Saturday, April 30, 2011

April Movie Antics

Another month has come and gone, and my movie-watching has continued at a fast and furious rate. Thankfully, the quality has finally kicked up a notch, too -- four of the five best movies I’ve seen so far in 2011 debuted in the month of April. Whether or not these movies will still be held in such high regard by the end of the year remains to be seen, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Let’s take a look at the goods:

source-codeSOURCE CODE -- Another nifty yarn from sci-fi wunderkind Duncan Jones, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Colter Stevens, a soldier who awakens to find himself riding a train, surrounded by strangers who seem to know him from their daily commutes, in a body that isn’t his. Suddenly, the train explodes and he is back in his own body, locked in a mysterious chamber. Seems he is part of an urgent mission to stop a terrorist plot, using a newfangled military technology called “source code,” in which they can infiltrate the last few minutes of a dead person’s memory. Stevens’ mission: Find out who blew up the train, because they’re pretty sure the same guy is going to strike again in the very near future. Thus Stevens must relive the same eight-minute period over and over again, slowly unraveling clues to solve the mystery. Sounds GROUNDHOG DAY-esque... but instead of figuring out how to live the perfect day in order to escape his plight, Stevens needs to simply to find the terrorist and everything (and everyone) else is incidental.  However, he can’t help but grow attached to Christina (the lovely Michelle Monaghan), a pretty passenger with whom his adopted body apparently had a flirtatious relationship. Despite the fact that the train explosion already happened and supposedly cannot be changed, he decides that his mission is now two-fold: Find the terrorist AND save Christina’s life (even though she is, technically, already dead). It’s a heady plot but Jones’ deft hand drives it along at an unrelenting pace with a perfect mix of techno-babble, action and, as has become his forte, a focus on character development. It’s one of the best and most engaging performances of Gyllenhaal’s career, and features great supporting work from Monaghan, Jeffrey Wright as the mad scientist who came up with the technology, and the exquisite Vera Farmiga (who can do no wrong at this point) as Stevens’ sympathetic commanding officer. A tremendous film that solidifies Duncan Jones, who, after 2009’s MOON and now this, has quickly asserted himself as a force to be reckoned with in the genre.

InsidiousINSIDIOUS -- At first, the concept of a classic haunted house flick from the writer/director team of SAW and produced by the creator of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sounds like a dream come true. And indeed, for the first hour or so, this one delivers the goods as the creepy visuals, sound effects and menacing musical score result in some well-earned scares. The story is simple -- nice suburban family experiences unexplained phenomena at home, mishap causes son falls into a coma that is beyond the reach of medical science, unexplained phenomena gets crazier and threatens to tear family apart -- but gets the job done at first. Unfortunately, the final act, in which a psychic ghostbuster lady shows up to save the day with her two geeky assistants bulldozes past the allowable limit of ridiculousness and the film essentially turns into such a poor, blatant POLTERGEIST rip-off that I hope the ghost of Zelda Rubinstein haunts the shit out of everyone involved. In the end, it’s a waste of a solid atmospheric setup, not to mention some fine character actors (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey). Too bad.

HannaHANNA -- It’s fitting that this movie features a game of cat and mouse between the great Cate Blanchett and young Saoirse Ronan, because I feel that Ronan may actually be the next Blanchett. Aside from her physical similarities, she is also that good -- unquestionably the best young actress working today after such films as ATONEMENT, THE LOVELY BONES and now HANNA, in which she stars as a girl who has been trained to be a deadly assassin by her rogue secret agent father, with the ultimate goal of exacting revenge on those who sent them into hiding in the first place. Once Hanna is unleashed onto the world, she proves to be as good as advertised -- a living weapon loaded with impeccable survival skills and a singular goal. Directed by Joe Wright, the film is a non-stop rollercoaster of increasing insanity, driven by a relentless Chemical Brothers soundtrack (not quite as good as Daft Punk’s TRON: LEGACY score, but not far off) and a feast for the eyes with its stylized action sequences and fairy-tale flourishes. Goes without saying that the acting is great across the board (aside from Ronan and Blanchett, Eric Bana is fantastic as Hanna’s father) and above all it’s flat-out FUN.

ArthurARTHUR -- I hadn’t seen the original ARTHUR in many years, so I re-watched it shortly after seeing this dreadful remake starring Russell Brand in the role that Dudley Moore made famous... and, um, you know, it’s not very good, either. Kind of puzzled as to (a) why it’s so beloved, and (b) how the hell it got FOUR Oscar nominations and won TWO of them! Must’ve been something in the water in 1981. Fortunately, I don’t think there will be any such issue with this wildly unnecessary remake. Like the original, it’s about a drunken millionaire playboy who is to marry a bitchy heiress for the sake of his family business, but instead falls for a free-spirited, working class girl from Queens. Also like the original, it generates a few laughs but nothing to write home about. I like Russell Brand, but only in small doses (see FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL); in starring roles (such as this and GET HIM TO THE GREEK), he wears thin quickly. Not sure what the heck Helen Mirren and my favorite indie darling, Greta Gerwig, were thinking when they signed onto this schlock, but I hope they enjoy whatever real estate they bought with their paychecks. Granted, Mirren can do whatever she wants at this point in her career, so many it was just a lark for her... but we can only hope that Greta will not get stuck making films like this and the equally-dismal NO STRINGS ATTACHED, but rather use them as springboards to material more worthy of her talents.

the-double-hourTHE DOUBLE HOUR -- I stumbled upon this film one night when I wanted to see something different & random, and boy, did I choose wisely. It’s a mind-bending Italian noir mystery thriller romance that pretty much threw me for a loop. Guido, a former cop-turned security guard, meets Sonia, a shy hotel chambermaid, at a speed-dating event. They hit it off and a love affair ensues. But one day, while on a romantic getaway, tragedy strikes and all of a sudden, the film veers off into a whole new direction, full of twists and turns and inexplicable occurrences (ghostly visions, a rash of suicides, mysterious photographs) that cause Sonia to question her own sanity -- and, perhaps, reality. We the audience, meanwhile, are kept on edge by a breakneck plot that never lets up for a moment and keeps us guessing till the end... at which point we’re still guessing. The plot encompasses multiple layers of storytelling and there’s a lot going on, but it is so enthralling that you don’t want to blink, let alone turn off your mind. If it seems like I am being more vague than usual... well, I’m just trying desperately not to give anything away. The less you know about this film, the better the experience will be -- it is brilliantly-crafted (won all sorts of awards at the Venice Film Festival) and absolutely worth seeking out. (Edit: “The double hour” refers to when the hour and minutes on a clock match -- and oddly, this blog post was posted at exactly 11:11. Cue Twilight Zone theme!)

scream-4SCREAM 4 -- Gotta admit, I was not a fan of SCREAM back in the day. Maybe I was going through some haughty college phase in which I felt that such wink-wink self-awareness was an insult to the slasher genre (which I loved)? I don’t know. All I know is that I re-watched the trilogy in the days leading up to the new installment and f’ing loved them... so clearly mid-to-late-‘90s Ben had shit for brains (probably true in most aspects of life, come to think of it... but I digress). As for SCREAM 4, it’s a pretty fantastic return to the series and a reminder that Wes Craven is, in fact, still WES CRAVEN. The rules of horror films have indeed changed over the past decade and the movie has fun with all of them, ranging from torture porn to the never-ending stream of crappy remakes. Great to see the holy trinity of Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courtney Cox back in top form, along with a solid crop of current teenybopper stars including Hayden Panettiere, Emma Roberts and the annoying chick from the new 90210. Probably the best opening sequence of the saga so far, gruesome kills, nice twists and a satisfying ending -- all in all, about as solid a 4th installment as we could have hoped for. Not sure a new trilogy is required, but maybe a new installment every 10 years to keep the horror genre honest? That could work, provided we can keep Wes Craven alive forever!

african-catsAFRICAN CATS -- This year marks the third consecutive Earth Day in which I settled into a movie theatre and watched a new DisneyNature documentary, which may be my weirdest annual movie tradition. I particularly liked this installment, which follows the lives of two prides of lions and a family of cheetahs living in the savannahs of Africa. Aside from the fact that the footage of these animals in their natural habitat is nothing short of astonishing, the “plot” that has been pieced together is amazingly involving and even emotional. Each animal has a name and is shown to have a unique personality. There’s love and deception and epic battles and surprising twists. Damn, those baby cheetahs are cute. And damn, those dastardly hyenas are assholes. If you are a fan of watching nature docs on the big screen, the DisneyNature series has been as solid as it gets in terms of sheer quality. Looking forward to keeping the tradition alive next year with CHIMPANZEE!

the-greatest-movie-ever-soldPOM WONDERFUL PRESENTS: THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD – After SUPER-SIZE ME and WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, Morgan Spurlock has pretty much asserted himself as perhaps the most entertaining documentarian working at the moment. That his films are actually informative/interesting is just icing on the cake. His latest effort is a look at the wacky world of product placement and corporate involvement in movies, TV, etc. Basically Spurlock wants to make a movie ABOUT product placement, marketing and advertising that is 100% financed BY product placement, marketing and advertising. It’s very meta... kind of the like INCEPTION of documentaries (a comparison that I totally thought of before Jimmy Kimmel said it in the movie!)... and to see it actually come to fruition is both entertaining and funny. It’s not the most enlightening doc ever -- I mean, we all know that advertising is inescapable (well, except in the city of Sao Paolo, Brazil, which we learn has banned ALL manner of outdoor advertising... hard to imagine) -- but it does a great job of walking step-by-step through the process and showing just how crazy and over-the-top and potentially soul-crushing it can be. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to quench my thirst with some healthy, refreshing POM all-natural pomegranate juice. (Hey, it really works!)

trollhunterTROLLHUNTER -- Saw this one for free at the Tribeca Film Festival and, simply put, was blown away. It’s a Norwegian BLAIR WITCH-style faux documentary about three college students who confront a creepy dude that they suspect is a bear poacher (a serious offense in Norway), following a series of mysterious bear deaths. Turns out, however, that the guy is not hunting bears:  He’s hunting real, honest-to-God TROLLS, working for the government to control their population, stop them from wreaking havoc on the countryside, and most of all, keep the existence of the hideous creatures hidden from the general public. The students eventually accompany him on his troll hunts, which prove to be very dangerous, scary and way more than they bargained for. Written & directed by André Øvredal, the film takes existing troll mythology and fairy tales to a whole new level and features incredible special effects (the trolls look awesome), a taut story, intense thrills, lots of bizarre Scandinavian humor and a healthy dose of political commentary. Above all it is flat-out fun and never takes itself too seriously. In fact, I’m going to come right out and declare it my favorite movie of the year so far. Forget Thor, Green Lantern, Jack Sparrow, etc. -- The TROLLHUNTER is the summer’s most kick-ass action hero! It will supposedly be released in the U.S. in June and is an absolute must-see.

Oh yeah, in case you missed it, I also saw FAST FIVE and BRIDESMAIDS, which I previously reviewed HERE.

COMING SOON: My Super Happy Fun Summer Movie Preview, featuring superheroes and Transformers and Potter, oh my!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Summer Started Earlier Than Yours: A Look At FAST FIVE and BRIDESMAIDS

Everybody always complains about how holidays seem to start earlier and earlier each year... Valentine’s Day stuff appearing in stores before Christmas, Christmas decorations popping up in September, etc. Well, now the same can be said about the summer movie season, which typically begins the first weekend in May. But this year, they’re kicking things off a week early with a sure-fire blockbuster, FAST FIVE -- the fifth (!) installment in the startlingly-popular FAST/FURIOUS series.

Fast-FivePersonally, I’ve never been a big fan of these films. It’s not that I have anything against the concept of the lowest-common-denominator popcorn flick, but this series just doesn’t do it for me. In fact, I hadn’t even seen an installment since the second one, so I’m no expert -- but I CAN tell you while FAST FIVE is, at its core, more of the same mindless fast car chases and explosions and stock characters and paper-thin story Scotch-taping it all together, there IS a smidgen more substance this time around. This is due to what appears to be a genre shift: Think FAST/FURIOUS meets OCEAN’S 11, albeit with a plot that makes the latter film seem like it was directed by David Lynch. They dipped into the archives, dug up pretty much everyone that’s ever been in one of these films and brought them all together for One Last Job: a mega-heist to steal $100 million from the most powerful crime lord of Rio de Janeiro.

Leading the way, of course, are Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, who have settled into their signature roles for the rest of their careers. (Which, for Diesel, may be a shame, seeing as how he actually once showed some promise in films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and PITCH BLACK before embarking on a lifetime of slumming). Of course, these films may not be high art, but they have made these men exceedingly rich, so I’m sure they’re not complaining. Included in their supergroup of fast-driving criminals are Jordana Brewster (from films #1 & 4), Tyrese Gibson (#2) Ludacris (#2), Sung Kang (#3 & 4), Matt Schulze (#1), Tego Calderon (#4), Don Omar (#4) and crazy-hot Gal Gadot (#4). Maybe some other guys, too; I can’t keep track. Standing in their way is none other than Dwayne Johnson as an federal agent intent on bringing Diesel & Co. to justice. The Rock is in his element in this film diesel-rockand it makes a big difference. It’s easy to make jokes about how he & Diesel have both resorted to making crappy kiddie films at one time or another... but when the Pacifier and the Tooth Fairy finally go head-to-head in an epic smackdown, you WILL mark out. The action set pieces are intricately choreographed and pretty impressive, the cars are shiny and go real fast, and mindless though the proceedings may be, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertained. Probably not enough to go back and watch the installments I missed, or to ever pay money out of my pocket to see the inevitable next installment... but still... it’s a step in the right direction.

bridesmaidsNow, while FAST FIVE may be the first testosterone-fueled manly-man extravaganza of the summer, don’t worry, ladies -- a couple of weeks later you’ll be rewarded with a raunchy comedy to call your very own. BRIDESMAIDS, produced by Judd Apataow, is a film that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that girls are no slouches when it comes to the wacky toilet humor. The ad campaigns make it seem like a female version of THE HANGOVER, but that is overly simplistic and misleading. It’s actually a critique of the entire process of being deemed Maid of Honor and the trials and tribulations and insanity that go along with that. I think it actually more closely compares to THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, which also featured a genre-defying mix of raunch & sweetness and an outstanding ensemble cast led by a comedic genius who took a big step towards superstardom.

Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, whose life is in a bit of a shambles. Her career as a baker has fizzled, she’s broke and she has shitty luck with romance. So when she is asked to be the Maid of Honor at her lifelong best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding, it gives her a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, that feeling is short-lived once the drama kicks in and hijinks ensue. The bridesmaids bridesmaids1are an oddball group, portrayed by some great actresses who work very well together. There’s sweet-but-naïve Becca (THE OFFICE’s Ellie Kemper... love her so much)... Rita (RENO 911’s Wendi McLendon-Covey), a foul-mouthed wife & mother who hates her life... the wildly inappropriate loose cannon, Megan (GILMORE GIRLS’ Melissa McCarthy in a breakout, Galifiankis-esque performance). And then there’s the rival: a rich, beautiful, party planner named Helen (Rose Byrne), who thinks SHE is Lillian’s new best friend and tries to pull the rug out from under Annie’s feet and take over the Maid of Honor duties for herself. Annie and Helen engage in an escalating battle of wills -- but Annie has neither the resources nor the know-how to succeed, resulting in a series of very unfortunate events. Not helping her mental state is a humiliating fuck-buddy relationship with a sleazy jerk (Jon Hamm, chewing the scenery) and an unhealthy living arrangement with bizarre British siblings. Even when Annie meets a nice guy (Chris O’Dowd as a friendly Irish cop), it’s more difficult than it should be.

(Come to think of it, some of the character descriptions also lend to the idea that this movie rips off THE HANGOVER. Ellie Kemper = Ed Helms, McLendon-Covey = Bradley Cooper, etc. But that’s really as far as the similarities go. I would, however, love to see a crossover in which the Wolf Pack faces off against the Bridesmaids in a raunchy free-for-all. Fingers crossed!)

BRIDESMAIDS is not exactly a great film -- at nearly two hours, it’s too long and episodic and occasionally bogged down by overplotting. But it is funny more often than not, and the hard-R-rated raunch factor is very high -- these ladies are game for anything and there is at least one gag that might make even the filthiest male comedians blush. As is the case with most Apatow films, there’s also an underlying sense of sweetness and humanity. More than bridesmaids-kristen-wiiganything, though, the film is a veritable showcase for Kristen Wiig’s vast talents.  It’s a dominant, fearless performance, with comedy ranging from slapstick to subtle -- further proof that she is the funniest woman alive at the moment. Whereas the aforementioned 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN was Steve Carell’s springboard to movie-stardom, this could very well be Wiig’s vehicle. (Let’s just hope she doesn’t decide to leave Saturday Night Live TOO soon, because that would be tragic.)

FAST FIVE opens this Friday, April 29, and BRIDESMAIDS follows on May 13. I hope this whets your appetite a bit, but stay tuned for my COMPLETE Summer Movie Preview -- coming soon to a blog near you (namely, this one)!