Sunday, November 30, 2008

Review: Aliens Vs Predator - Requiem

When this film came out in the theatres just under a year ago (Christmas 2007, as a matter of fact), I really hoped that it would warrant some good reviews so that I could justify going to see it on the big screen. Instead, the critics generally made like a chest-burster and ripped it a new one (14% on Rotten Tomatoes). Having now watched Aliens Vs Predator - Requiem on DVD, I can see why.

I should first say that I'm a sucker for Alien-related stuff, and have a soft spot in my heart for Aliens Vs Predator because of the first video game bearing that name (also known around here as the product that introduced me to online gaming). We've now had six editions in the Alien lore on screen, counting both of the AVP movies. Of that half-dozen, two were truly great (the first two, obviously), while the rest have fluctuated between entertaining-but-flawed and just downright bad. AVPR doesn't waste any time at all fitting into that last category.

The whole production is a mess, from scenes that are shot so darkly as to be indecipherable, to characters who seem like they just stepped out 90210. Consider the gravitas of the members of the Nostromo, back in the original Alien, and then look at the cardboard cutouts that we get here. There's the bully, and the over-protective big brother, and the teenage beauty queen with the heart of gold. Dallas, the commander of the Nostromo, certainly had his flaws, but he was a thousand times more believable and interesting than the paperweight of a Sheriff that AVPR has to offer. Even Reiko Aylsworth (Michelle, of 24 fame) is mostly wasted in her Ripley-lite duties as a military mom home just in time to see her husband eviscerated by an Alien while her young daughter looks on.

While I'm no expert on the length and breadth of the mythology, having skipped most of the comics and all of the books based on Alien, I thought I sort of understood how they worked... until I watched AVPR. Specifically, I was under the impression that full-fledged Aliens came from face-huggers (after being implanted in a host), face-huggers came from eggs, and eggs were laid by a queen. Simple, right? Except, as far as I could tell, there's no queen in AVPR, and yet the handful of face-huggers that arrive on Earth via a Predator ship somehow grow into thousands of marauding adults. There are lots of disgusting scenes in the film, but the worst has to be the one that showed a maternity ward in which full-term women were somehow used to produce "litters" of newborn Aliens... which made no sense whatsoever to me. Were the expectant mothers all carrying triplets or something?

The film also sports a Predalien, which is to say a hybrid of the two species. We've seen and heard of those before (including in the AVP video games) but this one's simply thrown out there with no real examination as to what it is or why it seems to act more intelligently than a regular Alien. Of course, it's entirely possible that I'm already putting more thought into the script than anyone involved with the actual production did

I'd have to say that this was the worst installment in the saga so far, and yet I still cling to the forlorn dream that someday, someone will rehabilitate it, just as Christopher Nolan did with Batman after Joel Schumacher drove that beloved franchise into the ground. Hope springs eternal, as they say!

Rating: *

Review: Honeydripper

John Sayles' 16th feature film isn't one of his very best... but that's less an indictment of Honeydrippers than it is a recognition of just how high some of his previous work, including Lone Star and Passion Fish, have set the bar for whatever comes after them. In point of fact, Honeydrippers is actually a very good movie which just happens to be a few minor flaws short of greatness.

As the opening credits finished rolling by, I sighed contentedly as "Written, directed and edited by John Sayles" appeared on the screen, and said to my wife, "Those are seven of the most wonderful words in the English language." In an industry that's infamous for its tendency toward creating movies by committee and using focus groups to determine which ending to go with, it's a rare pleasure to watch a story where the writer, director and editor all actually saw the same picture in their head. That unity of vision, accomplished quite simply by virtue of one man doing all three jobs, is probably one of the reasons that Sayles' films are typically so immersive for the viewer. Whether it's the 1919 Chicago / Cincinnati World Series (Eight Men Out), coal mining in 1920s West Virginia (Matewan), or just trying to make a living in modern day Alaska (Limbo), you're not only transplanted to somewhere else in time and space during a John Sayles movie, but you're also given every impression that your tour guide, Mr Sayles himself, is a native son of whatever subject is presented. Honeydripper is no different, as the atmosphere of the poor, black community of Harmony, Alabama in 1950 feels painfully real throughout. Each black character in it, meaning the vast majority of the cast, has two personalities to show, even if the differences are sometimes subtle: there's the way that they act among friends and family, and then there are the mannerisms and posture that they're expected to assume when white people are present.

Not that Honeydripper is about racism, though. Telling this story would be impossible (or, at the very least, completely insincere) without at least acknowledging how white America treated its former "slave race" in this context, but the film is much more interested in music than race. As one character laments, late in the proceedings, this tale takes place just as one generation's music is being pushed aside to make room for the next. Earlier, Sayles had deftly juxtaposed the more staid "minuet" type of piano music with the gusto and verve that was in vogue as the 50s began, but even the energy of jazz was about to be overshadowed and outdone by none other than rock and roll itself. Each of these forms get its moment to shine over the course of the film, though, and the musical numbers are almost all top-notch and of the toe-tapping variety.

As for the plot itself, it's quite simple: down-on-his-luck tavern owner Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover) is about to lose his business unless he can turn things around and start drawing crowds to the Honeydripper for a change, and he bets it all on a New Orleans hit-record attraction, Guitar Sam. Tyrone's in hock up to his eyeballs when he discovers, on the morning of the big show, that Guitar Sam's laid up back home in the hospital and won't be coming to Harmony (or the Honeydripper) anytime soon. Desperate, Tyrone conceives a plan that involves duping people into thinking that Guitar Sam is still appearing, and that's one of the weaknesses of an otherwise-fine production.

At times it all feels just a little too "caper-y" for a Sayles piece, including one or two characters who are, perhaps, writ just a mite too large. I found Nadine (Devinia McFadden), for example, somewhat over the top, with her unrelenting "3 times a day" urges that apparently needed expression (not to mention satiating) every time she showed up. There were more coincidences than you'd usually find in a film by John Sayles, whether it be the fortunate arrival on the scene of a second young guitar player who happens to know all of Guitar Sam's hits by heart, or the passing of one character just after Tyrone had set his sights on her as a possible money-source. (Although, to be fair, perhaps that latter development was intended to suggest that she died of a broken heart after Tyrone told her that she wouldn't be singing in the Honeydripper anymore, in which case it was less a clumsy coincidence and more of a too-subtle poetic license, I suppose.)

In spite of any of the little off-notes, however, Honeydripper is mostly right on-tune. Yaya DaCosta (shown above) and Lisa Gay Hamilton are both great as the step-daughter and wife, respectively, of Danny Glover's Tyrone. Each of them is stuck, to a certain degree, within the orbit of Tyrone's gravity, to the point where China Doll (the younger) is limited to being traipsed around town by her step-father as "bait" to attract young black men to the club, while Delilah (her mother) struggles to rationalize her husband's character foibles with what the preacher has to say about those who will ultimately experience "the glory of God." Neither of them is having a very easy time of it, a fact of which Tyrone remains mostly oblivious.

There's also a fascinating character with supernatural overtones, in the form of a blind guitar player who seemingly appears and vanishes, largely at will. When asked how old his guitar is, he says that it's "the second one... the Devil got the first one!" It's significant that only Tyrone and Sonny (the "replacement Guitar Sam") actually see and interact with this figment, perhaps suggesting a connection between the two of them in the way that they regard music. After all, of anyone in the story, it's those two men, a generation apart, who seem to embody the purest and least judgmental love of the craft. To them, music is a calling, even if Tyrone has clearly lost that perspective as we first meet him.

Stacy Keach gives a good turn as the Sheriff of Harmony, managing to strike a middle ground somewhere between Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds (both of Lone Star), but closer to the former, unfortunately for Tyrone, Sonny and the rest of the black community. He's a little bit racist but not out-and-out evil, if that's even possible.

Glover's good but does mumble his way through too many of his lines. On the other hand, his Tyrone is 100% believable and every bit as multi-faceted as you'd expect from a Sayles main character.

All in all, Honeydripper is a must-see for the Sayles fan (duh!) as well as anyone interested in the music of that era.

Rating: *** 1/2

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Shake-Up Among The Heroes Writing Staff

Apparently, heads have started to roll in response to the negative reactions (including my own!) toward this year's season of Heroes. Despite having liked some of his early comic work (such as Superman For All Seasons), I've grown increasingly turned off by Jeph Loeb's output of late. Because of that, I can't help but applaud his removal from the TV show that once exhibited so much potential.