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The Alien series is arguably one of the—if not the—most influential sci-fi movie series of all time. Not just for proving that a horror movie could transcend the genre, or that a female character, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), could be an ass-kicking, box office draw, but also for its amazing pedigree of talent: directors Ridley Scott (Alien), James Cameron (Aliens), and David Fincher (Alien 3), and writer Joss Whedon (Alien Resurrection). In Prometheus, Ridley Scott returns to the helm and delivers a stunning, if not fully successful, not-a-prequel prequel to Alien that will appease fans with origin tidbits and some gnarly alien attacks.
It has been almost 15 years since Men in Black opened on July 2, 1997. (And 10 years since Men in Black II was released—but let’s pretend that one never happened.) Since that time: James Cameron released both Titanic and Avatar, the entire Harry Potter and Shrek film series came and went, George Lucas released Star Wars: Episodes I–III, and Pixar released A Bug’s Life (it’s second feature film) through Cars 2. So, after all of these years, is another Men in Black film necessary, or even relevant? While Men in Black 3 cannot recapture the originality of the first, it is a fun summer blockbuster that features great performances and astonishing special effects and makeup.
For a director and an actor to work together on several pictures is not uncommon. Woody Allen/Diane Keaton, Martin Scorsese/Robert DeNiro, Coen Brothers/Frances McDormand, and John Ford/John Wayne have all done it before. But the relationship between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp has always felt unique. Not because the stories are always original (in recent years, they’ve mostly been adaptations), but because of the artistry. In Burton’s cartoon-surrealistic worlds, Depp is a constant, willing, and able player. Razor-wielding barber? Sure. Boy with razor hands? Why the hell not? Depp dons powdery makeup and ungainly wigs with aplomb, creating memorable (if not all together successful) characters. And while Burton and Depp’s collaborative work—including seven live-actions and one animated feature—has achieved near perfection (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood), a few have simply been beautiful bores (Alice in Wonderland). Unfortunately, Dark Shadows is something new: a beautiful mess.
Time has not been kind to John Cusack. This is not to say that his appearance has deteriorated, but rather to say that he’s aged out of type. In the ‘90s, he embodied the angsty, quick-witted, single boy-men of Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. (It never seemed like he was really acting.) But 12 years later, unlike the actor himself, Cusack’s acting remains unaged—inflexibly the same. Like in 2012 where he plays the quick-witted, single father during Earth’s destruction. Or in 1408, where he plays the quick-witted writer investigating a haunted hotel. He does not alter his voice, nor does he change his mannerisms or delivery. (As a friend so adroitly said to me the other day: “John Cusack can’t escape being John Cusack, no matter who he tries to play.”) In The Raven, Cusack portrays Edgar Allan Poe. Which is just Cusack with a goatee.
In May 2009, co-writers Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) completed production on Cabin in the Woods. Starring Fran Kranz (then costarring on Whedon’s not-good-enough series Dollhouse), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Eat Pray Love), Chris Hemsworth (the not-yet megastar of Thor), and several Whedonites, it was to be a statement on the horror genre devolvement—namely, the latest “torture porn” craze. But when MGM filed for bankruptcy in 2010, its future was left uncertain. After negotiations—and a brief, and gratefully unsuccessful, discussion about converting into 3D—Cabin in the Woods can finally be seen in theaters. And fans of horror and/or Whedon will not be disappointed. Cabin is a smart, genuinely scary film that feels utterly original.
Last week the highly publicized documentary Bully, opening in Philadelphia this Friday, had its rating slashed from R to PG-13. The Weinstein Company, the film's distributor, noted the occasion with solemn approval. Thanks to the Motion Picture Association of America's good sense, an anti-bullying dialogue could reach more classrooms, dinner tables, and, fingers crossed, lawmakers.
In September 2008, the month when Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was first released, another young-adult series—featuring a certain milquetoast “heroine” and her sparkly vampire—still reigned supreme. But for those of us who never gave a flyin’ flip for Team Sparkly or Team Shirtless, and who still mourned the completion of Harry Potter, Hunger Games was the perfect antidote. It was shockingly brutal yet unbelievably (even compulsively) readable. It immediately became a bestseller — mostly driven by incredible word of mouth. So when it was announced that director Gary Ross (Pleansantville, Seabiscuit) was to direct the film adaptation, the intense scrutiny began. But fans, rest assured: the Hunger Games movie is a superbly made, tremendously faithful adaptation that is worth seeing again and again.
Here’s the sad truth: Many who go to see 21 Jump Street won’t have any clue that it’s actually based on a TV show. The phrase “I said jump, down on Jump Street” will mean absolutely nothing to them. (Nor incite an urge to shout “jump.”) The connection between this movie and Johnny Depp will be lost. They’ll be confused why some audience members cheer at the brief cameo of Holly Robinson (Peete). They will not know who Richard Grieco is. (To be fair, many of us have also forgotten.) But it doesn’t matter. Those women (and some men) who had the Johnny Depp poster up in their rooms—smoldering eyes, denim vest, and all—will appreciate the nostalgia; the rest will laugh at the dick jokes.
Last Days HereDirector Don Argott first came onto my radar in 2005 when he released Rock School, his Roger Ebert-approved documentary about the Paul Green School of Rock and its foul-mouthed namesake. After moving into the fine art world with Art of the Steal and nuclear fear mongering with The Atomic States of America, which screened at Sundance in January, he's come back around to the glorious world of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll with Last Days Here—only in this documentary, that world isn't so glorious.
Thus begins one of the most important movie weekends of the year. On Tuesday, Oscar ballots will be mailed out—nominations announced four weeks later (on January 24). So this will be the final weekend for wide release films to make an impression. While Hugo, The Descendants, and The Help have been talked about for weeks, this will be studios’ last chance to make an impact. So here are my reviews of the big name releases this week.