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.
Although the title has “war” in it Sorkin thankfully steers clear of those woes. Set in the ‘80s the screenwriter instead focuses on the real-life story of one Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) a Texan congressman who likes women and booze--and helping the underdog. In this case it’s Afghanistan which has been brutally invaded by the Soviet Union. In order to help the mujahideen (Afghanistan's rebel fighters) repel the Russians from their occupied land Wilson aligns himself with two key people: blue-blood conservative and fervent anti-communist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and temperamental CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Together these three raise the covert budget from $5 million to $1 billion and get the weapons in the mujahideens’ hands. Needless to say the Soviet Union hightails it out of Afghanistan and falls apart while Wilson comes out smelling the sweetest. But in reality empowering the Afghan people only created a new monster. As Wilson aptly says at the end “…we f**ked up the endgame.” Hanks and Roberts haven’t been this cool in a movie since their heydays in the ‘90s. Hanks has particular fun as the jocular Wilson whose exterior would indicate a guy who only wants to have a good time but whose sharp mind deeply felt patriotism and sense of fair play make him the most unlikely hero. As his lovely costar Roberts seems to be aging like a fine wine turning in a very elegant performance as the Southern rich socialite who clearly has her own opinions and can play any game thrown at her. But the real humor comes from Hoffman as the sardonic Avrakotos a career CIA man who has seen and done it all with little to no recognition for his work. The actor is just having a hell of a year with great performances in both Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages. But if we could pinpoint one Hoffman performance the Academy might recognize this one would be it. Also good (and having a great year) is Amy Adams as Wilson’s loyal administrative assistant. The best part is that all of them work Sorkin’s dialogue like pros delivering the lines in that rapid style the West Wing creator loves best. Of course Charlie Wilson's War’s director is no slouch either. Mike Nichols is very familiar with this kind of talky dramedy. Perhaps broader in scope than his usual more intimate fare Nichols is still able to steer his cast to near perfection as a genuine actor’s director. He obviously has a nice rapport with Julia Roberts having already guided her to one of her better performances in Closer but seems to frame Tom Hanks and the rest with all the professionalism he has at his fingertips. No the only real problem with Charlie Wilson's War is that it is coming on the tail end of a slew of movies about troubles in the Middle East. Even though Hollywood thinks it’s a hot-button topic the audiences don’t necessarily agree. From The Kingdom to Rendition to Lions for Lambs and others moviegoers are just not responding despite the star power of a Jamie Foxx Reese Witherspoon or Tom Cruise. But out of all these movies Charlie Wilson's War has the best shot to rise above--not only because it has box office draws Hanks and Roberts attached but because it’s the most well-rounded and engaging of the bunch. Good luck Charlie!
Jessica Shephard (Ashley Judd) has just been promoted to police inspector with the San Francisco Police Department's Homicide Unit and her first case--a man found beaten to death on the beach--proves unsettling: She had a one-night stand with the victim a few months back. Shaken Jessica downs a bottle of red wine rummages through an old box containing gruesome black-and-white photos of a man with a bullet in the head and some dingy Raggedy Ann dolls. Turns out Jessica has some serious issues. Her father a police officer was a serial killer who ended up murdering his wife before turning the gun on himself making Jessica an orphan at the age of 6. This tough-as-nails cop appears composed on the surface but she indulges in self-destructive late-night activities including engaging in violent sex with strangers and drinking until she blacks out. Within a week two more of Jessica's former flames turn up dead and all three bodies bear the distinguished signature of a serial killer--a cigarette burn on the back of the left hand. Since she can't remember anything that happened during her blackouts Jessica starts to suspect she might be responsible for the murders. On the other hand she can't shake the feeling she's being followed and her new partner Mike (Andy Garcia) has been behaving strangely showing up on her doorstep in the wee hours of the night. A tormented Jessica seeks comfort from John (Samuel L Jackson) her mentor and an old friend of her father's who seems to think she needs protection--from herself. Could Jessica be the very killer she is tracking?
Judd tones down the Hollywood glam here and with her makeup-free complexion she actually looks like a real cop. But her physical transformation doesn't overcome the inherent flaws in the way the character is written. While we should feel sympathy for Jessica because of her childhood trauma we don't for all kinds of reasons. Her character doesn't think she has a problem for one and she never develops close relationships in the film except maybe with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and the stringy-haired strangers she has violent sexual liaisons with. Even Jessica's revelations to a staff psychiatrist are superficial. While it's almost impossible to warm up to Judd's character it's even more difficult to relate to her relationships with leading males. As Mike Jessica's partner Garcia constantly spews cop-thriller clichés about their unspoken loyalty and trust as colleagues but for all his talk we never actually see that kind of bond between them. How can these cops who only met a week before be expected to have instant loyalty? What's worse the sleazy pass he makes at a boozy Jessica one night squashes his character's potential to be the film's only good guy. Jessica's relationship with John who is supposed to be her mentor at the police department is equally hard to swallow. Jackson is great at making his character chillingly creepy but if the audience can sense his deviousness within 10 minutes why hasn't Jessica picked up on it after years of knowing him personally and professionally?
It's hard to believe that Twisted comes from Philip Kaufman the same director who brought us opuses The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. While Kaufman uses his trademark visual style to capture the briny and foggy feel of the San Francisco Bay area Twisted suffers from the same sorry plot predicament his 1993 adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel Rising Sun did: It's utterly predictable. But rather than remedy the story Kaufman and co-writer Sarah Thorp toss one red herring after an another hoping to keep viewers off the scent. Case in point: Every time Jessica suspects someone is watching her we hear the distinctive sounds of someone repeatedly flipping a lighter cover so it's safe to assume the bad guy will be the one who carries a lighter and not the one who lights his cigarettes with matches right? The film adds distractions to conceal the obvious including Jessica waking up with unexplained blood on her hand and her jealous ex-boyfriend constantly breaking into her house. There are so many diversions at work here that the film becomes a joke one that culminates with a hokey punch line as the antagonist spills out an elaborate confession that partly patches up any holes in the outrageous plot.