Friday, June 29, 2012

REVIEW: Magic Mike

Sometimes you can tell a lot about what a crowd thinks of a movie by how they don't react. Such is the case with Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike.

I saw the film at a screening where the gender ratio in the audience must have been at least seven girls for every boy. (Eat your heart out, Jan and Dean). Not at all surprising, considering this was a movie about male strippers. And sure enough, when the movie started, the vibe in the theater became less movie and more rock concert. Girls hooted and hollered with wild abandon as Matthew McConaughey strutted his stuff. I didn't turn to look and see if anyone was holding up dollar bills, but I wouldn't have been surprised.

But then I noticed something. As the movie went on, the girls got quieter. Oh sure, they cheered again when it was time to peel off fabric, but the cheering became less boisterous as the movie went on. I like to think that was because the ladies were getting into the story. Or maybe they were bored. In any event, the hook of this movie is supposedly that it turns an old cliche on its head - let's see the guys exploited for a change. But it is worth noting that Magic Mike was written and directed by men. So whom exactly is the joke on?

This movie felt rather like a low-key version of Boogie Nights, only with fewer characters and without Paul Thomas Anderson's visual acrobatics. Both films are about the seamy side of a prurient industry, which turns out to be not as sexy as advertised. Soderbergh directs most of the movie in the fly-on-the-wall style of his experimental movies like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, with bits of the Oceans movies thrown in during the stripping. One of Soderbergh's cheekier jokes is that the one glimpse we get of the male anatomy is decidedly non-sexual.

The story is so low key it's a bit too slow to take off at first, but once it does, it's compelling. Reid Carolin's screenplay takes showbiz movie tropes (brash new guy upends old pro) and gives them a gritty, lived-in feeling.

What truly puts the movie across, however, are the performances. Alex Pettyfer is solid as the reckless new pro, and Channing Tatum again proves there's more to him than beefcake. This isn't even the first time the actor played role reversal - he got his butt kicked by a girl earlier this year in Haywire, also directed by Soderbergh. The actor is nothing if not a trooper. And there are some nice female turns as well, from Olivia Munn as one of Tatum's recurring flings, and especially from the appealing Cody Horn, who plays the new guy's more sensible sister.

And then there's McConaughey as the cocky MC of the male revue. The actor has made himself the butt of many a joke for being a little too slick and casual, but his star power here is undeniable. He owns the camera and anyone he looks at, male or female. For contrast, check out his very different performance in Richard Linklater's docu-comedy Bernie. The man has range, and I'd actually argue his Magic Mike performance is Oscar-worthy. Seriously.

Females expecting nothing more than Showboys might be put off, but there's a real movie underneath all those rippling pectorals. And it's a very good one.




Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron, 1941-2012

One of the many sharp and funny things Nora Ephron once said is "I always read the last page of a book first, so that if I die before I finish, I'll know how it turned out."

That saying turned poignant when Ephron passed away on Tuesday, but it was also fitting for her career. The last page of her film book was Julie & Julia (my review)  a delightfully entertaining showcase for two of our brightest actresses, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. But it was also a marvel of an adaptation with Ephron cannily stitching together the books by the titular characters. Sure, one could argue that the Julia parts or more interesting than the Juliee parts, but if the movie were only about Julia, it would not have been as interesting, I don't think. If you want to show someone what made Ephron Ephron, start at her final film.

But that's just one example of how smart and savvy her writing was. Her best work is still the screenplay for Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally ... - which is infinitely more savvy than any of that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus stuff. I love how Ephron made the man the hopeless romantic in the end:

I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. 

Heck, Ephron even had the class to admit that the most famous line in the script - I'll have what she's having" - was actually Billy Crystal's idea.

I was also fond of Ephron's You've Got Mail, her remake of The Shop Around the Corner/In the Good Old Summertime. Sure, it's saccharine and predictable and it's now as quaint as AOL has become, but that's part of its charm. I can't claim it's as good as the two earlier films, but it fares pretty well in comparison, which is more than can be said of many a remake.

Maybe it's that I'm a romantic myself. Or maybe it was that Ephron gave "chick flicks" a good name. One of my colleagues once complained to me, "You never like any of my girly movies!" I can't remember what I said at the time, but now I would say, "I would if Nora Ephron made more of them."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My new ranking of Pixar films

Now that Brave is out, and now that I've seen the movie a second time, I present my new ranking of Pixar movies.

Please bear in mind, this is all relative. Pixar has made so many great pictures that even the ones in the bottom third are still great fun. In my opinion, Pixar still hasn't made a bad movie - no, not even Cars 2.

1) Toy Story 2: Among computer animated films, the emotional pinnacle is still "When She Loved Me." Pure and simple.

2) Wall-E: I vividly remember seeing this movie for the first time and calling up at least three friends telling them to go see it immediately. Besides, how many sci-fi movies have the guts to open with a tune from Hello Dolly?

3) Up: Movies aren't supposed to make you cry within the first 10 minutes, dammit.

4) Toy Story 3: Whereas Up was Pixar's best beginning, this movie had the best ending.

5) The Incredibles: Still my favorite superhero movie of any kind, live action or otherwise. Yes, it's even better than The Avengers.

6) Monsters Inc.: The Chaplin-esque final shot is eloquently perfect.

7) Toy Story: I see this one often listed as Pixar's best. It's not, wonderful as it is. It is indisputably a landmark film, but both sequels are superior. How many other film series can say that?

8) Ratatouille: No, that final statement about critics didn't resonate with me at all. Nopity, nopity noooo. (sarcasm)

9) Finding Nemo: A lot of people would name this as their favorite non-Toy Story Pixar movie. I didn't fall as much in love with it as everyone else, but it was certainly Pixar's most beautiful movie - until very recently, anyway.

10) A Bug's Life: This one tends to be forgotten among Pixar's output, and wrongly so. It's not transcendent, certainy, but it's wonderfully entertaining in the way it juggles multiple characters, Seven Samurai-style.

11) Cars: For the first time I got the feeling that Pixar let other considerations (like selling soundtracks) get in the way of the story, but its lamentation of a bygone era (Route 66, etc.) is still deeply affecting, especially for someone like me who revered the Beatles when his peers were listening to Ratt.

12) Brave: I saw the movie a second time, and while it played better for me than it did the first time, I still felt jarred by the shifts in tone, which might be attributable to the fact that directors changed midstream. All that said, I think a lot of critics missed the boat by undervaluing this one. I agree with this astute observation: " If you're expecting something as deep as the first ten minutes of "Up" or the last ten minutes of "Toy Story 3," you're not going to get it. "Brave" isn't aiming for the same emotional targets; its focus is more childlike, as opposed to profound and slightly wistful. If you try to compare "Brave" to the collective weight of something it's not, rather than judging it on its own terms, you're going to be disappointed."

13) Cars 2: I will grant you that Pixar was coasting with this one, but I will not grant you that it's a misfire. It was still a very fun coast. This longtime James Bond fan loved all the homages to spy movies, and even though I am not a car aficionado, I still loved the idea that lemons were the villains. This movie was NOT itself a lemon.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Pixar reaches yet another milestone with its 13th feature: Brave is the studio's sneakiest movie.

The American trailers for Brave have only shown us about one-third of the story. Almost nothing from the movie's second half is shown, when the plot takes a very sharp left turn. Pixar's first fairy tale starts out a bit like Aladdin (disaffected princess bristles at being forced to marry), then becomes rather like The Little Mermaid (distraught princess unwisely turns to magic). This second, more mystical arc is the focus of Brave's Japanese trailer, which looks like a completely different movie. One could be forgiven for thinking that Brave might be a little schizoid.


But then comes the most dramatic, surprising turn of all. It completely threw me, and I was unprepared for it. I will not reveal what happens, but I will say that after the turn, Brave becomes very much like another Disney animated film - but not one of the princess movies. And about the plot, I will say nothing else.

Let me be very clear: I like Brave very much indeed. The second half worked for me after that left turn, once I realized where the story was going. I'm just not 100 percent convinced the movie took the right path to get there.

I spent so much of the second half trying to push "reset" in my head that when the big emotional climax came, I wasn't holding back sobs like I usually am at a Pixar movie. I merely got a little misty-eyed. And for an emotional pushover like me, that lack of a visceral reaction was striking. I felt like maybe Pixar pulled the rug out because it could - not because it should.

Much has been made of the fact that this is the stuido's first fairy tale, and the first with a female protagonist. And both are very welcome, refreshing changes. However, the second half of the movie is more typical of Pixar, in that it deals with themes of parental or paternal attachment, like Monster's Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Up did. Not for nothing is Princess Merida the rare royal child who has two living parents.

Those parental themes are a double-edged sword, or maybe in this case a double-tipped arrow. The parents may make Brave more "typical" and less unique of Pixar - but it also gives their fairy tale a unique emotional strength at which the studio excels. The characters are all wonderfully drawn, in more ways than one, and the voice work is wonderful. It may shock some people to discover that the voice of Merida is Kelly Macdonald, known to most audiences as Josh Brolin's wife in No Country for Old Men - but it was the Coens film where the Scottish actress was not using her natural voice. Emma Thompson and Billy Conolly are also outstanding as Merida's mother and father.

And if for no other reason, Brave must be seen on a big screen in a movie theater, because this is the most gorgeous computer-animated film ever made, without question. Its widescreen lansdscapes are so lush and detailed, I often forgot the backgrounds were drawn in the computer too. And when I remembered that they were, I could only marvel at the achievement. Those backgrounds also stand out in Pixar's first truly immersive use of 3D.

Since last year's Cars 2 made it OK for critics to dislike a Pixar film, I fear that some reviewers are being a little too critical of the follow-up. True, I harbor a few reservations about Brave, whereas I usually love Pixar films unabashedly. But I still lived more than happily ever after in the end.



Sunday, June 17, 2012

Adam Sandler vs. Adam Sandler movies

I've often said to myself, "I don't like Adam Sandler." Heck, I've often said it out loud, in so many words.

Thing is, it's not really true. I don't hate Adam Sandler himself. I hate Adam Sandler movies. And there's a big difference.

I actually think Sandler is a very talented guy. He's even made me laugh a few times. But you see, I'm one of those egghead critics who typically only likes Sandler when he gets ambitious and goes outside his comfort zone, making movies such as Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish and Funny People. But those aren't Adam Sandler movies. They're Paul Thomas Anderson, James L. Brooks and Judd Apatow movies, respectively. Those are movies that star Adam Sandler.

On the other hand, "Adam Sandler movies" are movies produced and/or written by him, like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy and Click. Most of these movies operate on the assumption that their audience has the intellect and taste of a 13-year-old, and they still think armpit farts are funny. Problem is, a lot of these people are older than 13. Physically, anyway. And these movies usually make armpits full of money. I even kinda liked a couple, including 50 First Dates and Anger Management, though I was probably laughing mainly at Jack Nicholson's slumming in the latter.

For a good long while, it seemed like this duality was fine. Sandler would crank out his dum-dum Happy Madison comedies, and then, every once in a while he would stretch and try something different. Unfortunately, when he has done so, he has A) turned off his mainstream fans and B) caught the auteurs on a strange day. Spanglish was an uneven effort from Brooks. Punch-Drunk Love was terminally weird even to non-Sandler devotees who saw it, and it's actually kind of avant-garde, even for Paul Thomas Anderson. And Sandler caught Apatow in an unusually somber mood when he decided to write a script about a comedian who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Heck, Apatow even got Janusz Kaminski to shoot Funny People. That's a long way from Schindler's List.

I liked all three of those movies, but all of them underwhelmed at the box office. And so Sandler kept going back to the dum-dum well, cranking out the likes of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and the paradoxically titled Grown-Ups. As Charlton Heston once said, the problem with film as as art is that it's a business. The problem with films as a business is that it's an art form. Adam Sandler may embody that dilemma better than any other star.

But now, the rot seems to be setting in with the dum-dum comedies. Even his fans hated his last movie, Jack and Jill, which won the dubious honor of sweeping the Golden Razzies. His latest movie, That's My Boy, was a dud on its opening weekend.

So are fans getting tired of the Sandler shtick? It's hard to say. One could argue That's My Boy tanked because of the lingering stench of Jack and Jill, and that the R-rating kept undiscriminating teenagers out. But then again, Sandler's fans seem to be a forgiving lot. I remember how ater a screening of Little Nicky, someone thought it wasn't much good and said, "His movies are usually so well-written." That I remember that quote so well is remarkable, because I didnt hear it myself; a colleague repeated it to me.

So what's an unhappy Madison to do? Here's my advice. Since audiences seem to be tiring of the typical Sandler fare, he should not write his own scripts, and he should stay the hell away from Dennis Dugan. Make a comedy that's not trying too hard to be sober. I'm thinking of movies like The Wedding Crashers or Horrible Bosses - something funny but not crass, and most importantly, a comedy that laughs with people, not at them, like too many of his movies do. if Sandler does that, he may survive the sequel to Grown-Ups and actually become an adult himself.

Friday, June 15, 2012

REVIEW: Rock of Ages

I had worried that Rock of Ages would remind me of my high school years, in that I would be watching people I really like singing a lot of music I really hate. Read: Hair metal can suck it.

That said, the problem with Rock of Ages is not that it celebrates hair metal. Despite what the ads may tell you, this movie isn't really hair-metal centric. If, for instance, "We Built This City" is hair metal, then I'm Grace Slick. The soundtrack is more a grab bag of an "I Love the 80s" Internet radio station. Some of the music is good, some of it isn't. I'll take "Pour Some Sugar on Me," but I don't have much patience for people who labor under the delusion that "Every Rose has its Thorn" is a great song.

But I didn't dislike Rock of Ages because it fondly recalls a decade as vacuous as Paris Hilton. I disliked Rock of Ages because I really don't care for Ken and Barbie dolls. And that's what the two lead characters of this movie are.

I don't mean to disparage Julianne Hough. She may be playing a plastic character, but at least she has a winning screen presence. That's the opposite of the dullard male lead played by the charisma-free Diego Bonita. When I can't care about the main couple, I can't get into the movie.

It's a shame,because most of the actors are actually quite good and throw themselves into the movie with gusto. Alec Baldwin and Russel Brand play off each other well as a club owner and his flunkie, with Brand being especially funny because he ad-libs left and right. Catherine Zeta-Jones has a nothing part as a PMRC-type zealot, but she at least puts her songs across with verve. Malin Akerman is sexy/funny, bearing more than a passing resemblance to MTV's Nina Blackwood. And Tom Cruise again travels the Tropic Thunder path of a zany supporting part. Director Adam Shankman told Cruise to play up everyone's worst perception of - Tom Cruise. And he delivers.

But that was one of the few smart moves Shankman made. He directs the movie with the color-coding of an exploding candy store and the attention span of a gnat. There may be a lot of big hair in this movie, but I missed the fleeter footing of Shankman's Hairspray. And the screenplay, based on the stage musical, is as flat as a stage.

Some audience members at my screening seemed to be surprised they were watching a full-on musical and not a concert movie. But even people who are not averse to musicals may be disappointed that the title song is thrown away, and that the movie doesn't take full advantage of the fact that the lead character's name is Sherrie.

After all, what can you say when a movie's climactic number, "Don't Stop Believin'" was performed with more panache by the cast of Glee?



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

REVIEW: Prometheus

Yes, it's a prequel to Alien. And no, that's not a spoiler. But Ridley Scott's long-awaited return to the franchise is something much more important: it's the second great film of the year (after The Avengers).

There has been a lot of confusing double-talk about whether this film was a prequel to Scott's 1979 classic. All one has to do is look at the producing credits that show David Giler and Walter Hill's names. They had a hand in producing the first three Alien movies, so that's a giveaway right there.

But while Prometheus both follows in and anticipates the footsteps of Alien, it accomplishes something that's been a hallmark of this series: It isn't quite like any of the other films.

Although this is the first time in this series that a director has repeated, Prometheus is a very different animal from Alien. That was a horror film; Prometheus is not. It's telling that one of the very first images of the film is a DNA stand mutating.

This movie has some scary moments, to be sure, but it's also not mainly an action film like Aliens or a philosophical prison drama like Alien 3, or the strange art house creature feature of Alien: Resurrection. Prometheus is the most pure sci-fi film of the lot, because it dares to ponder not only why we're here, but how we got here. That may disapoint viewers looking looking only for action and horror. The movie throws in some slimy little buggers besides, but it's got a lot more on its plate, and that's all to the good.

It's no surprise that the film looks great. That's true of every Ridley Scott film, including the bad ones, and his use of 3D is a wondrous must-see. But it's most invigorating to see the director truly swing for the fences when he has recently turned out such forgettable fare as Body of Lies and most recently, Robin Hood. This is the first film of the Alien franchise, and Scott's first film since Blade Runner, that truly inspired a sense of wonder in me. A sense of awe, even.

The film is certainly not the equal of Alien or Blade Runner. Prometheus bites off a little more than it should chew, featuring too many characters that makes the focus diffuse at times. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce aren't used especially well, but that's mitigated by fierce work from Noomi Rapace, and a spellbinding performance by Michael Fassbender as the requisite robot. The model for his performance is inspired. I don't want to give it away, but I'll tell you this - it isn't Ian Holm or Lance Henriksen.

Endless arguements have sprung up about how well the film's logic holds up - or doesn't. But it's important to remember that most sci-fi films worth their salt ask more question than they answer. In an age when Hollywood usually wants to wow only our eyes, it's refreshing to see a movie like Prometheus that wows the mind as well.



Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman/Mirror Mirror

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?

At the risk of sounding redundant, I vote for Mirror Mirror. And that surprises me.

Months ago, when the trailers for Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman played endlessly in theaters, the former looked like pretty but pointless kiddie junk, replete with bad puns like "Snow Way." The latter looked like an exciting take on the fairy tale, filled with action and drama. Charlize Theron looked deliciously nasty as an evil queen, while Julia Roberts seemed to be mostly mugging.

Now that I've seen both movies, the opposite has panned out. The Lily Collins/Julia Roberts version roundly trounces the Kristen Stewart/Charlize Theron version. Mirror mirror indeed.

How did this happen? Mirror Mirror knew exactly what it was - a silly, peppy kid-friendly version of the classic fairy tale. Snow White and the Huntsman, on the other hand, is a turgid, unfocused mess that wants to be the Lord of the Rings version of Snow White, but fails to live up to either of its antecedents.

Mirror Mirror is far from a great movie. It's slight and innocuous, but it at least boasts moments of real visual imagination courtesy of director Tarsem Singh (The Cell), who has fun with swirling camera movements and inventive visual gags like the seven dwarfs using stilts to rob and fight people. And the writers had the good sense to jettison some of the lame jokes in the trailers.

But Snow White and the Huntsman is a physically ugly film, replete with gray skies, globs of mud and battle scenes that barely make sense. First time director Rupert Sanders pulls off a handful of interesting effects, but his storytelling is terrible. The romance, supposedly one of the key components of the film, is a complete bust, with the title characters having no chemistry whatsoever.

The two Snow White actresses acquit themselves fairly well. Collins isn't terribly distinct, but she's energetic and plays along with the laughs quite nicely. The awful movie surrounding Stewart leaves her somewhat at sea, but she at least makes a solid effort to carry the film.

Theron, on the other hand, tries TOO hard to carry the film. Sure, the evil queen is supposed to chew the scenery, but Theron devours it like the Tasmanian Devil, to stifling effect. She plays almost every scene with the volume turned up to 11, barking like a very pretty mad dog. She's worse than evil - she's annoying.

The trailers for Mirror Mirror made Roberts seem like she was out of her depth, but she gamely rolls with the whimsical tone of the film and is clearly having fun. It's hard to buy her as truly evil, but she does manage to be engagingly nasty.

It's not like turning Snow White into an adventure heroine is a bad idea - Ginnifer Goodwin manages to be both fair and ferocious in the ABC series Once Upon a Time. That series can spin yarns with the skill of Rumplestiltskin. It beasts either of the features. If you only have time for one movie, look into Mirror Mirror. Snow White and the Huntsman is a rotten, poisonous apple.