Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has an early shot which undeniably quotes 2001: A Space Odyssey, a beautiful image of a planet ringed with light. There’s some more striking imagery, of an unidentified landscape. A humanoid being removes his cloak and ingests some form of liquid which quickly begins killing him. He sacrificially gives himself to the river, where he falls apart piece by piece, his body possibly giving birth to life as we know it. That’s a provocative beginning for a big-budget science fiction film, one that clearly announces its intentions to be a thoughtful exploration of the creation and destruction of life. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
After the cryptic prologue, things get off to a very good start. The crew of the good ship Prometheus–which looks like a jumbo Serenity, but maybe that’s just me–is awakened from cryogenic sleep after two years by the android David (Michael Fassbender). Scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) have discovered cave paintings from around the world, all of which depict images of a figure gesturing toward the same star pattern. They’ve followed that pattern all the way out to the middle of space, hoping to find the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. There are some big ideas at play here, and in the early going, there are conversations about whether the existence of supposed humanity-creating beings (Engineers, they’re called) negates or supports the existence of God. Holloway posits that because they now know the Engineers exist, the cross Shaw wears around her neck is meaningless. Shaw, with a wink in her eye, then asks where the Engineers came from.
I love the first Men in Black. Really, truly, sincerely love it; to me, it’s the Ghostbusters of the ’90s. If you know me, that’s high praise. I was seven years old in 1997, so there’s always going to be some nostalgia attached to my memories of the movie, but I was surprised by how well (read: completely) it held up when I watched it again a couple years ago. I so adored the first film that when the sequel came out in 2002, there I was on opening day dressed all in black, wearing sunglasses and an MiB: Alien Attack hat I’d gotten at Universal Studios earlier that year. It’s fair to say I was excited. Even at 12, though, I felt something missing from the sequel. Like Ghostbusters II, it lacked the freshness of the original, content to rest on its laurels and half-heartedly copy what made the first so enjoyable.
That said, it’s a pleasure to see Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) still knocking E.T.s around in Men in Black III, and perhaps more so to see that their partnership has been developing off-screen over the last ten years. J is still the wisecracking hothead of the pair, and K the no-nonsense straight man. But they’ve grown complacent in their roles. When J wants his partner to actually open up for once, K can’t. Still, they’re partners, so when K disappears and no one but J can remember him, J resolves to get to the bottom of things. It turns out that there’s been a fracture in the time stream; K was killed in 1969 by a nasty piece of work called Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement). Time travel was made illegal long ago, but J doesn’t seem to have much trouble tracking down an undercover time travel service. He jumps (literally) back to the day before K was murdered; hijinks ensue.
Four years ago, two films gave the superhero genre a much-needed kick in the pants: Iron Man and The Dark Knight. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum–the former bright and funny, the latter dark and gloomy–but both felt honest, and honesty’s something the genre needed in order to mature. This summer sees the release of two films which seem destined to revitalize the genre yet again, and it’s only fitting that they are The Avengers, the end result of Marvel’s first wave; and The Dark Knight Rises, the last of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-flicks. The Dark Knight Rises is still a couple months off, but just as that one looks like it’s angling to be even darker and more despairing than its predecessors, The Avengers aims to be more colorful, rousing, and exciting than those leading up to it.
Any superhero movie that wants to be even semi-successful has to on some level examine the nature of heroism. When one doesn’t, which was a big problem in the period between Spider-Man 2 and Iron Man (give or take a Batman Begins), you wind up with something like Catwoman or Elektra or Batman & Robin. Marvel’s pre-Avengers efforts, which I’ve mostly enjoyed, have excelled at asking just why each of their heroes feels the need to suit up and take action. With The Avengers, an even bigger question is posed. Why would such disparate people, each with their own sets of skills, hang-ups, and needs, come together to form a team? Writer-director Joss Whedon, a veritable geek god, is the one tasked with providing the answer to that query, and he does so brilliantly.
I like pirates. I enjoy inherently silly things. I’m an admirer of Aardman Animations, having greatly enjoyed Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run. I guffawed at the trailer for The Pirates! Band of Misfits enough times that I ventured out to see a children’s movie on a Sunday afternoon all by my lonesome, then felt super awkward when dads started filing in with their kids. So it’s with some puzzlement that I report that Pirates! has few belly laughs, and perhaps worse, nothing that makes it particularly memorable.
For a film with a runtime of 88 minutes, the first half-hour feels like a laborious set-up for a plot that doesn’t really need to be set up. The Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) doesn’t exactly inspire fear on the high seas, manning a crew that’s strictly amateur hour; each one has as descriptive a name as their captain, such as the Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), or my personal favorite, the Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen), a play on that old trope whereby girl pirates disguise themselves as boy pirates. Despite his ineptitude, the Cap’n still has his sights set on winning the Pirate of the Year trophy.
Saying this upfront: NO SPOILERS. Paul and I have also discussed the film on the show.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A bunch of kids pack into an RV for a weekend of fun, sex, and sexy fun. That they encounter the extremely creepy owner of an ancient gas station on the way does nothing to deter them from their destination: a remote cabin in the woods, owned by one of the kids’ cousins. The place immediately seems a little off, there’s some disturbing stuff in the cellar, someone maybe reads Latin, and eventually bloody mayhem ensues. Though they should know better, each one succumbs to some very stupid behavior for which they will be punished.
This is the set-up for dozens, maybe hundreds, of horror movies. The Cabin in the Woods is something different. When we first meet these kids, they seem like lively, intelligent college students. They don’t seem like they would do some of the dumb things they end up doing. Which seems par for the course for this kind of movie, except The Cabin in the Woods dares to offer a justification as to why the victims would seemingly offer themselves up as fodder. There’s more here than meets the eye. Characters played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are part of a shadowy organization which makes everything much more complicated. This I guarantee: If you’ve only seen the ads, which paint the movie as your generic Halloween Saw Massacre deal, it is not that. At all.
Though I wouldn’t have predicted this in a thousand years, and I’ve been skeptical of others who have claimed this before me, I’m here now to tell you 21 Jump Street…is actually good.
Obviously an “homage” (read: send up, parody, reimagining, whatever) of the late-80s teen police procedural of the same name that ran on the infant Fox Network, which dealt with young cops masquerading as high school students to investigate crimes. The 2012 film version focuses less on the teen drama and more on the comedy potential inherent in such a preposterous concept. And though there’s a surprisingly effective heart and maturity to some of the story (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill share a real brotherly chemistry I wasn’t expecting), it’s the comedy that ultimately sells this. Special comedic thanks to Dave Franco, who along with Eliza Coupe was the only reason to watch the ninth and final season of Scrubs. He’s dopey and dim, with just a hint of dangerous, and is easily 50% of why you should see this movie.
Directed by the team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who previously brought us the criminally under appreciated animated film Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (which, btw, watch it right now!), there are some sequences that play like a live action cartoon, in the best possible way. The screenplay is credited to Michael Bacall, co-writer of the 2010 masterpiece Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which itself played heavily with live action cartoonishness. A couple of Pilgrim actors turn up in this film, most obviously Brie Larson who played Scott Pilgrim’s ex Envy, and here plays romantic lead Molly. Less immediately obvious (but much funnier) is Johnny Simmons (Young Neil), with a brief but pivotal cameo.
There are countless shout outs and Easter eggs for the 80s TV fans, and though this adaptation goes more for laughs than the original series perhaps intended, I think old school (pun intended) fans will find a lot to like here.
The Ultimate Gift is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. You probably haven’t heard of it. Good for you. I don’t want to imply that it’s well-made, because it’s not, but there are certainly worse-made movies out there. Little Man, Date Movie, Space Mutiny, etc. But The Ultimate Gift is a special brand of awful because it takes a little girl’s cancer and uses it as nothing more than a plot point with which to forward the main character’s journey of self-discovery. Once the main character has supposedly become a better person, the little girl dies and no one really cares. Not sure about you, but to me, that is offensive. Now imagine a movie which does the same, only instead of using a cancer-stricken child, it uses a national tragedy the scope of which is still too large for many Americans to comprehend. Thanks to director Stephen Daldry, screenwriter Eric Roth, and a passel of others, you don’t have to imagine it. They’ve made it. And it’s called Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.
Superhero origin stories are de rigueur, as are attempts to translate those stories to the “real world.” Chronicle, from newcomers Josh Trank (director) and Max “son of John” Landis (screenplay) pulls it off surprisingly well, featuring three teenage protagonists that behave in completely believable ways when gifted with burgeoning telekinetic powers. The first half of the film is a fun, wild ride as the kids play around with levitating Legos and blowing up cheerleaders skirts. The second half gets more serious as one of them succumbs to the urge to strike back at a world that has admittedly been smacking him in the face for some time. By the time the kids master flight, forcefields, and bus-tossing, we’ve arrived at the predictable but very well played showdown of “good vs. evil.” It’s been said that heroes are defined by their villains, and trite but true it’s never more apparent than the schism between abused and angry Andrew and idle and indolent Matt. Without the need to protect innocent bystanders threatened by Andrew going all Tetsuo on downtown Seattle, it’s entirely possible Matt would have never moved past the pranking phase of superherodom. In fact I could imagine a world where he grew bored by it and actually never even used it again. But “Tetsuo” did happen, and Matt stepped up to the “Kaneda” plate…
I’ve long thought that Marvel’s overarching plan for its homegrown superhero movies was absolutely insane–and pretty ingenious, too. Spider-Man, the X-Men, and some other notable players are tied up at other film companies, but Marvel wisely held onto the rights to each member of the Avengers and ever since Iron Man in 2008, they’ve been working on getting the band together. Iron Man had some subtle Easter eggs and a nifty post-credits scene, and it’s a miracle that Iron Man 2 didn’t entirely collapse under the weight of its Avengers teases; The Incredible Hulk, besides a brief scene between Tony Stark and General Ross, was too busy restoring its hero’s rep to get involved. Thor is the next Avenger to get the spotlight and, well, he’s an interesting case.
Well, that settles it. Kenneth Branagh is a geek. How else to explain the brilliant blending of Shakespearean pomp and circumstance with the Lee/Kirby pseudo-sci-fi goofiness? Thor the comic was always just a tad inconsistent in the way it imported ancient Nordic mythology into the modern superhero landscape. The two writers that, in my opinion, handled the sacred and the profane best, Walt Simonson and J. Michael Straczynski (the latter one of the five credited screenwriters), each found a way to strike a comfortable balance. Thor the film favors the sci-fi over the fantasy, no question. But Branagh manages to create a cosmology here that is both theologically intriguing and satisfyingly silly.
So what is all this about, anyway? Well it’s that old familiar tale of the beautiful astrophysicist that discovers a fallen Norse god in the New Mexico desert, teaches him how to eat Pop-Tarts and wear low cut jeans, and ultimately helps him learn humility by being sweet and pretty and trusting of him, which of course allows him to regain his divine power just in time to destroy the god-killing robot set upon him, return to his heavenly realm and defeat his traitorous brother before he can steal the throne from their father. So, basically it’s nothing we haven’t all seen before.
But it’s gods damned fun!