I am not sure whether it is because I am a cynic or because I am apathetic or because I spend most of my “deep thinking time” either analyzing films or sleeping, but the question of “Where do we come from?” and other “origin of life” and “meaning of life” questions has never really occurred to me longer than that of a piece of Trident gum. I am amongst the blithely unaware, and remain so. Even watching certain films and shows that prod at that very question, like Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even TV’s Lost, aside from analyzing within the context of the given show, I never though more of it outside of that context or applied it to my own life. Even after reading Camus’ The Stranger and even after watching Being John Malkovich (which, for the record, helped me grasp existentialism), I never thought of the meaning of life personally. Prometheus is no different, but I appreciated its probing at such questions nevertheless. While its admiration for Big Ideas is commendable, it is one hell of a messy film. But I enjoyed it anyways. Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in 1979 with Alien is visually spectacular, but its storyline is about as coherent as the theatrical edition of David Fincher’s Alien3 .
Its big questions stick out in the dialogue much like the social criticisms that stick out like an eyesore in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, or the social commentary on race relations sticks out blatantly in Crash. Though, the fact that a mainstream blockbuster would even bother asking those kinds of questions in a world of film where deep thought is usually frowned upon is, to some extent, admirable. Its choppy form and presentation is something that is problematic, but it is nice to see something that asks its viewers to think of those things. Written by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator/executive producer/writer Damon Lindelof, it asks those questions repeatedly, but perhaps not in an incessant manner. A good thing about the film’s screenplay is that, while it asks those questions, and filly in the backgrounds of certain characters with various ideologies, it allows for the audience to consider the answers.When scientists find an “invitation” in the form of archeological digs and subsequent symbols across the world pointing to something shared yet mysterious, it prompts Elizabeth Shaw (the original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to go there. The invitation is a constellation, and with the help of Weyland Corp. (sound familiar?), they bring a crew aboard the expansive ship Prometheus to that very planet. You know, to go look for stuff. The speculation and main plot device is that the planet may hold the key to the origin of life and the creation of humans, even all life forms, something that has intrigued Shaw in particular since she was a little girl. Of course, once they get there, starting messing around a little bit, you know nothing good comes of it.
But its screenplay is the very root of the problem for Prometheus, no matter how “nice” it may be that something so mainstream would dare to make audiences think. The plot holes in the film and the unexplained questions and the abandoned subplots and the randomly inserted subplots… they are, to some, overwhelming and ruin the entire experience. Lindelof was called in for rewrites, and a new story may have developed, but it feels like fragments of the original are still apparent in the way that when you write a second draft of something, your friend will be quick to point out that something from the original is still there, but kind of not explained or even relevant. Some of this information and subplot is supposed to work in favor of the film’s suspense levels, but instead comes off as sloppy and unnecessary. Some of it may be a problem of logic. And while many complain about the issues, some of the questions are supposed to remain unanswered. Audiences hate a film where they are not spoon fed the answers, and while it may be a problem based both with the screenplay as well as the audience, the audience needs to grow up a little and work on its own for a bit. Certain things are supposed to remain unanswered, and intended to remain a mystery. There are certain parts where one could argue that the multiple sources of havoc in the film and not knowing which one is important is again intentional, to show that origins are chaotic in and of themselves. While some of these may be forgivable, the logic problems, as aforementioned, are sloppy and lazy.
Those problems aside, it was certainly a thrilling experience. Rooted in a very similar “haunted house” style of sci-fi horror (like Alien), it amps up the suspense by providing seedy characters, and cavernous set pieces which serve as perfection to haunt a viewer. Speaking as a matter of suspense work, director Ridley Scott is at the top of his game, and his return to the genre is a welcome one. His eye for visual style and his “Star Wars as a horror film” sensibility works well in contemporary film. It is a big film, shot in 3D, which I am pleased to report works in the film’s favor. Making its dark depths even deeper and more haunting and its immaculate rooms on Prometheus even more tantalizing, the 3D works well. Without the grand visual style of the film and its fantastic sense of thrill, the film’s weak points would end up outweighing its strengths.
Its cast, though, is also something to scream about. Noomi Rapace, and her harshly defined cheekbones, gives a very good performance in the film. Her idealistic Shaw, perhaps lost in search of something out there to believe in because of her father’s own faith, is smart, convincing, and yet also naïve. She also screams well, so that is also a plus. But it’s a performance that works very well for the film. Charlize Theron, who plays Meredith Vickers, an exec at Wayland Corp., brings in her full time bitch to the role, something that was sorely missed in Snow White and the Huntsman. Her cold and austere disposition is actually somewhat reminiscent of her bravura turn in Young Adult. But, this is a different kind of “bitch”. She is there to do her job and do it well, and she will have nothing less.
Though, the cast member that blows everyone out of the water is, of course, Michael Fassbender. Michael Fassbender does not merely play the android David. Michael Fassbender plays an Android playing Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, Fassbender’s sociopathic android David plays the David Lean epic on a loop, dyes his hair blonde, and models himself entirely on Peter O’Toole in said Lean epic. Needless to say, if they do not immediately call Fassbender to play O’Toole in a biopic, I, as well as many other people, will be very unhappy. Fassbender’s portrayal is perfect. It’s the right mix of dead emotion, wunderkind android curiosity, and devilish duplicity. Next to the visual style, Fassbender’s perfect performance is the best thing about the film. Though some of David’s actions have garnered questioning and complaint, the fact that David is so emotionless (despite his desire to feel emotion), it makes those unanswered motivations and action seem all the more eerie and frightening. Fassbender’s voice takes on a very smooth, emotionless tone, almost like HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fassbender is so intriguing and insanely good, one kind of hopes for a separate spin off. Fassbender’s is a standout, electrifying performance, and one of the best things about the film.
To really break things down, the enjoyment of the film Prometheus is directly proportional to a) your expectations regarding the film as a prequel to Alien, b) your tolerance for unanswered questions, and c) how much you appreciate grand visual design, excellent suspense, and Michael Fassbender. If you consider the three factors prior to seeing the film, notably the first two, they will probably dictate as to how much you will enjoy the film. I was personally able to overlook its (perhaps glaring) plot flaws in favor of appreciating it as an exercise in sci-fi tension, outstanding visual design, and the fact that the film does ask big questions, even if it does not answer them. Because, if anything, doesn’t it matter that the questions are being asked at all?
As a child, when it came to fairy tales, I was infinitely more interested in Grimm’s original collected stories than the watered down, neutered Disney versions that anyone else in my age group seemed to fawn over. When I was seven or so, my mother bought me a book entitled Grimm’s Grimmest, collecting the most gruesome and horrifying of the tales that the Brothers Grimm had taken down in Germany. I thoroughly enjoyed its perversity. I never did end up watching the entirety of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but I read over the original tale several times growing up. Which brings us for a less Disney-fied, more “adult” interpretation of the fairy tale. Snow White and the Huntsman attempts to right the wrongs of dull, sterile Disney version, making it supposedly closer to the original and all the more action packed. Sadly though, while the attempt to make the tale both exciting for a contemporary audience as well as try to adhere somewhat closely to the story is significantly marred by there being a total lack of depth, lousy acting, and a terribly weak script.
Of the worst things you could say about Snow White and the Huntsman, one of them is that it seems half assed and bland. The sad attempt to make Snow White more action packed, director Rupert Sanders recreates the story like a piece of mythology, with the prologue taking on this dark vision of bleakness with intense narration and slow motion cinematography. Snow White’s father, a kind king, rescues a fare maiden after defeating a dark army, takes the fare maiden home, marries her, and then, that fare maiden kills him. Yup, it just so happens that that fare maiden acts like a Trojan horse and it is revealed that she is the evil queen, taking the name of Ravenna. The dark army takes over the castle, lock Snow White in the dungeon, install the mirror, and Ravenna remains the fairest of all the land. That is, until Snow White comes of age. Also, Snow White escapes, and Ravenna hires what is basically a bounty hunter to track her down.
You would guess right in saying that the story itself is not really that engrossing. There’s very little of interest, and despite the attempts to make it more interesting, it seems like the writers were pulling from thin air. It is almost incredibly disappointingly boring and dull, the “almost” preceding it because one’s expectations should be fairly low. The dialogue, though, is terribly problematic. Sounding less naturalistic than even Lord of the Rings and sounding more like the writers had “Medieval English for Movies for Dummies” by their side, the tonality and cadence of the lines is grating because, boiled down to it, the words mean so little. They portray very little drama or emotion and seem to just be there to make it feel like a period piece of some sort. It probably would have been more effective had the lines been written and spoken plainly. The dialogue, though, could be another example of how superficial this movie is, lacking depth or interest. Plot holes abound, dialogue sounds hammy, and all the actors strain to make it worthwhile for the audience.
Regarding hamminess, it is with much disappointment and regret that I should have to say that Charlize Theron was not very good in Snow White and the Huntsman, which honestly surprised me. She can play a bitch, and she can do it damn well (see: Young Adult and Monster). Despite her ability to channel into a cold, selfish persona so well, her performance as Ravenna was startlingly overdone. It seemed she was exerting far too much energy into the role, so that it came off as fake, unbelievable and terribly annoying. She felt the need to imbue her every line of dialogue, not with effortlessness, but with great exertion, with breathy sighs, and with lots of yelling. I was hoping that at least she would be enjoyable, but she ended up just making me more annoyed. While the writers attempted to give her story some feministic origin story (which ended up coming off oddly as misandrist), it gave little depth to the character herself. She, like the film itself, was nothing the cold superficiality of looking good but lacking any real power.
I am mystified as to why Kristen Stewart was cast in this film as the lead, Snow White. Not because she’s a lousy actress (even though she kind of is, she couldn’t even play Joan Jett well), but when people think of an actress who embodies and epitomizes innocence, beauty, and strength, they don’t automatically think, “Oh, Kristen Stewart!” Well, I guess the director did, otherwise they would not have paid her a hefty $34 million to be in the film. Unsurprisingly, she is dull, does not give Snow White any more depth than one could expect (which is probably more the writing than her), and adds little to the film. Again, a bit puzzled as to why she was cast in the film and why she was paid so much. I guess we will never know. What particularly troubles me is that Snow White is essentially the story of a woman coming into her own (leave the sex off the table here), and the film is supposed to portray that aspect her as some kickass heroin. The thing is, we never actually get to see that aspect of her. While she may run quite often, there are no moments when she really takes control of the situation, to really be the heroin.
The rest of the cast is just as bland. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) is essentially fine in the film, and he adds some much needed humor to the game. The seven dwarves serve very little purpose, but the faces of famous actors seemed to have been super imposed on the bodies of little people. Hey, look, Bob Hoskins! Ian McShane! Nick Frost!
The action sequences are actually less than interesting and the way that they are edited is comparable to something called chaos cinema. But there seems so little point with the action sequences that are included, as they do pretty much nothing to drive the story forward. With the scale that they have, the actual purpose is minimal.
After all that negative stuff, there are some nice things to be said about the film! Yes, I’m not joking! It is very, very pretty to look at. The cinematography is often breath taking, the production value is extremely high, the visual effects are stunning, and the costumes (by Academy Award winner Colleen Atwood) are gorgeous. Yup, that’s about it. There’s no reason why it should look so good but be so bad.
Snow White and the Huntsman felt like a half assed Lord of the Rings rip off, trying to recreate that same stylistic majesty with none of the depth of its source material. Its convoluted and shallow writing, by three people (Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini, the latter of whom wrote the flawless screenplay for Drive), offers no reason or depth or nuance for the audience. The acting is sadly subpar, even from the High Priestess of Bitchery, Charlize Theron. What can be said about the film is that it is pretty to look at. It is eye candy and nothing more. But great cinematography and production value does not a movie make. There has to be a reason why we care that Snow White, blandly played by Stewart, is the fairest of them all. Otherwise, it’s technically fare game.
2012 in Film: #89
Young Adult (2011) | Directed by Jason Reitman
Thoughts: There are some people who grow up, and then there are those who simply do not. You cannot help but pity them a little, but when you meet Mavis Gary, you will think for a moment, “No wonder why her life sucks.” Schadenfreude aside, Reitman, Cody, Theron, and Oswalt make a passed-out-from-intoxication black comedy into something that shines. Its characters are meticulously constructed by Cody, acutely performed by Theron and Oswalt, and scathing portrayed on the screen by Reitman. In the end, in a strange way, you can’t help but love to hate these people. So, they’re damaged. So, they’re emotionally stunted. Growing up is hard to do, especially for these two.
In high school, you have your usual archetypes that have been forever parodied in movies on TV and in John Hughes films. Everyone hopes, however, that by the time you get to college and then get out of college, everyone else will have outgrown those labels and grown up, become their own person, live in the present, and make something of themselves. For some people, growing out of the adolescent state of mind and high school mentality is not as easy as it looks. And it is not nearly as funny as it seems to be when slackers are seen on TV. Encountering the person who still lives in the past and has never grown up is actually kind of dark and depressing. Such an encounter has been dramatized brilliantly by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman in the film Young Adult. Enter woman-child Mavis Gary, played with pathos by Charlize Theron, a woman who is damaged, living in the past, and so fascinatingly layered, she becomes one of the most cleverly created characters of 2011 and one of the best performances of last year.
Mavis was the most popular girl in her school, epitomizing that horribly affecting high school archetype. She knows the lifestyle so well; she is able to manifest it through the characters she writes in the young adult book series she ghostwrites. At one point in this story, she probably was at the peak of success, with a husband and a good job, retaining her good looks, and on a sad note, still retaining the persona of her high school self. Now, she is divorced, her series is ending, and she gets notification that her high school sweet heart just had a baby. Unsatisfied with the one night stands, the constant drinking, and the state of her life in general, she heads back to her old stomping grounds to win her boyfriend back. Yeah, even though he is happily married with a newborn. On the way, she picks up a strange partner, though in comparison the voice of reason. Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), the victim of a high school hate crime, seems to be just as lost in the past as she is, but at least he is, to an extent more logical. Nevertheless, the two make an interesting team, as he tries to stop her from sabotaging her ex-boyfriend’s marriage.
The success of the film is reliant on three factors: the screenwriting, the directing, and the performances. Diablo Cody owns this film as much as Charlize Theron does, if not more so. Here, Cody has developed fully fleshed out characters and dark, snarky dialogue. Dropping the jargon from Juno, she goes for “just as lyrical” without all the slang. If anything, it proves to be biting and stinging at every syllable. Her humor walks the line of cringe-worthy awkward and flat out hysterical, always balancing the two in the appropriate scenes, without needing to feel desperate. The darkness of the film is accentuated by the dialogue, especially for that of Mavis, whose every line is incredibly narcissistic and immature.
Charlize Theron takes the role and makes it one of the most memorable dark-comedic performances, or just performances, in recent memory. The woman spits fire. Theron is able to completely embody the character that Cody has created and not make forceful changes to it. She is able to make it her own, but not too much, not to the extent where it does not feel like Cody’s character anymore. It is, in essence, a beautiful collaboration. Theron imbues her character with extreme narcissism and un-likability, almost a complete level of insufferableness. But I say that as a compliment. Mavis is barely a sympathetic character in any way at all, as every action she takes is in her own interest. She sees no one else as really worthy of thought, the two exceptions being Matt and her ex, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). It is a testament to both Theron and Cody that they make the protagonist someone whom you do not actually root for or are sympathetic towards, but still make the character fascinating and the film engrossing. Cody writes the character of an emotionally stunted individual, and Theron brings it to life effortlessly. There seems to be a complete emotional change in Theron to channel this kind of wicked character. With that, Theron rings great comedic timing and a sarcastic sensibility to Mavis. Otherwise, Mavis would just be the cold hearted bitch she was in high school. Theron does not try to make the character too fragile, otherwise that would be too predictable. Instead, with she presents Mavis as the hard, superficial shell she always has been. And Theron plays this role damn well, without hesitance or second-thoughts.
That Mavis still lives in her high school years makes the fact that she manifests the life she wish she were still living through the characters in her steadily failing young adult book series. Unable to attain the man she wants, the friends she wished she had, and the popularity that once surrounded her, writing those things is easy (even if it means she has adhere to a “character bible”). The horrible irony that surrounds Mavis’ life is only ironic to us because it is what she wished she had. In reality, this fate in not entirely surprising. The way she approaches it, with complete insanity and apparently without much thought, is what moves the story and adds to the dark humor of the film. Without this irony, the film would fall flat and be just another story about just another ne’er-do-well chasing after nostalgia.
Patton Oswalt demonstrates some dramatic range here, something that seemed hard to do on his recurring role on the television sitcom The King of Queens. Having nearly given up on life, he seems to be in limbo: wallowing in the self-pity he felt when being assaulted in high school and yet realizing that he is a failure when he should be out in the real world. The jarring mentality is refreshing from a character standpoint, something one does not see that often in film. He would want nothing more than to be on his own, but disabled by the attack, he is reliant on others and still has yet to leave the hobunk town that Mavis wanted so much to escape from. It may also be the first time I have seen a “man-child” character (who is almost as emotionally stunted as Mavis herself) who is not a horrible pig that makes the popular crass jokes that infect much of the comedies of the last decade. The thing is, Matt is worse off than Mavis. While Mavis’ life is sad, it still seems to be better than most of those in her small town, although she lacks the “happiness factor”. Matt is physically stunted, as well as emotionally, and slumped in a deep depression that makes it so when he is alone, he regresses into the same deluded and immature state as Mavis. However, like Mavis, the film does not make you sympathize them or even pity them. Observing them seems to be fine for the filmmakers. (I admit fully and completely that Cody, Oswalt, and Theron were robbed of Oscar nods this year.)
The directing here is pleasantly restrained, as it was with Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking. His second collaboration with Diablo Cody, Jason Reitman lets the screenplay tell the story, but still adds his flavor here and there. His visual style is evident through the bleak tone in color palette, but his directorial style takes a slight change in how he presents the characters on the screen. In his previous films, he has made seriously unlikable characters into likeable ones by the end of the film. While this is equally Cody’s doing, Reitman refuses to redeem these pathetic people and simply present them as they are, flaws and all. Kind of brave in an industry where there has to be some semblance of a happy ending or some redeemable factor. Reitman lets the characters continue their perpetual circle of unhappiness and immaturity.
There are some people who grow up, and then there are those who simply do not. You cannot help but pity them a little, but when you meet Mavis Gary, you will think for a moment, “No wonder why her life sucks.” Schadenfreude aside, Reitman, Cody, Theron, and Oswalt make a passed-out-from-intoxication black comedy into something that shines. Its characters are meticulously constructed by Cody, acutely performed by Theron and Oswalt, and scathing portrayed on the screen by Reitman. In the end, in a strange way, you can’t help but love to hate these people. So, they’re damaged. So, they’re emotionally stunted. Growing up is hard to do, especially for these two.
(Author’s Note: I almost called this review “Another Kind of Monster“, but I didn’t really think it was fair calling Mavis a monster. Just an emotionally stunted bitch.)