Widening the thematic scope without sacrificing too much of the claustrophobia that made the original 1979 Alien universally spooky Prometheus takes the trophy for this summer's most adult-oriented blockbuster entertainment. The movie will leave your mouth agape for its entire runtime first with its majestic exploration of an alien planet and conjectures on the origins of the human race second with its gross-out body horror that leaves no spilled gut to the imagination. Thin characters feel more like pawns in Scott's sci-fi prequel but stunning visuals shocking turns and grand questions more than make up for the shallow ensemble. "Epic" comes in many forms. Prometheus sports all of them.
Based on their discovery of a series of cave drawings all sharing a similar painted design Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) are recruited by Weyland to head a mission to another planet one they believe holds the answers to the creation of life on Earth. Along for the journey are Vickers (Charlize Theron) the ruthless Weyland proxy Janek (Idris Elba) a blue collar captain a slew of faceless scientists and David (Michael Fassbender) HAL 9000-esque resident android who awakens the crew of spaceship Prometheus when they arrive to their destination. Immediately upon descent there's a discovery: a giant mound that's anything but natural. The crew immediately prepares to scope out the scene zipping up high-tech spacesuits jumping in futuristic humvees and heading out to the site. What they discover are the awe-inspiring creations of another race. What they bring back to the ship is what they realize may kill their own.
The first half of Prometheus could be easily mistaken for Steven Spielberg's Alien a sense of wonder glowing from every frame not too unlike Close Encounters. Scott takes full advantage of his fictional settings and imbues them with a reality that makes them even more tantalizing. He shoots the vistas of space and the alien planet like National Geographic porn and savors the interior moments on board the Prometheus full of hologram maps sleeping pods and do-it-yourself surgery modules with the same attention. Prometheus is beautiful shot in immersive 3D that never dampers Dariusz Wolski's sharp photography. Scott's direction seems less interested in the run-or-die scenario set up in the latter half of the film but the film maintains tension and mood from beginning to end. It all just gets a bit…bloodier.
Jon Spaihts' and Damon Lindelof's script doesn't do the performers any favors shuffling them to and fro between the ship and the alien construction without much room for development. Reveals are shoehorned in without much setup (one involving Theron's Vickers that's shockingly mishandled) but for the most part the ensemble is ready to chomp into the script's bigger picture conceits. Rapace is a physical performer capable of pulling off a grisly scene involving an alien some sharp objects and a painful procedure (sure to be the scene of the blockbuster season. Among the rest of the crew Fassbender's David stands out as the film's revelatory performance delivering a digestible ambiguity to his mechanical man that playfully toys with expectations from his first entrance. The creature effects in Prometheus will wow you but even Fassbender's smallest gesture can send the mind spinning. The power of his smile packs more of a punch than any facehugger.
Much like Lindelof's Lost Prometheus aims to explore the idea of asking questions and seeking answers and on Scott's scale it's a tremendous unexpected ride. A few ideas introduced to spur action fall to the way side in the logic department but with a clear mission and end point Prometheus works as a sweeping sci-fi that doesn't require choppy editing or endless explosions to keep us on the edge of our seats. Prometheus isn't too far off from the Alien xenomorphs: born from existing DNA of another creature the movie breaks out as its own beast. And it's wilder than ever.
After decades of moviemaking years spent honing his craft and sifting through the industry's best collaborators to form a cinematic dream team Steven Spielberg is one of the few directors whose films routinely hit a bar of high quality. Even his more haphazard efforts are competently constructed and executed with unbridled passion reeling in audiences with drama adventure and big screen fun. There really isn't a "bad" Spielberg movie. His latest War Horse isn't in the top tier of the grandmaster's filmography but as a work of pure sentimentality and spectacle the film delivers rousing entertainment. Makes sense: a horse's heart is about eight times the size of a human's and War Horse's is approximately that much bigger than every other movie in 2011.
The titular equine is Joey a horse born in the English countryside in 1914 who triumphantly navigates the ravished European landscape during the first World War. A good hour of the 146 minute film is spent establishing the savvy creature's friendship with his first owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). A farmer boy with a penchant for animal training Albert copes with his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) and their homestead's dwindling funds but finds much needed hope in the sprite Joey. After blessing Albert and company with a few miracles Ted makes the wise decision of selling Joey off to the war and the real adventure begins.
Like Forrest Gump of the animal kingdom the lucky stallion finds himself intertwined with an eclectic handful of persons. He encoutners the owner of a British Captain preparing a surprise attack. He becomes the ride for two German army runaways the prized possession of young French girl and her grandfather and the unifier of two warring soldiers in the battlefield's No Man's Land. From the beginning to the end of the war Joey miraculously sees it all all in hopes of one day crossing Albert's path again.
Spielberg avoids any over-the-top Mr. Ed techniques in War Horse but amazingly the horses employed to play Joey deliver a riveting muted "performance" that's alive on screen. The animal is the lead of the movie his human co-stars (including Thor's Tom Hiddleston The Reader's David Kross and Toby Kebbell of Prince of Persia) sprinkled around Joey to complicate his (and our) experience of war.
But even with a stellar cast working at full capacity War Horse falters thanks to its episodic nature. It is a movie of moments—awe-inspiring breathtaking and heartfelt—stuffed with long stretches of underdeveloped characters guiding us through meandering action. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes the varying environments visually enthralling—from the dark blue hues of war to rolling green hills backdropped with stunning sunsets—and John Williams' score matches the film's epic scope but without Albert in the picture's second half War Horse simply gallops around in circles.
Spielberg is a master craftsman and War Horse a masterful craft but the movie lacks a necessary intimacy to hook us into the story's bigger picture. The ensemble's devotion and affection for Joey sporadically resonates—how could it not? Look at that adorable horse!—but even those emotional beats border on goofy (at one point Hiddleston's character decides to sketch Joey a moment I found eerily reminiscent of Jack sketching Rose in Titanic). War Horse really hits its stride when Spielberg pulls back the camera and lets his keen eye for picturesque composition do the talking. Or from Joey's perspective neighing.
Ira Black (Chris Messina) is a prototypical movie New Yorker--he wears a lot of black he's in therapy (well technically analysis) and he's in the habit of over-thinking everything he does from his Ph.D. dissertation to what to order for lunch. Then he meets free-spirited empathetic Abby Willoughby (Jennifer Westfeldt) and everything changes. They're engaged within hours married within a week and in couples' therapy not long after. Meanwhile their long-married parents--uptight opera-going Sy (Robert Klein) and Arlene (Judith Light) Black and freewheeling easygoing Michael (Fred Willard) and Lynne (Frances Conroy) Willoughby--have their own issues to face. And their own professionals to consult. In the end everyone's left pondering the true meaning of love commitment marriage and mental health. When a movie's cast is as full of talented professionals as Ira and Abby's it's hard to begrudge the fact that most of them are playing somewhat familiar characters. Messina's Ira is angsty conflicted and quick to question happiness--in other words every neurotic New Yorker Woody Allen ever played. Meanwhile Westfeldt (who also wrote the film) works the same loquacious slightly kooky charm she perfected in Kissing Jessica Stein; you can't help liking Abby even when you want to shake some sense into her. In the supporting cast Klein Light Conroy and Willard are all strong rising above the "conservative" and "hippie" labels hanging over their characters' heads (it's particularly nice to see Willard in a role that's a bit toned down from his usual brand of cheerful oafishness). And familiar faces like Jason Alexander Chris Parnell and Darrell Hammond are a welcome too. Ira and Abby is only Robert Cary's second feature film credit; his first Standard Time was a musical and you can see some of that genre's broad sensibility here too. Ira's pre-Abby world is all dark colors cool light and sharp lines--but when he crosses into her sphere suddenly primary hues are everywhere rooms are suffused with warm yellow glows and furniture is for relaxing on not admiring. Unfortunately too many of the same kind of obvious cues direct the story as well. Westfeldt's script is smart and often charming but it's never very hard to guess where Ira and Abby is going: If you're looking for a "and then they got married and lived happily ever after" story you won't find it here. Ira and Abby's perspective on marriage may be a bit more realistic than the Grimm brothers' but you still shouldn't recommend it to any newlyweds you know.
Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) are an unhappy couple stifled by years of sullen barely concealed rage Jack's inertia and Terry's drinking. Their friends Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) are similarly miserable with each other which they act out through barely concealed affairs. As Jack and Edith begin their illicit tryst they instinctively seek to pair up Hank and Terry partly to make it easier for them to sneak around but mostly to alleviate their own guilt. So the two couples basically substitute one rut for another wheels spinning in the muddy morass of their own confused attempts at adulthood. Through it all their children become a sort of juvenile Greek chorus for their parents making the kinds of precocious pronouncements that are only uttered from the mouths of screenwriters.
As joyless as the movie is to sit through the acting is brilliant. Krause (Six Feet Under) tosses his nonchalance around as an impenetrable shield caring so little that he's impossible to wound. Ruffalo (Collateral) who is the most (and probably the only) human of the quartet provides the only thing approaching a moral center. And even in this company Dern manages to act circles around them. Her Terry is a definitive portrait of the party girl who finally wakes up hung over one morning only to discover she's got two kids to feed a house to clean and a husband who'd rather talk than make love. To her love means always having to admit you're desperate. So it's sad and chilling to watch her begin her affair with Hank only because in her own twisted way she thinks her husband wants her to.
Watts is still the most compulsively watchable actress working today summoning reserves of inner turmoil on cue and yet always making it look effortless. It is interesting to contrast her role here with her work in the far superior and brilliantly written 21 Grams. Both characters are deeply unhappy people trying to make sense of the cruel world. And yet 21 Grams which is much unhappier and more despondent achieves a sublime grace as each character discovers their humanity in their desperation. In this movie you just hope that at some point the four main characters will jump in an SUV that has faulty brakes.
The two men are college professors and the movie makes the most of that milieu with flirtatious students college bars and long leafy runs providing the backdrop. But most of the movie's plotting feels like its been done on graph paper. Jack and Terry make love. Cut to Hank and Edith making love. Jack talks to his daughter. Cut to Edith talking to her daughter. The rhythm of this duet becomes numbing. The movie is directed by John Curran an Australian making his first American feature. But the impetus for the story comes from screenwriter Larry Gross adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus who wrote In the Bedroom. Dubus' movie characters are all variations on the same emotionally stifled yuppie theme although In the Bedroom saved itself by turning into an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. We Don't Live Here Anymore is one of those movies and there have been oodles where the characters are so inert that the suspense if one can call it suspense is who will act first to break the circle of despair. And so the children of course are trotted out as pawns on the chessboard forcing the kings and queens to choose. I don't know which is more depressing: that this movie cliché has been used so often or that there are undoubtedly thousands of couples in the world who act exactly like this.
Welcome to the British Empire at the turn of the century. Meet a group of jolly lads who are about to be shipped off to the Sudan to fight for queen and country. Say hello to Lieutenant Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger). He's a chicken--in the cowardly sense not the egg-laying feathered sense--and when he resigns his commission with the British army on the eve of his regiment's departure for the Sudan his friends and fiancée give him four white feathers to tell him they know he's a coward. Thirty minutes into the film we don't know exactly why Harry is afraid to go to war or why the British are in the Sudan in the first place. Two long hours later we remain in the dark. We have however seen Harry trot off to the Sudan to overcome the shame of his cowardice pose as an Arab and try to protect the members of his former regiment in secret. We've seen Harry protect an enslaved native princess from the overseer's whip. We've seen him save lives in the film's big battle scene where the British greatly outnumbered fight valiantly and with requisite stiff upper lip against the "Mohammedan fanatics" who set upon them in true Braveheart fashion. Since all these events happened way back then "over there " apparently we don't need any more historical context than that and if we do need it we sure don't get it.
The sweeping saga of The Four Feathers which has been remade no less than five times theatrically (in 1915 1921 1929 1939 and 2002) and at least once for TV (1977) makes huge demands on the actors: Ledger must go from a polished drawing-room charmer to a scruffy desert nomad and back again while Wes Bentley who plays Jack Durrance Harry's best friend and constant champion (no feathers from him) must start as a heroic young officer and evolve into a wounded veteran of foreign wars. It requires a versatility that both young actors strive to fulfill but unfortunately they're still a little too wet behind the ears to pull it off. Ledger comes closest but his drawing room persona lacks charisma and his love scenes with Hudson are completely ridiculous. Once the action moves to the desert though it's clear why Ledger is on the brink of superstardom. He really sinks his pearly whites into the character even executing a pretty amazing jump onto a fast moving horse (either that or the CGI is much better than average). Bentley on the other hand carries the film's early scenes but a lackluster finish turns the strong character he'd begun to build into a wispy cliché. The most effective performance comes from the oft unsung Michael Sheen (Othello Wilde). As the feather-giving soldier Trench Sheen shows more subtle skill than the rest of the cast as he goes from a jolly lad to a broken prisoner of war. Djimon Hounsou is also good as Abou Fatma a former slave who befriends Harry in the desert and helps him protect his friends. Kate Hudson is hardly worth mentioning as Harry's love interest Ethne; she's barely there in this picture.
Four Feathers Four Feathers how do I hate thy plot holes? Let me count the ways. First of all there's the gaping maw in the movie's entire premise--Harry's cowardice goes completely unexplained from start to finish. In fact when Abou asks him why he resigned his commission (Abou though born and raised in the Sudan was a scout for a British general and therefore conveniently speaks English) Harry responds "I just--there are many reason why. Mostly I was afraid." We know that mate. Then there's that pesky fourth feather. The first three come in a nice little box nestled in with three calling cards belonging to Harry's fellow soldiers. The next time we see the feathers in Harry's hand though there are four of them. We find out about 45 minutes later that the final feather came from Ethne. Was a potentially stirring scene lost on the cutting room floor? We may never know. Plot holes aside there are some beautiful painterly shots that show director Shekhar Kapur's promise but there are some appallingly amateurish moments too especially the extreme close-ups of Ledger for no apparent reason and a scene that has Hudson speaking key lines while she's out of focus and in the background of the shot.