Sunday, June 19, 2011

Green Lantern (2011)

A visual delight hampered with a plodding narrative, this hit-or-miss superhero origin story has cocky test pilot (is there any other kind) Hal Jordan unwittingly assigned to be a Green Lantern, a sort-of intergalactic patrolman with unthinkable powers. The film starts out great, with a terrific intro scene for the primary villain, Parralax, an exciting attack scene with another Lantern, Abin Sur, and a strong introduction to Hal Jordan as he accidentally destroys his fighter plane in an attempt to thwart two state-of-the-art stealth bombers during a test run. Abin Sur crash lands on Earth and is led to Jordan by the power of his ring, the key weapon of the Lanterns, which automatically seeks out whoever is worthy of possessing it. Jordan is then whisked away by the ring to Oa, the HQ for the Green Lantern Corps, where he is taught the basics of his newfound powers by three vastly different-looking Lanterns named Tomar-Re, Kilowog, and Sinestro. Meanwhile, back on Earth, an acquaintance of Jordan, Hector Hammond, is assigned to perform an autopsy on Abin Sur for the government, but, in the process, he is exposed to an alien organism that begins to both cloud his thoughts and provide telekinetic abilities. However, it is here the quality of the film starts to get a smidgen rocky; after being overworked in his training, and being told by Sinestro that he isn't worthy of Abin Sur's legacy, Jordan up and quits, keeping the ring, but returning to Earth assignment- and responsibility-free. We then get an alarming number of build-up scenes, with Jordan and Hammond dealing with their increasingly powerful abilities, along with their bouts with self-esteem and self-worth, before the third-act barrels in and saves the day with a plethora of action, colorful eye candy, and exciting hero moments.

If there are two huge flaws of this movie (I'll get to the other one later), one of them is the lack of Oa in the finished film. I do not know whether the filmmakers could not scramble the effects shots together in time, or whether the screenwriters actually didn't think the home planet of the Lantern Corps was that interesting, but after Jordan makes it to Oa, his elongated return to Earth seems relatively safe, unoriginal, and, occasionally, rather boring. Imagine if in The Last Starfighter, Alex never contacts Centauri to get back into the fight against the Ko-Dan Armada, and he remains in the trailer park wondering if he was worthy of being a Starfighter until Xur finally hunts him down and faces him mano a mano. The plethora of Green Lanterns we are briefly introduced to ends up coming off as a massive tease; it is not enough to promise more of them in a sequel after they have been introduced and then eschewed for goofy flirty scenes with Jordan and his love interest, Carol Ferris, played by Blake Lively.

Which brings me to the second huge flaw of the film which is, surprise surprise, a forced, lackluster, uninteresting, and underplayed love interest, poorly rendered here by Lively. I place the blame squarely at Lively's feet because a. she does not seem mature enough for neither her bureaucratic position nor her relationship with Jordan, b. her casting screams of a sort of contemporary cynicism that equates widespread fame over concentrated talent, and c. the script actually does try and give her a sense of professionalism and, later in the film, participation in the action scenes, which she deflates with her barely-trying performance. This is not necessarily an attack on Lively as an actress, for she was fairly solid in her white-trash role in The Town, but here, she is a rickety element of the film's foundation.

Which is a shame, because the rest of the cast is fairly awesome. Reynolds is able to coast through this thing on his effortless charm and movie-star good looks, keeping even the most ludicrous of situations grounded with his constant wisecracks; while he is too feminine and goofy to cut a truly badass, Han Solo-esque figure (like, say, Nathan Fillion, the voice of Green Lantern in a recent cartoon), he is well-suited for this superhero schtick. Angela Bassett, Tim Robbins, and Jay O. Sanders are dignified and respectable as various government members related to Jordan and Hammond, and Mark Strong, as well as the voices of Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan, make for killer alien Green Lanterns. But my favorite element of the film had to be Peter Sarsgaard's performance as Hector Hammond. Sporting a terrible haircut, a history professor's mustache, and his trademark snarky mumbling, Sarsgaard plays out Hammond's painfully tragic, well-presented arc with a surprising amount of seriousness and pathos. His character is not the casually dismissed, hot-to-cold mad scientist like Alfred Molina's Doc Ock or, dare I say, Arnold as Mr. Freeze, but rather the relative yin to Hal Jordan's yang; the great dilemma of his character is the question of whether, had he been chosen by the green-powered ring rather than his rotten, yellow-powered infection, he could have ended up as the hero. While his powers end up paling in comparison to those of Parallax, the film's central antagonistic force, his story is far more compelling than either Parallax's or Jordan's, and his screentime proves to be the most richly rewarding in the film. I must also mention the film's near-perfect rendering of Jordan's limitless ring-based powers. For a superpower that is limited, solely, by the extent of human imagination, the ring's intuition-based system is well-presented, and always stems from something we can extrapolate from Jordan's own psyche, rather than some sort of random, FX company-conceived deus ex machina. That was my main concern going into the feature, and I must admit, after noticing the hints at Jordan's future weaponry throughout the film, it seemed to be one of the easier hurdles for the filmmakers to conquer.

Recommended for fans of sci-fi/fantasy-oriented superhero flicks like Hellboy, Thor, or The Incredibles. In terms of the superhero flicks out right now, I'd say it ranks somewhere above X-Men: First Class, but not quite up to the character and world-building excellence of Thor. That being said, I'm definitely ready for Captain America to swoop in and put all three of these movies to shame.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friends With Benefits (2011)

Tawdry, one-note, and cheesetastic to the point of inducing heart congestion, this rom-com is a remake of No Strings Attached...meaning it's yet another movie about two "emotionally unavailable" young professionals, one a prospective editor for GQ, the other a corporate headhunter, who decide to maintain a purely sexual, romance-free relationship. The two wildly successful, beautiful, and, mostly, well-behaved yuppies are played by Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, which should already clue you in to the standards of this movie. Have you ever seen either of them in public appearances? Then you are already familiar with their characters in the film, save for some arbitrary quirks for each party (nearly dyslexic math skills and a juvenile tendency to trespass simply for a "cool view"). The real con of the film is that the two leads, contrary to the title, are NOT REALLY FRIENDS. They meet about 5 minutes into the movie, and there is not very much time passed (maybe a couple of weeks) before they start doing bedroom gymnastics, with friend-exclusive comforts like Justin's mid-coital Semisonic renditions and Mila's lack of body image issues, because hey, if he's just my friend what do I care if he sees me naked (I'd say Mila's problems are more that she sounds remarkably like Meg Griffin, but that's just me)? They have an unproven relationship as platonic friends, so there is absolutely no tension as to whether these two young, fit studs are going to segue their immediate chemistry into a relationship. But a tentative, molasses-slow romance isn't what you're there to see, is it?

Too bad the laughs are barely there, the romance, corny and contrived, and the chemistry between the two leads amounts to nothing more than two hot-at-the-moment stars trying to maintain their stage personas, as well as their sex appeal. There are sex scenes, but they are over-the-top and played solely for laughs (there is nudity, but only of the rear end variety and, in Kunis' case, probably a stand-in). The dialogue that attempts to sound like hip, contemporary young people talking could've very well just been written by your average 20-something professional with its complete lack of subtext, subtlety, and originality (instead of the writers giving the girl a flamboyantly gay best friend, it's Timberlake who bonds with the homosexual who says things like "I never take the ferry...unless it's to a dinner and a movie!"). The only sparks the film achieves is due to its supporting cast, which includes Richard Jenkins, Jenna Elfman, Patricia Clarkson, and Woody Harrelson as the aformentioned "gay buddy" (who, to be fair, scores the biggest laughs in the film). While it is painful to watch such talented people walk on and recite arbitrary, unremarkable dialogue and exposition, in tandem with the walk-ons by Jason Segal, Emma Stone, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, and others, they provide the only moments of humor or energy to be found in this lifeless endeavor (Segal and Jones' hyper-romanticized film-within-a-film is clumsy and obvious, but they make it somewhat work). The other attempts at bridging the gap between broad, female-centric behavioral humor and its half-assed post-modern meta-awareness of its rom-com trappings fail miserably, and the two leads flounder around trying to cut vulnerable, identifiable figures out of flat, unrealistically perfect, and painfully stupid characters.

Skip It, save for women who want to have an estrogen-fest with a friend (please don't drag your poor male date to this unless he asks, in which case I hope he's trying to leverage the "casual sex" angle of the film into something a little more practical), as well as those who absolutely need to see these two cavorting in their skivvies for a good amount of screentime.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

An uncondescending, but remarkably unoriginal throwback to the Amblin Entertainment family films of the '80s, this children-centric sci-fi piece has a group of pre-teens accidentally capturing a mysterious train crash while filming a Super 8 zombie film. The whole film has that small-town vibe where everyone knows not only everyone's name, but their familial situation and behavioral tendencies. The main characters are well-rounded in that Stand By Me way where they swear and talk tough, while revealing their childhood naivete when on the subject of girls. There are two parallel central plots, one involving the Super 8 film's makeup man and his romance with the leading lady (played by Elle Fanning), and the other revolving around his father, the deputy, and his begrudging leadership of the town once the mayor mysteriously goes missing. Without giving too much away (although the secrets of this film don't really live up to their buildup), the film starts maintaining a sort of Jaws-meets-E.T.-meets-Close Encounters of the Third Kind vibe, cribbing imagery and moments wholesale from those movies, and keeping the kids at the forefront of the action in a very Stephen King's It sort of way.

J.J. Abrams greatest flaw is also his greatest attribute; he is a terrific showman. He is aware enough of pop culture to understand how to make something seem mysterious, interesting, and potentially, deep and engaging. In this age of "bigger is better," Alias, Lost, Cloverfield, and now Super 8 have all had the benefit of Abrams genius ability to leave just enough to the imagination to make something seem infinitely more interesting than it could have declared itself to be. However, all of those projects (save for Super 8) have another thing in common; they are all known as remarkable letdowns. From the last episode of Lost to the dismal box office numbers of Cloverfield, there is already plenty of evidence out there to show that J.J. Abrams is much better at setting things up than he is at actually following through on his grandiose promises. Super 8 is no exception. Remember that first trailer, showing nothing but the train crash, the camera, and the implication that something monstrous and alien escaped the train? Well, there's very little in the movie that expands on what is implied in the trailer, and the tricks they play with your preconceived notions of the films plot are embarrassing, hokey failures.

That being said, there is much of the film to commend. J.J. Abrams has a tendency to linger on quiet, schmaltzy moments, but usually casts well enough to pull those moments off; this film is no exception, and the greatest element of the film is its child cast. From the mousy, fireworks-obsessed scamp, to the overweight, tyrrannical director, to the flaky, consistently-vomiting leading man, the youthful characters are endearing, human, and consistently watchable. The central romance between the young, shy makeup man and the brave, caring leading lady is, surprisingly, cute and inoffensive (until the silly plot contrivances catch up with it). Unfortunately, the adult cast does not survive Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg's nostalgia-tinged vision; they all come off as hokey, Peanuts-style "wonk-wonk-wonk" caricatures who are inexcusably moody and prickish one second then inexplicably heroic and stalwart the next. Noah Emmerich, an actor who, since the Truman Show, has repeatedly impressed me with his sincere, naturalistic performances, is saddled with the worst role in the show, a merciless mad scientist/power-hungry Army type who is a mustache-twirl away from Snidey Whiplash. Ron Eldard also suffers a similar fate as Fanning's town-drunk father. The adult-centric stuff takes up a good %40-45 of the running time, so the gaping faults of that section cannot be overlooked; a shame, because, until the effects-driven, cliched cheesefest of a last act, the character work and nostalgic style actually render the film a rather endearing, family-friendly piece of cinema.

Slightly Recommended to families with tough kids (there are blood splatters in this film) and fans of Cloverfield which, in the end, the film shares remarkable similarities with (down to some of the SAME EXACT FX...God, what a disappointment). I definitely prefer this to E.T., but not necessarily Close Encounters. Honestly, I'd just rewatch Jaws.

P.S. There are definitely some killer jump scares in the film, but none better than the initial train-crash itself; even though the kids would definitely be killed by all the flaming debris that juuuuuuust misses them, the juxtaposition of the devastating carnage and the frightened kids in peril is terribly effective. Unfortunately, the rest doesn't really ever live up to that moment.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

An absolute delight for romantics, the latest Woody Allen picture concerns a hack screenwriter who, while on vacation in Paris, begins to take nightly walks through the streets in search of inspiration. What happens on these walks, an element graciously ignored by the majority of the promotional materials, I would not dare to spoil; what I can reveal is that the film is a meditation on the nature of art and art worship, in relation to the writer's deep, age-old reverence of the city of lights and the plethora of early 20th-century thinkers who made it their nesting ground. Owen Wilson plays the lead with a delicate balance between the typical Allen doppelganger and his usual shlubby, take-it-as-it-comes demeanor; it is nothing we have ever seen from Wilson or an Allen lead, and it is his career-best lead performance. Needless to say, considering this is a Woody Allen film, the cast is exemplary; aside from Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Sheen, Kurt Fuller, Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, and Marion Cotillard all show up with terrific results, especially McAdams, Cotillard, and Brody's sly, winning cameo. There is the usual romantic difficulties, revolving around differences in intellectual values and careless infidelity, sure, but the greater concern of the film is something more elusive and unconventional, and that is the ideal state for the creative mind. This sort of subject matter is rather exclusive and, dare I say, intellectual for most audiences, but for those who can appreciate the literary and artistic references, the dry, dense dialogue, and the devoutly romantic portrayal of Paris, the film creates a distinct mood and sense of joy that, I suspect, will not be found in any other American film this Summer.

Highly Recommended for fans of Allen, romantics, and junkies for early-20th century art and literature such as Picasso, Hemingway, or Cole Porter (whose "Let's Do It" plays a prominent role). I was fairly certain Whatever Works was going to be the last great film from Mr. Allen; upon leaving the theater, I could not remember the last time I was so happy to be so wrong.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dave (1993)

Lightweight, moderately entertaining Capra-esque comedy about a shlubby presidential impersonator who, when the actual Commander in Chief has a mid-coital stroke, gleefully takes his place. The impersonator, Dave, is actually a full-time council worker who, predictably, is on the opposite end of the moral spectrum from the president's education-cutting, duplicitous administration. After the president is incapacitated, his power-hungry Secretary of State and a formerly idealistic advisor, played by Frank Langella and Kevin Dunn, respectively, immediately send the VP on a tour of Africa, while educating Dave in the ways and traditions of the Oval Office. While Dave initially goes along with them, making the rounds and giving their speeches, a meeting with his local friend and accountant (played by Charles Grodin), where he figures out how to "fix the books," inspires him to repackage the government or, at least, his administration. This catches the attention of his estranged, Hilary-Clinton-esque First Lady, played by Sigourney Weaver, and the purity and goodwill of the nation begin to take a backseat to White House balcony flirting and blind idealism.

When I say the film is Capra-esque, I do not just mean its "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"-lite plotline; the dialogue, the performances, even the portrayal of the White House are all bathed in an anachronistic, hopeful light. While it differentiates the film from similar, more realistic portrayals of the White House, such as Aaron Sorkin's The American President and The West Wing, it also renders the film rather aimless and rudimentary; rather than deal with any contemporary political issues, Dave talks a lot about "returning" to "a good, strong America" without ever proposing how that is, practically, possible. The Capra-esqueness also extends to its cast; Weaver, Langella, Dunn, Grodin, a late appearance by Ben Kingsley, and, especially, Kevin Kline as Dave, all being pros, let the cornier aspects of the film dictate their performance, and find an ideal kismit with the material that overshadows its glaringly obvious plot holes (which I don't need to mention; this film's about a normal guy SUCCESSFULLY pretending to be the president). Ivan Reitman, amidst a run of family-friendly studio comedies that included Twins, Kindergarten Cop, and Junior (guess what: he's in this one too *hint, hint*), actually achieves a delicate balence between our realistic associations with contemporary Washington D.C. and the uber-hopeful tone of the script, and creates a political environment we can comfortably observe, if not truly believe in. In the end, while the forced love story and the hilariously broad portrait of the political system take their tolls, the film remains a cute, charmingly optimistic comedy with some great, professional performances (particularly from Kline, the delightfully and expectedly dry Grodin, and Dunn).

Recommended to fans of Frank Capra's political comedies and mid-90's studio-comedy optimism. I was pleasantly surprised at the cohesion and consistency of this film; a braver, less family-friendly draft of the script might have made for a marvelous update of pre-WWII cinematic idealism, but what is there is sufficient for a successful Kevin Kline comedy of errors.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Sporadically exciting, but schizophrenic in tone, this 1960s-set prequel deals with the origin of Professor Xavier's "School for the Gifted" amidst the national and social turmoils of the era. After brief introductions to their childhood, we follow telepath Charles Xavier and human magnet Erik Lensherr as their parallel quests (Xavier's for acceptance, Lensherr's for revenge) finally intersect with their mutual adversary, the energy-absorbing Sebastian Shaw (who mercilessly killed Erik's mother in front of him to provoke his mutant abilities). Along with his companions, Mystique (the shape shifter), Dr. Moira McTaggart (the token normal human), and, later, the child versions of Havoc (with his energy blasts), Angel (flying and spitting venomous loogies), and Banshee (screaming so piercingly that it can actually propel him off the ground), Charles attempts to swiftly integrate mutants into society with a carefully constructed, CIA-funded program. However, as anyone who has ever seen or read anything X-Men related, humans are sucky and intolerant, so Charles' valiant efforts are doomed to be in vain for at least another 4 sequels. At the same time, he struggles to quell the bubbling angsts of his Holocaust-survivor partner, Erik, and his adopted sister, the insecure, blue-scaled Mystique.

The latter element, with Mystique first eschewing, then embracing her striking blue features, is the weaker factor of the film; her civil rights-lite squabbles and physical insecurities take up a lot of screen time, all with the audience knowing, full-well, what kind of gleefully empowered badass the character ends up as (easily understood, seeing how actress Jennifer Lawrence was just in the running for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars). The other premature X-Men, Charles included, suffer from thin exposition, aside from the requisite introductions to their powers and, ultimately, their alleigance to either X or Magneto. The tie-ins with JFK and the Cuban Missle Crisis, so prominent in the marketing, is only a small factor late in the film, a "wouldn't-it-be-cool?" afterthought just designed to incorporate the X-Men into something from real-life. Rose Byrne and Oliver Platt, both quite talented actors, are wasted as "sympathetic" humans who, predictably, have absolutely nothing to do once the energy rays break out.

If half of the film is a younger-demo-skewing hodgepodge of powers, montages, and rudimentary conflict, the half of the film that does end up working is Magneto's story. 20th Century Fox had been developing a stand-alone Magneto prequel for years before they eventually greenlit First Class, and, when watching the film, it seems that they have literally copy-pasted scenes from that proposed movie into this one; the early scenes of Magneto being forced to learn his powers by Nazis, then, later, hunting them down, one by one, and killing them with the supposed knowledge that HE'S THE WORLD'S ONLY MUTANT have far more weight, subtext, and tension than any of the stuff with Charles and his band (probably due to a greater number of thorough script meetings). Along with the clearly thought out, Inglourious Basterds-esque revenge plotline, the other thing that makes Magneto's arc the most interesting aspect of the film is the performance by Michael Fassbender. Had this film been the monster hit it could've been, Fassbender would have been the monster breakout to come with it, for his European good looks mask a consistently devious, yet self-assured demeanor that makes for incredibly well-rounded, watchable villains like Erik Lensherr; compared to James McAvoy's bland, been-there-done-that Charles Xavier, he, like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan before him, shows that this material really lends itself to good, nuanced ACTING. The majority of the extended cast is wasted and glossed over, save for Kevin Bacon and January Jones, who, as two of the villains, perfectly maintain the over-the-top, yet weighty comic-book tone of the film. Matthew Vaughn, probably given this script late into pre-production, has injected the more traditional, "young X-Men" stuff with a color-rich, stylized palette, matching the slower, "look-what-I-can-do!" dialogue scenes with the more grandiose, action-y stuff through sheer visual technique; the faults of the film are certainly not due to Vaughn's abilities as a director. However, the script remains achingly dull and obvious, with the Magneto-centric scenes coming off the best due to the obvious care and time spent developing them, and the central "good guy" trio of McAvoy, Lawrence, and Byrne do absolutely nothing to liven up the telegraphed, patchworked plotline of the formation of Charles Xavier's School for the Gifted.

Slightly Recommended to fans of the series, the comics, or of Michael Fassbender. Matthew Vaughn jumped on this in the aftermath of Kick-Ass, which was a surprising international hit; this falls more into the realm of Stardust, with Vaughn's obviously deft visual touch overcoming a somewhat half-assed script, while failing to reach the overall impact of that film.

P.S. A montage about halfway through, with X and Magneto scouring the globe for mutants (including a wonderful utterance of the film's lone F-word), is terribly exciting in a stand-alone sort of way, and is the closest this film gets to truly incorporating the 1960s aesthetic into the X-Men visual vernacular. It will be on youtube.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Locusts (1997)

Overcooked and often campy, this midwestern-set melodrama revolves around a drifter who gets involved with a farmer matriarch and her simpleton son. The film strives to be some sort of bridge between Rebel Without A Cause (the idiot son only makes sense when compared to Sal Mineo's character in that one) and Giant (with its down-n-dirty, rural sexual politics) with Vince Vaughn as the James Dean surrogate. Well, the character of the son is a pathetic, over-the-top caricature by Jeremy Davies, the sexual politics are often more castrated and simplistic than the film's Hays Code-era counterparts, and, as we all know 14 years later, Vince Vaughn ain't no James Dean. The majority of the picture focuses on Vaughn and Davies characters bonding and planning their escape from Davies' "scary" mother, played by Kate Capshaw (for some reason, even though this is not directed or produced by Steven Spielberg); it attests to my otherwise-consistent appreciation for the two actors that I sat through their boring, underlit and underwritten exchanges. Ashley Judd and Paul Rudd, two actors I adore, aimlessly wander through the film without real characters, as Vaughn's lover and friend, respectively. But among all the corny shots of dusk-hewed fields and the hilariously obvious and sappy dialogue, the biggest offence of the film is the top-billed role rendered by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom's fatal flaw, Kate Capshaw. To describe her performance as "overacting" would be a complement, for that would imply that there was some actual acting involved with the process; she merely mumbles her lines, stone-faced, while, seemingly, spending all her attention making sure she hits her marks. The way the character is written, with her Mommie Dearest-esque parenting methods (she castrates a horse in front of Davies to, you know, keep him at home) and her psychotic relationship with Vaughn (with whom she alternates flirtation and straight mental torture), would give any actress a hard time to render her realistically, but Capshaw really doesn't seem to be trying, and if she is, she'd probably be best staying at home and taking care of Sir Steven's offspring. Her role, clearly meant to emulate the smoldering roles that Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner could play in their sleep, is such a pathetic misstep that it relegates the whole film from "forgotten disappointment" to "utter travesty." I wondered how a film from my grade school days with such a prolific cast (many of whom I actually respect) could have gone under my radar for so long; it took maybe 10 minutes of the film to realize why.

Skip It, save for Vince Vaughn fans who NEED to see him try and be a soft, cuddly James Dean surrogate or Jeremy Davies fans who haven't had enough of his age-old mental cripple schtick (perfected, of course, in Saving Private Ryan).

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Last Airbender (2010)

I have to admit, I didn't really watch the film with its original production audio, but rather with the custom Rifftrax audio commentary that the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys made for this one. That being said, while the viewing experience was hilarious, self-aware, and more accessible, the film itself struck me as a humorless adaptation of the animated series, with beloved characters rendered into lame caricatures and plot points, along with a painfully dull, first-of-a-trilogy plotline. I cannot give this turd a full review. But I can wholeheartedly recommend watching it with the Rifftrax in place, where the plethora of shortcomings, misconceptions, and shoddy performances become not detriments to the film, but rather its glorious, epic-fail signature. For those who actually followed the series devoutly, and expected more from a big-budget Hollywood adaptation, I am sad to say, it's just not there; from the annoying reductions of the three leads to the impotent flailings of villainous Dev Patel, there is very little here to appreciate with any sort of sincerity. The effects, my biggest hope for the production since the original teaser on last year's Super Bowl, are, surprisingly, repetitive and unremarkable, and do nothing to expand what has been seen in the promotions. I made a decision, years ago, that the strengths of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and even Signs, made M. Night Shymalan worth defending, or at least, worth holding out hope for; why does he actively keep making it harder for me?

W/ Rifftrax: Recommended for fans of campy, overreaching fantasy/sci-fi such as Flash Gordon or Dune.

W/out Rifftrax: Skip it.

The Hangover Part II (2011)

So much a repeat of the original that it's nearly criminal to call it a sequel, this painfully derivative, yet sporadically hilarious, follow-up to the 2009 monster hit has the same three guys getting bombed, and accidentally losing a fourth friend in another dangerous, decadent city (this time Bangkok). Ed Helms' Stu is the one getting married this time, not to Heather Graham's "escort," as one might've hoped, but rather a brand-new character, a 10-years-too-young Thai angel with a very serious, demanding father (you're kidding). Once they do the requisite re-team-up, justifying why Stu and Bradley Cooper's Phil would allow the drink-roofying half-psychopath Alan to join them on their trip, they are almost instantly, well, hung-over in a Bangkok hotel room, with Mike Tyson's tatoo on Stu's face and his fiancee's little brother, who came along for the ride, missing, save for his hacked-off finger. The rest of the film, predictably, involves the trio traversing the city, recalling the off-kilter and, sometimes, traumatic events of the previous night.

I've read interviews with the director, Todd Philips, and the writers who, when confronted with the glaringly obvious question, "Why did you make the same damn movie again?", all defend the "mystery element" of the first one, and how they did not want to "betray" that. Pardon my french, but that sounds like some pussy-ass bullshit to me. Clearly the original was this unexpectedly huge, international sensation, clearing something like 400 million+ worldwide, but was the only hope to replicate that sort of universal acclaim to literally xerox the first movie with an Asian backdrop? Basically everyone in the movie speaks English, or is just straight American; among the cast members that pop up on their journey, adding nothing comedically, are Paul Giamatti, Nick Cassavetes, Todd Phillips regular Bryan Callen (not reprising his role from the original), and, of course, the requisite cameo from Phillips himself (who will never top, "I'm here for the gang-bang?"). By removing Heather Graham's escort from the proceedings, they immediately eschew any chance of the film feeling tonally different than the first one, but here, there is never a doubt that a. Stu's prospective wife is a perfect, winning angel, b. her little brother is an innocent, victimized saint and c. everything is definitely going to work out for the best. So, basically, the film follows the same beats around, and everyone, on-screen and off, just tries to replicate what they did (or saw) in the last Hangover.

Which, I must say, actually works, on occasion. Some of the set pieces and gags are just what you'd want them to be; extensions of the first film's style of humor taken to more extreme, humiliating lengths. Where Ken Jeong's crimelord, Mr. Chow, entered the first film buck naked, he is introduced here with a brief scene of Stu and Phil playing with his minuscule penis. And speaking of Mr. Chow, his presence in the film is, easily, one of the comedic highlights of the whole show. Both him and Ed Helms had characters that did have wiggle room for growth, expansion, and further adventures, and they possess the comic energy to make the best of what they are given. Bradley Cooper and, sadly, Zach Galifinakis do not do much in the way of further developing their characters, save for Phil being an even bigger asshole and Alan seeming more like an emotionally-stunted man-child than a dangerously volatile repressed sexual predator. And other returning characters, such as Jeffrey Tambor and, inexcusably, Justin Bartha, are shuffled off to the side and nearly forgotten (Bartha's character's wife seemingly only appears in the film so that the intro can replicate, nearly line-for-line, the opening of the original).

Slightly Recommended for hardcore fans of the original, the cast, and the set-up. I had seen this film before it went on to make 200 million+ worldwide in only 5 days; with the second sequel now a distinct inevitability, I hope that Phillips and his current writer, Craig Mazin, stay true to their word of making the next one completely, thoroughly off-the-rails, and nothing like these two consistently funny, but near-identical pieces of work.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Fun, but blatant and obvious, this animated sequel has the titular panda, Po, joining forces with the legendary "Furious Five" to prevent an explosive-launching peacock from conquering China. My main issue with the first movie, namely the lack of actual screentime with the Furious Five (wasting voice talents like David Cross, Lucy Liu, and Jackie friggin' Chan is pretty lame), is inherently addressed in this one; the film is, essentially, a "men on a mission" movie, with Po and the Five fighting baddies together for the bulk of the film. And in that sense, it totally works, moving energetically from set piece to set piece, while taking the time to slow down and let the characters round themselves out into more than merely figures of Po's id. This entry also expands on the relationship between Po and his adopted father, marvelously voiced by MR. DAVID LO PAN (James Hong), achieving some poignant, if obvious, moments with them by the film's end. The baddie, a sinister, insecure peacock voiced by Gary Oldman, is appropriately menacing and engaging, although not up to the viciously evil standards set by Ian Mcshane's panther character from KFP 1. While it can be easily dismissed as lazy, hammy work, Jack Black slips into this role like a glove; it optimally utilizes his energetic, childish vigor without ever hinting at his more subversive, stoner-y tendencies (which, I should mention, fellow cast member Seth Rogen can never mask). The rest of the cast is rounded out by Angelina Jolie, Danny McBride, Dustin Hoffman (whose role is sadly truncated here), and Jean-Claude Van Damme (!!!), all of whom are appropriately invisible and engaged.

My biggest gripe with the film remains, expectedly, the way it deals with its ancient Chinese backdrop. For every sweet, killer idea they introduce (the various members of the Furious Five use the fighting styles of their corresponding animals), they subvert it with something juvenile, inappropriate, and obvious (Po shoving as many steaming buns into his mouth as possible). The whole tone of the film has taken a step into the wrong direction, making more accessible for, not only younger audiences, but more international ones as well; babies and China haters alike can dig this movie. The wuxia elements of the film are too-often relegated to backgrounds and costumes, rather than motifs or mood; even the Furious Five's fight scenes are often abbreviated and, unsurprisingly, focused on Po. The recurring theme of Po finding his "inner peace" comes off as very simplistic and unremarkable given the excellent spiritual wisdom relayed to Po (and his master) by the wise, late turtle character in the original. And relegating Dustin Hoffman's wise (rat) master to little more than a bookending cameo is (such as the near-deletion of Hoffman from Little Fockers) a tragic error in judgement, with his snarky, deadpan musings remaining just as crucial to the franchise as Po's excessive girth. However, although it is not up to par with the original, or (clearly) anything Pixar has made (since Cars), KFP 2 is definitely a fun, family-friendly flick that will probably not depress the parents that must watch it with their kids instead of seeing The Hangover Part II.

Recommended to fans of the original or of the more adventurous, engaging Dreamworks flicks like How to Train Your Dragon or Megamind (which features a superior turn by David Cross). It is slight, quick-paced, and funny; for many audiences, what more could you ask for?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cabin Boy (1994)

Simultaneously inventive and consciously (and gratingly) corny, this semi-entry in the long-line of mid-90's attempts at making movie stars out of SNL cast members tells of an educated "fancy lad" who is forced to act as a cabin boy for a crew of scraggly fishermen. The ex-SNL'er, in this case, is Chris Elliot, who, to be fair, was better known for his work with David Letterman (who exec. produces and cameos here) when this film was released. His lack of an established comic persona (other than his patented delivery and clearly outside-the-box sensibilities) hurts his ability to mount a successful comedy vehicle, and, more often than not, his dimwit protagonist just comes off as a screenwriter's contrivance than anything organic or naturally funny. His love interest, an aspiring world-class swimmer played by Melora Walters, feels shoehorned in and forced, and the normally talented Walters flails around in search of a spark of energy to inject into her scenes. And, worst of all, the plot is almost completely nonexistent; other than a failed attempt at giving the cabin boy a self-actualization character arc (please), there are no real narrative throughlines, and the structure ends up resembling something like a half-assed SNL Odyssey sketch.

All of this is kind of a shame, because this Tim Burton-produced endeavor actually has some really great, interesting touches that end up making it somewhat watchable. For one, while the lead and his romantic interest are lame ducks, the supporting cast is near-perfect: as the grizzled seamen, Brion James, Brian-Doyle Murray, and, most of all, James Gammon are wonderfully savvy and over-the-top in their well-worn, tried-and-true sea dog personas. Considering the majority of the film takes place on a tiny, obviously falsified fishing boat, their efforts do miles to establish the sea-adventure tone of the film. Also appearing in hilarious cameos are Ricki Lake, Mike Starr, Andy Richter (as the even dumber original cabin boy), and, funniest of all, Letterman (billed as Earl Hofert) as a curmudgeon who, intentionally, sabotages cabin boy's voyage home to his parents. Other than the lame, poorly rendered ship, itself, the special effects in the film have a whimsical, George Melies-influenced quality that is refreshingly lo-fi and original: clouds have faces in them that blow in the direction of the wind, a man-shark creature is merely Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks with a fin strapped to his back, and the six-armed, blue-skinned sex goddess and her giant husband are rendered with merely blue-paint, puppetry, and in-camera tricks, like forced perspective. If the writing (and budget) had lived up to the conceptualization on display, this could be remembered as a fantastical anecdote to the more grounded, family oriented comedies of the time period (see: Billy Madison, Tommy Boy). Unfortunately, as is, it remains as, merely, an interesting curiosity, and a progress note of Elliot's talents at this point in his career (final verdict? Not there yet).

Slightly Recommended for fans of Elliot, or of a more surreal brand of mainstream comedy (Land of the Lost and Your Highness are vague spiritual approximations). This one is best enjoyed with lowered expectations; knowing that, going in, should prove for a fairly entertaining, mildly diverting experience.

Pizza Man (1991)

Funny and political, but nearly unbearably silly, this ridiculous faux-noir centers on a 30-ish pizza man (go figure) as he warily ventures deep into East Hollywood to deliver (*gasp*) a large anchovy and sausage pizza. The pizza man, Elmo, is played by Bill Maher in, from what I gather, what was his only real leading man gig, and much of the humor follows suit: along his journey, he encounters politicos such as Dan Quayle, Ronald Reagan, and, in the least dated touch, "Donnie," the lost, insecure former pizza boy. The whole story is relayed through a sort of neo-noir guise, with Maher delivering a consistent deadpan voiceover relating his pizza-oriented agenda like a cop walking his beat, complete with dispatch calls and a no-nonsense, "just the facts" demeanor. This element masks the true nature of the film's script, which is a then-contemporary political satire, and due to writer/director J.F. Lawton's clear knowledge of noir archetypes and cliches, it keeps the film chugging along right past its stuck-in-the-early-'90s satirical targets, such as Quayle's momma's boy idiocy and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis's shoddy speaking skills. Lawton shoots L.A. through Elmo's winshield like its Taxi Driver, and keeps the film simultaneously rooted in both light-and-shadow driven noir and neon-soaked L.A. nightlife imagery. The one aspect Lawton cannot cover up through sheer style is his budget; the shabby sets are reused, action scenes are ugly and hobbled together, and the supporting cast is filled to the brim with nobody celebrity impersonators, along with a game, but ultimately underwhelming femme fatale by ways of Annabelle Gurwitch. Bill Maher's acerbic wit (and particular political sensibilities) makes him a refreshing, ideally detached noir lead, and, while it is obvious why he didn't parlay this into a serious career as a movie star (see his oft-referenced and disastrous attempt at injecting irony into a nonsensical dance sequence), him and the material have the same bizarre, specific kismit that Dennis Miller was able to harness in the similarly noir-tinged Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood. The infectious energy and cleverness Maher and Lawton invested in this film gives it a lot of momentum and many memorable lines and scenarios; its lack of big-budget professionalism takes turns working for and against the production, making it a relatively exclusive, yet fairly rewarding affair for its specific audience (for all those interested: this bad boy's impossible to find, save for on youtube).

Recommended for fans of Bill Maher, or the politically savvy with a particularly clear memory of the general goings-on circa 1991. This is a less fantastic, yet more pointed effort than Lawton and Maher's previous team-up, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death; it wrings more mileage out of its noir setup than the latter's 50's B-movie trappings, yet fails to parade Shannon Tweed and Adrienne Barbeau around in jungle bikinis (a heinous crime if ever there was one).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Simultaneously inoffensively fun and thoroughly lightweight and forgettable, this fourth entry in the Pirates franchise disregards previous leads Will and Elizabeth, and instead focuses on Jack Sparrow as he ventures in search of The Fountain of Youth. I use the term "focuses" lightly; while the central narrative actually does involve Captain Jack this time, he is merely a cog in a larger machine that also includes a haunted ship, run by the legendary Blackbeard and his daughter, a Spanish fleet en route to desecrate the Fountain for Catholicism, and the British Navy, led by a tenuously reformed Captain Barbossa. Jack drunkenly blunders his way in and around these elements, flirting with Blackbeard's daughter (who is, in a lame and obvious twist, a former flame), and fighting alongside Barbossa, leading up to the final showdown at the Fountain of Youth. If the plot seems telegraphed and obvious, that's because it is; eschewing the complicated narrative overlapping of the last two films, the writers have created a streamlined scenario with clear-cut conflicts and tensions, without very much in the way of subtlety or subtext. This both works for and against this chapter, for while the lack of pretension and heavy-handedness allows one to further enjoy both the gorgeous production design and Jack's humorous demeanor, the obvious lack of substance or any memorable, distinctive moments can be directly attributed to that decision. However, where the script fails is where the crew pick up the pace, creating lovely, detailed environments (aside from the anticlimactic Fountain, itself) that are lensed and rendered beautifully, hampered only by the restricted staging and lifeless action scenes (save for the introductory London setpiece) that can be attributed to inexperienced (and overrated) director Rob Marshall.

Another huge problem with deviating completely from the preexisting formula, and cast, of the series is the necessity to shoehorn in a new collection of characters to rival the originals. For the most part, this leads to undeveloped, undercooked, and generally uninteresting roles like Ian MacShane's Blackbeard (a tired mad pirate caricature), his daughter (an indifferent Penelope Cruz, whose entire character is encapsulated by a reference to her "fiery blood from her Latin mother"), a stowaway priest (a clearly contrived substitute for Orlando Bloom), his mermaid love interest (a clearly contrived substitute for Keira Knightley), and a lame, barely-seen captain of the Spanish fleet (a central villain with maybe 5 lines). Faring better amongst the new blood are Scrum, yet another entry in the series collection of grizzled crewmen, who, as played by Stephen Graham, is hilarious, endearing, and more of a presence than any of the glorified extras who swabbed the decks before him, and Richard Griffiths, who absolutely kills it in a cameo as King George. But, even more evident here than in At World's End, the secret weapon of this franchise remains not Johnny Depp, who has a jolly time while not bringing anything new to the table, but rather Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa. His long face, his bulging eyes, his epic line delivery, and, while posing as a good, stalwart Englishman, his splotchily dyed skin and pathetic wig all fit perfectly well into this pirate universe, and his exuberant presence, as in the third one, goes a long way into legitimizing the "piracy" of the film. By the time him and Jack were tentatively teaming up against the Spaniards, I was more on board with the franchise than I had been since the finale of Curse of the Black Pearl, and for a while, the film really allows these two characters to optimally utilize their well-worn characters for an ideal sense of breezy, humorous adventure. His contribution to the franchise, and, especially, to this film in particular, cannot be overstated; he, rather than the Keith Richards impersonation (or Richards, himself, who cameos again), is the true image of a Pirate at the heart of this world, so much so that Blackbeard, with all his supernatural fire and brimstone, just comes off as a bad Xerox of Rush's character.

Slightly Recommended for family audiences, people who really liked the previous entries of the franchise, or for action fans who have already seen Thor and Fast Five (I'd even see Fast Five again, and did, before this one). This was not nearly the disaster I had predicted it to be; time will only tell whether it survives the dissipation of its audience by one adventure-fantasy, one sweat-covered male actioner, and a unanimously approved chick flick, all of which are superior films.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Not to be confused with Will Ferrell's soccer-themed children's comedy (Um, that one has an ampersand? Hello?), this Gen-X coming of age comedy (the only one of its kind, *snicker, snicker*) has a group of post-collegiates dealing with their newfangled manhood and possible future, and lost, opportunities. Josh Hamilton plays the main character, a relatively wise, grounded lad, who has bid farewell to his longtime college sweetheart who flew off to Prague after graduation. He deals with his loneliness and bouts with self-worth silently as his friends, a particularly literate, yet terminally self-involved group that include a hyper-neurotic man-boy, an acerbic, defeatist wit (and not much else), a beer-swilling, long-haired ignoramus, and a 35 year-old local bartender who, with his decade or so years of college experience, acts out his sage-like role to largely unreceptive ears. The group drinks, banters, and, occasionally, romances, as they slowly take in the knowledge that they are now, finally, forced to put their superficially advanced intellects to the test.

Hamilton is the weak link here, but it is not due to his strengths (or weaknesses) as an actor; his character is basically a non-entity, continually flashing back to the past instead of focusing on the present, and only engaging with his buds in the guise of a snide comment or a self-deprecating quip. His romance with Olivia D'abo's (similarly abandoned by the script) character comes off as overly contrived and cute, rather than organic. It does nothing to advance the narrative, and, seeing where it ends up, only serves to prove certain points it could've easily relayed in the opening 20 or so minutes. With the central plot line being both vague and uninvolving, the film basically lives and dies based on its supporting players, which, in this case, are more than up to the challenge. Each character, while initially coming off as a caricature, has his own set of mannerisms, tendencies, and ideals, which the actors seem to be in tune with. While the pajama-wearing man-boy is the broadest, most easily likable character, his arc is fairly straightforward. More interesting are the consistently detached, objective sad sack who nevertheless prods into his buddies' affairs, the goofy, perennially clueless, drunken boyfriend, and the "wise," older bartender, played by Eric Stoltz in a scene-stealer of a role. Parker Posey and Elliot Gould are also effective in smaller roles, their familiarity failing to overshadow the less-prolific lead actors.

Aside from the lack of any real narrative thrust, there is also the issue of the tone of the film. This was Noah Baumbach's first film as a director, and his idealistic, inexperienced thinking towards direction shows in the mannered, almost stagy performances. Right off the bat, these do not seem like "real" people, but rather mid-90's indie caricatures, complete with dated hairstyles and formerly obscure interests, now commodified by the completionism of the internet. However, Baumbach, moreso here than in his other work, has a cohesive vision for the piece, and the whole film follows the example that he sets right from the getgo, rather than creating a hodgepodge of hyper-mannerred banter and casual, low-key naturalism that would have been grating (as it is in Margot at the Wedding and the worst parts of Greenberg). The dialogue follows suit, not sounding like any one talks in real-life, but rather how THESE characters would talk in these situations.

Recommended for fans of '90s-era growing-up comedies, such as the similar School Daze or Reality Bites, or of Eric Stoltz, who seems to have been in every smaller movie made around this time, yet still was able to make his character in this film memorable, hilarious, and distinctive, even amongst his eclectic career.

Hobo With A Shotgun (2011)

Simultaneously gritty, campy, and laughably grotesque, this true grindhouse product shows a crime-ridden city, riddled with corrupt cops, psychopathic mobsters, and a general sense of anarchy, as a beaten, morally uncompromised homeless man takes a stand for righteousness. The film is straight out of the Troma school of filmmaking, which, in this case, is a compliment; the over-the-top irony of it all, the hyper-reliance on sensationalism and violence, and the cartoony, straightforward protagonist (in this case, a hobo with a shotgun). However, the production values on display are of a noticably high quality than much of Troma's output, with the gore being fully realized and awesome, the sets and cinematography feeling well-realized and unrushed, and the presence of the veteran grizzled badass, Rutger freaking Hauer. For those of you who don't know who Rutger Hauer is, hopefully you've seen Blade Runner so you know how amazing he is as the "villain," Roy Batty, in that one. Otherwise, seek out The Hitcher (the original, GOD it annoys me that I have to specify that), the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Nighthawks to see how moody, intense, and just plain scary this guy can be. Here, his dead-serious attitude not only makes his character a blast to watch, in contrast with the outlandish, ridiculous elements that surround him, but holds up the entire film, which could have been lost in a sea of irony and self-parody without him. The rest of the cast is good, but not up to Hauer's transcendent standard, save for Gregory Smith, who successfully subverts his former presence as a child-actor in films like Small Soldiers and Harriet the Spy with his deliciously psychotic guido character (I really wish more people could have the same 'Is that Gregory Smith?' moment I had while watching him torch schoolbusses full of children and the like). The gore moments here are extreme and in abundance, unlike the other grindhouse trailer adaptation, Machete (Hobo With A Shotgun started as a short film entry for a grindhouse contest, which actually played before the Machete trailer in the Canadian prints of Grindhouse), and makes up for what it lacks in budget and big-scale Hollywood set-pieces with strong makeup and clever ingenuity; in short, it is a near-ideal Troma movie, just made without the input of Lloyd Kaufman and his cronies. My largest gripe with the film is with the "hooker with a heart of gold" character that the Hobo befriends, which was poorly acted and conceived, and, more egregiously, deflated the pace of the film. However, even she gets her moment in the sun by the end, stabbing baddies with a wonderfully improvised weapon, but that doesn't escape the fact that she serves as a grounding and realistic element in a film that gets its sickest and purest pleasures from going gleefully off the rails.

Recommended for fans of more outlandish cult films, such as Six-String Samurai or Tromeo and Juliet, or of Rutger Hauer or Gregory Smith, both of whom are phenomenally and scene-gnashingly grotesque. This one's easy to get ahold of, and it's worth hunting down as it actually fulfills its promise of being a take-no-prisoners, blood-soaked revenge picture.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)

Deep, haunting domestic melodrama about a moderately wealthy family on the verge of collapse, due to the son's progressing battle with tuberculosis, and the mother's resulting insanity and paranoia. The whole of the film takes place in their Connecticut cottage, where the mother, Mary, has secured herself in an attempt to keep reality at bay, and her delusions to run wild. Her primary concern, and reason for instability, is the gnawing thought that her youngest son is on the verge of death, but we learn, as the story progresses, that there are other causes for her troubles. The rest of the family stands idly by and watches its deterioration: the father, a stuffy, British actor, refuses to take any stand, save for coddling his wife and her delirious fantasies, and their other son is a lush, seemingly street-wise, yet completely awash in incompetence and self-pity. As the day goes on, their various tensions, concerns, and insecurities abound, and reveal themselves; while the action is moderately reigned in, there is no doubt that the events that transpire leave the characters remarkably haunted by the end.

This is an early film by the late, great Sidney Lumet, and it shows in his staging; rather than hide the fact that the film is a literal adaptation of the Eugene O'Neill play, he uses long takes and wide shots to keep the geography and physical dynamics of the play on full display, but is unafraid to cut from an all-encompassing wide to a stark, intimate close-up. The film is shot in magnificent black and white, and has that old Hollywood feel that complements the more confrontational, emotionally cutting dialogue well, particularly for Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn, perfectly utilizing her legendary star status, turns in a gut-wrenching, soulful performance as the haunted matriarch, simultaneously smiley and shaky as she searches for something, anything, that she can depend on or respect. While a section of the film puts her at the forefront when, I feel, her character would have served the story better from offscreen, the performance itself is flawless, and more indicative of her talents than more lightweight fare, like The Philadelphia Story. As her husband, Ralph Richardson is all early 20th-century bluster and panache, speaking constantly, but saying very little; his clearly stagey style is a teriffic contrast with the younger men in the family, played by Dean Stockwell and Jason Robards. Stockwell is haunting as the wide-eyed innocent playing it cynical, and we wait for him to fail in keeping up with his father's ignorant cynicism and lose his tenuous grip on sensibility. Robards could play his drunken louse in his sleep, but luckily, he brings his experience with the character (he played him on Broadway) to the table, giving the most raw, physical performance in the movie; you can almost smell the whiskey on his breath. O'Neill's mannerred dialogue becomes almost a hinderence to the film, as Lumet's style is far more contemporary and revealing than O'Neill's early 20th-century prose. O'Neill also leads the narrative into one or two dead ends, where nothing new is revealed, nothing relevant is reflected upon, and the characters stagnate, which, I'm sure, was more forgivable in 1940's theater than it was in 1960's cinema. However, the director, and the actors, are comfortable enough with the material that they intuitively relay O'Neill's ideas and motifs more successfully than the actual words he put in their mouths.

Recommended for fans of the cast, or of family-driven chamber dramas. It is comparable to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in its staginess, its amalgam of old and new aesthetics, and its emotional rawness, but it is the lesser film, and does not contain the remarkable, cohesive beauty of that work.

True Legend (2011)

A badass, throwback Wuxia film, this Chinese kung fu saga tells the story of Su, a war hero who suffers the consequences of handing to his adopted brother, a bitter, venom-poisoned sociopath, his rightful governorship. The opening of the film is an elaborate mountain-set battle scene establishing Su as a stalwart, capable warrior. The initial melodrama moves along quickly; within 20 or so minutes, Su has risen and fallen as a hero, his villainous step-brother has already declared his intentions, and the stakes (the step-brother is in custody of Su's son) are established. Broken and deprived of the use of his right arm, Su heals in the mountains with his wife (and a holy doctor, played by Michelle Yeoh) until he is confronted by The God Of Wushu, a mystical figure who taunts him and assures him that until he can conquer him in battle, he will not be ready for his step-brother. It is here that the story becomes slightly more complex; rather than being a straight-forward wuxia revenge flick, this is just as much about Su conquering his own demons as it is about beating up bad guys. The narrative takes its time to get to its climax, and when you think the film is about to end, it has another chapter, about the West's corrupting influence in the region, that deviates from the rest of the film. However, the central theme of Su living up to his potential, and disregarding his fears, longings, and insecurities to be the best warrior (and father) he can be.

The cast is dedicated, effective, and in tune with the material; the flippant, "I have somewhere else to be" attitude of some Shaw Bros. actors is nowhere to be seen here. Vincent Zhao, as Su, goes through several remarkable character changes, and handles them, both physically and emotionally, with aplomb. Andy On is despicable and terrifying as the villainous step-brother; his physical prowess and shocking training methods keep the tension and forward momentum of the narrative going for a large chunk of the film. In smaller roles, Michelle Yeoh, Jay Chou (as the God of Wushu), and a certain late, great Western martial arts figure (who, singlehandedly, saves the last 20 minutes of the film) add a degree of class and pedigree to what could, on the surface, be easily dismissed as a throwaway kung-fu import. The other key element that separates this from your average Eastern beat-'em-up is the spectacular fighting choreography. Director Yuen Woo Ping's name is synonymous with large-scale, balletic kung-fu; aside from his legendary directorial credits, like Drunken Master, and my personal favorite, Iron Monkey, he provided the choreography for flicks like Kill Bill, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fist of Legend, Kung Fu Hustle, and Once Upon A Time in China. He brings his legendary expertise here, with a plethora of fights that come fast and furious like Dom Toretto, each one crucially different than the last. Andy On's 5 venom fist, in particular, is a scary and awe-inspiring delight. The story is strong, and holds up (until the end), but the dynamic fighting is what makes this film occasionally pop off the screen and transcend into something signature and memorable.

Recommended for fans of large-scale Wuxia flicks like Iron Monkey or Fearless. I do not know if it contains enough universal appeal to crossover to western audiences (the crowd I saw it with seemed unsure of how to react, with genuine applause and inappropriate ironic laughter being expressed equally), but I certainly found it to be a remarkable, graciously old-school Wuxia tale.

P.S. This movie is shot REALLY well for any film, let alone an action flick. The skies, mountains, and sets of this movie are fantastic, and will tickle any of the photographically inclined who end up seeing it.

Bridesmaids (2011)

Sporadically funny, but not as consistently uproarious as the trailers would imply, this mid-life crisis comedy-drama concerns a late-30's woman who, after losing her business and boyfriend to the recession, must deal with being her best friend's maid of honor. A more apt title for the film would be "Bridesmaid"; the entire film revolves around the main character, played by Kristen Wiig, as her insecurities toward her lot in life, piled on with her jealousies at her friend and her other bridesmaids (particularly Rose Byrne's attractive, wealthy "new friend"), take their toll. And by take their toll, I mean reduce her into a shrill, shreiking harpy, going to such lengths as jumping on stage to hog the spotlight from one of Byrne's dinner speeches, consistently lying to the girls to protect her pocketbook (classism is a big part of the film), and, worst of all, publicly sabotaging the bridal shower for no good reason whatsoever. Not to mention that the saccharine-coated elements of her character, such as her baking talents (her failed business was a bakery), her romantic exploits (the Jon Hamm P.O.S. or the sweet Irish flatfoot, I wonder?), and her weird relationship with her mother (who is bland and fake quirky in all the ways that only Blythe Danner would have been able to sell) are lame, sappy, and make Wiig's character out to be kind of an unlikable hypocrite. Which would be fine, had the movie fulfilled its promise of being a no-holds-barred gross-out comedy, instead of the tawdry, vapid dramedy it ends up being.

The biggest disappointment of the film is that, sporadically, it is, indeed, very funny. While a good amount of the good beats and one-liners have already been ruined in the marketing, there are still some great moments and set-pieces that keep the film from being a complete waste of time. There are definitely certain moments that are taken way further than they would in a traditional "chick flick," and the Judd Apatow touch (he produced) is all over the improv-heavy banter. The supporting cast is more than game, with Melissa McCarthy and Wendi Mclendon-Covey getting in the best lines, and Maya Rudolph making for a surprisingly endearing BFF for Wiig, but they are all massively underused; other than Rose Byrne's deliciously grating showboat, no one gets the attention and nuance that Wiig's character receives (no surprise that Wiig cowrote the script). Wiig is funny in the film, as anyone who has seen her SNL or film work could have probably figured out; what she can't get right is the drama. She knows the comedic effect of her character angrily tearing grass out of the ground and dumping it in the bride-to-be's decorational fountain of chocolate, but the dramatic effect (read: what a sad, angry bitch!) is completely lost on her. Her character makes too many boneheaded decisions, too many moral compromises, and too many callous, indiscriminate stands for personal recognition to be able to look past them and enjoy the humor underneath; the film, by keeping its third act and much of the second act fairly laugh free, wanted it that way.

Which makes me question the entire point of the film. Had the premise somehow involved the other bridesmaids, and made the narrative into some sort of rumination on forced female bonding and the trivialities of the marriage procession, the downturn into purely dramatic territory could have been more successful. But as is, the main narrative thrust of the film, for much of the running time, is Kristen Wiig's character attempting to seem as well-off and put together as Rose Byrne's clearly wealthier, more successful bridesmaid. For me, the reverance displayed towards the the elaborateness of wedding dresses, the exclusivity and perks of flying first class, the extravagance of invitations, and the financial worth of wedding gifts was a GIGANTIC turn off, and made the whole film into some sort of dirty, ghetto version of Sex and the City with a broke, bitchy, eternally catty 5th friend. There is no moral excuse for her betrayal of her friend solely due to the fact that she is now, due to her move from Milwaukee to Chicago, closer to this other, different woman. It makes the whole film ugly and petty, and, aside with the lack of any particularly strong, sensible female characters, makes the film kind of a sexist endeavor. My girlfriend certainly did not think so, and I am sure this will not be the prevalent notion coming out of screenings this weekend, but it is something that I could not escape in my mind (particularly considering her romantic behavior, which is not only pathetic and self-destructive, but, irresponsible, and, at times, downright mean).

Slightly Recommended for chick-flicky women and the guys who get dragged along that can appreciate the comic sensibilities of the cast, which, in the end, is all that the film has going for it. With a cast like this (including Tim Heidecker, one of the funnier talents in contemporary comedy, who, in one of the films greatest crimes, is not given a single line to utter), this makes for a considerable flex of comedic muscle, but the other elements on display do not sufficiently hold up the funny schtuff.

P.S. I have read reviews, from men and women alike, that say the film is a strong "chick flick" that can be enjoyed by both genders. I'd agree, only because men are more than likely to dismiss the blatant sexism on display here, and women, typically much less demanding toward female-centric entertainments, will probably disregard such notions for the entertainment value (which, in my opinion, was disappointingly inconsistent and mild).

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Double Dragon (1994)

I had written a longer, more comprehensive review of this film, and before I was able to publish, Blogger decided to not only stop working, but to lose its autosave of my progress. This film is not worth reviewing in full form again, but I am very disappointed that my thoughts on video game adaptations in the '90s are lost forever in the annals of the internet.

Long story short, Hollywood did not know how to go about adapting video games because they were seen as toys for children, yet had fairly violent and large-scale notions and ideas. That's how you get a Street Fighter movie where no one fights in the streets, a Mortal Kombat movie without any blood-dripping fatalities, and a Double Dragon movie where Billy and Jimmy Lee are being pursued by evil, rather than taking it out one punk at a time. They have a ghetto-looking car that they control with a video game controller. Their main physical threat is a disgusting pig man who looks like a Max Headroom reject. They wear color-coded hoodies and sweats until the last 5 minutes of the movie. They are backed up by a gang of rebellious street punks led by Alyssa Milano. And they are played by Mark Dacascos and, direct from Party of Five, Scott Wolf. Needless to say the movie's a bomb; even Robert Patrick's scenery gnashing as the villain does nothing to kickstart the movie into something watchable. The action is almost nonexistent, and the martial arts that ARE on display are absolute crap, on par with a bad Power Rangers episode (a shame, given I've seen Dacascos kick some serious ass on film).

Skip it. For context, this PG-13 flick made a little less than 2.5 mil in the U.S. box office. Less than R-rated flicks like House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, and Bloodrayne (made by a German genius named Uwe Boll). Hmm.

P.S. Andy Dick, George Hamilton, and Vanna White play news anchors in the film. Just in case there were some of you still ready to hunt this down like I did.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

Cute, low-key horror-comedy about duo of well-meaning, but buffoonish rednecks on vacation who are vilified, demonized, and, indirectly, tortured by a nearby group of teens. The central joke of the piece is a riff on Deliverance; because Tucker and Dale fit the image of inbred, angsty jungle folk, the teens are so scared for their lives that they, in turn, go about putting themselves in actual danger. There is not much more in terms of plot, save for a cute, tenuous romance with Tucker and one of the teens, so I will not ruin any of the gags, plot twists, or death scenes(!) that make this quite a fun watch for horror buffs. I will say that as the titular duo, Reaper's Tyler Labine and Alan mothafreaking Tudyk are absolutely sweet, well-rendered, and hilarious; if you did not buy the well-meaning sincerity of their rough-around-the-edges characters, the entire film would fall apart. Katrina Bowden, the resident "hottie" of 30 Rock, also warrants mention for playing it straight and irony-free (unlike on 30 Rock) as the love interest; in a nice spin on the typical horror lead role, she is separate from her friends in her understanding that there is NO threat, as opposed to her being the savvy survivalist a la Jamie Lee Curtis or Neve Campbell. The movie has a sort of half-indie, half-DTV feel to it, sort of like David Arquette's similar, but more freakish The Tripper, but it only serves to highlight the absurd and over-the-top tone of the film; a big-budget sheen on this one, along with bigger names in the starring roles, would have taken the piss out of the whole thing. I am not saying that this is Shaun of the Dead, or even Cannibal: The Musical, but it is a fun, diverting flick that tickles its core audience (read: horror fans) to the bone.

Recommended for savvy horror fans, specifically those familiar with the subgenre of films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wrong Turn, and The Hills Have Eyes. There is a cuteness and sincerity on display here that elevates it above purely comical exercises like The Tripper

P.S. There is a tacked-on, probably reshot ending that is hokey and doesn't really fit with the rest of the film, but it does keep the tone from seesawing completely over to one side of the horror-comedy balance.

Drive Angry (2011)

A surprisingly fun, self-aware enterprise, this relentlessly aggressive throwback to '70s car flicks such as Vanishing Point revolves around a near-psychopath as he attempts to rescue his kidnapped granddaughter from murderous satanists. The film never gets too much more complicated than that; aside from a couple of other characters, such as a beleaguered waitress and a mysterious "Accountant" in pursuit, the narrative is almost solely tied into the protagonist's quest for his missing granddaughter. The race-against-the-clock aspect, along with the cult aspect, reeks of '70s exploitation, and the film is definitely in that mold, eschewing logic for impact at any given moment. However, unlike similar exercises in action meta-awareness (like Shoot 'Em Up), this one actually knows where to draw its goofy/serious battle lines, with the slower moments having just as much dirty, grimey, pulpy energy as when it's at its most kinetic. That is not to say the action is not up to snuff; bullets fly at the screen, sex is rampant, and, for a film of this budget, the car stunts are surprisingly large-scale and well-rendered. And the cast, not an Ocean's 11 ensemble by any means, is wonderfully game.

I had read, prior to seeing the film, that Nic Cage plays against his strengths in this, going for a "Man With No Name" vibe, as opposed to his own patented explosivity; I call bullshit on that. While he is not screaming "It's murder! MURDER! And you're all guilty! GUILTY!!!", he is definitely aware of the silliness of the production, and takes his character to various extremes, but never condescends to the material; if I had to guess, I'd say this and Kick-Ass were more the kind of work he'd like to be doing than Sorcerer's Apprentice and Season of the Witch. As his waitress cohort and co-lead, Amber Heard is vicious, vivacious, and all sorts of awesome, giving this role a decent amount of humanity, and never once seeming like a desperate wannabe starlet running away from pyrotechnics. She has consistently turned in strong work in all that I've seen her in, but if she plays her cards right, Heard could easily make a career as a tough action heroine, sexier than Michelle Rodriguez and more fiery than Angelina Jolie. Billy Burke (who I recognized from Jane Austen's Mafia) is an effectively eerie villain, and David Morse shows up in an extended cameo as a friend of Cage, but the real highlight of the acting department is William Fichtner. Instantly recognizable, but elusively eclectic, Fichtner all but steals the film as the Accountant, seemingly toying with everybody in the film; neither a hero, nor a true villain, his character exists only to toy with civilians and to increase the stakes for Cage, both of which he does with a great sense of relish that I hope to see more of from the talented actor. He really has established himself as a modern day Warren Oates, or Elisha Cook, Jr., killing it in talented directors' work without ever worrying about being typecast or overexposed (remember his opening scene in Dark Knight?).

Highly Recommended for anyone who thinks that they'd like a movie called Drive Angry 3D starring Nicolas Cage and Amber Heard. Or for anyone who has ever said to themselves, "You know? They really don't make 'em like Vanishing Point anymore." I have. And they did.

Monday, May 9, 2011

El Topo (1970)

Strikingly original, yet slightly overlong, this surreal western tells the story of a gunfighter as he trains his son, rescues a damsel, hunts down rival gunmen, and, finally, seeks redemption. The imagery of this film is its most striking element. Utilizing its fullscreen scope to its full potential, the exposures of the sky, the desert, the caves, and the mountains contained within the film are all absolutely gorgeous and picturesque. The imagery is heavily slanted towards religious symbolism, which, thankfully, is not specific enough to turn off atheists and agnostics (like myself). The action is effective, but minimal and quickly-cut; this is not a Sergio Corbucci actioner, by any means, but a more broody, evocative piece, where the violence, although prevalent, is the exception to the rule. The first part of the film is a more traditionalist western, with the gunfighter being taunted by his woman into challenging the four master gunfighters in the area. Each of them have their own method of survival, directly tying into their philosophy of life, which the gunfighter is then forced to emulate or subvert in order to achieve victory. Had the film been solely about this narrative, it could have been a more open-minded, spiritual cousin to the other foreign-made westerns coming out at that time (see Leone and Corbucci). However, writer/director/star Alexander Jodorowsky tacks on a whole other act, jumping forward a decade-plus, showing the gunfighter on his path to redemption.

Although there is plenty of inspiring, poignant footage within, it is this section of the film that is the most problematic. For one, the other characters of the film disappear, and the one(s) that remain are magnificently warped, creating a brand new plotline almost completely separate from what came before. This could be very brave, and, potentially, outstandingly effective, if not for the second crucial problem, which is that the new plotline is, surprisingly, rather cliched. The gunfighter is nursed to health by a band of malformed outcasts, and he becomes a monk, devoting himself to reintroducing his new friends back into mainstream society, possibly by force. While there are interesting aspects to this, such as his dwarf love interest and the uncompromisingly brutal ending, it is fairly preachy and, dare I say, soft in comparison to what came before it. It remains a hauntingly executed, astoundingly inventive western, one that shares much more stylistic commonalities with Orson Welles and Godard than Sergio Leone or John Ford. However, I cannot forget the feeling of waiting for the film to end, and seeing the multiple opportunities to do so effectively without dragging the more sentimentalist, middling elements of the film out to their breaking point.

Recommended for fans of highly original, New-Wave influenced work of the late '60s, early '70s, or of less conventional, more outside-of-the-box westerns, such as Dead Man or High Plains Drifter. I am definitely fascinated enough with Jodorowsky's style to seek out his grand opus, Holy Mountain, which, without the trappings of the traditionalist western, I can imagine will be an even more revelatory, striking experience.