May 29, 2011

The Hangover Part II (05/29/2011)

Lettergrade: D

The Hangover Part II is one of those sequels that rewraps whatever people seemed to like about the first movie in a different setting. It's a pantheon that includes The Cannonball Run II, Weekend At Bernie's II, multiple Ocean's 11 follow-ups, Escape From L.A., The Karate Kid Part II, Another 48 Hours, Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles, and countless others that will come back to me, I'm sure.

It's an alright movie in and of itself, I suppose. Although director Todd Phillips and his co-screenwriters spent most of pre-production combing through the first screenplay and dutifully changing every appearance of "Las Vegas" to "Bangkok," they found time to come with a little bit of fresh material too, and the new stuff is pretty funny. But man... there really isn't that much of it. Beat for beat, Part II offers slight variations on scenes from the original, and I've gotta say that I've never entirely understood what audience is demanding to see an essential replay of something they've already seen and might have even bought on DVD?

Bangkok is a bit scarier and a lot less fun than Vegas. The surprises aren't all that surprising because although we don't quite know what the punchlines are, we can roughly guess when and how they'll be delivered. Zach Galifianakis is still funny, but remember how great it was to watch the first movie and not know who that sweaty, hairy guy who was saying all the crazy shit was?

There are a handful of big laughs in The Hangover Part II, but none of them really match the pleasure of watching the original. There are better flicks out there to spend your time and money on right now, so I'd encourage you to choose one of them instead. Again, it's not that it's bad, but perhaps I'm being a little extra tough on it for not being much more than a fuzzy copy with a few of the variables switched up.

My journal entry on the original Hangover.

May 27, 2011

The Tree Of Life (05/27/2011)

There is a lengthy segment, running about an hour or so, in the middle of Terence Malick's The Tree Of Life that is beautiful and unforgettable. It begins with the birth of Jack, the closest thing the movie has to a central character, and then, through a series of quick cuts and snatches of moments that I would describe as something between full scenes and montage bits, follows his discovery of the world he's been born into.

This section begins about a third of the way into the movie, I would guess, and I must admit that before it came along, my wife and I were about an inch away from grabbing our stuff and getting the hell outta there.

I knew very little about the picture going in, to be honest with you. I had read an article saying it had been booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and then a few days later I saw another one which announced it had won the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest honor. I can somewhat understand both reactions: That mesmerizing midsection is bookended by two of the most abstract segments I've seen in a wide-release movie this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with which it seems to share some conceptual similarities). There was a smattering of enthusiastic applause at the end of the movie, but while we were making our way back to our car, we heard several people going on and on about how much they hated it, vowing that they would never watch a Terence Malick film again.

To be honest with you, I'm not entirely sure where I come down on it myself. I think of myself as an astute movie goer, but I was at a bit of a loss to interpret what those beginning and end parts of picture were really getting at, and what the take-away, perhaps, was supposed to be. There's something big and cosmic happening in The Tree Of Life, but did the experience really speak to me on a deep level or am I trying to appear intelligent to my friends by saying that it did?

Although you may be mislead by the presence in the cast of Brad Pitt as Jack's father and Sean Penn as an older Jack, don't be fooled: This is not really a narrative movie: It's an art movie with some heavily avant-garde elements. Even that section that I really like does not constitute a story, per se: It's more like a collection of memories that are as much about "feeling" and "atmosphere" as they are about being literal.

The film opens with a very abstract sequence wherein the parents are informed that Jack's little brother, now 19, has been killed in Vietnam. It's a time period that the film will never return to, but which hangs over the rest of the picture's past and future. Throughout the film, we hear various characters whisper in hushed tones every now and again - possibly praying? - all raising questions about spirituality, God, and the nature of life itself. "How do you see us?," Jack's mother, played by Jessica Chastain, asks while mourning her son. The movie then segues into a lengthy, lengthy sequence that meticulously shows how gasses came together in space to form the planets, the coming of the dinosaurs (!), and the evolution of life and nature as we know them.

It was during this "formation of the planets" section that I noticed the most walk-outs. The woman sitting next to Laura turned to her friend and said, "I'll see you in the book store!," and abruptly left, never to return. Others trickled out at intermittent points during the film, and one guy in the back of the theater proclaimed, "Well, that was a big piece of shit!" once the credits started rolling.

The aforementioned segment with Jack that I really liked was a breath of fresh air because it is the first time the picture is told from a character's point of view. As Jack grows, we follow his attention as it shifts from the beauty of the trees and the skies to having a sense of what kind of people his parents are. This further evolves into what I would guess are a series of Malick's nostalgic recollections: We're shown things Jack does with his parents... how their details get filled in with time. We see how he interacts with his friends (and how that changes with time), the moment he becomes aware of the concept of death, and other assorted incidents from childhood that shape who Jack is. Walking through town with his family, he sees men in chains, under police custody, and wonders if such a life could happen to him. After a childhood friend drowns at the local pool, it dawns on him that his parents will one day die, and that eventually, he will too.

As for the ending segment, which seems to show an adult Jack (now played by an ever-sweaty and miserable looking Sean Penn) remembering his life... well, I don't know what to make of that!

Religion is a major thematic element in this movie, but I honestly was unsure what Malick was saying about it. If I knew more about the man himself, perhaps his viewpoint would be a bit more clear to me, but it is not apparent from watching the film alone, and on those terms, I'm not sure how successful his endeavor is. I actually kind of admire innovative and experimental approaches to filmmaking, provided that the filmmaker supplies the audience with adequate tools to decode what the picture is trying to say. I'm not convinced that The Tree Of Life does that in and of itself. It is memorable, and it is powerful, but I suspect that if I encouraged a friend to go see it, I would be greeted with an earful later when they questioned how I could possibly set them up like that when something like Midnight In Paris was playing next door. Again, I do think the "middle" of the movie is quite striking. Brilliant, really. But at the same time it too is more of a feeling than the sort of thing that has a clear narrative purpose.

I thought of 2001: A Space Odyssey several times during the picture, actually. Not only because of the lengthy Nova segment that had no dialogue and the dramatic classical music throughout the film that was occasionally reminiscent of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," but also because I found the pattern of the various segments (and my enjoyment of them) to be quite similar. With that movie, I think the stuff on the space station is highly engaging, but everything before and after that is a certain kind of low-grade torture. I've even tried to watch it a few times as an adult, but always have the distinct feeling that there's something about it that I'm simply not getting. And I don't necessarily mean "not getting" as in "not understanding"... I mean, I've never quite felt the powerful vibe that others do.

Similarly, while I will never forget The Tree Of Life, everything outside of that quasi-narrative section feels a little like a deeply symbolic cinematic jerk-off session. It seems like it's an intelligent , sophisticated work, but it takes a chap who is a more intellectual (and more interested) than myself to really understand and appreciate what it's doing.

May 21, 2011

Pirates Of The Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides (05/21/2011)

Lettergrade: F

For months, Harold Camping of Family Radio has been saying that Judgement Day would begin on May 21st, 2011. The Rapture: The day on which the second coming of Jesus would occur and all true Christians would be removed from the earth, leaving non-believers to suffer in a burnt out, hellish wasteland before Armageddon (and the end of the world) would arrive in October.

Well, May 21st is here, and as far as I'm aware the Jesus part hasn't happened, but my wife and I went to see Pirates Of The Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides this afternoon, which runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes and, by odd coincidence, feels like about five months of agonizing, post-apocalyptic suffering.

Let's get right to it: The movie is a cynical, heartless cash-grab for Johnny Depp, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, the screenwriters, and the studio. It is free of any wit, or well-staged sequences, or memorable performances, or any of the other components that made the other films pleasurable. The pace is turgid, and the rambling dialogue is bloated and maddeningly aimless. It is easily the most "talky" entry that the series has had with the least amount of payoff: Scenarios are more or less recycled from the first film (a sword fight in the rafters during the early part of the movie, a race to the story's supernatural MacGuffin throughout the middle, and a big fight in a cave toward the end), and from the first and third Indiana Jones movies. The bullshit story is just as convoluted and as cumbersome as the other three movies, only much less engaging and interesting (to me). I caught myself enjoying exactly one scene: the mermaids' attempt to seduce the men on the lifeboats midway through the flick.

To top it all off, since Keira Knightly, Orlando Jones and the remainder of the supporting cast from the earlier films are all absent, we're left with a new line-up of bland and unmemorable side players who don't leave much of an impression or even really distinguish themselves as enjoyable pirate stereotypes. It was strange seeing Jack front and center in the story as well: He's really kind of the Han Solo of the series... a scene stealing supporting character who was never before required to give the film it's heart. Having him run the show, as he does here, just doesn't feel right. I thought Knightly and Jones were a little uninteresting in the original trilogy, to be honest, but the young romantic couple that subs in for them in this one barely even has a pulse. The "male" half of that romance is played by the terminally dull Sam Claflin, a cleric brought aboard Blackbeard's ship by Cruz in order to save whatever's left of her (maybe) father's soul. Endless preaching about redemption and salvation in a supposedly fun summer popcorn movie?

Roger Ebert sometimes writes that a James Bond film is only as good as its villain. There might be something to that: I think I preferred Pirates 2 and 3 to the first largely because Davy Jones was such a beautifully rendered baddie, owing equal credit to Bill Nighy's scenery-gnawing on-set motion-capture performance as well as to ILM's stellar work in making him look so damn cool. This time it's Ian McShane as the voodoo pirate Captain Blackbeard who oddly contributes to several of the brighter moments in the movie while simultaneously encapsulating what is most disappointing about it.

You see, it has been foretold that Blackbeard will die in the not-too-distant future, and so his daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is desperate to locate the fabled Fountain Of Youth in order to save him. As it so happens, Jack Sparrow mumbled something about wanting to find the Fountain Of Youth at the end of part 3, so he's in the mix this time too. Cruz and Captain Jack have a history, of course, and theirs is a relationship built upon double-dealing and mistrust, as most of Sparrow's are. Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) is back for some reason as well, now as a British officer who is seeking Blackbeard for his own reasons. Lots of interpersonal melodrama in this one, but it's so tough to really feel invested in any of it.

To be honest with you, one of more disconcerting aspects of the movie is that director Rob Marshall (replacing Gore Verbinski, who made the other three) either doesn't quite get the subversive, rock-star tone of the earlier movies, or he has no interest in making a picture that exists on similar terms. Nowhere is this more clear than in his handling of Jack Sparrow himself. In the other entries, Jack was always devious and almost chicken hearted, talking his way out of tight spots, and sort of bumbling his way through the adventure, in spite of his cowardice. In this one, he's a little more like an action hero, pulling off impressive feats and occasionally even acts of heroism in a way that just frankly doesn't feel consistent with the guy we've come to know in the previous movies.

But really, it doesn't sit well with me that Depp agreed to play the character a fourth time at all. I don't blame him for appearing in the first picture, a role which turned out to be his signature performance, nor do I begrudge him for accepting the mountain of cash that Disney offered him to do the back-to-back sequels. You can't fault the guy for wanting to play pirate in exotic locations for a few months and collect huge checks along the way, but now that he's been playing the same guy for eight years (with occasional breaks to phone-in increasingly lazy performances in progressively soul-dead Tim Burton movies), you really start to miss Johnny Depp the gifted actor, and cannot help but wonder what kind of work the guy who appeared in Donnie Brasco, Blow and Finding Neverland would be doing if he were still interested in showing up to work.

"Money doesn't buy you happiness," he has been quoted, "but it buys you a big enough yacht to sail right up to it!" True dat, Mr. Depp, but a large salary and massive big box office receipts do not change the fact that Pirates Of The Caribbean 4 is fucking terrible. Such details probably don't matter to him, of course, since he couldn't even get together the time to watch parts 2 and 3 once they were finished, but is it too much to ask that he at least pretend to give a shit about the movies that he's earning all that cash from in the first place?

My journal entry on Pirates Of The Caribbean 3: At World's End.

My journal entry on Alice In Wonderland.

May 6, 2011

Thor (05/06/2011)

Lettergrade: B

My wife called this afternoon from work, and I excitedly told her that I had gotten tickets for Thor at 7:30.


"The trailers look really bad," she pleaded. I had seen the same ones, of course, and deep down I agreed. But despite the fact that Thor himself seemed to be a 3rd rate Marvel superhero at best, of whom I had never even heard until it was announced that Paramount's film about him was going into production, other aspects of the movie seemed intriguing: Most of all that Kenneth Branagh, best known (as a director) for his excellent adaptations of Shakespeare's Henry V and the 1996 Hamlet, among others, had been hired to make it. And then, of course, there were the early reviews that seemed to agree that Thor is a much better made and more entertaining film than you might expect, constituting an 80% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes the morning of its release.

Briefly, I contemplated trying to convince Laura that I was not talking about the dopey superhero movie she was thinking of, but instead of the breakout foreign-language Norwegian smash about clergy abuse that was well regarded on the art-house circuit. By the time we got to the theater, I reasoned, it would be too late for her to back out. Ultimately, though, I went for the honest approach and talked her into it by saying that it's a big summer popcorn flick, and it might be fun.

And you know... the picture is a little hammy, and the backstory behind who Thor and his race of beings are is beyond convoluted and patently ludicrous, but in spite of it all, the movie is indeed a lot of fun, and one that I would not mind recommending to another person and/or catching again on cable in a year or two.

As the movie opens, formerly respected actor Anthony Hopkins is King Odin, ruler of a far off planet called Asgard that resembles ancient Greece by way of the Emerald City. It's one of nine in the entire universe that has intelligent life, I think the film was trying to say, another of which is Earth. Odin and his people used to visit Iceland and Scandinavia every so often, and the people of the past would mistake them for Gods, hence Norse mythology as we know it.

Odin has two sons: Thor and Loki, only one of whom can be heir to the throne. Thor, played by the charismatic Chris Hemsworth, is favored above his skeevy brother, a scene-stealing Tom Hiddleston, despite the fact that Odin does not hide his displeasure with his elder son's arrogance and vanity. On the day Thor is to be named King (or something), a few dudes from another planet where everyone looks like the Snow Miser from The Year Without Santa Claus (and even seem to have the same powers) mysteriously appear in Assguard and make some trouble, after which Thor defies his father's order to let it go and chillax, and leads a team over to the other planet to kick some serious ass.

For his disobedience, Odin banishes him to Earth, utilizing the same technology that brought Howard to earth in the 1986 science fiction classic Howard The Duck. There he meets an utterly unconvincing astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman, in what might be the worst performance of her career, as well as an older scientist she works with (Stellan SkarsgÄrd, who must have needed the money), and a wise-crackin' intern played by Kat Dennings, a rare female substitute for a role that you would think would be taylor-made for Jay Baruchel. Much like He-Man in Masters Of The Universe, Thor must learn lessons about humility during his time on our planet before he can rightfully return home and participate in the film's big green-screen finale.

Branagh was probably the right choice for this material. The action scenes are exciting and feature a lot of stunt men duking it out (as opposed to the modern standard of one big CG army squaring off against another), and the picture has several expertly staged dramatic scenes where even two-dimensional characters are required to show an interesting range of complex emotions that frankly surprised me. I thought the weakest parts of the film were the opening and closing segments on Assguard. The middle part where Thor is on Earth (the "Crocodile Dundee" section, if you will) is surprisingly funny and has a lot of good character growth and heart.

Indeed, the picture has echos of several Shakespearian tragedies infused in its DNA. According to the trivia section on IMDB, Branagh thought of the film as a comic-book twist on "Henry V," which was about a young king undergoing various trials and tribulations: fighting a war, courting a girl from another land, and overcoming character flaws in order to learn to be a wise and just leader. Add to that a little "Richard III" (in that Loki shrewdly misdirects and confuses his enemies for his own underhanded purposes), with a dash or two of "King Lear" for good measure. Such influences might feel thin or mishandled in other hands, but Branagh is certainly in familiar territory, and he spends a lot of time making sure that the relationship stuff between Assguardians is all well nourished and effective. When Thor actually contemplates his failings and makes personal sacrifices that show how his character has developed, it's a little cheesy, yes, but at the same time, it's moving and you believe it.

Now, all that said, the film doesn't entirely survive the terrible scenes that come courtesy of Natalie Portman's character, and in spite of some of the virtues I saw in it, I think my wife walked out of the theater still thinking the movie was sorta shitty. I contend, however, that Thor has a lot more going for it than last summer's leaden Iron Man 2 did, and even if it is primarily a interstitial installment leading up to next summer's Marvel superhero gang-bang, The Avengers, at least it's an engaging one.

Other Marvel movies I've reviewed:
Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man 2