In Ridley Scott’s 1979 breakthrough film, Alien, a crew of blue-collar workers onboard a refinery cargo spaceship are drawn by a beacon to a planet where they find a long-abandoned vehicle holding a long-dead giant alien pilot and hundreds of eggs containing spiderlike beasties that are eventually the crew’s undoing. Through three sequels, various writers and directors explored the life of that film’s central character, Ripley, and the aliens, but never got around to explaining who that alien pilot was or where he and his fellow spacemen came from.
Enter Scott’s Prometheus, which proposes the idea that the being was part of an advanced race who dabbled in genetic engineering, and may have even created the human race. (That’s not a spoiler; the film floats that idea very early on.) So a crew of scientists heads out to a moon in deep space (notably, not the world the Nostromo’s crew lands on in Alien) based on clues found in cave paintings on Earth, to see if they can literally meet their makers.
There’s a lot to like about Prometheus. It’s gorgeous, for one thing, one of the most visually striking films Scott has made in years—though the 3D is, as usual, completely superfluous, and you’re better off watching in 2D. It contains some wonderful set pieces, including one bit of body horror just as skin-crawling as anything in the original film. It’s also, like the best sci-fi, full of big ideas—about subjects no less important than the origin of life, and the responsibility of creators for the consciousness they create, a subject broached most elegantly with the character of David, a soft-spoken android played masterfully by Michael Fassbender.
Unfortunately, the film is also a huge mess. It feels as though there are entire sections missing, connective tissue that seems to have been sacrificed for the purpose of bringing the running time in at under two hours. As a result, many characters are thinly drawn, motivations never seem firmly established, the film can’t decide whether it’s more the story of David or of Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace), the lead scientist on the expedition. Some sections just don’t make sense based on what we’re shown. It’s an infuriating example of a film that holds great potential and borders on greatness, but in falling just short of that mark feels little more than mediocre. While I’m normally ambivalent about extended-edition director’s cuts, this film cries out for one—and Scott has already hinted in interviews that there will be one in the future.
Long considered one of the crowning achievements of French cinema, Marcel Carné’s epic masterwork becomes even more impressive when one considers the conditions he was laboring under. The film was made at the end of World War II, under various restrictions: The Vichy government had rules about length that required the three-hour piece be split in two; after the Americans occupied Sicily, finance from the Italian side of the joint French-Italian production became an issue; extras for the large crowd scenes were unreliable due to many being members of the resistance movement in hiding; and on top of all that, after the liberation of France, which happened mid-shoot, one cast member was sentenced to death in the midst of the production for being a Nazi collaborator and had to be replaced. It’s lucky the film was ever made at all, let alone that it became such a towering classic. The movie itself is set in the French theater world of the early 19th century and tells the story of five men from varying artistic, criminal, and military backgrounds with one thing in common: their love for a gorgeous courtesan.
Charlie Chaplin was always more famous, but there’s just something about Buster Keaton’s stone-faced slapstick that has made me prefer his films. Chaplin may have had the grander ideas, but for physical comedy and pure timing and grace, nothing beats Keaton, whose pratfalls and stunts had the precision of a ballet, while seeming utterly natural and effortless. Witness the famous train chase sequence from The General, which finds Keaton running all over the exterior of a train, jumping from car to car and across couplings, without the aid of either digital effects or even a stunt man. The rest of that film is just as ambitious as that centerpiece; Keaton plays a locomotive engineer at the outbreak of the Civil War, and the film follows a number of adventures on his train throughout the course of the war, culminating in its involvement in a massive battle that serves as the memorable climax of the film. The American Art Museum is presenting the silent film with live musical accompaniment by the musical group Hesperus, performing an original score for the film.
Black Maria was the name Thomas Edison gave to the New Jersey building that would essentially become the world’s first movie studio. He’d invented a means of showing films, so naturally he needed to make some content for showing them. And Black Maria was born. Now Black Maria is the name of a long-running New Jersey-based festival of experimental film and video. Their mission is to “advocate, exhibit, and reward cutting-edge works from independent film and videomakers.” Following its award ceremony in early February, the festival takes its award-winning films on the road. From now until June the collection will screen at dozens of locations across the country, and DC gets its turn this weekend, as the feature-length program has a single showing at the National Gallery.
Sunday at 3:30 PM at the National Gallery of Art. Free.
The highly publicized, roundly criticized decison of the Susan G. Komen For the Cure foundation’s decision to end grants to Planned Parenthood earlier this year was yet another bad PR moment for the organization, which in 2010 had also initiated lawsuits to prevent any other advocacy organization from using the phrase “for the cure” in their names or events. It raised the question of Komen’s commitment to sustaining the status of its organization and its massive cashflow at the expense of other organizations that are all on the same side. Lea Pool’s documentary isn’t about those issues specifically, but about the business of the fight against breast cancer in general. Some critics have said her broad look tends to hamper the film, but most agree it’s a question worth raising and one that no one talks much about—that so-called “breast-cancer culture” is a big-money operation, but one that hasn’t exactly produced much in the way of positive results in the fight against the disease.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: Yellow Submarine
While A Hard Day’s Night and Help! served as documentaries of the Beatles’ personalities, showcases for their keen senses of humor and the very nature of their fame itself, the animated Yellow Submarine is in many ways a film more reflective of the art they created. For one thing, the Fab Four barely even appear in it, as their animated selves were voiced by other actors. Writer Lee Minoff creates a meandering, trippy plot that retrofits a concept onto a collection of Beatles tunes from various albums, creating a film that has a wildly imaginitive anything-goes aesthetic that plays equally well to kids, adults, art-film appreciators, and those on mind-altering substances. The film has been recently remastered for a brief theatrical run, which doesn’t appear to be headed to DC, as well as this new home video release.
Special Features: Audio commentary by John Coates and additional contribution by Heinz Edelmann, a featurette called “The Mod Odyssey,” music-only track, storyboard sequences, original pencil drawings, photo gallery, interviews with crew and voice talent, collectible booklet, and the original theatrical trailer.