Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Quick Takes: "Alien", "Elena", "Mulan", "Minority Report"

"Alien" (**1/2)
Directed by Ridley Scott

This could very well cause to enrage people, and it already has if you follow my actions on twitter, but the moment I sat down to take on "Alien" for this week's TOP 10 SHOTS column, I realized it couldn't possibly work. Why not? Because there is so desperately little going on in this film. Ridley Scott is devoted to creating an intense horror aesthetic, and there's some truly honest effort there. But it only works, in this case, if we care about why this is happening, and who it is happening to. The characters are etched so thin as to offer nothing distinct about them. Them being there is a product of happenstance, like any other horror flick. There's just not that much cinematically to dig into. Don't worry, though, since you'll still have your share of Ridley Scott in this Friday's TOP 10 SHOTS column. It just won't be in the same vein as what Ridley's up to this year.

"Elena" (****)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Russia seems to carry with a heap of apocalyptic baggage that it just cannot seem to get rid of. Even in a film that holds absolutely no apocalyptic subject matter, the grim specter of massive and inescapable death looms heavy over. That's the definitive stroke that makes Andrey Zvyagintsev's third feature, "Elena", so much more than the chilling character study that it already is. Though the first ten minutes lull you into the belief that you're in for a contained story comparable to that of Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles", it really expands to being something rather more maniacal. It's Zvyagintsev's analysis of family boundaries that truly piques the interest.

Trying to find clear and fascinating distinctions between its two primary characters' respective families is merely the first step. It's the breaking of those boundaries that really pushes the film into ambiguous territory, and causes us to rather desperately question the motivations of these characters, before inevitably accepting that's just as they are. It's a rather sick cosmic joke, how these characters end up intermingling, and you can't help but secretly hope for the apocalypse that seems imminent on the border. Anything's better than the people who've fallen into ownership of this world. Nadezha Markina's lead performance is quite tactile, but it's Elena Lyadova's ever-shifting and true-to-self performance the shines brightest in a film owned by a gorgeously withering aesthetic, crisply filmed by Mikhail Krichman. The world is growing old and thin, but it's still there. So... whatever.

"Mulan" (**)
Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook

So continues my leveling of all the "Disney classics" you hold so dear to your heart, having taken "The Sword and the Stone" and "Robin Hood" properly down a peg for the half-hearted indulgences they are, we now come to "Mulan". The only thing anybody truly remembers about this movie is "I'll Make A Man Out of You", which hints at the overtness of its sympathetic plotline. It does attempt to be funny and charming, kind of working a little bit, but it's really just a bunch of character being over-dramatic about things that should carry more weight than they feel. Maybe it's because they treat women as submissive, except when they're not. There's no depth to Mulan's struggles. She's just there, because otherwise we have no story. Not really sure if that even matters at this point.

"Minority Report" (***1/2)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg seems to get a lot of flack for being "overrated", but there isn't much disputing the man has earned that title of "movie master" through years of tedious effort. Sure, the man has a tendency of getting rather distracted, which causes him to make some horrifically bad films. But every once in a while he turns out real gem like "Jaws" or "A.I. Artificial Intelligence", and even more frequently does he turn out a good time, old-fashioned, thrill ride. We got one of those rather recently with "The Adventures of Tintin". Even "The Lost World: Jurassic Park", in spite of its obvious and wide degeneration of the tools thrown around in its predecessor, has some rather intense beats to it. The shot of the raptors coming in through the grass, like veins. Chills!

And it is no surprise that he is able to do the same thing when teaming up with Tom Cruise to take on a Philip K. Dick novel. If you ask me, Spielberg was made for science-fiction, and all the craziness and humanist critique it indulges. It's not without its moments of camp or corn, though it's a strong testament to Spielberg's craft that they seem to further affirm his vision. There is such compact and stunning work across the board, in terms of visual effects, cinematography, and oh so stunning sound design, it'd be so easy to overlook the performances, with Samantha Morton being fantastically peculiar, and Tom Cruise dialing up just how gangly and sickly his grieving character is willing to become. Also very good on Colin Farrell for dodging just sort of becoming a cliche of himself, like he often falls into.

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