Monthly Archives: July 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (Review)

Cowboys & Aliens delivers exactly what the title and trailer indicate–nothing more and nothing less–and whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends entirely on how entertaining said title and trailer appear to be.

It’s not always best to judge a film by the marketing materials.  Sometimes, they just turn out completely differently.  For example, the excellent moody trailer for Battle: Los Angeles gave way to an irritatingly derivative and bland action movie, while the horrendous marketing for X-Men: First Class ended up turning into one of the flat-out best movies of the year. On the other hand, there are films that are completely and totally unsurprising.  Cowboys & Aliens is just that, delivering precisely what it appears it would, with absolutely no surprises.  Picture an Old West setting, with a sudden alien invasion, and you have the movie.  Ridiculous?  Yes.  Awesome?  Sometimes.

 

Cowboys & Aliens opens with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the middle of the desert with a futuristic-looking device on his wrist and no memory of who he is.  After brutally thwarting a trio of would-be bounty hunters, he arrives in the nearby town, only to be immediately locked up; the man is, in fact, a dangerous outlaw named Jake Lonergan.  It turns out that Jake is also sought after by an equally dangerous man, a former colonel named Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), for stealing some gold.  At the same time, a mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) cannot take her eyes off Lonergan and keeps inquiring where he has come from.  Just when Dolarhyde seems ready to kill anyone in order to get his hands on Lonergan, aliens swoop in on the town, laying waste to buildings and scooping up the townsfolk.  Lonergan’s wrist device starts glowing and beeping, and transforms into a cannon that blows one of the spaceships apart. Lonergan and Dolarhyde decide to set aside their violent dispute to work together against this powerful threat and save the abducted people.

 

Though fun, Cowboys & Aliens is a remarkably stupid film.  This is, as the title suggests, a movie about cowboys fighting aliens.  It’s a very formulaic Western action movie with a strong sci-fi twist.  Thankfully, the film seems generally aware of the absurdity of its own crossover.  While it generally takes itself extremely seriously, it’s not an overtly dark film and it knows how to have fun with a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that keeps the tone from getting too heavy.  In other words, it’s perfectly characteristic of a summer action movie.

 

Cowboys & Aliens hits almost every single beat of the sci-fi and Western genres, which has the slight but occasionally glaring disadvantage of coming across as generic.  Whether or not “generic” can be substituted with “classic” here will be completely subjective.  There is certainly nothing revolutionary here, right down to the whole “aliens are here and want our resources” plot thread.   The aliens themselves have a couple of neat visual touches but overall don’t look as creative as I would have hoped.  I do admire the resemblance to Annunaki gods, but aside from a small resemblance to those Babylonian deities the overall design of the aliens is somewhat uninspired.   There is also one of almost every stock character: the silent badass,  the gruff villain, the mysterious woman, the preacher, the skeptic doctor, and the Indian.  Most of the cast is not given much to do from the script that has been worked over by an army of writers since the project’s inception in 1997: Daniel Craig broods a lot, Olivia Wilde stares and says mysterious things, and nearly everyone else just fills in the gaps with cheesy dialogue.  The only member with any substance is Harrison Ford as Dolarhyde, which turns out to be a treat: Ford proves that he’s still got it, as a snarling villain that eventually reveals a great deal of depth.

 

Just because the movie is a little generic doesn’t mean that it can’t be entertaining.  When it’s not trying to cram in every cliche of Western and sci-fi movies, Cowboys & Aliens is a very loud and muscular action picture.  Daniel Craig, who introduced a dark and ruthlessly badass edge to the James Bond reboots, is equally tough here–less than five minutes into the film he dispatches three men with startling brutality.  Many other characters and nameless villains are similarly dispatched by Lonergan.  The large-scale battle sequences between the cowboys and aliens are appropriately exciting, and director Jon Favreau keeps his camera from getting too close or shaky. If there’s one thing the movie is good for, it’s the thrills.

 

There is nothing at all surprising in Cowboys & Aliens.  Everything that the film has to offer is indicated in the title and the trailer, and how much audiences will enjoy the movie depends entirely on how entertaining the trailer looked.  I personally felt only moderate excitement for the film, and ended up being fairly entertained.  There’s not a lot in the film that doesn’t work, though the degree to which it all does work is nothing revolutionary or noteworthy.  That said, the idea behind the film had the potential to fail magnificently. The fact that it does not do so, and even manages to be fairly entertaining, is worthy of praise for Favreau and company.  I’d say if you think it looks fun, you’ll definitely enjoy it.  Skeptics won’t find anything to change their minds.

 

Score: *** (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of western and sci-fi action and violence, some partial nudity and a brief crude reference.

 

 

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Captain America: The First Avenger (Review)

Joe Johnston returns to his Rocketeer roots for Captain America, delivering a fist-pumping action picture that fires on all cylinders.

The final piece of Marvel’s massive marketing campaign for the 2012 film The Avengers has arrived.  Following The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger lays the final groundwork leading up to next summer when the characters team up.  There have been some vauge and some not-so-vague lines drawn between the different Marvel films that are a part of the Avengers lineage, and as the ties become clearer, the sense that this is all part of a larger universe materializes in grand fashion.  Captain America feels like the most stand-alone film, save for the prologue and epilogue.  Appropriately, it serves as the bookend to this series of films leading up the The Avengers (and even sports a flashy-looking Avengers trailer after the credits).  Even as its own film, it’s a complete and total blast.

Captain America: The First Avenger opens with a scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) trying and failing, once again, to join the army.  Due to his tiny frame and long list of medical problems including asthma, Steve cannot join.  His sense of patriotism is unmatched, however: Steve is so devoted to his country his will apply any place he can.  His determination pays off, when an German scientist, Abraham Erskine, (Stanley Tucci) overhears Steve’s attempt to join yet again at a carnival, and enlists him.  What Steve does not realize is that he has just been shortlisted for Erskine’s Super Soldier program, the brainchild of Erskine and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony Stark’s father.  Steve is chosen because, as Erskine tells him, he might not be a great soldier, but he is a good man.  Through the guidance of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Steve, now known as Captain America, trains to face off against the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his Hydra regime before their mystical superweapons destroy the world.

Captain America marks another superhero film in which character development is actually a focus.  Great care is taken to give these characters heart and soul, and when the action slows down to establish more plot or further develop the characters, it never feels like the movie is being inconvenienced or like the filmmakers are trying to get the scene over with.  As a result, the relationships between these characters, particularly between Peggy and Steve, feel robust and genuine. In fact, Evans and Atwell have such good chemistry onscreen, it’s extremely easy to buy into their onscreen flirting and cautious romance.  It rarely feels forced or cheesy; they’re a couple that is engaging to watch interact with each other.  The supporting cast is equally excellent, with the delighfully wry Tommy Lee Jones throwing gruff zingers in every direction, and Toby Jones (as a reluctant Hydra scientist) and Stanley Tucci reliably giving it their all without coming across as cheesy.  Hugo Weaving is a man that oozes menace in everything he does; his face and line delivery simply screams “villain”, and his turn as the Red Skull is pitch-perfect.  It’s a little disappointing he doesn’t get more time in the film.

For all of the quality acting and meticulous characterization, there is still plenty of rah-rah action in Captain America that hits real hard and looks and feels great.  Even here, it feels like a comic book: bad guys getting hit by the Cap don’t just fall, they go flying.  Explosions are absurdly huge without being silly, and the ways in which characters are dispatched are endlessly inventive.  Thankfully, the action is shot in such a way that the camera is barely shaky at all; too many movies insist in getting extremely close to the characters and shaking to the point where the action is incomprehensible.  Here, the camera steps back a bit and stays focused.  It’s usually pretty easy to tell what is going on and the result is noticeably better fisticuffs.

The film boasts a distinct and exciting style, one that just feels retro.  The cinematography recalls that of old-school spy action movies, and the overall aesthetic, the WWII-era environment filled with futuristic imagery, just feels right. Joe Johnston, who directed the criminally underrated cult classic The Rocketeer back in the early 90s, shows that he was the unquestionably perfect choice for this film.  Johnston returns to what made The Rocketeer work so well, that is to say, legions of faceless bad guys getting their asses handed to them, massive action setpieces, a ridiculously evil villain, and an overall sense of relatively innocent fun.

That said, that particular style is not for everyone.  It’s distinctly 90s, in that sort of silly, schlocky way that is a delight for some (such as myself) and a complete turnoff for others.   The film’s logic doesn’t always hold up under close scrutiny: Hitler and the Nazis, while mentioned a few times, are nowhere to be found except for in one brief scene, and Red Skull’s scheming against them is a little ridiculous considering his mystical artifacts and ridiculous superweapons that can disintegrate a human body in seconds go almost completely unnoticed by the Nazis.  Early on in the movie, Red Skull proclaims that he plans to overthrow Hitler and take over the world.  It’s all very comic-booky, and the vibe works for the most part, but the balancing act between American propaganda, the solemnity of the times,  and comic book silliness isn’t perfect.

Captain America: The First Avenger is solidly entertaining, very exciting, and just a lot of fun to watch.  Unlike the disappointing Green Lantern, it completely delivers on what its trailer promises: a solid action-adventure.  The film’s look and feel is a complete delight, and it’s clear that Joe Johnston is having a blast returning to what he does best.  That sense of fun, again, carries over into the entertainment value of the film. It’s almost two hours of legions of anti-American soldiers getting destroyed by a man practically wearing the American flag.  It’s uplifting, thrilling, and completely entertaining.  Bring on The Avengers.

Score: **** 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Review)

Though it tends to focus on action more than characters, there is no denying that the final Harry Potter film is epic, thrilling, and emotional, ending the incredibly popular series with an extremely satisfying bang.

WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers pertaining to the end of the book and movie.

The Harry Potter film series spans ten years and eight films.  It’s safe to say that the series, in both books and films, has defined a generation.  Series fans remember reading the first book, devouring the second, and standing in line at midnight for the release of each book after.  It’s a similar story for the film franchise, which has, before the final film, collectively grossed over two billion dollars total. Harry Potter is a juggernaut of a franchise, but at last, it must come to an end.  The final film in the series, and the final chapter of one of the most fully-realized fantasy sagas to be written, is finally here.

 

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 picks up exactly where Part 1 left off, with Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) paying their respects to the house-elf Dobby who died saving the trio.  They must continue on with their mission to hunt down and destroy the last of seven Horcruxes, repositories into which Lord Voldemort (a terrifying Ralph Fiennes) has placed parts of his soul in order to be immortal.  Voldemort possesses the Elder Wand the world’s most dangerous and powerful wand and the third of the three Deathly Hallows (the Invisibility Cloak that Harry owns, the Resurrection Stone, and the wand), which make the owner of all three the master of death.  Time is running out for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, however, as Voldemort and his massive army of Death Eaters are prepared to take hold of Hogwarts School by force, and Voldemort will stop at nothing to kill Harry.  Harry is, of course, aware that the only way it can end is with the murder of either himself or Voldemort at the hands of the other.

 

Most impressive about Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is how well the cast just clicks together.  There has been only one significant casting change across the decade that these films have existed, that being Michael Gambon replacing Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore, after the untimely death of Harris after Chamber of Secrets.  Everyone else has had ten years and eight films to grow together, and it’s simply stunning how well it works.  These actors are their characters.  Of the main trio, Emma Watson is still the best as Hermione, but the evolution of all three shows just how much these three have grown. Their chemistry together is nothing short of stellar.  The cast across the franchise has always been excellent; a deep pool of talented British thespians give the films a great deal of class.  Ralph Fiennes in particular brings a huge amount of menace to Voldemort.  Several faces that had been getting reduced screen time in the past couple of films get a bit more this time around, providing closure and one more welcome glimpse of the characters.  That said, the real power player of the franchise has always been the unquestionably fantastic Alan Rickman as Severus Snape.  Those that have read the books know that this final installment holds a handful of massive revelations for the character.  The long-awaited flashback that involves Snape’s true colors deepen and enrich his character magnificently, allowing Rickman to expand his range for the part he was born to play, shedding tears and finally showing vulnerability.  It’s a brilliantly emotional scene, and watching Harry and Snape finally connect on this level was both crushing and beautiful.  I wish more time had been spent with Snape in this final installment, but what is given is still handled as well as I could have hoped.

 

Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was a great film, but it was slow at times.  Part 2 makes up for it completely, delivering almost nonstop action with only occasional stopping to advance the plot. The entire series has been building up to the final battle of Hogwarts, and David Yates does not disappoint, offering eye-popping CGI creatures, colorful flashes of magic, and massive explosions of fire and rock as the wizarding school gets ravaged by the final battle.  This is in itself something of an emotional experience, since Hogwarts almost feels like its own entity; as a place of safety and happiness, watching it get breached as towers crumble and the Quidditch field burns is powerful.  The pacing here is quite good, showing different parts of the battle taking place and then stopping for a few minutes to focus on the actual story.

 

Unfortunately, the movie tends to focus more on delivering a pulse pounding action picture than it does the characters, and some fans might be disappointed that certain characters are glossed over and only given brief glimpses.  Clocking in at only 130 minutes (“only”. ha.), Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the shortest film in the series.  I would have been fine with an extra 15 or 20 minutes if it meant spending more time with characters that we are likely never to see again. J.K. Rowling has created in her series some of the deepest and most memorable characters in modern literature, and it is part of why her series is as absurdly popular as it is: these are characters that we want to know intimately and spend time with.  Occasionally, it feels cheap that this film robs the fans of those opportunities.

 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, though it skimps on some character points, is still one of the best films in the series.  It’s tremendously exciting and is still suitably emotional, containing a finality that resonates through the entire film.  At just over two hours, it moves quickly, but I still wish more time had been spent with some characters.  It is a small complaint, since the rest of the film is so well-made.  It’s a tough farewell here; Harry Potter has been in our lives for more than a decade.  This final farewell, despite stumbling a couple of times, is still epic and emotional, and a fine send-off for the Boy Who Lived.

 

Score: **** (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images.

Horrible Bosses (Review)

A very brisk and raunchy screenplay coupled with engaging performances and fantastic chemistry between everyone involved make Horrible Bosses one of the better comedies of the year.

Horrible Bosses, directed by Seth Gordon, opens by discussing everyone’s primal fear (and for many, reality), of the soul-crushing mediocrity of a job that sucks.  Everyone has, or did have, some job that they hated, whether for the hours, the duties, or, for the reason this movie targets, the employers.  Better start counting your blessings, however, because the sadistic supervisors of Horrible Bosses make any job instantly desirable by comparison.

The three sad saps at the center of Horrible Bosses are Nick (Jason Bateman), a depressingly hardworking cubicle dweller desperate for a promotion, Kurt (Jason Sudekis), a womanizing accountant for a family-owned chemical company, and Dale (Charlie Day), a convicted sex offender (but not for the reason you might think) who works as a dental assistant for lack of being able to get any other job.  What of these men’s bosses?  Nick, potentially the worst-off of the group, finds himself under the ruthless rule of Jack Harken (Kevin Spacey), who threatens his underlings, insults employees in crowded rooms, and laughs in Nick’s face when Nick mentions his deceased grandmother. Kurt is initially very happily employed under a kind-hearted boss (Donald Sutherland), but instantly finds himself in hell once the old man keels over and gets replaced by his bizarre coke-head jerk of a son, Bobby Pellitt(Colin Farrell), who is concerned with nothing more than maximizing profits by any means so he can cash it all in and retire, even if it means endangering others through unsafe practices.  Finally, Dale, happily engaged, is at the mercy of an alarming amount of sexual harrassment by Julia (Jennifer Anison), a woman so sleazy it baffles the imagination (she demands that they have sex and use the gassed-up patient between them as a bed).  The men decide that their bosses need to die, so they hire a man named Jones (Jamie Foxx).  His first name is itself an expletive, but this “murder consultant” suggests that they kill each other’s bosses–no easy feat, considering the massive ineptitude and naivety of the trio.

The film works as well as it does because of Spacey’s, Farrell’s, and Aniston’s relentless dedication to being three of the biggest scumbags in a film in years.  Each actor relishes his or her opportunity to be as shockingly evil and depraved as possible, pushing their deplorable character traits to the limit: Spacey as pure evil, Farrell as a massive tool, and Aniston sporting the most voracious sexual appetite I have ever seen in a movie.  They operate as caricatures of bad bosses and the scenes in which they appeared were among the most energetic in the film.  Aniston in particular is shockingly, hilariously vulgar, but all three are a pure joy to watch.  To their credit, Bateman, Sudekis, and Day are also fantastic.  Naturally, each actor plays to their respective strengths: Bateman is, as always, the exasperated voice of reason that he perfected on Arrested Development.  He’s typecast once again but somehow his shtick never gets old.  Similarly, Charlie Day plays a slightly more low-key version of his lovably idiotic character on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.  Sudekis retains the roguish charm that most of his Saturday Night Live characters possess.  These three play off of each other marvelously.  The comedic timing and chemistry between these three leading men and their bosses, as well as between them and Jamie Foxx’s character of Mr. Jones, is brilliant.

Horrible Bosses dabbles in many styles of comedy without ever moving too far over the top in each.  There are plenty of instances of the trio slapping each other in the face (summoning memories of the Three Stooges), situational humor shows up every now and then, and there are even a small handful of gags intended for shock value.  None of these overstay their welcome and all of them make appearances at just the right time.  The main source of humor is in the excellent screenplay, which utilizes very brisk exchanges and punchlines to great effect. There’s also ample use of improvised dialogue, and when the three main actors all come from television programs that encourage the style, the end result is natural, engaging, and hilarious.  The screenplay does dip into some tired gags and, yes, does use the old deus ex machina trick at the end (which can be spotted from a mile away), but those are a couple of small missteps in what is otherwise a razor-sharp script.

It’s incredibly refreshing to see a comedy that doesn’t play it safe; too often, studios vying for maximum profit push restrictions and cuts on their films to get a PG-13 comedy that anyone can pay for and watch.  The Hangover proved that the hard-R comedy can be profitable, and opened the floodgates for more.  Horrible Bosses is delightfully depraved, playing to all the strengths of its parade of enormously talented players as well as utilizing the freedom of the Restricted rating without becoming a constant barrage of vulgarity.  A near-perfect cocktail of comedic styles, as well as some of the best chemistry I’ve seen between actors in a comedy in years, make Horrible Bosses the comedy to beat this year.

Score: **** 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language and some drug material

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Review)

The third film in Michael Bay’s trilogy is frustrating, exhausting, and soulless, containing much of what might make a good film yet still falling short in every single category save for the action.

Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy is an exercise in excess, in every way, shape, and form.  Every character is an epic caricature–from Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBouf) as the ridiculously clumsy nerd, to Mikaela (Megan Fox) and now Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whitley) as the ridiculously hot girlfriends, to soldiers (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson) being as macho-military-American as is humanly possible, to an endless parade of minorities doing nothing but aggressively display every single stereotype their race might represent.  The peripheral characters are absurdly slapstick and over-the-top.  The plots cover broad strokes of every Hollywood-ized twist and beat.  And the action–oh, the action.  The climaxes of each film place ungodly amounts of mayhem and destruction at center stage, decimating cities and causing obscene numbers of explosions.  This excess brought in massive profits for the series, although when everything was cranked up again for the sequel Revenge of the Fallen, it was met with alarming fan and critic uproar.  Finally taking the criticisms into consideration, Bay dials back the more irritating elements of his trilogy for a tighter, better, but still very flawed third installment.

 

Transformers: Dark of the Moon begins with a massive retcon of American history by revealing that the original Moon landing was in response to a ship that crashed on the surface.  This ship was the last escape vehicle from Cybertron during the battle between the good Autobots and evil Decepticons that destroyed the planet.  This ship carried both Sentinel Prime, Optimus Prime’s mentor, and a set of pillars that serve as teleportation devices between planets. Megatron, a shadow of his former self and very near death, has been plotting his new rise to power as ruler of Earth.  Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky has a new girlfriend in Carly, though is unable to find a job fresh out of college as he simultaneously finds himself in a jealous competition with Carly’s boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey) over her affections.  Then Chicago gets torn apart for an hour.  That’s about all there is in terms of plot, although there are a couple of twists and betrayals I didn’t see coming.

 

Dark of the Moon features some truly abysmal pacing.  The moon landing/”here’s what really happened” montage that opens the film is excruciatingly long, and followed by over an hour of absolutely nothing happening.  Then there’s a short and exciting chase sequence, another long period of nothingness, and then a solid hour of action.  Why Bay decided to hold off until the end to show any real action is a mystery, but I was getting extremely bored for a long while.  Luckily, Bay really delivers here with some of the most impressive action I’ve seen in a long time.  Chicago is practically leveled with countless explosions, brawls, and gunfights.  There’s literally so much going on in this last hour it’s impossible to put it into words here. It almost never lets up, each scene leading almost seamlessly into the next, with massive action setpieces stacking on top of one another.  It’s absurd, loud, and jaw-dropping.  Unfortunately, an entire hour of nonstop action is a long time, and it actually started to wear on me.  Bay pounds his audience into submission with eardrum-shattering destruction.  It’s good action–really good, at times, even–but I was numb after about a half hour of it.

 

Credit is due, however, to the special effects team.  There are some fantastic-looking effects shots in this film, most notably the one featured in the trailer (with the giant worm Transformer cutting the skyscraper in half), as well as a extended sequence with several soldiers with gliding suits weaving in and out of buildings as Decepticons chase after them.  Everything looks crisp, bright, and colorful, and Michael Bay has even managed to slightly brighten the characteristically dark picture that 3D movies usually have.  It still looks a little dark occasionally, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.  And speaking of 3D, it’s not half bad here.  Honestly, it’s not a movie that needs to  be seen in that format, and there were certainly times where I completely forgot it was there.  Other times, it looked pretty good and seemed to feature what James Cameron originally envisioned for the format.  It provides some depth to some of the images and gives a nice sense of perspective to the longer shots.  One hidden benefit of the format is that for the 3D to really come off strong, shots need to be sustained for a couple of seconds.  This forces Bay to dial back his split-second editing a bit, and the picture is better for it.  It’s more coherent, and less chaotic.  It’s less of a chore to try to follow.  Honestly, if you love the Transformers series, go ahead and spring for the 3D–you’ll like it.

 

There is a great segment in Dark of the Moon when the Decepticons touch down on Earth en masse, and immediately begin attacking civilians.  The extended sequence is dark, thrilling, and upsetting, and the ensuing robot-on-robot violence is extraordinarily brutal.  It’s a glimpse of what this franchise could have been.  Then, it turns around again and returns to the immature, irritating humor that characterizes the trilogy.  I don’t hate all of Bay’s movies; Bad Boys I & II and The Rock are fantastic action movies.  Bay’s playful style just doesn’t gel with a series about giant robots that kill each other.  It’s better than the other two films, but it’s still not great enough to change the mind of anyone who dislikes the series.  At the same time, fans of the franchise will find themselves very much entertained.  It’s pretty much more of the same, for better or for worse.

 

Score: ** (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo