Monday, June 27, 2011

'Super 8'

'Super 8'  (PG-13)  (3 1/2 stars)

Writer and Director: JJ Abrams
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ron Eldard, Amanda Michalka, Ryan Lee,
Riley Griffiths, Gabriel Basco, Zack Mills

"Super 8" lovingly takes us back to the childhood action fantasies of the 80's and it is a respectful homage to Steven Spielberg's magical movies of that period. This has a little "Goonies", a little "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and a little "E.T.". It is never a rip off of these movies and starts to find an identity of it's own thanks to writer JJ Abrams and actors like Kyle Chandler and Ron Eldard. It also is very well directed, suspenseful and for once the creature when it is finally revealed didn't dissapoint me.

I love the overlapping dialogue involving the kids which is how real kids talk. Kids don't say something and pause to let another kid talk like they are reading a screenplay. Kids interrupt each other and don't let other kids respond or talk back. I love the performances by all the child actors especially Joel Courtney who plays the lead. He plays Joe who along with his friends shoot Super 8 short films and Joe does the make up. His father Jackson is the local sheriff played by the great and always dependable Kyle Chandler who is giving the best dramatic performance of any actor on television with "Friday Night Lights". He can be that movie star like Michael Keaton and Jeff Bridges (my two favorites)  who are subtle and solid actors who you never see acting.

Jackson does not like Joe hanging out with his friends and their monster make up and foolish movies. The kids are filming a Zombie movie and they witness a train crash which is powerfully directed by Abrams. The movie looks like it is really taking place in the 70's and in that look it lovingly pays homage to one of my favorite Spielberg movies "Close Encounters" and it is a greatly played homage.
I also found the performance by Elle Fanning to be magical and I am looking at an actress that is making a statement. She plays Alice who Joe has a crush on and is playing the female lead in the kid's Zombie movie.   She has given good performances before but here she is mature, careful and graceful and reminds me of a young Jodie Foster. I love the scene where Joe applies make up to Alice and then when Alice is given a direction to cry on film  we see the look of true love all over Joe's face.

'Super 8" has a great look, tells a compelling story with great characters and builds great suspense and terror. It is also beautiful looking and charming and it does well in paying homage to Spielberg's movies without seeming artificial. Some critics have complained that it rips off Spielberg's movies in a shameless way but I totally disagree. I have had a real problem with almost every action, animated, and superhero movie in the last 10 years with their numbing loudness, cluttered and confusing action and little character development. They all end in a jumbled mess and we stop caring about the characters. "Rango", "Kung Fu Panda", "Green Lantern", the Mummy movies, X Men movies, Sorcerer's Apprentice etc. all movies I don't care for at all. "Super 8" takes it's time, builds suspense, develops it's characters, sets a mood, specific time and place and in the end has a simple battle without explosions thrown at us without mercy.

"Super 8" takes us back to that magical era of the 70's and 80's where action movies and fantasies had a clear purpose. A time when movies created wonder, sturdy and likable characters and children who seemed real and talked like real kids did. The movie creates a magical nostalgia that made me feel like I was watching movies like "Close Encounters", "Back to the Future" and "E.T." for the first time. I want to see it again on the big screen with a big tub of popcorn, some twizzlers, a root beer and a full audience. This is miles ahead of any action movie or fantasy geared towards kids in many years. This is a movie for adults and kids and they will all love it equally. I wish more filmmakers would follow it's example and make movies that matter and that don't talk down to the audience.

'Tree of Life'

'Tree of Life  (PG-13)  (3 1/2 stars)

Writer and Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn, Fiona Shaw

"Tree of Life" from the reclusive Terrence Malick can be a frustrating movie but Malick always makes the most haunting and beautiful movies of any filmmaker I know. "Tree of Life" has a middle section that is one of the best movies I have ever seen but it is bookended by a beautiful but frustrating beginning and ending. "Tree of Life" tells the story of the O'Brien family and the movie is set in the 1950's. The movie starts out with images of the creation of earth and they are surreal and breathtaking but they don't flow which I didn't mind. I only have a problem because I wanted to get to the heart of the material here which concerns the family.

Then the ending left me cold and frustrated when it looks like Malick is giving us a look at the end of the World where all loved ones meet at their final destination. I found it all haunting but then the movie gives us clips of Sean Penn, playing an adult version of one of the characters, walking by buildings  on empty streets muttering something. I did not feel a sense of closure but maybe that is the point if this is Malick's vision of the afterlife. I had to see this movie twice to try to understand and enjoy more the beginning and end and still felt frustrated because the middle story is so beautiful and powerful. I love it so much that I felt even more that the beginning and ending took away from the power of the story of the O'Brien family.

Also at the first viewing I was annoyed by the narration which is mostly prayers recited by the main characters. Some say this is a very spiritual movie and some say it is very religious and I think it is very religious. I am an agnostic but that is not why I was annoyed, it just seemed distracting and maudlin. On the second viewing I changed my mind because I found great beauty and poetry in the prayers. Malick's story here is very personal and I think it is the reason the movie is so powerful. Malick  was obviously raised in a very religious family and the story is autobiographical. The most haunting, powerful religious experience I have ever encountered at the movies was "The Last Temptation of Christ" and this movie is equally powerful and religious.

The story of the O'Brien family deals with Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. Mr. O'Brien is a very religious man and tough minded father who takes out the frustrations of his career out on his kids especially his second oldest son played by newcomer Hunter McCracken.
We learn in the beginning that the oldest son has passed away and this is told to us in a powerful way and the movie starts to be amazing. Brad Pitt gives a subtle, powerful and solid performance and it is easily the best performance he has given in his career so far. Jessica Chastain is equally amazing, ethereal, beautiful and solid. This is a performance that can start the sky rocketing of a major acting carreer. If I was a casting agent and saw this performance I would sign this actress up in a heartbeat.  Hunter McCracken, as the second oldest son, gives one of the most powerful and natural performances I have seen a child actor give on screen. He holds his own with Pitt and he never hits a false note.

The movie is also one of the most beautifully shot movies I have ever seen and that is true of every Malick film. In 1978 he shot in my opinion his best movie ever in "Days of Heaven" and "Tree of Life" is equal in every way to the beauty of that 70's classic. Malick uses two of the best technical talents in the business in Production Designer Jack Fisk and Director of Photography Emanuel Lubezki, two Hollywood legends. The middle story has some of the most truthful, real and hauntingly beautiful shots of kids playing and doing what they do naturally. You feel like you are really there watching real kids and the period recreation is flawless and majestic. I even saw my own childhood in all these shots. I love the family eating dinner at the dinner table and it made me ache to the days when we used to sit at the table with the family, eat dinner and let our dad talk about his frustrating day at work and scold us.

I love the middle section of the story dealing with the O'Brien's so much that I forgive all the things I find fault with in this movie. The Brad Pitt performance is one of my favorite performances of all time and you never see him acting. I fell in love with Mrs. O'Brien on my second viewing thanks to the beautiful Jessica Chastain and her subtle, haunting and graceful performance. I could see this movie over and over again for the family scenes and breathtaking cinematography and for the performances. I would probably fast forward through most of the beginning and tolerate the ending. Besides my problems with these parts I still find "Tree of Life" one of the best movies I have seen this or any other year.

'Midnight in Paris'

'Midnight in Paris' (PG-13)  (3 1/2 stars)

Writer and Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy,
Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Adrien Brody, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston

"Midnight in Paris" is easily Woody Allen's best comedy since 1984 and 1985 when he hit his peak with my favorite "Broadway Danny Rose" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo". Besides the thriller "Match Point" which is Allen's only great movie since "Crimes and Misdemeanors", Allen has been lost lately when it comes to his pure comedies. "Midnight in Paris" is for the Woody Allen fans who have missed the old Woody Allen who when he is at the top of his game is untouchable.

"Midnight in Paris" is also for the lover of the arts and it has something for lovers of books, art, movies and music. It is a pure delight for everyone and not just Woody Allen fans with it's charming storytelling, beautiful location work and incredible acting. This has a wonderful, big cast that has a ball playing real life artists. Owen Wilson is wonderful as Gil who with his wife Inez go on a trip to Paris. The couple meet up with another couple which include an insufferable bore, played wonderfully by Michael Sheen, who tries to  one up Gil in telling Inez about  the history of Paris. Late at night Gil gets restless and decides to try out the Paris night life after midnight when something magical happens.

Somehow Gil is transported to 1920's Paris where he gets picked up in a car, travels to a hot night spot and starts to meet legendary artists. They include F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Alice B. Toklas, Gauguin, T.S. Eliot and one of my favorites filmmaker Luis Bunuel. The reaction of Owen Wilson is priceless and the actors playing these artists are all fantastic and what a cast! All in fine form are Kathy Bates as Stein, Corey Stoll as
Hemingway and my favorite performance by Adrien Brody who is hilarious as Salvador Dali. Gil goes back again, gets picked up by the same car and starts to fall in love with a woman named Adriana played by the beautiful Marion Cotillard.

"Midnight in Paris" is a pure delight and Owen Wilson surprised me by sounding like the typical Woody Allen like lead character. But Wilson also brings his own charm and he makes the character his own and it is one of my favorite Owen Wilson performances. The writing is sharp, funny and Gil's and Adriana's dance of flirtation is charming, touching and beautiful. This is also a movie that is a great history lesson and in a great way. I urge younger viewers to check this movie out instead of wasting their energy on mindless drivel like "Green Lantern" and "X Men: First Class", they will get more out of this movie. They will learn about the arts, laugh and fall in love with Paris. It is Woody Allen's best comedy in decades but it also has an appeal for non Woody fans especially if you like wit, beauty, charm and superior character acting.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

'Bad Teacher'

'Bad Teacher' (R) (2 stars)

Writers: Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg
Director: Jake Kasdan
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segal, Lucy Punch,
John Michael Higgins, Phyllis Smith

"Bad Teacher" wants to be a raunchy comedy with heart I guess. The problem is the movie holds back and is not raunchy enough. The movie becomes sappy in the end with a happy ending but the beginning promises a lot of raunchy laughs. It feels like the studio wanted the filmmakers to tack on a happy ending. This movie is very uneven and I didn't laugh a lot. The previews make the movie look raunchy like "The Hangover". The movie is not raunchy enough and holds too much back. The movie feels choppy and over edited and never finds a groove. The performances though are really funny and good here and the movie lets them down.

I like Cameron Diaz here and she can be really funny as you can tell if you take a look back at something like "There's Something About Mary". I think she is funny here but she could have been much better with a funnier movie. Justin Timberlake has become a comic sensation thanks to his performances on "SNL". He is great here playing a nerdy schmuck and there is a scene where he dry humps Diaz fully clothed in bed and thanks to Timberlake's facial reactions it is the funniest scene in the movie. Jason Segal is also good here but he is the heart part of the movie and when he gets together with Diaz it is awkward and  part of the fake tacked on ending.

The movie though is stolen by the talented Lucy Punch who plays a repressed goody two shoes teacher. She is extremely funny here and the reason the movie doesn't get worse. Lucy Punch has given some great comic performances lately and I hope someone writes a comedy just for her. I was waiting for "Bad Teacher" to go all out and become super raunchy but it is too timid. It never develops into anything really funny and tries to become a sweet movie with heart. There is a movie out now called "Bridesmaids" which is hilarious, raunchy and goes all out and then surprises us with it's heart and well written story.  That mix of raunch and heart can be done very well and sadly "Bad Teacher" doesn't know how to get the job done.

'The Green Lantern'

'The Green Lantern' (PG-13) (2 stars)

Writers: Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Micheal Goldenberg
Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Robbins,
Mark Strong, Jay O'Sanders, Angela Bassett

I was surprised about one thing while watching "The Green Lantern" and that was how strong Ryan Reynolds was as the title character. I expected him to ham it up and be miscast and make the movie cheesy but he doesn't, the movie does it on it's own. This is a dim, ugly and flat looking movie and I expect 3D to make it look even dimmer. I wanted to check with the projectionist to see if they needed to change a projector bulb. The Green Lantern has to be one of the dullest and least interesting superheroes in my opinion. "The Green Lantern" movie doesn't help that opinion because the movie is very dull and not interesting at all.

The creatures and characters in the movie are ugly and grotesque and not in a good way. This movie reminds me a lot of the terrible 84 version of "Dune" with it's dark, grainy, flat look and badly made up creatures. Look at a movie like "Hellboy" or even "Star Wars" to find grotesque creatures that are done right with personality. I couldn't differentiate any creature from the next in this movie. "The Green Lantern" is boring and I wish it would have just turned into camp like one of my favorites, the 1980 version of "Flash Gordon".

The saving grace of this movie stopping from it becoming a turkey is Reynold's funny and energetic performance and the main bad guy. The villain in this movie is weakly written but Peter Sarsgaard is amazing with his performance. He fleshes out this weak character with a performance that is deep and complicated. He doesn't ham it up and over do it and that is refreshing. He even scared me a little and made the character menacing. The movie just can't be saved though because like countless of other movies these days the ending is all explosions and bad action in the end. There is no suspense and no feeling of threat or real danger. Also the love interest in this movie has to be the most boring love interest ever in any superhero movie though it is not because of actress Blake Lively. This is the weakest superhero movie of all the latest ones.

'Mr. Popper's Penguins'

'Mr. Popper's Penguins' (PG) (1 1/2 stars)

Writers: Sean Anders, John Morris and Jared Stern
Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Clark Gregg, Madeline Carroll,
Dominic Chianese, Jeffrey Tambor, David Krumholtz, Phillip Baker Hall,
Ophelia Lovibond, Angela Lansbury

What an excruciating chore it is to sit through something insipid and unimaginative like "Popper's Penguins". This is a family comedy that insults families. This is a comedy that is super dull, unfunny and dumb. The movie is just wall to wall bathroom humor, penguins taking dumps and creepy CGI effects. I think I counted ten times where the penguins go to the bathroom and one time where they dance and that is the whole movie. You can tell when the penguins are computer created and it comes off cheap and creepy. Jim Carrey is not funny during any moment in this movie. This movie has taken one of our funniest actors and made him pathetic and unfunny. He is going down that Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams trap. That is where they make all these cloying family comedies that are all poop jokes.

Jim Carrey's career will be ruined if he doesn't stop making these comedies. The Farrelly brothers or Judd Apatow or someone who can write raunchy, funny comedy with heart has to write something for Carrey. In Penguins he is neutered and stifled and it is very sad. He can't even succeed in independent movies like the lame "I Love You Phillip Morris". I miss the old Jim Carrey and penguin crap like Penguins is not helping me.


'Beginners' (R) (3 stars)

Writer and Director: Mike Mills
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic

"Beginners" took an hour to grow on me but it becomes a solid movie with two beautiful and understated love stories. The performances are also amazing here including the best performance of Ewan McGregor's career so far. The first hour of this movie annoyed me sometimes with it's quirky humor and cuteness. The movie is too light and choppy and starts to become a Woody Allen rip off. The music in the movie is the same type of movie Allen puts into his movies. The movie's style too closely resembles the style of Woody Allen's "Manhattan" to me. Now a lot of people who see this might have not seen that movie but I fear the ones who don't like Woody Allen movies might not like this.

The good thing is if you stay with this movie the second hour comes more into focus and becomes grounded instead of the first hour's episodic nature. I really began to fall in love with these characters and felt the writing becomes smart and touching. Ewan McGregor is really good here giving a subtly powerful and moving performance. Christopher Plummer is Oscar ready here in one of his best performances. He is charming, funny and also subtly powerful like McGregor. The breathtaking Melanie Laurent is wonderful here and is an actress to look out for. Her work is miles different here from her wonderful and brave performance in "Inglorious Basterds". She is beautiful but also can act and makes you feel for her character.

You want McGregor and Laurent to get together and make things work. You want the father and son played by McGregor and Plummer to understand each other more. I like McGregor's soul searching journey in the second half which is touching. He is trying to understand his parent's marriage and not letting the same thing happen with his relationship now. There are some wonderful flashbacks when McGregor's character looks back on his time with his mother. "Beginners" nicely settles down in the second hour and starts to get it's own identity. I grew to love the characters, absolutely love the performances and to start to feel something. I just wished the first hour wasn't so cloying and cute.

'X Men:First Class'

'X Men: First Class' (PG-13) (2 stars)

Writers: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Joe Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult,
Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Zoe Kravitz

I am getting sick and tired of these X Men movies and they are starting to over stay their welcome. "X Men:First Class" is a vast improvement over the headache inducing turkey Wolverine movie but that is not saying much. I like the cold style of First Class and what it tries to do with a story that plays out like a James Bond movie. I was with this movie the first hour until it did what every action and superhero movie has done lately. It becomes a movie that drops characters and style and becomes cluttered with explosions and action I couldn't follow. The action scenes here are the same old stuff with no originality. The movie becomes a waste of time because you know where the story is going and there are no surprises. This is a movie that becomes style over substance.

Now I do like a few things in this movie that don't have to do with the writing. I like the style of the movie and it's 60's setting and production design. I really like Kevin Bacon who is a wonderful and wickedly evil bad guy. There are also two stand out performances by two soon to be huge movie stars who can damn act. Michael Fassbender is solid and wonderful as Magneto, this actor is building quite a resume lately. He is an extremely good looking and sexy actor who can really act. Jennifer Lawrence has done amazing performances in movie after movie. She is an incredible actress who brings so much to her shallowly written character here. "Winter's Bone", "The Beaver", these are two of the best performances you will see by an actress today and she is the best thing here along with Fassbender. Then on the other end is the cold, stiff and bad performance by January Jones. I hate to say this but she alone pretty much kills this movie all by herself.

'Kung Fu Panda 2'

'Kung Fu Panda 2' (PG) (3 stars)

Writers: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger
Director: Jennifer Yuh
Voices: Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman,
Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh,
Danny McBride, Dennis Haysbert, Jean Claude Van Damme, Victor Garber

I found "Kung Fu Panda 2" to be much more enjoyable and entertaining than the original. I am not a big fan of the first movie because I found it noisy, shallowly written and a knockoff of a Saturday Morning cartoon show from the 70's. Watch a "Hong Kong Phooey" episode and you get the same effect. The sequel has more heart, richly drawn characters and a killer cast of great actors doing sublime voice work. Dustin Hoffman is amazing, Jack Black is funny and I felt that the movie settles down and tells a story full of heart. The first movie didn't have much of a heart and just was wall to wall action. I had a much better time watching the sequel and wasn't bored like I was with the first movie. A sequel that improves on the original always makes me happy.

'The Hangover 2'

'The Hangover 2' (R) (2 stars)

Writers: Craig Mazin ,Scot Armstrong and Todd Phillips
Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galfianakis, Ken Jeong, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha, Paul Giamatti, Mason Lee, Mike Tyson, Jeffrey Tambor

At first I was going to write a scathing review of "The Hangover 2" but it is what I would expect from a movie that copies the same set up of plot points from it's original. If you are only going to add more outrageous gross out humor that isn't funny then you are going to fail. Sorry folks the female prostitute that turns out to be a man isn't new or funny. The movie is funny only in smaller asides and quips by Galfiniakis. He is funny but the gross out gags are never inspired or funny, just gross. Ed Helms is also good because he is the only character that is likable. Now that wouldn't matter if this movie was funny like the original. Ken Jeong returns and was funny in the original but excruciating, annoying and not funny in this sequel.

The movie is also missing some female character that can bring something else like Heather Graham in the original. I only laughed when Galfiniakis said something funny and I really like Helms. The other problem is the movie brings back Mike Tyson but doesn't add any new funny cameos from any other pop icons. So what you have here are lame jokes, outrageous sight gags that are sick, icky and not funny and made me feel sick and uneasy. There is no fresh humor, just recycled stuff from the original that is notfunny or creative. The only funny sight gag involves a severed body part. Also when you have a great comic actor like Paul Giamatti as a gangster and give him a lame character that isn't funny you waste a golden opportunity. So the people who liked this sequel and think I am wrong and closed minded watch both movies later on and you might find I am right.