Movie Reviews - 2012 postsSunday July 29, 2012
Movie Review: Casa de mi Padre (2012)
I don’t think I’ve laughed less at anything Will Ferrell’s been in: any skit on “Saturday Night Live,” any cameo in a Ben Stiller film, any video on the “Funny or Die” site.
Once again, the trailer has all the best bits. By which I mean the muted, forced chuckle of Ferrell as he and his compadres, on horseback, watch the cattle graze. That made me laugh. Did anything else in this movie? I’m drawing a blank.
Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, the sweet, somewhat stupid, and somewhat cowardly son of land-rich patriarch Miguel Ernesto (Pedro Armendariz, Jr.), who favors his younger son, Raul (Diego Luna), who, unbeknownst, is a drug dealer in a festering rivalry with Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal). Raul has also returned with a bride-to-be, the beautiful Sonia (the beautiful Genesis Rodriguez), who may or may not favor Armando.
There are a lot of jokes based upon the poor production values of Mexican cinema. It’s not like these don’t translate; it’s that they’re not funny. They’re tepid. Either push the joke further or eliminate it. Here, they’re stuck in this bland middle ground. They almost feel tacked on.
I’m sure there are in-jokes about Mexican cinema that I just didn’t get. God, I certainly hope so. At the same time, I recall at least being charmed by another Mexican film parody from Hollywood, “Nacho Libre” (2006), starring Jack Black, and directed by Jared Hess of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame. It was sweet, and funny, and focused on that bizarre Mexican cinematic fixation with masked wrestlers.
There’s no similar charm in “Casa.” The girl is hot, Ferrell is amusing in a few scenes, and I liked the campire singalong, “Yo no se,” with his compadres. Basically I got five minutes of enjoyment out of an 85-minute film.
Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
It’s too soon.
That’s the big problem with Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It’s been only 10 years since we last saw Peter Parker get bit by a spider and develop super-powers, and watch Uncle Ben die, and wrestle with issues of power and responsibility as he fights bad guys and gives up those he loves to protect them from those who hate. Just 10 years. And they pretty much got it right the first time. So what’s the point of “The Amazing Spider-Man”?
Sixteen years separated Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” and during that time major innovations occurred in filmmaking and CGI and politics and superhero storytelling. We went from a Cold War world to a post-9/11 world. We went from mail to email, from daily newspapers to aggregate sites. We went from a world of DC moviemaking (“Batman”) to Marvel moviemaking (“X-Men”; “Spider-Man”). But from 2002 to 2012? What’s really happened? Obama. iStuff. Our phones got smarter as we got dumber. Otherwise?
Should we reboot the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy now? Harry Potter? Shrek? The Dark Knight? How infantile are we becoming?
Tell us that story again, Daddy.
At least director Marc Webb (thwip) and screenwriter James Vanderbilt do their best to tell the story in a new way. They give us Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), not Mary Jane Watson; Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary), not J. Jonah Jameson; the Lizard (Rhys Ifans), not the Green Goblin. They don’t graduate Peter from high school. They never have Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) utter the famous phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Instead, he tells Peter, “Not choice, responsibility.” Hey, maybe they’re trying to prevent another disaster like “Spider-Man 3,” whose great lesson was, “We always have a choice.” And maybe that’s why they show us the cash-register thief (AKA, the Burglar) actually killing Uncle Ben, so no future director can give us retcon bullshit that undoes Spider-Man’s entire raison d’etre. Yeah, I’m still pissed off about it.
They make Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) sexy and cool. That’s new. Instead of a wide-eyed, sweet geek, which is what Tobey Maguire gave us, he’s practically James Dean here. He’s troubled, and slouchy, and conflicted, and his hair goes every which way. He wears a hoodie and rides a skateboard and when he first develops super-powers, and is being chased by punks, he bounces off the walls and over metal railings like Sebastian Foucan on steroids. He’s Peter Parkour. He should be in a Mountain Dew commercial.
This Peter Parker stands up to bullies like Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) before he even gets super powers. A good touch. I always thought it wrong that Peter never fought back until he had the overwhelming power to do so. If he can’t stand up to people whose strength is greater than his own as Peter Parker, how does he develop the courage to do so as Spider-Man?
Do they, in fact, make Peter too exemplary? Smart and sexy and courageous? There’s a scene halfway through where two science nerds debate the propensities of Spider-Man’s web, and Peter follows behind them with a kind of smirk on his face. He’s not them, he’s apart from them. But didn’t he used to be them? They’ve skipped the Steve Ditko version of Peter and gone straight to Johnny Romita. First, Clark Kent went model handsome in “Smallville”; now Peter here. We’re losing our secret-identity nerds, kids. Everyone’s cool now.
At the same time, Peter’s kind of a little shit, isn’t he? He steals into an Oscorp internship tour by taking the badge of Rodrigo Guevara (Milton Gonzalez), who probably worked hard all of this life to make it there. Adios, amigo. Then Peter plagarizes the cross-genetics work of his own father, Richard Parker (Campbell Scott), in order to impress his father’s old partner, Dr. Curt Connors of Oscorp. The formula is supposed to solve problems with the decay-rate algorithm, or whatever, and Dr. Connors thinks it works, but it doesn’t. The experimental mouse turn into a half-lizard and Dr. Connors turns into the Lizard. In this manner, the villain creates the hero (Peter gets bit at Oscorp) and the hero creates the villain (decay rate algorithm). Shades of Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
The Uncanny Valley
OK, something else happened in the last 10 years that affected this version of Spider-Man. “The Dark Knight” happened. It broke box-office records, grossed $533 million in the U.S., and became the first superhero movie to pass $1 billion worldwide. Ever since, studios have tried to duplicate its formula. Specifically, they’ve looked to “Batman Begins” to see how Chris Nolan set up “The Dark Knight.”
“The Amazing Spider-Man” does the same. It:
- goes dark, gritty, and realistic;
- keeps the costume off the hero for the first half of the movie;
- merely suggests the hero’s true nemesis (the Joker, the Green Goblin) at the end, to set up the sequel.
You could even say the spray-painted red spider on the alley wall is the low-rent, underground version of the bat signal at the end of “Batman Begins.”
Let’s look at the realism first. In terms of web-slinging through Manhattan, the first trilogy took its cue from the comic book and assumed there was always something above Spidey for his webbing to latch onto. That’s not the case. Like anything else in Manhattan, you have to work the angles and the sides of buildings. It’s not an amusement park ride, kids. Trucks get in the way. Spiders get squashed.
The costume is kind of real, too, in that it’s less cool. The Maguire version of Spider-Man was proportionately perfect, the suit impeccable. He was my Spidey brought to life. This one’s a bit tall and gangly ... and slouchy. Slouch is only cool in a jacket, preferably with the collar up, not in a skin-tight unitard. At times, I was even reminded of the 1970s TV-version of Spider-Man. That’s not good. And what’s with the sparkle? It’s Spidey does Vegas. It’s Peter and the technicolor spidersuit.
Realism only goes so far in superhero movies anyway. In fact, I wonder if superhero movies don’t suffer their own version of “the Uncanny Valley,” that theory from robotics and 3-D animation stating that the closer the product comes to seeming realistic, the less realistic, or at least more uncomfortable, it becomes.
Shouldn’t, for example, what happens to Dr. Connors freak out Peter? Just a little? Dr. Connors’ DNA is crossed with a lizard’s and he turns into a giant lizard. Peter’s DNA is crossed with a spider’s, so shouldn’t he, I don’t know, worry about turning into a giant spider? Shouldn’t he look in the mirror every two seconds for any evidence of bug eyes and extra limbs? I know I would.
And, really, in the long history of Oscorp, has no one else been bitten by these experimental spiders? And how do the guys chasing Peter Parkour keep up? Peter’s climbing walls, they’re climbing stairs, yet they meet him on the roof. Really?
And no one at Midtown High knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man? Did you see him dunk? Did you see him keep the ball from Flash Thompson? Like he had superglue on his hands? Like it was stuck there? With, like, spider stuff?
Becoming rather than being
At least they don’t rush the origin. Becoming is so much more interesting than being. When I was young, twentyish, I read Philip Norman’s book, “Shout: The Beatles in their Generation,” but the portion I read over and over was the part of the story from the launchpad (January 1963 and “Please Please Me”) to the burst of world-wide fame (February 1964 and “The Ed Sullivan Show”). That’s the sweet spot of becoming, the cresting of the wave, and it was fascinating to me. Still is. And that’s what Webb and company try to give us here.
In Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” after the spider-bite, Peter develops a fever, goes to sleep, and wakes up superstrong, and, it’s implied, with bigger testicles. That’s about it. In Amazing Fantasy #15, he just gets strong: “I crushed this steel pipe as though it were paper!” Here, every sense becomes super-attuned and he doesn’t know his own strength. He keeps yanking knobs off doors and breaking glass and mirrors. He stays Peter for a long, long time. Even after Uncle Ben dies, he has no idea what he’s doing. He needs Capt. Stacey’s dinner-table speech about heroism to finally see himself as a hero and act accordingly.
My favorite scene in the movie may be the first post-bite scene, when he falls asleep on the subway and some lout, for a gag, balances a beer can on his head. Then a drop of condensation trickles down the can and plops onto his forehead and he wakes with a start and jumps onto the ceiling of the subway car. Everyone stares in amazement for a second, or two, until, like Wile E. Coyote, he realizes that what he’s doing is impossible and falls back to earth. Oddly, even after this bizarre demonstration of power, they keep messing with him. The lout’s girl (Tia Texada) complains about the beer spilled on her blouse, and Peter, a clumsy gentleman, tries to help, and of course his hand, now as sticky as a spider’s, gets stuck. Eventually off comes the blouse, making louts of us all. What I particularly liked was how, throughout, Peter keeps apologizing. As the blouse is ripped off, as he takes down the lout and his loutish friends without trying, he keeps saying, “I’m sorry ... I’m really sorry!” That’s a good bit.
The distracted protagonist
I keep wondering how much I would’ve liked Webb’s version if Raimi’s trilogy had never existed. I’m sure I would’ve been impressed. But “The Amazing Spider-Man” doesn’t quite work not only because it’s too soon but because it’s a distracted movie and its hero is a distracted protagonist. What does the guy want and how does he get it? That’s the point of most of our stories. Not here. As the movie begins, Peter wants to find out about his parents. He never does. Then he wants to bring Uncle Ben’s killer to justice. He never does that, either. Then he wants a girl, particulary Gwen Stacey, and he gets her. But she has to do most of the heavy lifting. Plus he promises a dying Capt. Stacey to stay away from her. Which, it’s implied, he won’t do.
Of course it’s not his fault. The filmmakers are waiting to resolve these issues in the sequels. That’s the kind of movie culture we live in now. We’re back to the cliffhangers of movie serials. Instead of next week, it’s two or three years from now. Stay tuned. Don’t miss the next thrilling chapter, “My Dad worked for the CIA!” Summer 2015.
Including Peter’s parents was perhaps the biggest way Webb differentiated his movie from Raimi’s, but it's a mistake. Because nobody gives a shit. Parents in superhero stories are there to get out of the way and/or die. Think Thomas Wayne, Jor-El, Uncle Ben. Do we care who Reed Richards’ parents were? Ben Grimm’s? Bruce Banner’s? Ang Lee cared about Banner’s father and look where that got us. Stay away from the parents!
They’re not going to. Halfway through the credits, in perhaps the lamest teaser ever, we watch Curt Connors in prison talking with a shadowy, malevolent figure, most likely Norman Osborne, who will become The Green Goblin. “Did you tell the boy the truth about his father?” the shadowy figure asks. Ah, the truth. About his father. I’m on tenterhooks.
Dr. Connors, who regained his humanity by saving Peter’s life, responds with the movie’s final line. It’s an ironic line, given that this is a reboot of a 10-year-old product. He says this:
You should leave him alone!
Try telling that to Columbia Pictures.
Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
WARNING: BAT SPOILERS
Is Gotham City worth saving? One wonders if Batman ever wonders that.
Thomas Wayne tried saving the city in “Batman Begins,” but he and his wife were killed by a petty criminal, Joe Chill, in a back-alley mugging, and the city was overrun by organized crime and corrupt law enforcement. It took Wayne’s son, Bruce, alias Batman (Christian Bale), to save it from both the slow, sad death of corruption and a quick, mad death ordered by Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the League of Shadows. In this, there is one good police, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman), and one good prosecutor, Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and that’s about it.
In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker (Heath Ledger) tries to prove that the moral code of the citizens of Gotham is a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble, and does. He holds the city hostage by demanding that: 1) Batman unmask himself; 2) a petty functionary of Wayne Enterprises be killed; and 3) two ferry boats engage in a test of wills, or souls, to see which blows up the other. In this, the citizens of Gotham: 1) agree; 2) start shooting; 3) redeem themselves by not acting, which, given Gotham’s history, is less ferry-boat ending than fairy-tale ending. The good citizens, Lt. Gordon and Rachel Dawes (now Maggie Gyllenhaal), are joined by Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a white-knight district attorney whose face is eventually mangled into the grotesquerie of Two Face, and who goes mad from pain and loss. His crimes are then pinned on Batman, by Batman, who believes that Dent’s true, sad end would be too much for the delicate natures of Gothamites, who would lose all hope.
Now, in “The Dark Knight Rises,” the League of Shadows is back, in the form of Bane of the basso profundo (Tom Hardy), who, in a master stroke, blows up all but one of the bridges connecting Gotham to the rest of the world, and, with a nuclear device holding the city hostage, becomes its defacto warlord, urging “the people” to take back from “the rich” what is theirs. They do. In a flash, law and order crumbles, Gotham becomes Paris in 1789, and our old pal, Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), becomes the sentencing/hanging judge. Chaos reigns.
So one can forgive Batman for thinking, “Really? Again? You can’t...? OK. But seriously, this is the last fucking time.”
Or maybe it’s the citizens of Gotham who should be doing the wondering. Specifically: Why does this always happen to us?
The answers as revealed in each movie in the Dark Knight trilogy: 1) because the League of Shadows wants to wipe out your city, which is hopelessly corrupt; 2) because the Joker wants to prove your city can be hopelessly corrupted; and, 3) because the League of Shadows wants to wipe out your city, which is hopelessly law-abiding.
One can forgive Gothamites for asking for a little consistency from its supervillains. Or its writer-director.
That’s Gotham’s true problem—and ours. Christopher Nolan, the writer-director of the Dark Knight trilogy, loves, too much, the needlessly complicated schemes of his supervillains.
This is just part of Bane’s plan in “Dark Knight Rises”:
- Using Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) to lift a fingerprint of the now-reclusive Bruce Wayne, eight years after the events of “Dark Knight,” so it can be used to bankrupt him. In this manner, Wayne Enterprises, which includes a potential nuclear weapon in its basement, can be taken over.
- Defeating Batman and throwing his broken body into the horrific third-world, underground prison from which Bane emerged.
- Dozens, maybe hundreds of men, working in Gotham’s sewers for months, without anyone knowing, in order to create the explosives necessary for the takeover.
- Having all of these explosives go off at the exact moment that 99 percent of Gotham’s now squeaky-clean but fairly incompetent police force are searching the sewers for same, effectively trapping them below ground, and leaving Gotham ripe for 1789-style anarchy.
Let’s face it: a helluva lotta luck goes into 3) and 4), not to mention 2). Any of these go wrong—Batman beats Bane, some bum discovers the men in the sewer, the cops don’t go underground at that exact moment—and the plan goes bust.
But was 1) even necessary? Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) wind up blocking unethical corporate raider and Bane benefactor Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) from gaining control of the company, which winds up in the hands of rich socialite and super-hotty Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). But Bane takes the nuke anyway. So why the financial machinations when things can just be taken?
Don’t even get me started on the kidnapping of Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul), supposedly the only man who can arm the device. It involves Bane pretending to be a CIA prisoner, and members of the League of Shadows rapelling from a bigger plane to the smaller CIA plane in order to blow it apart. Really? You can’t kidnap one Indian dude off the street? You have to wait until he’s in the sky?
Even so, for most of its 164-minute runtime, I was enjoying the dark opera that is “The Dark Knight Rises.” I felt pain, a kind of childish pain, watching Batman fall, and seeing his armory raided for the purpose of subjugating rather than liberating Gotham.
I continued to be impressed with Gary Oldman’s low-key performance as Gordon: the ordinary man caught in extraordinary events.
I liked Joseph Gordon-Leavitt’s stolid police officer, Blake, who, despite an upbringing at St. Swithins orphanage, in which he talks about the masks one needs to wear to survive, is the most straightforward character in the movie. It feels like he gave up on bullshit long ago. He also figures out Bruce Wayne’s secret without breaking a sweat, which, yeah, seems a bit much.
And I loved Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, who doesn’t merely ride Batman’s motorcycle fetchingly (giving added meaning to the movie’s title), but plays whatever woman she needs to play—mousey, frightened, sexy—in order to get what she needs from the nearest man. She also has some of the movie’s best lines.
Lucius: Fox I like your girlfriend, Mr. Wayne.
Selina Kyle: He should be so lucky.
So I was enjoying myself. Then the 11th-hour reveals began.
All al Ghuls all the time
First, we find out that Bane’s master plan isn’t Bane’s at all. It’s Miranda Tate’s. Because she’s really Talia al Ghul, Ra’s’ daughter, getting revenge on Batman and Gotham in the name of her father.
As a result, Bane—a one-note villain, yes, but a pretty cool note—goes from mastermind to guard dog in a flash. His eyes dim and he stands around waiting for commands. A few moments later he’s shot and killed by Catwoman. Hey, how come no one tried that before? You know. When Bane was terrorizing everybody?
So Nolan undercuts the villain once again. He did it with Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) in “Batman Begins,” who, it turns out, was controlled by Dr. Crane, who, it turns out, was controlled by Ra’s al Ghul. The al Ghuls keep getting in the way. In the entire trilogy, only the Joker is Ghul-free.
Then we get the extended backstory. It was Talia, not Bane, who escaped that horrid third-world prison as a child. She’s the love child of Ra’s al Ghul, whose lover, unbeknownst to Ra’s, was placed pregnant into that third-world pit as part of a deal that allowed him to escape. There, the mother is killed, but Talia, with the help of Bane, survives, and, with the help of Bane, escapes; then she and her father return to rescue what’s left of Bane. But the father resents the benefactor and excommunicates him from the League of Shadows. Does Talia not resent this? Does she not resent her father for abandoning her and her mother? Apparently not. Apparently she’s still willing to risk everything to carry out his mad plans.
And what’s with that prison anyway? Why is the mother, the daughter, and Bane attacked, and Bruce not? Why do inmates chant “Rise” as Bruce attempts to escape? Did they chant “Rise” for Talia? If so, why attack Bane afterwards? Why aren’t they high-fiving each other?
And if it’s Talia who masterminded everything, when exactly was she going to reveal this to Batman? After she nuked Gotham? Via the TV hookup or in person? Did she have her “slow knife” line ready for such an encounter? Because surely she’d want Batman to know who brought him low.
And if she truly wanted to bring him low, shouldn’t she have done nothing at all? He was wasting his life, a gimpy recluse, before she and her plan made him interested in the world again. That’s quite a gift. He should’ve thanked her.
And she’s League of Shadows? She shows no stealth. What happened to that organization anyway? Its members are a little less shadowy these days. Bane and Batman, in particular, are bruisers. Their fights are like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed in the 14th round. The promise of ninja-stealth from “Batman Begins” is long forgotten.
As is, by the way, summoning bats with the sonic device in Batman’s boot. Seriously, if I were Batman? I’d be doing that shit every time I showed up.
Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb
Anyway, that’s the first 11th-hour reveal. Talia is the mastermind; and Bane, reduced to functionary, is removed with a single bullet.
So now we follow her. She is helped into the passenger seat of the truck carrying the nuke, and when the driver is killed, and it crashes, and Batman and others arrive at the scene, she, like in some soap opera, ekes out the words, “My father’s work is done,” then does the head-tilt-to-the-side to indicate death. Lame.
But it sets up our dramatic end, the final sacrifice of the Batman. In the trailer and in the movie, Batman and Catwoman have this exchange:
Catwoman: You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything.
Batman: Not everything. Not yet.
So we go in expecting the death of Batman. And that’s what we get. Batman, in his batplane, hooks onto the ticking nuke and flies it over open waters, where it explodes far enough away to save Gotham and its citizens. (Look for future mash-ups with Adam West’s famous line from the 1966 “Batman” movie: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”)
The second 11th-hour reveal is that Officer Blake, who throws away his badge in disgust after the battle is over, has a seldom-used first name: Robin. After Bruce’s death, Wayne Manor is transformed into the Thomas and Martha Wayne Home for Orphans, and Blake, working there, discovers the batcave. The legend lives on.
At first I liked this. Gordon-Leavitt’s face and body type are almost perfect for the role. Plus, as played here, he’s cool, which means Robin would actually be cool for the first time in his long, sad history. But then I realized the folly. “Wait. Bruce Wayne trained for seven years for this. Dude’s a ninja. Robin’s not bad in a fight, but he ain’t no ninja. At the least, he has at least one Nepalese trek in his future or he won’t last long.”
The third and final reveal is that Batman isn’t really dead. Autopilot, remember?
This was immediately disappointing. I suppose I wanted the finality of his death. I suppose I wanted his earlier lines (“Not everything. Not yet”) to have meaning. I suppose I wanted to see something different in a blockbuster movie.
Besides, it means that Bruce Wayne at the end of the movie is in a predicament similar to Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the movie. Sure, he’s away from Gotham City, as Alfred long advised. Sure, he’s with Selina Kyle, who’s totally hot. Sure, it’s like he’s on vacation, sitting there at the outdoor cafe in ... is it Italy? But what is he going to do with his life? And what do these two, the bat and the cat, do all day? Have sex? Go to museums? Read books? Take a breath after the relentless pace of the last three movies? How long before they get bored with it? How long before they come up with a plan to do something?
Whatever that plan, I hope it isn’t needlessly complicated.
Movie Review: Men in Black 3 (2012)
“I’m getting too old for this,” Agent J (Will Smith) says early in “Men in Black 3.” Yes, he is.
“The prerequisite for a joke is that it be funny,” he admonishes his fellow agents later in the movie. Indeed.
It’s been 15 years since the first “Men in Black,” 10 years since the second, and during that time Will Smith has gone from rising star to worldwide superstar to MIA could-be scientologist. He’s gone from playing an agent for a supersecret organization obsessed with aliens to possibly being an agent for a supersecret organization obsessed with aliens. He’s also gone from 28 to 43 and he’s lost his groove. “MIB 3,” his first movie in four years, doesn’t get it back.
The movie relies on the tired device of time travel, and there’s a moment after J travels back to July 1969 when both he and K (Josh Brolin, doing an inspired Tommy Lee Jones imitation) have to explain their situation, which is basically the plot of the movie, to doubting military officials. It gets them into further trouble: dropped on the pavement and handcuffed and such. Because no one believes them, it’s all too absurd, ha ha. Question: why does this never happen to whomever pitches the movie in the first place? How come director Barry Sonnenfeld, say, or writer Etan Coen (no relation), didn’t wind up decked and handcuffed on the Sony lot?
“MIB 3” opens with a woman (Nicole Scherzinger ), wearing FMBs, bustier, and sporting deep cleavage, bringing a cake, which jiggles even as her cleavage does not, into a maximum security prison for her boyfriend, Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement, of “Flight of the Concords,” another inspired casting move). He’s been locked up for 40 years but seems more dangerous than ever. Of course the jiggling cake contains a small creature, or weapon, that lives in Boris’ hand, and with this, and a few less-organic weapons, he blasts his way out of prison, which turns out to be on the moon. We see him bounding past the American flag planted there in July 1969. Cue credits.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, as they say, Agents J and K (Tommy Lee Jones) are going through the motions. K is as emotionless as ever, and J, after 14 years, is suddenly unaccepting of it. At the funeral of Agent Zed (Rip Torn), K offers almost nothing in his eulogy that’s personal or meaningful or emotional, and J reacts as if this is news, as if he hasn’t been working with the guy for 14 years. It’s not funny and Will Smith’s timing is way off. He seems sluggish. Did he have a cold during filming? The flu? Nothing clicks. “How did you get to be like you?” he asks K. Since we know where we’re heading, into the past, where we’ll meet a young K, we assume we’ll find out. Everything will be explained.
During an investigation into a restaurant in Chinatown, J and K battle Boris, and in this manner, and others, we discover the following:
- Boris lost his arm 40 years ago battling K, who put him in prison. K now regrets it. He thinks he should’ve killed him.
- Boris is the last of the Boglodytes, a violent race that subsumes other planets. Or something.
- Boris gets a hand-held time machine from a stoner at a guitar shop with the purpose of going back to July 1969 and killing K before K can incarcerate him and doom his planet.
So we know what Boris means when he tells K, “You’re already dead.” K doesn’t. He and J have a falling out—J in his apartment playing video games, K in his study talking on a landline—and then he gets ready for Boris with a spacegun. He’s got it aimed at his door when everything shimmers and warbles and he simply vanishes. Boris has gone back to July 16, 1969, the day of the moon launch, and killed Agent K. So little imagination here. Why not go back to his birth? Why not go back to his father or grandfather? And why pick on the poor Apollo program? Didn’t “Transformers 3” already do that?
J shimmers and warbles, too, but he still remembers K while everyone else has forgotten. The new head of the agency, however, Agent O (Emma Thompson, horribly wasted), who had a possible thing, or fling, with K back in the day, realizes something’s amiss, and directs J to the stoner in the guitar shop, where he gets a thingamajig, and, with the no-longer-extinct Whatchacallums now attacking Earth, jumps from the top of the Chrysler Building and back to July 15, 1969, to prevent Boris from killing K and changing the course of you-know-what.
A few things in the movie work. I like the fact that the filmmakers don’t ignore racial matters in 1969 (just in 2012). I like Brolin and Clement, and I particularly like Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”; “Boardwalk Empire”) as Griffin, an alien who perceives all of the different possibilities in any moment in time. As a result, he’s never sure which reality he’s in. Is it the reality where Boris bursts through that door and kills him? Whew, no. Is it the reality where the New York Mets, the perennial doormats of Major League Baseball in the 1960s, win the World Series in 1969? Maybe. He gives J and K a window into that October 1969 reality from an empty Shea Stadium in July. We, and they, see a sunny, packed, October Shea Stadium, where Jerry Koosman pitches to Davey Johnson, who pops up to Cleon Jones, and the 1969 “Miracle” Mets become the champions of baseball. Griffin waxes philosophic on this. He talks up the imperfections in that final baseball, because the woman who manufactured it in 1962 was having an affair, and thus wasn’t paying enough attention to her work, and thus the ball floated a few centimeters too high, allowing the pop-up to happen. He talks up how Davey Johnson became a baseball player rather than a football player because his father didn’t have the money for a football, and how Cleon Jones was nearly named something else. He calls it all a miracle.
“A miracle is what seems impossible,” Griffin says, “but happens anyway.”
All of which is nice but beside the point. Davey Johnson, or any player, flying out isn’t a miracle. It’s about as routine a play as you get in baseball. It would’ve been far more miraculous if, in that instant, he’d hit a homerun to tie the game, and the Orioles had fought back from a 5-3 deficit in Game 5, and a 3-1 deficit in overall games, to win the 1969 World Series over the upstart New York Mets. But the movie has its themes and goes with them. And we go to Cape Canaveral, the site of the first moon launch, and the battle with the two Borises.
Of course the small glowing device, which will become the Arcnet Shield that will save all of Earth from the Boglodyte attack, gets knocked out of K’s hand and dangles off the arm of the Apollo 11 launchpad, while K fights young Boris and J fights old Boris. Will they save themselves, and Earth, in time? (Psst. They will.)
J and K only get onto the launch pad in the first place because a colonel (Mike Colter), apparently the head of security for Apollo 11, is given a window into a possible reality by Griffin and so lets them in. Earlier, J made passing reference to his father—how he didn’t know him, how his father just disappeared and all that—and when I saw the Colonel, I thought, “This isn’t going to be J’s father, is it?” Of course it is. So J kills old Boris, K kills young Boris—seeming to disrupt the time continuum, but whatever—but not before young Boris kills the Colonel. Which is when a young boy pulls up in a car, a young J, and older J gets misty-eyed as he realizes, yes, this was him, and this was his father, whom he doesn’t remember because K uses the neuralizer to wipe the boy’s, or his, memory rather than have him deal with the trauma of a lost father, and the whole thing becomes a sappy, lost-father (Colonel)/found-father-figure (K) storyline in which J and K reconcile in present time.
Except ... how does this explain the way K is? Something traumatic was supposed to happen to him at Cape Canaveral. Is this it? That the Colonel was killed and the boy’s memory wiped, and K has carried this knowledge like a heavy stone all through his 14-year relationship with J? But why does this make him more distant and emotionless? And why, in present time, does J show him the watch, the watch that was the key to his relationship with his forgotten father, and thank him? Shouldn’t he be angry? Shouldn’t he say, “You took my father from me; you took from me what makes me me”? Instead, the movie shimmers and warbles to its happy end and the audience leaves the theater effectively neuralized. You will think you had a good time. You will tell your friends it’s an OK movie. If you’re a critic, you’ll give it a 69% on RottenTomatoes.com.
Yeah, I’m getting too old for this.
Movie Review: Prometheus (2012)
The first half of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror masterpiece “Alien,” raises some fun and intriguing questions. The second half gives us some lame and unsatisfying answers. It’s a smart sci-fi film that gets dumb fast.
In the latter part of the 21st century, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) stumble upon 5,000-year-old cave paintings from different parts of the world that include the same image: a giant man pointing to a five-planet solar system that isn’t visible from Earth. This solar system has a planet, or a moon, which is semi-inhabitable for humans, although its atmosphere, we’re told, would be like sucking on an exhaust pipe. Meaning in 2093 we’ll still have cars with internal combustion engines. Bummer.
But, badda-bing badda-boom, a mission to this planet, funded by the Weyland Corporation, is underway. We see the ship, Prometheus, en route, with its 16 human crew members in stasis, while its lone android, David (Michael Fassbender), studies ancient languages, shoots baskets while riding a bicycle, and watches both the dreams of Ms. Shaw and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” He styles his hair in the fashion of a young Peter O’Toole and quotes one of the movie’s more famous lines: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” Apparently even our robots want to be like movie stars. Or so the movies tell us.
A few months ago, online, I saw a clip from “Prometheus,” in which Weyland Corp. founder Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), in 2023, gives a TED talk. It’s a good clip, although the “talk” doesn’t quite hold together:
So Weyland expounds on “Lawrence” and “not minding”; on the titan Prometheus, who gave us fire (and thus life), and who was punished by the gods by having an eagle rip out his stomach and eat his liver every day for eternity; and by the fact that, in creating androids, in creating life, “We are the Gods now.” But this clip didn’t make the movie. Too bad. The talk doesn’t quite adhere but the scene provides connective tissue for the movie. It lets us know why, for example, David is watching “Lawrence,” and how, for example, the giant men in the cave drawings might be ancient aliens thought to be gods, and how, for example, the legend of Prometheus, with his ripped-out stomach, might be our first “Alien” story. I.e., it wasn’t an eagle ripping into a stomach; it was an alien ripping out of it.
As in “Alien,” as opposed to the optimistic “Star Trek” world, there are class distinctions aboard Prometheus, and, as in any corporation, a battle for power. Who’s in control of the mission? A hologram of a wizened Peter Weyland (Pearce in make-up) tells the crew that the scientists, Shaw and Holloway, are in charge, but the robot-like Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), who, out of stasis, does push-ups while those around her are regurgitating, and who has separate, lavish quarters, obviously objects. Then there’s the captain of the ship, Janek (Idris Elba), but he seems to know his place as employee and glorified chauffeur. “I’m just the captain,” he says more than once with a smile.
There’s also David, who, like almost all androids in sci-fi movies, has ulterior motives.
So they land, quickly find the alien stronghold, along with giant, godlike images of humanoids (thank you, H.R. Giger!), and evidence of a massacre: bodies piled high by a doorway. But they insist on poking stuff, goo and slime, that we know better not to poke. We, viewers of countless “Alien” movies, know what’s going to happen. They don’t.
Well, some do. David, for example. How does he know? Is he literally reading the writing on the walls?
It all comes apart fast—both mission and movie. Two scared scientists who are left behind, the Shaggy and Scooby of the crew, come across a snake-like alien life-form emerging from a blackish goo, and one insists on practically cooing to it. Bad move, Scoob. It, of course, wraps itself around his arm, breaks it, and when the other scientist tries to cut it off, he gets the alien’s acid-blood sprayed in his face. In seconds, both are mangled toast.
Meanwhile, David has mixed some black goo into the drink of Holloway, who, inexplicably, is distraught that in a few hours time in the alien stronghold they didn’t uncover the secret to life. This guy’s a scientist? Doesn’t he know the slow, plodding nature of the discipline? Earlier, Shaw calls the aliens in the cave painting “engineers,” and assumes, without evidence, that they engineered us. When asked why she assumes this, she echoes her father’s comment about why he believes in an afterlife: “It’s what I choose to believe,” she says. She might as well be a Young Earth Creationist.
Holloway perks up when Shaw informs him that the DNA she recovered from the site matches human DNA exactly, and the two celebrate the way humans do, with booze and bed, but the next morning his eyes are red and he doesn’t feel himself, and during the mission to the site he bends over and his skin starts breaking apart and he pleads to be killed. Vickers, who doesn’t want to be contaminated, obliges. Everyone, it seems, has their agenda. Hers is staying clean. She seems to know instinctively that there’s bad shit out there.
Back on the ship, just after seeing her lover torched in front of her, Shaw is informed, by David, almost maliciously, that though she thought herself sterile, she is in fact pregnant. Three months along. How is that possible? Oh, we know how it’s possible. And we know it’s not human. At which point we get the film’s best, most harrowing scene: Shaw performing computer-aided self-surgery to remove the alien before it gets all Prometheus on her ass (or stomach). There’s a great tension between a sense of urgency (hers and ours) and the computer’s decided lack of it. Once she survives, freezes the alien life form, and makes her way, stumbling down the hallway with a stapled stomach, I, like most in the audience, realized, “Right. She’s this movie’s Ripley.”
This takes us to the third act, where we discover that a) Peter Weyland is alive and on board, b) Wickers is his daughter, and c) David has uncovered a chamber where a giant humanoid lies in stasis. That’s why Weyland is there. He’s hoping to meet his maker.
He does. Awakened, surrounded by puny humans, the giant humanoid listens as David talks to him in what we assume is his own language. Whatever David says, it enrages the giant, and David loses his head (literally), and Weyland meets his maker (figuratively), and the humanoid, with whom we share DNA, starts up his massive, c-shaped spaceship, still working after all these years, to bring it, and stomach-popping aliens, to Earth.
Apparently the giant humanoids are developing these aliens like weapons of mass destruction for the purpose of... wiping us off earth? So they can populate it? Or something? They’re not our engineers, in other words; they’re our engineers of destruction. “We were so wrong,” Shaw says.
She figures all this out pretty quickly, informs Capt. Janek that he needs to stop the alien ship or “There won’t be any Earth to go back to,” and, amid lines of bravado, which they snort like lines of cocaine, he and his remaining crew perform a kamikaze mission and bring the alien ship down. The crashing ship promptly crushes Vickers, who has jettisoned onto the desolate planet in a desperate attempt to survive, and nearly crushes Shaw, who rolls out of the way in time.
So is she the sole survivor on this desolate planet? Nope. The giant humanoid survives as does one of the stomach-popping aliens; and she gets away from the former by releasing the latter.
So now she’s alone? Nope. David, head removed from body, is still functioning, and he informs her there’s another alien ship, which he can pilot. But she doesn’t want to go back to Earth. She wants to go forward to the planet of the giant humanoid aliens. She wants to learn more. As do we. In this way the prequel sets up a sequel that doesn’t lead to the original. Two stories diverged in a movie, and she, she took the one less traveled by, but we don’t get to see if it makes all the difference for another two years or so. Thanks, Ridley.
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