Sunday, July 31, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love MOVIE REVIEW

One genre of film in today’s cinema landscape that is lacking in many aspects is the romantic comedy.  Eye-rollingly unfunny dialogue, cheesy characters and plots, and soundtracks that include the worst of the top pop hits on the Billboard charts are often what flicks of this nature are comprised of.  Crazy, Stupid, Love, while not outright avoiding the clichés that riddle many contemporary romantic movies, does add a breath of fresh air to the mix by having characters and situations that feel real and more importantly, matter to the viewer.  Crazy, Stupid, Love begins with Cal and Emily Weaver, a middle aged married couple in their 40’s who were high school sweethearts (played by Steve Carell and Julianne Moore); Emily relates to Cal that she has cheated on him and wants a divorce, and Cal, now a begrudged single man, has to jump into a world of hook-ups and bar chatting that is foreign to him.  Overhearing Cal’s difficulties, the smooth talking, womanizer Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) decides to “help” Cal get a makeover in order to live life like a player.  All the while secondary characters such as Cal’s son, the couple’s babysitter Jessica, and Hannah, played by Emma Stone, are also on their respective quests for their “true love.”

What makes this film great, despite its sappiness and occasions for clichés, is its awareness of its own genre.  Unlike fare like No Strings Attached (a recent, abysmal romantic comedy), Crazy, Stupid, Love uses the movies of the past to its advantage.  For instance, towards the end of the movie, Cal’s son makes a speech at his 8th grade graduation; as in typical romantic comedies, due to the nature of the speech (I’ll be vague on purpose here to avoid spoilers), Steve Carell stands up in the crowded auditorium and shouts “STOP!”  We’ve seen this scene many times before, but what makes this film different and grounds it in a reality is that immediately afterwards, Carell’s character realizes that what he just did is actually pretty crazy and curses himself while reconsidering his actions before giving the “proper” speech.  In another, Steve Carell has a “fail” moment with his wife and she leaves him alone in a parking lot – shortly after rain begins to pour down, at which moment Carell mutters “…what a cliché.”  This is a film that does indeed use those eye-rolling expected moments, but only uses them to strengthen its own identity.

The cast is all around pretty amazing.  Steve Carell’s turn as a love-stricken everyman is spot on and his chemistry with Julianne Moore hit me as genuine.  Emma Stone shows off how talented she can actually be in this ensemble cast and this makes me at least a little bit more excited to see what she will bring to the role of Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man next year.  Ryan Gosling fully embodied his character also, pulling off the mysterious ladies man as well as anyone could have.  Rounding out the brimming list of actors are Kevin Bacon, playing the home wrecking David Lindhagen, the guy who Emily cheated on her husband with, Marisa Tomei, who plays a brief stint in Cal’s newfound bachelordom, Jonah Bobo, the son/”wise word of advice man” of Cal’s, and Analeigh Tipton, a fresh face playing a babysitter with a “thing” for the much older Cal.  Because of the endlessly talented grouping of old and new faces, it’s hard not to end up rooting for these characters in their lives of soul searching and heartache.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is not without its flaws.  Some clichés didn’t have a clever edge to them and ended up just feeling like straightforward plot moments.  Cal’s son as the “giver of advice” was a little too cheesy for me, and his never-ending pronouncements of love for his soul mate (who does not share those feelings for him) grew tiresome after a while; I also thought Kevin Bacon’s character could have been a little more fleshed out.  However, especially among its competition in the genre, it’s a very good feature with a lot to bring to the table. “Love” is a complicated thing, especially when it is not reciprocated; the characters, who by the end of the movie all have a connection with each other, in some way, big or small, show that in the end not everything may work out the way you want it to.  Sometimes it will work out perfectly, sometimes it won’t work out at all, and sometimes it will work somewhere in between, and the movie deals with that theme gently and precisely, resulting in a loving tale that doesn’t hit you over the head with its message. It has sweet moments, it has funny moments, and it has cheeseball moments, but it stands as one of the best of its kind.  I’ve never been a big fan of these kinds of movies, but I did enjoy watching Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Rating: B

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger MOVIE REVIEW

In this final “amp-up” to The Avengers, we get the last superhero movie of the summer, and boy have there been a lot of them.  Captain America: The First Avenger travels back in time from the point at which Iron Man and Thor take place (the other pre-Avengers superhero flicks) to a 1940’s New York City, where the weak and scrawny Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) biggest dream is to enlist in the army and fight against the biggest bullies of the world (in this case the bullies are Nazis).  Due to his unflinching patriotism, he is enlisted in a special “Super Soldier” program among whom Stanley Tucci plays a German scientist (but he’s from Queens so it’s all good) and Tommy Lee Jones plays a hard-edged colonel.  Rogers’ newfound strength leads him to don the persona of Captain America, and he leads the fight against HYDRA, an evil sub-culture of Nazis led by Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a trench-coat wearing sonofabitch with a red skull (you guessed it) for a head (think Ghost Rider meets Hellboy meets Col. Hans Landa)

The current stream of superhero movies can be acknowledged as factory-like right now.  It seems as though studios have been churning out these pictures like there’s no tomorrow; flicks like these have to do something new or innovative, something we’ve never seen before, in order to stand out among the overpopulated genre.  The problem with Captain America isn’t necessarily that it’s god-awful, but it’s so mediocre and been-there-done-that.  There’s nothing in this movie I haven’t seen before, and there’s nothing that even stood out to me in particular.  From the opening scene (which “borrowed” heavily from The Thing) to Cap’s transformation (Peter Parker was another nerd-turned-buff hero) to the overall look (Sky Captain/Sucker Punch), I never felt like I left familiar territory.  Some may think the alterna-history Captain America presents is interesting, but with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds having been out for only a couple years, it hardly holds a candle. 

Even the action in the film was uninspired and procedural.  I honestly cannot remember any of the action scenes in this film.  In Thor (which I did not care for), at least his most important asset, his hammer, was used innovatively in a few scenes.  Every hero has his “main weapon” – Thor his hammer, Green Lantern his ring, Wonder Woman her lasso – and Captain America’s is obviously the red, white, and blue shield.  Although it is used prominently in the film, no new life was brought into it.  Take for example this summer’s X-Men: First Class (which I consider the best of the X-Men franchise) – there’s a character named Azazel whose main “thing” is that he can teleport anywhere, along with whatever and whoever he is touching; this power was exploited creatively by having him grab onto his victim, teleport 50 stories into the air, and then drop them to their doom.  It’s that kind of creative ingenuity that I wish Captain America featured more of – but in the end I just remember a lot of explosions and guns going off. 

A big peeve of mine in recent blockbusters is the over-use of CGI.  To me, these types of movies work best when practical effects and CGI are used together to aid the other (like in Iron Man). But the entirety of Captain America to me seemed as if it was processed through a computer.  During the pre-experiment scenes with the digitally altered Chris Evans (due to being so buff in real life, Evans was digitally manipulated to look tiny and frail), what first came to my mind was Little Man (the shitty Wayans Brother's film) because it looked so uncanny and clearly touched up – they should’ve hired the people behind the special effects for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  While Steve Rogers and his buddy are walking through the World’s Fair early in the film, a simple walk-and-talk scene jars me because clearly a green-screen was used for everything but the actors (no wait, except for Chris Evan’s digitally altered head, of course).  If handled well, CGI can greatly add to a picture and establish its world (just look at what the Harry Potter films have done), but here the effects took me out of the experience.

Besides action, characters in a superhero film are everything.  If we cannot root for the home team, it’s game over.  Chris Evans here is not terrible in his role and Tommy Lee Jones is impossible to dislike, but at the end of the day I just didn’t really care what happened to anyone.  Red Skull to me was a totally lackluster villain with unclear motives (he’s just dismissed as a cult-loving, power-hungry, evil dude) and the “love interest” was forced and unnatural.  As opposed to the Mary Jane/Peter Parker relationship in Spider-Man that was intimate and interesting, here it’s as if the screenwriter was simply going through the motions (“well, guess we have to have a love interest now…uhm…ok, I’ll just insert this girl here, and here, and here, aaand, we’re done).  Chris Evans makes for an OK, not great, Captain America.  I did like the fact that even after his amazing transformation, he still retained his “scrawny-ness” and left room for character development.  He shows the right amount of courage and patriotism for the role as well, but I still believe someone out there would’ve made for a better Cap’.

Captain America is simply forgettable.  Its biggest flaw is its fear of aiming higher.  Judging from his credentials, it seems as though the director, Joe Johnston, is a studio yes-man and that may explain this end product.  Even though the backdrop may be different, the story is the same thing we’ve seen time and time again.  The superhero origin story is wearing thin at this point, and with The Amazing Spider-Man due next year, we’ve seemingly only begun with the beginnings.

Rating: C-

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II MOVIE REVIEW

Although I may not have fallen under the same Potter-mania spell that drives leagues of fans to play dress up or read the books as soon as they are released (to make things clear I haven’t read any of the books save for the first one, and that was years ago), having recently sped through all the previous Potter films to catch up with the grand finale, I think it’s pretty amazing to see the maturing of both the actors and the subject matter from film to film. With each installment comes more  ‘adult’ material and higher stakes.  Even though the whimsical charm from the early films is gone, operatic, epic, even complex storytelling has taken its place (no small feat especially considering that Harry Potter is thought of as a “wide-audience” adventure).  The series has built up and up to the final confrontation between The Boy Who Lived and He Who Must Not Be Named – the ultimate battle of good vs. evil – and finally we can see our favorite witches and wizards in their last moments on screen.

Deathly Hallows Part II could not possibly disappoint those fans that have stuck with these characters this long.  The Potter films have maintained an unwavering level of quality and this cap-off fits in perfectly with the other movies.  Part II mainly consists of grand-scale battle scenes and special effects that were handled pretty much perfectly.  From the goblins at Gringotts to the final spectacular battle between Harry and Voldemort, everything was eye-catching and totally worked within the fantasy world established by all the preceding movies.  I loved the fact that this was basically a war film – granted a toned down one (there’s no scene involving an unfortunate Hufflepuff student holding his own blown off arm a la Saving Private Ryan).  The movie is a non-stop rollercoaster ride, and each character gets his/her moment to shine.  As in all the films, the cast was pretty amazing in this, from the three lead kids, to the teachers, to all the bit-parts: Harry Potter really is a showcase for some of the best British actors around. 

My problems with the film are mainly with certain specific story elements (I’ll refrain from explaining them to avoid spoilers), but from what I gather certain scenes would have made more sense if I’d “read the book.”  That’s my biggest problem, not just with this movie, but the overall series: I wish I didn’t feel so “left out” of the story by my not keeping up with JK Rowling’s tomes o’ wizardry.  I know that you can’t make everyone happy, and I think the balance of fan-to-newcomer sustainability is maintained as well as it can be, I can’t help but feel that it lowers my enjoyment of the movies because I haven’t “kept up.”  That’s why (against the beliefs of many fans and critics alike) I prefer the first two Potter films the best, because in my opinion only they felt absolutely “complete” and stood on their own without the need for previous knowledge of the story or the assurance of a sequel.

Don’t get me wrong though; I think this final chapter in the Harry Potter film saga is a great end to an unbelievably successful craze that has swept the world.  I’m glad to see it succeed and hope today’s youth will aspire to be more like Harry and Hermione than those morons from Twilight.  As popular as Harry Potter is, I’d be surprised if the universe died here (look at Star Wars after it ended), but I can understand the weight that this movie must feel on true Potter nuts.  Although the epilogue left a kind of bittersweet taste for me at the end, I felt completely satisfied with the conclusion.  Ten years and eight movies later and it’s finally the end of a long road of owls, wands, and broomsticks.

Rating: B+

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Horrible Bosses MOVIE REVIEW

The premise is simple: three dudes subjected to daily torture by their bosses band together to help kill each other’s employer.  The levelheaded, hesitant-at-first-but-then-accepts-the-ludicrously-dangerous-operation guy is played by Jason Bateman, whose boss is played by Kevin Spacey (with his usual “Kevin Spacey-ness”), a self-rewarding “Total Fucking Asshole.”  The second “boss killer” is the horndog ladies man played by SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis, whose last well-respected boss (Donald Sutherland) is replaced by his son (Colin Farrell), a cocaine-addicted balding jerk who would wish harm to an entire people for petty cash.  Lastly, the neurotic moron is played by Charlie Day, whose boss (Jennifer Aniston) continually makes lewd and offensive sexual remarks and gestures toward him despite the fact that he is engaged.  The three hire a hitman (with the greatest name ever) played by Jamie Foxx, who acts as an advisor on how to kill their respective employers.

The movie has a dark premise, but the actors have such good fun with it that the particularly morbid subject of murder feels farcical and funny. The entire cast is working at their top comedic efforts, and some jokes, which may not have landed a laugh before, hit spot on due to the likes of these talents. There are certainly many lines in this film that are destined to be repeated.  The three lead guys are pretty equal in laugh counts, each bringing their own style and personality into the picture.  I also think the bosses were great too; Aniston is really breaking her label of “America’s Sweetheart” in this one and Kevin Spacey always makes for a great prick.  My biggest disappointment was that Colin Farrell’s character, one that showed a great deal of promise in certain scenes (and the trailer), is criminally underused – before the movie I was anticipating his role quite a bit and it’s a letdown that he’s not featured in the film very much.

Although most of the lines stick and the rapid succession with which funny moments pop up ensures at least a chuckle every once in a while, I did have some problems with Horrible Bosses.  It’s hard to watch this movie and not think of other recent comedies like The Hangover (three friends, a dangerous adventure with cops on their trail, raunchy humor); a pet peeve of mine in recent comedy movies is the unnecessary car chase scene, and of course this movie had to have one.  Many little things throughout the film took me out my overall enjoyment of the picture; I could tell that this movie was trying to pander to that “wide audience” demographic and the car chase is indicative of that.  I also wish that certain scenes would have gone farther with the already dark concept, that the film’s ‘R’ rating could have been pushed even further into more daring territory.  At the end of the day however, Horrible Bosses is a solid mainstream (albeit dark) comedy that is quotable, raunchy, and fun.

Rating: B

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