Movie Review: Prometheus (2D) (2012)

June 8, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I just watched one of my most anticipated films of the year, Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s is-it-or-isn’t-it prequel to Alien, his 1979 classic. There is an answer to that question but it’s not a particularly important one, because Prometheus stands on it’s own extremely well. It’s not the classic Alien or Aliens is, but hey, few films are. If you measure the film by the impossible standards of those films, of course it is going to fall short. But by ordinary standards this film is freaking awesome. Visually stunning, with excellent performances and plenty of suspense. It’s not groundbreaking by any means but takes the successful Alien/s formula and places it on a much larger and different angled palette.

Set late in this century, it tells the story of a group of private sector space travellers who head to the moon of a distant planet to seek the origins of mankind. What they find, of course, is not quite what they expected.

This is a very different film to those in the Alien franchise (I am going to pretend, by the way, that the Alien vs Predator pieces of crap never existed). This is a ‘big ideas’ movie, or at least it tries to be one, and the scale and grandeur dwarfs anything that has been attempted in those earlier films. The special effects and the sets and make up are simply mind-blowing. The introductory scene sets the tone perfectly and is one of the best I have seen in a very long time.

At it’s heart though, Prometheus is still a sci-fi mystery horror, and in that regard it delivers. Even when you have a fair idea of what is likely to happen it’s still suspenseful — and often, extremely gross. It has scare tactics that will remind viewers of the Alien franchise though I wouldn’t call it ‘recycled.’ There are also one or two memorable scenes that will probably linger in the back of my mind forever.

The screenplay is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. Spaihts previously wrote the script for The Darkest Hour, which was a horrible movie but not because of the writing (I thought the idea was decent). Lindelof, on the other hand, is the co-creator of and writer for one of the most fascinating and frustrating TV shows of all time, Lost, and his fingerprints are all over this one.

On the bright side, the plot unravels like a brilliant mystery, akin to slowly peeling off the layers a giant onion. When you’re not terrified you’re fully engaged trying to figure out what the heck is going on. On the other hand, Prometheus is full of plot holes, loose ends and unexplained stuff that will frustrate a lot of viewers to no end. It’s almost as though it was written with a sequel in mind, or perhaps, like Lost, the writers just did what they thought was cool at the time without giving much thought to whether they could make sense of it later, if at all.

Being a film about finding the origins of man, there are of course some philosophical considerations. On this point I felt Prometheus was also very Lost-like; that is, a lot of interesting questions but not a lot of answers, a lot of style but not a whole lot of substance. That said, I didn’t really care. Intellectual stimulation was not high on the list of reasons why I wanted to watch this film.

The cast is super. Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce. No weak link in that line up. The Assbender, though, is the clear standout as David, a mesmerising guy you quickly find out is not quite the same as the others. It’s not a stretch to say the Assbender carries the bulk of this film. 300, Centurion, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, Shame and now Prometheus. The dude has become one of my favourite actors.

Rapace gives a sound effort as scientist Elizabeth Shaw, though it’s rather unfair to compare her to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) because they are such different personalities. Unfortunately, she doesn’t even channel her inner Lisbeth Salander, which might leave some of her Dragon Tattoo fans disappointed. Despite her name being the first in the credits, Rapace doesn’t stand out throughout the first half of the film, which I’m not sure is by design. However, she does have one ripper of a scene later on, possibly the best sequence in the entire film (and an instant classic), and more or less redeems herself by the end.

So yeah, Prometheus is pretty cool. Flawed but very enjoyable if you can look past its most egregious problems. At the end of the day, I didn’t watch Prometheus expecting it to be as good as Alien/s. I didn’t watch it expecting to gain more insights about where we came from. I watched it expecting to be entertained, awed and terrified for a couple of hours. And I was.

4.25 stars out of 5!

Book Review: ‘Zero and Other Fictions’ by Huang Fan

June 8, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Short stories and novellas are in a weird grey area for me. I love the idea of them, but at the same time, there aren’t many that I find myself fully engaging with. It is with this bizarre love-hate relationship that I have that I read Zero and Other Fictions, a collection of three short stories and a 100-page novella by acclaimed Taiwanese writer Huang Fan.

Not many people have heard of Huang, but he is no doubt a big deal in Taiwan’s literary circles, having won just about every major literary prize the country has to offer. Zero and other Fictions is the first collection of his work to appear in English, and it is translated and edited by award-winning translator John Balcom.

This is a fascinating anthology because it is so varied in its subject matter and styles. If the idea was to show off Huang’s versatility and the range of his imagination, this collection certainly achieves that.

The first story, “Lai Suo”, which propelled Huang to the forefront ofTaiwan’s literary scene in 1979, is a subtle and sometimes confusing story about a naïve man who becomes an unwitting pawn of Taiwanese politics. Spanning a period from the Japanese colonial era to the late 1980s, the story jumps back and forth effortlessly through time in a stream-of-consciousness style. It is the type of story that allows the reader to appreciate Huang’s literary genius but many not connect with it unless they have a bit of an idea about Taiwanese history and its political environment through the years.

The second story, “The Intelligent Man”, provides a stark contrast. It is a light-hearted satire about a Taiwanese businessman who moves to the US but through his business travels frequently back toAsia– where he has developed a habit of keeping a mistress in every port. It’s actually not an outlandish concept because I know for a fact that it is rather common.

The third story, “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”, is a bizarre metafictional tale of the narrator’s childhood in a rapidly urbanisingTaipei. This one had me scratching my head more than once because I had no idea what it was getting at until the very end, and I believe that was Huang’s intention. It’s an experimental piece, well-written, sure, but probably the least enjoyable of the collection.

The fourth and final story is “Zero”, which takes up about two-thirds of the book’s pages. It is the first work of science fiction to win a major literary award inTaiwan, and considering that it was written in the 1980s, that’s a pretty impressive achievement. “Zero” depicts an Orwellian future, a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world where nearly every significant human decision – from jobs to holiday destinations – is made by higher powers. Conformity is not an option – it is mandatory and an accepted philosophy. It is with this backdrop that the story’s protagonist, Xi De, an independent thinker, begins to ponder whether this totalitarian world is all there is to know.

One hundred pages is an uncomfortable length for a piece of adult fiction. It’s too long for a short story and in this case, one gets the feeling that Huang could have easily made it a novel three or four times as long, but chose not to. As a result, I found Zero engaging, certainly the most engaging piece of the four, but still strangely lacking in the end. Also, having seen so many sci-fi movies over the years, it wasn’t easy getting excited about a world which is not too dissimilar – I had to keep reminding myself that this story was written nearly three decades ago.

All of Huang’s stories have political and societal undertones which will resonate more with people who have background knowledge of the circumstances under which they were written. Every story in this collection, especially “Lai Suo”, demands multiple readings to fully appreciate the power of Huang’s writing. However, I still think my lack of genuine understanding of Taiwan’s political history has made me lose something from the experience. Balcom’s translations, as elegant as they are, probably also failed to convey the full force of the writings in their original Chinese. The result is a sometimes enjoyable but also frequently frustrating read that I wished could have been better.

3 out of 5

Mirror Mirror (2012) vs Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

June 8, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

As I have foreshadowed, my movie reviews are a little backed up, so why not kill two birds with one stone with this double-barreled review of two new films based around the same premise, Julia Roberts’ Mirror Mirror and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman?

To be honest, I didn’t have much an interest in either film, but as usual, I watched both. What can I do? I’m a film buff.

First up, Mirror Mirror, which should have been more aptly titled “Lily Collin’s Eyebrows.” Since the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, Collin’s eyebrows have been elevated to a whole new level. I was so distracted by the eyebrows that I often forgot to focus on the film. Which is easy, by the way, because it sucked donkey balls.

The majority of Mirror Mirror’s plot follows the original fairytale. Collins is Snow White and her stepmother and the Queen, Julia Roberts, is trying to get rid of her so she can remain the fairest of them all. Yes, there is a prince and yes, there are dwarves. No surprises.

Theoretically, Mirror Mirror should have been the better film. Just about everyone’s impression of Snow White comes from the Disney cartoon, which made it naturally more suitable for a family comedy as opposed to Snow White and the Huntsman’s “re-imagining.” While it was admittedly trying to be fun, Mirror Mirror suffered from a complete lack of freshness and laughs. The majority of the jokes were what I would call “family humour”, which is code for unfunny. There may have been a couple of good ones here and there, largely thanks to the charming wit of Winklevii star Armie Hammer as the prince, but for the most part the jokes hopscotched between obvious, lame and unimaginative. I can see children enjoying it, but I must say I cringed more than I laughed.

Mirror Mirror was more this

To be fair, the film was not badly made. Director Tarsem Singh, who last worked on Immortals, infuses flair into the art direction, and the costumes, especially those donned by Roberts, were all quite brilliant. The performances were strong and, thankfully, no one took themselves too seriously.

But in the end, I just couldn’t force myself to like or enjoy Mirror Mirror. Some might think the final Bollywood tribute sing-song was a redeeming feature but I found it totally bizarre and somewhat uncomfortable. If the film had lifted my spirits prior to this point I might have felt differently, but alas, it did not.

This brings me to the second Snow White film, Snow White and the Huntsman, which I thought would stink even before I caught the first trailer. Surprisingly, while I also struggled with it, I found it to be the better motion picture overall.

The Huntsman (let’s just call it that for short), is in the vein of last year’s Red Riding Hood, you know, that Amanda Seyfried “re-imagining” of another popular fairytale. It takes the basic plot and essentially does whatever it wants with it. In Red Riding Hood’s case, it was obviously inspired by the love triangle and teenage angst from Twilight, which doomed it to suckiness from the outset. In The Huntsman’s case, it’s a lot more complicated. This one takes “inspiration” from a lot of movies, from Lord of the Rings (or some might say Game of Thrones), Joan of Arc, Braveheart, Alice in Wonderland, Kingdom of Heaven, just to name a few. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

In this one, Snow White is imprisoned by the evil Queen for years before a daring escape into the enchanted forest, and a new character, known only as the Huntsman, is tasked with tracking her down. To me, even though the script was pretty muddled, it was by far more interesting because there were characters and plot points I didn’t expect. Sure, the story takes some questionably wild turns and spirals into absurdity on more than one occasion, but at least it kept me wondering what was going to happen next (for the most part, because at 127 minutes it was way too long and lost my interest for a while).

The final act of the film, the supposed climax, was crap and predictable. Anyone that has seen the trailers or the poster will know that Snow White, who has been imprisoned in a tiny cell since she was a child, mind you, suddenly becomes a sword-wielding badass for some reason. Her obligatory Braveheart-style motivation speech (which has become a staple of every movie with a big battle scene these days) was probably the most WTF moment I have seen on the big screen in years.

The standout character in the whole film has to be Charlize Theron as the crazy bitch/witch of a Queen. She’s fascinating despite the shortcomings of her character and Theron does an amazing job of portraying the seductive nutjob notwithstanding the sometimes trite dialogue she has to spew out.

Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman is also an interesting character and he fits the role well, but there were too many loose ends when it came to his relationship with the princess.

Snow White and the Huntsman was more this

Speaking of which, if there is an Oscar for unexplained/exaggerated heavy breathing, Kristen Stewart would win it every year. She’s not bad in this but her act is wearing thin on me. I became a massive fan of hers after watching Into the Wild back in 2007 (one of my favourite films of all time), and sadly my affection for her has dwindled with every subsequent film she has been in (well, Adventureland is an exception). By the time I watch Breaking Dawn: Part II, I might very well find myself despising her.

Visually, the film is stunning, with the scenes involving Theron’s spells and the enchanted forest exemplifying what movie magic is all about. Amazingly, this is the first feature of director Rupert Sanders, who was previously best known for his advertisement of the video game HALO. I’d be very interested to see what he comes up with next.

Although it’s very difficult to compare two such different films, ultimately, The Huntsman is the better movie. That’s not saying a lot, considering how disappointed I was in Snow White, but as pieces of entertainment, it’s not much of a contest.

Mirror Mirror: 1.5 stars

Snow White and the Huntsman: 3 stars

PS: Ray Winstone must be the only guy in Hollywood who can play Beowulf and one of the Seven Dwarves. Just sayin’.