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?