Monday, July 27, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (****)

(500) Days of Summer. 96 mins. PG-13. Directed by Marc Webb. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Clark Gregg, and Minka Kelly.

If ever there was a breath of fresh air in the midst of bloated summer behemoths and the string of crappy romantic comedies audiences have been subjected to over the past few months, (500) Days of Summer is it. The movie is sweet and inventive, cleverly darting back and forth between the 500 days of a romantic relationship, and it features two young actors working their considerable charms to perfection. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tom, a wannabe architect working at a greeting card company. Single and inherently romantic, he falls hard for the new office assistant, Summer (the luminous Zooey Deschanel, in a role tailor-made for her). Too hard, in fact, because this isn't really a love story - Summer and Tom end up breaking up, it's more of a coming-to-grips-with-love story. The vibe of the movie is loose and fun, and there are several sequences that just pop off the screen - a choreographed dance sequence set to a classic Hall & Oates song is just one standout. (500) Days is surprisingly dramatic too, and it has some legitimate things to say about relationships and waiting for "the one." The main draws here are the hip soundtrack and unorthodox editing and sequencing, and both certainly deliver. (500) Days is by no means a classic, but it's another movie, like Garden State, that is bound to catch on with, and move, a certain segment of the moviegoing public. And, if nothing else, it restores some respectability to the romantic comedy genre.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (***)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. 153 mins. PG. Directed by David Yates. Written by Steve Kloves. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and Jim Broadbent.

After a nine-month delay from its original November '08 release date, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is finally in theaters, riding a wave of advance hype and critical kudos. It is with a touch of sadness then that I have to report that the latest Potter flick is a letdown and not all it's cracked up to be. My guess is that all those critics who have fawned over the movie have never read the book. If they had, then they would know that this, six films in, is probably the least successful adaptation to date.

After sitting Order of the Phoenix out, Steve Kloves is back in the screenwriter's chair again, and he must be a bit rusty. Now, I don't consider myself one of those people who always complain that the movie is not as good as the book. It's important to realize that the book is the book, and the movie is the movie. It's never been an issue for me on any of the previous Potter films, but the changes, additions, and deletions in Half-Blood Prince kill any shot the movie has at achieving greatness. That is a real shame too, because the book is my favorite in the series, mixing laughs, romance, action and suspense in equally potent doses with style and grace. Add to that its whopper of an ending (one that had Potter fans debating all summer long), intense action, and bad-ass final scene, and there's no reason this movie shouldn't have you on the edge of your seat as the credits rolled, wanting to see the next installment Right. Frakking. Now.

Instead, Kloves and director David Yates are content keeping things at a static hum - the movie never achieves liftoff or builds to anything. It stays involving but flat throughout, and though this being a Potter movie, there are charms a plenty and much to enjoy, I still left the theater with aching disappointment. Here's the good though: the movie looks amazing. The image has a crisp, gray overtone that sets an appropriately somber mood, the acting by the three leads has never been better (welcome to the club, Emma Watson!), and the special effects are top notch. I especially liked the effects used to create the flying Death Eaters. The supporting cast of British thespians reads like a who's who of acting greats - chief among them Alan Rickman as Snape (brilliant as always, though underutilized), and newbie Jim Broadbent as the new Potions teacher, Horace Slughorn. Broadbent steals the show, in a richly textured and funny performance. The not-so-good: in addition to the above, the whole Harry-Ginny romantic subplot - it's handled as an afterthought, and a pretty weak one at that.

There is much to admire in Half-Blood Prince, but its deviations from the book are unforgivable and, in the end, this is probably the worst of the Potter flicks. Note: I saw this the first time at the midnight show on opening night, and thought I may have just been tired and cranky. Nope. Saw it again a few days later, and felt the exact same way. Once again, I must ask too much from you, Harry.... You better deliver with Deathly Hallows.


Monday, July 13, 2009

The Hurt Locker (***1/2)

The Hurt Locker. 131 mins. R. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal. Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, and Evangeline Lily.

The Hurt Locker succeeds where other recent movies on the Iraq War have failed because it focuses on the soldiers and not the politics. It doesn't hurt that it's also a taut and gripping thriller, with a handful of action set pieces that will leave you breathless. Aside from one way-too-cool visual flourish at the beginning, director Kathryn Bigelow stages the scenes with a subtle, ground-zero intensity, and despite the many war films that have preceded The Hurt Locker, she makes the battle sequences pop with verve and originality. Though she's only made a handful of films (Near Dark and Point Break spring immediately to mind), this is probably her overall best effort yet. She's assembled a strong cast of mostly unknown actors in the leads, but filled out with some recognizable faces in key supporting roles (Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lily). The movie starts to lose steam in the last act, with Jeremy Renner's character being haunted by the death of a young Iraqi boy, but it recovers by the end, just in time to make its thesis point - an important one (some soldiers are addicted to war and don't know how to deal with home life), but one that feels like it's been made many times before. A bit overrated by critics, but still one of the better movies you'll see this year. If you can't get to the theater to see it, don't stress, but definitely add it to your queue.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bruno (***1/2)

Bruno. 82 mins. R. Directed by Larry Charles. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer & Jeff Schaffer. Starring Sacha Baron Cohen and Gustaf Hammarstan.

I don't know how much longer the fearlessly funny Sacha Baron Cohen can pull things like this off, and I'm not quite sure whether it's as good as Borat (only time will tell), but Bruno is one funny flick. The movie is a comedy bulldozer that nearly pummels its audience into submission, and shows you things you have never seen before, and may never want to see again. Bruno takes the "R" rating and body slams it to the ground, climbs on top of it, and has its way with it, pushing the rating so far past what it's typically used for that it no longer has any meaning whatsoever. The set-up for Bruno takes the same path of least resistance as Borat, merely serving as a vehicle for a series of interviews and sequences that tackle, head-on, everything from homophobia to scary stage parents to celebrity obnoxiousness. Some work, some don't, but the majority stick and there are at least 3 or 4 scenes that are instant classics of the genre. My favorite is probably Bruno's attempt at a celebrity, Entertainment Tonight-type show, which is screened for a test group comprised of middle-aged, middle-of-the road Americans. The look on those peoples' faces is priceless and their horror is undeniably real. Cohen seems to revel on letting us, his audience, in on the joke while also challenging us and making us cringe and feel about as uncomfortable as his subjects on screen. Half the audience members are going to love it, and half are going to despise it, but there's no denying Cohen's talent at provocation and improvisation. Will it hold up on a second viewing? I don't know, but I will say this: my knee is a bit sore today from having hit it so repeatedly hard in fits of laughter. Bruno never overstays its welcome (the movie is only 82 mins.) and the laughs are scattered evenly throughout. A must see, for those brave enough.

- John

Monday, July 06, 2009

Moon (***)

Moon. 97 mins. R. Directed by Duncan Jones. Written by Nathan Parker. Starring Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey.

Moon is an appropriately moody, independent sci-fi film with production values that far exceed its small budget, and a provocative script that grows increasingly frustrating by its lack of desire to entertain. In an impressive debut, David Bowie's son Duncan Jones directs, and he has a great, subtle visual style, and has really nailed the sci-fi conventions made famous by Kubrick's 2001. Sam Rockwell, one of the great underrated actors working today, shoulders the heavy load in the film, acting by himself for most of it. He plays Sam, a lone astronaut working a three-year stint on the moon in the near future. He's all by himself, and only has the Hal-like robot, GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), to keep him company. Three years alone on the moon is a long time, and things start to get a little nutty when Sam starts seeing things that aren't there. An accident on the job one day leads Sam to discover another version of himself living on the moon, and from there, things get even nuttier. There are some grand ideas in Moon, and Rockwell is awesome in it, but the big plot twists are fairly predictable and not inventively handled. Director Jones excels during the atmospheric first half-hour, when the audience is thrown into Sam's day-to-day routines in an unfamiliar environment, but after that, the movie never really achieves lift-off. Still, for sci-fi fans, Moon is definitely worth checking out, flaws and all, because it gets a lot of things right and tries to tackle something new while honoring all that's come before. I've heard a number of people call Moon the best sci-fi film of the past five years. I wouldn't say that - for my money, Danny Boyle's Sunshine is the one to beat for that title.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Public Enemies (***)

Public Enemies. 143 mins. R. Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman. Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, and Billy Crudup.

Public Enemies is a good movie that falls far short of greatness, leaving a trail of missed opportunities in its wake. If I could liken it to another recent movie, I'd say American Gangster. That was another star-studded film with an A-list director, compelling subject matter, and high potential, but one that ultimately left its audience cold and disappointed. Here, in telling the tale of John Dillinger's bank robberies and jail escapes, co-writer and director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) focuses too much on Dillinger's romantic relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, with an inconsistent and distracting "American" accent). The movie hints at it, but I would have much preferred a 1930s take on The Wire, with the main focus on the feds trying to take down the bank robbing syndicate led by Dillinger, using Dillinger only as a supporting character. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie is Johnny Depp's uninteresting take on the character of Dillinger. Part of the blame rests with the script, but surely an actor as innovative as Depp could have found something unique or involving in Dillinger that would make him stand out. He's downright boring here. I was more interested in Christian Bale's dogged FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, and his search for Dillinger and company. Though even there, Mann and Bale give the character short shrift in light of Purvis' real-life suicide, which the audience only learns about over the end credits. Still, there's plenty to admire in Public Enemies. The period detail is sensational, and Mann certainly knows how to stage a gunfight. There are several here, particularly a late night raid in the forest towards the end, that are worth the price of admission. Dillinger's death outside Chicago's Biograph Theater makes for a suitably suspenseful ending, and there's just something refreshing about seeing a competent adult drama in the middle of summer. The movie runs a bit long at 2.5 hours, but it's a breeze compared to sitting through the new Transformers.