Saturday, July 30, 2011

"Crazy, Stupid, Love." gets a little too crazy but hard to resist

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) 
118 min., rated PG-13.

Enough criticism has been made about the title of "Crazy, Stupid, Love." but quirky punctuation doesn't really matter when a romantic-comedy does more right than wrong. To be honest, it's kind of hard to resist. Giving his most grounded and vulnerable performance to date, whilst remaining the funny sadsack we all know, Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, a family man who has a bomb dropped on him in just the movie's opening moments. His wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), decides she wants a divorce after 25 years of marriage and then confesses to having an affair with a co-worker (Kevin Bacon, looking like he could use some bacon on his bones). Drowning his sorrows at a trendy lounge bar, Cal meets Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a rico suave lothario who can sweet-talk to any woman and take all of them home. Reminding him of someone he knew that also wore his heart on his sleeve, Jacob promises Cal to whip him into ladies' man shape, giving him a whole new wardrobe and helping with his womanizing game. Of course, none of the women compare to his soul mate, Emily. As for Jacob, he's a sweetie at heart and falls hard for Hannah (Emma Stone), a smart girl who doesn't fall for a cheesy pick-up line. Meanwhile, Cal's 13-year-old son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), claims he's in love with his 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who's smitten with Cal. Love is not only crazy and stupid, but very complicated. 

"Crazy, Stupid, Love." is uneven, as most things are, but the actors' genuine chemistry and astute performances, and some strong writing go a long way. Carell sidesteps caricature, turning Cal into a sympathetic everyman that one can't help but root for. Gosling has impressed in straight dramatic roles, but even here, he's confident, charismatic, and truly magnetic as a pickup artist. His comedic acting chops and sex appeal complement one other. There's not really a fleshed-out character there on the page for Emily (why was she so bored with Cal?), but Moore has enough nuance and gravitas, and shares a deep, lived-in relationship with Carell that carries on screen, to tighten up that miniscule writing issue. Stone, relentlessly proving what a comic talent she is, shines as she always does, with her nontraditional beauty and sly, sharp-as-a-tack delivery. The hookup scene between Gosling and Stone, throwing "Dirty Dancing" and simple character-revealing conversation into the mix, is sexy and lovely . . . and that's without showing the hanky-panky. "Crazy" comes in the form of Marisa Tomei as Cal's first conquest. Her character is unpredictable, in terms of what the narrative does with her and how Tomei plays her; she's wild and hilarious, and should do comedy more often. Last but not least, both in their own subplot together, Bobo is a scene-stealer as Robbie and Tipton is a wonderful fresh face as Jessica. 

As directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa proved to pretty capable of blending tones in "I Love You Phillip Morris," which called for it, this film has some mood swings and shifting of gears. But a lot of the humor comes from an honest place, and the jokes actually have context. Dan Fogelman's screenplay is not stupid but reasonably smart, with some clever surprises in store, even if all the plot threads come to a head as a set of convenient coincidences and a screwball brawl. The filmmakers should've trusted their low-key moments and done away with some of the bigger, more farcical moments. Also, the payoff with Jessica, Robbie, and her nude photos sends the wrong message, coming off more icky than endearing or amusing. 

Without playing down to its audience, most of the movie's characters are handled with care and depth rather than being dumbed down for the sake of plot gimmicks. Nobody decides to board a plane to Africa and then cancel their trip because their significant other might actually love them. Or, characters aren't separated from petty obstacles that couldn't have just been solved in a five-minute conversation over coffee. Cal and Emily are married, middle-aged people feeling the painfully brutal truth that the Honeymoon Phase is gone, and frankly, that's kind of refreshing. On the other hand, there is a "soul mate" public speech (at a middle school graduation, of all places), but doesn't feel as painfully contrived here. Given the state of romantic-comedies in the past two years, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." (along with other exceptions) feels like it's from the heart—funny, sweet, and appealing. 

Grade: B +

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Color me shocked, "Monte Carlo" should charm its demographic

Monte Carlo (2011) 
108 min., rated PG.
Grade: B -

Say you're a tweenage girl who enjoys a wish-fulfillment Princess and the Pauper fairy tale and your idol is Disney Channel diva Selena Gomez. Then "Monte Carlo" might just be the ticket. Gomez plays Grace, a high school graduate who's saved up a trip to Paris from working as a diner waitress in her Texas hometown with her wild, slightly older BFF, Emma ("Gossip Girl" Katie Cassidy). Then her mother (Andie MacDowell) and stepfather (Brett Cullen) drop a surprise on Grace: her morose stepsister, Meg (Leighton Meester, another "Gossip Girl"), is going to Paris with them! 

Arriving to the City of Lights (not Love, as Emma mistakes it for), they take a whirlwind bus tour through the Louvre and stay in a fleabag hotel room that looks nothing like the brochure. Once left behind by their whiplash-fast guide, Grace, Emma, and Meg find refuge in a fancy hotel, where Grace is mistaken for a snooty, scandalous British socialite, Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also played by Gomez without a hint of humor). That's right, Grace is a dead ringer for the Paris Hilton wannabe, and it's like "The Parent Trap," except they're not long-lost twin sisters. Emma and Meg push Grace to play along, faking an accent, and then it's off to Monte Carlo to live like royalty for a few days. They fit perfectly into gorgeous gowns, swoon over hunky French boys, and Grace wears a $3 million necklace that gets misplaced. 

Directed and co-written by Thomas Bezucha (2005's "The Family Stone") from his screenplay (by April Blair and Maria Maggenti, based on the novel "Headhunters" by Jules Bass), the fraud, dishonesty, robbery, and mistaken identity elements of the plot are contrived, lightly handled, and not far removed from "The Lizzie McGuire Movie." It's not quite on par with "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" films, but the pleasant girls-just-wanna-have-fun vibe makes this a cute, chirpy, innocuous escapist version of "Sex and the City" without the sex. Mercifully, there is no pushy slapstick, but some of the comic set-pieces aren't used for their screwball potential, a polo match coming to mind. 

But it comes down to the three girls, who have charisma to spare. Gomez is like a little package of sunny, unaffected radiance, which she brings to Grace, who very well could've been an entitled brat. Katie Cassidy is saucy fun with a twangy accent and shows the most comic flair of the three. Meg could've been a total killjoy, but Meester makes her transformation charming. "Monte Carlo" doesn't reinvent any wheels, but it does exactly what it sets out to do as harmless, likable summer entertainment. 

"Captain America" lots of cartoonish 2-D!

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) 
125 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

There's something appealingly corny and old-fashioned about the spirit of "Captain America: The First Avenger" that it cannot be lumped with the noisy, flashy superhero releases oversaturating every summer season. Also, it's in 2-D and looks super. It's the final Marvel Comics set-up for the superhero jamboree (that will include Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk) in 2012's "The Avengers," which Comic-Con fanboys have already marked their calendars for. As a stand-alone tapas, it's still a lot of fun. 

Captain America came from another time (the 1940s during World War II to be exact), where he started as Steve Rogers. Through the miracle of seamless digital effects, the already-buff Chris Evans has his face CG'ed onto a shrimpy bod of the asthmatic 98-pound weakling. Steve dreams of enlisting in the Army and serve his country, but a laundry list of physical disabilities keeps him down in 4-F status. In a twist of fate, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci, who's a kindly eccentric hoot) sees something special in this "kid from Brooklyn" and enlists him for a Frankenstein experiment. After being injected with a blue serum, Steve comes out a different man—a bulked-up, bionically enhanced soldier. Before, people would say "Get a kid a sandwich!" and now, "Get that man his protein shake!" 

To crusty, skeptical Colonel Phillips (an amusingly crabassy Tommy Lee Jones), he's just a lab rat and a propaganda road-show star, but to British officer Peggy Carter (Haylet Atwell), he's a star-spangled hero who can take the bullies out with the trash. In his Captain America suit (and with his red-white-and-blue vibranium shield), Steve must enter enemy territory to save a platoon, including best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), and overthrow a Nazi organization led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull. Schmidt's madman plans basically come down to taking over the world, or something of that nature, but it comes close to one-upping Adolf Hitler: building weaponry equipped with the power of the gods with his Igor-like scientist sidekick (Toby Jones). 

Directed by Joe Johnston, "Captain America: The First Avenger" is most enjoyable from its setting of tone and period. It has a pulpy, gee-whiz earnestness that salutes Saturday matinee serials (think "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow"). There's a retro, sepia-toned look, gorgeously rendered by Shelly Johnson's cinematography and Rick Heinrichs' textured, detailed production design, and the reliable Alan Silvestri's patriotic-march score adds to that whole '40s feel. An excellent cast always helps too. 

Evans' charisma never comes out like it did when he played Human Torch in the "Fantastic Four" movies, but that's just fine. As Steve, he's a squarely likable Boy Scout of an underdog with a big heart. Then as Captain America, he has the square jaw and physique to own up to the title. Atwell is no damsel-in-distress, even with her red smudge-free lipstick making her look like a military pin-up, but a dame with as much pluck and beauty as Kate Beckinsale. Nothing against Atwell or Evans but from what was written in the script, the romance between Peggy and Steve is too pro forma to make us weep. Red Skull's evil plans are undernourished on the page as well, but Weaving plays the sinister villain with hammy gusto and looks like a relative of Darth Maul. Dominic Cooper is also fun as inventor Howard Stark, yes, Iron Man/Tony Stark's Daddio (something fanboys could answer in Trivial Pursuit). 

Johnston never jams special effects down our throats or at our retinas, and moves everything at a steady pace (not too roller-coastery, not too frenetic). Where the movie does slightly disappoint is in the middle. Once Rogers recruits his team (including actors such as Neal McDonough and Derek Luke), the taking down of Nazis is shortchanged into a single, compressed montage. 

"Captain America: The First Avenger" is essentially prep work for the bigger picture ("The Avengers"), bookending itself in the present-day with an Arctic-set prologue and a finale that goes out with a fun cameo from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Even so, when it comes down to it, it's all about the scrappy underdog even when he's all juiced-up and dressed to fight in those U.S.A. tights. Like the little-guy hero himself, "Captain America" proves itself . . . as solid popcorn entertainment. "Green Lantern," eat your heart out. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"Mr. Popper's Penguins" and "Zookeeper": Penguin-poop jokes actually win out

Mr. Popper's Penguins (2011)
94 min., rated PG.
Grade: B -

If you were patiently waiting for a faithful adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater's 1938 children's book about the poor house painter and his penguins, you're going to march your unhappy feet away from "Mr. Popper's Penguins" in defiance. But if you go in expecting a Jim "Liar Liar" Carrey vehicle with penguins, it's a patly predictable, pleasantly pleasing piffle. 

In Dad mode, Carrey mugs, dances, does a slo-mo trick and a Jimmy Stewart impersonation, and runs afoul of tuxedoed fowls as Tommy Popper. As a boy, he grew up knowing his globe-trotting explorer father mostly by the sound of his voice on his CB radio rather than physical visits. Now, Mr. Popper is a big-time real estate developer who's an absentee father himself. He's divorced from his wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino), of fifteen years, spends alternate weekends with his children (Madeline Carroll, Maxwell Perry Cotton), and his main priority is closing a deal to buy Central Park's Tavern on the Green from the choosy owner, Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury). Shortly after the death of his father, Tommy receives a wooden crate from Dad's will and testament at the front door of his sleek, modern Manhattan apartment. Inside is a live penguin, and the next day, five more show up. The kids can't get enough of them, but will Tommy keep the flightless birds to vie for his family's attention and learn the error of his ways? Tommy's digs gets transformed into an arctic Winter Wonderland, but will he realize that a spic-and-span apartment is no natural habitat for the penguins? 

The "Pet Detective" is not in top form, but he gets to strut his silly stuff and is never upstaged by the real/animated gentoo penguins. No personalities go beyond the little guys' names (sounding like those of the "101 Dalmations" or the Seven Dwarfs) of Captain, Loudy, Bitey, Stinky, Lovey, and Nimrod, but who cares, because they (refreshingly) do not talk and are adorable. Clark Gregg is cast as a zookeeper, obviously stuck in the bad-guy role, but Lansbury still hasn't lost her poise as Van Gundy. Ophelia Lovibond is an absolute delight as Popper's assistant Pippi, who has a particularly perky penchant for alliterations pertaining to the letter "P." 

Director Mark Waters (who has made some very smart comedies like "The House of Yes," the "Freaky Friday" remake, and "Mean Girls") has a light enough touch that he manages to make a scene set at a Guggenheim museum gala, disrupted by the penguins, feel like a classic screwball comedy rather than an obnoxious headache. There are two unexpectedly inspired gags, one where we see the shadow of Captain swimming and rising to the top of Popper's flooded bathroom through the translucent window of the closed (and apparently airtight) door, and the second involving a phone in a blender. Relying on penguin-poop humor a bit too much, courtesy of Stinky, "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is still palatable family fare. Plot points are checked off as plain as the nose on your face, but you'll get what you came for with Carrey and his waddling, non-talking, mostly non-CG pals. 

Zookeeper (2011) 
102 min., rated PG.
Grade: C

Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, "Zookeeper" isn't just shy of the disaster that was last year's "Furry Vengeance." It's surprisingly tolerable without being very good, so panning it is like running over an innocent kitten. 

The pitch for the movie probably went something like this: "Let's get that affably likable teddy bear of a man that is Kevin James and cast him as a bumbling zookeeper! The public believed him being married to hot mama Leah Remini in that sitcom 'King of Queens,' so let's have him fall in love with  . . . Rosario Dawson! She's lovely! Alright, so far so good. James was hilarious in "Hitch" so maybe we can work in another gimmick of the big guy getting girl advice from someone. Ah-hah, love-doctoring animals! They should talk too since there hasn't been a palatable talking-animal movie since 'Dr. Dolittle 2.' We can make Kevin fall down a lot like when he did his own slapstick in 'Paul Blart: Mall Cop.' Oh, and before we forget, Hollywood just passed that law where we must sign Ken Jeong onto at least four movies a year so he can do his gratingly creepy shtick until he tires from the industry and goes back to being a physician. Kids are going to love it!" 

After Griffin Keyes (James) proposes to his girlfriend Stephanie (shrilly played by Leslie Bibb) on horseback, complete with fireworks and a Mariachi band, she turns into a pushy, conceited shrew and turns him down, all because his professional title is a zookeeper at a Boston zoo. If he listens to his animal friends, Griffin will become an alpha male and learn how to mate. But right there in plain view, the sweet-natured zoo vet Kate (Dawson) actually likes him for him. Hopefully he can gain an I.Q. to realize it before she gets on a plane to Africa! Did it really take five screenwriters ("Paul Blart" scribe Nick Bakay and star James included) to think up all this? 

"Zookeeper" exists on Planet Monkey: the animals talk just because and give Griffin terrible advice that he should know better. Dawson has a genuine sweetness as the obligatory love interest and an entire roster of comic talent brings vocal life to the gorillas, monkeys, lions, elephants, bears, giraffes, and other cuddlies (Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, and Maya Rudolph, just to name a few). One bizarre scene has Griffin taking Bernie the Gorilla (voiced by Nolte) to T.G.I. Friday's and on the way there they jam out to Flo Rida's "Low," followed by the big ape dancing with a girl that thinks he's a man in a costume. Aimed squarely at easily pleased kids, "Zookeeper" is a juvenile, formulaic, good-natured romantic farce that commendably has no fart or poop jokes (does pee count?), but director Frank Coraci (Adam Sandler's other go-to guy at Happy Madison) wastes James as a human punching bag, running into objects and falling down. One thing is for sure: it looks like it hurts. 

JT and Kunis bring sexy (and smart) back to familiar "FWB"

Friends with Benefits (2011)
109 min., rated R.

Can you really just have sex with a friend and have no complications or emotions? Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis are about to find out in "Friends with Benefits," the second romantic comedy this year to ask that question, but we already know the answer. Of course not, this is Hollywood! Something eventually gives and the leads fall in love, unless your leads are Jerry and Elaine from "Seinfeld." You might experience déjà vu with the premise of January's very similar "No Strings Attached" when Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman boinked each other, as did Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in 2010's "Love & Other Drugs." ("Fuck Buddies" wouldn't fly with the censors for this or the formers.) It's not like we go into a romantic comedy for unpredictable plot twists, as "Friends with Benefits" strictly adheres to formula and genre mechanics. But fresher than you might expect with an up-to-the-minute zeitgeist of iPads and iPhones, "Friends with Benefits" benefits from the appealing casting and sexy, loosey-goosey chemistry between Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis (Kutcher's eight-season co-star on TV's "That '70s Show" and Portman's black swan in "Black Swan"). 

Timberlake is Dylan, a Los Angeles blog designer who arrives in New York City for a job interview as art director at GQ Magazine. He's recruited by a vivacious headhunter named Jamie (Mila Kunis). Winning him over with a celebratory night on the town, Dylan accepts the job and gets along famously with Jamie. Both coming off bad breakups (Emma Stone and Andy Samberg in great cameos), Dylan is "emotionally unavailable" and Jamie is "emotionally damaged," but they decide one night over beer and nitpicking a romantic-comedy movie that they should begin sleeping with each other while staying pals. "No relationship, no emotions, just sex," or so they say. Bringing sexy back to old genre chestnuts, Timberlake and Kunis are so fun to watch and comfortable with each other (especially in bed) that it never feels like the script is just demanding them to get together. We actually understand why Dylan and Jamie have intimacy issues and these two have our rooting interest in seeing them figure it out. Their banter is smart, rhythmic, and funny. Beautifully big-eyed Kunis fast-talks with an adorable, self-assured spunkiness, and Timberlake capably keeps up with his charisma and comic abilities which he shows in a spontaneous singalong to Kriss Kross's "Jump." 

This attractive couple carries the movie through and is aided by a solid supporting cast. Patricia Clarkson is full of comic quirks as Jamie's flaky, oversexed mom, proving she can upend even a caricatured role (and thankfully her silly bondage scene from the trailer got the axe). Woody Harrelson is underused but colorfully gets a laugh nearly every line he delivers as a proudly gay GQ sports editor. The indispensable Richard Jenkins, playing Dylan's poor father in the early stages of Alzeimer's, is used in a touching subplot that could've easily come off cloying. Jenna Elfman is a welcome, down-to-earth presence as Dylan's older sister who's too wise to believe that Jamie and her brother are just friends. Pro snowboarder Shaun White gives a curious cameo; his first appearance falls flat, but the second works only because of Jenkins and Timberlake's punchline. 

Director Will Gluck (who's two for two after "Easy A") shows fleet pacing and energy from the get-go of his snappy script co-written with Keith Merryman and David A. Newman. Some of the editing and pacing starts out so whiplash-fast, until it finds a smoother, more natural flow. The on-location set pieces shot at the Hollywood sign and Grand Central Station earn their laughs. "Friends with Benefits" almost enters Kevin Williamson territory ("Scream") with some self-aware moments (as when Kunis yells "Shut up, Katherine Heigl, you stupid liar!" at a poster of "The Ugly Truth") and then playfully slips into its own clichés. Because romantic comedies are made for hopeless romantics, it's all about how we get there rather than the destination. There are two flash mobs in N.Y.C., a running joke involving Semisonic's one hit "Closing Time" that sweetly pays off by the end, and Jason Segel and Rashida Jones gamely play the romantic leads in an amusingly drippy fake movie playing on TV. 

Any movie that brazenly puts down cheesy-bad Hollywood romantic comedies and Harry Potter on more than one occasion is showing more effort than the norm. Raunchy but sweet, "Friends with Benefits" works like a charm.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Deathly Hallows: Part 2" makes for a perfect conclusion

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
130 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

Oh, how far we've come from 2001's Christopher Columbus-directed "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Ten years and eight movies ago, the decade of Potter Mania is over. 

Terrifically cinematic, dramatically sound, and ultimately satisfying, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" marks the parting words of J.K. Rowling's story. It took two films to depict the last tome, so in Federico Fellini terms, it's "Harry Potter 7 1/2" after "Part 1." 

When the film begins, we're already well into the middle of this seventh (or eighth, depending on how you look at it) and last film. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best-and-forever chums, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), have to get that last Horcrux to weaken and finally defeat hissing, noseless Lord You-Know-Who (Ralph Fiennes, frightening as ever). One of them happens to be locked in Bellatrix Lestrange's bank vault. Also, Hogwarts is under siege by Voldemort and his dark gang, and there's the inevitable battle between Harry and Tom Riddle. 

For the record, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is the shortest Potter (at two hours and ten minutes), never making the incident-filled narrative feel bloated. A lot of applause-worthy moments happen: Mrs. Weasley getting all Ellen Ripley on Bellatrix Lestrange! Professor McGonagall showing off her wand skills! Stone-cold Severus Snape shedding tears! Director David Yates, who has made the last four of the eight films, and screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has written all but one of the scripts, have satisfied the devoted and casual Potterphiles by handling the dense plotting and mythology with a developed momentum and cohesion. They do the same here and successfully bring it to a close. We get a moving Catch-Me-Up Flashback Sequence, shedding sad and surprising layers on certain characters, that should get you choked up, however, that does not mean it's a self-contained film. 

Yates does a better job with the quiet, moody scenes rather than the big flashy ones. But the trio's escape from Bellatrix's vault on the back of a fire-breathing dragon (after Hermione transforms into Bellatrix herself to pull the wool over a court of goblins' eyes) is surely exciting and one of the more memorable set pieces in the film. And of course, there's the showdown at Hogwarts, which is so intensely staged, propulsively paced, and worth the wait. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra, who lensed the first part, creates a vividly gritty but gorgeous tapestry, and Alexandre Desplat's music score fittingly suits the sense of adventure during action scenes without being intrusive and beautifully captures some John Williams' original magical cues. 

Love has finally bloomed between Harry and Ginny, as well as for Hermione and Ron; heroism springs out of characters you wouldn't expect; and there's a who's-who of old faculty and students that we haven't seen in a while (it's good to see you Maggie Smith). A "19 years later" epilogue will make one smile and giggle with a sense of nostalgia when it comes to London's Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. 

There's something comforting, devastating, and bittersweet about The End that the cast and crew deserve a curtain call for creating such a perfect capper.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010)
146 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A - 

The Boy Who Lived is now a facial-stubbled man in the seventh, penultimate chapter, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1," splitting 759 pages of source material in half because Warner Bros. Pictures can do what they want. (Part 2 bursts into theaters come July 2011 for all you wizard-heads, but you probably already knew that.) 

Lost are the potion classes at Hogwarts and Quidditch, but these wizards are showing maturity, as are the films, and the end is near. It's the beginning of the end actually, "The Deathly Hallows" picking up where "The Half-Blood Prince" ended, with Albus Dumbledore dead (tear). 

Now, Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley are truly on their own and unprotected (Hermione erases herself from her Muggle parents' lives and memory), on their mission to find and destroy the Horcruxes, shreds of Lord Voldemort's soul that give him the power of immortality. We've known these besties since they were kids, played through Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, who have all grown into their own and have brought flesh-and-blood to their wizardly counterparts. 

Helming his third "Potter" movie, David Yates has perfected the visual storytelling, sprawling narratives, and dangerously dark tone of J.K. Rowling's tale. He has a real sense of how to create dread and atmosphere in many of the film's thrilling, often scary set pieces, matching the film's grey, apocalyptic look. The second scene at Voldemort's dinner table, surrounded by his Death Eaters, is truly chilling, as is a sequence involving the serpent. 

Mind you, the film has its light moments as well: our heroes' shapeshifting attempt to infiltrate the Ministry of Magic (by first flushing themselves down a loo) is a playful lot of fun. On the tender side is a scene (not in the book by the way) with Harry leading a sad, troubled Hermione in a dance after Ron storms off after a fight with her. A neat touch is the campfire-tale style that the deathly hallows story is told, beautifully visualized by way of shadow-puppet animation. 

Not that it can be helped, as the producers made it into a double-bill, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is an anticlimax. But as the weightiest and most vivid of the films, it's also a gripping setup for the scheduled final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Horrible Bosses" could have been meaner but ace cast earns laughs

Horrible Bosses (2011) 
100 min., rated R.

Ever wanted to kill your boss? Hollywood comedy screenwriters probably feel the same way sometimes. "Horrible Bosses" could be compared to a male revenge-workplace-fantasy like "9 to 5," "Ruthless People," and "Office Space," but if only it went in even more for the kill. Still, when a salty, mean, funny big-studio black comedy like "Horrible Bosses" actually lets loose and is brazen about its own meanness, that's cause for a celebration. Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) hate their jobs because their horrible bosses make their lives a living hell. Nick is tired of "taking shit" from his financial firm's president, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), who's so mean he kept Nick from seeing his Gam Gam's deathbed. Skirt-chasing chemical company manager Kurt now has to report to the cokehead S.O.B. son (Colin Farrell) of his late boss (Donald Sutherland). Though it seems like nothing to cry about, dental assistant Dale endures sexual harassment from a sexually predatory dentist, Julia Harris D.D.S. (Jennifer Aniston), as he remains faithful to his sweet fiancee (Lindsay Sloane). While getting together for a few brewskies, the three buds joke about killing their bosses and the more horrible work gets they actually decide to go through with it. At a shady bar, they meet a hired gun, Dean "Motherfucker" Jones (Jamie Foxx), who asks for a hefty price to be their murder consultant. Needless to say, the three dorks bumble their homicides. 

As a lot of recent raunchy, R-rated comedies this summer is putting out there, like "Bridesmaids," "The Hangover Part II," and "Bad Teacher," it's fun watching identifiable stars misbehave. The pitch-black, dark-hearted premise is put over the top but never delivers its full potential for horrible nastiness. Whatever, it still inspires lotsa gleefully bitter, politically incorrect belly-laughs in all the right places. There's the suspicion that director Seth Gordon (2008's "Four Christmases") wasn't given the green light to push it further, but clearly he encouraged his well-chosen cast to do some improvisation that suits the film's shaggy pacing. 

Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day are a dream team, like our contemporary Three Stooges, playing straight men to the over-the-top caricatures around them in their respective workplace. Bateman is playing his usual worry-wart voice of reason; Sudeikis gets to play a smarmy playboy; and Day is the standout, adorably manic and squeaky like a hamster. Watch Bateman and Day bounce off the walls in a cocaine joke reminiscent of "Annie Hall." The "horrible bosses" don't really get out of being one-dimensional punchlines, but the actors playing them make lemonade out of lemons. Spacey could play a corrupt corporate psycho in his sleep (see his horrible boss in 1994's black comedy "Swimming With Sharks"). Farrell, barely recognizable with that beer gut and horrible comb-over, lets himself go way out there, but there should've been more of his tool of a boss. Totally upending her good-girl image and having a blast, a smoking hot Aniston gets to play with the boys and deliciously vomits so many naughty words that you've never heard out of her mouth before. Foxx makes the most of only a little screen time as "Motherfucker Jones" whose profane name is put to hilarious use and his former felony is made a left-turn surprise. Julie Bowen hits her mark as Dave's polygamous wife but given less things to do and say than what she's truly capable of. 

Written by Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley (who played geeky Sam on TV's beloved "Freaks and Geeks"), and Jonathan Goldstein, the script really lets the three leads and the three bosses shine from their asides and interaction together. Their characters don't have lives outside of the plot, but this is a farce after all, not a character study. There's a smart shout-out to Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" confused with Danny DeVito's spoof "Throw Momma from the Train," and a clever running gag with a new navigation operator named Gregory. While not as uninhibited as it could've and should've been, "Horrible Bosses" is an enjoyably dirty-birdy, blatantly stupid summer comedy that makes you bust a laugh and hope the A-hole bosses get bumped off. 


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New on DVD/Blu-Ray: "The Lincoln Lawyer," "Source Code," and "Sanctum"

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
119 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Smugness fits Matthew McConaughey like a glove. Better known for taking his shirt off and secreting that oily, surfer-dude charisma, the hotshot star returns to the courtoom that put him on the map (with 1995's "A Time to Kill") in the film adaptation of Michael Connelly's legal crime-thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer." 

Here, he's in a role that feels tailor-made for him as Mick Haller, a slick, wheeler-dealer defense lawyer in Los Angeles (not Lincoln, Nebraska) who operates out of the backseat of his chauffer-driven Lincoln Continental. He has street smarts and thinks he has it all figured out. Then on a referral from a bail bondsman (John Leguizamo), Mick's latest client is a thirtysomething Beverly Hills rich kid, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), who swears innocence against charges for savagely beating a prostitute (Margarita Levieva) that he met in a bar. But he may or may not be guilty, and may have some connection to a case Haller worked on years before. Mick finds himself torn between dedication to his client and his growing suspicions. 

This is McConaughey's show all the way. With that swagger, tex-mex drawl, and slickster smirk, he's entirely magnetic and convincing as the wily but somewhat morally upright Mick. He gets back-up from an ace supporting cast that includes Marisa Tomei as his prosecutor ex-wife, William H. Macy as his sardonic investigator best friend, Michael Pena as a former client in the slammer, and Frances Fisher as Roulet's haughty mother. They may not all be utilized to their potential, but they give it all they got. 

Though "The Lincoln Lawyer" lays its whodunit cards pretty early and sometimes feels like a too-traditional courtroom TV episode, it's still a well-plotted and solidly entertaining thriller. The courtroom interaction between Josh Lucas and McConaughey pops and the suspense never ceases as there are twists to the very end. 

In his first feature, director Brad Furman handles his actors well and Los Angeles is shot in a realistic, unglamorous light. Written by John Romano, the script has a tough task to entirely crack Connelly's book on screen, but the narrative is streamlined without getting convoluted or too formulaic (Roulet brings up his daughter's soccer practice but never puts her in danger) or stretching credulity. 

Judging by "The Lincoln Lawyer," which is as good as any John Grisham movie, more of Connelly's work should be translated to the screen. 

Source Code (2011)
93 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

Out of Hollywood, it's rare to find a popcorn sci-fi thriller that actually makes you think. What a concept! Getting his foot in the door with 2009's "Moon," Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) skillfully follows it up with "Source Code," a brainy, ingeniously crafted, and engagingly fun puzzle. It's so complex and layered that you're not sure if there are plot holes or if you're just dense.

Helicoptor pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) has one hell of a commute: he inexplicably wakes up on a Chicago train across from a cute girl (Michelle Monaghan) he apparently should know and keeps calling him "Sean." Once the train explodes into fireballs, he wakes up again but in some sort of confined pod. As it turns out, but without giving much more away, Stevens is part of an experimental procedure where, in someone else's body, he's tasked to find out who on the train has planted a bomb that eight minutes later will blow up the train he's on. His only contact in this pod are faces on a video monitor, belonging to Air Force Officer Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and scientist Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who inform him that it's not time travel but "brain reassignment." So each time it's Beam Me Up Scotty and he must uncover more information each passage of eight minutes on the train. 

Who bombed the train? Well, the stakes are higher than the identity of the bomber. 

The structure of "Source Code" calls upon "Groundhog Day," as if Punxsutawney, PA blew up every day at the end of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" for Bill Murray. 

Screenwriter Ben Ripley's premise is compact and yet not just a shallow nugget of an idea but underscoring existential ideas about righting wrongs and the unpredictability of life. The same 8-minute scenario playing over and over could've indeed felt repetitive, and there are a few lulls of exposition from Goodwin and Dr. Rudledge, but director Jones varies the pacing and style of each. 

Gyllenhaal puts a lot into this role, running the gamut of wrenching emotions to panic, anger, and a sense of humor, that we share a lot of investment in Stevens/Sean. Monaghan is fetching as Christina, even if she's more of a chess piece than a fully formed character. Farmiga proves how fully capable she is of creating depth, even in a role never in the same space as the lead actor. Wright brings a strange, almost broad villainy to the puppet-master role that keeps him interesting. Also worth mentioning is Scott Bakula's voice as Stevens' father ("Quantum Leap," hello?), and stand-up comic Russell Peters playing himself as a train passenger is a nice touch. 

Even by the end, where the gimmick shows a few kinks in its design and has two more endings than it really needed, "Source Code" excites and hurts your noggin in a good way. Hook, line, and sinker, it would've made Hitchcock blush. 

Sanctum (2011)
109 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

Before you cave in to see "Sanctum," realize that just because James Cameron has his name all over it, he's relegated to merely a producer credit. Seeing as how he has water-based pictures "The Abyss" and "Titanic" under his belt, "Sanctum" plays like an "avatar" James Cameron Film that you wonder how much creative imput he actually had on the project. 

Loosely based on true events that screenwriter Andrew Wight endured, he and co-writer John Garvin don't have beginner's luck. 

For thirty-four days, gruff spelunker Frank McGuire (credibly played by Richard Roxburgh) has led a cave diving expedition in Papua, New Guinea's Esa-ala, said to be "the largest unexplored cave system in the world." Financier Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), and Frank's "repel rat" son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) join the expedition, which might turn dangerous

"What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?" asks Victoria. Well, a lot actually: hypothermia, the bends, falling off rocks, drowning, oxygen tank malfunction, petty in-fighting, and Daddy/Son Issues. Boo hoo. 

There should be suspense in who will live and who will die, but everybody is a watery, cardboard type and everybody's life line is telegraphed. So the real question is, who gives a damn? 

To make matters worse, the performances are either wooden or campy, and the Irwin Allen disaster-movie template dialogue is so laughably clunky ("She's strong like bull, smart like tractor") and clichéd ("Life is not a dress rehearsal. You have to seize the day!"). The script is barely workmanlike, but it's the cave and underwater photography that's the most impressive. 

Australian director Alister Grierson and cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin combine authentic location shooting, soundstage work, and digital effects, but neither of them always know where to put their camera to earn a thrill. Just 30 minutes into the film, "Sanctum" peaks early with a scene that gets the blood pumping: it's intense and claustrophobic, while the rest of the film is basically just a dim body-count slasher flick. 

The perilous dangers these people face aren't from monsters (see 2005's harrowing "The Descent"), but Mother Nature and human errors. Interest really dwindles as the picture turns one of its characters into a broadly played villain. 

As an I-MAX experience, "Sanctum" will take your breath away, but as a movie with sound and talking characters, it doesn't shut up enough.