The sun is shining, the temperature’s rising, and the summer movie season is in full swing! I saw a great many movies in the month of May, which means we’ve got lots to discuss -- let’s get right into it, shall we?
STUCK BETWEEN STATIONS -- A few fun facts about this movie: First, I saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival, and in fact, it was the very LAST film screened at the festival, late on a Sunday night. Second, it marked the first time I was given a “press pass” with VIP access, handed to me personally by writer/director Brady Kiernan. Third, while I was in the theatre watching this movie, Navy SEAL Team 6 was in the process of killing Osama bin Laden, a fact of which I was unaware until I got home over an hour after it happened. So clearly, the circumstances surrounding my watching this movie were significant; unfortunately, the movie itself was not. Loosely inspired by the song “Stuck Between Stations” by the Hold Steady, it’s the story of Casper (Sam Rosen, who also co-wrote), a soldier who, on his last night of leave, reunites with his former high school crush, Rebecca (Zoe Lister Jones). After meeting cute (or re-meeting, as the case may be), the two of them embark on an all-night stroll through the streets of Minneapolis, partaking in various shenanigans (a weird carnival party here, a stealth burglary there, encounters with strange former classmates everywhere), revealing their innermost thoughts & secrets, coming to terms with their personal issues (war trauma for him; career-threatening love affair for her), and slowly but surely falling for each other. It’s all very BEFORE SUNRISE-esque, but not even in the same stratosphere as Linklater’s classic: Performances are wooden, dialogue often feels forced, and the film relies too much on clichés and episodic moments that never really ring true. The film is well-shot, though... and who knows, maybe this sort of thing happens every night in Minneapolis (home to Kiernan and Rosen and, for that matter, the Hold Steady), in which case the film may be the quintessential love letter to that city. So it has that going for it.
THOR -- Yet another comic book superhero movie that I knew nothing about before I saw it, and in this case, I think it really hurt the film. The problem with THOR is that it has a very involved backstory -- so much so that if you don't have some preexisting connection to the material, it's very difficult to get sucked in. I feel like hundreds of pages of comic books would be necessary to really understand what the hell was going on and why. (This is in direct contrast to a movie like IRON MAN -- another one I knew very little about -- which has a more fundamental story and thus could more easily tap into a universal movie audience. Also, note that the upcoming GREEN LANTERN, which has similar dense, other-worldly mythos as THOR, is attempting to ease moviegoers into it with an explanatory trailer that has actually piqued my interest more than previous, less-focused trailers. Wise move!) I'm sure that THOR fanboys were geeking out big-time when they saw Asgard on the big screen in all its CGI glory, but aside from the bridge that reminded me of the Rainbow Road track in Mario Kart, that world didn't do much for me. What I'm trying to say is, I didn't care about THOR before and I still don't. Also doesn't help that there were approximately zero memorable scenes, action sequences or lines of dialogue, and performances were mediocre across the board -- led, of course, by Natalie Portman in what seems like her eleventeenth crappy movie of the year. Easily the most underwhelming AVENGERS-themed film so far. NEXT!
THE PEOPLE vs. GEORGE LUCAS -- A documentary that details the intense love-hate relationship between Star Wars fans and the maker, George Lucas. I was a little skeptical about this, because at this point, I feel like “prequel haters” really need to get over it. Are the movies good? No. But is there a lot to like? I think so. People need to embrace the good stuff and just close their eyes, put their fingers in their ears and go “LALALALA” during the Jar-Jar and Anakin/Padme romance scenes. After all, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side... but that’s a discussion for another blog post. As for the doc, it does indeed contain a lot of fanboy whining about the prequels and the original trilogy special editions -- but it also provides some context, discussing the influence that Lucas had on an entire generation, not just from an entertainment standpoint, but creatively (the documentary is actually interspersed with some pretty cool fan-made films, cartoons, spoofs, etc.). So, when Lucas went back and tinkered with the original films (Han shoots first, ugh) and altered existing mythology (midichlorians, sigh), people felt a legitimate sense of betrayal. It’s a complicated thing that only true die-hard fans (not just of Star Wars, but of anything) could possibly understand... and even though I have worked through my own anger and now choose to focus on the positive, it still hits home. Damn you, George Lucas... just provide the original, unaltered theatrical versions of the original trilogy on the upcoming Blu-Ray release and much of this animosity would be erased. How hard is that!
HESHER -- Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Hesher, the greatest long-haired, head-banging, ne’er-do-well, stoner, fairy godmother in movie history. Honestly, my favorite way to categorize this crazy film is to think MARY POPPINS meets BEAVIS & BUTT-HEAD. See, there’s a kid named T.J. who lives with his depressed father (Rainn Wilson, bearded and very un-Schrute-like) and grandmother (fantastic, unrecognizable Piper Laurie) in the wake of his mother’s tragic death. When Hesher moves in, suddenly and uninvited, no one can figure out how to make him leave and eventually they just kind of deal with it. But his dangerous, who-gives-a-shit attitude throws them for a loop and he becomes both an antagonizing AND thought-provoking presence for everyone. Also in the mix is a cute, awkward grocery store clerk, played by Natalie Portman (slightly better than she has been recently). While the film’s inspired moments come in ebbs and flows, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is out of control and riveting -- with films like this, BRICK, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and INCEPTION under his belt, he’s become as good an actor as anyone in his generation, and I would die happy if Ron Howard & Co. would cast him as Eddie Dean in the upcoming DARK TOWER adaptations (also, Zoe Saldana as Susannah, please... but I digress).
COST OF A SOUL -- Apparently this movie was the winner of AMC’s Big Break Movie Contest... and if this was the best entry they received, my heart goes out to the judges who had to sit through them all. It’s the story of two soldiers, Tommy and DD, who return to their wretched North Philly homes and attempt to re-assimilate themselves into real life. However, in this hellhole of a neighborhood, real life is not much better than the war zones of Iraq. That’s just the tip of the vast iceberg of clichés that comprise this film. Tommy is a traumatized military interrogator who attempts to reconcile with his wife & daughter (whose names, unsubtly, are Faith and Hope), only to get roped back into working for the local Irish crime lord, who is a parody of pretty much every crime lord in every movie ever. DD, meanwhile, is a clean-cut African-American war hero who must try to save his crumbling family AND realize his dream of becoming a professional sax player. Suffice to say that the film tries WAY too hard to deliver an Important Message, and fails in pretty much every conceivable way. Then it goes completely off the deep end with a last-act bloodbath that should make fans of THE DEPARTED laugh out loud. And just to make the proceedings as unbearable as possible, writer/director Sean Kirkpatrick is waaaaaay too enamored with harsh extreme close-ups. Zoom out, dude!
EVERYTHING MUST GO -- The main reason to see this movie is to see Will Ferrell in a rare understated performance, quite possibly one of the best instances of pure acting in his career. He plays Nick Halsey, a struggling alcoholic, who, as the story begins, is having a very bad day. He loses his job thanks to a booze-fueled mishap and comes home to find that his wife has thrown all of his belongings on the front lawn and locked him out of the house. At first Nick is indignant and decides to set up shop on the lawn, drinking himself into a stupor -- but eventually, with a little help from friendly neighbors, he takes the opportunity to cleanse his life of unnecessary clutter, both literally and figuratively. The film clearly strives to be some kind of quirky character study, but despite the solid setup, it mostly just kind of plods along uninterestingly. Fortunately, the performances rise above the material: C.J. Wallace (who, it turns out, is Biggie Smalls’ son) is great as a lonely neighborhood kid who strikes up a friendship with Nick, and you can never go wrong with Rebecca Hall and Laura Dern. And then there’s Ferrell, who shows, as I’ve long suspected, that he may actually have a Bill Murray-style comedic/dramatic career ahead of him when he outgrows the wacky stuff that has been his forte so far. (Though I hope he’s still got a couple more ANCHORMANs and OLD SCHOOLs left in him, too!)
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES -- I don’t know, maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but here’s another movie that has been generally lambasted by critics that I actually enjoyed. Or maybe my taste in movies is just getting shittier as the years go by. Whatever the case, while the fourth installment of the PIRATES saga is a step down from the original trilogy, it’s still a lot of fun. Captain Jack Sparrow remains one of the great characters of Johnny Depp’s career (perhaps second only to Hunter S. Thompson... though Edward Scissorhands is up there, too). Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom are gone, so this is a pirates’ tale through and through, and we are treated to an IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD-style race between Sparrow, Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, still perfectly cast), the dastardly Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and others to track down the Fountain of Youth. Penelope Cruz is also along for the ride as a sexy Spanish pirate, whose chemistry with Depp is odd but works. There’s a sub-plot involving a young priest and a captured mermaid (cutie Astrid Berges-Frisbey) that I could have done without, but the mermaids themselves are pretty cool and provide the film’s most memorable action sequence. I’m sure another sequel is inevitable, possibly a whole trilogy... but Disney should also keep in mind that they’re on borrowed time at this point, since by all powers of the universe, a movie based on a theme park ride should never have been good to begin with. The PIRATES films have defied those odds so far, but eventually I fear they will fall upon the chamber that contains the bullet. Until then... arrr!
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS -- Back in the day, Woody Allen made films that remain some of the most quintessential love letters to New York City that have ever been written. More recently, however, it is pretty safe to say that LEAVING New York may be the best move Allen could have made at this stage of his career, because his European tour has been a glorious cinematic rebirth. The brilliant MIDNIGHT IN PARIS tells the story of Gil (Owen Wilson, perfectly cast), a struggling writer who visits Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams, surprisingly miscast), and can’t help but get swept up in his preconceived notions about the city’s romance and beauty. He is particularly enamored with Paris in the 1920s and taking walks in the rain; unfortunately, Inez doesn’t share these frivolous thoughts, preferring to shop for expensive furniture and listen to her douchebag ex-boyfriend (a very bearded Michael Sheen) pontificate about God knows what. So, Gil takes late-night walks through the streets of Paris on his own -- and when the clock strikes midnight, he finds himself magically transported to the ‘20s, hobnobbing with such luminaries as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Stein; falling in love with a gorgeous French woman named Adriana (Marion Cotillard, at her most irresistible); and experiencing his own creative and emotional rebirth. It’s a story of pure whimsy -- utterly enchanting, entertaining, hilarious and thought-provoking: After all, who hasn’t fantasized about whether they would have been more suited to another time and place? The motley crew of literary and artistic figures is tremendous and impeccably cast -- kind of like Woody Allen’s take on BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. And yes, it is a love letter to the City of Lights with gorgeous, postcard-esque visuals that made me want to run to the airport and hop on the next flight. Definitely one of Allen’s finest movies in recent years, and -- big words, I know -- quite possibly of all time.
BEAUTIFUL BOY -- This film tell the all-too-familiar story of a school shooting from the oft-overlooked perspective of the shooter’s parents, played with heartbreaking poignancy by Maria Bello and Michael Sheen. As the movie begins, the couple is having problems of their own and on the brink of separation. When they hear the news of a deadly shooting at their son’s college, they fear for his safety -- and when the cops arrive and inform them that, in fact, the news is much, much worse... well, it’s a gut-wrenching moment. From there, they must endure the harsh aftermath: An inescapable media frenzy, awkward pity from family and friends, and their own ravaging feelings of grief and guilt -- especially as it becomes more and more clear that their son’s problems had been simmering for some time right under their noses. Can they set aside their marital difficulties to overcome this tragedy and perhaps rediscover their love for each other? Or is the whole thing too much to bear and the beginning of a downward spiral for both of them? A powerful, complex, hard-to-watch film, anchored by two outstanding lead performances.
KUNG-FU PANDA 2 -- The first KUNG-FU PANDA was surprisingly fun, as non-Pixar animated fare goes, and it made lots of money, so a sequel was pretty much a given. Jack Black is back as Po, the bumbling, perpetually-hungry panda who has fulfilled his destiny to become the Dragon Warrior, protector of China along with his ragtag ass-kicking animal friends, the Furious Five. There is nothing overtly bad or offensive about the sequel: There’s some additional character development involving Po’s relationship with his adopted father and new-found need to learn about his origins. There’s a crafty new villain (voiced by Gary Oldman) who uses the discovery of fireworks to create the ultimate weapon (also, he apparently spearheaded a panda genocide -- surprisingly dark plot detail for a kids’ film). Supporting cast is a who’s who of big names ranging from Angelina Jolie to Dustin Hoffman to freakin’ Jean Claude van Damme. There are some fun, kiddie-friendly kung-fu action sequences. Animation is solid, especially some nifty, Tartakovsky-inspired flashback scenes (I’d recommend NOT seeing it in 3D, though -- not sure if it was just my theatre or what, but the glasses seemed to made the picture seem even darker than usual). But somehow, all of these parts do not add up to a whole that is anywhere near as satisfying as the original -- the sequel just sort of exists for the sake of existing and will likely be forgotten very quickly -- at least until the inevitable KUNG-FU PANDA 3.
ATTACK THE BLOCK -- Simply put: This movie is awesome. The story of a London street gang that must defend their ‘hood from an alien invasion -- a glorious conglomeration of THE GOONIES and BOYZ N THE HOOD with a splash of SHAUN OF THE DEAD and a big infusion of early John Carpenter with its ‘80s action/horror vibe. The film begins with a mugging at the hands of a gang of young hoodlums, led by stoic Moses. Suddenly, an unidentified object comes hurtling out of the sky and crashes into a nearby car. The gang checks it out and discover a bizarre, large-toothed creature, which they manage to kill. Next thing they know, their neighborhood (or “block” in the local parlance) is besieged by aliens and all-out war begins, with Moses leading the resistance. The film is darkly funny, moves at a relentless pace, contains excellent performances from a bunch of unknown kid actors and features outstanding low-budget special effects -- the aliens are legitimately scary, hulking black masses with no discernable features except for a huge mouthful of glowing blue teeth. Director Joe Cornish has a great eye for action and character development (Moses, with his transformation from street thug to full-fledged hero, is seriously one of the best new characters of the year so far) so it’s no surprise that he was recruited by Spielberg and Jackson to work on THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN films. All in all, this film is a geek’s paradise -- one of those movies that defies description and must be seen to be believed. Apparently there is some question as to whether or not it will get a real theatrical release, which is preposterous if the crowd reaction at my advance screening is any indication -- so hopefully it will invade a theatre near you in the not-too-distant future. Allow it!
Lastly, in case you missed them earlier in the month, I also reviewed THE BEAVER and PRIEST on Cinemit.com, as well as THE HANGOVER PART II. So yeah... it’s been a busy month of movie-watching... and to think, the summer has only just begun!