Rating: The Good – 65.7 Genre: Action, Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong
Above average espionage thriller concerning a CIA agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his handler (Russell Crowe) who are attempting to flush out the elusive leader of a dangerous terrorist cell. The plot is intricate but tight for the majority of the first two acts and DiCaprio and Crowe are very good, particularly when together on screen. Mark Strong is also present as a foreign intelligence tsar and as usual he steals every scene he’s in. Scott’s direction is slightly more understated than usual which was the right call considering the strength of the script and actors he was working with. It does unravel somewhat towards the end as the plot is rushed to a close and some liberties with logic are taken. However, for the most part, Body of Lies is a slick piece of entertainment.
Rating: The Good – 90.5 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 117 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Few films can be truly described as seminal and Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic would intuitively seem like a prime candidate given the fact that it has become a landmark in science fiction. However, truth be told, it is such a singular achievement that nobody seems to have known how to pick up where Scott and company left off. Though many would argue that Alien is Scott’s crowning achievement, many directors proved capable of at least emulating the industrial sci-fi vibe which he forged in that film, resulting in a traceable sea change right across the genre. Blade Runner had no such obvious effects and when one takes in the breadth of both its technical and conceptual complexity one begins to suspect that it is because nobody knew how Scott did exactly what he did.
Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Blade Runner is set in a future when evolution in robotic technology has produced genetically engineered robots or ‘replicants’ which are almost completely indistinguishable from humans. When four of the most advanced and dangerous replicants escape their enslavement and make it to Earth, one of the few crack investigators (called ‘Blade Runners’) who can identify them is forced out of retirement to track them down and eliminate them.
Blade Runner is a spectacular film graced with sublime production design, unrivaled visual effects, and that mesmerising Vangelis score. However, it’s the qualitative experience of Scott’s futuristic vision that is so utterly captivating and such an experience can only be achieved when every aspect of the film-making process is pitch perfect. The actors from Harrison Ford as the Blade Runner to the improvisational Rutger Hauer as the nastiest of the replicants are totally in tune with the proceedings and provide that final touch of mastery to what surely must be one of the most impressive science fictions films ever made. It’s not always an easy watch because this is a darkly heavy and profoundly existential film. But stick with it and you’ll never forget it.
First off, American Gangster is not even close to being in the same bracket as Goodfellas (as some over-zealous critics exclaimed on its release) but this movie is actually a good showing from a director that has blown hot and cold these last 30 years or so. Russell Crowe stars as a New Jersey narcotics officer, who after becoming a pariah to his peers for turning in a million dollars in drug money, is given the opportunity to set up his own squad of straight-shooting undercover operatives. The man he targets as the king-pin of the east coast drug rackets is a seemingly self-made African-American gangster Frank Lucas, who modelled his organisation on the mafia, so successfully in fact that he became the Italians’ biggest supplier. Denzel Washington plays Lucas and as usual brings all his charisma to the role while Crowe handles his role of the good cop with an assured touch and for the most part outshines Washington. The story zips in many directions (with the best sub-plot undoubtedly being that which involved Josh Brolin’s crooked New York cop) but Scott keeps it together despite the somewhat rushed ending. Steven Zallian’s script is extremely strong and gives the police investigation in particular an enjoyable level of realism. There are some great ideas incorporated into the story also that allow important junctures to be realised in both an original and swift manner (with the fur coat being the best example). American Gangster is a long film at 2 hours and there are threads that could’ve been dispensed with all together but, that said, it’s worth looking at the extended edition (what? Ridley Scott releasing an extended edition? never!) for Clarence Williams III’s decent turn as Bumpy Johnson.
Rating: The Good – 69.5 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 116 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman
Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell star in this original and clever take on the con-men story. Cage plays the OCD suffering mentor of young buck Rockwell whose carefully controlled life is turned upside down when he discovers he has a teenage daughter. Ridley Scott’s film looks great and Nicholas Griffin’s screenplay (based on Eric Garcia’s book) is disciplined and full of wit. The two leads put in interesting performances with Cage doing quite well portraying one of the many variations of OCD and with Rockwell stealing every scene he features in. Alison Lohman hits all the right notes as Cage’s precocious daughter and there’s nice on-screen dynamics between both Cage and Rockwell and Cage and Lohman. Matchstick Men is a modest thriller, the kind of which has been replaced by an endless conveyor belt of anemic concept films. Yet despite such modest ambitions, its solid base of quality writing and acting ensures that it is more textured and substantial than the vast majority of what Hollywood is currently shoveling.
Ridley Scott’s seminal film is a classic of both the sci-fi and horror genres. It tells the story of the mining ship Nostromo and its crew who are asked to land on an uncharted planet to investigate a crashed spacecraft. Things take a turn for the horrific when one of the crew comes back with a creature attached to his face. Made with a level of discipline and patience not often demonstrated in Hollywood films, this genuinely terrifying film slowly reels you into its futuristic world by gently introducing you to the ship, the crew, the technology, and finally the hostile planet they have landed on. The symmetry of the interior shots on board the Nostromo is clearly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001 but Scott’s vision is somewhat darker. Unlike the clean spartan spacecrafts of 2001 we have a grimy and cluttered industrial ship, an idea that took root and defined almost every space-based sci-fi flick ever since. The action doesn’t get going until about midway through but the wait only serves to heighten the tension of the later scenes and the sense of alien intrusion. And once the alien does appear, H.R. Giger’s design of the creature (in its different stages of maturation) combined with Scott’s notion for how it should behave are so deeply primal and bone-chilling that they seemingly tap into the deepest reaches of our psyche.
The cast, replete with serious heavy hitters, is uniformly superb and their freedom to improvise their lines paid off in spades as the authenticity that Scott’s vision generates so well is only compounded. John Hurt, Ian Holm, and of course Sigourney Weaver as Ripley deliver truly masterful performances but the rest aren’t too far behind them. Alien is what happens when every piece of the film-making puzzle comes together in mutually inspiring fashion. Scott’s direction was commanding, the cast’s acting was perfectly in sync, Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score was revolutionary, Dan O’Bannon’s story & screenplay was as imaginative and as disciplined as they come, while Giger’s creature design and Michael Seymour’s production design were on a different level to anything the science fiction genre had offered up before. Yes, Alien is truly a case of cinematic perfection.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: War, Action Duration: 144mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Tom Hardy
Describing a film that focuses on a single battle which doesn’t even last 24 hours as epic might seem a little counter-intuitive but Ridley Scott’s dramatisation of the 1993 Delta Force/Rangers incursion into the Somalian city of Mogadishu is as deserving of that description as A Bridge Too Far was. Like that film it focuses on a number of different characters across different aspects of the mission and each with their own personalities. The pace of this film is relentless and it’s to Scott’s, writer Ken Nolan’s, and the actors’ credit that the characters manage to develop in such a taut whirlwind of action. There are too many good performances to mention them all but Josh Hartnett and in particular Eric Bana score very well.
There are a few cliches littered throughout the main body of the film and the dialogue can be a little uninspired and at times jingoistic. Furthermore, despite a few token gestures, the Somalian rebels are portrayed as a mindless horde of automatons or cartoon evil doers. However, in the absence of any loftier ambitions, Scott and co. find themselves with an excuse to cram as much action as possible into its two and a half hours which isn’t a bad thing because the action is as good as any war film before it or since. Most important for a movie with action on a scale this big, it’s also perfectly co-ordinated (due largely to Pietro Scalia’s sublime editing) so that the viewer can keep track of events.
Unfortunately, Jerry Bruckheimer’s ugly, heavy handed, cliche-ridden touch is all over the ending and it undoes much of the power of the brutal war sequences by hammering the audience over the head with soppy sentiment. It could have ruined the whole thing but thankfully, the visceral thrust of the film is so immersive that the ending is practically negated by it. Also worth mentioning, is that this is one of the few pre-blu-ray technology films that transfers superbly well to that format, a testament to Slawomir Izdiak’s stunningly graded cinematography.
Rating: The Bad – 54.4 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 124 mins Director: Ridley Scott Stars: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender
There is a scene in Prometheus where two scientists are examining a fossilised alien head. One of them suggests about 10 seconds into the examination that they administer an electrical charge in order to reanimate the head. The other agrees this is a good idea. They do so. The head grimaces and explodes. This stupefying and idiotic scene encapsulates everything that is wrong with this film. Prometheus is arguably the worst case of lazy and ill thought out writing in recent Hollywood history. But worse still, is the inescapable feeling one gets when watching it, that the “minds” behind it clearly thought what they were doing was smart – or at least that they could convince their audience it was.
Set in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi classic Alien, Prometheus counts as a “prequel of sorts”. That said, the premise, story, and characters couldn’t be further from that film. In place of the contained and small scale of Alien’s story, Prometheus plays out on as broad a scale as the writers’ imagination could muster as with their realisation that they just couldn’t replicate the majesty of Alien with traditional story telling (small story – massive effect), they tried an alternative route and went for a “big” story which they assumed would produce as big an effect and nobody would realise the difference. Talk about falling flat on your face on both counts. Firstly, the big story they chose was as hack and unoriginal as you get in the genre of science fiction. The idea of humans discovering evidence on Earth that the human race has been engineered by aliens is one that has been done to literary exhaustion by everyone from Star Trek: The Next Generation to the X-Files and even Erich von Däniken. Worse still, its use in the context of the Alien universe had two related and unforgivable results in that it went ahead and explained one of most fascinatingly unexplained features of the original (the identity of the ‘space jockey’) and did it in far too uninspired a fashion as the mystery deserved.
If the premise to Prometheus leaves a lot to be desired, then the plot it throws up and the characters who populate it are flabbergastingly worse. Characters whose motivations are rewritten scene by scene to suit whatever special effect laden sequence the guys in charge had in mind for those corresponding parts of the film. Or characters who are left completely undeveloped until such time that similar moments require them to be and always in the most contrived fashions. This leads to rushed moments of trite exposition being peppered throughout the film leaving the whole project an utterly incoherent fiasco. This lack of focus spills over into the dialogue too. Simply put, there isn’t a single line of substantial dialogue in the film and each conversation feels like it was written with no broader story in mind. And of course, all of this is borne out in how little we care about every last one of the characters.
Hence, one of the cornerstones of Alien‘s success – character construction – appears to be the last thing on the minds of the writers as the tool to realising their big bombastic story – the use of gargantuan special effects – became the only thing driving this movie. This is a common flaw in directors who excel early in their career but struggle to maintain that edge. Lacking the inspiration of their youth, they cling onto the more technical facets of the production which they can control. And so, special effects become the focus of the film while the real task of a director – tying them into a coherent story where they serve it instead of taking precedence over it – is forgotten.
Thus, despite the spectacular visual effects, Prometheus boils down to a series of alien-related sequences utterly disconnected from each other in both plot and pacing. Different species of aliens emerge, knock ten bells out of random crew members (some of whom we hadn’t even seen before!) only to disappear just as quickly and contribute no further to the story line. It is complete mayhem. The random collision of half baked ideas in the minds of writers who were too confused, uninspired, or deluded to realise how stupid they were.
But wait! Scott has one last trick that might fool his fans into thinking Prometheus isn’t such a dumb film – or at least into willfully ignoring that it is. A series of subtle connections between Prometheus and Alien tied up in a remedial philosophy about humanity, creation, and our need for God/s. Both of these tricks amount to an exercise in flattery which differ only in who they are aimed at. Linking Prometheus with Alien through a series of subtle events or utterances is intended to flatter the fans of the earlier masterpiece. Give the fans an opportunity to show off their knowledge of the original and they may feel positively towards Prometheus because it should make them feel like an expert at something. The question is whether or not these ‘knowing nods’ amount to good film making. Of course not! Each of those clues could’ve just as easily been incorporated into the Prometheus video game in the exact same manner but that wouldn’t have made the video game enjoyable to watch as a movie. They are mere flourishes. The second form of flattery comes with the crowbarring of a remedial understanding of trite philosophical pondering (the kind teenagers start to engage in when they first develop the capacity for abstract thought) into the train wreck of their story. This is essentially intended to flatter young adolescents because it should give them the sense they’ve figured out something complex. Of course, they won’t have but hey, they won’t realise that for a couple of years and in the meantime they may mistake that flattery for cinematic resonance.
To say Prometheus is a disappointment is a massive understatement. The thoughts of Scott going back to a genre he helped forge was immense in its capacity to excite – even if he had blown hot and cold since Blade Runner. The set design, visual effects (perhaps some of the best ever), cinematography (wow!), and performance of Michael Fassbender as the android David were all sensational and they could’ve been sewn into a triumphant film if the writers and director knew what story they wanted to tell and were inspired enough to craft it well. Overall, Prometheus is a perfect demonstration of how Alien was itself down to the calibre of people working around Scott and the inspiration he received from them and in turn fed back to them. It seems an apt moment to remember that in Alien, he had Dan O’Bannon working on the script, H.R. Giger designing his creatures (and in his own way shaping the mythology), and Jerry Goldsmith composing the score (could his minimalist, low-key, and creepy music be any more different to the ‘big’ soppy Prometheus score of Marc Streitenfeld?). That’s no ordinary crew and a far cry from Lindelhof, Streitenfeld, and company. That’s not an exoneration however. As a director with as much clout as he has, Scott should’ve ensured he was surrounded by the right people. Alas, Scott is not the same director he was thirty years ago and if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should’ve realised that the first moment we heard that he was seriously considering releasing a PG13 cut of Prometheus.