The Films of Ridley Scott
Alien (June 7/12)
Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien follows the crew members (Tom Skerritt's Dallas, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, Veronica Cartwright's Lambert, Harry Dean Stanton's Brett, John Hurt's Kane, Ian Holm's Ash, and Yaphet Kotto's Parker) of a futuristic mining vessel as they're forced to fend for their lives after a menacing (and bloodthirsty) alien sneaks aboard. There's little doubt that filmmaker Ridley Scott, working from a script by Dan O'Bannon, does a stellar job of immediately luring the viewer into the proceedings, as the film kicks off with a captivating opening title sequence that's followed by an engrossing, dialogue-free tour of the aforementioned ship. It's striking stuff that instantly establishes an atmosphere of dread and suspense, with the movie's pervasively watchable feel heightened by Scott's continually captivating directorial choices and the efforts of an entertainingly off-kilter roster of performers. Having said that, Alien does, on the other hand, boast an exceedingly deliberate pace that can be, at times, a little tough to stomach - with the movie's paucity of plot resulting in a few less-than-taut stretches within the almost episodic midsection. It's just as clear, however, that such concerns prove easy to overlook in the face of such engrossing set-pieces as, for example, the now-infamous chest-bursting interlude and Dallas' frightening confrontation with the creature in the ship's air-duct tunnels. (It's conversely difficult to work up much enthusiasm for or interest in the admittedly unexpected fate of Holm's mysterious character.) By the time the tense climax rolls around, Alien has certainly lived up to its place as a memorable (yet demonstrably erratic) landmark of the cinematic sci-fi field - with Scott's subsequent endeavors in the genre (Blade Runner, Prometheus) certainly not faring quite as well.
Undoubtedly an impressive achievement in set design and visuals, Blade Runner otherwise possesses few elements designed to effectively capture (and subsequently hold) the viewer's interest over the course of its bloated 117-minute running time. The threadbare storyline - which follows Harrison Ford's futuristic bounty hunter as he attempts to track down four runaway humanoid robots - has been augmented with characters that are scarcely developed beyond their most superficial attributes, and it becomes exceedingly difficult to care about any of their exploits once the novelty of the film's look wears off (which doesn't take long at all, admittedly). Scott, working with cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and production designer Lawrence G. Paull, effectively paints an evocative portrait of a smoky, downright seedy world, yet there does reach a point at which the relentlessly grimy atmosphere becomes overwhelming and oppressive. The synth-heavy score by Vangelis only exacerbates the film's many problems, while the sluggish pace succeeds only in keeping the viewer at arm's length (the protracted finale is, to put it mildly, awfully anti-climactic). That Blade Runner is now considered a landmark achievement within the science fiction genre is nothing short of baffling, with the frustratingly ambiguous conclusion only cementing the film's status as a hopelessly overrated piece of work.
Someone to Watch Over Me (June 11/12)
Someone to Watch Over Me follows dimwitted detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) as he's tasked with protecting the sole witness (Mimi Rogers' Claire Gregory) to a brutal murder, with the movie, for the most part, subsequently detailing the inevitable relationship that begins to form between Berenger and Rogers' respective characters. It's a familiar, hackneyed premise that's employed to continually (and distressingly) lackluster effect by director Ridley Scott, as the filmmaker has infused the proceedings with an excessively deliberate feel that, perhaps inevitably, amplifies the various deficiencies within Howard Franklin's by-the-numbers screenplay. Berenger's laughably ill-advised performance - ie the actor's efforts at portraying Keegan as a blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth type fall hopelessly flat, with the character instead coming off as a blundering idiot - is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of Someone to Watch Over Me's misbegotten attributes, and there's simply never a point at which one is able to work up even the slightest bit of interest in the one-dimensional characters' ongoing exploits. (This is especially true of Keegan's deteriorating relationship with his increasingly suspicious wife, with the stretch detailing the pair's temporary split certainly standing as an obvious low point in the film.) It is, as a result, not surprising to note that the thriller-specific elements within the narrative fall hopelessly flat, which ultimately cements Someone to Watch Over Me's place as an aggressively pointless and utterly forgettable misfire from filmmaker Scott.
Hindered by a slow pace and routine storyline, Black Rain quickly establishes itself as one of the more forgettable entries within director Ridley Scott's filmography. Michael Douglas stars as Nick Conklin, a tough, play-by-his-own-rules cop who finds himself caught up in a deadly turf war between rival Japanese gangs. The overtly somber vibe offered up by screenwriters Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis is consistently undermined by their emphasis on various action movie cliches, including the ubiquitous Angry Captain and Conklin's wisecracking, ill-fated partner (played by Andy Garcia). There is consequently virtually nothing here to hold the viewers interest, as the increasingly ludicrous plot developments become more and more difficult to overlook. The film's problems are exacerbated by a seriously overlong running time, and there's little doubt that by the time the action-packed third act arrives, the viewer's ability to actually care about the outcome has long-since been obliterated. And although Douglas delivers an effectively grizzled performance, Black Rain is never quite able to shed its status as nothing more than a relic of the 1980s.
Thelma & Louise
1492: Conquest of Paradise
Black Hawk Down
Kingdom of Heaven (May 2/05)
Kingdom of Heaven is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish, offering up a level of sheer dullness that's shocking - particularly given the talent that's both in front of and behind the camera. It's hard to imagine anyone other than the most hardcore history buff embracing anything that's on display here, as screenwriter William Monahan constantly (and consistently) eschews exposition and character development in favor of spectacle and set design (both of which are, admittedly, quite impressive). The end result is a film that's far from compelling, one that seems to exist only for the enjoyment of an incredibly specific audience (ie it's clear that a heavy dose of knowledge on the Crusades is a prerequisite for sitting through the movie). Kingdom of Heaven is set in the time period between the third and fourth Crusades, and our hero is a young blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom). Balian has just buried his wife when his long-lost father, the respected Godfrey of Ibelin (played by Liam Neeson), appears suddenly and offers to take him under his wing. Shortly after embarking on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Godfrey perishes in a brutal skirmish - leaving Balian in command of his father's small but loyal army. With Kingdom of Heaven's emphasis on style over substance, it's clear that director Ridley Scott has learned nothing from the failure of his last historical epic, the similarly incoherent Gladiator. Kingdom of Heaven is, admittedly, much more ineffective than that film, as Gladiator at least featured an intriguing central figure; Bloom's Balian is barely developed, and the actor isn't given a whole lot to do other than glower at friends and enemies alike. When you get right down to it, there's not a single interesting character to be found here (which is no small feat, certainly, given the presence of several outstanding performers, including Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, and David Thewlis). It doesn't help that Scott has evidently directed his actors to deliver their lines in grunts and whispers, rendering a large portion of the dialogue unintelligible (something that's particularly true of Edward Norton, who - playing the leprosy-afflicted King Baldwin - is forced to emote from behind a metallic mask). Compounding matters is the feeling that the characters exist only to further the plot; ie if it weren't for the lumbering machinations of Monahan's script, they'd have absolutely nothing to do. As a result, Kingdom of Heaven suffers from a pace that is maddeningly uneven - with sequences that veer wildly from kind of interesting to all-out interminable. Even the film's action-oriented interludes come off as lackluster, suffering from a been-there-done-that sort of vibe (that the viewer couldn't possibly care less which side emerges victorious is, to put it mildly, problematic). John Mathieson's flat cinematography doesn't do the film any favors, and it's virtually impossible not to compare Kingdom of Heaven's visuals with Caleb Deschanel's astounding work in The Passion of the Christ (this is especially true of the sequences set within Jerusalem, for obvious reasons). Finally, stripped of its useless, soap opera-esque subplots (including a pointless rivalry between Balian and a power-hungry knight), the film does pick up a little bit as it draws to a close (perhaps only because we know it's soon to end) - but, not surprisingly, this doesn't last long and the movie just goes on and on and on. Kingdom of Heaven easily marks the worst film in Ridley Scott's long career, and has the dubious distinction of also being the worst epic to come along in ages (an impressive achievement when one considers that both The Alamo and Alexander were released last year).
A Good Year
Click here for review.
American Gangster (October 31/07)
Based on a true story, American Gangster casts Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas - a savvy drug kingpin who eventually finds himself being pursued by a tenacious cop named Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). At a running time of over two and a half hours, American Gangster generally possesses the feel of a rough cut that's in dire need of trimming - as evidenced by the presence of countless subplots and supporting characters (with the majority of both coming off as entirely superfluous). There's little doubt, however, that the film's most egregious failing is in its emphasis on Crowe's staggeringly needless character. While Crowe does deliver as compelling a performance as one might've expected, Richie spends much of the film's first half embroiled in a series of increasingly pointless situations (including a child-custody battle with his expectedly irate ex-wife). In fact, Richie doesn't even learn of Frank's existence until the halfway mark (!) - ensuring that much of Crowe's screen time up until then feels like nothing more than filler. It gets to the point where the only thing holding the viewer's interest is the almost relentless stream of familiar faces in supporting roles, with character actors like Joe Morton, Jon Polito, and Armand Assante popping up for a few minutes at a time. Steven Zaillian's surprisingly choppy screenplay ensures that there's virtually no flow to the proceedings, and there's consequently no denying that the scripter's efforts at infusing the movie with an epic sensibility fall completely flat. Even the film's visuals manage to disappoint, as director Ridley Scott infuses American Gangster with an underwhelming and downright bland sensibility that hardly manages to evoke '70s era New York City (which, given the presence of ace cinematographer Harris Savides, is clearly no small feat). Scott's inability to effectively pace this bloated story proves to be the movie's most insurmountable obstacle, however, and - in spite of Washington's admittedly riveting turn - American Gangster ultimately comes off as just the latest disappointment from an increasingly irrelevant filmmaker.
Body of Lies
Based on the novel by David Ignatius, Body of Lies follows CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he attempts to track down a notorious terrorist based out of Jordan - with his ongoing efforts both assisted and hindered by his pencil-pushing handler (Russell Crowe's Ed Hoffman). There's little doubt that the film, directed by Ridley Scott and scripted by William Monahan, gets off to a relatively underwhelming start, as the complex storyline ensures that only viewers with an inherent interest in the subject matter will be able to comfortably embrace the narrative in its early stages - with the less-than-engrossing vibe compounded by an almost excessively deliberate pace (although, to be fair, the inclusion of a few well-placed and thoroughly enthralling action sequences ensures that one's interest never entirely flags). It's just as clear, however, that things pick up considerably once the focus shifts to the illicit (and decidedly outlandish) plot that Ferris sets into motion just past the one-hour mark, with the character's progressively perilous endeavors infusing Body of Lies with a jolt of energy that carries the movie right through to its admittedly convenient finale (ie those soldiers just happened to burst into the room at that precise moment?) DiCaprio's expectedly intense turn as the dogged protagonist is counterbalanced by Crowe's unusually laid-back performance, and it does go without saying that the compellingly off-kilter nature of their characters' love/hate relationship plays a significant role in the film's mild success. And although the unevenness of Monahan's screenplay plagues the proceedings on a lamentably consistent basis (ie what's up with Ferris' tentative romance of a local nurse?), Body of Lies ultimately establishes itself as Scott's most entertaining and involving effort since 2001's Black Hawk Down.
Prometheus (June 11/12)
An extremely loose prequel to 1979's Alien, Prometheus follows a team of explorers, including Noomi Rapace's Elizabeth Shaw, Michael Fassbender's David, and Idris Elba's Janek, as they travel to (and arrive at) a distant planet purported to contain extraterrestrial life - with the film subsequently detailing the chaos that ensues as said extraterrestrials make their malevolent intentions clear. Filmmaker Ridley Scott has infused Prometheus with an expectedly deliberate sensibility that admittedly (and ideally) complements Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof's cerebral screenplay, with the majority of the film's first half devoted to the protagonists' slow-moving exploits as they make their way to the aforementioned planet and, eventually, begin exploring its surface. The film does, as a result, boast the feel of a straight sci-fi drama rather than a thriller or a horror effort, with the strong performances, Fassbender especially, and frequently captivating set design going a long way towards sustaining the viewer's interest. And though there are a number of lulls sprinkled throughout the admittedly padded-out narrative, Scott compensates by offering up a series of spectacular set-pieces (eg two crew members are brutally attacked by an alien lifeform) that provide the proceedings with bursts of much-needed energy. There's little doubt, however, that the film's various deficiencies are heightened by the less-than-forthcoming bent of Spaihts and Lindelof's screenplay (ie many questions posed are left ignored or unanswered), with the tenuous connection to Alien - ie were it not for the presence of the infamous Space Jockey and a few Weyland references, one could be forgiven for labeling Prometheus a stand-alone endeavor - certain to frustrate die-hard fans of this steadily-declining franchise. Still, it's difficult to completely discount the movie's ultimate impact, as Prometheus is a smart, ambitious, and, admittedly, erratically-paced blockbuster that does seem as though it'd benefit from repeat viewings (as well as a more complete picture promised by inevitable followups).
It's ultimately difficult to know just what to make of The Counselor, as the film, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Cormac McCarthy, boasts (or suffers from) an avant-garde sensibility that's reflected in its heavily stylized dialogue, absence of wholeheartedly compelling characters, and erratic, utterly unconventional plotting. (In terms of the latter, it's quite possible to sit through the entire film and still have no earthly idea what it's actually about.) The breadth of Scott and McCarthy's off-kilter approach just can't be understated, ultimately, and there's little doubt that The Counselor is destined to alienate as many viewers as it pleases - with the efforts of a fine cast, including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt, generally crushed beneath the weight of the movie's pervasive art-house atmosphere. It's interesting to note that the meandering nature of the opening half hour, which is devoted primarily to the colorful characters' bizarre, almost laughably random conversations and monologues, is representative of everything that follows, as McCarthy, his disdain for conventional elements palpable, has suffused the entirety of the proceedings with a similarly off-the-wall feel that wreaks havoc on its momentum and, for the most part, prevents the viewer from connecting to the material in any real way. The Counselor's extremely mild success, then, is due mostly to its refreshingly oddball take on a (relatively) familiar subject matter and the sporadic inclusion of breathtakingly striking images and interludes, with, for example, a flashback to Diaz's randy escapades atop a car and an almost astonishingly brutal character death ranking high on the film's list of mesmerizing moments. The end result is as idiosyncratic and unorthodox a mainstream release as one can easily recall, and it's not difficult, certainly, to envision large swaths of the moviegoing public rejecting The Counselor outright.
The Martian (December 4/15)
Based on the book by Andy Weir, The Martian follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he's forced to fend for himself after he's accidentally left behind during a routine mission on Mars - with the movie also detailing the efforts to mount a rescue back on Earth. The degree to which The Martian manages to entertain is rather astounding, to be sure, as Weir's obsession with the minute, science-filled details of Mark's plight rendered his book all but unreadable. It's an arms-length vibe that's handily avoided by scripter Drew Goddard, as the narrative, which moves at a relatively brisk pace, effectively ensures that Mark's various solo endeavors are both intriguing and understandable - with the bulk of the film's exposition left in the hands of a very capable supporting case that includes, among others, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, and Sean Bean. There's little doubt, however, that The Martian's severely overlong running time (144 minutes!) paves the way for a flabby midsection and less-than-captivating third act, as filmmaker Ridley Scott offers up a series of interesting yet padded-out sequences that could (and should) have been tightened during the editing phase. It's consequently not too surprising that the climactic stretch, detailing Mark's inevitable rescue, isn't quite able to generate the excitement or thrills that Scott has surely intended, and it is, in the end, fairly obvious that the movie's needlessly epic runtime prevents it from attaining the heights it's aiming for. Nevertheless, The Martian stands as an often potent sci-fi drama that benefits substantially from Damon's almost impossible charismatic performance - with the passable vibe often heightened by the ongoing emphasis on the fascinating (and often irresistible) teamwork that ensues between the folks working to bring Mark home.