Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'Red Eagle' Movie Review

If movies like “RoboCop” are to be believed, the near future is going to be a festering cesspool of violence and corruption. It must be true, because no matter what era “near future” we’re talking about, the prediction is roughly the same. So, you should probably be on the look out in the next few years and be prepared. Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng’s (“Tears of the Black Tiger”) new superhero film, “Red Eagle”, a remake/homage to a 1960s action series, holds to this bleak vision. When the world is going to hell, and in desperate need of a savior, up steps Red Eagle.

As a movie, “Red Eagle” is about thirty minutes too long, and while the story is standard superhero fare and feels very comic booky—in both a positive and negative light—it makes up for its shortcomings in the best possible way, by delivering absurd amounts of ridiculous, over-the-top action. We’re talking a “Bad Boys II” level of overkill here. There is one fight scene that goes on for nearly twenty-minutes; it stops and starts, and constantly builds to a point where the two combatants are fighting on a falling elevator. That’s the kind of movie we’re talking about here, where the story and characters are secondary concerns.

After a James Bond style intro—a scene of fast-paced action with little or no context, followed by a credits sequence full of swimming colors—you’re informed that the year is 2016. A liberal politician, Direk Damrongprapa (Pornwut Sarasin), whose campaign platform was based on stopping the shoddy construction of a nuclear power plant, has been elected Prime Minister. No sooner than he is elected all of his high-minded moralizing and principles go out the window, and he becomes just as corrupt at the politicos he once opposed. Of course Direk’s ex-fiancĂ©, Vasana (Yarinda Bunnag), ditches him as soon as he sells out their shared cause. A shadowy underground crime syndicate called Matulee secretly runs things through a combination of secrecy, intimidation, and violence. They wear eerie metal masks, literally faceless villains. They own politicians, businesses, the media, cops, and anyone else that can be bought, which is everyone.

Everyone, that is, except Red Eagle (Ananda Everingham, “Legend of the Tsunami Warrior”). He wears a red mask (duh) and a sleek black leather jumpsuit, and is a total badass. Because no one else will stand up to the corruption and sleaze, he steps in and wrecks things up. Where no one else can, he cleans things up, dispensing his own brutal and bloody form of justice, like Batman only more vicious. Within the first few scenes he tortures and forcibly overdoses a drug dealer, and takes a particularly nasty retribution on a crooked senator with a penchant for molesting young children. It suffices to say he does not meet a pleasant end. Red Eagle can also kill like 80 dudes and leap high walls from a stand still. There is one honest man left, Detective Chart Wuttikrai (Wannasingh Prasertkul), and he has been assigned to track down and bring in the renegade vigilante. Matluee is also after Red Eagle, employing the notorious masked (you’ll notice a trend developing) assassin known as the Black Devil, to take him out.

The movie is full of coincidental connections, cheesy dialogue, and overacting bad guys, but it is gleefully self-aware, never takes itself too seriously, and has its tongue firmly planted in cheek. That helps save the film, making it a great deal of fun. And when the plot does falter, you never have to wait too long for the action to kick in. There are motorcycle chases, hand-to-hand combat, sword fights, shootouts, and explosions out the wazzu, and like most tales of this ilk, there is the constant moral debate about whether Red Eagle is a hero or a menace, a champion for justice or a psychotic murdering madman. Red Eagle—and Rome, his civilian alter ego—is the typically flawed protagonist, with a suitable, if a little too convenient background to explain his skill set. He is addicted to morphine—in the original incarnation the character was an alcoholic—and pines for a lost, impossible love.

“Red Eagle” does fall into a romantic lull near the conclusion, and slows down just when the pace should pick up. It is silly, goes on for too long, and, not to give anything away, ends with one of the biggest bullshit moves you’ll ever see. The fight scenes could have been better if they showed the actors actually fighting instead of relying on quick, western action style quick edits; shots of punches being thrown cut with reaction shots of people pretending to be hit in the face. Though it makes up for this with sheer bloody brutality—beheadings abound. For all of “Red Eagle’s” faults, the movie is entertaining as hell. It made its North American premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival, and I could easily see someone like Magnet picking up the rights to this one. It is the type of movie that is right in their wheelhouse, and hell, it’s way better than “Vanquisher”.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

'The Hangover 2' Movie Review

You may or may not know this—depending on how much of the advertising blitz for “The Hangover Part 2” you’ve absorbed in recent days—but it seems that the Wolfpack is in fact back. The most common cry across the landscape of the internet has been that the sequel looks exactly like the first film. On a recent episode of “Ellen”—yes, I watch “Ellen” from time to time—Bradley Cooper confirmed as much, and he is entirely correct. Director Todd Phillips and company employ the same “lost night” story-telling technique that worked so well in the original, and “The Hangover 2” is a really little more rehash of “The Hangover”. Which means that it is still pretty damn funny.

There are a few minor tweaks to the formula this time around—there is a bit more set up; the role of Las Vegas is played by Thailand; Stu (Ed Helms), the uptight dentist, is the one about to get married; there is a monkey instead of a baby; and at times they take the raunchy humor up a few notches past anything that resembles good taste, which is nice. But the story is so similarly structured that there are times you feel like you’re watching the same movie. We get it; Ken Jeong’s penis makes us laugh. You don’t have to tell us that, some things we just know at a genetic level.

Stu is set to marry Lauren (Jamie Chung). Her traditionalist Thai father hates Stu, going so far to compare him to a tasteless white-rice-paste that is fed to babies and the elderly; it serves a purpose, but is bland and no one really likes it. Lauren’s little brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), is a 16-year-old Doogie Howser-style med student, who is also a cello prodigy. When the guys, Phil (Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and Stu, wake up in a seedy Bangkok hotel room, they discover two things. One, Stu has a very real replica of Mike Tyson’s face tattoo tattooed on his own face, and two, the only trace of Teddy is his severed finger. Also, where the hell did that monkey in the Rolling Stones vest come from? The gang has to piece together fragments of the previous evening in order to find Teddy before the wedding is ruined. Their quest takes them through the deepest bowels of the Bangkok underworld, including, but not limited to, brothels, monasteries, hermaphrodites, Russian gangsters, and a violent street riot.

While it pales in comparison to the first movie—whether this is due to inflated expectations, all of the subsequent knock offs, because the two films are so similar, or that it is just not at good, is unclear—but “The Hangover 2” is decently entertaining. If nothing else, it’s worth watching to see a monkey smoke cigarettes. Something about that is inherently funny. Not to give anything away, but there are some moments of near-shocking vulgarity—which is saying something when you consider how jaded most of us have become—including a few things I’m surprised they slipped past the censors. I think they got away with a couple, especially considering how a movie like “Blue Valentine” initially wound up with an NC-17 rating.

There are some masterful strokes of inspired madness, but overall “The Hangover 2” comes close to meeting expectations. The comedy is never as consistent or as intense as the first film, and you simply never get past the feeling that it is just a quick retread, a sensation that is most apparent than when Galifianakis is on screen. He’s got one trick, and I’m already exhausted by it. In “The Hangover”, Alan’s vapid lunacy fits organically into the scheme of things, but this time around his parts are forced and awkward, not in the intended way (maybe clunky or cumbersome are better words), and he is largely responsible for the staleness of the film. Everything he does is like they sat down around a table and tried to figure out something wacky for him to do in every given situation, and it’s tedious. Granted, Alan’s meditative flashback is genius, and is probably the best moment of the film, though outside of that, he made me mad more than he made me laugh. And seriously, they even manage to wear out a running monkey-puts-his-mouth-on-a-penis gag. That should always, always be funny, but I’ll be damned, they do it so often that that by the last time all you can do is sit back, throw up your hands, and say, “I never thought I’d see the day where a monkey touching a dude’s schlong didn’t make me laugh, but here we are.” It made me question my worldview a little. And every time one of the “Pack” mentions, “I can’t believe this is happening again”, you’ll want to gouge someone’s eyes out.

For all of the film’s faults, “The Hangover 2” is worth a look—especially to fans of raunchy humor, and especially if you can temper any expectations—but it is inconsistent, repetitive, and simply doesn’t quite measure up. It’s going to be a hit, there’s no question about that, it’s exactly what people want it to be, the first movie all over again. I loved “The Hangover”, I thought it was brilliant, but while the sequel is better than I feared it might be, it’s played out, and nothing to write home about.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

'12 Paces Without A Head' Movie Review

“12 Paces Without A Head” tells the purportedly true tale of German pirates Klaus Stortebeker (Ronald Zehrfeld) and Godeke Michels (Matthias Schweighofer). The film imagines the story of these folk heroes as a buddy-action-comedy, one that includes modern touches, like contemporary diction, and twentieth-century pop and punk music. The first scene is a beheading set to a Clash song, so right away you know where you stand. That sounds like it could be annoying, but it actually fits rollicking nature of the movie. It may be a modern revision of a popular historical myth, but the laughs and swashbuckling action of “12 Paces” is enough to make it every bit as fun as any of the movies in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.

Stortebeker and Michels are foul-mouthed, toe-sucking, small-time high seas bandits. They’ve had some mild success, predicated on Klaus’s extraordinary nautical prowess, but their time and options are running out as the Hanseatic League, a corrupt, heavily bureaucratic trade federation increases in power and tightens down the clamps on activities like piracy. Mostly the two bros rob ships when they can, and spend the rest of their time drinking and chasing ladies. Their life combines brutal shipboard hand-to-hand combat with an easy, almost frat-boy type of chilled out sensibility. They love the freedom of the sea, just want to have a good time, and use pirating as a means to an end.

Their fortunes take a turn for the worse when their motley crew gets their asses handed to them in battle, and their ship sinks. Struggling to start over from scratch, they procure a beaten down vessel that barely floats, and comes with a dead body on board, an ominous omen. Add to that the fact that Klaus has lost his nerve, and becomes afraid of the sea and the wind, and the outlook for the friends is bleak. The crew mutinies and abandons Stortebeker and Michels in mid-ocean, and there is a definite time of existential-pirate-crisis, complete with a few suicide attempts. Fortunately they stumble upon a hidden piece of combat technology, a new weapon of mass destruction from the Far East—a big ass cannon—something none of their contemporaries have. Using their newfound advantage, Klaus gets his groove back, and they go on a tear of epic proportions, driving the Hanseatic League to the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. Of course they can’t have this, so they call in the big guns, and shit gets real.

Bros through thick and thin, Stortebeker and Michels have a good dynamic. Klaus is the romantic dreamer who longs for a simple life on a farm, and is easily emotionally wounded; while Godeke is a hothead who takes things too personally, never backs down from a fight, no matter what the consequences, and has tendency to get them into trouble, including pitting a single ship against a cruel, monolithic empire. The two sail on towards their ultimate doom with a cocky bravado and a gallows humor. Their relationship and back and forth is really what carries “12 Paces”, providing most of the emotional weight and dramatic tension. There are a few missteps, but nothing major, and certainly nothing that can’t quickly be forgiven with a dashing smile and a cavalier wave of a hand.

At it’s heart, “12 Paces Without A Head”, is about the quest for freedom, including all of the inherent risks, consequences, benefits, and dangers of such a search. Freedom, true freedom, has a high cost, and you have to be willing to accept the possibility of complete, absolute, tragic failure if you’re going to reach for that goal. The brutal, draining climactic scene, set to a Johnny Cash song, perfectly illustrates the detriments and sacrifice intrinsic in the quest to live a free live. In most cases it isn’t going to be entirely pretty. I hope “12 Paces” winds up with a distributor from SIFF, because I think it is a movie that a lot of people will really enjoy once they get the chance to see it.

'High Road' Movie Review

For years I’ve used appreciation of “Upright Citizens Brigade” as a litmus test for friendship. That’s not an attempt to be clever or anything like that, it’s actually true. At some point I realized that something about my sense of humor lined up so completely with the sketch comedy of Amy Peohler and company that those people who didn’t enjoy it, weren’t generally people I usually got along with. How can you not love the “Bucket of Truth”? If I show a new entry into my social circle my well-worn DVD copy of season one, and they don’t laugh, I generally distance myself from them. That may sound harsh, but it’s served me well (and had these measures been enacted earlier, they could have saved me many headaches and heartbreaks). Given my proclivities, of course when I heard that Matt Walsh, one of the founding members of UCB, was going to be at the Seattle International Film Festival hyping his directorial debut, “High Road”, I giggled like a little girl.

Fitz (James Pumphrey) plays drums in a sweet band with his childhood friends Richie (Matt L. Jones, Badger from “Breaking Bad”) and Tommy (Zach Woods, “The Office”). They’re going to be huge one day, they’re just one or two gigs away from really making some noise. At least that’s what Fitz thinks. In reality, he’s a small-scale pot dealer, though he’s in denial about that fact; he just likes weed, always has a lot of it around, and has friends who occasionally need some. Tommy and Richie decide to move on to greener pastures—for Tommy it’s a White Stripes cover band with Lizzy Caplan, while Richie lands a gig as a douche-bag entertainment industry exec—leaving Fitz in a deep cycle of depression where he hangs out in his bathrobe, dealing weed to people like Uncle Creepy (Kyle Gass from “Tenacious D”), writing the worst rock opera ever, and hanging out with Monica (Abby Elliot), his girlfriend who is way out of his league.

After a misunderstanding where Fitz jumps to the conclusion that the police after him—they’re not—he goes on the lam, with teenage runaway Jimmy (Dylan O’Brien, who is going to play Stiles in the new “Teen Wolf” show) forcing his way along for the ride. Jimmy’s dad (Rob Riggle) and his buddy (Jo Lo Truglio), an agro little dude who works in a police department gym, pursue them up the coast from LA to Oakland. It’s a road trip movie of sorts, one where the rudest hooker ever mercilessly berates Fitz for eating a turkey sandwich. In the meantime, Monica is pregnant and makes out with her boss (Ed Helms), and there is a subplot about Fitz’s deadbeat, drag-queen dad, Arnie (Rich Fulcher).

Walsh and company started out with a script, got producer Kirk Roos on board, put together a cast of comedy chums, and immediately threw most of the written words out the window in favor of manic ad-libbing. Given the talent involved in “High Road”, a who’s who of current improvisational comedy, you can imagine why there are times when the movie feels like a string of off-the-cuff skits loosely strung together. Because that’s exactly what it is. In the Q & A portion of the evening, Walsh said that at one point there was an eight-hour cut of “High Road”, so somewhere there is a room full of extra footage. It is also exactly as much fun as you would a movie with all of these people to be. The story veers off on wild, random tangents at the drop of a hat, and scenes go on longer than they normally would just because the characters are riffing back and forth, and it’s fucking hilarious. “High Road” is comparable to “Bridesmaids” in this regard—from a narrative perspective it may not be as solid as other, tighter films, but what it lacks in cohesion and coherence, it more than makes up for with riotous laughs, questionable taste, and some funny, funny nonsense.

Sadly, “High Road” is never going to find mainstream success and acceptance. The acting is too hit-and-miss, and as a whole the movie is too uneven for that to happen. Which is unfortunate because it really is a blast. But given the right distributor, “High Road” could easily tumble into a larger cult status akin to a movie like “Mystery Team”.

Friday, May 20, 2011

'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' Movie Review

Did anyone actually expect “Pirates of the Caribbean” to be as good as it was? Sure, it’s a movie about pirates and Johnny Depp’s tipsy Keith Richards impersonation, but it’s also based on ride at Disneyland for Christ’s sake. It certainly surprised the hell out of me. The sequels, “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, both sucked, but the original holds up. And while nowhere near as good as the first, the latest film in the franchise, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, is exponentially better than the second and third installments.

Part of my problem with two and three is that they took the best part of the first film, Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, and screwed with the character. Sparrow is a self-interested scallywag, to be sure, but he’s not an entirely bad dude at his core, and while he’ll screw you over and abandon you, he’ll feel guilty about it and come back to rescue you, eventually. In “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End”, however, he was just a complete turd, and after a while I stopped rooting for him. Couple this with the fact that the first movie was able to keep Orlando Bloom’s douchbaggery in check, while it was allowed to run roughshod all over the sequels, and I never need to watch them again.

“On Stranger Tides” returns the Cap’n to his original form, the first time you see him, he’s laying it all on the line to rescue his first mate, Gibbs (Kevin McNally), from an imminent execution in London. After engineering a daring escape, Jack hears rumors that someone is attempting to rustle up a crew using his good name. Turns out that the imposter is Angelica (Penelope Cruz), an ex-flame in drag, a woman who had been training to be a nun before she met a certain heavily-mascara’d pirate. Through a series of unfortunate events, unfortunate for Jack anyhow, he is shanghaied and wakes up in the last place any pirate wants to be, below deck on the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the infamous ship of the even more infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Blackbeard is on his way to find the fountain of youth in order to avoid his impending death, which was foretold in a prophecy. Oh yeah, it also turns out that Angelica is Blackbeard’s daughter. That’s going to be an issue.

As if all of this isn’t enough, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) pops up again, hot on their tail, and those pesky Spanish are also in the hunt. Then there are zombies, mermaids (who are cannibals with Spider-Man-esque webs, who knew?), voodoo, a mysterious ritual no one knows much about, and all manner of other roadblocks to overcome. There a swordfights galore, swinging from yardarms, and all of the usual swashbuckling goodness that you want from a movie about pirates.

It’s fun, but “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” is far from perfect. There is no reason for it to be as long as it is. The plot is needlessly complex, and in trying to be twisted it only succeeds in being silly and muddy. There are subplots that should have been trimmed way down, if not cut out all together. Chief among these is the awkward love story between a sexy missionary (Sam Claflin) and an equally sexy kidnapped mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), that never resolves, and I can only suspect is some sort of lead in to the next sequel. (Only time will tell how valid my theory is.) At times the movie gets too cute and cheeky, like when Jack pauses to eat a pastry in mid skirmish. You’ll recognize a few scenes because they were lifted straight from the earlier films. The initial meeting between Jack and Angelica is virtually identical to the first battle between Jack and Will in the first film, even down to the duel in the rafters. But the worst issue for me was the 3D. I’m not a fan of the choice to make every big, epic, adventure movie in 3D, but in this case it is especially pointless. The only times director Rob Marshall and crew make use of the technology are the moments when Blackbeard or some other character points his sword at someone. Aside from this handful of instances, the rest of the 3D is just a distraction, or worse, completely unnoticeable.

Yeah, there are problems, lots of them. Some of these troubles might be unforgivable in other movies, and some seriously stupid shit happens near the end, but the fun parts are fun enough carry you through most of the rough patches. And McShane is a fantastic addition to the series. His Blackbeard delivers an appropriate level of menace, and his sinister presence helps balance out some of the weaker elements. “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” isn’t a good as some of this season’s earlier blockbusters, like “Thor” and “Fast Five”, but once you’ve seen those, and when you have some time to kill before “Green Lantern” and “X-Men” open, it’s an entertaining popcorn movie that’s worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

'Elephant White' Movie Review

Prachya Pinkaew is largely responsible for some of the best martial arts movies in recent memory. Films like “Ong Bak”, “Tom Yum Goong” (aka “The Protector”), and “Chocolate” are full to overflowing with flying knees, spinning elbows, and basically crazy Muay Thai freaks doing insane stunts, and that’s what makes them great. His latest movie, “Elephant White”, is his first English-language feature, and has just been released direct to video.

While there are some admirable qualities (any movie that begins with an exploding motorcycle gang can’t be all bad), “Elephant White” is an underwhelming experience. Pinkaew sticks to his standard criminal underworld fare, but this film makes abundantly clear that it was his collaboration with actors like Tony Jaa, who is essentially a gnarly little stunt dude, that really made his movies stand out. This time around Pinkaew works with more veteran actors, who happen to be much less accomplished fighters, and the movie suffers for it. In a movie like this you can forgive a lot in other aspects if the action is good enough (no one is going to accuse “Ong Bak” of having the greatest story ever told). However, in the case of “Elephant White”, while the action isn’t bad, it pales in comparison to Pinkaew’s other movies.

Curtie Church (Djimon Hounsou) is a CIA trained assassin, now freelancing for anyone willing to fork over his sizeable fee. He is hired by a grieving father to exterminate a gang of human traffickers that kidnapped his daughter, got her addicted to heroin, turned her out, and ultimately killed her. Church is a lone wolf operating in the shadows, and his only ally, in the loosest possible interpretation of the word, is Jimmy, aka English (Kevin Bacon with a silly accent that I would swear is South African, not British), a Versace wearing arms dealer who doesn’t actually carry a gun himself. He says things like, “Happiness is a warm gun”, and talks about opening his own version of Planet Hollywood, only with famous movie weapons. While Church tries to instigate a war between his targets and a rival gang, Mae (Jirantanin Pitakporntrakul), a Buddhist-proverb-spouting junior-prostitute, follows him around, and for some reason, he doesn’t chase her off.

Then things get messy as all hell. There are betrayals, seeming betrayals that aren’t really betrayals, and faltering attempts at plot twists that come one after another after another. Hounsou is a solid badass, it’s a role that fits him particularly well, and while there is some nice, better than average action, the script doesn’t give him a lot to work with. Too many scenes take place with Curtie at the end of a sniper rifle, looking through a long-range scope as he picks off his intended targets. You can get away with this once, but Pinkaew uses this tactic over and over again. There’s no tension in a scene like that, and they feel like watching someone play a first-person-shooter videogame, and it gives “Elephant White” a repetitive vibe.

There is certainly enough action to keep you interested, and carry you past some of the problems with the plot, but not all of them. The worst offense is that things happen without even the slightest motivation. Mae shows up, Curtie lets her hang around, and somehow, without any reason at all, he trusts her implicitly all of a sudden, even when it appears she sells him out to the badguys. He’s even willing to risk his life for her, despite the fact that it is already established that he’s a in no way emotionally involved in his work, and that there is no bond or connection between them. Try to dig too deep in this one and you’ll give yourself a headache.

“Elephant White” isn’t horrible, it just isn’t anything special. It’s a middle of the road DTV action flick that could have been significantly better. Not to harp on a single point, but if a few more of the action scenes had been of the more up close and personal variety, this would have been pretty awesome. And that’s even with the inclusion of my LEAST FAVORITE PLOT TWIST EVER. I won’t go into any specifics so as not to ruin it for you, but I suspect that you, too, will see it coming from the first act. For a twist it’s not very twisty. Still, “Elephant White” is worth a look if you’re into DTV action, and tolerant of it’s shortcomings, but don’t look to the Blu-ray/DVD to add, well, anything to the mix, unless you’re really into previews from Millennium Films.

Friday, May 13, 2011

'Bridesmaids' Movie Review

I’m going to start this review with a time saver, with two words that serve as a litmus test of whether or not “Bridesmaids” is for you. If you read them and giggle, by all means, go see this film. If you read them and make a face like you smell something foul and rancid, you’ll want to sit this one out. And these two words are…sink diarrhea.

If I still have your attention, now we can talk about “Bridesmaids”.

When you walk into a movie directed by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow, you know pretty much what you’re going to get. There will be an ensemble cast of collected miscreants, crude humor of the dick and fart variety, and gems of off-the-cuff comedic improvisation. For a while the story will truck along, full of shenanigans and poop jokes, then it will take a serious turn when the two central figures decide they don’t want to be friends anymore, or break up if the film is more romantic in tone, and everything wraps up with some heavy-handed resolution where everybody hugs. It’s a formula for sure, but one that met with great success in “Superbad”, “Knocked Up”, and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, among others. Those movies are funny as hell, and you’re not watching them for story anyway, you’re watching them for boner jokes. “Bridesmaids” falls into this same category, though admittedly, with fewer actual boner jokes.

Initially, I was afraid that “Bridesmaids” was going to be atrocious. Part of this I chalk up to Krisen Wiig, the star and co-writer. I just don’t like her, never have. I couldn’t stand her on “Saturday Night Live”, and everything she’s done since has met with a similar reaction. There’s something about her demeanor and delivery that, not only isn’t funny, but actually makes me mad most of the time. Basically, I’m not a fan. The other part of my worry stemmed from the fact that set up is so tired, so fucking hackneyed, that it’s painful. Imagine every romantic comedy or sitcom ever made about marriage and you know the story. Wiig plays Annie. Her lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces that she’s going to get married and wants Annie to be her maid of honor. There is drama with the other bridesmaids. Annie’s life is in the crapper, she has a creepy roommate who reads her diary, and she feels like she’s drifting away from Lillian.

“Bridesmaids” meanders on like this for a while, driving home the fact that Annie is unlucky in business, love, and life. There are some light chuckles, the best of which are obviously spontaneous moments between Wiig and Rudolph, who do have a nice chemistry, but you dread where this is going next. Then a funny thing happens, “Bridesmaids” gets good, really good. The turning point is the scene that combines trying on bridesmaid’s dresses and an intense bout of collective food poisoning. There is excellent, and inventive use of both vomit and diarrhea that really take the film up a notch, and this scene serves as an icebreaker. Until this point “Bridesmaids” is playing it safe, but this is the moment where it unfurls its true colors. This is like the first time you see a new love interest with the flu. After blowing snot in front of you for hours they can’t pretend to be all cutesy and perfect anymore, and from there, things are different. In the case of “Bridesmaids”, things get out of hand quickly and descend into a raunchy, raunchy place.

It’s not all smooth sailing, though, and the film is uneven, and frequently mires down in schmaltz. The characters in the bridal party are like a who’s who of threadbare wedding movie types. Rose Byrne is the rich, pushy snob; Wendi McLendon-Covey is the haggard bitch who hates her husband and kids, and just wants to see strippers; Ellie Kemper is the idealistic woman-child who went to Disneyland on her honeymoon; and Melissa McCarthy is, well, the fat one. There are times when McCarthy almost becomes one of the characters from “The Fatties”, Jack Black’s spoof movies from “Tropic Thunder”. Each of the women get a scene where they get to break out of the mold, either comically or emotionally, but for the most part they’re props, not characters.

And for my money the sweetness in “Bridesmaids” is forced. Okay, not entirely. Annie meets Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd)—who is Irish even though I spent the entire movie trying to decide if he was Canadian or not—a goofy-but-loveable State Trooper who likes Annie for Annie, even if she can’t see that. Wiig and O’Dowd are good together on screen, doubly impressive given my overall distaste for Wiig, and their relationship provides the most authentic connection in the entire film. Problems arise out of nowhere when Rhodes starts acting completely out of character, and you’re well aware that the movie only forces them apart to set up a triumphant reunion. This is a staple of Apatowian (I might trademark that) cinema, and while it has worked in the past, it’s a cheap trick in “Bridesmaids”.

I don’t mean to sound overly disparaging, because “Bridesmaids” is damn funny. It’s just easier to talk about the problems because I don’t want to give away any of the golden moment that you need to discover for yourself. While it takes a while to get there, “Bridesmaids” definitely arrives. If nothing else, this film is solid proof that gross out humor is not the exclusive property of the male gender (I didn’t even think that was a question anymore, but apparently I was wrong). The ladies want to get in on the act, too, and with “Bridesmaids” they do so in a big way. Wiig’s script, written along with Annie Mumolo, defies genre tropes and takes vulgarity in unexpected directions. I’ll just say this, the bachelorette party in Vegas doesn’t go down anything like you anticipate.

'Hesher' Movie Review

What do you get when you take a nice quiet film about people trying to cope with sudden trauma and the tragedy of their daily lives, and throw in a psychotic butt-rocker with a penchant for blowing shit up? The result is Spencer Susser’s new indie flick “Hesher”. Okay, it’s not super new, it premiered at Sundance in 2010, but it’s finally found a release, and is totally worth the wait.

The eponymous Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a metal worshipping madman, and is on my current shortlist of favorite movie characters in the history of ever. When you first meet him he punches a young boy in the sternum, tosses a stick of dynamite at a rent-a-cop, and then makes his escape, peeling out in a windowless black van. He reminds me of guys in my hometown in the 80s, the kind of dude who has a giant middle finger tattoo on his back and another of a stick figure committing suicide on his chest. He doesn’t give a fuck, and only exists to rage and get radical, ready to huff glue and fight tooth and nail anyone who dares oppose him.

T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) has the mixed fortune of showing up on Hesher’s radar. T.J. recently lost his mother in a car crash, and is having trouble coping, lashing out at home and school. To make matters worse, a local bully picks on him relentlessly, and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), is so wracked with grief and doped up on prescription meds that he can barely form coherent sentences, let alone deal with his tormented adolescent son. Aside from his space cadet grandmother (Piper Laurie), the only person who is ever nice to T.J. is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a mousey clichĂ© of a grocery store clerk who has trouble coming to terms with her own disappointing existence.

When T.J. first encounters Hesher, you’re not entirely sure that he’s real. You think he might be a dark manifestation of T.J.’s fractured ego, a defense mechanism, a hidden part of his personality that T.J. taps into in order to act out his most base desires and survive his desolate life. This could easily be a Tyler Durden kind of scenario, and there is even a scene in a scene in a support group that echoes “Fight Club”. Hesher is larger than life and invites himself to live at T.J.’s grandmother’s, where no one really seems to mind, or notice. Within minutes of crashing there Hesher scales a telephone pole in his tighty whities to steal them cable, and that’s enough of a peace offering to counter any hesitation from Paul or Grandma. Everyone is so accepting of Hesher’s presence that you suspect they’re humoring T.J., pretending to see his new imaginary friend.

Hesher serves multiple functions in T.J.’s life. He is by turns oppressor and protector, standing idly by while a bully force-feeds T.J. a urinal cake, but later helping T.J. exact a much more ferocious revenge. Hesher has moments of sage wisdom, and is full of useful advice, like, ‘”Human beings have been poking vagina for a hundred years, probably longer”. His profanity-filled metaphorical tangents, which often involve partying and multiple naked women, hit the emotional mark, like one particularly drunken tirade about losing a testicle, but being able to appreciate the fact that he still has a fully functional dick. Despite his gruff exterior, Hesher really has a glass-half-full outlook, and he’s going to teach T.J. and Paul how to live. It helps to think of him as a sort of savant, butt-rock therapist; there is tough love when the situation calls for it, but also deep insight that border on tenderness.

Susser and co-writer David Michod achieve a balance between the dramatic and the humorous. Though “Hesher” is a heavy story that could have easily bogged down in depression and gloom, they never let the weight kill the pace and bury you beneath the overwhelming hopelessness. Just when the seriousness is about to become too much to bear, Hesher pops up, lounging on a lawn chair, shelling peanuts with a shit-eating grin on his face, and things aren’t so bad anymore. He saves the movie just like he saves T.J.

“Hesher” isn’t perfect. There are a few moments that are a little bit too on the nose, like a heavy rainstorm that breaks at the most dramatic, emotionally dense moment in the film. But it works as a solemn story about dealing with loss, tragedy, and disappointment, primarily because Gordon-Levitt’s character bridges the gap between laughter and tears. You can sit back and hoot and holler at his raucous antics, laughing at his bawdy stories, but still being affected by the plight of the characters. As a result, and for a variety of reasons, “Hesher” is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

DVD/Blu-ray Review: 'Blue Valentine'

“Blue Valentine” garnered a great deal of buzz in December 2010 when it was slapped with an NC-17 rating. Eventually the Weinstein Company managed to release is with an R rating without having to make any cuts to the film. I honestly don’t see what the big deal was about, the sex scenes that were cited in the original ruling are way less graphic, and way more tame than what you get in a lot of standard R movies. The discussion about the arbitrary nature of the ratings system is a topic for another time, but “Blue Valentine” is now out on DVD and Blu-ray, so if you, like me, missed out on the theatrical release, you can check it out and judge for yourself.

The Movie:

“Blue Valentine” is an excellent film. Ryan Gosling continues to prove his talent and versatility as an actor, and Michelle Williams definitely earned that Academy Award nomination. It is a subtle, beautifully filmed, inventively structured portrait of a crumbling marriage and the lengths people will go to in order to save something that can’t be saved. It is also a stone fucking bummer. Good god “Blue Valentine” is depressing, but I guess a movie that begins with little girl looking for a lost dog that turns out to be dead doesn’t set the stage for roses and sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, you should definitely watch it, just prepare yourself to have a dark cloud cast over your day for 112 minutes. “Blue Valentine” is a movie about love, but it is most definitely not a cuddly date movie.

Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) are a married couple whose union is in some serious trouble, though neither will admit it. Dean is funny and charming, and delights their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) because he is essentially a child himself. You can imagine how this part of his personality once attracted Cindy to him, but as he encourages Frankie to “eat like a leopard” instead of getting her to eat her breakfast quickly so they can take her to school, you also understand Cindy’s frustration at having to deal with his antics day after day. She is solemn and dour, and thinks Dean is wasting his potential. What she doesn’t see is that this is his dream. He doesn’t need to drink a beer every morning before he goes to his job painting houses, he has a job where he gets to have a beer before work. His choice of employment is only a means to an end, spending time with Cindy and Frankie.

On a rare night without the rug rat, Cindy and Dean decide to get away and go to a skeevy sex hotel, the kind of place with themed rooms. In the middle of the “future room”, which looks like a rejected set from an episode of “Star Trek”, they pour bottle after bottle of booze on their problems, and all of their issues boil up to the top in a night of desperate sex and hard edged truths that they can’t avoid any longer.

As you watch the relationship between Cindy and Dean collapse, “Blue Valentine” flashes back to how they met, allowing you to witness the birth and death of their relationship simultaneously. While their romance is sweet and dreamy, at times it almost seems like fate that they met and got together, after a while you realize that everything is not as ideal as it seems at first. Their whole relationship is built on an unsound foundation. There is never one big moment where everything changes, in Dean’s case that’s the problem, but as you look back, you watch as things spiral out of control to the unavoidable conclusion.

“Blue Valentine” is raw movie, one that is not always easy to watch, but that in the end sticks with you. If for no other reason, check this out just to see Gosling and Williams together on screen. They’re young, pretty, and vaguely hipsterish, but despite those trappings, they both give astonishing performances, and their relationship is bleak and brutal, and most importantly, real.

The DVD/Blu-ray:

The centerpiece is the commentary track with writer/director Derek Cianfrance and editor Jim Helson, who have been close friends since film school, and have an easy back and forth. The track is a good mix of anecdotes and technical information. Cianfrance talks at length about his quest for authenticity in the film, going so far as to sneak in and film the actors being woken up. Frankie is supposed to hate oatmeal, but Faith Wladyka, the child actor who plays the young girl, is quite fond of the goopy stuff, so Cianfrance had Michelle Williams load it up with salt until he got the desired reaction. And just when you’re about to get sick of these on set stories, they drop a nugget about how they filmed the present sequences with a pair of Red cameras, but shot the flashbacks in Super 16.

There are 20 minutes of deleted scenes. One is a moment between Dean and a co-worker (Casey Westbrook) that is fun, but ultimately clashes with the tone and mood of the rest of the film. The remaining three are moments in the courtship between Dean and Cindy, where they do cute things like play fight in the rain and ride a merry-go-round at a park. In this case there were already scenes in the final film that accomplish the same thing while being much more streamlined and compact. If they had been left in, you would start to get annoyed by how cute and precious they are.

While the making-of item features the usual cast and crew interviews, it is interesting to listen to the approach Cianfrance took with his actors, and how he kept the idea fresh for himself, despite working on it for over a decade. With the flashbacks, Dean and Cindy had no history, and got to know each other on film, so Cianfrance kept Gosling and Williams apart until the first meet in front of the camera. The present scenes required them to have a shared history. In order to achieve this, they halted production for a month, and the two actors, as well as Wladyka, lived in a house together, where they cooked, cleaned, lived, and even made home movies together.

The final extra is s short home movie that Williams, Gosling, and Wladyka made together, about a unicorn and a musical animal doctor.

Unlike a lot of DVD/Blu-ray releases that come with a lot of extras that add little to the film, the bonus material on the “Blue Valentine” disc actually enhances the experience of watching the movie, and don’t say the same things over and over again.