Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Who’s Your Daddy?: Take a Chance on the ABBA-solutely Catchy “Mamma Mia!”

Let’s all face the truth. ABBA music is like crack without the harmful effects. You know you shouldn’t give in, but you just can’t help it. Before you know it you’ve listened to Mamma Mia 23 times in a row and you’ve begun a downward spiral of incessantly catchy disco pop tunes. You stop just short of donning neon spandex and glittery platform boots. It’s just too hard to “just say no.” So with that in mind, you will leave the movie theater after seeing “Mamma Mia!” humming, whistling or belting out your favorite tune. Even if you don’t like musicals I’d find it impossible to at least not tap your feet along to the appealing beat let alone dancing in the aisle with one of the old ladies sitting near me (of which there were many).

So with that being said “Mamma Mia!” features really fun, catchy songs and moderately interesting staged music numbers and a story tailor made for musical theater (which, shocker, was adapted from the popular Broadway musical) and features likable actors singing and cavorting throughout the 110 minute runtime, including a hilariously fun encore/end credit sequence that is worth the price of admission alone.

Phyllida Lloyd directs, Catherine Johnson writes and Meryl Streep sings! What we get here is Streep (soon to be Golden Globe nominated, I’m sure) singing and dancing as Donna who is busy planning her daughter Sophie’s (“Mean Girl” Amanda Seyfried) wedding who is getting married to Sky (Dominic Cooper) in their Greek villa where the wedding is to take place (which is also where Donna raised Sophie). Problem is Sophie has read Donna’s old diary and invited three of her mother’s past beaus, one of which she believes is her father. The possibilities include Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård. Two of Donna’s girlfriends arrive to the island for the festivities which include Christine Baranski (great) and Julie Walters (hysterical). Let the fun begin! So with all the wedding stuff going on (including a “hen party” and “stag party” which then turns into one of the most fun looking parties ever) there is plenty of catchy singing to belt out! And the Greek villa staff is ready to lend a hand with the sweeping and with the singing. Good to see some actual Greeks in this thing.

While I’m not sure it’s quite as good a musical as last year’s surprise hit “Hairspray” (nor as original as the completely underrated Beatles musical “Across the Universe”) it is still as fun and catchy. It’s not draggy or boring, but it’s probably more “awkward.” Meaning that when the characters first break out in song, it’s a little weird and alarming. But once the shaky beginning gets going (which is mostly plot exposition) the fun can really begin. The staging of the number “Dancing Queen” especially injects some life into the film and from then on is a toe-tapping romp until the amusing ending. After that, almost every music number is bigger and more exciting than the last including for example a bunch of guys with flippers frolicking on a dock to the tune of “Lay All Your Love on Me” and Meryl Streep performing “Super Trouper” at her daughter’s bachelorette party.

We get fun tunes like “Money Money Money,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” and “I Do! I Do! I Do!” No wonder ABBA’s songs are so infuriatingly catchy; they sing the same thing over and over and over again! Of course if you dread any or all of these songs, steer away because you’ll probably want to jump off a pier. I rather enjoyed myself and went straight home to download the soundtrack. And I was actually a little surprised by the cast. Streep can obviously do anything, and showed off her pipes quite well. Seyfield also has a very good voice. I wish I could say the same for the former Mr. Bond, Brosnan. I mean he’s not really bad, but I sort of cringed when he sang.

Overall the movie is just pleasurable, like any junkie will tell you, sometimes it’s just hard to say no. And while there aren’t many side effects to watching a movie like this except for those around you might smack you upside the head for getting Super Trouper stuck in their head. Take a chance on this movie, enjoy the beautiful scenery, the beautiful people, and say I DO already! Geez, I want to see this movie again. “Don’t go wasting your emotion…” GRADE: B+

PS - Maybe science can explain ABBA's infectiousness: http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2008/07/12/can_science_explain_why_abba_is_so_catchy/?p1=Well_MostPop_Emailed7

Friday, July 25, 2008

The 40-Year-Old Vermin: Boys Will Be Boys in the Silly, But Funny “Step Brothers”

I still live in my parents’ house. Fine! I just admitted it. I am 25 and I still reside with the people who gave me life. But you know what? I think I’m doing just fine. I have a job, I buy my own stuff, pay my own bills and can pretty much take care of myself. But when your parents’ house is a four minute commute to work, it’s sort of hard to move farther away. So having said that I can safely say I am 345465 times more successful than the duo that is Brennan and Dale (as are about 98.9% of the American population) played with buffoonish tomfoolery by eternal man-boys Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly (who is, by the way, a former Oscar nominee for anyone keeping track).

You see they are 40ish men who are still living at home. They don’t have jobs and pretty much can’t take care of themselves. Not so much because they are mentally challenged (see The Other Sister for that story) but because they are a product of not so rough love by their parents. Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) loves her son Brennan but realizes her divorce has been hard on him, so she takes care of him. Robert loves his son Dale but realizes his wife’s death has been hard on him, so he takes care of him. When they meet and fall in love and decide to get married they move in together, which means Brennan and Dale are now step brothers.

This is basically the plot of the film At first Brennan and Dale are like two cats in a bag. They HATE each other for no real reason except that they are man-boys remember and act like eight year olds and don’t want each other stepping on their turf. Being forced to share a room obviously doesn’t help. But once they realize they both have the same favorite dinosaur and would both bang John Stamos if they had to they become BFFs. What follows is a comedic romp, which sort of plays like a really extended YouTube video that would be passed around through work email, in which Brennan and Dale deal with being brothers and having to YIKES move out on their own when mommy and daddy plan on selling the house and sailing around the world.

The main reason to watch this silly movie is for the inspired silliness that Ferrell and Reilly command. They take silliness to new heights. Unbeknownst to most people, comedy is actually something that is relatively difficult, which is why you get so many of the same stupid “comedies” churned out month after month. But when a good one comes along everything sort of clicks. “Step Brothers” is brought to us by Adam McKay and Ferrell who also gave us Talladega Nights and Anchorman, and for those bloggers out there “The Landlord.”

"Step Brothers" isn’t as funny or as polished as say, something like Superbad or Knocked Up or The 40 Year Old Virgin or even Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which remains the funniest film so far this year (although at least the magic words known as Judd. and Apatow. are firmly displayed in the credits). But you could do a lot worse than Step Brothers. Like most of the movies I go to see, for get to make sense of any of this and just enjoy the nonsense. GRADE: B
PS - I have no idea who Kathryn Hahn is (she plays Brennan's sister in law who has the hots for Dale) but she is a hysterical scene stealer and I look forward to seeing her in other films.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Hard Day’s Knight: It’s No Joke, You’ll Go Batty For “The Dark Knight”

Ok. If you’re reading this then it’s very, very likely you’ve seen this film (I hear three times seems to be the magical number) and you have formed your own opinion on it. The general consensus is that it’s the most amazing movie ever made. In my opinion it is a very very very good movie, probably one of the best movies so far this year. Is it one my favorite movies? No. but it’s definitely turned the superhero comic book movie into an art form that deserves cinematic respect. Is it as good as Tim Burton’s vision of Batman? Technically yes, although I prefer Burton’s films only because a) I grew up with them and nothing can really replace them and b) they don't take themselves too seriously and are just plain fun. But I find it unfair to compare them as Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman is rightfully different and is much more aligned with the Frank Miller comics. If you’re a comic book fiend you will need to wear a diaper to this movie because you’ll most likely be peeing your pants due to excitement. Although I guess this warning is a little late, since you’ve probably seen the movie about 32 times by now...

First things first. The opening scene, in which we’re first introduced to the Joker, is brilliant. The film, and not just the opening, has a look and feel of a Scorsese crime saga. I imagine if Scorsese had directed it I imagine it would be a lot like this, except with more F bombs and few more squirts of hemoglobin. But let's face it, the main reason we're seeing this movie is why we wanted to see the first Baman in 1989: the Joker. Health Ledger is menacing as the Joker if not particularly scary. I mean he didn’t give me nightmares or anything but he still frightens. And he can take something as simple as a pencil in the eye and turn it into a sick joke. I love Ledger’s little mannerisms like his tongue darting in and out of his mouth as if he were part lizard. Seeing as how the rest of the year pans out, all this Oscar talk may not be far off.

And as great as Ledger is as the villainous Joker, we can’t forget Aaron Eckhart as DA Harvey Dent who just may be some evil tendencies as well. Oh who am I kidding! You’ve all seen the friggin’ movie, he turns into Two Face! The marketing of the movie has been very hush hush about Harvey Dent’s character because everyone knows he eventually becomes Two Face, but when and how is the big mystery. So wait no longer. Eckhart is definitely in his prime here as is the rest of the splendidly watchable cast. But probably best of all, is that Harvey/Two Face doesn’t feel shoehorned in. Two Face’s fate-determining coin actually represents good and evil which is personified in the film as Batman and Joker.

One of my favorite aspects of the film was the music. The collaboration between composers Hans Zimmer and James Newtown Howard is simply magic. They conjure so many emotions and thrills just in a few simple notes. The Joker’s scary theme is haunting and almost anti-melodic, but its still catchy. And while there isn’t really that standard “hero theme” like other superhero films have, that’s not really needed as this isn’t like other superhero movies.

Christian Bale, as Batman, almost sounds like Dirty Harry mixed with Bea Arthur with a chest cold. This really isn’t a complaint just an observation. I mean how much is there really to complain about here? While it may not be as “fun” as say Spider-Man or even Iron Man, it certainly transcends what is thought of as the typical superhero film.

Nolan goes for seriousness in that the set is unstylized (although the film does have its own style) the action is plausible and the characters are realistic. As realistic as a movie can be where someone goes by the name of Joker and a guy who dresses up as a giant bat to fight crime. The film doesn’t rely on CGI. The effects are there to support the story not to tell it.

This is a fascinatingly well-made film. I don’t know whether I really enjoyed quite as much as other people (it’s currently ranked number one on imdb.com!) but it is certainly a fun and worthwhile ride. The performances are memorable and the direction fantastic and all the technical aspects are spot on. And best of all, it isn’t nearly as boring as “Batman Begins.” I’m not joking. GRADE: A-

Note– And I must personally thank Tom Cruise for locking Katie Holmes in the basement and not letting her out to play Rachel Dawes because Maggie Gyllenhaal is excellent here as well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Assassination Vocation: “Wanted” Violates the Laws of Physics But Would You Have It Any Other Way?

Forget “The Matrix” or any other action spectacle that you’ve seen. Forget all those great storylines about humanity, the future, and alternate realities. The only alternate universe that exists is the “reality” in the movie “Wanted.” This movie’s reality consists of bullets that can be shot out of a gun, around something, and hit a target behind another object. Yeah like that could happen. People are shot from miles away. Sure. At least the bullets are coolest ones you’re likely to see. “Wanted” has no concept of the three Laws of Motion and it shouldn’t. This is a movie that would most likely flunk high school physics because it has no idea what is actually physically possible in real life but it’s having way too much fun to care. And you will too.

The basic plot revolves around drone office worker Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy.) Like in previous films (Office Space, Fight Club etc) we all know that working in an office and let alone a cubicle is the worst thing in the world. When i'm at work in my cubicle I feel like I should have a mean, scary boss yelling at me to do some work, but that’s not an everyday occurrence around here like it is in Wesley’s world. He gets anxiety attacks and nearly reaches for his medication on an hourly basis. That is until he’s nearly assassinated by some creepy guy in the pharmacy and new mommy Angelina Jolie saves his pathetic life.

Angie says she’s part of a group of assassins that want to recruit Wesley because Wesley’s father (whom he never new) was a famous assassin who has just been murdered. And wouldn’t you know that having anxiety attacks on a regular basis makes for great assassin skills. His heart rate climbs to such a high rate that it nearly slows down time around him and he can become extremely aware of his surroundings. In fact, he has the skills to shoot the wings off a few pesky houseflies. The first part of the film is learning about Wesley’s dismal life, the second half is his training once he decides becoming an assassin is much better than being a cube monkey (it also doesn’t help that his pesky co-worker is sleeping with his girlfriend during their lunch breaks). The third part of the film is standard plot stuff which I won’t get in to but if you’ve seen the movie feel free to discuss your thoughts with me.

Let me just say this. If you haven’t gotten it by now this movie is RIDCULOUS. (And I’m not even going to mention the “Loom of Fate”) I blame/praise mostly director Timur Bekmambetov (say that five times fast) because he makes this movie completely worth watching. People do things that are not possible in real life, like jumping out of a glass window and going really, really far before finally falling to your death. And I mention the whole “curve the bullet” thing, in which with a flick of the wrist a bullet fly through the air in a nice rounded path. And let’s not forget that bullet that Angie shoots at the end of the movie that travels in a complete circle. Totally preposterous. But undeniably fun. I mean Angie drives a car into a moving train. (And that’s after she drives the car while laying on its hood while shooting a gun and steering with her feet) That’s one way to get on if you’re running late. But the movie is really all about the little things. When Wesley actually grows a pair and smacks his office pal in the face with his computer keyboard (for sleeping around with his girl remember) the some of the keys fly toward the camera in slow motion and spell out F*** You. Priceless.

This movie has such a fast past that you hardly have time to realize how actually unfathomable it all is. How many times did my friend and I look at each other, roll our eyes, and then totally laugh in excitement. We were totally enjoying ourselves because the film has a style and a tempo that has nearly outmatched much of the movies that have been released so far this summer. This movie has frenetic pace that never feels mind numbing or boring. Speed Racer was mind numbing and boring. But here, you might actually give a damn. And speaking of which, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care for McAvoy’s character. He feels like the guy you know a few cubes down who could use a hug every now and then.

Those looking for a little cuckoo with their Cocoa Cocoa Puffs need look no further. GRADE: A-

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stuporman: “Hancock” is a Horrible Superhero in a Watchable Film

He definitely has the wrong stuff. Will Smith plays Hancock. Hancock is a superhero who isn’t quite so super. I mean he does have the trademark superpowers like flying and super strength and being able to deflect bullets. But he has a really bad attitude. He’s lazy and resembles the bum on the street corner rather than Captain America. He takes his time coming to the rescue and when he does he ends up causing more damage than the city of Los Angles is willing to forgive. This is an interesting concept for a superhero film. The film has its pros and cons but the film mainly works due to Will Smith and Jason Bateman’s good comic timing.

One day Ray Embry (Bateman) is stuck in traffic in the middle of a train track when during which a train just so happens to be barreling down the track. With cars in front of him and behind him and a sticky seatbelt it looks like he’s a goner. That is until LA’s superhero Mr. Personality Disorder Hancock comes to his rescue. Those civilians at the scene are distressed that this superhero has alcohol on his breath and smells bad and caused property damage even though he rescued Ray. It just so happens that Ray is a PR guy and wants to makes things right for Hancock.

Enter Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron) who gives Hancock a weird smirk when she meets him. Perhaps she has a secret she doesn’t want anyone to know. Well if you have half a brain you’ll realize something is up between these two. And if you saw a pivotal sequence of the film being filmed on Hollywood Blvd like I did last September then you’ll know the film’s secrets right from the beginning. But that doesn’t matter too much as the film is so good at not fitting into one specific genre that it makes it worth seeing for that alone. It’s one big cheesy casserole that has all the ingredients: comedy and drama and action and emotion and romance. It’s a superhero film that doesn’t follow the clichés of a superhero film, which means it ultimately feels refreshing in a summer filled with hulks that are incredible, a man made of iron, and a knight that is dark.

If the film has any one flaw it is this. Its director (Peter Berg) insists on instructing his DP (Tobias Schliessler) to shoot his stars in extremely extreme close-ups. I mean back up just a little! Has this guy never heard of a medium shot? Also, the camera is so jittery and shaky (usually a filmmaker’s way of showing the film’s “reality” or “documentary” style) but here it’s frankly just annoying. I mean this isn’t a dramatic war movie this is a summer action movie. It felt forced and unnecessary.

The film really sort of has two distinct halves. The first is the story of a lackluster superhero who is cranky and whiny and Will Smith, who is a really good actor, despite the fact he’s always in a summer blockbuster, really pulls this off. Hancock is not an easy person to like but it’s fun to watch his story unfold. And then we half the second half which to spoil is to ruin the surprise.

This isn’t an easy film to recommend, but I found it easy to digest and entertaining. Bateman is a master at playing the “straight man” stuck in a whirlwind of chaos around him (which he did for three years in the low rated, high praised TV sitcom “Arrested Development”). And as for Charlize, you’ll wonder why this Oscar winner is really doing here, but she does a good job despite some of the things she’s forced to do in the film’s later scenes. All in all, you could do a lot worse than Hancock. GRADE: B