The Hangover

Remember when comedies not produced by Judd Apatow didn’t have to be about being chased by CG dinosaurs or fighting an evil Egyptian Pharaoh with Amelia Earhart? Or how about when a comedy didn’t have to star every A, B, C and D-List comedian on the planet? Me neither, but “The Hangover” is the exception.

Here is a simple, funny comedy with a not completely outrageous premise and a few characters that are familiar but not total cliché stereotypes. Doug, Phil, Stu and Alan are four guys on the way to Vegas for Doug’s bachelor party. We see them make a toast and have a drink on the roof of the hotel, and the next morning, none of them can remember anything, their room is trashed with hundreds of unexplainable details, and Doug has gone missing. What we’re left with is three characters on a kind of mystery quest to piece together everything that happened the previous evening. Continue reading “The Hangover”

An Education

There is a performance by Carey Mulligan in “An Education” that is so inherently charming that I would like to say it is the sole reason for the film going above and beyond as it does, give her an Academy Award for her work and move on. But Lone Scherfig’s film has a nuance to it that transcends boilerplate Oscar-bait becoming a wholly original work of art.

“An Education” is a British film in the early, pre-Rock and Roll 60’s of London. Jenny (Mulligan) is a senior in high school, top of her class, itching to attend Oxford, constantly nagged by her supportive but pushy father Jack (Alfred Molina), plays the cello, has a quasi-relationship with an equally nerdy and fastidious boy and is bored out of her mind. She lives in the type of household where a Latin dictionary serves as a suitable birthday present, and both her father and would-be boyfriend think highly of her enough to get the same gift. Continue reading “An Education”

The Blind Side

“The Blind Side” may be the most manipulative film all year. Some have criticized “Precious,” the other “black” film this year, for manipulating audiences through unfathomable hardship. But I will take the tragedy of that brave film over the very fathomable hardship of this one, a wholesomely safe movie that tugs the audience’s heartstrings as though they were attached to marionettes.

Sadly, “The Blind Side” is not the most cliché movie I’ve seen from 2009, but it’s the kind of highly orchestrated familiarity that attracts those wit white guilt, the black audience and the juvenile type. There’s a group of token rich white women that serve as Sandra Bullock’s friends that are only seen gossiping at an exclusive restaurant in front of overpriced salads. I can imagine this group greatly enjoying “The Blind Side,” discussing it as if it was a mature film and as if they now knew something about cinema.

In reality, this is a film with zero character development and a highly accessible plot that loses all of the true story’s authenticity. It’s the heartwarming story of Michael “Big Mike” Oher (Quinton Aaron), a drifter foster child who’s brought in and cared for by Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock). Tuohy pays for his education, gets him to go out for football and until he is eventually drafted by the NFL as recent as last year.

It’s important to take this true story with a grain of salt, because this definitely is a story in which lives were changed, families grew and dreams were accomplished, but we get very little of that here. This is just a movie designed to make the widest audience possible feel warm and fuzzy inside, and the result is fairly tepid. Continue reading “The Blind Side”

Chicago

As movies go digital and trail blaze ahead with 3-D technology, it’s nice to see an older film that feels as though it was grafted from the stage, rife with metaphorical depth and space, and yet still maintains its image as a film production of massive proportions impossible to recreate in any theater.

Considering “Chicago” is this decade’s rebirth of the musical, there are probably more important things worth paying attention to, but you have to hold on to both the big and little things the movies have to offer.

Rob Marshall’s adaptation of “Chicago” is a remarkable musical in the spirit of “Cabaret.” It is a delightful romp full of fun performances, catchy rhythms and fabulous choreography on a massive scale. To not enjoy such a film would be to dislike entertainment. No, the plot is not riveted with psychological depth and drama. There is no revolutionary fancy footwork throughout the film either. But it is still a joy. Continue reading “Chicago”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry, Ron and Hermione are no longer kids. But throughout “The Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” we catch a glimmer of them trying to retain their lost childhood. It’s a touching moment of empathy that mirrors the emotion the audience is trying to recapture as they watch this penultimate installment to the most popular film franchise of all time.

I shared that reaction as I watched the latest Harry Potter movie. I surmised that people of my age go to see the Potter movies because firstly they provide that escapism back to reading the books as kids in how close the adaptations are. And in doing so, they secondly unite millions of Harry Potter fanatics that for one evening can share in a bit of a nerdgasm if you will.

You see, for all of “The Deathly Hallows’s” darker edges, more complex narratives and absence of another year at Hogwarts, this film feels very much like every Potter film that came before it, especially the previous two David Yates directed films, who also directs parts one and two. It still mixes in enough cheesy, goofy moments for everyone who’s been so invested in the franchise to now giggle at. And it likewise provides enough somber moments that fans can let out a collective gasp.

It made me realize that the Potter films are to be seen the way I saw it this past weekend, in the heat of the moment with an audience brimming with excitement. That palpable joy contained in the theater cannot be recreated when watching at home on DVD, HBO, ABC Family, wherever. Once you leave that simulated Potterverse, the material never holds up as well.

The same is true of “The Deathly Hallows,” which I enjoyed immensely, but suspect I may feel differently prior to the release of the next film.

It’s because there are moments as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are searching for the remaining horcruxes that the dark tone caves in on itself to provide a little comic whimsy. One mission will take them into the heart of the Ministry of Magic, and along the way they have some fun with the Polyjuice potion that allows them to morph into someone else, and not to mention some more fun with a toilet. The gang also meets up with an assortment of characters and creatures from the previous novels and films, and although the house elf Dobby provides a few smiles when he arrives, let’s say I was glad to see him leave again.

But I do think this is one of the better Harry Potter films, and most certainly Yates’s best. The juicy tidbits he provides to “The Deathly Hallows” do help the film stand out, and I look forward to revisiting these scenes when I’m not sitting in the second row of a multiplex.

I mentioned that the main characters, who have proven to be marvelous casting choices for so long now, can be caught reflecting on their lost childhood. Hermione is seen wiping her parents’ memories clean of her existence to keep them safe. Harry is forced to send away the Dursleys, and we see him lingering over the cupboard under the stairs.

Soon they’re swept away into the open, dangerous world, and emotions and sexual tension get the better of them. Yates leaves behind much of the teen romance angst that muddled the sixth film and puts all of the chemistry between Harry and Ron towards Hermione out in the open. And there’s a goofy moment when Harry begins to dance with Hermione that is allowed to linger into a touching little vignette. By themselves on this journey, the film very much belongs to Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, and they own it.

They convincingly lead us to their quest for The Deathly Hallows, three legendary and powerful objects derived from a fairy tale. The way in which we learn this wizarding folklore is through an elegantly done animated sequence unlike anything seen in the Potter films before. The shadowy figures that comprise it make a sequence strong enough to stand on its own as a beautifully done short film.

I was pleased to see how much I admired in between the dense layers of the plot and action scenes directed like they belonged in a psychological horror movie. So I’ll admit, I could’ve done without all the heavy chases and epic battles, but it’s all paced well and underscored by an eerie musical composition by the great Alexandre Desplat.

So for all my bitterness towards Potter’s excessively wide spread over pop culture and its forgettable qualities as it is endlessly paraded out, I offer a strong recommendation to see it now, while the magic is still there.

3 ½ stars

Star Trek (2009)

I don’t know much about “Star Trek,” the beloved TV series. But I think I know enough about J.J. Abrams’s new film to understand it, just not to enjoy it.

In making “Star Trek,” Abrams sought to make the classic sci-fi cool again, making the characters more youthful, improving the special effects, making sense of the plots, you know, just branch out to a whole new audience of ignorant fanboy yuppies without losing the old ones. Abrams retreads the original series by means of yet another origin, prequel story. As is necessary of any origin film, Abrams does some name-dropping (“What’s your name citizen? My name is James Tiberius Kirk!” says an over compensating 12-year old), parades out all the old catch phrases and stays true to the series’ vast realm of logic.

With that said, newcomers to the series not already familiar with the universe’s rules are not welcome to Abrams’s comeback celebration. They won’t grasp the breadth and meaning of Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) very verbose dialogue. They won’t know that Chekov (Anton Yelchin) is intended to be somewhat of a comic relief and not just the worst casting choice in history. Continue reading “Star Trek (2009)”

Alexandra

Alexander Sokurov has been nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes five times. To achieve something like that, a director must have a way with crafting strikingly original films, and while “Alexandra” may reek of a Disney high concept film on paper (What if your grandmother followed you out to your military base?), it achieves a level of uniqueness and tender emotion that I hadn’t expected.

The film follows an elderly Russian woman named Alexandra (Galina Vishnevskaya) traveling to a military base in Chechnya to visit her grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov) following the recent death of her husband. Denis has been away for seven years, and she’s “no good by herself.” Continue reading “Alexandra”

Water for Elephants

“Water for Elephants” is a classically good romance with a period-piece vibe. The film’s title, which it takes from a book of the same name, is symbolic of the falsity in the main character’s life. But there’s nothing fake about the actual circus of a film director Francis Lawrence creates.

That tangible quality of ‘Water for Elephants” is part of its appeal. Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz all interact with physical, flesh and blood animals including the aforementioned elephant, and their personal interactions are real and simple enough to reach out and touch them.

In a day and age when modern romances can seem so stretched, this one is smart enough to convince us otherwise. Continue reading “Water for Elephants”

Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Palme D’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee” comes close to the idea of “pure cinema,” but the film never announces its presence.

2010’s winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival beat out the likes of Mike Leigh, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Abbas Kiarostami. His name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a director from Thailand who has been making his rounds at Cannes for some time with his distinct visual style.

In “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” he uses the backdrop of the rich, exotic Thai jungle to tell an odd but not disconcerting ghost story. Right there in his title, Weerasethakul (also known as Joe in the film critic community) explains to his audience the significance of the ideas of reincarnation in Thailand.

So his film is not complicated, but it is no less demanding. Continue reading “Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”

The King’s Speech

“The King’s Speech” was made in the 1940s, I’m almost sure of it. Director Tom Hooper’s film feels so much like one, and it’s just as good as anything in that golden age of movies.

For example, a majority of the films released during that time went to promoting the war effort and used World War II as a real world back drop. “The King’s Speech” is based on the true story of King George VI, who despite a crippling fear of public speaking and a terrible speech impediment, overcame his disability to unite the country during war time while the whole world was for the first time listening on radio.

And everything about the film screams that classical quality. The screen acting is superb and charismatic. The dialogue is fast, witty and poignant. The spacious cinematography compliments the dim art direction that begs to have been shot in black and white.

“The King’s Speech” is a true throwback to the good ‘ole days, and I suspect this film that won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival will give “The Social Network” a run for its money in the Best Picture race, becoming a battle between the values of new and old Hollywood. Continue reading “The King’s Speech”