This Week in Film: The Mildly Disappointing, The Predictable, and The Uncomfortable

By , Columnist

Well, folks, the time has finally come for audiences to be treated to one of the most highly anticipated and ridiculously hyped movies of the summer, Prometheus. As with any movie that marketing departments assure us is a masterpiece, it’s a bit of a disappointment if you expect anything more than a decent sci-fi/horror blockbuster (and lord knows there aren’t many of those these days).

However if you don’t feel like sampling Ridley Scott’s tale of alien goo and human grue, there’s also a decent CGI celebrity-voiced animal movie coming out in Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, as well as Dark Horse, the latest pitch black comedy about wounded souls from the incomparable director Todd Solondz (aka the man who put you through the wringer with Happiness).

That’s a pretty damn eclectic lineup of movies and, even more impressive, they are all worth seeing…well, as long as you go in with appropriately lowered expectations.

The Mildly Disappointing: Prometheus

Few blockbusters shuffle into theaters with the immense expectations facing Prometheus. Given that this is the return to both sci-fi and the Alien franchise by beloved genre icon, director Ridley Scott, fanboys have been foaming at the mouth for months and marketing execs have been promising brilliance. Well, unfortunately this thing isn’t a new genre masterpiece. Then again, it’s probably our fault for expecting it to be one.

Compared to the other 2012 summer blockbusters, it’s still one of the best nights of popcorn entertainment that we’ve gotten. Unfortunately given the project’s unfilled ambitions and ties to a genuine genre masterpiece, it can’t help but seem to fall a little short. Ah well, at least it’s a special effects blockbuster that suffers from being too ambitious rather than lacking artistic aspirations of any kind.

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The original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace stars as a scientist who discovers cave paintings around the world pointing to a specific planet in another galaxy that the creators of humanity are supposedly from. Since the technology exists to fly out there and check out these human “engineers” she does just that, joining a crew led by a cold-as-ice Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender doing some brilliant work as an android, and a large crew of indistinguishable scientists there simply to get bumped off one by one by the inevitable alien threat.

Eventually they land on the planet and find an abandoned cavern where the engineers once lived. They soon discover they were all wiped out by a mysterious black goo that was supposed to kill off humanity in an “engineered” (excuse the pun) apocalypse. Then they decide to bring some of this goo on their ship. No points awarded for guessing whether or not that works out.

The film is Scott’s attempt to craft a “what does it all mean” space epic along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as a slice of horror/sci-fi like Alien. Well, he nails all of the horror set pieces brilliantly (one emergency C-section scene is sure to become a YouTube classic) and creates an incredible, lived-in sci-fi world. Unfortunately, the existential themes are never fully explored and the film never ties into the Alien series in a satisfying way. Even worse, it’s clear while watching the movie that at one point none of those threads were left dangling.

It all builds towards an obvious conclusion where the weird morphing monsters turn into an Alien to make a pessimistic point about the futility of questioning the origin of existence. Then instead of providing a climax, Scott gives us a cliffhanger to shrewdly set up an apparent trilogy. It’s an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion made even worse by lazy screenwriting, terrible dialogue, and a cast of underdeveloped characters.

There’s no getting around the fact that Prometheus is a deeply flawed movie, but to dismiss it as total crap as many critics and spurned fanboys are sure to do is a mistake. Even though the film never provides any of the answers that it tantalizingly promises, this is at least a blockbuster with some intriguing ideas that never come at the expense of entertainment. Scott creates some consistently stunning imagery and at least gets one fascinating character out of Fassbender’s embittered android (he also gets the best single sequence in the film, using the ship as his personal playground during the two years in which his human shipmates are locked in cryogenic sleep chambers).

Completely divorced of all the expectations and ties to Alien hanging over every frame of Prometheus, it’s a pretty damn good movie. Unfortunately, those factors and the many flaws are impossible to ignore, which will inevitably lead to a lot of hate and dismissal thrown at the movie by critics and audiences. Perhaps all of the dangling threads will be tantalizingly expanded on in a sequel, but there’s an equal chance that the flick will piss off so much of its core audience that it won’t make nearly enough money to justify a sequel. We’ll have to wait and see. A movie too good to be completely dismissed, but also far from the masterpiece we were promised.

The Predictable: Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Let’s face facts — you know exactly what Madagascar 3 will be before even buying a ticket. Unless it’s a Pixar joint, all CGI family fare is essentially the same these days. Take a bunch of brightly colored animals, give them some celebrity voices, mix in some pop culture references and musical montages, and you’ve got yourself a hit.

This movie does exactly what’s promised on the poster with a slightly more strange and absurd level of humor than expected (possibly as a result of the involvement of The Squid and the Whale and Fantastic Mr. Fox screenwriter Noah Baumbach). It accomplishes that in 90 mostly pain-free minutes and then let's you carry on with your day. This thing has no chance of becoming an animated classic, but as far as this type of movie goes, you could do a hell of a lot worse. It’s at least entertaining and unpretentious. That’ll be enough for now.

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So we return to our group of pampered New York zoo critters (voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and others) who are now in Africa and piss off a French animal control officer (hilariously voiced by Frances McDormand) leading to chases and adventures. Along the way there are some undeniably strange comedy asides and fantastic voice acting turns from the likes of Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. The comedy tone has enough traces of subversive wit and the plot zips by fast enough for this to qualify as one of the better examples of the never-ending stampede of wise-cracking CGI animal comedies.

There’s not really much else to say. Madagascar 3 is exactly what it needs to be and possibly even just a little bit funnier than expected. Nothing special, but at least it won’t be a soul-crushing experience for parents dragged along by their children.

The Uncomfortable: Dark Horse

Following his reflective Happiness sort-of-sequel Life During Wartime, dark comedy specialist Todd Solondz returns with Dark Horse. The movie initially appears to be his most mainstream outing to date, before diving into the deep end of the filmmaker’s oddest impulses. As a specialist in societal outcasts, it was inevitable that the writer/director would eventually create an entry in the recent spate of man-child comedies. However, Solondz is no Apatow and his tale of a 35-year-old man living with his parents and collection of action figures isn’t merely a gently comedic take on the subject.

Comedy is only the starting point and as the film wears on, it soon becomes a melancholic deconstruction of the man-child phenomenon and a hallucination-fueled nightmare of immaturity and failure. Not exactly a light date movie for the Seth Rogen crowd, but a comedy that cuts deep into the current cultural infatuation with glorified juvenile behavior.

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The films stars previous supporting role specialist Jordan Gelber as Abe, a grown man whose life is dedicated to toys, cheesy pop music, playing board games with his mother (Mia Farrow), and slacking through a top position at his father’s office (Christopher Walken, playing the father, not the office). He still happily lives at home and has no intention of leaving, dreaming of marrying a woman and bringing her into his childhood bedroom until his parents move to Florida.

The dream seems close to reality when he meets the heavily medicated and equally confused Miranda (Selma Blair), who decides to at least try to settle for Abe because she has nothing better to do with her life. It all seems primed to become an “eccentric girl fixes damaged boy” comedy until Abe’s fractured and tenuous hold on reality starts to slip and award realism gives way to pained delusional surrealism.

The first half of Dark Horse offers some of the most taboo-free comedy of Solondz’s career and it briefly seems as though the cult director may have created his first shot at mainstream success since his debut Welcome to the Dollhouse. Abe’s clearly a stunted social misfit, but at least he’s irrationally confident and content and seems to have a shot at getting the girl. Then the filmmaker, who is incapable of pandering, makes it clear that Abe’s immaturity is not some cute affectation or defense mechanism. He’s a damaged soul and possibly even psychotic, while Miranda is using him purely to pretend she has a shot at a normal life.

The film is hardly a celebration of the man-child phenomenon. The lifestyle is shown to be a product of insecurity, neuroses, and delusion, with Abe’s active fantasy life gradually taking over his fragile reality. Though empathetic, there’s nothing cute about these regressed characters. They’re sick and Solondz, along with a game cast, explores the hows and whys through his patented brand of comedy designed to dig out those special kinds of laughs that stick in your throat and (god-forbid) provoke thought.

It’s not a movie that will be a crossover hit or deep enough to achieve universal critical praise, but for fans of the unique filmmaker and acidic social critic, it’s a must-see. Though tough going at times, it’s also a decent entry point for anyone curious to sample Soldonz’s sweetly twisted point of view but who isn't yet ready for something as intense as Happiness.

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Phil Brown was born years ago. He then grew up, went to university, and now reviews movies, interviews people and writes comedy. He writes for a number of websites and publications including the one you are currently reading. Phil can be found haunting movie theatres around Toronto. He isn't dangerous,…

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