Sunday, May 15, 2011

REVIEW: Bridesmaids/Fast Five

And so the trend continues where I review two movies that might prompt readers to sing "One of these things is not like the other."

And no, I can't really find much common ground between Bridesmaids and Fast Five - not even in the sense of finding similar faults with them, as I did for Thor/Water for Elephants.

Ah, but in this crazy world we live in, the twain shall meet with Bridesmaids and Fast Five. Because I saw them back to back. At a drive-in, no less. And I hope that doubling was intentional. Something male driven versus something female driven. (Yes, pun intended)  One for him, one for her. The chick flick versus the dick flick.  One could even argue which movie is which. But both of them delivered even better than I expected.

Bridesmaids has been sold as a raunchy movie by girls for girls - sort of an estrogen-fueled Hangover.  And indeed, Bridesmaids proves that girls can drink, screw, and have a serious case of diarrhea onscreen  with the best of any men. Hell, Bridesmaids isn't five minutes old before it earns it R-rating.

But that's not what surprised me.

What surprised me - and what makes Bridesmaids more than just another raunchy comedy - is just how much heart it has.

That's not to say it gets all sticky and sweet and sentimental - at least, not to excess. What it does say is that Bridesmaids really loves its characters. And perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, considering the lead and the co-writer is Kristen Wiig.

Wiig is one of the most naturally funny women on the planet. She can take even the lamest SNL material (which is abundant) and make it funny with only body language. She's been great in supporting roles in Paul and Aventureland, but this is the first time she's had to carry a movie - and she does it with aplomb.

Wiig plays Annie, who is going through a rough time.  Her baking business went under, and she has precious little luck with men, always seeming to settle for the easy lay who takes advantage of her. So when her best friend since childhood Lillian (the always appealing Maya Rudolph) asks Annie to be her maid of honor, it seems like it's finally Annie's chance to shine - until she meets fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne).

A game of one-upmanship ensues. It rankles Annie to no end that Helen and Lillian have only known each other a little while - yet Helen is one of those perky uber-organizers who seems to get nothing wrong - while everything Annie tries is a disaster.

As a number of Judd Apaptow-produced movies do, Bridesmaids goes on a bit too long, running more than two hours. The filmmakers could have stood to trim as much as 15 minutes from it, dropping some subplots that are repetitive, such as Annie's romance with a kindly cop.

When Bridesmaids works, though, it works very well indeed. The comic stuff is mostly dynamite, and I especially liked the work of Melissa McCarthy as bridesmaid Megan, who doesn't have to rely solely on "I'm fat" shtick to steal scenes left and right.

But while people will laugh at Wiig's breakdown on an airplane or the dress-fitting from hell (think Pepto) people will remember Bridesmaids because there's real feeling between the characters - not only between Annie and Lillian, but with Helen too, who turns out to be more of a human being than anyone expected.

And let's just say, without giving too much away, that if you were a Wilson Phillips fan back in the day, as I was, Bridesmaids will leave you with a giant smile on your face.


Fast Five left me with a smile on my face as well. And that was the biggest surprise of all to me.

I have long disavowed this franchise. When the original film came out, I wasn't all that impressed by the trailers - so I was surprised when it opened so well. I went to see it to find out what the fuss was all about. After I saw it, I still didn't know what all the fuss was about. Slackly directed by Rob Cohen, the film was neither fast nor particularly furious. Not to mention it boasted two of the most vacuous leads ever to stumble into movies, Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.

I thought the sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, was marginally better because it had a better director in John Singleton, but marginally better in this case only meant "tolerably mediocre." So I bailed on Tokyo Drift and whatever they called the fourth one. I didn't feel like I missed anything.

So I wasn't going to bother with Fast Five at all, but then I saw the reviews were actually pretty decent. And when I saw it paired with Bridesmaids, I thought well, what the hell. And I'm glad I did. Because what the hell I got was what the first film should have been - a fast and furious B-movie.

Director Justin Lin, who has helmed the series since the third insallement, handles the action quite well. It's fast, yes, but not so fast as to be incomprehensible. There were quite a few moments when I said "Aw, bullshit" out loud - but I was smiling because Lin, unlike Cohen, doesn't take any of this terribly seriously.

Yes, Diesel and Walker are still stuck inside the proverbial paper bags, but what helps this fifth movie greatly is the presence of an actor with real charisma, Dwayne Johnson. He holds the screen as well as he usually does, which in this case means that when he and Diesel get into a fistfight, I was SO rooting for The Rock. It was actually kind of perversely fun.

The film struck me as a high-tech version of The Dukes of Hazzard, only without wry commentary by a balladeer like Waylon Jennings.  And hey, I loved the Dukes when I was a kid. This film does what any popcorn movie should. It brought out the 10-year-old kid in me.


Sunday, May 08, 2011

REVIEW: Thor/Water for Elephants

OK, I know what you're thinking. "Reviewing Thor and Water for Elephants together? Geez, Eric, you're seeing pink elephants! Those movies have nothing in common!"

Actually, they have quite a bit in common. And yes, the "Pink Elephants" scene in Dumbo is wonderfully trippy and one of the greatest animated sequences of all time.

All that said, I promise I have not been drinking copious amounts of champagne. Here's the deal: Water for Elephants and Thor are both dramas that portray their fantastical worlds very well. However, when dealing with more earthbound matters, and specifically with romance, both movies falter.

Seeing the trailers for Thor, I thought it would be the other way around. The scenes set in the worlds of the gods looked dopey and overwrought. But those are the best scenes in Kenneth Branagh's movie.

Much has been made of Branagh's Shakespearean leanings and how they inform the film. And indeed, the story here is not that far removed from something the Bard might have penned. Wise, aging king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) prepares to hand over the throne to his loyal but impetuous son, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Thor rashly provokes war with alien race and pisses off Odin, who banishes Thor to Earth, leaving in charge his crafty younger son Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

The otherworldly scenes in Thor constantly run the risk of seeming silly, even for the comic book genre, but Branagh holds them together well, not only because of his Shakesparean leanings, but because he's a strong action director - always helpful in a comic book flick.

And yet when Thor crashes to Earth, so does the movie. The scenes in our world just aren't as compelling, largely because they shoehorn in a romance between Thor and a pretty scientist played by Natalie Portman. Portman does what she can, but any actress worth her salt could have played Portman's part, so her  considerable talent goes to waste, as does Kat Dennings' comedic skill in the role of Portman's snarky best buddy.  Double shame.

Worse yet, the romance feels only obligatory. It's there because it's "supposed" to be. But Thor has enough drama without it. I  particularly liked Loki's characterization as a not quite good/not quite bad guy, which gave his character a depth it might not have had otherwise.  Best of all is Hemsworth, who is ideal in the title role. He strikes just the right balance of heft and humor, selling both equally well. He's so much fun to watch,  I'd like to see Thor get another movie of his own, outside of his role in next year's The Avengers.

Now, about those elephants ...

Water for Elephants, based on the bestseller by Sara Gruen, gets so much right, that I wish it didn't get as much wrong as it did. It sells itself as a romance, and yet the romantic scenes are the weakest in the film.

On the plus side, Water for Elephants marks Francis Lawrence's arrival as a director to take seriously. Constantine showed us he had an eye. I Am Legend showed us he could craft a solid action flick with surprising dramatic weight. And Water for Elephants proves that he can truly tell a story that doesn't rely quite so heavily on CGI creatures.

It was no surprise that Water for Elephants wonderfully captures the atmosphere of a circus. With gorgeous art direction by Jack Fisk (There Will Be Blood) and sumptuous photography by Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain), I could practically smell the sawdust.

But Water for Elephants' success is not merely a matter of technical prowess. Screenwriter Richard LaGravanese excels at telling stories with a fantastical air (e.g. The Fisher King), which goes a long way towards evoking the magic of a circus. And with Lawrence's sturdy hand, the film feels wonderfully old-fashioned. Dramatically, this is something that would fit comfortably in the Turner Classic Movies lineup. Even the potentially off-putting anti-animal abuse angle is effective, packing much more punch than anything PETA could crank out.

And yet, strangely, the movie fizzles as a romance, which is supposedly its big selling point. It's not the fault of the individual actors. Reese Witherspoon is appealing as ever playing the circus' star attraction, and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) is ideally cast as the domineering ringmaster, who happens to be Witherspoon's husband. And yes, even the Twilight hunk, Robert Pattinson, holds his own nicely as the animal doctor who comes between them.

For some reason, though, he and Witherspoon strike no sparks. As it did in Thor, the romance here feels undercooked. It may be that Witherspoon and Pattinson have little chemistry - and it may be that Pattinson's role is a bit underwritten. I understood why he fell for her - but I did not understand why she would fall for him, other than the fact that Pattinson  was less likely than Waltz to beat her up.

Fortunately, the strengths of Thor and of Water for Elephants make both movies highly entertaining. I only wish both of them could have fully lived up to their potential.

Thor: B

Water for Elephants: B+

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Summer movie preview 2011


Jumping the Broom: A poster I saw for this movie claimed it would be "the most talked about film of the summer. Umm, no. The most talked about movie of the summer will have brooms, but it won't be this one, however appealing it may me.

Something Borrowed: Looks like a fairly appealing rom-com that could be a long overdue coming out party for Ginnifer Goodwin. Might also be good counter-programming to ...

Thor: I was a little dubious about this when I saw the trailers. I still have scary memories of Thor from that cheesy Hulk/Thor TV movie in the 80s. But with Kenneth Branagh directing, I have to take a look.

MAY 13 

Bridesmaids: At long last, a Judd Apatow comedy for the ladies. Early screenings (including one at Miami University in Oxford have built a lot of positive buzz, which says this is more than just The Hangover for chicks.

Priest: Because Legion, from the same star/director team (Paul Bettany/Scott Charles Stewart)  was just BEGGING for a do-over. Yawn. 

MAY 20

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: I've always thought this series was overrated, and by the end of the incomprehensible third movie, I and the filmmakers were out of gas. I won't be checking this one out unless the reviews are promising.

MAY 27

The Hangover Part II: Unlike most people, I don't drink. Like most people, I though The Hangover was very funny. Still, I get the nagging feeling sequelitis will kick in. Just how many times can you get these guys smashed before it turns into a movie about rehab?

Kung Fu Panda 2: The original was one of DreamWorks' best movies. I just hope this series doesn't go the way of Shrek and burn itself out.


X-Men: First Class: The trailers for this look promising, and this is much more interesting than another Wolverine movie would be. I'm cautiously hopeful this franchise can get back on track.


Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer: This seems like one of those kid-lit movies that will do moderately well and sink without a trace. Or will this be more Diary of a Wimpy Kid territory? We will see.

Super 8: J.J. Abrams makes his Spielberg movie, with Spielberg himself producing. Probably the summer movie I am most anxious to see.


Green Lantern: I have increasingly liked Ryan Reynolds as a leading man over the years, and the director is the underrated Martin Campbell, who made the best Bond movie in many years (Casino Royale). High hopes.

Mr. Popper's Penguins: Jim Carrey steps into another literary classic. Let's hope this one turns out a little better than the underwhelming animated Christmas Carol.


Bad Teacher: Call me crazy, but Cameron Diaz is not who comes to mind when I hear the words "bad teacher." Maybe that's why this is supposed to work?

Cars 2: Cars was the Pixar film that I loved the least, so this is the first Pixar film in awhile I'm not aching to see. That said, I'm definitely there. Never underestimate this studio's capacity to surprise. I didn't expect this to be a spy caper.


Larry Crowne: Tom Hanks directs and stars for the second time (after That Thing You Do), with Julia Roberts along for the ride. Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) writes. Good enough for me.

Monte Carlo: The trailer for this Selena Gomez Prince and the Pauper-style vehicle doesn't look very good, but the co-writer and director is Thomas Bezucha, whose previous feature was The Family Stone, which I really liked. Wait n' see.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Wow. Here I was ready to dismiss this out of hand, and the trailers, especially the second, actually look kinda cool. Could it be that shooting in 3D has forced Michael Bay to craft action scenes so that they actually make sense? Again, wait n' see.


Horrible Bosses: The film has quite a good cast (Jason Bateman, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston) but the director is Seth Gordon, who last made the barely tolerable Four Christmases. The jury is out.

Zookeeper: I really like Kevin James, but must he waste his time on crummy-looking Adam Sandler-produced vehicles that waste his talent?


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II: As one of maybe four people left on Earth who doesn't know for sure if Snape is a good guy or a bad guy, I'm psyched, along with several other million people on Earth.,

Winnie the Pooh: Call me crazy, but I may be a little more excited to see this than Harry's final chapter. A Pooh feature made by the classic Disney animators, with songs by Zooey Deschanel? Cue ear to ear grin.


Captain America: The First Avcnger: Of all the comic book movies, coming out this summer, this one is the one I am most eager to see. I'm actually least familiar with the Captain America lore, so most of it is new to me. This one is novel in that it's a period piece. And the director is Joe Johnston, an underrated helmer of solid popcorn fare (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jurassic Park III). Sold. And given the news events of this week, this one might be an even bigger hit than anyone thought.

Friends with Benefits: The premise seems exactly the same as this year's No Strings Attached - only this one stars Natalie Portman's wilder half, Mila Kunis. That, and the fact that the director is Will Gluck, who made the terrific Easy A, sells me. Better yet, Emma Stone is in this one too.


Cowboys and Aliens: With Indiana Jones and James Bond? By the guy who directed the Iron Man movies? Are you kidding?

Crazy, Stupid Love: Look, it's Emma Stone again! And Ryan Gosling And Steve Carrell! And Julianne Moore? Are you kidding?

The Smurfs: Oh well. Two outta three ain't bad. Call me Gargamel, but I am really and truly tired of CGI charcaters cashing in on nostalgia, be it for the Chipmunks, Yogi Bear or the first Blue Man Group. Feh.


The Change Up: At first I yawned when I saw this was a body-switch comedy with Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman. Then I realized it was written by the guys who wrote The Hangover, and directed by the guy who made Wedding Crashers. There's hope yet.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Again, I yawned at the idea of a sequel to a reboot no one much liked, but the trailer actually looks fairly decent.


The Help: Must be the summer of Emma Stone, which is more than fine by me. This time she stars in an adaptation of the Kathryn Stocker novel. Can Stone hack it dramatically? I have every confidence she can.

30 Minutes or Less: Sounds like a bit of a comedic spin on Dog Day Afternoon, with Jesse Eisenberg forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped to his chest. Eisenberg reunites with his Zombieland director, Ruben Fleischer. No word yet on a Bill Murray cameo.

Final Destination 5: Ladies and Gentlemen, the film with the most redundant and contradictory title of 2011!


Conan the Barbarian: Released in: 3D. Depth of characters: 2D. Probable grade: 1 D.

Fright Night: Two things about this movie blow my mind. One, the distributor is Walt Disney Pictures. Two, the director previously made Lars and the Real Girl. Wow. Just ... wow.

One Day: Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as a will they or won't they couple, from the director of the excellent An Education? Yes, please.

Spy Kids 4: Used to be that a new Robert Rodriguez film would pique my interest. Then he casts Jessica Alba in the lead. Whoops.


Apollo 18: Looks like The Blair Witch Project crossed with Apollo 13. And this has been delayed for months.Not sure what to make of it.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: Even if Guilliermo Del Toro is only producing and not directing, I'm still intrigued.