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Column Fri Jun 08 2012

Prometheus, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, Elles & Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

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Prometheus

Most people who have reviewed this film have only seen it once, and therefore there is every reason to have a healthy skepticism about the wide array of opinions that have already been voiced about Ridley Scott's return to the world of science fiction, Prometheus. I can't imagine truly grasping some of the concepts at work here after only one viewing. The plot itself isn't confusing, but the amount of philosophy and speculative science at work here makes at least two viewings necessary. And I say that as someone who wasn't particularly impressed with a lot of this film on the first go-round.

Before I dive into the boilerplate, let me digress just a moment on one aspect of Prometheus. One of the elements of the movie that I was riveted by was the idea that Noomi Rapace's character, Elizabeth Shaw, is a woman of faith, something I'm fairly certain we haven't seen in any of the Alien movies. There's a moment in the trailer that I've always found gripping — when her whole world seems to be crashing down on her, Shaw suddenly clasps her hands together in desperation and prays. That's her defense mechanism, her last-ditch move to survive the insanity around her.

Sadly, that moment from the trailer is missing from the finished film (sort of; there's an alternate-angle version of it that is far less poignant than the version in the trailer). Nevertheless, the idea of a person of faith being the instigator of a mission that may once and for all prove that God doesn't exist is fascinating. Shaw and her team (fully funded by trillionaire Peter Weyland, played in old-man makeup by Guy Pearce) are in search of "Engineers," aliens who landed on our planet, possibly kickstarted the genetic engineering that led to humanity (and all life on Earth, more than likely), and left clues to their whereabouts with ancient civilizations in the form of cave paintings and other such drawings. When one of her team questions her theory, she says they are accurate because she chooses to believe they are. Not exactly the scientific method, but instead it's her definition of a new kind of faith.

The movie opens with one of my favorite scenes. We see a humanoid creature on what may or may not be Earth doing something that appears to be either a mistake or a suicidal scientific experiment. Whatever it is, it is clearly the origins of life... somewhere, and it also seems clear that these Engineers can repeat this experiment anywhere where life can be sustained.

Jump forward to the mission itself. If we haven't learned by now that androids can never be trusted in Ridley Scott's movie, we have no one to blame but ourselves. But that doesn't stop David (Michael Fassbender) from being perhaps the most interesting character in the film. When we first enter the scientific expedition on the ship Prometheus, David is wandering the halls alone while the crew is frozen, awaiting arrival at the planet they believe is the home of the Engineers. But what David is doing on his own is kind of great: he's watching Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia because he's feels a connection, so much so that he colors and styles his hair to look exactly like O'Toole's. And almost from the minute we meet him, we know that David is hiding something and that his agenda is not the same as Shaw and her team.

Charlize Theron as Meredith Vickers is drawing from the same icy well that she did for Snow White and the Huntsman, but thankfully she's dialed back her performance as the ship's captain and loyal Weyland executive. She and Idris Elba's Janek (the ship's pilot) have one great scene together that does a fantastic job of establishing all aspects of her personality. If anything, I wish there was more of both of their characters in this film because there are certainly less interesting performances going on in Prometheus that could have been sacrificed.

For example, my least favorite character is Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), Shaw's work partner and romantic interest (always a healthy combination), and the reason is I didn't buy a single thing this guy did or said. He's too ramped up and emotionally driven to be a straight-thinking researcher. At a point in the film, he gets sick, but rather than stay on the ship so as not to jeopardize the mission of going into the giant structure where the Engineers apparently lived at one point, he straps on a space suit and helmet and goes right out with the rest of the team. And his actions pretty much set the dominos falling for the rest of the mission and movie. His actions feel like plot devices, not the actions of an actual person. And that's probably the biggest issue I had with Prometheus overall. For every mind-blowing idea or image Scott and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof give us, there are at least as many moments that feel rushed, nonsensical or unbelievable (in the context of this story).

Some people are telling you that viewing Alien before seeing Prometheus is not necessary, and in terms of story that is absolutely true. But I watched the film anyway, and I thought in terms of contrasting how Scott's brand of science-fiction-horror has evolved. I also loved getting meet a different kind of professional space traveler. Whereas in Alien, the ship was populated by blue-collar types simply looking for a payday, here we get scientists and other research specialists mixed in with guys who can actually fix the ship if it is damaged. Do no watch Prometheus if you're looking for connective tissue to Alien. If you do, enjoy being disappointed. The connective material is there, but if that's all you care about, you aren't giving the new film a fair shake. And those links are some of the least interesting parts of the film, especially a closing sequence that feels like a desperate afterthought.

Far more interesting is discovering this version of the future, which doesn't seem so removed from our world today. I also liked the searching/discovering aspect of the team as they enter this structure and walk through what seem like miles of caves to piece together what happened years earlier. I think it almost goes without saying that the visuals are spectacular and groundbreaking — and yes, I'll plug the 3D version of this film without hesitation. And I'll give the overall film credit for being something that is easily watchable as a stand-alone experience. Sure, seeing the Space Jockey in context has more power knowing Alien, but it's in no way essential.

Prometheus is about the possibility of meeting our creators, and that alone makes it a film with huge ambition (which, alone, does not make it great) and a wonderful potential to spark hours of conversation after every screening (which does make it great). Its shortcomings are too big to ignore, but so are the places where it absolutely nails it. That makes it difficult to decide whether or not to actually recommend it as both a film and conversation starter, but I think in the end I have to say it's worth taking a look at as long as you dial back your expectations. In fact, it might make the experience a whole lot better if you approach Prometheus as a movie that exists in its own universe, forgetting where the DNA that may run through its story is from. This is what we call a mild recommendation, but I firmly believe the less you bring in, the more you'll take away from this film.

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

I don't really contemplate the Madagascar movies in my spare time. Hard to believe, I know. But even when I'm thinking about my favorite animated movies in the last 10 years, or the best that computer-generated animation has given us lately, this lightweight franchise doesn't enter into the conversation. The stories always seemed overly simplistic and focused more on being broad and silly than creative (an animated film for kids can actually be all of those things in the right combination).

So, you can probably imagine the level of excitement that filled my soul when I sat down for the third Madagascar chapter with the wildly original title Europe's Most Wanted. The good news is that my faux enthusiasm turned into genuine enjoyment during the course of this fun little ditty that seemed intent on throwing caution to the wind and giving audiences something so outlandish as to provide a whole lot of laughs mixed with a healthy dose of a slightly more grown-up story.

As in the last film, Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) are still trying to return to the Central Park Zoo from their other-side-of-the-world adventures in the first two films. I still love the randomness of their pal King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), a lemur who has clearly been doing too many drugs. Cohen infuses Julien with such a playful spirit and subtle adult humor that he wins every time he opens his mouth. But the real surprise is the Stiller and Rock finally step up the comedy in Europe's Most Wanted. I never thought either were particularly funny in the first two, but they both get off some great lines here.

The film's other nice new element are the addition of four new characters. The plot forces our heroes to join a traveling circus going by rail through Europe, and we are introduced to the tiger Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), a jaguar named Gia (Jessica Chastain) and a bizarre sea lion Sefanto (Martin Short). All of the animals are being pursued by nasty animal control officer Dubois of Monte Carlo, played by Frances McDormand, whose character seems more interested in mounting heads than protecting the public. There's something about her that screams '40s villainess that I was particularly drawn to, while the three new animals have much greater sob stories about life in the circus than our heroes, making them far more sympathetic.

Look, I'm not trying to sell Madagascar 3 as any kind of great achievement in either animation or storytelling, but after two sub-par films, it seems the filmmakers finally got a few more things right. Perhaps some of that has to do with the script, co-written by Noah Baumbach (who directed Stiller in one of his best roles to date in Greenberg) and Eric Darnell (who is one of the credited directors on the film). Who knows. All I know is that the movie made me laugh a lot more than the first two, and I found the new characters interesting to a degree, especially compared to the main four leads. Weirdly, the films seem to be getting better as they add to the franchise. That certainly bodes well if they decide to make a fourth. If you are someone who is often put in charge of taking youngsters to the movies during the summer months, you could do a whole lot worse than Madagascar 3.

Elles

I'm not sure I entirely get what Elles, the new feature film from Malgoska Szumowska (the Polish-born filmmaker best known for her documentary work), is about, but with Juliette Binoche playing a writer who spends most of the film doing explicit interviews with two college students/prostitutes, maybe that's OK. Anne (Binoche) lives in Paris with her rich husband, one snotty teenage son, and another younger, more respectful son.

In a bad erotic drama or thriller, Anne might unlock some hidden desires in herself during the interviews with the two young call girls (Joanna Kulig and Anais Demoustier), and while a little of that does happen, most of the desires Anne uncovers scare her quite a bit. But more significantly, what emerges from her conversations is a new definition of independence and female empowerment that she (and probably most of the audience) is not at all comfortable with. Anne looks at her own life as wife, mother, writer and woman and is simply overwhelmed with regret, embarrassment and angst.

Elles jumps back and forth in time over the course of several days, from when she separately meets her two subjects for many of their interviews. We also get peeks into the lives of the prostitutes, both on the job and how they first got into this particular line of work. By the time the film wraps up, we have fairly complete portraits of all three women, and not surprisingly none of them are especially happy with where they are in life, for different reasons. As anyone who has seen her films knows, Binoche can deliver angst better than just about any actor working today, but I was also especially moved by the performances of Kulig and Demoustier, who display a believability as women who stumbled into this work more out of necessity than desire. There's a level of fear at work in all three characters that makes their behavior sometimes unpredictable and always compelling, even if it doesn't always make sense. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Man, is this a shit movie, and it's a shit movie despite a strong cast that includes the likes of Catherine Keener, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jane Fonda. And the reasons for this movie being shit don't really have to do with the actors; they have to do with a shit script by Joseph Muszynski and Christina Mengert. And if you're already annoyed by my review of Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, then you have a fraction of an idea of the agony I suffered watching it.

Nothing about this movie feels real, not even the characters, despite some commendable work by the cast, which also includes Nat Wolff as Keener's mopey son, Chace Crawford (as a love interest to Olsen, playing Keener's daughter), and Kyle MacLauchlan, as Keener's husband whom she announces she wants to divorce at the beginning of the film. But these actors aren't actually playing characters; they're approximating types. MacLauchlan and Keener are the couple whose marriage has become stale and boring; Wolff's character is a would-be filmmaker, who is always shooting home movies (he calls it a documentary) and referencing classic films; Olsen is a vegan, anti-establishment college student. You get the picture.

When Keener's Diane (a New York lawyer) leaves her husband, she takes the kids to her mom's place in Woodstock, so I don't see any potential for conflict between the uptight Republican attorney and a town filled with dirty hippies. Of course the kids take to the environment with some help from their hippie grandmother (Fonda) and the steady stream of friends and neighbors who pass through her door on a daily basis. As ridiculous as she may sound, Fonda isn't bad in the role of Grace, but so much of what her character has to do is just going through the motions of what a generic older hippie would do.

What almost makes Peace, Love & Misunderstanding more embarrassing is that it was directed by once-great filmmaker Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Breaker Morant), who is just spinning his wheels with this paint-by-numbers material. Despite some solid attempts at humanizing, none of these characters feel like real people, and by the time Keener's prissy exterior begins to break down thanks to the charming Jeffrey Dean Morgan singing a duet with her of The Band's "The Weight" (one of the single most agonizing experiences hearing any song sung anywhere), I was ready to call this shit a day.

Without spoiling the ending(s), the final actions of Keener and the kids is so utterly ridiculous that that only proper response after viewing the film is to skip a day of recycling in protest of this horrid work. Do yourself a favor: find out where this movie is playing near you, and spend the whole weekend driving in the opposite direction. You'll thank me. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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