[5 September 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So far, it’s been a pretty lackluster year. The highs are so high, and the lows so bottomless, that the middling, mediocre center has been particularly problematic. Imagine eating a three course meal, where the dessert was fantastic, the appetizer awful, and the main course merely serviceable, and you get the idea. Naturally, this makes rummaging through the wreckage of any celluloid season that much more maddening. On one hand, the pros stand out significantly. So do the cons. But how do you handle those in the middle. Does something like ParaNorman, perhaps the best family film of the year, earn a place, merely because it’s better than the rest of the kid flick claptrap out there? Does a long simmering horror show like [REC]3 deserve acknowledgment, even though it’s been released around the world for months?
It’s always hard, but we’ll give it a shot anyway. Granted, before we go forward, it’s important to state that we couldn’t see everything the Cineplex had to offer. We skipped a couple anklebiter epics—Madagascar 3, Ice Age 4—since, in our opinion, they are remnants of franchises well past their prime. We skipped other examples of the genre as well as (The Odd Life of Timothy Green, The Oogieloves) basically on a lack of interest. On the other hand, there are many honorable mentions to take into consideration, such as Pixar’s pleasant Brave, as well as some few would champion (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and That’s My Boy, anyone???) as well as the usual compendium of outright mediocrity. So, when 2012 is written, these will be the films we think people will remember, both in a very good and a very bad way… and here’s hoping the rest of the year can save us from such seesaw aesthetics.
Let’s begin with the bad:
Otherwise known as Transformers Meets Pearl Harbor. A rogue naval cadet gets a shot at redemption, becomes an accidental officer, and then finds himself pitted against an invading fleet of extraterrestrial baddies. It all takes place in the middle of the Pacific (apparently, few remembered the “success” of Kevin Costner’s submerged epic Waterworld) and in line with the hokey Hasbro game that “inspired” it. No, no one shouts “You sunk my…” you know what, but we do get grid strategies and exploding “pegs” as part of the action. Oh yeah, and then the ‘Greatest Generation’ shows up to kick some alien butt, real elderly school style.
If Tom Cruise doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his turn as Stacey Jaxx, the borderline burnout rock star trying to revitalize his career and his karma in this ‘80s hair metal jukebox musical, something is seriously wrong with Hollywood. He was, quite frankly, the only thing that kept this claptrap from stinking more miserably than a Winger song. As for the rest of the cast and crew, they don’t deserve kudos. They deserve life. Overlong, poorly scripted, and lacking a real understanding of the scene being showcases (we said it before and we’ll say it again… QUARTERFLASH?!?!), it was pure joyless junk.
Nothing is worse that a comedy without jokes. Wait… we take that back. Nothing is worse than a mangled high concept comedy without a lick of legitimate humor. That’s apparently what happened here. Somebody got the brilliant idea to mesh The ‘burbs with Ghostbusters (or a close cloned approximation thereof) and the let supposed talent comedians loose on the nutty narrative. Sadly, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn are so uniformly awful that they make an underwhelming Jonah Hill and a decent Richard Ayoade seem positively amazing. The invasion angle does nothing, and to make matters worse, the extraterrestrials aren’t smart, just space holders.
It’s time for the typical summer scary movie atrocities, with this one losing out on the top slot because of its desire to milk a familiar chapter in world ecological disaster history in order to hide its lack of actual horrors. We get a group of tourists visiting the ghost town that resulted after the famed nuclear reactor meltdown. Apparently, some scientists are tracking the growing mutant population nearby, and when some of them get out, it’s time to go slasher on our unsuspecting victim fodder. Aside from a few shocks, there’s no dread. Just something dreadful.
At least Chernobyl Diaries had some moment of mock terror. Here, we get a haunting, an economic downturn Poltergeist setting, and a lead couple who put a whole new spin on the term “uninteresting”. Apparently, a séance inspired experiment leads to the opening of a portal to another spiritual dimension. After that, angry specters decide that a vet tech and her pouting boy toy deserve to have some things go bump in the night. Add in an overdose of Paranormal Activity inaction and the unnecessary presence of Draco Malfoy, and you’ve got the standard end of summer supernatural slop.
Seth McFarlane has made a mint dumbing down animated TV to the point of preposterous. Just sit through an evening of Family Guy/American Dad/ Cleveland Show reruns and argue said fact. On the other hand, his first attempt at a big screen laugher was, and is, a smart, savvy hit. Using the notion of a child’s juvenile wish and extrapolating it out to adult proportions, he concocted a coming of age comedy for the over-40 set. Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis deliver excellent performances, but it’s the CG bear that steals the show. He’s vulgar, crude, and oh so lovable.
Imagine a super hero movie where the action histrionics or comic code tropes weren’t the main focus. Instead, this new version of Peter Parker is a boy with a mysterious past, a geek speak present, and a wholly unknown future. Then add a terrific love story with a balanced female companion, a memorable (and melancholy) villain, and a lot of interpersonal panache. In fact, (500) Days of Summer‘s Marc Webb clearly wanted to pull the genre out of its standard storytelling stereotypes. He fashioned a fascinating character study into which all of Spidey’s splash could rest in - quite comfortably, it turns out.
Joss Whedon had the hardest job this Popcorn Season. Sure, Christopher Nolan was bringing Batman back for his final installment stand-off and Ridley Scott made the bold move of trying to address the Alien mythos. But Mr. Buffy the Vampire Slayer to-do list tops them both, and earned billions in the process. Imagine having to put together several separate superhero entities, give them all specific narrative moments and beats, and then deliver the kind of franchise set up that allows for multiple sequels. The wonder of what Whedon accomplished comes from the giddy joy one feels while watching it. Even those not invested in the characters walked away convinced.
God bless Ridley Scott. After decades of doing little except mining the mainstream movie landscape, he decided to return to the property that more or less made his name, and he delivered a devastating introduction to a whole Alien side world. From the enigmatic beginning to the last act “space jockey” joy ride, we get so much depth to the origins of life, both on Earth and on LV-223 that it’s like watching a revamp of 2001 meshed with an atypical monster movie. The cast is terrific, the special effects literally out of this world. Better still, it makes one hungry for more. Hopefully, Scott signs on.
The most intense, dark, emotional, and satisfying end to an epic super hero series… EVER! Nolan, who by now has established his brilliance as both a visionary and a filmmaker, takes us back to the origins of everything, to why Batman continues to play Caped Crusader to why certain criminals target him. Drawing on all the previous installments, as well as introducing the defiant villain Bane, this amazing cinematic experience is both current and timeless, taking into consideration the needs of the characters as well as the feelings of fans. The result redefines the genre, and stands as perhaps the greatest example of the always tricky comic book conceit. Luckily, Nolan nailed it.