Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Kung Fu Panda 2

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

It might seem like damning with faint praise to say that Kung Fu Panda 2 plays and feels like a "real movie." But in truth, I am using that phrase in the context of how most adult audiences will view the film. In a world where a sequel is only seen as an extension of its more respected predecessor and any animated film is viewed primarily as fodder for young children (Pixar's masterworks notwithstanding), it is doubly hard for a non-Toy Story animated sequel to attain creative independence and reach a critical mass.

But like its silly, bumbling, unlikely hero, Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeds against all odds. It feels like a standalone movie. Here is a sequel that not only far surpasses the funny and entertaining 2008 original, but goes so magnificently above and beyond that it renders its predecessor nearly obsolete. If it weren't for the stigma that comes along with being a sequel -- to a film about a hungry, farting, kung fu bear, no less -- Kung Fu Panda 2 would be a near shoo-in for next year's Best Animated Feature Oscar. It is that special.

As it stands, another unlikely hero -- Rango -- will probably take home the Oscar, and not undeservingly. But oddly enough, Kung Fu Panda 2 shares some of the central themes of that otherwise very different film, most specifically the very human struggle to reconcile one's identity with one's past. Whereas Rango charted a more nebulous path in its search for an answer to the "Who Am I?" question, Kung Fu Panda 2 treads a more conventional path to cinematic enlightenment. But it finds the heart in its characters, which unlocks the magic in its storytelling. The film is compelling and emotional and exciting in the most wonderful of Big Summer Movie ways. It is a roundhouse kick to the giddy, fun-loving movie lover that lies dormant in even the most cynical critic.

Jack Black returns as Po, who rose from humble (and hungry) beginnings to become the mythical "Dragon Warrior" in the first movie. But Po's story really only begins with this film, which doesn't rest on the laurels of cutesy comedy and recognizable characters. Kung Fu Panda 2 tells the story of Po's journey to achieve "inner peace," a theme the screenplay shrewdly weaves throughout the film, and one that may seem ironic in a movie full of such ebullient energy. Inner peace, however, doesn't seem in the cards for Po, who has grown curious about his true origins, and whose new foe, the evil albino peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), may hold the key to unlocking those origins. While struggling to uncover his past, Po -- working with Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie) and the rest of the "Furious Five" -- must also neutralize Shen's allegedly unstoppable doomsday weapon, which the evil one will presumably use to enact that most nefarious of movie-movie plans: take over the world.

The film's only reasonable ambitions should be to inject a few chuckles at the expense of its mugging hero and mount a few creative action set pieces. But director Jennifer Yuh and returning screenwriters Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger go far beyond what seems conceivable for a presumably silly lark of a film. The focus on character is so surprisingly sharp that the conflict seamlessly fuses with the rest of the material, becoming accessible to everyone in the audience.

And the magic doesn't stop at the story and character level. Kung Fu Panda 2 is gorgeous to look at, a markedly more impressive visual experience than its forebear. Bright colors still permeate every scene, but the level of detail -- from the scruff of Po's fur to the glint in Tigress's eye to the visceral power of each unique action set piece -- is remarkable. Those action sequences, by the way, are creative marvels on every level. Not only are they beautifully rendered on a technical scale, but they are mounted with a cinematic clarity most live-action kung fu films strain to achieve. Filmic references are woven into every frame, from samurai epics to chop-socky grindhouse flicks to the expressive visceral emotion of Japanese anime. Each set piece is its own cultural melting pot, and the filmmakers still find the right beats to inject the film's trademark humor throughout.

Kung Fu Panda 2 fully realizes the understood goal of every sequel: it raises the emotional stakes, reaches for bigger laughs, and stages its action on a much larger scale. But apart from the spectacle, the film's most impressive upgrade is the richness of its emotion, which elevates every other element to create a near-perfect summer movie experience. "Animated" and "sequel" labels be damned, Kung Fu Panda 2 stands on its own, a "real" movie with real appeal for everyone.

The Tree of Life

Thursday, May 26th, 2011
Life begins and ends in the opening moments of Terrence Malick's hypnotic The Tree of Life, and then it begins and ends again. The universe, imagined here in peerless CGI compositions and landscape shots of such distinct clarity as to turn the makers of Planet Earth green with envy, is in a constant state of dithering and delighting, expanding and exploding, rising and relenting. The notoriously reclusive Malick uses these images, accompanied by pieces by Bach, Mahler and Holst, as a mere overture. A raptor spares the life of a young, weak brachylophosaurus while cells divide, collide, and coalesce into human life, which takes on the shape of the O'Brien clan, a family of five living in a suburb of Waco, Texas in the fifties, where a fog of DDT and the sight of a slender beauty's nightgown become totems of the transcendentally unsettling adolescence of the eldest O'Brien child, Jack (Hunter McCracken).

Shards of the O'Briens' lives, most pointedly the loss of one of their three boys at the age of 19, preface Malick's symphony of time and light and climax in the now, with the brief introduction of Jack, fully grown and embodied by Sean Penn. Jack as a man lives and works in new towers of light, glass, metal, and stone. These buildings are cathedrals meant to defy time, and Malick's film very well may do the same as it heads off into the ages. This has certainly been the case for the writer and director's past films, which have come in at an excruciating pace that averages out to about one a decade. Malick's quiet, poetic sense of cinema, however, is such that the five films he has completed have put him in the same class of working American filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Frederick Wiseman. His debut, Badlands, remains one of the key American works of the 1970s.

His subsequent features are, among other things, masterpieces of tonal precision, with the arguable exception of The New World, which is, at the very least, a very beautiful film. Malick's personal sense of style molds and looms over all of these works but The Tree of Life is, as has been widely noted, his most personal film by quite some margin. His father worked for a large petroleum company as a geologist, a career at least tangentially akin to Mr. O'Brien (a phenomenal Brad Pitt, who also serves as producer here), an engineer perpetually frustrated by his failings as an inventor. Indeed, Malick himself here seems in the ethereal between the familiar mechanics of cinema as a form and the inventiveness of liberated art, though it's hard to imagine his outlook being anything as tough and bleak as the future that Jack's father sees for his sons. Mr. O'Brien is a strict, domineering presence in his home, with the disposition of a summit of dark clouds pregnant with thunder, whereas his wife (the utterly enchanting Jessica Chastain), with her hair the color of orange marmalade, is a nurturing, open and forgiving influence on her children.

Words are spoken by these characters, but they are also whispered in voiceover, appearing suddenly out of the dense thicket of sound that supervising sound designer and editor Craig Berkey has woven, mixing a Gorecki sonata with the implacable hum of a sweet summer night and an unassuming, magnificent chorus of boys' laughter and shouts. As much as Tree of Life may be an essential piece of cinema, its true meaning impossible to pinpoint and its mysteries doubling over on themselves within a single shot, it is also a minefield of dichotomies, not the least of which is Berkey's ocean of percolating, nuanced noise, topped off by Alexandre Desplat's towering score, and Malick's astounding collaborative work with the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked on The New World as well. The visual schema is just as ravishingly mixed as the sound, especially in its stunning use of effects, crafting moments of moving transcendent grace, the most memorable of which features Mrs. O'Brien floating, twirling, rolling in the air as dusk settles in on her neighborhood.

That moment of aerial ballet is tied as much to Jack's memory as it is to the vibrant balance Malick strikes between metaphysics and nature, adolescence and adulthood, celestial masses and earthbound landscapes, fathers and mothers, light and darkness, life and death. The director's ambitions are innumerable and ultimately insurmountable -- which is why, despite my great appreciation and love for the film, I cannot say that it is a masterpiece on par with Malick's first three works. Whether it may be an optimist's response to 2001: A Space Odyssey or a Christian fable relocated to the American south and played out with operatic grandeur, The Tree of Life is nevertheless an event, not to mention a stunning reminder of the power of the big screen in the age of VOD. To truly give into Malick's film, which some may find impossible or unreasonable, one must be overwhelmed by its images and its inherent mysteries; like all of Malick's films, it outright demands multiple viewings. And even if The Tree of Life, fresh off its Palme d'Or win at Cannes, is a textbook example of style-over-substance, as many of its detractors have argued, it is a tremendous exercise in style, anchored by the finest performance Brad Pitt has given to date. For this reviewer, however, witnessing Malick's vision of eternal life obliterated me almost immediately, only to eventually return me to a corporeal state, just in time for the closing credits.             

Tuesday, After Christmas

Thursday, May 26th, 2011
The title of Radu Mundean's superb fourth feature, Tuesday, After Christmas, suggests that something has been planned or, more pointedly, that a decision has been made -- but one of an intimate nature rather than of major historical importance. What we know is that it is impending, that whatever has been planned for that day has been set and was agreed upon by at least one party. There is no year mentioned, and the only way we know the season and the month is because of the titular holiday. Indeed, the story being told here -- that of an affair blooming into a something more and a marriage that has come to its end -- is largely devoid of a time period because it is a story that any adult knows all too well, either from their own experience or from the confessions and actions of those close to them.

That should not be taken as a sign that the Romanian director and screenwriter lacks ambition or that anything in his film is at all expected. In fact, Mundean, who co-wrote the film's script with Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu, deals in a sort of dramatic naturalism that eschews and diffuses exposition at nearly every instance. Catharsis is traded in for a slow burn of anger and emotional devastation pointed not at an archetypal bored husband, nor a fetching, flirtatious "other woman", nor an emasculating she-witch of a wife, but rather a person who has fallen madly in love with someone new. Indeed, Mundean restrains any judgment on his characters' morality or "rightness" to focus on the interior lives of his three major characters and allusions to a vast network of complex relationships that are just as complicated as the central love triangle.

This particular sticky situation, however, is spurred when Paul (Mimi Branescu) brings his daughter to get her teeth checked out and meets her orthodontist, Raluca (Maria Popistasu). We never see this scene, nor do we see how they fell into their affair, who made the first move or what excuses Paul made for her smell on his clothes and the hickies on his neck. Mundean begins his film as Raluca and Paul lie in bed, five months into their secretive romance, speaking playfully about his cock size and his struggles with smoking. The director, collaborating with his regular DP, Tudor Lucaciu, favors long takes, a challenge which the actors consistently rise and respond to, but cuts more when dealing with scenes between Paul and his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprisor). Nevertheless, Oprisor is perhaps the strongest of this resolutely excellent cast, handling scenes of domestic stagnation with the same seeming ease as the more dramatically eruptive scenes that come towards the end.

Unlike most films that have dealt with adultery, Tuesday, After Christmas doesn't have much of a central, structured plot. When we meet these characters, they are merely on the cusp of making decisions for their future, many of which are seemingly minor. For Paul, it largely orbits around the question of what he will be doing for New Year's and where he will be; he wants to be with Raluca but he is planning on taking a ski trip with his family, and then spending time with friends and family. Raluca's trip to visit her mother stirs her feelings about Paul, which in turn causes Paul to make an impromptu decision to go meet her, leading to Paul's ultimate decision as to what to do in the situation.

Though the film exhibits many facets that are essentially theatrical, it would be foolish to disregard the importance of Mundean's largely immobile camera and his compositions. What Paul ultimately yearns for is an intimacy that has been lost in his very public life with his wife; you'll notice that doorways are accentuated throughout, but especially so when Paul and his family are together, with someone often looking in or performing general business in the background. Almost every scene featuring Raluca and Paul alone is closed off, away from prying eyes and the tediousness and openness of his relationship with his wife.

The seeming plainness of the film itself hides a sense of deep humane understanding: When Raluca and Paul talk about how much they love one another, there is no sense of the wool being pulled over anyone's eyes, or that a plot is being hatched. They are two people in love who make a decision together, and Mundean refuses to portray either of them as cold or uncaring of the situation they find themselves in. It is understandable that this might be misconstrued as laziness or a questionable experiment in stylized realism but it smacks of a sincerity that tales of adultery tend to chuck in favor of easy genre mechanics, absurd psychology, or flashes of eroticism that never quite stick. The beauty of Tuesday, After Christmas is in the details and what they insinuate -- whether it's a bitter conversation between Paul and his wife's sister, or a watch Paul gives to Raluca, one that makes her face glow from tender memories that to us are only vapor trails. 

AKA Marti, dupa craciun  

The Hangover Part II

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011
By definition, a sequel is just more of the same. In the case of The Hangover Part II, that's a very welcome redundancy indeed. It's almost unnecessary to review this latest bachelor-party-gone-ballistic comedy. If you loved the first one, you'll really enjoy this one. If the scatological adventures of the Wolf Pack and their post-debauchery regret left you cold -- well, you're probably not interested in this revisit anyway. This time around, things are darker, more daring, and just a tad redundant. Still, Part II makes an excellent companion piece to the original, still one of the new millennium's classic comedies.

Our story once again centers around some nuptials. This time, divorced dentist Dr. Stuart Price (Ed Helms) is getting married to his Asian sweetheart, Lauren (Jamie Chung). Required by her brutish dad to have the ceremony in Thailand, our sheepish DDS agrees to take pals Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha) and -- reluctantly at first -- eccentric oddball Alan (Zach Galifianakis) with him. Once there, they decide to have a nice bonfire on the beach to celebrate Stu's big day. Twenty-four hours later, the gang wakes up in a squalid Bangkok hotel. There, they discover a cute little monkey, their crazy criminal "friend" from the trip to Vegas, Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), and a horrible truth: Lauren's little brother Teddy (Mason Lee), a teen they were left in charge of, the absolute apple of his demanding father's eye, has gone missing...and might be dead.

It goes without saying that The Hangover Part II is funny. You can't place these characters in the situations that Todd Phillips and his writers do and not elicit a few dozen deep belly laughs. This is a raw, repellent road trip where the passengers are always paying for their lack of discretion and control. At the wheel is Cooper, doing the best straight man stint this side of a carnal "Who's on First?" He feeds Helms and Galifianakis, bringing out the best in their contrasting yet often complementary personality quirks. Stu is the buttoned-down dork who really wants to break free. Here, he finally accepts his antsy inner demon. Similarly, Alan is still all unfiltered Id. Everything he thinks, everything he says comes from a skewed perspective that views the world in a wild, naively off-kilter fashion.

Since his actors have inhabited these characters before, Phillips lets them explore the limits of their various qualities. He then implements a series of set-pieces that push the audience further and further into the extremes. From face tattoos and crotch-obsessed monkeys to a discussion in a Thai strip club that's way too revealing, these are smart gross-out gags. Instead of just hurling gratuitousness at the screen, Phillips presents people we care about. He understands that once our sympathies settle with Stu, Alan, and Phil, we will relish every repulsive thing that happens to them. Sure, a few of the scenes don't work (the silent monks are monotonous) and a couple are just present to remind us of the basic Hangover premise, but the majority are prime. 

What this update is truly missing, however, is a surprise moment of surrealism, like the original's left field inclusion of Mike Tyson as part of the proceedings. Here, all we get are Nick Cassavetes (as a less-than-impressive tattoo artist) and Paul Giamatti. Huh? Where's the stoner spit-take "wow" factor in that? Those sequences needed someone like the previously announced (and then dismissed) Mel Gibson to give them the giddy stunt allure they demand. Without them, The Hangover Part II has to rely solely on the strategy that made the first film into a worldwide phenomenon. Lucky us.

Space Travel, the Science-Fiction-Film Way

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011
Remember how last week I noted that I was on a book tour? Well, I'm still on tour -- I'm in city number eleven of the tour at the moment (hello, New York!) and have one more stop before it's all done. It's exhausting, but it's paid off, since my new novel, Fuzzy Nation, managed to claw its way onto the New York Times' hardcover fiction list. So hooray for touring.

But all the touring -- and all the attendant travel, not to mention the delays, the screwups, and the wondering when and how I'm going to do laundry whilst on the road -- put me in mind to think about travel in science-fiction movies and how easy or difficult it is to do in each of them. There are definitely some movie universes in which travel seems to be more congenial than in others. Let's look at some of them, in no particular order.

Star Trek
The universe of the most recent Star Trek movie is clearly the easiest to navigate that has ever existed. In the movie, the Enterprise appears to get from the Earth to Vulcan in about the same amount of time it takes me to walk from my front door to my mailbox and back again. It's true that in the movie just about all travel ends with something either blowing up or sucked into a black hole, but that's an element of the plot, not a general consequence of travel.

Star Wars
The Star Wars universe runs a close second in terms of ease of travel. Yes, depending on the film, it's run by either a corrupt, collapsing republic or a dictatorial empire, but on the other hand the movies suggest it's possible to get around a huge chunk of the galaxy in the space of a few days -- or, at the very least, from Hoth to Dagobah in such a short time that a guy using an X-wing to get there doesn't need to take a bathroom break. As with Star Trek, lots of this film travel ends poorly, with exploding planets or ships dodging asteroids, but that's not the fault of the travel. 2001: A Space Odyssey
As with many things, space travel here is shown with what appears to be a reasonable amount of accuracy, considering what we know of space travel: no warp speed, no artificial gravity, relatively small crew space, and so on. Plus it takes quite a long time to get from the Earth to Jupiter, two planets within the same solar system. As a consequence, this movie introduces the concept of human hibernation, so people can sleep most of the way to their destinations (presumably, without aging terribly).

It seems like a great idea, but statistically speaking science-fiction-film travel via human hibernation is indisputably the best way to get yourself killed or worse. It certainly was here, when HAL killed off the sleeping spaceship crew in that delightfully polite yet homicidal way of his.

Alien
The universe of Alien is the best evidence we have that human-hibernation travel kills: three times, Ripley goes into deep sleep in order to travel, mostly to unpleasant places; three times, she wakes up to aliens chewing their way through everyone else in the film. After a certain point you'd think she'd just say, "To hell with this. I think I'll stay up."

Pitch Black
The crew and passengers sleep their way across space when their spaceship malfunctions and crashes into a planet where they are consumed by large nasty aliens. Stay awake, people! Stay awake!

Avatar
One of the few films where human-hibernation travel does not inherently appear to kill off those who use it. Jake Sully sleeps for six years and seems to be not all that much worse for wear, aside from feeling like he has a hangover. From a technical point of view, space travel in this film does seem to be based more on physics as we know it than most science-fiction films. It takes a long time, and it appears to be done with at least a respectful nod toward the theory of relativity. At least at the end of it you have pretty and/or hunky blue-skinned aliens to enjoy.

WALL-E
Travel is easy in this universe (at the end of the film, a spaceship makes it across a galaxy to the Earth in apparently about ten minutes), but the spaceships aren't really designed to travel so much as they're designed to offer hover lounges and cupcakes in a cup; i.e., getting somewhere in particular is not a strong suit of travel in WALL-E. This is actually a somewhat revolutionary idea in science-fiction-film travel (as is, to be fair, the cupcake in a cup).

Tom Hardy’s Bane Takes His Place Among the Toughest Comic-Book-Movie Bad Guys

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
In case you happened to have missed it, The Dark Knight Rises hype kicked off this past Friday with an interactive viral-marketing game that revealed the first photo of Tom Hardy as Bane. Freakier than his goofy Batman & Robin counterpart, Hardy's Bane looks to be the most jacked-up villain to date in Christopher Nolan's Bat universe. While many comic-book-movie super-villains tend to be of the scrawny, brainy variety (Joker, Lex Luthor), there are a few costumed baddies who would be equally at home in a wrestling ring. Let's take a look at some of the toughest brawlers in comic-book movies.

bane batman and robin-125.jpgBane, Batman & Robin and The Dark Knight Rises
In comics, Bane is known as the villain who broke Batman's back. In Batman & Robin, his first big-screen outing, he was reduced to wearing a ridiculous trench-coat disguise as Poison Ivy's lackey. Though we've yet to see him in action, Tom Hardy's Bane is already scarier than the late wrestler Robert Swenson (pictured). The Inception star clearly hit the gym for the role and sports a mask that is more muzzle and less luchador. (The teeth make him look a bit like Killer Croc.) Could the new mask be a delivery system for venom, the chemical that gives Bane his superstrength?

bonesaw-125.jpgBone Saw McGraw, Spider-Man
In honor of the late, great Randy "Macho Man" Savage, who died in a car crash on Friday, let's take a moment to remember his role as wrestler Bone Saw McGraw in Spider-Man. With his killer body slams, entourage of babes, and signature catchphrase ("Booooone Saw is readddddy!"), Bonesaw is the king of the ring. He also puts some serious hurting on a masked Peter Parker, smacking him with a chair and throwing him around the steel cage to the delight of his crazed fans. But when he comes after Peter with a crowbar, that's when the Spider strength kicks in. R.I.P., Macho Man. R.I.P., Bone Saw. tyler-sabretooth-125.jpgSabretooth, X-Men
Also in the wrestler-turned-comic-book-movie-star category is Tyler Mane as Sabretooth. While Liev Schreiber's Sabretooth from X-Men Origins: Wolverine was more erudite, Mane wins in the pectorals department. Sabretooth's role in the Brotherhood of Mutants is sheer brute force, as evidenced by his one major scene, where he tangles with Rogue and Wolverine in the snow. (Thankfully, Mane doesn't have to tangle with too much dialogue.) Fun fact: Mane's wrestling partner, Kevin Nash, was originally supposed to play Sabretooth. Though he missed out on X-Men, Nash did star as...

supershredder-125.jpgSuper Shredder, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
After Vanilla Ice's immortal "Ninja Rap," the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles outing is notable for the moment when the Turtles' nemesis Shredder uses the titular ooze to transform into a bigger version of Shredder. All bulky muscles and sharp spikes, Super Shredder is a menacing presence. Sadly, he's also fairly ineffectual. (He basically just throws a tantrum and causes a building to fall on his head.) Thankfully, he doesn't join the Turtles and Vanilla Ice for a rousing round of "Go, ninja! Go, ninja! Go!"

non-125.jpgNon, Superman II
A Kryptonian of few words, Non is easily the strongest bad guy in the Superman franchise. (Though, considering his competition is Lex Luthor and that weaselly CEO Robert Vaughn plays in Superman III, that's not saying much.) Strong enough to lift a space capsule with one hand, Non trashes the White House and brings Superman to his knees. (Technically, Supes knelt before him as well. Zod just takes all the credit.) He's not too bright, falling to his death while trying to fly without his powers in the Fortress of Solitude. With Michael Shannon playing Zod in the Superman reboot, perhaps Non can return to smash Metropolis.

abomination-125.jpgEmil Blonsky, The Incredible Hulk
Hopped-up on a cocktail of super-soldier serum and gamma radiation, Emil Blonsky goes toe-to-toe with the Hulk in New York City. Though he starts out as scrawny Tim Roth, Blonsky morphs into a massive, gruesome monster capable of slamming the Hulk around. Sure, he's not exactly easy on the eyes. But what he lacks in looks, Blonsky makes up for in smashing ability. (He's basically a cross between the Hulk and Godzilla.) Considering that the Hulk usually goes up against tanks, Blonsky more than holds his own in a fight.

Lawrence-batman-125.jpgGoon, Batman
You remember Lawrence, Joker's thug who carries the boom box in the Flugelheim Museum, right? ("Gentlemen! Let's broaden our minds. Lawrence?") That guy was huge. And he doesn't just carry around a jam box that only plays Prince songs (for some reason). While Bob the Goon got all lines, Lawrence did go toe-to-toe with Batman in the cathedral scene. And, as he proves while blasting "Party Man" at the Flugelheim, Lawrence is also quite the dancer.

New on DVD – May 24, 2011 – I Am Number Four and Gnomeo & Juliet

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
Alien teenagers and weird Shakespeare: a young and hunky blond alien tries to avoid being the last of his kind to be knocked off in I Am Number Four, while in Gnomeo & Juliet garden gnomes play out an animated version of Romeo and Juliet. These and other films -- such as rereleases of classics like Solaris and The Great Dictator -- are coming this week to Blu-ray and DVD, like it or not.

I Am Number Four 2-star-rating.gif
This adaptation of the young-adult novel by Pittacus Lore (not a real person) features an alien come to the Earth in the form of a blond Adonis-like teenager who is on the run from another race of aliens who want to kill him (as they've done his three companions) and essentially dominate the universe. While running for his life, he falls in love with a pretty blonde of the female persuasion (Glee's Dianna Agron). Our critic thought it was all much ado about nothing, with "hideous CGI" and a mess of "distracting" subplots producing an "often-disastrous mess of hormonal rage and faux testosterone."

Gnomeo & Juliet 3-star-rating.gif
So what have all those different versions of Romeo and Juliet been missing throughout the years? Clearly, it was animation, warring clans of garden gnomes, and a hits-packed soundtrack by Elton John. That essentially sums up this curious suburban-England backyard-set variation on the Bard's timeless romance, which our critic says is "like watching an overextended sketch" that initially entertains while the "rest of the time you are silent, the joke and the accompanying freshness having long gone stale."
Solaris 4-star-rating.gif
This 1972 science-fiction classic by Andrei Tarkovsky (remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002) follows a psychologist sent to investigate mysterious happenings on a distant space station, where he discovers that a nearby alien planet is turning people's thoughts into physical manifestations, meaning ghosts. Our critic called it an "addictive, serenely maddening masterpiece of love and obsession." Now available in a two-disc Criterion Collection release with deleted scenes and a beautiful new high-definition digital transfer.

The Great Dictator 3-5-star-rating.gif
Charlie Chaplin's decision to play both a Hitler-like dictator and a hapless Jewish barber who is mistaken for him was controversial upon this comedy's release, in 1940, just before America entered the war. But though our critic found the resulting film "not always as funny as it could be and frequently too innocent for its own good," it still stands today as "better than just about anything else the Tramp ever made." Now available in a two-disc Criterion Collection release with a documentary about the controversy and a booklet containing an essay by Chaplin defending the film's satire.

Q&A – Bradley Cooper Talks Thailand, Tattoos, and His Hopes for a Hangover Trilogy

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

The wolf pack is back. And if you thought losing their best friend days before his wedding created a stressful situation, you haven't seen anything yet. With The Hangover Part II, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and director Todd Phillips face the enormous pressure of following up the highest-grossing R-rated comedy in history. When Cooper sat down with FilmCritic.com, he talked openly about moving the story to Bangkok, choosing to go dark with the humor, and his hope for a Hangover trilogy.

Q: When you heard they were planning a sequel, were you worried about living up to the first film?

A: Sure, yeah, no doubt about it. But the only reason why I wasn't so trepidatious is that the conversation started before the first movie came out. We didn't realize how big that movie was going to be, and it was only when we got to the moment of actually filming the sequel in Thailand where we definitely started getting excited about this whole process. That early scene in the IHOP was the first scene that we shot. And I remember thinking, "As a fan of The Hangover, I'm just psyched to see Stu and Doug and Phil together and talking." Do you know what I mean? There was this great part about sequels when we were kids, and you wanted to see the characters you love live on. So when we arrived in Bangkok a month later, we finally thought, "God, we really have to live up to the first one and not disappoint." There are a lot of people who love that movie, and there is going to be a lot of scrutiny.

Q: Do you get a hard time about Phil mostly avoiding physical alterations? Zach shaved his head and Ed has that facial tattoo, but Phil's pretty much no worse for wear.

A: Well, unfortunately -- because I would have loved to do all of that stuff -- that's not the function of Phil in the movie. He's that archetype. That stuff doesn't happen to him. But he does get shot. And he got scratched in the first one by the tiger. And also, in the first one, Mr. Chow goes crazy on him. But his thing is getting shot in this one.

Q: You guys didn't shy away from structuring the sequel the same way as the original.

A: No, in fact, we sprinted toward that and embraced it. And I was so happy about that. There were different scenarios tossed around, but we eventually landed on that and I thought, "For sure, it needs to be the same structure." These three guys, as much as you loved them in the first one, they don't have enough weight to take them away from the structure and still have it be an enjoyable movie. Now, I think after this movie, if there's a third one, there's no more "missed night." I don't think you need it anymore. There's so much that happens between these three guys in this movie. It's not about what happened the night before, really. The characters become more dynamic. You watch Phil be vulnerable with Alan. That's crazy! And yet he's still very much Phil. We also watch Phil try to make Stu feel better [in a scene], and that's a guy who he never much cared for. And we learn a lot more about Alan's very warped sense of brotherhood, in a darker way than just the lyrics of, "We're the three best friends that anyone ever had." You realize the ramifications of that song.

Q: Right. That's an example of you making the decision to go much darker with this film. Talk to me about that choice. You let the audience know right off the bat that this is a different story.

A: It's so astute, what you are saying. You are absolutely right. There's a danger to our new setting, to Bangkok, and we say pretty early on, "Guys, this is the way that it's going to go down, so get ready." But it had to go there. Will we alienate people? Will grandmothers who found it charming that Alan was simulating jerking off the baby find the same pleasure in what happens to our young friend Stu? [Laughs] You know, I don't know; I don't know the answer to that question. It would be so wonderful if we could cut to six months from now, and someone walking down the street said to me, "I loved the scene where that prostitute talks to Stu about what she does to him." That would just be the greatest.

Q: And, I guess, if we're following the pattern of the National Lampoon's Vacation films, we've had a domestic and an international adventure, so Christmas Hangover must be next.

A: I think it's going to be something completely different, to be honest. It will be a little trilogy, and that will be it.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

Aside from being an immensely lucrative theatrical hit machine, Walt Disney Pictures is also a bastion of direct-to-DVD sales. The studio has been able to brand its hallmark films so well that it occasionally churns out less-expensive sequels to its large franchises that are produced specifically for home entertainment. These sequels are often cheaper, less accomplished, and paltry in comparison with their theatrical counterparts, but are competent enough to entertain their core audience of young children and provide a steady cash flow for the company.

These straight-to-video sequels are generally for animated films such as Aladdin or The Lion King, but Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seems like an apt live-action candidate for the Disney direct-to-DVD library. The only problem: it is being released theatrically. The film is a lazy fourth installment of a series whose financial potential is probably still high but whose creative juices were drained after two tacked-on sequels to the quirkily charming and creatively visceral 2003 original, The Curse of the Black Pearl. On Stranger Tides, with its pedestrian visual structure, lack of spicy humor, and plodding, by-the-numbers storyline, feels like it was made for a less ambitious format. They could have packaged it as a silly side flick called The New Adventures of Captain Jack and made out like bandits (pirates?) in DVD and Blu-ray sales.

Johnny Depp once again reprises his legendary characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow, the wobbly, effeminate, rock-god of a pirate that is solely responsible for re-igniting the cinema's love affair with swashbuckling adventure. And truthfully, he is still great -- the film would run on fumes if not for Depp's injection of wicked verve. In On Stranger Tides, Sparrow is the film's sole focus, with the film freed of the Orlando Bloom-Keira Knightley romance that started as charming but grew wearisome with each subsequent installment. But in actuality, that romance, tired or not, brought a certain gravity to the earlier Pirates films, a human counterpoint to Captain Jack's loony antics. With nothing to ground the film, we are left with a screenplay that allots for plenty of Sparrow-isms but very little character development. In between uninspiring action sequences and interminable plot exposition, it just seems like Depp is prancing about for the camera with no goal other than to goof off.

The story in which Depp prances revolves around the search for the mythical "Fountain of Youth" -- everyone wants to access it, and Captain Jack knows how to find it. The point and purpose of said fountain might seem self-explanatory, and yet the film becomes so bogged down in its mythological minutiae that we never feel the weight of the discovery, nor understand its power. That wouldn't be so offensive if the movie attained the same level of sparkling quirkiness as did the original, but instead it is more cumbersome and less engaging than even the two previous sequels, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio try their best to develop characters with chemistry. Captain Jack leads the way, and is given a capable female foil in the form of Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former flame who is also in search of the Fountain of Youth. They find themselves on a ship commanded by unscrupulous rogue Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who may or may not be Angelica's father. The three mistrusting shipmates set out to reach the Fountain, while Captain Jack's old foe, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), stays hot on their trail. While they exchange cheeky verbal bon mots in a fashion similar to the previous films, all of the characters feel strained, and the story they inhabit feels like stale leftovers. 

It's important to mention that On Stranger Tides is also the first film in the series not to have Gore Verbinski at the helm. While Verbinski was busy pairing up with Depp for the brilliant and beautiful Rango, directorial duties for this film were handed to Rob Marshall, who makes Broadway adaptations like Chicago and Nine look dazzling, but whose talents don't yet extend to big-budget action-adventure. His work is nothing if not wholly competent -- safe, serviceable, and utterly pedestrian.

The same could be said for the rest of the film. Familiar characters appear on screen and the same Hans Zimmer score plays over every scene, but the magic from the earlier films is missing. Sadly, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides feels like an unnecessary grab at bonus box-office dollars, a paycheck movie for all involved -- even for Depp, who still digs into his iconic role with vigor, but who may need to hang up his boots after this. 

Midnight in Paris

Thursday, May 19th, 2011
Things seem just a little bit different as Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen's 41st feature and his first shot entirely in the eponymous City of Light, gets started. The staple jazz-tinged opening credits are interrupted for an extended sequence of lovely but not-quite-postcard-ready images of the streets, waterways, and monuments of Paris and, when the credits resume, the jazz has subsided and we hear two distinctly American voices bickering. "You're in love with a fantasy," says a female voice that ends up belonging to the radiant yet odiously over-privileged Inez (Rachel McAdams), who looks out on a pond that may have inspired Monet. "I'm in love with you," calls back her fiancé, Gil (Owen Wilson), a successful screenwriter and aspiring novelist who dreams of walking the tight corridors of the famed city in the rain.

Blind nostalgia is Gil's drug of choice, and despite being on vacation with his soon-to-be wife's parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy, beautifully cast), the studio-approved scripter is covertly considering a post-nuptials move to France. To Inez, Gil is merely swept up in the romanticism of the city and she refuses him even the most minor of indulgences, even openly scolding him when he disagrees or even slightly disturbs Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend, traveling professor, and unerringly obnoxious intellectual. When Paul offers to take Inez dancing, Gil takes the chance to walk the streets under cover of night, ending up at the steps of a cathedral as the grand bells strike midnight and a car full of drunken Parisians pulls up in a decidedly anachronistic automobile. Already a few glasses of wine in, Gil obliges them and is immediately flung back into the heyday of Parisian culture, circa 1920.

Roaming around in the post-war salad days, Gil is privileged to hobnob with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill), drink with Hemingway (Corey Stoll), trade philosophies with Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, obviously having some fun), even get a few notes on his unpublished novel from Gertrude Stein, lovingly played by Kathy Bates; Cole Porter sticks around just to sing a few bars of "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love." In the morning, however, it all goes back to normal, prompting return trips that make Inez and her parents suspicious enough to call in a private eye. Following Gil proves impossible, allowing the soon-to-be groom to pitch to Luis Bunuel and romance Picasso's latest muse (Marion Cotillard), who has her own romance for the late 19th century.

Gil inevitably falls for Cotillard's wandering flapper, erupting in a confluence of fantasies at famed Maxine's after a can-can show but Allen has not gone completely soft on us. Allen's previous film, the severely underrated You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, ended warmly on two spiritually inclined, elderly lovebirds while faux-intellectuals, atheists, misogynists, and philanderers seemingly were given their cosmic punishments. For Allen, it seemed like a grand gesture made sincerely towards a contingency that he showed little more than pity or disdain for beforehand, and Midnight in Paris continues in the vein of that film. Less schematic and thematically dialectic than a great deal of the director's late work, Midnight in Paris eschews the pleasures of nostalgia and delusions, but also suggests that they evolve from a great internal displeasure, in this case Gil's suspicions of Inez having an affair with Paul and not loving him all that much.

Not that Gil has been strictly devoted to Inez: When not applying his aw-shucks brand of seduction to Picasso's mistress, he can be seen flirting with a young woman at the local bazaar (the enchanting Lea Seydoux). He even chats up a guide at the Rodin Museum, played by France's first lady and former super model Carla Bruni. As much as Cotillard is a fantasy, Inez represents an illusion of what a grounded, successful man should seek in a wife and, by extension, in life. In other words, the fantasy Allen, who wrote his own screenplay per usual, sculpts for Gil offers the would-be novelist both a luminous escape and a mirror to lend insight into his connubial predicament, which includes entering into a family of overindulged snobs and Tea Party supporters.           

Shot by the great Darius Khondji, Midnight in Paris celebrates the timeless allure of the City of Light to the cinematic image without apology but it never goes as far as to overstate that allure. The same can be said about its attitude towards cultural idols, who show up here stripped of their great artistic weight and are presented as lovefools, eccentrics, macho bullheads, and, in the case of Bates's Stein, a sort of mother superior to the whole lot. (Indeed, the film is an ipso facto parody of the sacrosanct attitude given many biopics of heralded artists.) And Allen finds himself a strong proxy in Wilson, who hasn't responded this well to a director since traveling to India with Wes Anderson in The Darjeeling Limited. Allen's trip to Paris doesn't resonate with the immense emotional complexities that Anderson's film did but his fantastical bit of time travel brings out a startling generosity and humanity in Allen that has only been seen in glimpses recently. Fantasies are as much tied to our personal desires as they are to our sense of mortality, but if Gil's concluding walk over a rainy bridge with a lovely young woman is any indication, some things defy even the unforgiving specter of time.