Motion Pictures Reviewed: Prometheus

The wait is over: three decades after Blade Runner, Ridley Scott returns to the genre he redefined in Alien‘s spiritual precursor/successor, Prometheus. Does Scott’s bombastic space case make for universal appeal, or does it find him going boldly where every man has gone before?

A few months back I posted a relatively breathless preview of Ridley Scott’s new film Prometheus, the insanely-hyped science fiction creationist epic set before the iconic space-horror visual orgasm that was 1979’s Alien. Ever since 1982’s Blade Runner, Scott’s spent the past 30 years distancing himself from the genre that put him in the critics’ corner, inspiring film students, sci-fi junkies, and popcorn-lovers alike to openly embrace the ideas of subtly dystopic, corporately-controlled intergalactic shitshows. Alien, in particular, broke new ground in removing most of the sheen from futuristic space operas, opting for ethereal, industrial settings full of claustrophobic hallways, junktastic computer interfaces, and VHS-quality video feeds: it was situations and characters were realistic and the horrors that followed them were as strikingly inventive as they were visceral. Flash forward another three decades to 2012, and Scott’s budget (not to mention his ambitions) have become substantially… well, larger, a scale he uses to crank everything in Prometheus to an eleven on the “holy cow”-scale.

How is babby formed?

Scott’s desire to “think big” and “go big” with his artistic homecoming carries over into the main gist and (initially) driving idea of Prometheus: who are we, as human beings, and where did we come from? Scott’s “answer”, at least for the second half of that question, is a giant, bald, blue-pale muscleman who drinks some nasty black stuff in the first minute or so of the movie that causes him to rapidly decay, fall over a waterfall and spread his DNA around a prehistoric landscape, all after watching a gigantic spacecraft silently float away through thick grey clouds, back into the infinite sea of space. It’s an almost poetic hook that begs more questions than it does answers; fitting, given the nature of the ideas Scott aims to tackle here.

What’s with the sci-fi tendency to name spaceships after ill-fated mythological characters???

From there, we’re whisked off to 2093 aboard the Prometheus, a corporately funded deep-space research vessel tacked with uncovering the origins of mankind from the furthest regions of our galaxy. Their destination (with nods to devoted fans of the Alien franchise) is LV-223, a distant moon archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Repace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find numerous references to in ancient pictograms they found around the world. The uber-old depictions of humans worshiping giant humanoid figures that point toward a star system lead the two young scientists to conclude that these “gods” were actually prehistoric astronauts, inviting latter-day humans to “meet their makers” (a phrase ironically and a bit too overtly thrown around throughout the flick courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s crack/cracked-up script).

Brushing up on their history, no doubt…

What follows would be a bit too telling for people looking forward to literally unearthing the mysteries Scott hints at here, but I guarentee you there’s plenty of blood, sweat, and tentacles lurking in man’s cradle once the Prometheus has landed. Alien-franchise fans will have a blast with the impressive mythology-integration Lindelof brought to the table, particularly the shady background dealings of Weyland Industries, the company funding the expedition. Aside from the aforementioned alien nasties, the movie’s primary antagonists are these slippery corporate-types pulling the operation’s strings. Charlize Theron’s appropriately icy expedition supervisor Meredith Vickers makes interesting character-development turns, going from skeptical authority figure to surprisingly desperate woman-wronged; it’s fascinating and impressive that Lindelof could make such a seemingly two-dimensional character as deep as she is, but disappointing how short-lived and under-utilized her potential ends up given her strengths.

She’s as cold as ice…

Most other characters fall under this catagory as well: Repace’s Shaw goes full 360 on her concepts of faith throughout the film and demonstrates jaw-dropping resilience, yet lacks the rebellious punch of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley in Alien. Idris Elba’s role as a blue-collared ship captain is appreciated but underplayed by the action at hand, especially given that he barely leaves the cockpit the entire movie. Marshall-Green’s Holloway character is wasted as a mere foil and romantic connection for Repace’s, leaving his potential impact in the film relatively unrealized.

Elizabeth Shaw’s not quite Ripley, but she still has to put up with some horrific situations in her underwear.

The rest of the crew are unfortunately underwritten, often carrying glimpses into what could have been (Sean Harris’ Fifield, the stoner geologist very much opposed to going down that dark, scary looking hallway over there) rather than what ends up being, which most of the time is a bloodied corpse. Most the blame falls on Lindelof here: he spends far too much time seeking ways to satiate franchise fan-bases without paying enough attention to drawing out his characters and making them act in believable ways. Believable character action, in particular, becomes an increasingly rare commodity as the body-count rises, crew-members often showing a lack of scientific restraint unbecoming of supposed world-class scientists.

Rising above the pack, however, is the ever lauded Michael Fassbender, sporting a fascist-esque blonde hairdo and impressive Peter O’Toole inflection. Playing the ship’s synthetic science officer (again, wetting the mouths of every Alien-franchise fan ever), David, Fassbender wryly takes his familiar role and inventively turns it upside-down, dropping hints at David’s underlying intentions and curiosities lost on the rest of the crew which merely shrugs his being off as pure mechanization. Watching Fassbender’s near-invisible wince when his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce under a crapload of makeup), says via hologram that David is “the closest thing to a son he has” despite the fact he “will never have a soul” is as heart-wrenching a display of humanity as any Scott has ever filmed in his near 40 year career. Early parts of the film dedicate themselves to observing David’s routines prior to the rest of the crew waking from their two-year hypersleep: he shoots hoops one-handed riding a bicycle… he studies countless languages and recites them perfectly… he watches Lawrence of Arabia, quoting O’Toole obsessively… he even watches crew-members dreams, a robotic voyeur seeking to understand what makes us tick. It’s creepy and intriguing all at the same time, ultimately trumping the initial creationist tones the rest of the script begs the audience to pay heed to.

Something to behold.

When Fassbender’s not busy stealing the scene, however, the scenes themselves are: despite character flubs, Lindelof and Scott have established a very impressive universe in Prometheus, one that ties into the Alien-franchise without necessarily feeling constricted by its design choices. Indeed, here Scott aims for grandiosity on a level unseen in Alien, dreaming up cavernous structures, gigantic alien creatures, massive action set-pieces, and gorgeous landscapes. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is no slouch on the visuals, his framing artful and technique engrossing. The 3D visual effects courtesy of the Moving Picture Company are some of the best realized since (as much as I hate the movie) Avatar, coming across as tastefully immersive rather than gaudily exploitative. Disappointing, to a certain extent, are some of the creature designs, branching a bit too far away from H.R. Giger’s source designs and opting for familiarly fleshy beings rather than distinctly (and bracingly) alien ones. That said, the visuals, as a whole will definitely not disappoint.

Nothing ominous about this at all…

Aside from somewhat sloppy writing and lackluster character development, the only other glaring problems with Prometheus are the numerous plot-holes and unexplained circumstances that sometimes pop up in the film’s second-act. I feel like the ball’s in Ridley’s court here: he overtly (and, even cheekily) sets up the film’s finale less as a culmination and more as a launching pad for a potential franchise, leaving his big questions mostly unanswered and his remaining characters’ blindly heading again into the unknown. For some, this turn may cheapen the experience, but for others (franchise fans in particular), it will only whet appetites for another outing. Visually stunning but a bit too rough for its own ambitions, this hype-machine grinds metal on literary levels, but proves ample popcorn-potential for most movie-goers. Prepare to meet your makers!

Ripcord Reviews: Japandroids – CELEBRATION ROCK

Coming off their infectiously energetic debut LP, Post-Nothing, Vancouver rock-revitalizers Japandroids aim to continue their frenetic take on punk anthem-building with their anxiously-awaited followup record, Celebration Rock. Is this the aptly titled opus that will push the two-man act past their noisy, angst-y cradle, or a sophomore misstep that keeps the boys in song-writing safe-zones.

You have no idea how right this picture is.

Let me get this out of the way (before my preface has me playing the part of critical waffler): part of Japandroids’ undeniable charm, as evidenced on their fantastic 2009 debut, Post-Nothing, is their heart-wrenching appreciation for simplistic and yet brutally energetic anthem howling. Did it matter that the majority of their first LP’s songs were predominantly composed of two or three lyrical lines shouted out over guitar-blasts and a sea of cymbal crashes? Not really: the album was so enticingly rapturous, it was hard not to smile or sing along or make it a permanent iPod fixture (guilty on all accounts). It also helped that these Canadian dudes put on a hell of a live show, complete with heavy duty fans to blow Brian King’s hair around. It was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had a small venue show, and probably any show I’ve ever been to. So yeah, I’m impartial to these guys, but that impartiality is warranted by the undisputed air of grandiosity and genuine passion Japandroids pump into every two-minute explosion of noise-pop genius they pump out.

Now that the disclaimer’s out of the way, we can approach the topic at hand: Celebration Rock. The band’s second LP has been self-described as a significant maturation marker on King and drummer, David Prowse’s, songwriting skill-sets, particularly in the lyrical department. We’ve actually seen evidence of this popping up over the past few years anyways, as the eponymous track on the Younger Us 7″ delivered some of the most poignant punk-rock lyrics this side of the apolitical sphere since the mid-80’s. When King wails “Remeber that night you were already in bed/said ‘fuck it’, got up to drink with me instead”, what’s amazing is that you do: between the sonic assault and King’s engagingly familiar voice crying out for raucous abandon, the collective experience of being a twenty-something cascades over that four-second musical peak and suddenly everything is relative. Deep, I know…

But all existential yahoo-ism aside, Japandroids are one of those rare acts that truly manage to pack a decade’s worth of life-experience into three minute rock songs, a skill they aim to utilize for the full 35 minutes of Celebration Rock. Where Post-Nothing was an album built as much on dynamism as it was on beat-to-sh!t drums and hammered guitar riffs, Celebration takes Japandroids down a decided path to full-frontal sonic assault. From the time that familiar blast of distortion kicks-in about a minute into “The Nights of Wine and Roses”, the band maintains a breakneck pace and volume all the way to the exuberant (and appropriately titled) finish of “Continuous Thunder”. And, unlike similarly energetic moments on Post-Nothing, here each headbanging piece feels fully crafted: the lyrics are exponentially more literate across the board (“The House that Heaven Built”), Prowse tightens up his game, and King mercifully spares us from another “Crazy/Forever”. The results are decidedly poppier, but in a good way: Japandroids were always at their best live when a crowd could bounce around, crying out lyrics with King at the mic like a club-bound echo. It’s the kind of record that plays like a bar-scene performance where you buy the boys a round of Jameson for the times and sweat and tinnitus.

Oh wait: been there… done that…

So, while Japandroids haven’t taken drastic steps away from their debut’s relentless rock n’ roll rampart, they have managed to hone their craft in a way that evolves previously unrefined facets (lyrics, musicianship) into sharpened sword-points of fuzz-blasted bliss. Enormously rewarding, energetic, and talent affirming, Celebration Rock offers a musical rarity these days: the feel-good record that won’t find its way into a Glee episode (if there is a god, thank him). So do yourselves a favor: go out, find the record, put $10 on the counter and the LP on whatever you have to play it with, and crank the volume to max. You’ll appreciate it later.

Crack Tracks (courtesy of Soundcloud):

“The House That Heaven Built” (Celebration Rock, Polyvinyl [2012])

Moving Pictures Reviewed: Moonrise Kingdom

Indie filmmaking darling and eternal retrophile Wes Anderson sets his heavily stylized lens on sleepy New England coastal communities in his new adolescent love yarn Moonrise Kingdom. Does this jaunt into 1960’s fantasy escapism mark a return to Steve Zissou-esque majesty or is it just another dull ride a la Darjeeling Limited?

It’s hard to believe it has been over a decade since Wes Anderson became a household name in the cineniche with The Royal Tenenbaums and, still, nearly fifteen since his first major breakout with appropriated celebrated Rushmore, especially in light of how fresh and glaringly hip those films continue to be even by today’s standards. Anderson’s story-book approach to the cinematic narrative that surrounds is wholly human and relatable characters often proves the perfect balancing act between the fantastical novelty of their circumstances and the sardonic commentaries about relationships that permeate and sizzle in each film with understated immediacy. In this sense, Anderson is a rare auteur capable, at his best, of incomparable storytelling satisfaction when it comes to character arcs, stylistic presentation, and ironic appeal. In other words, the guy’s a deserving hipster magnet.

He saved Latin… what did you ever do? (Wes Anderson)

That said, Anderson’s career hasn’t been without it’s fair share of missteps and mixed reception. 2007’s Darjeeling Limited, for example, proved relatively disappointing despite the exceptional cast and setting, mostly because it buckled under its own thematic pretensions. The same can be said, at least in my opinion, about Tenenbaums, where precocious and intriguing story-lines end up sacrificed for overly sentimental undertones midway through the film. In both cases, the films are eventually redeemed through excellent and bittersweet final acts, though, when held next to gems like Rushmore or the criminally underrated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s crushing commentaries on the nature of broken family-life tend to overwhelm his lesser pictures, removing his audience from the sense of wonder and stylishly ridiculous excitement he is fully capable of bringing to the table.

Okay, where do we start?

Lucky for us, Anderson’s newest flick, coming-of-age fantasy Moonrise Kingdom is far and away better than Darjeeling Limited, and, in many ways, his most readily accessible film (yes, even more appealing to mainstream audiences than Fantastic Mr. Fox). Shot with his signature eye toward retro-stylism (aided by the 1960’s setting) and intimate attention to subtle human eccentricities, Kingdom is the rare movie that strikes its audience as elaborately constructed without ever feeling contrived; formulated without feeling formulaic. Sure Bill Murray mopes around and Bob Balaban offers whimsically informative on-screen narration every so often, but it never comes across as pretentious as much as it does engrossing and engaging in familiar yet novel ways.

“Oh hai, Bob!”

The set-up is simple enough: orphaned and jaded Khaki Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) runs away from his regiment with pen-pal/first-crush Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) as both seek solace from broken homes, bullying, and adults brushing their feelings aside. As their adventure is paralleled with the small-knit island community’s rally to find them, Anderson puts surprising emphasis and depth into seemingly cookie-cutter characters like Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp and Edward Norton’s Scout Master Randy Ward charged with rescuing them, painting them less as antagonists and, rather, as kindred spirits capable of empathizing with Sam and Suzy even as they seek to tear them apart. The same can be said for Billy Murray and Francis McDormand’s performances as Suzy’s fractious yet aloof lawyer parents, who slowly grow to maturity, much like Sam and Suzy do, throughout the film. Yes, there are a couple villains sprinkled here and there: Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts agree early on to hunt him down with weapons against their Scout Master’s wishes; Tilda Swinton’s late-game turn as the ominously nameless Social Services plays bad with icy demeanor, but as her lack of name implies, she’s less of a character here than she is a looming, dangerous situation Sam has to avoid in the last 30 minutes of the film, leaving her character feel a little wasted in hindsight.

Cool cast, bro!

Moonrise Kingdom is, however, replete with Anderson’s noticeably eclectic and approachable humor: his situations are almost always brimming with humor and magic that manages to come across as both ridiculous and totally appropriate. Pairing absolute stylistic likability with sincere commentary about learning to love and live (and learning to love and live again), Anderson once again crafts a rewarding yarn that manages to both entertain and enlighten audiences. So grab a ticket when you can: I guarantee it’ll be an illuminating experience (okay, pun aside, you’ll dig it)!

Special Review: Max Payne 3

Eight years after his “Fall” and twelve after his bullet-riddled introduction, tragic video game hero Max Payne returns for a third outing in Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. Trading the noir-tinged New York winters for the overstimulated intensity of São Paulo’s urban sprawl, does this vacation from hell carry the same heat its lauded precursors did or does it land itself in a body-bag?

Few games hold the sort of narrative and stylistic gravitas the iconic Max Payne franchise built its reputation on. Back in 2001, developer Remedy Games’ first series outing broke industry standards with clever implementation of the now somewhat overused “bullet-time” effect in its innovative gameplay, offering a uniquely cinematic experience gamers had drooled over in the wake of basement-dweller opuses like The Matrix. Paired with a staple film-noir atmosphere and an engaging, character-driven revenge-yarn, Max Payne rightfully found its way into the pantheon of highly celebrated video games. Likewise, its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, found equal (if not even more abundant) praise two years later, deepening the narrative experience, bolstering player’s attachment to the tragic title character, and doubling out the amount of digital destruction and bloodshed to boot. Then, with Remedy’s sights locked on Alan Wake and publisher Rockstar Games focused on their numerous open-world titles, it seemed the days of Payne were numbered. However, eight years after the release of his “Fall”, Max is stepping back out of the snowy New York twilight and into the hazy, electronic simmer of sunny São Paulo circa 2012 in Max Payne 3.

Everybody’s favorite self-loathing, pill-popping anti-hero’s back!

With publisher Rockstar now in the developer’s seat, Max Payne 3 promises the same slow-mo bullet-ballet gameplay of its predecessors with the signature style and auteurism Rockstar is famous for thanks to big name franchises like the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series. It is important to note, however, that while Rockstar’s track record with the open-world market is celebrated and practically spotless, its forays into the more linear action-genre have been notably less successful. Games like Red Dead Revolver and the more recent LA Noire boasted high quality production values and exceptional narrative construction, but sacrificed a honed focus on innovative gameplay for the sake of a cinematic experience. Where LA Noire gave players the option to explore the entirety of a meticulously detailed 1940’s Los Angeles, for example, it also barred its audience from interacting with it in meaningful ways outside the context of heavily linear investigations and the occasional 911 response encounter. As cherished a developer as they are with certain games that boast gameplay freedom, Rockstar has also earned a reputation for shackling experiences when it comes to more linear franchises, a rep that furrowed a number of eyebrows back when it was announced Max Payne 3 was getting developed in-house at the game studio.

Looks familiar enough.

For those of you who held your breath, however, its time to come back up for air: Max Payne 3 is easily the most rewarding action-game experience Rockstar has offered up outside its open-world titles and it’s every bit a worthy successor to the franchise that birthed it. Picking up nearly a decade after Mona Sax died in his arms, Max exists at the bottom of a bottle, drinking himself half to death in New Jersey as a washed up cop and a self-made mess. Lucky for us, the pity party takes a backseat to explosive gunplay quickly enough as Max is approached with a proposition to bodyguard a wealthy Brazilian businessman and his trophy wife. After a little more moping and absentmindedly shooting the son of a mob-boss, Max accepts the deal with entire New Jersey mob at his heel. Of course, trading the snow-tipped streets of Hoboken for the over-saturated glare of São Paulo proves less of a picnic when Max’s new hire becomes the target of drug-running kidnappers, ruthless paramilitaries, and favela-clearing death squad cops. Needless to say, conspiracies, plot-twists, and cleverly written narration quips mount with the body count as Max kills his way up the underworld food chain once again, offering a uniquely cinematic and wholly entertaining single-player experience that proves as engaging as it does brutal.

New look, same Payne.

Aside from the satisfyingly explosive story, Max Payne 3 does a fantastic job capturing the mechanics of the original game’s “bullet-ballets” while integrating new gameplay innovations (such as the now seemingly inescapable cover-system pre-requesite) to fit current-gen standards. For the most part, Rockstar deserves ample cred for introducing some truly unforgettable action centerpieces here, particularly in close quarters situations that ask the player to utilize space strategically with well-timed slow-mo jumps and aiming precision (free-aim is the way to go). Rockstar has proven no slouch on the presentation side of things, either: the visuals pack quite the punch, with stunning character animation, destructible environments, and visceral particle effects bolstering the experience. The appropriately vibrant and detailed environments are pure eye-candy. The percussive, atmosphere-soaked score from LA-noise rockers HEALTH adds a lot to the game’s unsettling, dark vibes, offering an abrasively endearing marriage between the look and sound Rockstar aims for. “Tears”, the closest thing the band gets to pop-structure, particularly highlights the outfit’s musical strengths, but is sadly underplayed as a whole. It was kind of a bummer.

He may be slumming, but Max’s adventure is far from poor.

For everything Max Payne 3 has going for it, though, certain issues do shine through the immaculate presentation and relentlessly intense firefights. As polished and well written as the story-line is, Rockstar’s decision to trade loading-screens for fully-rendered in-game cutscenes ends up feeling like a cheap diversionary tactic in subsequent play-throughs. This becomes all the more apparent once players realize how much the first half of the game’s cutscenes are spent observing Max drinking alone in his cruddy apartment (the first three are great for setting up how far Max has fallen, but after a while it becomes pointless filler). The initially novel neon flash-effects used to highlight the super-stimulated feel of São Paulo’s electric-tinged metropolis quickly become a tired motif, and, paired with the screwy design choice to have random bits of internal monologue litter the screen during cutscenes, the look and feel of what could’ve otherwise been a totally tasteful traditional approach is diminished by Rockstar’s attempts to take narrative-design integration to annoying new heights (jeez, what a mouthful…). Rockstar’s decision to occasionally offer players wide open shooting-ranges in certain outdoor levels also downplays the game’s strengths when it comes to contained and elaborate combat maneuvering. Often times these moments are still very playable, but lack the same strength and memorable character of intense corridor-to-corridor shoot-outs.

Looks pretty cool… till it invades your screen every 3 minutes…

On the plus-side, though, Max Payne 3 offers a surprisingly robust and rewarding multiplayer experience for players looking to stray from the sometimes constricting single-player experience. Taking hints from Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV‘s multiplayer, game-types run the gamut (sans the unnecessary open-world aspects of those titles) and an XP-system that earns players new tools for destructive goodness. Perhaps the most impressive gameplay innovation Rockstar brings to the table, however, is the newly implemented bullet-time system that allows certain players to go head-to-head with one another at crucial moments, dueling mid-air in a deadly dance of digital death. It’s a crowning moment for Rockstar, who’ve managed to offer something once thought impossible to do on the multiplayer side of things.

Don’t tell me you don’t want to play this dude…

So, while it’s not a perfect experience, Max Payne 3 rises to meet its predecessors as a worthy followup to a franchise built on pixelated blood, sweat, and countless tears. A harrowing tragedy and raucous revenge-ride, Max’s third outing offers ample playability, unabashedly cinematic presentation, and all the carnage you’d expect out of a Rockstar package while retaining the signature feel of the franchise it came from. Who says an old dog can’t learn new tricks?