My 2012 Movies in Retrospect, #23-16

Everyone knows January is National List Month on the Internet, that sacred tradition when the previous year’s creations must be remembered, recapped, and ranked. I’m not immune to the impulse myself. I like movies. I like making lists. It’s bound to happen. For fun-related reasons, since 2000 I’ve kept track of every movie I’ve seen in a theater, year by year. My list is shorter than a real critic’s because no one pays me to go see every release. I do what I can within my means and according to my curiosity level.

The final tabulations reveal I saw twenty-six films in theaters in 2012. However, three of those were officially 2011 releases and are therefore disqualified from being ranked on my 2012 Movies list. Any films I saw on home video — 2012 or otherwise — are also disqualified due to lack of theater. In addition, Les Miserables is disqualified from inclusion because I’m planning to see it this weekend, which will purportedly not fall in 2012. My movie-ranking rules are few, but there they are.

Part one of this three-part miniseries begins with the films I loved least. Links to past reviews and musings are provided for the twenty movies I previously discussed after MCC was launched. Apparently I only saw three 2012 releases prior to April 28, 2012. Blame it on the first-quarter release wasteland.

On with the reverse countdown:

Wrath of the Titans23. Wrath of the Titans. The explosions were clearly the star of the show. The labyrinth lent a welcome assist as the explosions’ chief henchman. The underworld was lacking, and perhaps should’ve spent more time as an understudy to the underworld from Spawn. Now that was a classy underworld, one that really chewed the scenery but was nonetheless generous to its costars, much more of a team player.

The human cast, on the other hand, was largely wasted, and sometimes blocked our view of the real stars. Except for Toby Kebbell’s mild comic relief, the non-CG actors mostly made bold pronouncements at each other, while every move they make requires a bombastic sound effect. Sam Worthington swats at someone, and BOOM! The most nondescript Ares in film history pummels a foe, and SEISMIC THUNDERCRACK! A sleepwalking Liam Neeson tosses lightning darts, and CORE MELTDOWN! Anyone blinks twice, and GATLING GUN! Mostly this felt like a video game sequel to a video game based on the first film. The graphics were bright and easy to absorb, but I get antsy and bored when that’s all I’m doing.

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“Men in Black 3”: the Casual, Relaxed Viewer’s “Prometheus”

I realize this summer’s careful studio negotiations of their blockbuster release schedule intended MIB3 to be the opening act for Prometheus, but I defied their release-order mandate and saw them in reverse order, four days apart. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.

I was a little surprised at the superficial similarities. Behold the flimsy case for their separated-at-birth pedigree:

* Hurray for sci-fi guns, vehicles, aliens, and slime! All given, of course. Getting the easy points out of the way first.

* Directors with impeccable art decoration and set design. Barry Sonnenfeld doesn’t have nearly the resumé that Ridley Scott has, but his settings likewise have nary a drab space. Always a treat, even when the characters inhabiting them are less than captivating.

* Farewell to former series regulars. Setting aside the Alien vs. Predator apocrypha, Prometheus marks the first Alien invasion without Sigourney Weaver — no unbilled surprise cameo, not even an Easter-egg hint of a Grandpa Ripley (unless I missed it, though I’m sure the Internet would’ve trumpeted it by now). Meanwhile in MIB3, we rejoin our old friends Jay and Kay as they attend the funeral of their former commanding officer Zee. Rip Torn is present only as a single large photo, thankfully not a souvenir mugshot from the various legal scuffles cited on his WikiPedia page. Also MIA from MIB, sadly, is our old pal Frank the Pug, except in two wall-sized tributes impossible to overlook. That’s just not good enough.

* Don’t call it a prequel. The past prologue of MIB3 is simple, simplified time travel as Jay absconds to July 1969 to save Kay’s life from retroactive elimination, but the movie keeps the Mad Men and hippies in the back seat. Since we’re back in time anyway, the movie graciously offers insight into Kay’s early days on the job, the tools and methods of the golden age of ET management, and Kay’s very different, much more gregarious relationships with his coworkers. Much insight is provided as to what turned Kay into a gruff old coot, and even the returning but underused Emma Thompson has a ’60s counterpart who’ll be most fortunate if she grows up to be anything like her. It’s not a direct prequel per se, but it’s a strong argument for the superiority of contained flashbacks over feature-length prequels as a secret-origin device.

Prometheus, on the other hand, avoided using the P-word in its publicity as much as possible, though they didn’t exactly sue the media or fans who refused to judge it as anything but. It’s obviously a predecessor in the same Alien timeline, no doubt, but any hardcore fans insisting on the complete origin of Alien‘s mysterious dead Space Jockey despite Scott’s modest pre-release protestations should’ve seen their own expectations deflate in the first reel. Alien took place on a heavenly body designated LV-426. Prometheus takes place on LV-223. BAM. DONE. End of Internet arguments. At best, Prometheus is now Alien Episode One: the Menacing Phantom. Moviegoers will have to wait with bated breath and years of message-board debates until they reveal how the xenomorph forefathers migrated from LV-223 to LV-426 in Alien Episode Two: Clone of the Attacks and Alien Episode Three: the Last Dangerous Visions. (Look, I couldn’t think of my own catchy title, and no one else was using it.)

* Haggard old man played by younger famous actor. Guy Pearce in several pounds of artificial wrinkles versus Josh Brolin as Tommy Lee Jones. Different angles, different results, both with accents not their own.

* The nonchalant black guy is only the second-most magnetic character. Michael Fassbender’s complicated android stole the Prometheus show, but Idris Elba’s just-a-pilot provided the only other relief from a cast of sourpusses. MIB3 isn’t nearly as grim, but Will Smith’s natural charm takes a back seat in several scenes to the hyper-verbal Michael Stuhlbarg (whom I last noticed and enjoyed in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-nominated A Serious Man) as a fifth-dimensional tourist who views multiple timelines simultaneously and hopes to see Earth live into the correct one. (The worst part of living with such a talent must be perceiving all of Schrödinger’s cats at once, then watching helplessly while half of them die.) Stuhlbarg’s jittery nattering upends the film and then grounds it solidly with one ecstatic monologue about synchronous miracles, delivered in a fever pitch rivaling Jim Dale’s narrator from the Sonnenfeld-produced Pushing Daisies. And I’m a big fan of anything that reminds me of Pushing Daisies.

* A spaceship takeoff is a major plot point. And another victory for subwoofers nationwide.

* There will be sacrifice. In each film, at least one person dies so that others might live. That’s a little deeper than anything I recall the first two MIBs attempting. For its achievements in the areas of depth and narrative competence, I’d go so far as to say that MIB3 is the series’ best entry to date.

Then again, with a decade between this and the first two, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve forgotten more about those than I think. I remember Lara Flynn Boyle not doing much, the giant subway worm thing, the Unisphere, Vincent D’Onofrio as a demented farmer bug alien, and our old pal Frank the Pug. Alas, poor Frank. What are the odds we’ll see you again in MIB4? Better or worse than the odds of seeing you in Alien Episode 2?

“Prometheus” IMAX 3-D: Panoramas, Subwoofers, and Questions Begetting Questions

From an audiovisual standpoint, the IMAX 3-D version of Prometheus was one of the most overwhelming, immersive experiences I’ve ever encountered. Beyond that, results varied. Possible spoilers abound, but nothing intense enough to require the services of my usual spoiler guardian.

I’ve only seen one full episode of Lost, but I got the impression from its viewers (haters who refused to stop watching as well as genuine fans) that they had to answer all the deepest questions themselves. Much of Prometheus was like that for my son and me. We liked its approach to the spiritual questions it raises, as well as the additional questions engendered by those questions in turn. In my experience that’s par for the course in any serious reexamination of What It All Means. Even if the movie’s answers and suggestions don’t remotely match mine, it’s intriguing to watch other people’s thought processes at work through the constructs built from their own set of evidence.

If we’d seen it on a smaller screen, I might’ve been more disappointed. Luckily for Prometheus, I have a hard time concentrating on aesthetics when my field of vision and my limited hearing range are in maximum sensory overload. Whenever vehicles crashed, it was like a full body massage as the whole theater vibrated with malevolence, and a special treat for my ears that cause such despair when they miss little sounds and entire conversations in everyday life.

As far as people go: Lisbeth Salander Prime was in top form as our main character. It’s refreshing to see a film where a character can wear a cross, stand their ground, and espouse non-Jewish religious views without being a source of intense comedic ridicule or die a grisly death. Granted, she’s the subject of mild comedic ridicule, but then there’s occasionally satisfying retribution in the form of grisly deaths. I also approve of her enduring the most excruciating of hardships while armed only with canned space epidural.

I was enthralled by Michael Fassbender as the android David, who combined Data’s existential aspirations with Wall-E’s cinephilia and Crow T. Robot’s amoral curiosity. Idris Elba seemed an odd choice for the role of the cantankerous, nebulous pilot, but the Stephen Stills squeezebox went a long way. I was mollified by the one or two human moments that Charlize Theron was allowed to experience in modes other than hard-as-nails. The Tom Hardy lookalike met the minimum requirements of the standard skeptical-significant-other role. I barely recognized Guy Pearce disguised in gallons of elderly makeup as Professor Farnsworth and wish he hadn’t been irrelevant to the entire third act.

In general I wish more had been done with the supporting cast. I wouldn’t’ve minded an extra half-hour of character moments, which were the hallmark of some of the previous films. When characters are pondering deep subjects and waxing philosophical, it means a lot more if I’m given reasons to care about their opinions, regardless of whether they’re informed or shallow. Without that emotional foundation, the inevitable kill-spree meant no more to me than one from an average horror film, which is all the more disappointing if you consider that the majority of the film was more sci-fi than horror.

About that kill-spree: although the creature effects achieved their goals, the simplistic drives for some beings and unexpressed motivations for others each failed to coalesce into an effective bad-guy presence. Yes, they were big and strong and physically menacing, but I’ll be really surprised if I can remember any of them fondly three years from now. Prometheus achieved the rare reaction of creating backgrounds and settings that were more vibrant eye-candy than the beings gallivanting in front of them and blocking my view. When you find yourself wishing that movie characters would move aside so you can see what cool things they’re blocking, the movie has gone wrong somewhere.

Perhaps my opinion would’ve improved if I’d consumed any of the pre-release viral-video supplements. I ignored all of them for two reasons: avoidance of spoilers, and preference for experiencing the movie as a work of art unto itself. I grow impatient with any movie that requires homework before I’m supposed to see it. I’m fine with viewing such material months after the fact in the form of DVD extras, but I’m of a mindset that doesn’t yet appreciate movies as the climax of an interactive cross-platform viewing game. If character moments in the movie were minimized with the expectation that the viral videos would pick up the slack in that area, then this isn’t my kind of filmmaking.

It’s possibly my kind of DVD-making. But I’m gonna need a bigger TV.

Countdown: Four Weeks Until US Release of Last Ten Unspoiled Minutes of “Prometheus”

Ridley Scott’s newest science fiction milestone commands the cover of the May 18th issue of Entertainment Weekly, whose sidebars in previous issues about the Alien prequel/spinoff/homage/whatever may already have said too much. If the official American trailers, several international trailers, viral-marketing future DVD extras, epic-length WikiPedia entry, and half-baked rumor sites haven’t whetted your appetite for advance knowledge (true or false), EW’s article also reveals which character is not quite human, which ones are corporate toadies, and which one is our primary protagonist. Along with those Dell-logic-problem clues, factor in the Hollywood pecking order of Academy Award Winner Charlize Theron, Academy Award Nominee Young Magneto, Lisbeth Salander Prime, Stringer Bell, Leonard Shelby, two male unknowns, and one female unknown. Savvy viewers should be able to calculate their order of elimination in the finished product with a margin of error of ±1 corpse.

If you mean to save yourself for the American release date of June 8th, hiding from the Internet will not be enough. TV ads have now been unleashed to the networks so that the Midwest will finally get a look-see. Expect more magazines to follow in EW’s footsteps in the weeks ahead, including the inevitable TV Guide cover straining to cash in on the hype with the most tenuous of TV connections. I predict a showcase along the lines of “Twenty Best Movies Starring Actors from The Office: Prometheus, Bridesmaids, Get Smart, and More!” I won’t be surprised to see ancillary merchandise at the comic shop. The true danger zone begins June 1st when the movie opens early in England because of favoritism. Expect Internet hall monitors to place their sites futilely on emergency spoiler lockdown when waves of soccer-hooligan trolls begin tweeting drunken screen shots and plot-loophole complaints live from their theater seats.

I count myself among the wave of fans who saw James Cameron’s Aliens before seeing the original Alien and consequently have a hard time discussing contrary opinions with old-school fans who were marked for life when they saw the classic chest-bursting surprise on the big screen. I may rank the four films differently, but to this day I don’t hate any of them (the two crossovers are another story). I hope not to hate this one as well, but with so much time remaining for so much more to be ruined, I may need to play the hermit card and go underground like Newt till it’s safe. I can’t just nuke the Internet from orbit, so there’s no way to be sure.

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