Friday, May 11, 2012

The Avengers

I am not a comic book (excuse me--"graphic novel") or superhero aficionado. I've seen the first Iron Man, but skipped its sequel (which introduced Nick Fury and the Black Widow) as well as The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, etc. So I was reluctant to drag myself to the over-hyped action-palooza that is The Avengers.

Turns out, it TOTALLY lives up to the hype.

You don't need the back stories on the characters--there's just enough expository dialogue to clue you in.  Speaking of dialogue, it's crisp and witty with the quips and wisecracks flowing as fast and furious as the action sequences.  This was definitely one of the funniest and funnest movies I've seen this year.

Makes that "in years."

Although Robert Downey, Jr. is in fine form as "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" Tony Stark aka "Iron Man," he's not the only one eliciting laughs from the audience.  For my money, the best character was Mark Ruffalo's soft spoken Bruce Banner turned raging green Hulk.  Indeed, "Hulk, smash!" has become a internet meme and justifiably so.

My only gripe:  casting Agent Phil Coulson as "The Gipper."  Sure, Clark Gregg offers a likeable portrayal, but the idea that somehow this nerdy agent's death--rather than the death of hundreds of innocent people and the annihilation of the planet--is the catalyst for the disparate group of superheroes joining forces was...lame.  Whatever.  The movie still rocked!

I have to say I LOVED this movie.  I may even see it again.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Raven

I saw this flick last Friday even after seeing the sad Rotten Tomatoes rating. I thought, "Heck, they trashed Anonymous (another period piece) and that wasn't nearly as bad as the reviews made it out to be, so maybe they're wrong about The Raven?"  Unfortunately, they weren't.

I'm a sucker for costumes AND John Cusack, so I thought that the combination of the two would make for an entertaining couple of hours.  Although Cusack's portrayal of Edgar Allan Poe isn't quite as awful as reviews seem to indicate, despite the physical resemblance, he doesn't really own the role.  This is partially due to the writing which have him spouting exposition and dropping Wikipedia tidbits rather than depicting a flesh and blood person.

Speaking of blood, there's plenty of it in this gothic horror.  A trio of murders kick off the action immediately--emulating Poe's macabre style.  As gruesome as the murders are, however, they do little to inspire a sense of horror or establish the tone of the psychological thriller.  The tone that is set is not gripping but conveys more of a sense of the somnambulant.  In fact, one of my fellow audience members snored throughout most of the film.  (It's possible that the snoozy movie-goer was this Gawker reviewer, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that others were bored by the film...)

Adhering to period verisimilitude  doesn't appear to have been a major concern for the filmmakers.  The story opens with hoofs pounding down a Baltimore cobblestone street as the police department races to an apartment building to stop a violent crime (as evidenced by the screams and pleas of a woman's voice) in progress.  Clearly a neighbor must have heard the commotion and dialed 911 on his iPhone.

Oh phones (iPhone or otherwise) in 1849.

The film also kills off one of Poe's rivals--despite the fact that in real life he lived to write a scathing obituary of the poet/writer.

There are those who derided the "twist" as to who turns out to be the copycat killer, but that didn't really bother me much.  What I found unappealing about the movie was that the murders--while certainly grisly and gruesome and gory--didn't resonate as "Poe-tic" to me.  I did a paper on the writer in high school and while I don't have a vivid recollection of his work, I did note that the necrophiliac themes were pervasive--even perverse at times.  While the film did hint at Poe's affinity for the repellant, Cusack's portrayal was more of a quirky eccentric (complete with pet raccoon) than a twisted, tortured soul.

Like one of Poe's most famous stories, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven is meant to be a bit of a mindfuck--at least on the part of the killer toying with the object of his homage.  Unlike that gothic classic, however, the movie does little to build suspense and tension and the climax is less of a shattering revelation and more of a tired whimper.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Hunger Games

I always feel like when I see a movie adapted from a book I've never read, I'll be missing out. Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and fans of the series (most of whom feel that Gary Ross' take is a fairly faithful adaptation), I felt like not having read the books definitely put me at a disadvantage.

Of course having READ the books often sets the viewer up for disappointment when the characters you have imagined in your mind don't correspond to the representation on screen.

Armed with only a basic outline of the story, I had little in the way of expectations. Although from what I knew at the outset, The Hunger Games seemed problematic--casting issues and directorial choices aside. The story is basically American Idol meets Survivor meets Roman Gladiators: two kids (aged 12-18) from each of twelve districts offered up as tribute each year to participate in a televised fight to the death.

I take it that The Hunger Games is supposed to highlight our ungodly obsession with reality TV, but it stretches the point beyond believability. I mean, Simon Cowell can be cruel and cutting, but seriously? Then again, The Hunger Games was the number one movie for WEEKS so we have millions of people watching a movie about people watching kids killing kids on TV. Wrap your head around that piece of circular logic...

The dystopian society in The Hunger Games is portrayed as impoverished and malnourished--save for the wealthy residents of the Capitol. But The Hunger Games is televised to all Panem residents. Anyone who knows anything about media knows that content is just the pretty wrapping around advertisements--or as a former English professor used to say, "Newspapers exist to sell underwear." (Actually newspapers barely exist these days. I guess underwear is being sold via Victoria's Secret ads embedded in Hulu videos...) So, if the majority of the viewers of The Hunger Games are too poor to even buy food--much less Miller Lite or a brand new Acura--what's the point of the broadcast?

Other nitpicky points that annoyed me: old technology such as coal mining coexisting with such advanced tech (CGI mastiffs that can be turned into the real deal) or if everyone in district 12 is starving, who's buying the pastries from Peeta's dad's store? If you're a player in a game where the object is to kill the other players, how do you get mad at a player who killed someone from your district? Also, knowing that there's only one survivor, why do you "team up" with any of your fellow players?

But my biggest issue with The Hunger Games is that the characters in the movie were probably much less developed than in the book. To be sure, director Gary Ross gives the story his signature visual style as evidenced by his work on Pleasantville. But the grisly aspect of the story of kids killing kids is fairly muted with most of the deaths occurring off screen. The lack of character development means that reaction to the deaths are muted as well. At least they were for me: I shed not one tear--not even for the adorable, plucky Rue.

Ross has bowed out for future installments of The Hunger Games series with Francis Lawson stepping in for Catching Fire.  Lawson, who has been praised for being faithful to source material (ala his direction of Water for Elephants) might be able to infuse some more character development and emotion into the second film.  Will I be back to determine if I'm team Gale or team Peeta (I'm leaning towards the latter...)?


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Coming Attractions Spring/Summer 2012

With all the movies I've been going to lately, I've gotten an unusually large dose of "coming attractions." Not that I mind--in some cases I find the trailers to be the most enjoyable part of the movie-going experience. In some cases, I'd almost prefer to watch two hours worth of trailers. In some cases, it FEELS like I have watched almost two hours worth of trailers.

But I digress...

Here are some of the trailers that have piqued my interest over the last couple of weeks/months:

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

Who comes up with this stuff? Oh, that's right--this is from the twisted mind of Seth Graham-Smith and is a follow-up to his also twisted "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" which is also being made into a movie. (Has anyone seen a trailer for that? I'm dying to see how the stuffy manners and morality of the early 19th century is transformed by the undead...)

The thought of our 16th president not only as someone who abolished slavery, but was a kick-ass vampire slayer? Totally tickles the funny bone--although from the trailer it appears the movie totally plays it straight.

The Raven

When I first saw this trailer the other day, I thought it was for the Abe Lincoln vampire movie. Similar time periods (early 1800s) and same Gothic feel. But no, it's a movie about a serial killer who is inspired by the macabre work of Edgar Allen Poe, who is played here by John Cusack. Yup, Lloyd Dobler is playing the necrophilia-obsessed author. It's more mind-boggling than Lincoln as a 19th century Buffy in my opinion. Still, I'm a sucker for period pieces so I'll probably go see both (and cover my eyes at all the gory parts...).


I most definitely will NOT be seeing this based on the cliché-ridden trailer. "There's only one man who can get her out..." "He's the best there is...but he's a loose cannon." Ugh. The story: The president's daughter is caught up in a jailbreak that occurs in a maximum security prison orbiting off earth and an operative wrongfully convicted of conspiracy is tasked with rescuing her and earning his freedom. The stereotypical action hero-loner is played by Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace reprises her Taken role as the pretty damsel in distress. An IMDB previewer suggested it might have been a more intriguing story had the roles been reversed and I agree.

Neighborhood Watch

Post-George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin, it would appear that marketing this movie just got a bit problematic. According to the IMDB synopsis, however, the flick about a quartet of wannabe bad-asses turns into a Men In Black ripoff. With Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill on tap, there will probably be laughs. Whether or not they'll be apparent in footage OTHER than the trailer remains to be seen...

(Update: Apparently Fox's marketing department isn't as quick on the draw as I am as they only just now pulled the teaser trailer for Neighborhood Watch in light of the Trayvon Martin shooting.)

That's My Boy

Okay, since it's an Adam Sandler movie, it's pretty much guaranteed to be stupid, silly, raunchy comedy which plays to the lowest common denominator. The set up is similar to Sandler's previous foray into "father figure" aka Big Daddy, but with the added ick factor twist of a little Mary Kay LeTourneau subplot. Although the trailer shows Sandler shamelessly mugging, Andy Samberg is sure to be funny--and what the hell, I love Adam. It's not The Wedding Singer but unless the reviews are Jack and Jill level horrific, I'll probably go see it.

The Five-Year Engagement

Jason Segel AND Emily Blunt? Say no more--I am so there. These two look adorable together in the trailer--I've no doubt the finished movie will be both sweet and funny.

Rock of Ages

Musicals tend not to be big winners on the big screen, but Rock of Ages boasts an all-star cast including Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Cruise. It could end up being a terrible cheese-fest, but two hours of 80s pop/metal might be worth the ticket price.

Dark Shadows

Speaking of cheesy, Tim Burton is back with his creative muse Johnny Depp as soap-vamp Barnabas Collins. Surprisingly, Helena Bonham Carter doesn't make an appearance in this flick (at least one that's credited currently on IMDB) but Seth Grahame-Smith of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is credited as one of the writers. Unless the Lincoln does Buffy flick, this one appears to be capitalizing more on comedy than Gothic horror.

** ETA:  Actually Bonham Carter IS in Dark Shadows.  All is right with the world...

Premium Rush

Three words to describe why I'll being seeing this movie: Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Any trailers pique your interest lately?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

21 Jump Street

This movie version of the once popular 80s TV show would have seemed to be another indication that Hollywood is indeed out of new ideas. But I could tell from the trailer, that instead of updating the original show (which itself was a ripoff of the 60s/70s The Mod Squad), the intention was to go the buddy comedy route and lampoon the very idea of actors in their late 20s/early 30s playing high school students ala Beverly Hills 90210 (**cough cough Luke Perry cough**).

Of course Jonah Hill who has become a staple in movie comedies over the last couple of years (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Superbad, Get Him to the Greek, etc.) is a shoo-in as the dorky, choke-in-a-clutch Schmidt and Channing Tatum certainly fits the bill as the pretty-but-dim Jenko--but did you know that Tatum is actually FUNNY? So much so that you'd actually forgive him for being in not one but TWO Nicholas Sparks movies as well Step Up 1 & 2.

The movie is filled with great comic actors like Nick Offerman and Ellie Kemper, but it's the great chemistry between Hill and Tatum which turns the story from a standard action adventure into more of a "bro-mantic" comedy. That's not to say there isn't plenty of action--there are car chases, explosions and gun violence, but given the overall tone of the movie even the climatic bloody shoot-out at the end of the film is played for laughs.

Fans of the original TV series (I never watched it...) might be disappointed at the irreverent take on their beloved show, but there are at least four former Jump Streeters making cameos in the film--including Johnny Depp. The movie is a mess of silliness and mayhem, but is definitely a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Here's to hoping that Hill and Tatum re-team for future comedic efforts.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

"High concept" is Hollywood-ese for movies that can be summed up in a single sentence. It's usually reserved for blockbusters like Die Hard which became its own shorthand for high concept with the numerous copycats that followed it being described as "Die Hard on a Bus," "Die Hard on a Plane"--you get the idea. Ironically, the indie flick Jeff, Who Lives at Home manages to convey its concept with less than a sentence in its title.

The "Jeff" is question is played by Jason Segel who's made a career out of playing the overgrown man-child. His enormous size and hangdog expressions really contribute to the character of the basement-dwelling, pot smoking, 30 year-old with a severe case of arrested development due to the untimely death of his father when he was young.

His brother, Pat (played by Ed Helms) suffers a similar case of stunted growth--lacking a role model for becoming a man although he is employed and married, unlike Jeff.

But back to Jeff, whose belief system is built upon the M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs as he approaches commonplace occurrences like wrong numbers as messages from the universe as to his destiny. After experiencing said wrong number while smoking a bong and watching an infomercial on TV, Jeff sets out on a fatalistic journey that is the basis of action for the rest of the movie. His journey has him crossing paths with his estranged brother Pat (twice) which only furthers his interpretation of meaning.

As Jeff's journey becomes subsumed by Pat's marital difficulties, the film starts to resemble the 1996 indie flick, The Daytrippers. Written and directed by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, the film does explore the relationship between the two brothers--as well as Pat's relationship with his long-suffering wife Linda (Judy Greer) and the tension between the sons and their uptight mother (Susan Sarandon)--but mostly it's Jeff's journey to discover his destiny which he does in a big way in the climatic ending.

As such, the film is highly dependent on Segel's ability to walk the fine line between adorable and annoyance, which he manages with ease. Although a fairly lightweight piece of whimsy, the Duplass brothers along with their talented cast manage to make this day-in-a-life film "the best day in the history of the whole world."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Friends with Kids

In Friends with Kids, Jennifer Westfeldt's adorably neurotic Jessica Stein-esque character is still single with loudly ticking biological clock. So, she and BFF Jason Fryman (Adam Scott) decide to forgo the unhappily ever after route taken by their friends (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd and Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) and have a kid together.

While what follows in pretty predictable in a Harry Met Sally had a baby kind of way, it still is an engaging little flick. While it doesn't quite live up to the charm of Kissing Jessica Stein, Westfeldt and Scott have great chemistry and are completely adorable together. Sure, it's got a lifestyle porn gloss to it, but as with KJS it perfectly dramatizes the fact that life and relationships can be messy and that the unconventional these days is becoming the norm.

As a post on Gawker points out, the supporting cast is fairly peripheral to the movie--so if you were expecting Rudolph and Wiig to delight you with their SNL comic chops, you're bound to be disappointed. Well, not so much disappointed--the tangled relationship between Westfeldt's Julie Keller and Scott's Jason Fryman provides enough interest. The characters are not altogether three-dimensional: Jason is superficial serial monogamist and Jules has an obsession with pondering various death scenarios--but that's about the limit of the depth of portraits. Still, Westfeldt and Scott manage to draw you in with their performances.

Even with its flaws, I enjoyed the film much more than many I've seen lately. It brought me to tears at points (and I forgot tissues AGAIN!) and left me satisfied with the resolution--even though it was pretty much a given (see ending of "Harry Met Sally"). If you liked Kissing Jessica Stein, you'll enjoy Friends with Kids. And if you have seen KJS, rent it!