Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Movie Malarkey

Well, this year is just chugging right along, isn’t it? Not blogging as much as I would like (and the fact that I just got HBO, thus giving me yet another resource to watch movies and stuff, isn’t going to help matters), but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been seeing movies like a goddamn maniac. I am still ahead of 2010’s seemingly-unbreakable pace, which kind of blows my mind. Unfortunately, the overall quality of films has been remarkably poor so far. There’s been some decent stuff, but I’ve really only seen one film that has even the slightest chance of being lauded at year’s end (RANGO, reviewed here). Still, let’s take a look at what March hath wrought:

cedar-rapidsCEDAR RAPIDS -- You'd think that a raunchy comedy starring John C. Reilly and Ed Helms would have been a sure-fire hit, but this one didn't even get a wide release. Even I missed my chance in NYC and ended up seeing it at an obscure indie theatre in the middle of nowhere, New Jersey. Glad I sought it out, though, because it's very funny and I wouldn't be surprised to see it attain cult status in the long run. Helms is great as Tim Lippe, a small-town Iowa insurance salesman who goes to represent his company at a convention in big, bad Cedar Rapids. There he befriends three veterans who show him the ropes and coax him out of his shell -- among them hard-partying troublemaker, Ziegler, played by Reilly with hard-R-rated gusto. Great supporting work from Isiah Whitlock Jr., and especially Anne Heche in her strongest and most eye-opening performance in years (maybe ever). Fun appearances by Sigourney Weaver, Thomas Lennon and Kurtwood Smith, and I was particularly happy to see Alia Shawkat finally given something significant to do in a post-ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT role. Definitely a film worth seeking out when it's released on DVD/Blu-Ray.

battle-laBATTLE: LOS ANGELES -- Seems like it's been a while since the last great alien invasion spectacle (not counting DISTRICT 9, which was a different kind of beast)... and I guess we'll have to wait a while longer, because this one was not so good. On one hand, a gritty, violent, BLACK HAWN DOWN-esque alien vs. human smackdown sounds like fun... and indeed, there's some good stuff scattered throughout the film... but in the end, it misses the mark. The special effects are solid and the action sequences are big and loud, but the fact that we really don't give a crap about ANY of the characters is a problem. Even the dependable Aaron Eckhart couldn’t breathe any life into this mess. Say what you want about INDEPENDENCE DAY, but it remains the greatest movie of its kind and still stands the test of time because it’s a perfect storm of insane action, legendary visuals, and yes, memorable characters. BATTLE: L.A. just doesn't get the job done. Sorry, kids of this generation, but my alien invasion spectacle is way better than yours!

happythankyoumorepleaseHAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE -- Remember that episode of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER in which Ted wrote, directed and starred in an indie romantic comedy? Wait, what? That episode never happened? Well, if it did, the movie-within-the-show would probably have been exactly like this. It is written, directed by and starring Josh Radnor, whose lead character is basically Ted, which leads me to believe that Radnor is like that in real life. By that I mean, he's a hopeless romantic, kinda pretentious bordering on douchey, yet likeable in spite of himself. His film, which (as you might guess) deals with love, life and self-discovery amongst a group of friends and acquaintances in NYC, is silly and flawed -- but it's also an enjoyable, well-acted feel-good movie -- heartfelt and likeable in spite of itself. As a filmmaker, Radnor's got some kinks to work out, but the potential is there -- I'll take him over Zach Braff any day.

The-Lincoln-LawyerTHE LINCOLN LAWYER -- An old-fashioned courtroom drama/mystery that does a nice job of capturing the gritty look, feel and tone of something out of a '70s TV series. If you're a fan of Matthew McConaughey, you will particularly enjoy this film because he absolutely dominates practically every shot. As Mick Haller, a hotshot lawyer whose office is the back seat of his big-ass Lincoln Town Car, he is confident, street-smart, fast-talking and good at what he does. When the biggest case of his life falls into his lap, he gets caught up in a web of twists and turns and deception and danger and all that stuff. Unfortunately, the twists and turns go a few steps too far and the plot gets bogged down by its own craziness -- but it's nevertheless entertaining in the moment. A solid supporting cast helps, too, led by Marisa Tomei as Haller's ex-wife/courtroom opponent and William H. Macy as his personal private investigator.

the-music-never-stoppedTHE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED -- This one was a pleasant surprise, which I saw at the NYC premiere at the 92nd Street Y, of all places (turns out they have a very nice theatre/concert hall in there). In the ‘60s, a budding hippie named Gabriel runs away from home after his father forbids him to see a Grateful Dead concert. The family is estranged for nearly twenty years, at which time tragedy brings them back together. A phone call alerts the parents that Gabriel is in the hospital with a brain tumor, which, it turns out, renders him incapable of forming new memories. However, after some experimentation, it is discovered that listening to the music of his youth allows him to tap into those old memories, which his parents try to harness in order to forge a new relationship. This is particularly difficult for Henry, who once despised that hippie crap and is now determined to embrace it. Based on a true story, this is really heartwarming stuff about the sanctity of family and the healing power of music -- first time I cried at a movie in 2011. Also, has J.K. Simmons ever gotten top billing in a movie before? If not, it’s about time!

LimitlessLIMITLESS -- Bradley Cooper does his charismatic Bradley Cooper thing as Eddie Morra, a down-on-his-luck writer whose life takes a big turn when he is given a pill that allows him to tap into 100% of his brain capacity. He can now see things that no one else can see, do things that no one else can do, and live life a few steps ahead of the rest of the world, which he now basically holds in the palm of his hand. This is a plot rife with possibilities -- and there are moments of inspired energy -- but ultimately it doesn't quite go far enough. It could and should have gone much crazier and more over the top -- like the frenetic, schizo, bastard child of CRANK and FIGHT CLUB. Cooper does a good job, as does Robert DeNiro as a sneering mogul who wants to take Eddie under his wing -- but in the end, you might say that LIMITLESS limits itself and the result is more of a frustrating "what if" than anything else.

paulPAUL -- A movie made for sci-fi geeks, by sci-fi geeks, and one that pretty much solidifies Simon Pegg & Nick Frost as one of the great comic duos of our time. They play Graeme & Clive, two British sci-fi geeks who embark on a road trip across the southwest U.S. to visit all the big UFO spots. Along the way, they encounter a real, honest-to-God alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Turns out Paul has been living on a top-secret military base for decades, inspiring all of the pop culture alien references that we’ve come to know and love during that time -- but upon discovering the true nature of his captivity, he makes a break for it, and it’s up to Graeme & Clive to help Paul get home. Along the way they evade government agents led by Jason Bateman, clash ideologies with devout Christian Kristin Wiig, and deliver one awesome sci-fi reference and homage after another. (Outstanding supporting cast, too, including such luminaries as Sigourney Weaver, Jane Lynch, Jeffrey Tambor, Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, David Koechner and Blythe Danner.) I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this movie is better or funnier than SHAUN OF THE DEAD or HOT FUZZ, but if you are a fellow geek, then it is a must-see.

suckerpunchSUCKER PUNCH -- Wanted to write a full review of this one because it's a film ripe for discussion... but eh, the moment has passed. Zack Snyder's pet project is a crazy film that I enjoyed on a surface level, even though it is riddled with problems ranging from plot holes to bad acting & dialogue to the fact that pretty much every aspect is reminiscent of other, better movies. It's like PAN'S LABYRINTH (girl creates fantasy world to escape harsh reality of life), INCEPTION (multiple levels of dream worlds), SCOTT PILGRIM (ultra-stylized video game fight scenes), KILL BILL (female protagonist seeks vengeance and kicks ass) and MOULIN ROUGE! (set in a brothel, using popular music to drive the story) got together, dropped acid and had an orgy. But this in itself is not entirely a bad thing, because it's done in such a way that it still feels original, and Snyder deserves an A for effort in that regard (okay, maybe a B+). The visuals are a big part of this -- the movie is a true feast for the eyes, as Snyder takes his signature style to a whole new level of insanity. The dream-within-a-dream action sequences are outstanding and worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find. I've read a lot of heated debate about whether the film is a legitimate feminist/girl power film, or just Snyder's personal fantasy about scantily-clad girls kicking ass. My guess is that he meant it to be a little from column A and a little from column B. But my advice is to just watch the movie on a pure entertainment level and not think too hard about it. On the whole, it's better than 300, not as good as WATCHMEN, and hopefully Snyder has gotten this type of overwhelming spectacle out of his system as he starts focusing on my personal favorite superhero franchise: SUPERMAN. Better not fuck that up, Zack, or there will be hell to pay.…

meet-monica-velourMEET MONICA VELOUR -- There’s a scene late in this movie when Monica Velour (Kim Cattrall), an aging, downtrodden former ‘80s porn icon, is sitting in a cheap motel room waiting to film a low-budget porno to make a much-needed buck. She doesn’t want to be there and hates herself for being trapped in such a degrading predicament. Can’t help but think that’s how Cattrall felt while making this utterly horrendous film in which her character befriends an awkward teenage fan with life-altering results. I bet she just wanted to depart from her glamorous Samantha Jones facade, got caught up with something that turned out to be unexpectedly embarrassing, and now, here she is plastered all over RedTube. Indeed, it’s an eye-opening transformation in which she looks old, haggard and broken-down (in real life, she still looks fantastic -- which I know for a fact because she was at the screening I attended). But this film is a god-awful mess. Poorly-written characters (the awkward teenager is a cheap Napoleon Dynamite rip-off, which, at this point, is just inexcusable), terrible dialogue, ridiculous situations -- this film has got nothing going for it and should be avoided at all costs.

Any thoughts on these films, dear readers? Or thoughts about my thoughts... which in turn could lead to thoughts about other people’s thoughts about my thoughts? Please share with the group.

Monday, March 28, 2011

YOUR HIGHNESS Has Something for Everyone

your_highnessBefore I saw YOUR HIGHNESS, I didn't even realize that I had been jonesin' for a super-raunchy, ultra-violent, medieval fantasy epic stoner sex comedy. But clearly such a wild conglomeration of genres could be a masterpiece if done right -- and while I wouldn't exactly call this film a work of supreme genius, it's a pretty funny mash-up that is worth seeing if you like any of the parts that make up the sum. Featuring an strong ensemble cast that is clearly up to the task, the film doesn't pull any punches in regard to violence and raunchiness, and practically invents its own dialect that is a mix of Old English speech and modern profanity. It takes itself seriously enough so that the action sequences kick ass and you can totally believe in this world -- but not TOO seriously that it stops being fun.

The ubiquitous James Franco (another item to cross off his bucket list) and Danny McBride star as prince brothers who couldn't be more different: Franco's Fabious is heroic, valiant and heir to the throne of the kingdom; McBride's Thadeus is content lazing around, drinking and smoking and having as much sex as possible. Upon returning from his latest quest, Fabious introduces his new-found love, Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), and the kingdom rejoices, much to Thadeus's chagrin. However, on the day of the wedding, Belladonna is kidnapped by the evil wizard Leezar, who intends to devirginize her to fulfill an ancient prophecy in a ceremony known as "The Fuckening," which would give him unlimited power. Naturally, it's up to Fabious and Thadeus to set out on a quest to defeat the wizard, rescue the damsel, renew their brotherly bond and generally raise hell. Along the way they encounter adventure, strange and/or perverted creatures, danger, hijinks, and naked people of all kinds.

yh-mcbrideThe fact that this film works so well may not be surprising to fans of THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, also directed by David Gordon Green, who treated that material with a similar level of seriousness that didn't betray its inherent wackiness. Special effects are cheesy in an old-school sort of way -- crazy robots and monsters and witches shooting lightning all over the place -- but far better than, say, the recent CLASH OF THE TITANS remake (though the original CLASH is definitely an influence here, as is THE PRINCESS BRIDE). The violence level is gloriously high -- limbs and other extremities are severed and blood & gristle are splattered with great gusto. The movie pushes the limits of its hard R-rating with plenty of nudity by both sexes, as well as pervasive language that is even more hilarious for being so anachronistic.

Performances are solid across the board. Franco and the always-underrated McBride have excellent chemistry, and unknown Rasmus Hardiker holds his own as Thadeus's much-abused manservant. Theroux's Leezar is a sneering, horny, evil, scene-stealing bastard. Deschanel is woefully underused, but her sparkly-eyed daintiness makes for a fine damsel in distress. Toby Jones makes a bizarre appearance. And then there's Natalie Portman as a warrior yh-natalieprincess on a quest of her own. She definitely fares better as an action hero in this film than she did in the Star Wars prequels. Plus this serves as a reminder that she looks damn good in a thong.

YOUR HIGHNESS opens on April 8th. It is dumb, crazy and over-the-top and I enjoyed the hell out of it. In fact, I can only think of one missing ingredient that could help catapult this film to true cult status. Not that I would condone going to the movies in any kind of impaired condition... but hey... smoke if you got'em.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fear & Loathing Near Las Vegas, aka RANGO

rangoImagine if, during the events of FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, Raoul Duke had experienced a mescaline-induced fever dream in which he metamorphosed into a lost chameleon and became the sheriff of a desert town called Dirt and had to interact with other bizarre anthropomorphized animals while embarking on a mission of destiny. Sprinkle in crazy visuals, intense action sequences and mystery, a variety of cinematic homages ranging from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood to THE THREE AMIGOS! to vintage Disney to Tarantino and the Coen Bros. and Polanski, a healthy dose of philosophy and introspection, and that is kind of what RANGO is all about -- and, friends, it is AWESOME.

rango3At the start, the viewing audience is greeted by four mariachi owls who lead us through the story and keep us guessing about just how how hero is going to die. We meet a lonely chameleon with no name who is unexpectedly thrown into the harsh reality of life, smack in the middle of the Nevada desert. An encounter with a spiritual armadillo gets him started on a quest of self-discovery, which ultimately leads him to the classic old western town of Dirt. The townspeople are odd, paranoid and suspicious of outsiders because their water supply is perilously low and strange things are afoot. To endear himself to the crowd, our hero calls himself Rango and concocts tales of his own heroics, prompting the townsfolk to deem him their new sheriff and savior (a touch of Mickey Mouse and THE BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR there). It falls to Rango to uncover the mystery of the dwindling water supply, battle corruption within the town government, fend off outlaws and enemies of various sizes, get the girl, and yes, figure out exactly who he is and what his destiny entails. Oh, and try not to die.

The result is an absolute triumph for Gore Verbinski.  A few years ago, no one in their right mind believed that PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN could possibly be good, let alone spawn one of the biggest money-making franchises of all time -- but Verbinski made believers out of everyone with genre-redefining skill. And now, much like Chris Nolan, who used the success of the Batman films to spearhead his pet project (INCEPTION), Verbsinki has used his clout to bring us the first non-Pixar instant animated classic we've seen in some time.

It's a return to form for Johnny Depp, too -- who, if you think about it, hasn't been involved in a really good movie in an astonishingly long time, with the exception of the PIRATES series. Yes, he was nominated for an Oscar as recently as 2008 for SWEENEY TODD, but that film was a bloated mess and by rango2that point, his association with Tim Burton had already grown tiresome (now, three years later, it's downright annoying).  Films like FINDING NEVERLAND and FROM HELL had their moments, but by my estimation, you have to go all the way back to 1998 for Depp's last GREAT film -- which, it so happens, is none other than FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Coincidence? Perhaps. But as Rango, clad in a Raoul Duke-esque Hawaiian shirt, Depp embraces the story's surrealism and accidental heroism with gusto.

rango4Fantastic supporting voice work brings to life a motley crew of major and minor characters -- actors ranging from Bill Nighy as an outlaw rattlesnake, Abigail Breslin as a smart-mouthed youngster, Isla Fisher as Rango's eccentric, narcoleptic love interest and Ned Beatty as Dirt's corrupt tortoise mayor, plus many other smaller but no less memorable characters. The script is fresh and crisp, hilarious and action-packed -- the humor and tone is clearly geared more towards adults and definitely earns its PG rating, but should be fine for most kids. The real eye-opener, however, is the animation itself -- it is downright gorgeous, unique, at times photorealistic (ONLY available in 2D, it should be noted), loaded with visual jokes, homages and a sense of scope that may require multiple viewings. A major triumph for Industrial Light & Magic in their debut animated feature. If they can keep this up, Pixar might actually start feeling some heat. Last year was an excellent one for animation, and this year is now off to a good start -- and with CARS 2 looking like Pixar's most underwhelming movie in years (if not ever), we could be in for an unusual situation, come Oscar time.

RANGO is now in theatres and it is safe to say that it is the first must-see movie of the year (though THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, which also opened this weekend, is also exceptional -- not bad for early March).  It's a wonderful, weird and wildly entertaining mescaline trip that's fun for the whole family!