Friday, May 28, 2010

MacGruber / **** (R)

MacGruber: Will Forte
Vicki St. Elmo: Kristen Wiig
Lt. Dixon Piper: Ryan Phillippe
Dieter Von Cunth: Val Kilmer
Col. James Faith: Powers Boothe
Casey: Maya Rudolph

Universal Pictures and Rogue Pictures presents a film directed by Jorma Taccone. Written by Will Forte & John Solomon & Taccone. Based upon characters from the “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Running time: 99 min. Rated R (for strong crude and sexual content, violence, language and some nudity).

For those of you who don’t know who or what “MacGruber” is—and judging from the film’s poor box office performance so far, I fear many of you don’t—I’ll enlighten you. “MacGruber” is a spoof of the popular 80s television show “MacGyver” from the late night sketch comedy show “Saturday Night Live”. The sketch is genius in its simplicity. MacGruber is supposed to be an expert in creating gadgets to diffuse bombs out of everyday items, such as paper clips or straws. In each “episode” MacGruber, his assistant, Vicki, and one other person are trapped in a control room of some type, and MacGruber must diffuse a bomb before it explodes. Every time, some trivial issue distracts him, and the bomb explodes. It may not translate in description but the details that distract MacGruber and Will Forte’s earnest delivery and impeccable timing make this a laugh factory sketch every time.

I am aware of the low success rate of SNL skits put to feature length movies. The good ones can be counted on four fingers—“The Blues Brothers”, “Stuart Saves His Family”, “Wayne’s World”, and “Wayne’s World 2”; and I’m not so sure the first “Wayne’s World” belongs on there. When I first heard they were making a “MacGruber” movie, I couldn’t help but think they’d picked exactly the wrong sketch for a 90-minute format. It’s brilliance lies in the fact that it doesn’t run too long and everyone dies at the end of each 2-minute segment. How are they going to make that into a movie?

What brought down so many of SNL’s movie spin-off bombs is the fact that the movies depended so much on the signature bits and gags from the sketches. “A Night at the Roxbury”, “Superstar”, and “The Ladies Man” never had enough behind them to stretch to a full-length feature. The same would certainly have been true of “MacGruber” had writers Forte, John Solomon and Jorma Taccone limited themselves to what they had done with the character before. Instead they all but drop the premise of the sketches to a very minor point in the plot, and produce a full-fledged action hero spoof, making fun of the clichés of the action genre in general.

Of course, action spoofs have been made before, but what separates this one from so many other failures is that director Taccome chooses to place his ridiculous leading characters into a world closer to the typical action fantasy, rather than a joke universe where nothing is serious. This movie is not serious in any way, but much of the time it looks like it is.

This effect is achieved by populating this world with characters and actors you’d expect to be in a big budget action flick. Val Kilmer (“Heat”) takes on the challenge of making a silly-named character like the villainous Dieter Von Cunth believable as a viable threat. Ryan Phillippe (“Flags of Our Fathers”) is brought in to be competent help for the highly unorthodox—and unlikely—techniques of MacGruber. And Powers Boothe (“Deadwood”) provides the sturdy military presence as MacGruber’s boss, Col. James Faith.

This “realistic” template carries over into the production values and muscular action style direction by Taccome. By placing this absurd character amongst a cast of not so absurd ones, the filmmakers allow the supporting cast to reflect the audience’s own perplexity in considering MacGruber’s awkwardness. MacGruber in turn is allowed to do and say things to others that the rest of us always wish were said in such situations. The film earns its ‘R’ rating by making MacGruber into an insult artist and a frequent user of the ‘F’ word. There is a certain gift to the way in which he tells people obviously more competent than him to go do things to themselves no mother would wish upon them.

The true strength of the film, however, lies in the comedic performances and perfect delivery by the two leads. Forte is so committed to MacGruber’s lunacy, idiocy, and audacious confidence that just about every line that comes out of his mouth produces a laugh. Kristen Wiig, reprising her role as Vicki from the SNL sketch, is as brilliant here as in everything she does. Her mousy assistant is in stark contrast to Forte’s boisterous MacGruber. Their interactions produce the movie’s biggest laughs, and they share just about the funniest sex scene ever filmed.

I’m sure many people will question the high praise I’ve placed upon this film. Even those who’ve seen it and enjoyed it will probably balk at my four star rating. But, comedy is a tough racket. Comedy rarely receives the level of accolades that other genres share. I figure no movie has made me laugh this constantly and consistently throughout 90 minutes in a very long time; it deserves my highest rating. Sure, it’s silly and stupid, but so are spoof classics like “Airplane” and “Blazing Saddles”. “MacGruber” is just as funny as those genre spoof giants. So, I implore you to rectify the box office crime committed against it last week, forego another “Sex in the City”, and watch the most unappreciated movie of the year this Memorial Day.

MacGruber | Movie Trailers

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Robin Hood / ** (PG-13)

Robin Longstride: Russell Crowe
Marion Loxley: Cate Blanchett
Godfrey: Mark Strong
William Marshal: William Hurt
Prince John: Oscar Isaac
Eleanor of Aquitaine: Eileen Atkins
Little John: Kevin Durand
Will Scarlet: Scott Grimes
Allan A’Dayle: Alan Doyle
Friar Tuck: Mark Addy
Sir Walter Loxley: Max Von Sydow

Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment present a film directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris. Running time: 140 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence including intense sequences of warfare, and some sexual content).

84 titles. That’s how many entries are listed on when you run a search on “robin hood”. The claim in the trailer for Ridley Scott’s new film, “Robin Hood,” that it is “the untold story” of the British legend, is a bit of a stretch. Scott’s take on the classic character is surprisingly similar to other versions with one major difference, this story takes place before he became known as Robin Hood, which brings the choice of the eponymous title into question.

I suppose another difference with Scott’s film is that this is a very serious telling of how a man named Robin Longstride became known first as Robert Loxley, then later Robin of the Hood. This serious tone is really no surprise coming from the same director that also brought us “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven”. This isn’t the merry bandit Robin Hood, but the gritty, Crusades warrior, who is sick of sticking his neck out for England only to return to a land of over-taxed poverty.

Once again Scott has tapped Russell Crowe (“State of Play”) for his leading man to give it the appropriate weight. Perhaps a bit too much weight. Crowe seems more like a broad swordsman than an archer, but that’s splitting hairs, of which Crowe splits a few here along with a cheek. The cheek he splits belongs to Sir Godfrey, Prince John’s primary confidant, who happens to be a traitor plotting with the French a secret invasion that will effectively end the British Empire. Robin’s traditional foe, the Sherriff of Nottingham, is relegated to a mere cameo here, but Godfrey functions in much the same role as Robin’s arch nemesis.

Godfrey, like too many of the roles played by Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”), is evil purely for the sake of being evil, given no reason for being so. There is a scene between Godfrey and France’s Prince Philip that so vaguely lays out the rewards Godfrey will gain from his betrayal I’d have to advise him to bring a lawyer to his next set of negotiations.

As Prince John, Oscar Isaac’s (“Body of Lies”) primary purpose seems to be to one up Godfrey in pure awfulness. I mean this must have been one of the worst leaders to ever live. He brings infantile behavior to levels even infants would never contemplate. This cartoonish behavior may have worked perfectly fine in a campier, upbeat version of this story, but in the gritty, war-filled culture presented here, it’s hard not to wonder just why these leaders didn’t end up with their heads mounted on top of pikes. While the later bandit adventures of Robin Hood stealing from the state and giving to the poor is a noble response to such treatment, it seems hardly enough.

Although the filmmakers seem more interested in creating stunning battle sequences than compelling villains, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale”) do find the time to develop a compelling relationship between Robin and the Lady Marion Loxley. Casting Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth”) as a slightly more empowered Marion is their first smart move. The next is casting Max von Sydow (“Shutter Island”) as her father-in-law Sir Walter Loxley, who oddly but sensibly embraces Robin Longstride when he shows up posing as Loxley’s deceased son. The best and most lighthearted moments of the movie come in exchanges between Blanchett and Crowe as they must, under Loxley’s request, pretend to be husband and wife to keep the tax collectors from seizing all their land.

There are other positive points in the film, like Robin’s initial band of merry men. With the help of Friar Tuck (Mark Addy, “The Full Monty”) and his bees, they provide a little, but not enough, merriment to the proceedings. Plus, the action sequences are of the same high quality Scott has produced for his long history of military and historical epics. However, the final battle offers the worst offenses of clichéd filmmaking I’ve ever seen from Scott. The least forgivable is having Lady Marion, a woman with no fighting experience in a time when battle was purely male sport, show up leading a band of child soldiers with similar battle experience into the fray. When Tuck is also seen on the battlefield, it becomes obvious that by the time Scott got to filming the last battle, he wished he had gone the campy route rather than the gritty realism one.

Robin Hood | Movie Trailers

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Penny Thoughts: May 14-20

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) ***½
Director: Alfonso Caurón
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, David Thewlis, Michael Gambon, Tom Felton, Robbie Coltrane, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Robert Hardy, Timothy Spall

So torn. So torn I become when evaluating these early Potters. Last time I declared the second film to be the best of the bunch, but this one is the most vibrant. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” is the only one of the series to be directed by someone I would consider a premiere director, the great Alfonso Caurón (“Y Tu Mama También”, “Children of Men”). Imagine what this entire series would be coming from a director like that. This is clearly the best-directed film of the bunch, however, there is too much going on in the plot here for the script to fully explore elements the way the filmmakers did in the first two installments of this franchise. It feels more rushed than the first two, and with a source novel nearly twice as long as either of the previous books and ten minutes less running time in the movie, it’s no wonder it feels like there’s less substance here. But it is still beautiful and wonderfully imagined for the screen.

Delgo (2008) **
Director: Marc F. Adler, Jason Maurer
Writers: Patrick J. Cowan, Carl Dream, Jennifer A. Jones, Marc F. Adler, Jason Maurer, Scott Biaer
Starring: Freddie Prinze Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Anne Bancroft, Chris Kattan, Malcolm McDowell, Val Kilmer, Michael Clarke Duncan, Louis Gossett Jr., Eric Idle, Burt Reynolds, Kelly Ripa, Sally Kellerman

With better production values and a good clean up on the script, the CGI sci-fi fantasy “Delgo” actually had the potential to be a good movie. It isn’t a good movie, but it’s got some good ideas behind it. The CGI animation is less than impressive, especially when put up against the standards of most family programming today. It might be good enough for Saturday morning cartoons, but not a theatrical release. The filmmakers chose to put production sketches of all the major characters in the closing credits of the film, and they made me wish they had animated this film with traditional hand-drawn animation. The designs looked like something from the imagination of Ralph Bashki (“The Hobbit”) and would have made for much more interesting viewing than the film’s rather flat looking CGI renderings of this fantasy world.

Red Cliff – Original International Version, parts I & II (2009) ***
Director: John Woo
Writers: John Woo, Khan Chan, Cheng Kuo, Heyu Sheng
Starring: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Fengyi Zhang, Chen Chang, Wei Zhao, Jun Hu, Shidou Nakamura, Chiling Lin, Yong You

As historical war epics go, John Woo’s “Red Cliff” isn’t outstanding, but it’s good enough to prove the rule that any good movie is never too long. Despite a nearly 5 hour running time, I never got bored watching it. Its length ends up giving it a classic television miniseries feel, giving the audience plenty of time to invest in the characters and understand the politics behind the war they are fighting. While not every one has five hours lying around to kill, the film is separated into two parts and might make a good replacement to yet another “Lost” marathon over the weekend to try and figure out just what the hell is happening on that island.

Young Einstein (1988) ½*
Director: Yahoo Serious
Writers: Yahoo Serious, David Roach
Starring: Yahoo Serious, Odile Le Clezio, John Howard, Peewee Wilson, Su Cruikshank

…and the perils of instant streaming on the Wii are discovered. I wanted something stupid and mindless, but not this stupid and mindless. I remembered Yahoo Serious hitting it big with this strange Aussie flick back when I was in high school. I never caught it then and wish I’d kept it undiscovered. I Googled it after watching the film and found it to hold spots on several “worst films ever” blogs. That seems appropriate.

The Hidden Fortress (1958) ***½
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujirawa, Susumu Fujita

Known best as a major source of inspiration for George Lucas’s “Star Wars”, samurai movie master Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” is a funny and poignant critique on the human sin of greed. Following two bumbling, wanna-be heroes (upon whom Lucas would model R2-D2 and C3PO), “The Hidden Fortress” depicts a complicated scheme by a General and his Princess to escape from her captured kingdom through her enemy’s land into an ally’s. The plot is driven by the greed of the two buffoons the general ropes in with promises of gold and the greed of the enemy soldiers they encounter along their journey. Greed, it would seem, is not always good, although it can be used for good.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Penny Thoughts: May 7-13

The Killing (1956) ***
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Jim Thompson, Lionel White (novel “Clean Break”)
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook Jr., Joe Sawyer, Timothy Carey

This early film by venerated film master Stanley Kubrick is a good noir and heist flick but does not suggest the stylized greatness Kubrick would eventually work up to with his later films. I’m not sure what the conscious intention of the narration here is, but it seems to be a distraction from the events on screen, usually providing information that could more interestingly be provided cinematically. Still, in the tradition of film noir and considering this is a post code picture, “The Killing” is brutal in its treatment of its protagonists. The broken time line used during the heist here was probably an influence on the heist sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film “Jackie Brown”.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) ***½
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Roald Dahl (book)
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe

When I originally reviewed this after seeing it in the theater, I thought I might have favored it due to my love of the director’s other work. Although its source material is a children’s book, it’s not a kid’s movie. Yet for the cineaste there is so much to cherish here. The cinematography by Tristan Oliver and art direction by Francesca Maxwell are absolutely beautiful. Certainly someone should’ve given them an award for their work here. At least the National Society of Film Critics was willing to hand out a production design award to an animated feature. But the movie itself is really very good as well. It plays better at home than in the theater, I think, because of Anderson’s soft touch and Clooney’s quiet, calm demeanor as Mr. Fox.

Read my original review here.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) ****
Director: Nicholas Ray
Writers: Stewart Stern, Irving Shulman, Nicholas Ray
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Dennis Hopper, Edward Platt

Teenagers desperately seeking adult guidance and supervision. I think there’s some sort of text shorthand for that now.

North Face (2009) ***
Director: Philipp Stölzl
Writers: Christoph Silber, Philipp Stölzl, Rupert Henning, Johannes Naber, Benedikt Roeskau
Starring: Benno Fürmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek, Georg Friedrich, Simon Schwarz, Ulrich Tukur

“North Face” is the harrowing retelling of the early German attempt to climb the north face of the Eiger mountain located in the Swiss Alps. Led by climbers Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser, the doomed men’s route was eventually used in the first successful ascent of the dangerous mountain in 1938. But this story of the second failed attempt is used in this German film to illustrate some of the German politics leading into the second world war by depicting much of the national pressure put on German climbers and other athletes to exhibit their superiority over the rest of the world leading up to the 1936 Olympics, hosted in Berlin. While this is not the best climbing adventure I’d seen—it would take an amazing film to top the documentary “Touching the Void”—it overcomes some of its melodramatic elements to show just how challenging and driven the lives of mountaineers are.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Iron Man 2 / *** (PG-13)

Tony Stark: Robert Downey, Jr.
Pepper Potts: Gwyneth Paltrow
Natalie Rushman: Scarlett Johansson
Lt. Col. James Rhodes: Don Cheadle
Ivan Vanko: Mickey Rourke
Justin Hammer: Sam Rockwell
Nick Fury: Samuel L. Jackson
Agent Colson: Clark Gregg
Howard Stark: John Slattery
Senator Stern: Garry Shandling
Happy Hogan: Jon Favreau
Voice of Jarvis: Paul Bettany

Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a film directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Justin Theroux. Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Don Heck and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Running time: 124 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language).

Well, there goes my theory about second films in a series being the best. Not that “Iron Man 2” is bad, but it doesn’t come anywhere close to the heights achieved by the first “Iron Man”.

“Iron Man 2” is a slick summer blockbuster that delivers just what the summer crowd is looking for, big bangs, some good laughs, shiny objects and not much else. Robert Downey, Jr. (“Sherlock Holmes”) returns as Tony Stark, the flamboyant playboy CEO of one of the worlds biggest technology innovations companies, and the first superhero to revel in the disclosure of his secret identity as the powerhouse Iron Man. Downey’s performance is just as quirky and charming here as it was in the original, but since this new upbeat take on the superhero psyche was explored so well in the first movie, he doesn’t seem to be given as much to do here.

Stark isn’t having such a good time as Iron Man as it would appear on the surface, however. Since replacing his heart with what is essentially a nuclear reactor (I’m sure there are Iron Man purists out there who will be clamoring to explain to me how erroneous that statement is), it has begun to poison his blood system. As his blood toxicity levels rise, he becomes sick. He starts acting like a man with a death sentence. He takes bigger risks, begins selling off and giving away his cherished treasures. He promotes his secretary, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, “Two Lovers”), to CEO—not an entirely bad decision, since she basically runs the company anyway—and he disappears from the public eye at just the wrong time.

Meanwhile, there are two developments that very much demand Tony Stark’s/Iron Man’s attention. The first is that the U.S. government is very interested in using the Iron Man technology as a military application for “the public good.” They are so desperate for the technology that they are willing to go to Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, “Moon”), an inferior competitor of Stark Industries, to build an army of Iron Men. They sic a U.S. Senator (Garry Shandling, “What Planet Are You From?”) and investigative committee on the Iron Man technology. They even enlist Stark’s good friend, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, “Traitor”), of the U.S. Air Force, to persuade Stark to turn the technology over. When Rhodes sees Stark getting out of control, he just takes the Iron Man prototype.

Second, there appears to be a madman loose with Iron Man in his sights. He’s a Russian named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, “The Wrestler”), and he has a grudge against the entire Stark family. He looks like a bum leftover from the Cold War bread lines of the Soviet era, but he’s actually a gifted physicist in his own right who seems to have developed the exact same energy source technology Stark uses for the Iron Man suit. Instead of an iron suit of armor, Vanko uses it to power electrically deadly whips that he employs to try and kill Stark during a Formula One car race in one of the film’s most impressive action sequences.

On top of all this, Stark is breaking in a new secretary, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johnasson, “Vicky Christina Barcelona”), who just might be a little more than she appears at first. It takes a visit from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, “The Spirit”), of the super secret special ops agency S.H.I.E.L.D., to enlighten Stark as to her purpose and Iron Man’s value to the Avengers’ Initiative, alluded to in the first “Iron Man”. Now, this is just getting confusing, at least to the uninitiated.

It should be clear from this synopsis that “Iron Man 2” suffers from the same ailment as almost all comic book movie sequels, too many characters, too much going on. Its saving grace is that director Jon Favreau (“Elf”) and screenwriter Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”) don’t get themselves bogged down in character and emotional development. They don’t go off on tangents and end up with the mess that was “Spider-Man 3”. They keep it simple and stick to the action. They don’t overcomplicate the plot any more than working all these characters in requires.

I don’t think the majority of viewers will dislike “Iron Man 2”, but many will be disappointed that it isn’t as good as the first one. It is well made and doesn’t fall into the typical plot muckery of many blockbuster sequels, but it doesn’t rely on Downey’s original interpretation of the main character as much as it does the action and special effects. It’s a good time, but not a great one. For those who just can’t get enough, it delivers. And, yes, there is one of those now expected Marvel credit cookies at the very end of the final credits, but it will be utterly indecipherable to anyone who isn’t very familiar with the superheroes of the Marvel universe.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Date Night / *** (PG-13)

Phil Foster: Steve Carell
Claire Foster: Tina Fey
Holbrooke: Mark Wahlberg
Detective Arroyo: Taraji P. Henson
Armstrong: Jimmi Simpson
Collins: Common
DA Frank Crenshaw: William Fichtner
Taste: James Franco
Whippit: Mila Kunis
Joe Miletto: Ray Liotta

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Shawn Levy. Written by Josh Klausner. Running time: 88 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual and crude content throughout, language, some violence, and a drug reference).

It’s been months… Heck, nearly a year since my wife and I went on a proper date. We had an evening come up this weekend when it looked like we might actually have an opportunity to go out! And then we realized it was prom night. Our chances of getting a baby sitter were nil and none. We were ready to concede our fate. Such are the realities of dating your own spouse. “Date Night” is a movie that recognizes those realities and capitalizes on them with the comic personalities of its stars Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

I can’t imagine why these two performers haven’t been paired together before. Not only do their shows run back to back with each other every Thursday night on NBC, but also they’ve each built their careers out of their awkward ordinariness. Perhaps they were just looking for the right material for that particular comedy set. “Date Night” is tailor made for this pair’s particular strengths, and it may not have worked without them.

They play the Fosters, a married couple who have settled in to the family lifestyle so many of us lead. I loved the detail about the kids bursting into the bedroom begging to be fed breakfast. When the weary parents decide there isn’t a chance of getting any more sleep and finally say, “Yes”, we discover along with the poor punished parents that it’s 5 a.m. There probably isn’t a parent out there that has not experienced this moment. Fey and Carell play these normal parenting moments as naturally as they’ve probably experienced them personally.

This being a movie, however, events are not destined to remain routine. On one of their weekly date nights, which have become as routine as the rest of their lives, the Fosters decide to live on the edge by taking someone else’s reservation at the current New York restaurant everyone’s talking about. It becomes a running gag throughout the movie of how appalled anybody is that someone should even think of taking another person’s reservation. This might have been funnier had I believed that this was not something that was contemplated and acted upon hundreds of times each night throughout NYC and the rest of the country, for that matter. As it turns out, the Foster’s picked the wrong dinner reservation to pinch.

The confusion over just who the Fosters are leads them into the sites of criminals and police officers alike, sometimes at the same time. Eventually, Mrs. Foster must call upon a former real estate client, played by Mark Wahlberg, a security expert who must help them straighten out their predicament. This leads to a couple of great scenes of humor about the male ego. “For the love of God will you put on a shirt?” Carell pleads at one point. I don’t recall Wahlberg ever does, and I felt just as small sitting next to my grinning wife in the theater. James Franco and Mila Kunis are also given a rather humorous scene as the couple the Fosters impersonated at the restaurant.

The plot is rather hackneyed. However, it never really matters as it is all about Carell and Fey. They’re more than up to the task of carrying this entire film on their ordinary shoulders. It seems they are able to turn just about any predicament into comedy gold. From motorboat engines to pole dancing, this movie’s only goal is to put this seemingly bland couple into the most bizarre situations screenwriter Josh Klausner (“Shrek the Third”) and director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) can dream up, and see how awkwardly they react. It’s really rather brilliant how reliant this film is on the comedic prowess of its leads alone. It really seems to need nothing else but these two actors to make it work.

As for our own date night, it turns out one of my wife’s friends, who has kids close to ours’ ages and none at the prom, offered to take ours for the night. We got our date night off without so much as a scratch, let alone being mistaken for a couple of criminals, chased by the cops and the mob, and possibly getting wacked off… er, that is, I mean to say ‘wacked out.’ Of course, some days that would seem less exciting than raising two kids, and therefore, a welcome distraction.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Penny Thoughts: April 30-May 6

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) ****
Director: Chris Columbus
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Toby Jones, Julie Walters, Bonnie Wright, Mark Williams, Tom Felton, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, Kenneth Branagh, Matthew Lewis, David Bradley, Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Shirley Henderson

I have a theory that the second films in most successful franchises are usually the best of the series. Some examples could be, “The Empire Strikes Back”, “The Godfather, Part II”, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”, “From Russia With Love”, “Spider-Man 2”, “The Dark Knight”, etc. Of course, this is no hardened rule, but I would also feel that “Harry Potter and the Chamber Secrets” would fit in with these examples. The introductions of the first film are behind it, and the fact that the novels would become too long to fully realize in a reasonable running time had yet to become a problem for the filmmakers. With the first film firmly establishing the Harry Potter universe, its rules and cinematic language, the filmmakers relaxed into their strongest mystery with Lord Voldemort’s second attempt to return from the dead. On top of that there are still great surprises and wonderments to be discovered in the world of magic for both the audience and the characters.

Presumed Innocent (1990) ***
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Frank Pierson, Alan J. Pakula, Scott Turow (novel)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Brian Denehey, Raul Julia, Bonnie Bedelia, Greta Scacchi, Paul Winfield, John Spencer, Joe Grifasi, Tom Mardirosian, Bradley Whitford

It’s always interesting to go back and see a movie that disappointed the first time to see what you think years later. “Pressumed Innocent” had big buzz when it was released in 1990, but seemed to underwhelm, most likely due to the novel’s popularity and the fact that the audience knew the identity of the killer from the opening moments. I had not, however read the book, and so was unimpressed that I was able to decipher what had gone down fairly early on as well. Looking at it now, it stands up surprisingly well, and I wonder whether my suspicions of the killer’s identity had more to do with casting or some sort of over heard knowledge, because the filmmakers do a good job keeping the outcome a secret until the very end. Sure the suspicions are there, but two suspects are possible right up till the final confession. It’s in that final confession where I found the only major flaw of the movie this time around. The confession is about six minutes long, but as all the evidence has been presented by the time it starts, once the perpetrator begins the confession, you instantly know how it went down. But you still have to sit through the six minutes of explanation.

Another problem I had with the movie in 1990 was the casting of Bonnie Bedelia as the accused’s wife. At the time, I thought her performance was flat and lacked the dynamics the character required. Today Bedelia’s performance seems quite nuanced and right on pitch for what the role requires. Any weaknesses in the role are due more to weaknesses in the script rather than in Bedelia’s performance. Another performance I did not notice the first time around was the brilliant portrayal of the judge by veteran actor Paul Winfield, truly inspired.

The Core (2003) **
Director: Jon Amiel
Writers: Cooper Layne, John Rogers
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo, Tchéky Karyo, DJ Qualls, Richard Jenkins, Alfre Woodard, Bruce Greenwood

I’ll confess a certain affection for this attempt at a good disaster flick. The filmmakers opted to cast talent above star power and have assembled a fine crew of B-list stars (save for Hilary Swank from the A-list), who all put their hearts into this rather clunky script. Like so many disaster flicks before, the world is going to end if a group of scientists don’t enlist their brains and heroism in a plot that will have them risking life and limb for all humanity and getting knocked off in numerical order in the process. You could call the character order of death and the exact timing of each death from the moment their mission to drill to the Earth’s core and set off a nuclear blast to “jump start” the planet begins. It’s an earnest telling of this old cinematic story, but the cliché dialogue and plotting never allow it to take off and be the thrilling disaster flick the quality of “The Towering Inferno” or even the recent “2012”. The script is over the top, but the production values aren’t. It all just needs a little more umph!

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) ***
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

My initial thoughts are that this film has gotten much of its praise due to the fact that it was Heath Ledger’s final film. Not that it isn’t good. It is not, however, one of the greater works of Ledger or director Terry Gilliam for that matter. Gilliam graciously removed his contractually required credit “a Terry Gilliam film” and replaced it with “a film from Heath Ledger and friends”, and he did a good job of finding a way to finish the movie when his leads died midway through production. But this is really Gilliam lite. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Gilliam can be a difficult filmmaker, both on the set and in the viewing. Gilliam claimed this film was inspired by a need to just have a fun time making a movie. Despite the unforeseen circumstance of Ledger’s death, it seems as if they did have a fun time. The casting of Tom Waits as the devil is more than a stroke of genius.

The Blind Side (2009) ***
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writers: John Lee Hancock, Michael Lewis (book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game”)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens, Kathy Bates

“The Blind Side” is everything it promises to be. After seeing it, I do feel Sandra Bullock’s awards season attention was deserved. Perhaps the bravest thing she does in her performance is never going for the emotional cheap shot. She keeps her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy at an emotional distance, which makes her job as an actress more difficult, but probably serves the character more accurately. It was one of the best features of the film for me. And I think what proves Bullock is the Oscar caliber actress she now must tout to promote all her roles is that she remains as charming and funny here without the cheap emotional tricks that would normally fill the arsenal of an actress coming from the romantic comedy background of hers. Not to mention that I could never knock a movie that holds the greatest linebacker to ever play the game in such high regard. Go Giants! Sorry, Theismann.

Y Tu Mamá También (2001) ****
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Carlos Cuarón
Starring: Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal, Maribel Verdú

I finally got around to one of the movies, which dominated critics’ best of the decade lists that I had yet to see. This movie was everything I expected and something I didn’t. It has a carefree quality about it that so accurately depicts its adolescent subjects. That’s not to say these young people don’t have cares, but their ups and downs are given perspective by Cuarón that allows the audience to reflect on those days of adolescence when friendship was all that mattered and no thoughts of adulthood to come had any relevance. Of course, sex is all that’s on these kids’ minds, and with the help of an adult who has more perspective than she deserves, they come of age in a way all the rest of us could only dream of. Only a few hints of the hardships of adulthood to come are suggested by the isolated narration accompanying their journey.