Reel Opinions


Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Smurfs

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I was not exactly in the best of spirits walking into The Smurfs. After seeing what had befallen cartoon icons like Yogi Bear and Alvin and the Chipmunks when Hollywood brought them to live action, can you really blame me? Well, as it turns out, The Smurfs is a small step above some past failed attempts. It's not a complete success, and I can't recommend it in any good conscience, but truth be told, I expected a lot worse than director Raja Gosnell (who previously worked on the two live action Scooby-Doo films) has given us.

picI remember watching The Smurfs cartoon when I was a kid, but for the life of me, I don't remember what the appeal of the show was. I remember the appeal of stuff like Transformers or Thundercats, but the charm of Smurfs eludes me. Maybe it was better than the other stuff that was on during its Saturday morning time slot? The movie does very little to remind me of their appeal. The Smurfs are jolly, but very bland, blue little people who are described as being "three apples high", but seem a lot smaller to me. They live in a tiny village made up of mushrooms, fly around on birds, and generally spend all their time singing. They also are all named after their main character trait. Take Clumsy Smurf (voiced by Anton Yelchin), who acts as the film's underdog hero here. He's always tripping over his feet, or knocking stuff over. He wants to be a brave and heroic Smurf figure, but with a name like Clumsy, the others in the village generally avoid him. Our other heroes include Papa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters), who acts as the wise and kind guardian of the village, Brainy (voiced by Fred Armisen), who likes to analyze everything, Gutsy (voiced by Alan Cumming), who is brave and adventurous, Grouchy (voiced by George Lopez), who is pretty self-explanatory, and Smurfette (voiced by recording artist Katy Perry), the sole female resident of the village.

picOf more interest to me was the Smurfs' main nemesis, the evil wizard Gargamel, who despite living in a dark castle and wanting to capture the Smurfs, never came across as all that evil to me. But hey, it's a movie for little kids, so he's not allowed to be that scary. What's important is that comic actor Hank Azaria goes full tilt in his performance, giving us a sometimes hilarious live action cartoon villain caricature. He's obviously having a blast here, and hams his performance up to the skies, which kind of fits with the character. His partner in crime is a cat named Azrael, who is sometimes played by a real cat, but usually is portrayed by a CG one, so it can give comical reaction shots when its master's plans to capture the Smurfs fail. I liked the way little Azrael "talked" by making cat sounds provided by voice acting legend, Frank Welker. I also liked how the cat frequently seemed exasperated by the plans Gargamel came up with, almost as if it knew they were doomed from the start. While these two characters are not enough to save the movie as a whole, they are easily the most entertaining aspect.

picThe plot kicks off when the evil Gargamel stumbles upon the Smurf Village, which is protected by a magical barrier that usually makes it invisible to the naked eye. The six Smurfs that I named above get separated from the others during the chaos, and eventually find their way to a portal that warps them to Earth, right in the middle of New York City. Kids (and adults as well) will immediately think of the charming Disney fantasy, Enchanted, which also dealt with characters from a fairy tale world finding themselves warped to Manhattan. If only this movie had half the wit and the intelligence of that film. The Smurfs find a human friend in the form of Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris), an ad executive for a cosmetics company who is dealing both with the fact his iron-fisted boss (Sofia Vergara) is breathing down his neck to come up with a new campaign, and that his sweet wife Grace (Jayma Mays) is expecting their first child, and Patrick doesn't know what kind of a father he will be. Both Patrick and Grace get wrapped up in the stranded Smurfs' plight, and have to help them find a way back to their home, which can only be achieved with a magical potion and a rare blue moon.

picIt's a workable premise, but the screenplay (credited to four writers) gets bogged down in too many subplots. I doubt that little kids will care much about Patrick's problems at work and home, so why does the movie put so much attention to it? There are even some subplots that seem to be forgotten as soon as they're introduced, such as when Gargamel is briefly held in a New York prison. But, I guess the movie would lose its PG-rating if the filmmakers decided to go far enough with that idea. The Smurfs themselves hold very little personality. Clumsy wants to be a hero, and to be taken more seriously by his fellow Smurfs. Smurfette wants a new dress, and is happy to find another woman she can talk to in Grace. Kids will no doubt find this stuff hilarious, but I got tired of the antics provided by the little blue guys (and gal). Sure, they're kind of cute, but they're just not very interesting.
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The Smurfs is passable entertainment for kids, and doesn't aspire to be much more than that. It will sell a boat-load of merchandise, and I'm almost certain we'll see a sequel in a year or two. I personally found it kind of bland, but watchable, with the villains being the best part of the movie. Given that it doesn't exactly come from the most inspired source material, maybe that's the most you can wish for in a Smurfs movie.

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Crazy Stupid Love

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Compared to last weekend's pleasant yet generic Friends with Benefits, here is an adult romantic comedy that really works. By the way, "adult" in this case means sophisticated and smart, rather than raunchy. Crazy Stupid Love rises above the usual formula with somewhat ambitious plotting, honest characters that we can relate to, and some genuine surprises that I wasn't expecting while i was watching the movie. Yes, the movie is funny and likable, but it also caught me off guard a couple times, which is always welcome. The movie doesn't always work, but this is one of the stronger romantic comedies of the year.

picTaking an approach similar to 2003's Love Actually, the movie is an ensemble piece with various storylines ultimately connecting. The only problem with the screenplay by Dan Fogelman (Tangled) is that it occasionally spends too much time on certain plots or characters, abandoning others for long periods of time. It doesn't get to the point that we forget the other stuff is there, but some more balance or equal screen time would have been appreciated. That being said, the directing team of Glenn Ficara and John Requa (I Love You, Phillip Morris) juggle the multiple plots well, and the movie is edited in such a way that it feels like one big cohesive narrative, rather than the movie is jumping around from story to story. Eventually, everyone does play some part, and all the storylines come together in a satisfying way. This is an entertaining and well thought-out comedy.

picThe central focus of the film is Cal (Steve Carell), a man who married young when his high school sweetheart Emily (Julianne Moore) got pregnant at 17. They had some more kids over the years, have a beautiful home, and seem to have it all, until Emily suddenly announces during a dinner date that she has been having an affair with a man at her office (Kevin Bacon, at his slimy best), and that she wants a divorce. Cal moves out of the house, and begins spending his evenings at a local cocktail lounge, wallowing in self pity over cheap alcoholic drinks. This brings him to the attention of lady's man Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who decides to take Cal under his wing, and give him a new look on life with a fresh wardrobe and a new shot of confidence. Cal is reluctant at first, but after his first successful night of sex with a flighty woman he meets at the bar (Marisa Tomei, hilarious here), he starts to enter the world of dating again. Yet, through it all, Cal misses Emily, calling her "the perfect combination of sexy and cute".

picThere are multiple other plots competing for our attention, as well. Emily has not yet entered a relationship with the man she slept with, and with all of their friends and neighbors taking sides in Cal and Emily's break up, it's hard for her to decide if she made the right decision or not. We also meet Hannah (Emily Stone), a young woman who after her long-time boyfriend (recording artist Josh Groban) refuses to propose, heads out for the same cocktail lounge Cal hangs out, and hooks up with Jacob. This begins a guarded relationship between the two - Hannah knows that Jacob is a lady's man, and that she probably should not get involved, while Jacob begins to feel true love for the first time during the nights he spends with Hannah. There is also a bizarre love triangle focused on Cal, the 17-year-old girl who babysits his kids, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who has secret feelings for him, and Cal's 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who harbors not-so-secret feelings for Jessica.

picI guess it could be considered a box office gamble that Crazy Stupid Love mainly focuses on the middle aged couple who have been married for 25 years, rather than the younger couple of Hannah and Jacob, but that is also one of its better qualities. Since Cal and Emily are the central figures of the screenplay, it allows the movie to deal with some subjects we don't get quite as often in romantic comedies, such as a relationship becoming dry and routine as the years go on. Yeah, it's been tackled before in other movies, but screenwriter Fogelman makes them honest and heartfelt characters, rather than having them screaming or fighting with each other. The other relationships in the film are obviously targeted at younger viewers, so the movie seems to be trying to cover multiple bases. For once, this does not feel like the film is pandering to multiple interests. The stories flow together nicely, and while I would have liked a bit more development on some of them, it ultimately is satisfying how all the multiple plots come together and are resolved.

picThe ensemble cast also carries the film a long way, with Carell and Moore having a deep personal connection, despite the pain they cause each other throughout the film, that a long-married couple needs. They're both wonderful here, and are allowed to play their characters genuinely, instead of for broad laughs. The same goes for everyone else, really. Stone and Gosling create some genuine sparks with their somewhat limited roles, while young newcomers Tipton and Bobo successfully navigate a tricky subplot dealing with some sensitive issues about very young love. I think what impressed me about the film is not that it's funny (which it is), but that everyone is allowed to talk, act, and think like real people. These are not throwaway characters pigeonholed into cliched types.
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I'm certain that Crazy Stupid Love will be a hit with the date night crowd, and since the movie tackles love from multiple angles, I think people of different age groups will take something different away from it. This is a charming little movie that doesn't stand out much, but is really quite smart in its simplicity. It may sometimes come across as being understated, but this movie really does have a lot to say about different kinds of relationships.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

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Jon Favreau's Cowboys & Aliens tries to give us two pulp movies for the price of one. It's a great idea, and while I enjoyed the film, I ended up liking the stuff with the Cowboys a lot more than the stuff with the Aliens. Despite the campy sounding title, this movie really does try to be a serious Western, without a hint of irony. A lot of care has gone into recreating the tone, characters, and sights of a classic western. If only the Sci-Fi elements of the story had been handled better.

picIt's not that the stuff with the aliens does not fit with the Western story it tells. In fact, it fits incredibly well. My problem lies with how cynical Hollywood seems to have become about life from other worlds. I've pretty much had my fill with movies where big, gooey, CG monsters travel millions of miles through space to arrive on Earth, just so they can lumber around and scream at the camera, or lurk in dark shadows, just so they can jump out and scream. The aliens in the film show no sign of real intelligence. They're bug-eyed beasties that seem to exist simply to be shot, like targets in a video game. Oddly enough, this movie was produced by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, two filmmakers who in their earlier years made movies that actually gave us aliens that had something to say, or that we cared about. Spielberg obviously had Close Encounters and E.T., while Howard made Cocoon. Those movies had a sense of wonder about life beyond the stars. Now they're giving us generic CG monsters that ooze slime, and have traveled from a far away world just so they can look ugly and get killed by their human co-stars. I don't call this an improvement.

picSo, let's focus on what does work - the Western elements that are at the center of the story. As expected, the film opens with a stranger walking into town. In this case, the stranger is a man named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), a man who has no past, because he can't remember anything about who he is, or where he came from. He especially doesn't know why he has a strange futuristic-looking device locked onto his arm that kind of looks like a hi-tech bracelet, or why he has a mysterious wound on his body. Heck, he doesn't even know that his name is Jake, until someone in town recognizes his face on a Wanted poster. It's an interesting hook to kick the movie off with. Jake obviously has a past with the people in this town, but he doesn't remember a thing, not even how he got here. Not long after arriving in town, he runs afoul of the town bully, Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), who is the arrogant adult son of the iron-fisted cattle rancher who runs the town. We meet Percy's father, Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), soon after, and learn that he's a cruel man who tortures his employees when they don't give him the answer he wants to hear.

picOnce again, we're intrigued. Here's Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford in the lead roles, and they are both obviously playing very dark men. Craig's Lonergan has no memory of his past, but everyone seems to know about a big gold heist he pulled recently. That gold belonged to Ford's Dolarhyde, and when he rides into town, a standoff begins between the two. This is right about the moment we would get a shootout in the street, but instead, strange lights appear in the night sky above. The lights turn out to be spaceships that bombard the town with advanced weaponry, and kidnap most of the local townsfolk. It's also at this time that Jake learns that the bracelet he has attached to his arm is actually a weapon capable of firing blasts of energy. Where did it come from? One of the villagers seems familiar with it - She's Ella (Olivia Wilde), a woman who has dealt with the aliens (or "demons" as the townsfolk mistake them for) before, and seems to know a lot about Jake's past, and what happened to him. Wanting to know more about these creatures, and rescue the townsfolk, Jake and Dolarhyde must make a shaky truce to work together, and ride off to track down the aliens with the help of some Old West cliches including the town preacher, bartender, a cute kid, and an even cuter dog.

picAs silly as it sounds, Cowboys & Aliens really does take itself seriously, and is probably better for it. I have read that this script has been long in development, and was a comedy at one point. But, when Favreau and his team stepped in, they decided to play up the serious Western element of the story. Smart move, as it gives the movie a gritty bit of sincerity amongst the ludicrous goings on. We get your beautiful sweeping desert vistas, western towns on the verge of collapse under a tyrannical ruler, the old saloon, Native American warriors who whoop and yell, and all the usual trappings of a classic Western. The only difference are the spaceships flying overhead, the bug-eyed monsters that are piloting them.

picLike I said before, these aren't the smartest aliens to invade Earth. They've apparently come for our gold ("It's valuable to them", we learn.), and to study us, so they can learn our weaknesses and use it to their advantage when they come back with larger forces for a bigger invasion, I guess. Fair enough. But the aliens either just lumber about looking dumb, or they wait to jump out in front of people, and not do anything, giving the humans ample time to draw their gun and fire. The aliens also have the most curious feature - Their chests open up, revealing small slimy hands that reach out from their internal organs. What the point of this is, I am not sure. It does not really give the aliens any sort of advantage. It's also kind of silly and cumbersome when you think about it.

picRegardless, this is a well-made movie. Craig and Ford have the grizzled anti-hero look and act down, and do a good job playing off each other. There's a pretty big cast of recognizable character actors that make up the townspeople, and everybody fills their role well. The effects, set design, and camera work all do a good job of blending the traditional Western with more modern Sci-Fi elements, without making anything seem out of place. In fact, I'm quite surprised the movie works as well as it does, considering there are five different writers credited to the script, with two more credited for the story. Usually in cases like this, the movie falls apart from too many people contributing ideas. But here, it holds itself up pretty well. I don't know if I'll remember much about the movie months from now, but I liked it enough while I was watching it that I'm recommending it.
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One thing I will say about Cowboys & Aliens - It's probably the most "adult" of the summer blockbusters to come out this year. The movie can be pretty violent at times, and like I said, takes itself mostly seriously. And there's nothing wrong with that. Kids have plenty of options this summer. Nice to have a spectacle for the adults, too. That alone is kind of special enough to warrant a recommendation.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friends with Benefits

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I kept on waiting for Friends with Benefits to go off the beaten path of romantic comedies, and surprise me. Unfortunately, the movie chose to stay on autopilot its entire running time, and remain lockstep in lowered expectations. Don't get me wrong, the movie is agreeable enough, thanks mostly to its stars, Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. But not even their chemistry can rise above the fact that we've seen this movie way too many times before.

picThe film is directed and co-written by Will Gluck, a man who made his directorial debut two years ago with the abysmal Fired Up, one of the worst comedies of 2009. He bounced back nicely a year later by directing Easy A, one of the better comedies of 2010. Friends with Benefits finds him strictly on the middle ground. The movie is harmless and amusing in parts, but refuses to stand out. It's the second romantic comedy this year that asks if people can have a relationship built around sex, but not love. The other film was No Strings Attached, which starred Ashton Kutcher and Kunis' Black Swan co-star, Natalie Portman. I didn't care much for that film, and this one is only marginally better. This movie at least has kind of a cute central premise - Two people who are tired of the cliches of Hollywood romantic comedies find themselves in the middle of one in their real lives. But the script isn't clever enough to have fun with this idea. Instead of playing with the conventions and cliches of the genre, it follows them right off the cliff to mediocrity.

picAs the movie opens, we meet Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) as their latest relationships have just bombed out. They both decide to swear off love right about the same time they meet. He's the head of a popular web site out of L.A., and she's a powerful executive recruiter who invites him out to New York, hoping to convince him to take a high level job working for G.Q. magazine. He takes the job after Jamie gives him a whirlwind tour of the city, which plays less like a scene from the movie, and more like a very long ad promoting New York tourism. Not long after Dylan takes the job, they start hanging out as friends. This is not surprising, since working at G.Q. is apparently very lonely, as the only other person Dylan has contact with at work is the sports writer (Woody Harrelson), whose job in the screenplay is to remind us every chance he gets that his character is gay. The movie keeps on cutting back to this guy, making us think he'll play some part in the movie eventually, but no. He shows up, makes a joke about being gay, then disappears. It's too bad, because Harrelson is likable here. He's just stuck with a nothing character.

picBack to Dylan and Jamie - One night, they're sitting on the couch, watching a cheesy romantic comedy on TV. This is a funny scene, with a movie-within-a-movie sequence featuring an uncredited Jason Segel as the star of the film, which expertly parodies a lot of the cliches of the genre while playing it straight. As they watch the film, Dylan and Jamie show their disdain for Hollywood's simple-minded perception of love and relationships. The topic soon turns to sex and their own relationships, which leads to them discussing the idea of them having sex together as friends, with no relationships or emotional attachments to come between them. The two act like this is an idea that has never been discussed before, but I digress. Before long, they're sleeping together. Not long after that, they're having physical sex.

picIt's about this point that Friends with Benefits goes on autopilot, and starts hitting all the expected marks. Jamie's going to start having serious thoughts about Dylan, only to have Dylan misread them. Dylan's going to take Jamie to his family home for the Fourth of July weekend, so that the rest of his family can misunderstand their relationship, especially when Dylan's snoopy sister (Jenna Elfman) sees him sneaking out of the bedroom late one night. Dylan is going to go too far to convince his sister that he's not in a serious relationship with Jamie and say some hurtful things about her, which of course Jamie just so happens to hear, because she's in the same room, and the other two don't know it. This is all time-tested stuff, and could still work if the script was smart enough to do anything with it. This script treats the material like a raunchy TV sitcom.

picTimberlake and Kunis are at least good together, and are brighter than the material they've been given. They play off each other well, and get some laughs, but their best efforts can't rise above the mediocre plot they're in. There are some supporting roles for Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins, as Jamie's mother and Dylan's father respectively, but they are both poorly used. Clarkson never registers as a real presence in the movie, just showing up from time to time to talk to her daughter. As for Jenkins, his character is suffering from a very convenient form of Alzheimer's that allows him to be sad and sympathetic most of the time, yet the disease seems to lift whenever the script finds it convenient, and he has to give a pep talk to his son about finding love. He too never registers as a real character, and mainly exists for a running gag where he's constantly found in public not wearing pants.
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Friends with Benefits is really not that bad of a movie, it just suffers from a very bland feel of something we've seen before, and the film has no intention of surprising us, other than some occasional snappy dialogue exchanges. There are some fleeting moments of wit throughout, but then the movie decides to settle right back into the norm. If there's ever a movie that could have benefited more from going off the beaten path, it's this one.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

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Even though Captain America is intended to be a lead in for next year's superhero team up movie, The Avengers, I viewed it more as a companion piece to director Joe Johnston's summer movie from exactly 20 years ago, The Rocketeer. Both films are drenched in 1940s ambiance and style, and are throwbacks to the adventure serial movies of the day, where young, square-jawed heroes fought outlandish villains. Just like in his earlier film, Johnston shows a genuine love and knowledge for these kind of adventure stories. He doesn't do it in a modern way, like the Indiana Jones films. Captain America is old fashioned, downright ludicrous at times, and a lot of fun.

picStories like these usually start with a young everyman who has big dreams of being a hero, and this film is no different, as we're introduced to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). With World War II in full swing, Steve is taken in with a desire to fight for and defend his country, but he is asthmatic, scrawny, and rejected every time he takes the physical exam to join the military. The special effects used to turn Evans into a literal 90-pound weakling during these early scenes are truly impressive. They've shrunken the actor with CG effects, removing a lot of his body mass, and make him look so frail that you almost think a strong wind would snap the poor guy in half. Steve's determination to serve his country is eventually noticed by a military scientist named Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is conducting a top secret experiment to create a super soldier to fight against the Nazis, and wants Rogers to be his test subject. The crusty old military colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) has his doubts about Steve, but Erskine sees the strength and courageous spirit locked within the young man.

picAs soon as Eskine's mind is made up, Steve is whisked off to a secret lab, where he meets some of the other people involved in the experiment, including inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who Marvel Comic fans know is the father of Iron Man Tony Stark, and the lovely and no-nonsense Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who we automatically know will become Steve's love interest, because she's the only woman in the movie with a sizable role. Good thing she manages to have strong screen chemistry with Evans. At the lab, Steve is placed in a giant device, injected with a strange serum, and when he comes out, he's suddenly taller, buffed up, and possesses physical abilities far beyond normal men. He's given the name Captain America, dons a patriotic costume (complete with a shield bearing the colors of the American flag), and is initially used as a propaganda tool to drum up war bond sales. But when Steve's best friend and fellow soldier Bucky (Sebastian Stan) is captured by the enemy, Steve becomes a one-man army determined to free the American prisoners.

picIt's here that we meet our villain, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who also goes by the name of the Red Skull, due to the fact that his face (when he's not wearing a human-like mask) resembles his sinister namesake, making him kind of look like the love child of Skeletor from the old He-Man show, and Darth Maul from Phantom Menace. The details on how his face became this way were a little sketchy to me, but it has to do with his lust for power. Johann/Red Skull ultimately wants to surpass Hitler in the Nazi party, has a lot of followers who worship him like a god, and plans global domination with the aid of a super laser weapon. All of this is good, pulpy fun, which is what I would expect from a movie like this. What disappointed me is how Red Skull, for all his powerful ambitions and legion of followers, never comes across as an interesting villain. Once his plan is revealed, the script kind of seems at a loss on what to do with him, other than to have him stand around, grinning menacingly. We're intrigued when we see Johann take his "human" face off for the first time, revealing his true form, but the movie lets us down.

picThat's not to say that Weaving doesn't try. He's been the go-to-guy for comic book villains for a while now, and could play the Red Skull in his sleep. At least he's not sleepwalking through his performance here, it's just that the movie gives him little to do. Fortunately, Chris Evans holds up better as the heroic Steve Rogers. He does a good job of balancing the super heroics as Captain America, while at the same time, coming across as an average guy who's been given a remarkable opportunity. He's a likable kid with fears and doubts. There's a good scene early in the film, when Steve is touring the city he grew up in with Peggy, and lists off all the places where he's been beaten up by bullies, or people bigger than him. It's this self-depreciating sense of humor, combined with his spirit and inner strength, that makes him a likable everyman hero. Despite his enhanced abilities, he knows he's just a regular person.

picFor all of its big action sequences, which are obviously heavy on the CG effects, there is a real heart at the center of Captain America that I appreciated. Director Joe Johnston shows a real nostalgic flair for the time period, and the movie is beautiful to look at as well, with some scenes having an almost faded quality to them, due to the muted colors he chooses to use. The lighting, the set design and costumes, and even the recruitment and propaganda posters in the background all look like they're right out of the era. While a lot of summer movies have been trying to tie themselves to historical events or moments in time, this movie does it best, recreating a nostalgic Hollywood view of the era.
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Of course, the only way to enjoy all this detail is to see this movie in 2D. The film is yet another lazy 3D conversion, and should definitely be seeked out in its standard 2D format, so all the colors and details can be crisp and bright. That being said, despite a weak villain and the fact that the movie drags in a couple spots, I enjoyed Captain America. While it may ultimately be one giant lead-in to one of next summer's big event movies, it stands well enough on its own. I can only hope that The Avengers movie proves to be as much fun.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Winnie the Pooh

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What else can I say except what a delight it is to see something like Winnie the Pooh up on the big screen for kids. In a summer where kid's entertainment usually means talking CG animals (Zookeeper), kids eating "poo sandwiches" (Judy Moody), and farting penguins (Mr. Popper's Penguins), this is a beautiful and charming throwback to a time of hand drawn animation, simple stories and songs, and a lovable cast of characters. My only regret is that the movie is sure to get buried amongst the summer movie competition, but I guess movies like this always do better at home, where kids can watch it over and over again.

picThis is a gentle little movie, perfect for small children, as it's not very long (even with previews and a short cartoon before the main feature, it barely stretches past one hour in length), has nothing big or scary in it, and features all of their favorite characters from the Hundred Acre Wood. Parents should not fear, as Pooh and his friends have not been updated in the slightest. They're still as charming, funny, and inquisitive as they've always been. The story begins as you would probably expect, with Winnie the Pooh (voice by Jim Cummings) waking up hungry, and going on a search for honey. Not long into his quest, he comes across his good friend Eeyore the donkey (Bud Luckey), who is usually always down in the dumps about something, but is a bit more down than usual, as his tail has gone missing. Pooh gathers his animal friends to hold a contest to look for a substitute tail, but none of the ideas seem to work right for the donkey.

picA bigger crisis emerges when the animals turn to their human friend, Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), for help, and find only a note where he should be. The note is innocent enough, saying that Christopher has gone off to school for the day and will be "back soon". However, Pooh and his friends make the mistake of letting the not-very wise Owl (Craig Ferguson) read and translate the note, who misinterprets it as saying that Christopher Robin has been captured by a creature known as the "Backson". Pooh and his friends set a trap for the creature, which leads to some funny gags with all of them getting stuck in their own trap. There's a subplot involving the ever-bouncy Tigger (Jim Cummings, again) trying to give Eeyore a new look on life, and some catchy songs by Robert Lopez (best known for co-writing the Broadway smashes Avenue Q and Book of Mormon) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who also provides the voice of the motherly kangaroo, Kanga, in the film). It's just enough to hold the attention of the very small children in the audience, who will no doubt find it delightful, and maybe more than a little engaging.

picAs for me, I enjoyed the overall look of the film, which resembles a storybook come to life. The simple watercolor style of the art resembles illustrations, and I loved the way the characters would frequently interact with the words on the page, sometimes knocking them down into a big pile, or using them to form a ladder. The art style is a throwback, and features no modern touches, which is the way it should be with Winnie the Pooh. I also appreciated that directors Stephen J. Anderson (Meet the Robinsons) and Don Hall don't rely on star voice talent to sell their tickets. Sure, there's a couple recognizable voices here, such as the previously mentioned Ferguson, and John Cleese lends his voice as the Narrator. But, for the most part, the cast is made up of cartoon voice acting veterans. There's nothing flashy here. It's just a simple and beautiful little movie for small children that adults will find themselves enjoying as well.
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This benign film was obviously a labor of love for everyone involved, and it really does come through. Here at last is a kid's movie that doesn't come across as cinematic junk food, but rather seems like a warm and heartfelt tribute to innocence and these classic characters. I couldn't be happier with how this nostalgic film came out, and I imagine many children will feel the same way.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2

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It's amazing to think how ten years ago, how epic Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone seemed, and yet how quaint it now appears in the grand scheme of the entire story as we reach the end with Deathly Hollows Part 2. In Sorcerer's Stone, we met young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and have since watched the three characters mature into noble heroes, and the actors who play them into seasoned pros. We got our first glimpse at the enchanting world of Hogwarts, thrilled to our first game of Quidditch, and had almost no idea that we were watching the beginnings of what would become one of the strongest film franchises to come out of Hollywood in years.

picOf course, none of the films would have been possible without the imagination of original author, J.K. Rowling, who created not only a magical world, but one that has been extremely well thought out, executed, and has become deeper and more complex than anyone probably imagined. The joy of Deathly Hollows Part 2 is seeing how everything comes together - All the memorable characters, all the ideas and story threads come to play here, creating one of the most satisfying blockbuster experiences of the summer movie season. In Part 1 of the Deathly Hollows story (released back in November), we got to see how things were starting to fall into place to form the conclusion audiences have been waiting ten years to see. Now, we get to see everything come together and end magnificently. Screenwriter Steve Kloves (who adapted all but one of the books for the screen) moves the story at a breakneck pace, usual with summer tentpole movies, but does not sacrifice character development or emotion. Anyone who has spent any time watching these movies will be hard pressed not to feel a little choked up as not only things come to an end, but as final revelations about certain characters are revealed.

picAs expected, the film picks up at the exact moment the last film left off, with Harry and his friends still seeking the horcruxes that will make the vile dark wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) vulnerable enough to be defeated. Voldemort has already located the ultimate weapon that he needs in his conquest, is still relentlessly tracking down Harry, and has begun to conquer Hogwarts with the aid of his loyal follower Snape (Alan Rickman), who is now serving as headmaster at the school. This is all a set up for the ultimate confrontation that we all knew was coming from the very beginning of the story, as well as an epic battle for control of Hogwarts itself, where characters that we have been following for years step forward either to become heroes against the invading dark forces of Voldemort's growing army, or casualties in the final battle. We also learn the long and tangled backstories of certain characters, who will not be revealed here. As a climax, Deathly Hollows is pretty much everything we could want. It's enthralling and emotional, it's exciting and suspenseful, and it ties ten years worth of characters and plot together into one compact and successful film.

picWith its growing cast of characters played by some of the finest British actors working today, it's almost been overwhelming keeping track of it all, but this film does a good job of not only keeping focus, but giving many of its supporting characters a chance to shine. While the main focus is on Harry facing his destiny, we also get moments for Ron and Hermione to cement themselves as heroes. Even wise old professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith) gets to take center stage for a little while as she helps to summon a shield to protect Hogwarts from the invading forces. Sure, we got a little bit of this in the last movie with the return of Dobby the Elf, but this movie really puts the series' love of its own characters front and center. Nobody is wasted or unimportant here. Loose threads left dangling from previous installments are resolved. And with the apocalyptic ruins of the once beautiful Hogwarts serving as the battleground, we finally get the big confrontation we've been waiting for.

picAnd while spectacle certainly is not in short supply in Deathly Hollows, it is the dialogue and the characters themselves that draw us in. Nothing is left to chance in this final entry. The dialogue has conviction, the characters have a purpose, and nothing seems to exist just to keep the special effects artists busy (although they certainly are, almost from the start of the film, where Harry and his friends make a daring break in and escape on a dragon). Unlike the empty spectacle of Transformers and Green Lantern, there is a sense of weight and purpose here. There is personal involvement with these characters we have seen grow over the years. Not only that, there is a sense that this truly is a climax to a great tale. It doesn't feel rushed or hollow, it feels planned and calculated in the best ways possible. When the story reaches its end, it feels logical and we are satisfied. This is not just great filmmaking, but great storytelling.
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With the Harry Potter films now over, I've come not only to respect the imagination of original author Rowling, but also the integrity of the filmmakers, who have not lost sight of the integrity they had when they started this massive project over ten years ago. The cast, the various directors who have helmed the movies over the years, the effects artists and crew...Nobody has lost the sense of wonder and integrity that they had at the beginning, which is a rare thing indeed in any long-running film franchise. It's been a joy to experience this series on a whole, even if the experience is muddled a little by this film being in 3D (my advice, as always, is to seek out the 2D screenings). When all is said and done, you just can't deny how well this series was planned out as a whole.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Saturday, July 09, 2011

Horrible Bosses

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I was not impressed with the first half hour of Horrible Bosses. The movie was amusing enough, but it seemed to be hitting the same tired notes over and over, and the energy seemed off. But then, a funny thing started to happen. The movie quickly picked up steam, the energy became palpable, and the laughs started hitting hard and fast. By the time it was over, I was ready to put it alongside Cedar Rapids and Bridesmaids as one of my favorite comedies of 2011.

picHorrible Bosses started to work for me when it threw caution and common sense to the wind, and just went full tilt in its own madness. Director Seth Gordon (Four Christmases) shows a real style for over the top comic energy. He's also smart enough to just sit back, and let his talented comic cast do what they do best. We can tell that much of the dialogue was improvised while we're watching it, and the outtakes during the end credits only run the point home. This was a fun movie to make, and it's just as much fun to watch. The film's three heroes are a trio of friends. They're nice guys, maybe a little too nice. They're played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis. They have a natural chemistry during their early scenes, which give the impression that they could be friends in real life. But it's when they start getting in over their heads that the three actors start to really show their stuff, and deliver the big laughs.

picAs the film opens, all three of the men are under the thumbs of their respective horrible bosses. Nick Hendricks (Bateman) is an office drone who's been working like a dog for years in the hopes that his cold-hearted cynic of a boss (Kevin Spacey) will notice him, and give him the promotion he feels he deserves. Naturally, the boss winds up giving himself the title that Nick was gunning for, yet still expects Nick to work just as hard as he always had. Spacey is wonderful here, filling his portrayal with so much comic malice, we can almost feel Nick's frustration. Next we have Dale Arbus (Day), a dental assistant who recently got engaged, and now finds himself being sexually harassed by his female sex-bomb boss, Julia (Jennifer Aniston, playing against type, and doing a great job). She will resort to any means to have sex with Dale, and is not below using blackmail and threats of breaking up his impending marriage. Finally, there's Kurt Buckman (Sudeikis), who at the beginning, is the only guy happy at work. He's got a good job at a chemical factory, and is good friends with the kindly old man he works for (Donald Sutherland). But then, the boss has a heart attack while driving home one day, and the company is immediately taken over by the old man's coke fiend son, Bobby (Colin Farrell), who immediately changes things at the company for the worst.

picSo now, all three of the guys hate the people they're working for, and routinely meet at a family restaurant to gripe to each other about how bad they have it. It's during one of these conversations that Kurt throws out the idea that the world would be better off if all three of their bosses were dead. The friends initially laugh off the idea, but as things escalate at their individual jobs, it seems that murder is indeed the only option. They go to a seedy club to seek out a hitman, and what they get is Dean "MF" Jones. (I'll leave you to find out what "MF" means.) He's played by Jamie Foxx in a hilarious performance. Dean's advice is to follow the idea expressed in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, and murder each other's bosses in an "accident", so that it won't look suspicious, and that no one will be able to lay the blame on them. The screenplay is smart enough to realize that this idea has also been done in yet another movie, as when the three guys hear this plan, they immediately think of Danny Devito's Throw Momma From the Train.

picWhere the movie goes from here, I will not reveal, as this is the point that Horrible Bosses truly starts to let loose and build into something hilarious. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that these are nice guys, and probably have never done anything wrong in their lives. (Although one of them does have a record as being a sex offender, after a very unfortunate accident led to a misunderstanding.) They don't know the first thing about setting up a murder, staking out a victim to learn their daily routine, or covering their tracks, which leads to some of the film's biggest laughs. These guys aren't exactly dumb, they're just in way over their heads, and don't know how to act in the situations they find themselves in. This lends the film a strange sweetness. Yes, this is a very dark and raunchy comedy, but the guys in the middle of it all are just so likable. Their dialogue and banter is also constantly witty and genuinely funny. Like I said, a lot of it was most likely improvised, and the movie is all the better for it.

picThis is not just a funny movie, but it's also one that's been cast very well. With the three leads, Bateman makes a great exasperated straight man, while Day and Sudeikis get big laughs out of their observations and mishaps. And then there are the bosses themselves, which finds Spacey, Aniston, and Farrell (unrecognizable, and looking a bit like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder) truly reveling their roles. While Spacey gets the most screen time of the three, it's Aniston who makes the biggest impression as the manipulative and sexy dentist dominatrix. She's obviously having a blast playing against the kind of roles she usually gets, and never wastes an opportunity to get a well-earned laugh. There's a sense of joy coming from this cast. They're obviously having fun, and it comes through in the film itself.
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Horrible Bosses does somewhat resemble a raunchy sitcom at times, but the movie is so spirited and often hilarious, I never really cared. This is the kind of movie where you just need to let go and enjoy. It's very rare to find a comedy that's not only funny, but allows all of its lead stars in on the fun. It's even more rare when the audience ends up having just as much fun. This is one of the more pleasant surprises of the summer.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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