out and leeches its way onto his bulbous helmet, eventually securing itself firmly on his face.  The other two return to The Nostromo with their fallen crew member in tow, and Ash, the secretive science officer, violates quarantine and Ripley's urging for protocol and safety by bringing them aboard.  Havoc ensues and as the crew are hunted down one-by-one, Ellen Ripley emerges and confronts.

As I watched this film slowly transform into a full-on, full-bore chase film inside of the enclosed space of a ship (which at times feels like the characters are running down digestive tracts and intestines) and then escape pod, I realized that Ridley Scott's filmmaking transforms also.  The first half of the film is prosaic, is filled with long takes, tracking shots, camera pans and movements that give time and patience to a very slow, very classic film style.  Then, as all hell breaks loose, Ridley Scott reflects that chaos in his filmmaking: over-the-shoulder shots of Ripley running through the bowels of the ship, more close-up shots of characters' faces and the alien itself, the overlaying of a heartbeat over the soundtrack, blaring alarms and strobe lighting, spike-ups in Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score.  Ridley Scott explores some of the ideas here that reappear in his masterpiece Blade Runner regarding artificial intelligence's ability to seem human, pass as human, become human; Ash seems a direct descendent to H.A.L. of 2001, and the way Ash is used by The Company to carry out its orders is chilling.  So, he simultaneously gives at least two differently styled films within one, and the blending of the classic into the frenetic works.  It works incredibly well.  

I'm giving short shrift to the alien itself, a terrifying nightmare of a creature from H.R. Giger.  It remains one of the most terrifying creations ever depicted in cinema along with Spielberg's shark from Jaws and Del Toro's Pale Man from Pan's Labyrinth.  Utterly terrifying in concept and execution, a 33 year-old concept that still evokes something serpentine, dragon-like, demonic, and completely Other.  Further films will sharpen the original concept, but it is pretty gruesome and haunting; at times, the alien appears to hug its victims and its open arms are scarier than its multiple mouths within mouths.

But I guess what I'm driving at many years after first encountering the Alien franchise and concept is how damning Ridley Scott's film is of the menacing undercurrent of capitalism (the alien is wanted for vague weapons research and development) and the coldness of corporate analysis of cost vs. benefit.  Someone, unnamed and unseen, decides that the lives of The Nostromo are expendable for a greater good or a greater goal, not unlike decisions that are made by presidents and kings everyday.  And something incredibly dark is going on with Scott's depiction of The Nostromo itself with its alien-like ducts and wires, corners and tubes, sounds and lights.  I think Ridley Scott might be suggesting that the  Company (only shown through the typed words on the screen of Mother and the nefarious actions of Ash) is even more terrifying than the alien.  Technology and rapacious capitalism are both as scary as an alien wanting to kill everyone on a ship for no reason.  Or, maybe the reason the alien kills is simply survival versus the reason The Nostromo crew are sacrificed is money.  I think on a certain level Ridley Scott leads the audience to confront the messiness of how corporate culture can be even more poisonous and destructive than an outer alien force, a kind of Walt Kelly's Pogo "We have met the enemy and he is us" epiphany.

Ultimately, I am left with so many questions about this film (the blue mist, Ash, the growth of the alien in such a short amount of time, what is that giant alien astronomer?), and I love that Ridley Scott leaves those questions unanswered.  The opening line, delivered by Brett, a crew member at breakfast after awakening from a deep hyper-sleep, is "This is the worst shit I've ever seen, man" refers to the outer space food he's ingesting, and that line perfectly captures my awe and respect for this classic science fiction horror chase film.  This is the worst.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Director:  Rupert Wyatt

Reviewed: 10 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Full disclosure: I have not seen the original Planet of the Apes films yet except for the Tim Burton disaster from a few years ago which I did not like.

Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a solidly built action thriller with echoes of the more challenging work that it could have been.  At times, the parallels to Frankenstein are obvious: one man's hubris drives him to play God and attempt to redirect the course of life with dire, unintended consequences.  However, in this film, the hubris is tied to Will Rodman's (James Franco) urgent desire to reverse his father Charles's (John Lithgow) Alzheimer's disease, a touch that humanizes him and makes us root for him.  When an experiment goes awry and apes react violently when exposed to a particular drug in development to cure that horrible disesase, Franco spirits away the day-old Caesar from the lab and keeps him at his home with his father.  Caesar is swaddled in blankets, held and loved, and grows with the remnants of the drug playing out in his system, rendering him hyper-intelligent.  Caesar's success leads Will to push the limits and start human trials with his father using the drug, effectively ridding him of his disease.  As the story progresses, Caesar begins exploring his world and pushing the limits of his reality: "Am I a pet?" he signs to Will at one moment, as sign language becomes one way that humans and apes and other apes communicate in this film.  A trip to the forests north of San Francisco offers Caesar a glimpse of an idyllic natural environment, and shots of him scaling the Redwood trees of Muir National Park, looking out over the skyline of San Francisco communicate his longing and his dichotomous nature as both man and ape.  A violent act prompted by a neighbor's bullying of Charles provokes a vicious outburst from Caesar, leading to him being institutionalized and exposed to other primates, and sows the seeds of the burgeoning revolution.  Caesar's intelligence and refusal to settle for a life of captivity occupies the second half of the film as he builds an army of his brothers and sisters and looks to escape.

This film is really, really well-constructed and well-shot.  Overhead shots of apes spreading out over the city are well-done, and one particular sequence in the suburban streets is striking for the rain of leaves and movement indicated above in the canopy of trees while mostly hidden apes begin an assault.  Yes, the CGI dominates and takes me out of the movie at times, but the swirling cinematography and the sheer number of moving parts on the screen in specific moments is breathtaking.  The standout performance here has to be Andy Serkis as Caesar who makes that character even more indelible than King Kong or Gollum, as he uses gestures and body language to communicate Caesar's complex reactions to his world.  Serkis is an actor of great depth, whether using a computer to aid him or not, and I wonder if there isn't a way to reward him for his brilliant performances with an acting Oscar or honorary Oscar.  I don't believe this film would have any of the emotional core without Serkis as Caesar.

Wyatt's decision to root the film in Africa with violent kidnapping of the apes as well as to contrast the jungle of the opening shots with the shiny sterility of the lab works to contrast the two environments, and Caesar might be one of the most interesting characters in film this year as he rebels against his captors.  Franco is fine until he kind of isn't, and Freida Pinto as his veterinarian girlfriend seems to have very little to do besides stand there.  A final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge skews initially into G.I. Joe television show logic (So many shots fired; no one gets hit!), but both sides do inflict mortal damage on each other, and I like how the fog was used to mask ape movements over and under the bridge.  Of course, the showdown would occur there.  It seems like Wyatt's script falters at the end unsure of how dark to take the story, and instead of a more bold ending, the film ends with a whimper.  And then the post-credits sequence takes over and offers a Contagion-style set-up for the sequels.

There are some editing misfires, some vast leaps of logic (How does Caesar remain hidden for that long in a suburban house without someone seeing him?), and some wooden chemistry between Pinto and Franco.  Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) shows up as a ridiculously evil character to push the plot along.  A neighbor exists only to be enormously rude and mean.  A billionaire C.E.O. makes reckless decisions on the whim and rides in a helicopter close to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Complex ideas are teased out (Isn't Caesar's violence really Will's fault for playing God?  What drives Will to violate ethics?  How far can a person's love of family take him or her?  What are the ramifications for treating an animal like a human?) but never delved into in depth as the focus becomes apes destroying stuff, apes running rampant, apes climbing the Golden Gate Bridge (albeit a striking image).

In closing, Rise of the Planet of the Apes sets up a sequel that I will see, and it caused me to look at my two dogs-Bebe and Clementine-a little more closely and wonder what they are up to when they look at me.  I think this crowd pleasing film from last summer was probably fun to see on the big screen, providing audiences with a hint of complexity and depth without being fully committed to embrace the shadings of what happens when a person takes on the role of God as well as the responsibility of humans to the animal world.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Movie Review: Snow White and the Huntsman

Director: Rupert Sanders

Reviewed: 5 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

A revisioninst proto-feminist telling of the classic tale, Snow White and the Huntsman is a narrative mess, an editing mishmash with a weak central performance and gaps in logic which undermine its own girl power designs.  As far as I can tell, nothing would have been lost from taking this film and removing all dialogue, substituting a swelling score for its lapses in writing.  There is no doubt that this film would have worked as a silent film with little or no dialogue cards.  Nothing is gained in Kristen Stewart's performance by giving her voice.  A love triangle seems set up and then abandoned, an ending seems to be trying to make a strong statement and fails, and any sort of internal movie logic is destroyed when the Queen proves able to do something in the last third of the film that had she done in the first third, there would be no need for such a prolonged chase of Snow White.  Utterly, this film is a messy mess.

And, I'm giving it a favorable three star rating.

A triumph of art direction, makeup, scenery-chewing by evil Queen Charlize Theron, and some fun cinematography of horses riding on a beach, Snow White and the Huntsman claims through its title a balanced version of the fairy tale, one in which the hired assassin (Chris Hemsworth) who refuses his charge to kill the young girl in the woods on the Queen's orders has a much larger role to play.  Unfortunately, that role consists of tired cliche and hinted backstory with little payoff or arc, though Hemsworth for the most part is game.  Stewart's lead performance is far worse; her Snow White is known for her beauty and nothing else.  She is not a compelling character at all!  A final speech before a climactic battle points this out with perfect awkwardness as she reaches for profundity.

A blending of Avatar's lushness and bold colors, The Passion of Joan of Arc's woman warrior imagery, and The Lord of the Rings light walking in a line shots, Sanders' film feels derivative and far less bold than it could be.  There's the arresting sight of an absent since Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Bob Hoskins as a blind, mystical dwarf leader whose performance consists of staring directly into the camera and offering creaky narration.  There's interesting shading to Theron's evil Queen, hints of incest with her page-haircut-wearing brother and possible sexual abuse in her first marriage (she was absconded at a very young age by a violent king).  There's a horrible spooky forest where Snow White flees with trees that just so lightly prod her with finger-like branches and hints of menace.  There's a bizarre Florence + The Machine song that is inserted in the middle of the film as a bunch of characters are walking.

My central love of the original Disney film comes from certain aspects: the scariness of those forest branches, the idea of the false heart being presented to the evil Queen by the huntsman, the songs from the seven dwarves and their comic relief, and the iconography of the Queen transforming into an old crone and offering up the apple to Snow White, as well as her violent death.  Snow White and the Huntsman does not live up to the Disney version, but the branches, the way the Queen retains her vitality is sharply done, and the dwarves, though difficult to tell who is who, provide comic relief and pathos, though at times it is clumsily done.

So, why see this film?  Why am I recommending it?  Can a film's visual palette and iconography of swirling birds, spiky crowns, and dark castles overwhelm and overpower its weak script, floundering lead performance, and bizarre editing?


Theron does some great work and wears some amazing costumes, at times covered in a milk-bath, and at times wearing a cape of deranged ravens (her name is Ravenna).  The branches in the forest are scary.  The castle looks appropriately weathered and decrepit.  The dwarves are violently fun and crucial to the final fight scene, more so than the two male leads.  There is an interesting take on what a woman must do to survive in this time period, not necessarily justifying Theron's Queen's ruthless and vicious actions, but the film supplies context for her rage and more of an arc than I expected.  Several days later, there are moments and images that have stuck with me.

So, I recommend seeing this film on the big screen.

(One way of considering this film is knowing that it is not even a third as intelligent as one Game of Thrones episode with its dialogue and plotting, Snow White and the Huntsman contains striking and haunting images that make up for its confusion and simplicity in story-telling.  Here's to wishing Sanders gets a script and the confidence to tell an interesting story that matches his visual flair and panache someday.)