Hangover 2, The

By , May 30, 2011 8:28 pm

Galifinakis using yoga techniques to relax during salary negotiations.

Reviewed by James Owen

Here’s the dilemma for sequelmakers:  Do you continue the same story line with the same characters and themes?  This rarely works if the original isn’t conceived as part of a larger story.  So, Todd Phillips, following up the neatly tied-together “The Hangover,” had to go the second route: basically remake the original but BIGGER, and by merit of that BIGGERNESS, being BETTER! 

But what if the key to the original’s success is its thrills, or gags, or thrilling gags?  Like “The Hangover”?  When you re-do the same thrills and gags, they can’t generate the same reaction because those reactions themselves rely on surprise.  Phillips had to come up with a new angle for the sequel to have any chance at success.

His strategy is to use the same set-up and most of the same material, but steer it around edgy and, frankly, dark turns.  The Wolfpack (Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifinakis) head overseas for Stu’s (Helms) wedding, only to find the ante raised in the bowels of the drug and sex world of Bangkok.

As with the original, the city itself is the star of the show.  The most under-praised triumph of the original was its portrayal of Las Vegas: Phillips drags a drugged-out bachelor party out of the casinos and suites of Sin City, dumping it into the bright, desert sun.  He spotlights the flea-bitten apartments, sparse hospitals, and florescent-tinged police stations the “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” ads don’t show you. The look of the film is jarring to the audience as it is for the characters trying to piece together the previous night’s debauchery.

Phillips doesn’t create the usual travelogue that befalls many American-abroad comedies.  He films the dank alleyways and crouched hallways of Bangkok in a way that brings out a vivid, terrifying texture. The audience can smell the seediness; they can see the danger around every corner like trying to see the city through a microscope. Plenty will call the ugly depiction xenophobic, or even racist, but the cinematography services the tone of the film.

Which is fairly ugly in itself—far nastier than the original.  Not only is The Wolfpack missing the bride’s brother, but he’s left a severed finger behind. They start a riot outside of a bar rather than just throwing a mattress off the roof. And the prostitute Helms’ character gets together with has one distinct difference from Heather Graham. And if you thought we got to see a lot of Ken Jeong naked in the first film, then wait until you see the camera lingers over him in “Part 2.”

 “The Hangover 2” will push you to the edge of your sense of humor and your sense of proper decorum.  But  it lacks genuine shock because you immediately recognize the rhythm and the pattern of the original. Phillips telegraphs the gags, so you fill in the blanks moments before Jeong’s naked body flies out of a previously locked compartment.  Forget about predictability sucking the fun out of the movie; we’re also deprived of the mystery element of “The Hangover 2”. The structure of the original was as fresh as the jokes and the audacious casting. But Phillips seems to go through the motions here, so even this very ingenious device also feels stale.

I am not in the business of second-guessing how you could improve upon a sequel to “The Hangover.” Phillips is certainly a good enough of a director to figure out the BEST way to do it. (The screenplay he cranked out with Scot Armstrong and Craig Mazin can be primarily blamed for this lazy cash grab). But when Galifinakis looks bored, you know the film’s in bad shape. When using a Danzig song to open your summer blockbuster is a simple retread, that’s toxic.

The Pitch:

1 1/2 Bachelor Party

1 1/2 Bachelor Party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Home Alone 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 1/2 The Hangover 2

2 1/2 The Hangover 2

2 1/2 The Hangover 2

Bridesmaids

By , May 29, 2011 7:33 pm

Sharing The Wonderful Secrets of P.T. Anderson

Reviewed by James Owen

You should always get nervous when people start telling you movies released in May have important social significance—especially a raunchy R-rated comedy. You may be thinking, isn’t “Bridesmaids” just the Judd Apatow formula applied to the “chick flick” template?

On the surface, yes, but it’s far more interesting. The film, directed by quirky-tv guy Paul Feig (The Office, Nurse Jackie, Parks and Recreation, Weeds, Arrested Development, Undeclared, and for ultimate cred, Freaks and Geeks), tells the story of a down-and-out thirty-something (co-screenwriter Kristin Wiig) finding herself as newly-affluent, life-long friend’s (Maya Rudolph) maid of honor. More than a set-up for standard-issue bridezilla gags, the film becomes a funny, bittersweet look at how weddings can become microcosms for class resentment and socio-economic pandering. Overdoing it a bit? Not any more than calling it an important step for feminism.

Wiig’s Annie, whose trendy Milwaukee store went under during the Great Recession, finds herself in charge of Rudolph’s Lillian’s wedding. Though raised in the middle class suburbs of eastern Wisconsin, Lillian moved off to Chicago (a source of Milwaukeeans’ dreams and sadness) and got rich. She has new friends like the horribly preened Helen (Rose Byrne) and Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey, of the recently cancelled Reno 911), who will not let motherhood or a McMansion get in the way of her angry libido. Annie looks at an overpriced bridesmaid dress; the others are thrilled it’s on sale. Annie wants the bachelorette party somewhere quaint (i.e. cheap); everyone else wants Vegas. I won’t give away the funny but terribly inhumane door gift at the bridal shower.

Everything goes awry, of course, but unlike most “down on your luck bridesmaid movies” (which seems to get released every January), there’s a well-articulated anger between the two main characters. It’s not just class resentment (which is the overriding factor), but also their positions in life. Yes, our Annie is lonely and looking for the right guy—the film opens with Annie literally getting…ummm…screwed by a rich guy (Jon Hamm, playing the obnoxious jerk bit perfectly), who cheerily refers to her as “his number 3”. She then finds herself falling for Wisconsin State Trooper (Chris O’Dowd) after they Meet Cute and he proves himself to be nice, likable, Irish, and BLUE-COLLAR. 

That’s right: Wiig’s love interest is a Wisconsin state employee. For Annie’s sake, it’s a real shame Governor Scott Walker is going to pillage his pension but, at least, he’ll allow him to continue collective bargaining.

Because of little touches like this, I give more credit to Wiig and her screenwriting partner Annie Mumolo than to Apatow, though he tackled some of the same themes in the overstuffed “Funny People”.  In fact, it’s unfair to pigeonhole Wiig and Mumolo’s work as an Apatow Chick Flick.  “Chick Flicks” is a pejorative, the cinema ghetto for people justifying lazy and clichéd estro-humor that actually paints women as jealous and petty. “Bridesmaids” paints the same picture, but to Wiig and Mumolo’s credit, they don’t pretend that you should like them AT THE SAME TIME. The clichés here are so fleshed out that there’s nothing much lazy about the production. The result isn’t a preachy, socially-conscious movie that ends up turning people off its message.  It’s a “chick flick” that even a jaded, cynical guy can appreciate.  The next time some idiot tells me the new Katherine Heigl film is “funny” and “cute”, I can tell them it’s no “Bridesmaids”.

On a personal level, especially in our twenties before we’re really established, haven’t we all been asked to spend a little too much on somebody else’s wedding?  Not that it’s not a big deal and we’re happy to do it, but…it’s a lot of money to pile on top of that student loan payment.  “Gritty” and “honest” wedding movies like “Margot at the Wedding” and “Rachel Getting Married” usually don’t turn on these basic kinds of questions because everybody is comfortably WASP-y, so sibling rivalries and parent resentment and all the rest take center stage.  But I appreciate “Bridesmaid”’s insight, not to make this too personal.  Sorry, I’ve never been strung out at a multicultural celebration masquerading as a wedding before.  

The Pitch:

2 A Wedding

2 A Wedding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Laverne and Shirley

1 1/2 Laverne and Shirley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

3 1/2 Bridesmaids

Everything Must Go

By , May 17, 2011 11:50 am

My lazy Saturday at the Waldo, KC neighborhood garage sale.

Reviewed by Stephen Himes

Sorry Dana Stevens, but I called the Will Ferrell-as-Bill Murray thing seven years ago. 

Young Murray characters like “Ghostbusters” pseudo-scientist Peter Venkman and “Stripes” cabby-turned-army recruit John Winger see themselves slipping into middle age; Murray turns their panic into manic comedy.  Old Murray characters have already experienced and lost glory. Murray turns their desperation into deep sadness, like “Lost in Translation” fading star Bob Harris, who is reduced to Japanese booze commercials, and “Broken Flowers” former playboy Don Johnston after yet another young floozy walks out on him.

Where Murray’s comedy signaled the end of Boomer anti-authoritarianism, Ferrell’s is about Gen X suburban white male panic.  In the post-Burgundy age of political correctness and the death of macho, suburban desk jockeys participate in masquerades of masculinity.  Ferrell turns this confusion into comedy: characters who look to Mike Ditka for help coaching the kids’ soccer team, are Francophilic Nascar drivers, or start a fraternity at age 30. 

The quintessential Ferrell moment is when “Old School”’s Frank the Tank promised his wife he wouldn’t drink because tomorrow he’s going to Home Depot to shop for wallpaper and maybe Bed, Bath, and Beyond, if they have time.  Then the college kids hand him the beer bong (“It tastes so good when it hits the lips!”), and soon she almost runs over his streaking buttocks in the SUV.  Like Young Murray, Young Ferrell sees the sun going down and panics. 

“Everything Must Go” is Frank the Tank after fifteen years of marriage.  Over time, the beer became more important than Home Depot, the wife, then the job, and now he’s locked out of his house with his stuff in the front yard.  Deep down you know you’re a fraud.  That’s what the beer is for.   

So the film makes sense for Ferrell, but does Ferrell makes sense for the film?  Or, as Go Memphis’ John Beifuss asks, “what’s the point of this ‘creative’ casting” when, say, Paul Giamatti, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, or Richard Jenkins could more ably play the down-on-his-luck schlub?   

Loosely adapted from Raymond Carver’s four-page story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, writer/director Dan Rush stays true to the minimalist style by not filling in too many blanks.  Did Nick Halsey (Ferrell), a charismatic former all star athlete who built a successful career in sales, use alcohol to help him close deals?  Maybe.  Unrealistic expectations heaped on a former golden child?  Did he and the wife not adjust to the calm of the suburbs and turn to alcohol?  Some combination of these?  We can’t be sure, but the unspoken backstory haunts the audience while we watch Halsey try to recreate his life on the front lawn.   

Not to compare “Everything Must Go” to Death of a Salesman, but as a character type, Nick Halsey is the Great Recession’s Willy Loman, another former athlete whose American Dream fell apart in the suburbs.  Casting Giamatti, Hoffman, or Jenkins as Halsey would be as wrong-noted as, say, casting Dustin Hoffman as Loman, as he was in the version most high schoolers see.  But the Salesman script specifically calls for a big man—the former athlete whose notions of “likeability” represents the superficiality of the American Dream.  In Broadway’s 1999 revival of Salesman, Brian Dennehy’s Loman is much more of the embodiment of Arthur Miller’s false hope.  Compare them:  The physical presence of the actor completely changes the story.

Similarly, Ferrell is a charismatic big man—not that Giamatti, et al, aren’t better actors, but they don’t carry themselves like former all-stars whose faded glory can no longer close a sale.  Thus, Ferrell isn’t stunt casting—he’s essential to the character.  Think “Sideways”:  Nick Halsey, the executive VP of sales, is Thomas Haden Church after the acting career goes bad, not Paul Giamatti the middle school English teacher. 

Unlike Willy Loman, the salesman who bought into the American Dream and let it destroy him, Nick Halsey represents a more modern America:  When you lose it all, start over.  Even a case deep with all his stuff on the lawn, Halsey does what a lot of Americans who lost their jobs in the recession did:  Go into business for himself.  Halsey even teaches a local kid (Christopher Jordan Wallace, son of Notorious B.I.G.) the art of the deal, and together they become unlikely entrepreneurial partners.  Of course Giamatti could pull that off, but the physical presence and inherent likability of Ferrell makes it more believable and more tragic—otherwise, he’s just some fat sadsack whose wife walked out on him.

Raymond Carver’s style of minimalism doesn’t precisely translate to the screen, but that doesn’t mean Rush and Ferrell’s work is inferior or unworthy.  In Carver’s story, a young couple shares a few drinks with an unnamed man while scoring a few bargains at his yard sale.  Eventually, the man puts on some records and asks them to dance in his driveway.  The girl and the man have a moment.  The story ends when she later tries and fails to explain the whole thing to friends.  We sense that the girl is a free spirit and the boy is more reserved—eventually he’s going to end up having a yard sale after she dances on.

So, Beifuss’ criticism that

“Unlike Carver, Rush is afraid audiences won’t understand his meaning, so he has Nick tell the neighbor she should close her blinds, ‘so you don’t have to look at your future’”

seems valid—in fact, it’s the unspoken theme of “Why Don’t You Dance?”  Rush’s story is a bit clunky at times, and he can’t quite resist some clichés.  But distrust negative reviews relying on the knee-jerk “It’s not as good as the literature” cliché.  Rush’s style is best described as indie-minimalist; he resists quirkifying his story with lovable misfits, and isn’t afraid to let his hero be ugly.   

More to the point, Stevens notes that although Rush engages in some “narrative vamping” to fill the story to ninety minutes, “the spaciousness gives Ferrell room to create his character from the ground up.”  Ferrell doesn’t just play downbeat; his technique is mannered without being actorly.  It’s much like Murray’s in “Lost in Translation,” where he often made unseen half-gestures toward Scarlet Johanssen, leaving the audience to wonder what he really wanted.  Ferrell is less like Murray in “Broken Flowers,” in which he was just sad-eyed, leaving the audience what these women ever saw in him—we never saw glimpses of what the man they knew.

Ferrell gives us those glimpses.  With “Everything Must Go,” some critics have complained that Ferrell gets a few token one-liners, which is true—and essential to the character.  Basically, the trailer compiles the moments where we see the witty, sharp man he once was.  His deadpan comparisons of the yard sale to his corporate job are funny (“Discussing salary and responsibilities upfront—smart.”), but also suggest he’s already started working on a way out, if he can stop drinking it out over the next five days.           

Beyond the plot, Ferrell also creates a devastating portrait of dependence—not the showy alcoholism of Billy Bob Thornton, or Nicolas Cage’s suicide mission in “Leaving Lost Vegas.”  Once in the yard, Ferrell lumbers around, using his normally comic bulk (remember the streaking?) as a weight he must concentrate on balancing.  Even simple tasks like getting a pair of socks requires a meticulous process, requiring him to pull himself up, lumber across the yard, reach out and balance himself on the table, lean over, get his balance without using the hand his beer is in, open the drawer, and do it all over again to get back to the recliner.  In fact, once Ferrell gets a PBR in his hand, he never lets go.  Even when setting it down for a few seconds would make opening drawers easier, he uses the beer to hold himself up—an unconscious tick that shows us exactly why Nick Halsey drinks. 

In fact, we find out that Halsey turned to Alcoholics Anonymous to try to get his life back together.  Carver would recognize the kindred spirit.

The Pitch:

2 What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

2 What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 Suntori Time with Bill Murray

2 Suntori Time with Bill Murray

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 Everything Must Go

4 Everything Must Go

4 Everything Must Go

4 Everything Must Go

Thor

By , May 13, 2011 3:53 pm

Thor's homage to the mashed potatoes/kitchen table scene in "Close Encounters of the Third King."

Reviewed By James Owen

What was going through Marvel Studio executives’ minds when, in trying to figure out who would helm their film adaption of “Thor”, the name Kenneth Branagh came up? “Ummm…1991 called and they want their Orson Welles wunderkind back”?  “What? Is John Madden too busy getting the Weinstein brothers tea and crumpets?” (This John Madden, not this one)

Julie Taymor was another counterintuitive consideration, but you can see how her provocative style, as in her adaptations of “Titus” and “The Tempest,” would fit Marvel’s visions for “Thor.” Then again, Taymor was too busy getting fired by Bono. I was thinking about Joe Wright, whose “Atonement” has both the action set pieces and literary sensibility “Thor” aspires to.  Instead, he kicked butt with the sixteen year old Finnish girl assassin movie “Hanna.”  

Perhaps Branagh is next on the list.  Marvel conceived “Thor” as a kind of high-minded myth, a superhero owing as much to Shakespeare as the Nordics.  And sure, Branagh’s Shakespeare is brash, but by now, it’s dated. Besides, hasn’t Branagh done irreparable damage to his reputation by directing Alicia Silverstone in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and by playing the weird Steve Martin-sounding bad guy in “Wild Wild West”?  Could Branagh reinvent himself for an age where comic book myths aspire to higher art?

Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) are from Asgard, which I thought was on some other planet, but a comic book dork informed me is from part of this world…sort of.  Branagh hardly bothered with the distinction, so if it didn’t interest him, why should it interest me?  Anyway, his father is King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who helped Norway defeat the Frost Giants back in the 10th century. The Frost Giants sound like a cereal and look like random bodyguards of Jabba the Hutt, which is to say they don’t seem unusually menacing.  Odin seeks peace with these nasty-looking critters and hopes either Thor or his other son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) will ascend to the throne with that purpose. That doesn’t go well, resulting in an epic battle between brothers as well as their father. While Thor is the natural choice, he’s a little too gung-ho about war. If Odin is George H. W., think of Thor as George W. Loki as Jeb. I guess.

This sounds vaguely Lear-ian, with a touch of the Henry histories, but it also sounds like hack comic-book stuff.   Branagh’s job is to turn this into more of the former and less of the latter. His first success is with Hopkins, who is not below taking a paycheck in a lame pseudo-mythical blockbuster. Though used sparingly, Hopkins’ line readings in “Thor” clearly show he’s taking this seriously; this is not Sir Alec Guinness rolling his eyes at OB-Wan’s dialogue. His second success is pairing Hopkins with Hiddleston, who has done Shakespeare on stage AND THE RADIO! Branagh films them tight two-camera coverage, creating an intimacy and a real sense of theater.

All of this is surrounded, however, by CGI-nonsense and hyper-stylized exposition.  And Chris Hemsworth in space (or some other dimension or whatever) when Thor is banished to Earth. He hooks up with “brilliant physicist” Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who made twenty movies during the various “Black Swan” production hiatuses). She is followed around by creepy European Stellan Skarsgård (who also takes “Thor” more seriously than any real actor should) and Kat Dennings as an “intern” whose duty includes getting coffee and providing comic relief. The interaction between Thor and the earthlings is mostly lame fish out of the water trappings, but “Thor” also includes a conflict centering on the odd interaction between myth and science. Branagh doesn’t seem to know what to do with this; rather, he takes more pleasure in filming the actors’ performances than using the full screen to create tension or develop ideas. While his style is unique to an action film of this size, Branagh lacks the sense of motion and visual artistry of a Christopher Nolan or Bryan Singer.

Still, Branagh intense focus and willingness to take the story seriously gives “Thor” a slight edge all the same.  It ain’t Shakespeare, but it ain’t Brett Ratner, either.

The Pitch:

2 Clash of the Titans

2 Clash of the Titans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Much Ado About Nothing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Thor

3 Thor

3 Thor

Super

By , May 10, 2011 12:20 pm

Shrute steps up his efforts to get Michael Scott's position at Dunder Mifflin.

By James Owen

James Gunn’s “Super” ventures down the new-ish path in the superhero genre: the average person as crime-fighting avenger.  Predecessors include Zach Synder’s 2009 “Watchmen,” which portrayed adults as fragments of their own damaged childhoods, mending their inner children in the shadow of nuclear Holocaust by exacting vengeance or justice or whatever. Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 “Kick Ass” imagined adolescent pain as cartoonish maiming, as if Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold mowed down bad guys instead of innocents.  Though their themes differed, both films were hyperstylized and granted its heroes fighting prowess and gadgets not available to the public. 

These were much more commercial vehicles.  In contrast, “Super” wonders out loud if its characters aren’t just scarred, but are they even sane. Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson) dons a mask and grabs a monkey wrench to fight crime because his beautiful yet drug-susceptible wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) dumped him for the local crime lord, a charmer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon, enjoying being Kevin Bacon). Believing his wife never saw him as more than a loser fry-cook, he intends to reform his image as well as go after the bad guys who hold her in their HQ.

Gunn develops an interesting concept in Frank’s development from schmo to The Crimson Bolt, one that’s alluded to but never overtly discussed in the comic book universe. Part of his inspiration is The Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillon), a Christian channel character who saves high schoolers from sloth and heavy petting brought about by Satan himself (played by the director but looking like Alan Cummings.) In the superhero genre, the villains are so obvious that the superhero doesn’t play the arbiter of right and wrong, not because he doesn’t—but because the answers are self-evident.  By taking his cues from Christian television, this elision is brought to the surface, setting up a potentially fascinating critique of the very premise of the superhero genre. 

But Gunn himself quickly elides this premise and puts Frank/Crimson Bolt’s plan into action, which takes an extreme view of Christian morality.  Or, perhaps, Frank is just psychotic with tinges of religiosity, or maybe his sidekick Boltie (Ellen Page) is a little too thrilled after a bad guy takes that monkey wrench to the forehead.  Sure, “Watchmen” had some pretty unstable characters, but at least they raised the moral questions surrounding their work. In this film, Bolt and Boltie exact horrific justice, without distinction, on child molesters and violators of common courtesy alike.  Frank’s explanation is simple: “The rules have never changed. Don’t deal drugs. Don’t cut in line.”

This should trouble the Christian mind—Frank eradicates Dante’s levels of hell and tosses the despots of The Phlegethon in with the virtuous pagans.  The unflinching nastiness of Frank’s violence takes the film closer to horror than action. But Gunn loses his conviction and tries to sugarcoat Frank, who always has some sincere reason for his actions.  Gunn invests substantial screen time in Frank and Sarah’s relationship, making it clear from the opening shot to the last sequence that this is the heart of the film. In fact, Frank would be a deranged loser if not for this central motivation.

It may not be sweet; “Super” is not that kind of movie. But the relationship makes the film more effective than the aggressively juvenile “Kick-Ass.”   It’s also the best thing Rainn Wilson has ever done. Normally, I think of him as an unfunny, creepy weirdo. Now, I just think of him as a creepy weirdo with good intentions. That’s what I would call building his fan base.  Dwight Schrute would agree; it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

The Pitch

2 Defendor

2 Defendor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 James Gunn's Divorce from Jenna Fischer

1 1/2 James Gunn's Divorce from Jenna Fischer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 Super

3 1/2 Super

3 1/2 Super

3 1/2 Super

Summer Movie Preview, May 2011

By , May 2, 2011 9:41 pm

Will Ferrell's guest stint on "Hoarders" doesn't go well.

Summer Movie Preview

April 29th, Wide

Fast Five

The ads say this is THE “official start of the summer,” so why not start with this seminal series? “The Fast and Furious” series has the astonishing distinction of surviving the careers of both its initial stars who thought they were above such nonsense, and then had to go back because they determined they really weren’t above it. Auto porn of this quality will make money whether or not Vin Diesel or Paul Walker are involved. Once James Bond retires, James Bond can’t be James Bond anymore, and we likely won’t see Brandon Routh in any “Superman” reboots. 

Still, if these movies make money, even if the stars fade the series will go on.  “Furious” has outlasted three directors, about six or seven minor characters’ acting careers, the dignity of Paul Walker, and Vin Diesel’s tough-guy-in-Disney-movie phase.  That’s ten years and five films, people!  In the fourth installment, the cooler-titled, the-dropping “Fast and Furious” featured the original stars and brought in as much dough as ever.

What gives? Well, dude dig fast cars and chicks dig dudes who dig fast cars. Oh, and dudes dig lots of shots of women’s butts in tight skirts. Plus, Vin Diesel gives the guys a hunky role model and Walker gives the ladies a sensitive lad with a six-pack. Imagine if George Lucas directed “American Graffiti” with the skillful gravitas his production brought to “Howard the Duck.” But without the characters and with worse dialogue.

So, what’s the movie about? The $50 million worth of tickets sold the first weekend won’t care. Why should you? (James)

May 6th, Wide

Thor

What the hell happened to Kenneth Branagh?  I mean, this guy was the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier—heck, you could argue that as a director, as a visionary of Shakespeare, his first films bested Olivier.  The man made the only uncut, thoroughly kick-ass four-and-a-half hour Hamlet produced by a major studio.  Though mocked at the time, Branagh’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar may be the most deserved winner in the history of the category:  In the words of Boston Review critic and Harvard Law professor Alan Stone, Branagh’s “prodigious accomplishment” was in “interpreting in detailed stage directions every scene in a way that invites our understanding.”  In other words, Branagh made sense of the world’s most confounding work of art.  His Much Ado About Nothing with then-wife Emma Thompson featured cinema’s most artful and spirited verbal sparring since Burton and Taylor.  Branagh’s debut was no less impressive:  In his Henry V, Branagh created a specific counterpoint to Olivier’s jingoistic, post-World War II Churchillian ideal, embodying Henry W. L. Godshalk’s notion that Henry’s refusal to accept responsibility for mass death in the name of the crown makes him both the perfect Christian king and Machiavellian manipulator. 

How do you get from creating “nothing less than a monument to the highest art of the Western canon” to directing “Thor”?  Here’s my theory:  We all have a limited store of genius, so the process of creating Hamlet sapped Branagh of his remaining artistic strength while its success created an extraordinary hubris.  The result is a director who thinks he can turn Love’s Labour’s Lost (probably in the bottom five on the Shakespeare Power Rankings) into a 30’s-style musical with Alicia Silverstone and Mathew Lillard.  And that was it.  Rather than making sense of Shakespeare’s texts, Branagh now seems to think that “pushing the envelope” is artistic posture appropriate to his talents.  This is how you cast Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind and turn As You Like It into a dark war movie for HBO. 

So what’s the former great man’s idea for ThorThor is Henry V.  Yep, Henry…The…Fifth.  Branagh deserves our respect, so let’s hear him out:    

I think Henry V was an interesting example because, as a young man he was reckless and he kept bad company. People thought he’d make a terrible leader. His father was angry at him but he turned out to be a terrific leader. But he had to earn that privilege, earn that place by losing a lot of friends, losing power, losing family and making sacrifices. They’re both stories of how you find yourself. A rite of passage. Both are a good identity story and very relatable.

If you’re thinking, “My goodness, this sounds like a high school freshman’s C+ essay that he half-plagiarized from SparkNotes,” then you and I are on the same page.  Without diving too far into the Marvel myth, I’m not sure if Branagh means Loki to be the Earl of Cambridge and Jane Foster to be Catherine of Valois, but I’m interested to find out.  It may be that Branagh has entered his post-war Orson Welles phase, where the man who made film into high art got paid for turning Macbeth into a voodoo-influenced violent b-movie.  Imagine Hollywood throwing millions in special effects at Orson Welles to direct a ‘roided out Othello, and that may be the kind of insane and depressing spectacle we’ve got here. (Steve)

Something Borrowed

“Chic lit” is some concept that captures my attention only when I see a bunch of brightly-covered, thinly-paged pamphlets in the novel bin at Target. Perhaps it’s a form of masculine panic that I shudder at the thought of twenty-something women getting their heads filled by Candace Bushnell-snark masquerading as hardened observation.  Then again, how different is this from 19th Century British novels of manners, but minus the apple-tini references and tampon jokes?

Here, Rachel feels she might be falling for her friend’s (named Darcy, and no, I’m not kidding) fiance’.  Rachel’s always had a thing for him, and after a night of drinking and some regrettable decisions, what’s a hip, urbane, modern girl to do? First, be played in the movie by insufferable woman-child Gennifer Goodwin to play you, then get Kate Hudson to play the spurned gal pal. “Something Borrowed” also features John Krasinki pretending his film career is going to work. There’s no doc-camera to raise your eyebrows at, Jim.

But, hey, good counter-programming to “Thor”, Warner Brothers! (James)

Jumping the Broom

 “Jumping the broom” refers to the tradition (believed to have originated either in Africa or with Welsh gypsies) of having the couple jump over a decorated broom together after the wedding ceremony.  In Europe, the custom solemnizes unions not legally sanctioned by the state, and in United States, slaves used the tradition to legitimize marriages. Roots revived the practice in African-American weddings, with brooms passed like rings through generations.

This leads us to “Cute Looking Black Movie With Completely Non-Threatening Black Actors,” like Angela Bassett as the rich mom and Omar Epps as the working class dad.  As a thoroughly white-bread guy living in a white-bread neighborhood in the south-center part of a Midwestern city, I’m not sure what my appropriate response to these movies should be.  “Jumping the Broom” doesn’t strike me as a minstrel shows, and it seems to lack the moral hypocrisy and Madea-ization of Tyler Perry.  But I wouldn’t normally say, hey, let’s check out “Jumping the Broom” because, well, I’m not sure why.  Do they even want my nine dollars? 

Or is it because if I were to buy a ticket to the Friday 8:00 show at, say, the Cinemark on the Plaza here in Kansas City, odds are there’d by a 40-1 black-white ratio in the theater?  So does that make me one of those liberal racists Chinua Achebe talks about?  This blog has long documented that romantic comedies starring skinny white actresses are mostly terrible.  If I have the inclination to see a romantic comedy, “Jumping the Broom” seems interesting and a helluva lot better than this Kate Hudson/Ginnifer Goodwin trendy urbanite wedding porn. 

So why am I so hesitant to buy a ticket?  To my mind, even if I go to the same critics screening as Shawn Edwards, that doesn’t count.  In the end, labels shouldn’t matter—“jumping the broom” comes from both Africa and Wales, after all—so perhaps the right thing to do is drive down to the Plaza, walk up to the ticket window, and loudly declare to that uneasy mix of white yuppies and East KC teens in the lobby, “Two for ‘Jumping the Broom’, please!” 

As long as I’m not there during a flash mob. (Steve)

May 6th, Limited

The Beaver

Is it possible Jodie Foster is crazier than Mel Gibson? Looking at the trailer, I wonder why we are being subjected to another middle-aged identity crisis for some jerk who has to go through some spiritual awakening to realize that he’s ruining the lives of everyone around him. This time, the spiritual awakening comes in the form of a beaver puppet that becomes his main form of expression. Surely there’s a sexual subtext, but that would be too easy. Could it be as simple the path to successful adulthood is returning to some element of childhood? How’s that still working for Sandler? Or perhaps ask the leading actor who thinks it’s cool to beat his girlfriend (allegedly). Either way, surely something must have driven Foster out of semi-retirement. Or I could just watch “Little Man Tate” again and realize she’s a hack director. (James)

Everything Must Go 

Back in 2004, in my review of “Anchorman” I boldly predicted that Will Ferrell would someday score an Oscar nomination, probably a win.  The driving force of Ferrell’s comedy is white male panic and suburban emasculation, which could easily be harnessed into one of those “American Beauty” style “black comedies” (but not too black—still palatable for American multiplexers) that wins awards.  “Everything Must Go” probably isn’t that movie, but it points the way toward the eventual Bill Murray awardsification of Ferrell. 

In a way, a Raymond Carver short story about an alcoholic loser seems right for the guy who made his big screen splash as “Frank the Tank,” a guy who turned a beer bong into a rebellion against Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  Done well, “Everything Must Go” can be a literary riff on the theme.   This is writer/director Dan Rush’s first feature film, so all the usual “curb your enthusiasm” disclaimers apply. (Steve)

Passion Play

Megan Fox plays an angel in this movie. Not a stripper or a porn star named “Angel,” but a real angel under the control of a mobster played by Bill Murray. She can only be saved by Mickey Rourke, who plays a trumpeter. Not Gabriel, the messenger of God, but Nate, which rhymes with “gate.”  Obviously, this movie takes its metaphors pretty literally. What it does not take literally is the criticism of its star, which he now takes back because Rourke didn’t want to be bothered at the premiere party for “Scre4m”. Or it could be that the writer of “Scrooged” and “The Recruit” might have made an oddly inconsistent film. (James)

May 13th, Wide

Bridesmaids

Judd Apatow developed a film for Kristin Wiig?  Must be comedic gold, right? Then, you watch the trailer. Is it the most laugh-less, pathetic thing you’ve ever watched? Is there anything funny about it? Lame rom-coms put their one good joke in the preview, but this could be Christopher Hitchens’ Exhibit A. Maybe the funny parts are too raunchy to have in a trailer? If that’s the case, I want a red-band trailer. This looks like a Katherine Heigel movie with a better pedigree and a fart joke. Plus, do you really want Wiig to lead one of these comedies? Her specialty is the dry supporting role—maybe she needs to consult Seth Rogen on how his leading man experiment is working out.  (James) 

Priest

The concept behind “Priest” seems to be this:  Let’s take Silas the evil albino Opus Dei priest and instead of whipping himself, have him whip some vampire ass.  I’m curious about the “disobeys church law” part of the official synopsis—by definition, if we’re all still here in a post-apocalyptic world, shouldn’t we feel free disobey all the church law we want?  At that point, it’s lost its credibility, right? (Steve)

May 20th, Wide

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

It was a sad spectacle to see Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp go from such impressive and elegant blockbuster storytelling with the first “Pirates” to such incomprehensible nonsense as the last two “Pirates.” Unless you’re a hyperattentive twelve year old boy, you can’t figure out what’s going on.  But I am not sure the fix is hiring Rob Marshall to helm the fourth in the series. Let’s say you liked “Chicago.”  I did, but that’s mostly because it embodies the worst of the Modern Musical. But, what in “Memoirs of a Geisha” or “Nine” made someone say: Put this guy in charge of a Big, Stupid Pirate Movie! Well, I the stunts will be nicely choreographed.

This time, Johnny Depp’s outrageously fey Jack Sparrow is on some sort of quest for the Fountain of Youth. Which is a plot never employed by desperate filmmakers. Since Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom are…busy(?) or “focusing on projects with more artistic merit,” we get a pretty feisty looking Penelope Cruz as an alternate. That might be to the audience’s gain, and we also have Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush and Keith Richards trying to chew the scenery right out of Depp’s hungry mouth. That’s the reason this franchise is still around, right? (Steve)

May 20th, Limited

Midnight in Paris

The conventional wisdom is that, with Owen Wilson, Woody Allen made such an odd choice for his alter ego that “Midnight” is destined to be another mediocre late-Woody bomb.  Fair enough, but let’s look again:  A young man breaks into Hollywood doing comedies, but fashions himself an artist, so he tries to stretch himself into “serious” roles.  He’s thoughtful but depressive, breaks down, and in middle age tries to rebuild himself by going back to what made him famous in the first place.  Maybe it’s me, but the trailer indicates that the mumbly Wilson thing might find new life in the dialogue of Woody Allen.  (Steve)

May 27th, Wide

The Hangover Part II

“The Hangover” is an exercise in comic virtuosity—a demonstration of technique, as if the director of “Old School” and “Starsky and Hutch” took Viktor Shklovsky’s notion that the technique of art is to manipulate forms to create a prolonged aesthetic experience and turned it into a R-rated summer blockbuster comedy (he did a good job creating a steady flow of really funny set pieces).  The problem is, as Shklovsky would explain, if technique creates a feel, it can’t be replicated because the original is a unique experience. 

What can the revolution-era Russian formalists teach us about “The Hangover Part II”?  Some of the funniest parts of the original cannot appear in this film without severe plot manipulation, which would break apart the veneer of believability the story rests upon.  In other words, how do you get Ken Jeong and Mike Tyson back into the “Hangover” universe without straining the plot?  Because once you strain the plot (according to the rules of the universe you’ve created, where randomness predominates coincidence), then technique falters—which is the whole point of the exercise.  As Shklovsky observes, art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.  In other words, a naked Asian man jumping out of the trunk is not important, but how we experience him is.  I hope Todd Phillips figures out a way around this. (Steve)

Kung Fu Panda 2

A favorite Family Guy cutaway once cast Jack Black in “The Unconventional Butler,” which featured a stodgy old white person initially shocked but inevitably charmed by Black’s “unconventional” nature. I wonder what the unconventional butler would think of Black’s family movies of late—or, I wonder what the Jack Black from Tenacious D would think of this. I mean, is this what we’re going to see from Zach Galifianakis in six years? Or…perhaps two years ago?

Anyway, this is another one of those kid movies with enough cool actors (Angelina, Seth Rogan) that make it acceptable to take your children to and still feel like you haven’t completely wasted a trip to the movies. (James)  

May 27th, Limited

The Tree of Life

As any proper film critic, I hold Terence Malick in the highest esteem and have signed the online petition to ask 20th Century Fox to release the original six hour cut of “The Thin Red Line.”  And boy howdy, does this movie want to cover The Meaning of Life and all sorts of other Malickian things.  But it gives me a little Aronofsky “The Fountain” vibe, as if the ambition to make a film about All Things is too big for the medium and can only result in pseudo-intellectual pretention.  (Steve)

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