Saturday, July 30, 2011

Crazy Little Thing Called Love: A Top Notch Cast Helps You Fall for “Crazy Stupid Love”

There are characters in “Crazy Stupid Love” that act crazy or do crazy things or they act stupid or do stupid things and some of them are in love or at least think they are. I think it’s a movie that live up to its title. The movie is a romantic comedy even if hearing that makes you cringe because we all know that this genre is notorious for giving us situations that aren’t realistic even though they usually take place in reality. However, for the most part the film refuses to be just another romantic comedy and actually gives us well-defined characters with real feelings and motivations rather than cardboard cutouts and paint-by-number plot points. Sure there are clichés to be found here (oh look the big speech!) but there’s enough originality and great performances here to make you think otherwise.

“Crazy Stupid Love” sort of works as an ensemble piece with lots of great actors. It introduces several characters and learn how they’re all connected. First we’re introduced to Emily (Julianne Moore) who has just announced to her husband Cal (Steve Carrell) that she wants a divorce – the coupe has been married for 25 years. She tells him that she sleep with her co-worker (Kevin Bacon) and he promptly throws himself out of vehicle she is driving. Cal and Emily’s young teenage son Robbie is in love with his 17 year-old babysitter Jessica. But Jessica has a crush on Cal. Let’s say she’s not disappointed to hear he’ll be getting divorced. The ending of Cal’s marriage makes him sulk appropriately enough so he starts to hang out in a fancy bar that is way out of his league. There he meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling). Jacob who is a smooth-talking yet ultimately corny lady charmer who looks like he walked off the set of Ocean’s Eleven. It’s not many good-looking actors who can play charming, douchey, slime ball, and likeable all in one performance. Jacob takes Cal under his wing, helps him change up his wardrobe and gives him some lessons on love and the art of seduction.

Cal sort of does a complete 180 and becomes smooth talking, or at least as smooth talking as he could be. I mean after all Cal is still played by Steve Carrell for Pete’s sake. He quickly puts the moves on a woman who he sees from across the bar. This woman is Kate and she’s played with wonderful veracity by Marisa Tomei. He’s able to manipulate her into going home with him and we learn she’s a little big crazy. We also learn later on that she is in fact Robbie’s 8th grade teacher. That certainly makes for an parent-teacher conference with Cal and Emily. Emily is a little big jealous and why shouldn’t she be? Emily has really had no reason to divorce Cal besides her brief infidelity and we don’t get much indication or reason for her to have fallen out of love with Cal. I guess she thinks what they had on their hands was a dead shark.

While all of this is going on Jacob who insists on being with a different beautiful woman every night woes a young law school graduate named Hannah (Emma Stone). It’s here that it can be confirmed that Ms. Stone should be in every single movie ever made. If you don’t believe me, go and look at her filmography and tell me if she’s NEVER made a movie better than it deserves to be. At first I was sort of wondering how Hannah quite fit into this story except that her and Jacob begin an actual relationship. And this is where the movie will either lose you or make you love it even more. To say there’s a little twist that I didn’t see coming is an understatement. Some will think it’s crazy or stupid, some will love it. All of these stories about crazy love come together in a funny and appropriately crazy way which, eventually lead to one of the rom-com’s most clichéd elements: the big speech.

“Crazy Stupid Love” is a fun movie with insightful things to say about the idea of relationships and finding the one person out there for you. I enjoyed seeing these great actors interact and I never really quite knew where things were going which is pretty good for a movie of this genre. The cast is great and the script (by Dan Fogelman) is surprisingly amusing and does have some things to say. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who’s last effort was the criminally under seen comedy “I Love You Philip Morris,” work wonders with a magnificent cast and offer plenty of insights about that crazy little thing called love. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sigh, Robot: Those Pesky Alien Robots Return in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”

While watching “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” I became sad for two reasons. First was the thought that NASA’s space shuttle program has officially ended. It’ll be sad knowing that there won’t be any man-led space shuttle missions to the moon. After all, we haven’t been there in years and why should we? We have robots and cameras that can do the dangerous stuff for us. The second reason I became sad is because it became abundantly clear that there will never be another great Transformers movie (hey, I enjoyed the first one). I figured with the hopeless trainwreck that was “Revenge of the Fallen” that things couldn’t get much worse. Sure this third entry isn’t quite as bad as number two (hmm how appropriate) but it’s not really that much of a marked improvement. It’s still loud, noisy and much too long.

What can I say about director Michael Bay that hasn’t already been said before? Some will outright call him a hack or a jerk. Maybe he is. He makes beautiful, colorful stylish movies. His movies never look ugly or boring. But of course he can’t really quite grasp the concept of a good story, although he came pretty close with the unfortunate 2005 flop “The Island.” The first Transformers movie worked because Shia LaBeouf’s character was charming and it was fun seeing his first interactions with the alien robot race known as the Autobots (the good guys). The Autobots were nearly defeated in a war against the Decepticons (the bad guys). The funny, delightful and exciting parts of the original film became loud and obnoxious in the second one with a plot that even a rocket scientist would have trouble following. There’s more of the same here.

The film opens with a neat sequence in which we learn the Apollo 11 moon mission was in fact a mission to explore an alien spacecraft that landed on the dark side of the moon. But that cool concept is quickly dropped and is replaced by confusing action and inane dialogue from usually very appealing actors. Oscar/Tony winner Francis McDormand shows up looking quite embarrassed but no one should be as embarrassed as John Malkovich who hams things up rather disturbingly. Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has a new girlfriend now and this time not only is she a model-look-a-like hot chick but she’s in fact a model (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley)! She’s bland yeah, - dare I say robotic - but at least I believed her in the role. Although I’m not sure what someone who looks like that would find interesting in Sam Witwicky. Sam is jealous of Dylan (McDreamy himself Patrick Dempsey) who turns out to be more like McDickhead. He in fact is helping the evil robots take over the planet. For some stupid reason I don’t feel like giving further detail, I was bored, why should you be bored? Cue lots of robot battles that at least look pretty cool in 3D (I thought the 3D was a mild upgrade and wasn’t nearly as annoying as it could have been).

In this two hour and forty minute barrage on the senses (although things are toned down slightly for the 3D would be too much to handle with Bay’s erratic camerawork, which is only somewhat erratic instead of full-on erratic) there are two things I actually enjoyed. One is the new Decepticon known as “Shockwave” which is a long tentacled robot that dives in and out of the ground or building or whatever structure it wants to completely obliterate. Shockwave is involved in a sequence in which our hapless human characters are trapped in a tall Chicago skyscraper in which they would most likely died at least 10 times but barely make it out with a twisted ankle. Unfortunately that’s about it because the movie goes from boring to almost tedious by the two hour mark in which the movie turns into “Battle: Chicago.” And secondly, I loved the film's opening scenes integrating actual footage with stuff that is Hollywood fantasy. And as a side note, I still don’t quite get how the Transformers, in robot form, are scratched and mangled looking, but when they transform into good-looking product placement automobiles there’s nary a scratch to be found.

I always thought the first Transformers, while not a great movie by any means, was at least entertaining enough to hold my attention and be rewatchable. It had enough charm and personality to keep it afloat. Here, like the second film, there is just too much unnecessary and confusing plot details to cover up the fact that really not much is actually going on. It sort of wastes a cool moon landing concept and instead would rather hit you over the head with lots of noise and boring (and sometimes just extremely bizarre: Ken Jeong). Overall it’s a slight step up from “Revenge of the Fallen” but it still has a way to go if it’s going to get my but in the theater for Part 4. GRADE: C-

Monday, July 25, 2011

No Strings Attached: Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake are in Sync in the Hilarious “Friends with Benefits”

Score another one for the “uproarious summer comedy.” The Justine Timberlake-Mila Kunis rom-com “Friends with Benefits” is definitely a winner. Sure it might be the second film this year about plutonic friends who decide to go “all the way” with each other without letting all those feelings get in the way, but the second time’s the charm definitely. That Natalie Portman movie literally has nothing on this hilariously wonderful and heartfelt movie with unexpectedly well-written characters and terrific performances from everyone involved. It’s really too bad a lot people think this is just a remake of a movie that was released six months ago, because this is the one you need to see.

Will Gluck, who directed last year’s witty sleeper hit “Easy A” returns here to some very well-worn territory. It’s a romantic comedy about friends who decide that relationships are messy and annoying and decide that casual sex is the way to go. Kunis plays Jamie who’s a corporate head-hunter in New York City. She convinces California dude Dylan (Timberlake) to take a job as art director of GQ magazine. He falls in love. With the city. He moves to the East Coast and begins a close friendship with Jamie. They are both hot people, but they decide what they need right now is a best friend, not a relationship. Of course, most hot people are usually pretty horny and used to having great sex, so what do they decide to do? They bone each other (a lot) and leave the emotional baggage at the door. They have great, hot naked sex. They are hot people, remember that.

Can two hot people really have glorious sex and not fall in love? Not in this movie of course, but that’s not the point. The point is that this movie, while it follows the formula, skewers it and is at least honest about what it’s doing. Jamie and Dylan watch a admittedly horrible looking rom-com starring Jason Segal and Rashida Jones (in two pretty wonderful cameos) and talk about how that stuff doesn’t really happen in real life. But remember, we ourselves are watching a movie, so obviously nothing that actually happens in the movie is all too realistic. However, these two characters are almost so well-rounded and fleshed out I was almost disturbed by how much we get to learn about them, their personalities and quirks and even their home lives. Jamie’s mother (Patricia Clarkson almost repeating her role from “Easy A,” thank God!) is a wild woman who doesn’t even know who her daughter’s real birth father is. Dylan’s home life in LA is a bit more complicated once we learn that his father (Richard Jenkins) has been suffering from Alzheimer’s and his older sister (Jenna Elfman) is taking care of him.

Even with serious dramatic undertones (and the serious part where the couple eventually “break up” but then get back together) the film is through and through a comedy. And a funny one at that. Just because Kunis and Timberlake are good-looking and make the rest of us look like garbage, doesn’t mean they can’t be funny. They have great timing and the writers have given them pretty funny things to say and do. There are plenty of amusing pop culture references for those who like that stuff (that would be me). Let’s see, I recall references to everything from Harry Potter to flash mobs and rappers Kriss Kross to YouTube and even that “miracle on the Hudson” airline pilot. And sure the film has more product placement than Times Square. Someone needs to pay the bills! Now where can I find an iPad…

You could do a lot worse than “Friends with Benefits” it has a smart script that follows the formula but isn’t afraid to poke fun at itself. It has some pretty great direction from a guy who really seems to know what he’s doing. The actors give great performances and have terrific chemistry together. You root for Jamie and Dylan. Mila and Justin are hot people so they belong together. Sure like most other rom-coms this is all pure fantasy, it’s Hollywood fantasy through and through, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. GRADE: A-

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Patriot Act: “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a Standout Summer Action Adventure

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is a lot better than it has any right to be. It has been the fourth superhero comic book adaptation movie of this summer. I myself have found myself going through superhero fatigue with these and what with all trailers for such anticipated flicks “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-man” and “The Avengers” (all due to hit theaters next summer). By all accounts “Captain America” should just be a slog to sit through. It is nowhere near a slog and is, in fact, a superior action flick that just happens to be a superhero movie. Anyone who thinks it’s good just because it came out after that stinky “Green Lantern” movie should realize that this film stands wonderfully on it’s own as a great piece of pulp action entertainment. It has a great look and feel, and while it employees CGI, it doesn’t over-rely on it like that “Lantern” movie. Sure it has some silly elements, but it never seems silly. It’s a rollicking good time if you ask me.

“Captain America” uses CGI in a way I haven’t really seen before. It is used to turn the buff actor Chris Evans into a skinny, short guy who just wants to enlist in military to fight in World War II. His name is Steve Rogers. Like most men in the early 1940s he felt the need to serve his country, but being such a weakling has cost him his right to serve his country and fight. His best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) has served and Steve is sick and tired of being the lame guy who not only doesn’t get any respect but doesn’t even know how to talk to women. He catches the eye of a German scientist aiding the US played by Stanley Tucci employing a thick-as-molasses German accent. He convinces Colonel Philips (Tommy Lee Jones) that Steve would be a perfect specimen for their new experiment. They want to bred “super soldiers” in hopes of destroying Hitler and his Nazis and their fictional science division called HYDRA. HYDRA is run by the equally sadistic Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who secretly plans on usurping Hitler and the rest of the world.

Of course this wouldn’t be a comic book adaptation if it didn’t have some silly science-fiction stuff. Sure HYDRA isn’t real but it’s placement in this historical setting is pretty fascinating. The film sort of works as an alternative history flick similar to “Inglorious Basterds.” (and look and feel of a cross between “Indiana Jones,” “The Rocketeer” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”)Sure we all know what really happens and what’s real, but it’s fun to see some fictional stuff thrown in for entertainment value. Schmidt wouldn’t be a real super villain as just a human, and soon it’s revealed he’s in fact Red Skull as he rips off his rubber human face. He sort of reminded me of red version of Jim Carrey in “The Mask,” without all that loony slapstick stuff of course. The movie, which is an origin story, like all the other super hero films this year, does a great job of presenting with this sort of alternate reality where this super powerful technology exists in the 1940s. Stark Industries (as we’ve seen I the Iron Man movies) is responsible for the super solider experiment and it’s a great way to connect this wonderful world Marvel has created.

The film offers some pretty standout performances and action sequences. Evans, as charming as ever, works well here as the buffed up soldier. And while he quickly becomes brawny, his personality is still of that skinny patriot who just wants to serve his country. I liked the way the film, which is filled with all that World War II “I Want You” all-American propaganda, into more of a satirical look at this point in our history and refuses to let any political agenda get in the way of really fun and exciting action sequences. A scene that has Rogers stealthy moving behind enemy lines to save his friend Bucky (and not once a female damsel in distress) is pretty suspenseful and well-done. All the other action scenes are entertaining and never boring or repetitive. Evans chemistry with a female SSR officer played by Haley Atwell is so strong there was a moment I was moved to tears.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” is a great summer movie. It has action and adventure, and it’s funny and sweet, and yet after three other super hero movies, still feels fresh. I can’t say the movie is a NECESSITY or anything. It exists purely for its summer entertainment value. But director Joe Johnston employs enough excitement and superb period detail (and wonderful camerawork by Shelly Johnson) that it at least feels worth your time and money. It has a wonderful tangible quality that is as easy on your brain as it is on your eyes. GRADE: A-

Friday, July 15, 2011

On Olden Wand: The Flying and Magic Comes to an End in “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – Part 2”

I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand the pop culture phenomenon that is “Harry Potter.” Ok, I kind of get it, but not completely. Why a magical boy wizard captured the hearts and minds of not only the world’s youth, but of the adult population as well is something I can’t quite put my finger on. So I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, unlike everyone else in the world, and that’s most likely part of the reason why Harry Potter doesn’t quite mean that much to me. However, I can say that the now concluded eight part film series will remain one of the most popular and beloved motion picture series of all time (it doesn’t quite live up to the Elm Street series, but I digress). Having said that, the films themselves are completely watchable, maybe even a little magical, if not sometimes confusing to muggles like me. “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – Part 2” the epic conclusion to this whole series makes a wonderful ending, even if I sort of sat there dumbfounded a few times still wondering what the heck these magical characters were really talking about.

We learned in the last movie (the first part of the adaptation of the 7th book) that the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has separated his soul into several “horcruxes” with the intent of becoming immortal. The boy wonder Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his two friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) set out to find these horcruxes and kill Voldemort once and for all. A couple horcruxes have already been found and destroyed, but we soon learn what other horcruxes exist and the possibility that not only WHAT could be a horcruxe but WHO could be a horcrux. Ok, spoiler alert, Harry is a horcrux. It turns out when Voldemort killed infant Harry’s parents a part of Voldemort’s soul was trapped in Harry, which explains their strange connection and them being able to be aware of each other and get inside each other’s heads. So if Harry is supposed to destroy all the horcruxes that must mean Harry himself needs to be sacrificed. Oh what’s a poor wizard boy to do? Oh and Voldemort has some really powerful wand.

Besides being slightly confused here and there, as you recall I haven’t read these books, I found the film to be pretty entertaining and well constructed. Even though it’s part 2 it really sort of feels like it can exist on its own, with its own beginning, middle and end. This second part focuses more on action as there is a huge battle at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The school, which was now being run by the ambiguously evil Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who had previously killed Headmaster Dumbledore way back in part 6. We learn much more about Snape who has spent the entire series as someone seen as possibly evil but things aren’t always as they appear. Finally there are revelations about Snape that come to a satisfying conclusion, including a cool flashback that takes us back where we learn things we never knew we never knew. There’s plenty of action, and pretty dark stuff that is in total contrast to the first few entries of the series which were much more bright, innocent and full of wonder. And those fans will be happy to see some of their favorite Hogwarts characters return as the first part of this entry didn’t take a single step into their favorite wizarding school, because Harry was too busy hiding out in the woods. This time it’s all about business and death. Lots of death. Who will live and who will die?!

Director David Yates, who worked on the past few entries, makes “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – Part 2” work as a good conclusion, save for a slightly corny epilogue, to this disturbingly popular series. Fans will most likely rejoice and see it ten more times. And even non-fans like me, who simply enjoy the films for what they are and nothing more, will be satisfied as well. It’s a fun adventure with many great scenes - I loved Hermione disguised as Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) as they attempt to break into her vault in Gringotts to find a horcrux - and even momentum to make even the most ardent non-magic fan at least somewhat entertained. Sure there are parts that went over my head and I didn’t become emotionally attached to these wizards and witches whatsoever, but it’s a fulfilling finale nonetheless. GRADE: B

Friday, July 08, 2011

My Boss’s Slaughter: A Game Cast Makes the Enjoyable “Horrible Bosses” Far From Horrible

Forgive me for spoiling one of my favorite lines from “Horrible Bosses,” a hilarious new comedy (I might be paraphrasing here): “Ever watch that show Gossip Girl? I fingered myself to Penn Padgley so hard I broke a nail.” That’s a line you would never suspect would be uttered by Jennifer Aniston, an actress who has finally found a role that will make her haters think again. The problem with Ms. Aniston is her lack of diverse roles. You can only watch her same romantic comedy shtick so much before you just want to vomit (although I didn’t quite hate “The Switch”). “Horrible Bosses” is a hilarious, ensemble dark comedy with a top notch cast that gives it their all and it succeeds with flying colors.

Funnymen Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis and Charlie Day, as Nick, Kurt and Dale respectively, all have horrible bosses. They can’t stand their employers all for different reasons. Nick’s boss, played by Oscar winner Kevin Spacey is just a mean prick. He works him too hard and is willing to make him look like a fool in front of the other employees. He’s even able to convince Nick that there’s not even another available job out there because he has personally vowed to make sure that Nick couldn’t land another job out in this terrible economy. Nick’s new boss is played by bad boy/heartthrob Colin Farrell in a way you’ve never seen him before. His role as the slimy, cocaine-sniffing Bobby Pellitt can sort of be compared to Tom Cruise’s role as the grotesque movie executive from “Tropic Thunder.” But that to me always seemed as gimmicky as it was entertaining. Here it feels legit. Farrell is actually giving a performance, even if he doesn’t get a Golden Globe nod. And lastly, and almost perfectly, Jennifer Aniston is the sexually harassing dentist who makes life a living hell for poor sap Dale who’s recently engaged. He wanted to be a dentist but never made it and is forced to deal with his sexually charged boss, as her assistant, who insists on molesting patients, walking around without a shirt on and trying to get in Dale’s pants.

Obviously finding a different job is out of the question. The next logical step? Murder. These three goofs head to the bad part of town, with direction from “Gregory” the Indian-accented voice on the other end of Nick’s OnStar car service. They meet up with Jamie Foxx’s Dean “motherf*cker” Jones who gives them advice on how to commit murder for a small fee of five thousand dollars. Let it be known that later they find out Jones’ past crimes hilariously consisted of pirating movies. What follows is a sort of “Strangers on a Train” plot in which each guy commits to killing each other’s boss. I shall say no more, as the film’s witty screenplay by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) offers way too many fun twists and turns (and surprising suspense) for anything to be spoiled here.

There are several reasons why “Horrible Bosses” is just a wonderful and smart comedy. The entire cast just goes for it. Like I said, Farrell and Aniston (in limited but outstanding roles) and definite standouts who play completely against type. They’re not necessarily thought of as “funny people” but here they really get to shine. And they’re not just portrayed as jerks. Sure all three are jerks, but that doesn’t stop them from being developed and having the change to be funny as well. The chemistry between the three male leads is tremendous. They’re like the three stooges of the 21st century (although there’s no slapstick to be found here of course). I can’t wait to see the deleted and alternate takes on the Blu-ray, which I’m sure are numerous. I liked how the film goes where it goes. Let’s just say it gets a little dark and I was completely surprised and delighted by that. I mean this is a movie about three guys planning to commit murder. So I guess I shouldn’t be too shocked. Director Seth Gordon, who’s only previous feature length film credit is the critically drubbed “Four Christmases” (althought he worked mostly in TV and feature docs) shows an assured hand here and paces his film so we’re never bored and always surprised. This is a movie that feels like it was made for “The Hangover” crowd but is much smarter and wittier.

“Horrible Bosses” is yet another winning summer comedy. After “Bridesmaids” and “Bad Teacher,” (all three being wonderfully original concepts) I’m convinced that these are the real blockbusters of this season. You don’t need comic book movies when great acting and clever writing are the real heroes at your multiplex. GRADE: A-