Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Hangover (***)

The Hangover. 105 mins. R. Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore. Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, and Mike Tyson.

Though it fails to live up to the promise of its hilarious trailer, The Hangover is a pretty decent comedy with a game cast and a solid premise. But for all the laughs in the movie (and there are a handful), it's no funnier than, say, a single episode of Arrested Development - few things are though. Aiming to recapture the adolescent male vibe he struck in 2003's Old School, director Todd Phillips has found just the right vehicle with the right cast to do so. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha star as a group of friends in Vegas for a bachelor party on the weekend before Bartha's wedding. After doing shots laced with roofies on the roof of their hotel, the guys wake up the next morning with all hell having broke loose, and the groom-to-be missing. The remainder of the movie is spent tracking the three guys as they try to piece together the events of the previous night, and figure out how Helms lost a tooth, where the tiger in the bathroom came from, and other assorted oddities. The movie starts strong, and stays that way for a while thanks to the intriguing premise. Even when it's not funny, The Hangover works as a frothy mystery and keeps the audience engaged. That is, until the answers start being revealed, none of which are as interesting as you might have hoped. Blame the screenwriters - the high concept duo previously scripted Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and though this is the best thing they've written by a mile, it's still seriously flawed. The big winner here is Galifianakis, whose eccentricities and off-kilter line delivery make him the breakout performer, much like Will Ferrell was in Old School. He's great, and when he's doing his thing, The Hangover delivers the goods.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (***)

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.  105 mins.  PG.  Directed by Shawn Levy.  Written by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon.  Starring Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, and Robin Williams.

The cast list for the sequel to the surprise family hit Night at the Museum reads like a who's who of the brightest and best comic minds working in film today.  Too bad they're all gathered for a serviceably pleasant family adventure comedy that's entertaining without ever really being truly funny, instead of something more.  Stiller returns as Larry Daley, a former museum security guard who's forced back into action when all of the exhibits from the first movie are shipped to the Smithsonian along with the magical gold tablet that brings them to life.  How Larry ends up at the Smithsonian is sketchy at best, but the plot is just an excuse to bring all these museum artifacts to life.  Amy Adams fares best as Amelia Earhart, a plucky '30s dame, who's quick on her feet and even quicker with verbal quips.  Screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (both of Reno 911, and both of whom penned the first film) do a nice job of keeping the action moving along and sprinkling educational nuggets of information throughout.  As dumb as it can be sometimes, it's hard to fault a movie that tries to make history exciting for the kids without ever stooping to lectures or dry exposition.  And though it could have used more Ricky Gervais (what movie couldn't?), this Night at the Museum is a marked improvement over the first one and provides a nice bit of escapist summer fun for families.  


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dance Flick (*)

Dance Flick. 83 mins. PG-13. Directed by Damien Dante Wayans. Written by a Bunch of Wayans Brothers. Starring a Bunch of Wayans Brothers, Shoshana Bush, Essence Atkins, Amy Sedaris, David Alan Grier, and Chris Elliott.

No genre has worn out its welcome over the past few years as much as the spoof movie. The Wayans Brothers are to blame for a lot of this. Though Scary Movie had some good gags, and started a trend with the hard R-rated gross-out gags that are so prevalent today, it spawned three unnecessary sequels as well as the careers of the utterly talentless guys behind Date Movie, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, and other atrocities. All of these spoofs pale in comparison to The Naked Gun and Hot Shots films. The problem with the Scary Movies of today, and those of its ilk, is that they confuse parody with mere exaggeration. The filmmakers need to learn that they can't just replicate a scene from a famous movie in order to create comedy - mere reference is not enough. Dance Flick comes from the second generation of Wayans Brothers, and they seem to be making the same dumb mistakes as the first generation. It takes on dance movies like Step Up and Save the Last Dance, and the percentage of jokes that actually stick is about 2% (and they're all in the trailer). By the end, having exhausted its flimsy premise, Dance Flick trots out "spoofs" of non-dance movies, Black Snake Moan (what?!!) and Twilight, for no good reason. If there's any justice in the world, Dance Flick will officially kill these lame-ass spoof movies and leave them for dead, never to arise again.


Terminator Salvation (***)

Terminator Salvation.  117 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by McG.  Written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris.  Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Helena Bonham Carter.

Those looking for a decent story, interesting characters, and a quiet night out at the movies should avoid the latest Terminator like the plague.  It'd be easy to dismiss McG's take on James Cameron's classic as just another loud, dumb summer action movie.  Too easy, in fact, because that's exactly what it is.  

Picking up after the judgment day that unfolded at the end of Terminator 3, Salvation spends its time following two characters.  There's the grown-up John Connor (Christian Bale) leading the few human survivors in a war against the machines that are out to terminate them, while trying to keep future pop Kyle Reese (Star Trek's Anton Yelchin) alive.  And then there's new guy Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a former death row inmate who joins the Resistance, and may have more in common with the machines than he thinks.  I'd say spoiler alert, but the trailer for Terminator Salvation gives away the one major plot point that's actually interesting in the movie.  As if taking a cue from Battlestar Galatica and its human-looking cylons, Marcus is, well, I think you can figure it out from here.  As Hollywood's next "It" actor, Worthington does a fine job as Marcus, a character who gets a great deal more screen time than Bale's Connor.  Bale is focused and intense right from the get-go, and never really varies from those two characteristics.  His take on John Connor is perfunctory - not flashy, not overdone, but definitely dull.  

The story is, to put it kindly, weak, and when there's no action on screen, the movie just flatlines.  All that being said, the action here is pretty sweet.  The centerpiece of the movie, and the best part, is a ten-minute long chase scene involving a giant Transformer-like Harvester robot and the little motorcycle robots that spring off it.  I was reminded of The Road Warrior during that scene, and, for my money, that's never a bad thing.  Despite being hamstrung by a lackluster script, McG infuses all the action sequences with a smart, clutter-free visual style and plenty of explosions.  The special effects and cinematography are great - the movie looks awesome, and the sound effects and sound editing are Oscar-worthy even though no other part of this movie even comes close.  The whiz-bang-wow factor on Terminator Salvation is high.  A lot of money was spent and it shows.  It's no classic, and if you're not already a fan of the Terminator films, this one isn't going to convert you.  Heck - it may even turn off Terminator fans. Salvation is definitely the weakest of the four, but the action is top notch, and if you like your movies big, loud, and dumb, dig in.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Angels & Demons (**1/2)

Angels & Demons.  140 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Ron Howard.  Written by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman.  Starring Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgard, and Armin Mueller-Stahl.

I guess it was inevitable that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks would choose to do a follow-up to their enormously successful (if only at the box office) adaptation of Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code.  And though it made a lot of money, The DaVinci Code was thoroughly trashed by critics (this one included) and it makes sense that Howard would try to redeem himself.  But after seeing Angels & Demons, one thing becomes abundantly clear: no matter how talented the filmmakers, Dan Brown's books do not translate well to the big screen, and there really isn't anything to be done about it.  

This time around (Angels & Demons is treated like a sequel here, even though it's really a prequel), symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) is brought in by the Vatican to save the Catholic Church from the secret organization known as the Illuminati, which has kidnapped four Cardinals (and possible replacements for the recently deceased Pope) and are threatening to kill each one every hour before they blow up the Vatican at midnight.  This is all some sort of payback for the Church's treatment of science, and as Langdon races from church to church trying to stop the murders, all sorts of religious intrigue ensues.  Credit should be given to Howard and his collaborators for trying so hard to make this an exciting movie.  Even when the dialogue falls flat and not much is happening, Howard constantly moves the camera in and around the actors in a swirling dervish fashion, and gives all of the proceedings a sense of urgency.  It was a wise choice to shoot on location in Rome and around the Vatican and that grounds the movie in realism, even when so much of the plot hinges on an utterly ridiculous explosive device known only as "anti-matter."  

But as game as the filmmakers are here, they are stymied every step of the way by the main character of Robert Langdon.  The only discerning trait about him is that he' s an agnostic surrounded by religion.  Hanks doesn't seem to know what to do with him either - he plays it straight up, with no humor, sex appeal, or joy.  At least when Nicolas Cage was solving puzzles in the National Treasure flicks, you could see how excited his character was to be doing it.  Here, Langdon is just putting in another day at work.  He's dull and lifeless, as are the characters around him.  That just sucks any sort of energy or excitement out of the movie, and it's near impossible for Howard to make up for it, no matter how hard he tries.  

Angels & Demons is predictable too (spoiler alert!) - when everything seems to wrap itself up at the two-hour mark, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that with 20 minutes still left in the movie, it's about time for Ewan McGregor's seemingly hero priest to reveal his darker intentions.  And, as if right on cue, that's exactly what happens.  The best thing that can be said about Angels & Demons is that it's better than The DaVinci Code, but, as anybody who's seen DaVinci can attest, that is faint praise indeed.


P.S. I propose a new guide to reviewing movies.  One simple question: should I go see this or should I go see Star Trek again?  Angels & Demons?  Go see Star Trek again.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek (*****)

Star Trek. 126 mins. PG-13. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Eric Bana, and Leonard Nimoy.

Having eagerly anticipated this reboot of Star Trek for well over a year now, I can say, without even a hint of hesitation, that it is as good as I could have hoped and then some. THIS is how you do a summer blockbuster. THIS is sci-fi action adventure done right. And THIS is J.J. Abrams solidifying his status as the most electrifying filmmaker working today.

I'm a casual fan of the original incarnation of Trek, but I'm a giant fan of J.J. Abrams. Confession time: in the short three years since it's been released, J.J.'s M:I-3 has quickly risen up the ranks to become one of my favorite movies of all time. That was only his first feature, and Star Trek (his second) takes any preconceived notion of a sophomore slump and body slams it to the ground. Working in tandem with the brilliant script written by frequent collaborators, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, J.J. has fashioned a Star Trek movie that everyone can enjoy. It achieves the near impossible - satisfying die-hard Trekkers and honoring all that's come before without getting too mired in technobabble and other geeky stuff. The ads promise that "This Is Not Your Father's Star Trek" and they're right to a certain degree. What they should also add though is that your father is probably going to love this new version of Trek too.

Story-wise, the movie focuses on the early years of Kirk and Spock and gang and their first adventure aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. As we trace Kirk and Spock's destined ascension to captain and first officer, respectively, we meet the rest of the crew one-by-one as the villainous Nero sets out to destroy Earth and other planets as payback for the destruction of his own. There's a time travel twist to it all, one that is deceptively simple and admirably frees the new films up to explore their own stories without adhering to Trek canon. And if you're a fan of Lost, the time travel here is relatively straight-forward and easy to follow in comparison. J.J. and company have done a superb job, as they did with M:I-3, of pacing this thing within an inch of its life. Every scene is important, and not a second is wasted. The movie lasts two plus hours but it feels like a half hour.

The casting in this movie is flawless. Chris Pine hits a home run as Captain Kirk, and flat-out nails the brash and cocky, yet always likeable, demeanor that Kirk has. It's a star-making performance in a role that was once thought as only belonging to William Shatner. I could go on and on down the line and say the same things about everyone else. Zachary Quinto as a much angrier Spock? Fantastic. Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy? Surprisingly awesome, and gets most of the film's big laughs. Simon Pegg as Scotty? Spot-on. This cast is a joy to see work together on screen, which bodes well for any sequels they have planned. The special effects are top notch and the scale is epic. Another frequent J.J. collaborator, Michael Giacchino, delivers a score that excites and enthralls. He is, quite simply, the best composer working in movies today.

I can't say enough good things about Star Trek. I saw it three times in its first four days of release, and if you asked me to see it tomorrow again, I totally would. You don't have to be a fan of Star Trek to dig it - you just have to be a fan of movies. J.J. is working at a whole other level than anyone else in Hollywood right now. He can do anything he wants. As much as I'd like to see another Star Trek movie with this cast, I hope J.J. moves on and graces another project with his midas touch. Oh, and if you have the option, check out Star Trek in IMAX. It was made to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Go see it now. Go see it often. Live long and prosper. Kirk out.


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (*)

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.  97 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Mark Waters.  Written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore.  Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Lacey Chabert, Breckin Meyer, Robert Forster, Emma Stone, and Michael Douglas.

Dickens' A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories of all time.  Reinterpretations, when done right (e.g., Scrooged, A Muppet Christmas Carol), can be a joy to watch.  Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, on the other hand, seems hellbent on destroying every ounce of goodwill associated with Dickens' classic story and douching it up with some unhinged McConaughey.  Honestly, is there anyone who needs a career slap in the face more than him?  This rut of bad romantic comedies he keeps subjecting audiences to is getting out of hand.  Ghosts is just the latest, after Wedding Planner, Fool's Gold, Failure to Launch, to flop.  Not far behind in the poor career choice track is Jennifer Garner, who needs to reunite with J.J. Abrams ASAP.  The script for Ghosts is virtually laugh and charm-free.  McConaughey plays a top-tier fashion photographer named Connor Mead, who is visited by three ghosts on the eve of his brother's wedding.  Needless to say, he learns a lesson or two about relationships, and realizes his true love is childhood sweetheart Jenny (Garner).  Nothing plays out believably - the relationship between Connor and Jenny is forced right from the get-go.  Lacey Chabert (so good in Mean Girls) joins the "fun" as the bride-to-be, and she's so shrill and stupid here that she'd fit right in with the cast of the other front-runner for worst film of the year: Bride Wars.  The only two performers who come out looking okay are Michael Douglas (as Connor's dead playboy uncle) and Emma Stone (as Connor's ghostly first girlfriend) - they're game, but the script gives them nothing funny to do.  Look, I like romantic comedies a lot.  Heck, He's Just Not That Into You is one of my favorites of the year so far, but Ghosts is pure garbage.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (**)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  107 mins.  PG-13.  Directed by Gavin Hood.  Written by David Benioff and Skip Woods.  Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Houston, Will.I.Am, Lynn Collins, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, and Ryan Reynolds.

One of the most disappointing things about this X-Men spin-off, among many, is that you leave the theater wondering why you even liked Wolverine in the first place.  As played by Hugh Jackman, who continues to do the role justice even in the face of a script that lets him down every step of the way, Wolverine used to be a charming bad-ass who was never without a funny quip or two.  Here, Jackman is saddled with playing a sad-sack version of the character - one who's constantly moping and seeking justice for the death of his lady love (Lynn Collins).  The whole movie hinges on this relationship and, unfortunately, the audience couldn't care less.  We want big amazing action set pieces.  What we get is one big scene with a helicopter, which fails to impress, and then a handful of one-on-one or two-on-one fight scenes that are poorly choreographed and repetitive.  Indeed, every time Wolverine sees his nemesis, and brother, Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), the two exchange a line or two and then just run at each other.  This happens about twenty times I think - not sure though, I lost track after a while.  Director Gavin Hood (the Academy Award-winning Tsotsi) seems way over his head here: I understand that he has no experience directing action scenes, but you would think the characters' emotional scenes would be more deftly handled.  His collaborators offer no assistance either: the special effects are cheesy (Wolverine's claws look more fake now than they did back in '00 with the original X-Men film), the music nondescript, and the script is a mess - packing in a ton of fan favorite characters (Gambit, Deadpool) with no rhyme or reason or time spent developing them.  Wolverine is not a terrible film, just a completely mediocre one.  It's utterly forgettable and often below average.  The character of Wolverine (and Jackman) deserve better than this.  If this is the first of many X-Men origin tales, the series is off to a rocky start.