Saturday, August 21, 2010

Piranha 3D (2010)

When all is said and done, one of the big entertainment headlines at the end of the year will undoubtedly be, "Piranha 3D scores 80% - and above - on Rotten Tomatoes." If you don't believe me, go ahead and look it up. I don't blame you, because the movie is as unmitigatedly terrible as it sounds.

It must come as some surprise that The Cinema King voluntarily sat through what must undoubtedly be one of the worst movies of this year; I'm still a little bit surprised myself that it happened. But, on the advice of a friend who had heretofore never been wrong about pop culture (a fan of Lost and one of the parties responsible for introducing me to Dexter), I plopped into a seat as the lights began to darken and readied myself for a movie that would prove all my suspicions unfounded.

As the lights came back up, I was still waiting for that movie. Because what I got was exactly what I expected - a B-movie (not to impugn the B-movies that originally initiated that descriptor) with a pitiable premise, predominantly poorly acted and largely without the tongue in cheek nature that would have been needed to pull off the picture. Sorry, buddy, you're now on my grain-of-salt list.

Piranha 3D almost defies the convention of a premise, because all you need to know is in the title - there are piranhas, and this movie is in 3D. The film takes place during spring break on geographically ambiguous Lake Victoria, where scores of party-prepared college students let loose their inhibitions and dive in for the time of their lives. But, as Horatio Caine famously noted of spring break, "It should have been the time of her life... *dons sunglasses* ...instead of the end of it." After devouring Richard Dreyfuss (present, it seems, as an oblique homage to the aquatic horror genre's granddaddy Jaws), the aforementioned piranhas set their fangs on the aforementioned college students, Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) and her deputy (Ving Rhames), adult film producer Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell, who chews scenery like a human piranha), and Derrick's new albeit reluctant stars Jake (Steven R. McQueen) and Kelly (Jessica Szohr, who seems to be standing in for Vanessa Hudgens). Oh yeah, and Christopher Lloyd is in it as the resident piranha expert/exposition wholesaler.

The biggest problem with Piranha 3D is that there's just no life in it. On the surface, it all seems like a good idea, as though there's going to be some rip-roaring good satire at work, with riotously overdrawn characters in preposterous situations spouting off one-liners that will become part of the cultural lexicon. But instead what we get is something that claims to be that but carries itself off fairly straightforwardly, adhering religiously to all of the horror film tropes that it should be lampooning - first attack, innocuous setting, sexy teens vs. authority, last scare (in fact, this is played for laughs, but it's so overwrought that it's tantamount to when Joel McHale photoshops people getting hit by a bus on The Soup), &c. Though it's supposedly a comic horror film, there's little to laugh at in the first hour or so of the movie; O'Connell is so hammy you'll start to smell pork chops after a while, but it's so overblown that all I could muster was a dismissive eye-roll at how hard he was trying.

It's not until the last twenty minutes or so (I know, because I checked my watch periodically - something I never do during movies I even close to enjoy... something I didn't even do during Nic Cage's The Wicker Man, my favorite bad movie) that Piranha 3D starts to have fun with itself, introducing wildly fantastic Robert Rodriguez-style sequences that are so over-the-top that the film should have been littered with them. For example, Ving Rhames at one delightfully giddy moment, tears the motor off a boat and uses the propeller as a chainsaw to fend off encroaching piranhas (piranhi? piranhae?); had the movie been comprised of more scenes like that - and had Adam Scott been given more lines as the geologist with a sardonic wit - the movie might have been more of a success. But no, instead we get two minutes of naked water ballet, a moment whose only function in the film seems to be to inspire word of mouth: "Hey, let's go see Piranha 3D." "I don't know; I heard it was bad." "Who cares, dude? Naked water ballet!" "I am so there!"

That's another chief complaint about Piranha 3D - the nudity. I should have known going into it that this was a movie that wasn't going to hold back, but I was expecting the go-for-broke attitude to come from a degree of satire. Not so; the film is apparently governed by the mentality that, if your film is starting to sink, just throw some skin up on the screen. Now, it's a spring break movie, and I get that it would have probably earned the filmmakers some critical ire if they did a spring break movie that didn't include at least a bit of gratuitous nudity (the old standby of the horror genre, after all), but it's just so exorbitant here. I don't want to come off as some sort of puritanical nut, because that's not it at all; it's just that the film uses nudity as a crutch, and it comes off as excessive, exorbitant, distracting, and desperate. Where nudity has been used as a deceptive counterpoint to violence/horror to come or as a way to elicit a cheap laugh, Piranha 3D seems to have taken its storyboards, thrown darts at them, and inserted a naked person wherever said darts landed.

There are other offenses at stake here, too - Christopher Lloyd is criminally mis- and under-used here; I haven't seen him in a very long time, but it's a shame that he's here instead of somewhere where his talents would be well-served. Moments of peril are very predictable, such that it's very easy to identify which of the four characters on screen will be eaten, and in which order. And the gore is used so heavily and with so little moral compass that some of the aftermath scenes play out more like Schindler's List than Shaun of the Dead. But the greatest sin that Piranha 3D commits is that it's not fun enough to justify the upcharge for 3D glasses. Indeed, the 3D effects aren't all that great, either. There's one moment where a character throws up directly into the camera that at least gets that visceral reaction, but most of the 3D effects rely on recycled gags from old Dr. Tongue bits from SCTV (the difference being that Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Beef had punchlines and class). Piranha 3D marks the first time that I've really noticed a murky and unpolished look to movies that have been converted to 3D - a problem I've never encountered with, say, Disney's 3D effects. Perhaps it's just that, like everything else about this movie, the effects aren't very good at all. In fact, they downright bite (sorry).

For the first time since I don't remember when (possibly ever), I was inspired to ask for my money back as the credits rolled on Piranha 3D. But it soon occurred to me that all I would get would be a blank stare, a blink or two, and the response, "Look, you volunteered to see a movie entitled Piranha 3D. What'd you expect, Shakespeare?" I also chickened out because I realized I would have to admit to another living soul that I shelled out money to see this movie. Oh, wait.
Piranha 3D is rated R "for sequences of strong bloody horror violence and gore, graphic nudity, sexual content, language and some drug use." This is probably the least appropriate theatrical release this year, with many graphic feeding scenes in which the piranhas chomp away pieces of people until all that is left are bloody skeletons. There's toplessness and rear nudity galore, F-bombs a-plenty, and enough alcohol and cocaine to make Ozzy Osbourne look up. Even though there are kids in the movie (added, doubtless, as an attempt to build suspense even though we know kids are invincible in horror movies), leave yours at home.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

I can say this for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - it is unlike any other movie director Edgar Wright has brought forward.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 20-something Canadian vagabond whose life is filled with his garage band Sex Bob-omb and his 17-year-old girlfriend Knives Chao (Ellen Wong). One day, though, Scott meets the literal girl of his dreams - Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who rollerblades through his dreams because there's a superhighway shortcut in his subconscious. But as Scott and Ramona grow closer, she clues him in to the fact that, to continue to date her, he'll have to defeat her "seven evil exes," a league of former flames that includes a Bollywood-esque sorcerer, a model-turned-action-hero (Chris Evans), a vegan bassist (Brandon Routh), an angry ninja (Mae Whitman, formerly Cera's girlfriend Ann on Arrested Development), Japanese musican twins, and the big one - record mogul Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman).

What Scott Pilgrim does very well is create many memorable characters that have, at the very least, spin-off potential if not a direct sequel. I can't speak for the movie's relationship with the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, but the characters in the movie have got real personality. The supporting characters, that is; the main characters aren't very lively. Scott is, unfortunately, still more of the same Cera character - a gangly, awkward, "if that's okay with you" type who mumbles and falls in love with a girl far out of his league - but at least Cera is still doing a good job; I'm very curious, though, what the right director could do with him. And Winstead, as a thematic sequel to Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, falls flat without very much enthusiasm; she's pretty and therefore easy to fall for, but I think supporting player Anna Kendrick (who's charming and involving as Scott's sister Stacey) might have done a better job - but that's probably, as I've said before, because I'm a little bit in love with that girl. At the very least, Cera and Winstead are no Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Wright's previous collaborators.

Fortunately the supporting cast is very entertaining - not the best ensemble, but the supporting talent is more talented, I'd say, than what Cera and Winstead demonstrate here. The standout supporting cast member here is Alison Pill as world-weary drummer Kim Pine, a variant on the Juno brand of snarky; Pill is a scene-stealer, with deadpan delivery of memorable lines like, "Scott, if your life had a face, I would punch it" as well as signature moves like her clacking drumsticks and her feigning suicide by pistol with only her fingers and a dramatic flourish. Chris Evans, too, as Ex #2, is probably my favorite Ex, a gleeful caricature of the action star who can't actually act; he growls his dialogue - all of it puns - with a tongue firmly in cheek. And Jason Schwartzman, as the seventh and final Ex, is suitably smarmy and deftly loathsome.

But unlike Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim takes itself seriously - perhaps too seriously. Where Wright's previous films had a satirical bent and often acknowledged incredible plot turns with characters exclaiming, as Simon Pegg did in Shaun, "Oh, for f--k's sake!" Scott Pilgrim has none of this self-conscious edge. Characters don't bat an eye when "extra lives" or swords of love and self-respect appear out of thin air, and only Scott's roommate Wallace (a wonderfully droll Kieran Culkin) expresses incredulity at the increasingly improbable fight scenes with dry murmurs of "Scott, fight, go." There's a shameless showiness in the film that's doubtless an homage to the story's comic book nature, but it's all bang and very little substance. The very premise is built on thinness - Scott must fight these characters because he must - and it never attempts to be anything more than shallow eye candy. Where the scenes with Scott and his friends are clever and well-written, the battle scenes which dominate the film play out like watching someone else play a video game. It's a bit like watching a Quentin Tarantino film in German (no, not Inglourious Basterds); there's a sense that there's a lot of flair going on that other people can appreciate, but for the immediate audience in the moment, something's lost.

There's also a problem with pacing. The first Ex battles don't begin until about an hour into the film - when little more than half of the film remains. Consequently the film feels bisected - a comfortable and cutesy comedy with quirky characters, followed by the video game montages to which I just couldn't connect. By treating the audience to so much of the avant garde "quirky" plotline - directed with innovative quick-cut flair and punctuated by thought bubbles and floating onomatopoeia - Wright practically spoils his audience to the point where the second half just doesn't live up to the first. Indeed, the second half feels bloated and over-long, as though so much action is being thrown at the viewer because the filmmaker realized halfway through that there was still the matter of the seven evil exes to cover in about an hour's time.

But I think the other half of the movie - the one that doesn't have you grabbing for a joystick that isn't there - is worth seeing. It's got Wright's comedic sensibilities with an American edge, and it's got some of the cleverest dialogue and editing gags (like Lisa Miller, who swears but has the ability to somehow censor herself with a black box and a record scratch). Maybe you'll want to go for popcorn during the combat scenes, because it's not as though Scott isn't going to win. Spoiler warning?
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is rated PG-13 "for stylized violence, sexual content, language and drug references." There's some canoodling in underwear, as well as mild talk about sex and the problems of and with dating a minor. The combat scenes are visually dynamic, with no blood but with plenty of people hitting each other, some of whom explode into coins. Drugs and alcohol are mentioned, but only abused once; the F-bombs in the film are all comedically censored.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

Welcome to Wednesday 2, the final day of Depp Week. It's been an amazing journey, a real tour de force through the recent work of one of the greatest living actors, and I'm happy to have shared the journey with you.

But, in the words of many a pirate, you may not survive to pass this way again, and these be the last friendly words you hear. Meaning: The following review unavoidably contains spoilers for Dead Man's Chest, as At World's End picks up right after the cliffhanger ending that preceded it. (Oh, hell; the picture kind of gives away one surprise.) So, for those uninitiated who haven't seen Dead Man's Chest but want to know more qualitatively about At World's End, let me say this for it: At World's End is my favorite of the Pirates trilogy, a restoration of the thematic balance that made The Curse of the Black Pearl so appealing which also maintains the "go bigger" attitude of Dead Man's Chest. It's also just plain fun, escapism which the increasingly heavy Hollywood offerings so desperately need to bust up the monotony.

With Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) trapped in Davy Jones's locker after his encounter with the kraken, his former nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) - himself back from the dead - mounts a rescue effort with Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). As if rescuing Jack from the land of the dead weren't hard enough, the pirate world must contend with the ever-tightening grip of Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) and the East India Trading Company, which now controls the heart of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy).

Now this is my favorite of the Pirates films, but it's also unique because it's tonally very different from the first two films; perhaps, then, that's my main gravitation to it. Johnny Depp doesn't appear for more than half an hour into the film, allowing the movie to build up steam and firmly establish the necessity of his character to return. In some ways, this feels like a response to the critical backlash against Dead Man's Chest, as many characters run around in this film invoking the necessity of getting things back to the way they were. This film is darker - it opens with a small boy ascending the steps to the scaffold, and several very important characters are killed, brutally, on-screen - and consequently it feels more like the first than the second film, which you'll recall I critiqued for being too funny. Here the tone is one of urgent action punctuated by moments of levity (as when the crew sails over a waterfall and transports the audience, albeit briefly, to the Disneyland attraction that spawned the franchise), a return to form and a more fulfilling moviegoing experience. There are no scenes of audacious slapstick, but there are plenty of moments of entertaining comedy to keep you smiling throughout.

And where Dead Man's Chest did more of the same as far as performances go, At World's End dials it up for almost every main character. Now Jack Sparrow has a form of split-personality disorder, with "multiple Jacks" on his shoulders and in his hair, and Depp does a marvelous job at imbuing life into all the different Jacks we see on screen (at least twenty). Will has a renewed sense of purpose, and Bloom shoulders the responsibility with a grim but resigned countenance the whole way through. With a rousing speech on the nature of freedom, Elizabeth finally makes her decision between citizen and pirate, and it's a turn that feels completely natural in Knightley's hands. And it's a delight to see Rush again, who nuances his character's malicious nature by adding in a note of reformation and making it more palatable to root for the character who had previously been the villain. And Nighy continues to impress, even underneath all that CGI, by conveying through his words the anguish Davy Jones feels as a consequence of his betrayals at the hands of his lover and Cutler Beckett. Chow Yun-Fat joins the cast as Sao Feng, pirate lord of Singapore; though his character is done in broad strokes that might offend the PC crowd, Yun-Fat does an immersive job with the character, and there's a sense that all pirates are in effect stereotypes, somewhat legitimizing the Fu Manchu-esque nature of the character. And it'd be remiss of me if I didn't note that Keith Richards puts in an appearance as code-keeper Captain Teague, who shares a vitally important scene with Jack Sparrow.

The standout feature in At World's End, though, is an extended battle sequence which runs approximately forty minutes long and features the Black Pearl fighting the Flying Dutchman in the midst of a maelstrom. For most of the film, we're told that the pirates will have to face a last stand against Beckett's armada, and the subsequent battle that ensues more than lives up to the expectations raised by the rest of the film. Director Gore Verbinski (who, sadly, won't be returning for On Stranger Tides) does a masterful job of coordinating the action and keeping the action moving - even tossing an impromptu wedding into the mix. Hans Zimmer, too, is at his finest here, crafting an instrumental suite that runs for pretty much the whole length of the battle and integrates all the important themes (Jack's, Davy Jones's, Barbossa's, the love theme) from the trilogy in an expertly and elaborately written piece that you'll be humming for days. It's the kind of action sequence you can appreciate even out of context; a forty-minute combat sequence never hurt anyone, especially when it's as well-executed as this one is.

And the film brings to a satisfying conclusion the plotlines begun in the first film while still leaving open the possibility for a fourth film. The ending is remarkable in that it's sort of cliffhanger-ish, but at the same time it's the only way for these characters to end up; Will and Elizabeth are still together, despite a few obstacles, and Jack and Barbossa are still deadlocked in combat over the ownership of the Black Pearl and future treasure on the horizon. It's an immensely satisfying ending, one that validates the almost nine hours it takes to watch this epic sprawling trilogy unfold. Even taken on its own, though, At World's End is positively divine, an abundantly enjoyable flourish of a film.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is, like its predecessors, rated PG-13 "for intense sequences of action/adventure violence and some frightening images." In terms of content, there's not much different from the previous two installments, although the tone is much darker, and there's a pervading sense of danger that the more whimsical first two films lacked.

Well, folks, that's the end of Depp Week. It's been a marvelous journey, and I'm very curious to hear your thoughts on the whole affair. Would you be interested in seeing another themed week on The Cinema King (perhaps one that isn't gloriously gushing of its star)?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Welcome back to the only week with two Tuesdays in it - Depp Week. Right now we're going to set sail into the penultimate entry on the docket, the second installment of director Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

Dead Man's Chest picks up a little bit after The Curse of the Black Pearl, with the wedding of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) disrupted by the arrival of the East India Trading Company's villainous representative Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander). Beckett detains Will and Elizabeth for assisting pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in the last film but later separately dispatches them to retrieve Jack's compass. But Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has bigger problems; the tentacled Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) holds a claim to Captain Jack's soul, owed to Davy Jones for 13 years as captain of the Black Pearl. With the land controlled by the EITC and the seas manned by Davy Jones, Jack Sparrow faces mounting challenges and learns, like Neil Gaiman's Sandman, that he must change (meaning confront his problems) or die.

I think that Dead Man's Chest is the most polarizing of the Pirates films; moviegoers are divided almost exclusively between those who love it and those who hate it. But there's room for a more honest appraisal, one (which I'll offer here) that gives credit to the film's strengths but acknowledges the fact that Dead Man's Chest is not perfect - at least, not in the sense that The Curse of the Black Pearl was.

Let's start with the bad news first. The bad news is that, as far as middle entries in trilogies go, Dead Man's Chest is no Empire Strikes Back. (Which is, I concede, a bit like criticizing water for not being cranberry juice.) Perhaps the worst thing that I can say about Dead Man's Chest is that it doesn't stand on its own very well. As a sequel, one can hardly criticize it for not restating a lot of the plot elements that were developed in the first movie - the relationship between Will and Elizabeth, the character of Jack Sparrow, the role of Weatherby Swann (Jonathan Pryce) in all this - but as a second of three, it ought to end without moviegoers feeling obligated to attend the third film in the franchise. In that respect, then, Dead Man's Chest is more Matrix Reloaded than Empire Strikes Back in the sense that the two former movies end on a cliffhanger which leaves nothing resolved. (To be fair, Empire ends on a cliffhanger, too, but it's one that goes for emotional tethers rather than plot twists.) Here, Dead Man's Chest ends with a major character deceased, another character back from the dead, major emotional connections seemingly irreparably severed, and a bevy of new characters thrown at us with no ultimate resolution on their storylines - such that one feels a bit like an empty keg of rum at the end of the picture, adrift in a sea of plotlines that, we're promised, the third movie will resolve. (It does, fortunately.)

My other major grievance with Dead Man's Chest is that it is, at its most basic, simply a turned-up-to-11 version of The Curse of the Black Pearl. With the exception of Elizabeth (and perhaps wooden-eyed Ragetti, who evinces concern for his newly-mortal soul), no returning character (or new one, for that matter) gets much depth added; Jack is still his same capricious self, Will is still that charming novice swashbuckler, and that dog still has the keys in his mouth. Even the new villains aren't very nuanced, with a mirthless one-dimensional evil separating them from Geoffrey Rush's evil-but-still-fun Barbossa. (Note that this critique of the unsubtle villains is distinct from the praise, which I'll be offering below, of Hollander and Nighy. Stay tuned.) Of course, evil villains are all well and good - in fact, they're essential - but they're contrasted with the turned-up-to-11 tone of whimsy that the picture sets up; nothing truly bad, it suggests, can happen to the characters as long as they keep us laughing. Consequently, when something truly bad does happen, it feels almost like a betrayal, a violation of some code somewhere. Then again, the first film did teach us that codes are "more like guidelines, anyway."

In sum, Dead Man's Chest doesn't engage in any emotional advancement of any character, but returning screenplayists Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio do a solid job of advancing the trilogy on a plot level, expanding the franchise's mythology and introducing a whole host of new characters - and doing so in a clear manner. As with the former film, there are complaints from the moviegoing public about a confusing aura around the film. But how the film could confound anyone is beyond me. Lunkheaded comic relief Pintel and Ragetti fill in for Navymen Murtogg and Mullroy as far as summarizing important action to each other and to the audience, and Naomie Harris joins the cast as Tia Dalma, a voodoo practitioner whose only purpose in this film, it seems, is to provide exposition on Davy Jones and the plight of Jack Sparrow. (Fortunately, she's given more to do in the final installment of the trilogy.) Again, there are many competing agendas here, but if you don't go out for a popcorn refill you should be fine. The script also does an outstanding job at building on what the first film introduces; throwaway elements like Jack's compass and his brief line "And then they made me their chief" from the first film get new meaning, making for a more comprehensive filmgoing experience. Most notably, though, Bootstrap Bill makes an appearance, portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard; if you noticed the plot hole of how the first film claimed that Bootstrap, cursed by the Aztec gold, could have drowned, the film addresses that.

And director Gore Verbinski does a firstrate job of topping a lot of the action sequences in the first film by kicking it up to 11 with swordfights on top of a spinning water wheel, a monstrous kraken attack, and a delightful re-introduction to Captain Jack Sparrow. Verbinski again keeps that sense of moving forward with sweeping shots of sailing ships and (doubtless) a little help from Hans Zimmer, who pens what might be his best film score to date in terms of listenability outside of the context of the film.

Continuing the train of good news about Dead Man's Chest, all the performers are still doing very good work. Even if they're not called on to do much more, they're still doing a good job at what they'd previously done: Depp is audaciously immersive as ever, replete with a slightly improved accent (something closer to a drunken Brit than previously), Bloom is still his charming roguish self, and Knightley is still doing a deft job at straddling that line between pirate and proper citizen (and she's probably the prettiest here of the three). Of the new cast members, all of them step into their roles like a good pair of slacks. Harris is almost unrecognizable as the grungy obeah priestess, with her blackened teeth and Jamaican dialect creating a vividly believable new character. On the side of evil, Bill Nighy is utterly engrossing as Davy Jones, lending a Scottish accent and a series of facial and verbal tics that are so human that you'll probably forget that the character is almost entirely created with CGI effects (honestly, the effects are that good). And Tom Hollander is perhaps the best villain of the series, because he's so joylessly evil that he's instantly detestable; his overconfident and avaricious qualities are brilliantly portrayed by the diminutive Hollander, who evokes Napoleon and all the worst qualities of British imperialism.

I've given what might be a mixed review of Dead Man's Chest, but I want to close with the note that this film contains my absolutely favorite shot of the entire trilogy. It's a small scene, maybe one that won't even be noticed by many audience members, but it's a pivotal one - one that is perfectly directed by Gore Verbinski and one that Jack Davenport (playing ex-Commodore Norrington) pulls off with aplomb. It's a silent scene, with only Hans Zimmer's rousing score to fill our ears, but it uses visual language like a fluent speaker uses French; with shots of only a rowboat, a swordfight, and a few finely detailed expressions from Davenport. It's a scene that says nothing and yet says everything we need to know about what's going through Norrington's head at that particular moment. It's so aesthetically effective that it, too, gives me chills.

If you've made it all the way through this review, first of all congratulations. Second, I hope the disenchantment of the earlier paragraphs has worn off. Really, this is an enjoyable movie for those of us who enjoyed the first. But my disappointment registers only because from a sequel I often expect so much more. I enjoyed this because I enjoyed the first movie, but I wish that I could have enjoyed it regardless of the first; I suppose in the end I was looking for more than more of the same. But perhaps that's just a case of my expectations being too high, in which case this is an issue I'll have to self-examine. But if you liked the first film, certainly the second is just as good (but not better).
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is - like its predecessor - rated PG-13, this time for "intense sequences of adventure violence, including frightening images." As with the first, standard pirate swashbuckling occurs. Here, though, some creatures may be more frightening than previously; Davy Jones's crew are all monstrous amalgamations of men and sea creatures, and his kraken is genuinely fearsome with tentacles and sharp fangs. Watch out for an early sequence at an island prison, which is surprisingly gruesome as ravenous birds attack caged prisoners.

Keep a weathered eye on the horizon, mates, because Wednesday we'll close out Depp Week with a look at my favorite of the Pirates films - At World's End.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Thanks for staying with us, loyal readers. And a good, good morning to you in the wee small ones of this bright and sunshiney Monday morning. Depp Week (or rather, Depp Half-Week II) begins right now, with a look at Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the film that jetted Johnny Depp to super-stardom and netted him an Oscar nomination, while simultaneously getting an entire generation of moviegoers to start asking, "Why is the rum gone?"

Depp stars as Captain Jack Sparrow, an off-kilter pirate with no ship, no crew, and no treasure. What he has are a keen wit, a poor sense of balance, a compass that doesn't point north, and improvisational skills that ought to earn him a lifetime spot on Whose Line Is It Anyway?. Captain Jack finds his way to Port Royal in search of a ship, where he's promptly locked up for piracy. Meanwhile, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his undead crew of cursed pirates-turned-zombies come to Port Royal in search of blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) - but end up abducting the governor's daughter, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), instead. Will, smitten with Elizabeth, strikes a deal to free Captain Jack in exchange for his help, but what Will doesn't know is that Captain Jack Sparrow only ever has his own best interests at heart

Developing a movie based on a low-velocity flume ride should have been an impossible feat; after all, The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion all sank like stones when Disney unleashed them in theaters around the same time as Pirates. But what Pirates has that those movies didn't is a trifecta of what I believe are the three key components to any truly great motion picture: a charismatic and fantastically gifted cast, a solid and well-crafted screenplay, and a governing mood that combines the utmost sincerity with delightful notes of whimsy that prevent the movie from getting bogged down in its own gravitas (sorry, Quantum of Solace).

The obvious headliner here - the reason for Pirates being reviewed at this specific moment in time - is Johnny Depp, who gives a performance of a lifetime. And not just his lifetime, though Jack Sparrow certainly makes that grade; Depp's turn here is one of the greatest performances I've seen committed to film in my lifetime, right up there with Ledger's Joker and RDJ's Iron Man (perhaps it bears investigation that I've selected two comic book roles). It's immersive like diving into a swimming pool, yet so spot-on that it fits like a glove. Of Depp's role here I can only speak in superlatives, each of them deserved; there's an earnestness that goes with Jack Sparrow that goes a long way toward allowing the audience to forget "it's only a movie." Jack feels real because, in the hands of Johnny Depp, he is real. Every gesture (and there are many, from wild gesticulation to nuanced missteps), every inflection, every unfocused glance contribute to a portrait of a character larger than life and yet so unmistakably human.

Depp is backed by a wonderfully able supporting cast, the greatest of whom is Geoffrey Rush. Where Jack Sparrow is so finely crafted, Barbossa is all broad strokes, harkening back to the Errol Flynn pirate pictures where there was no question about who the bad guys were. But Rush manages to pull off the portrayal without ever feeling like he's resorting to cheap pirate stereotypes; even when he does employ those old standbys - as when he snarls the trademark pirate "Arrgh!" for no apparent reason - it feels less like a shortcut and moer like a facet of his character, who clearly enjoys theatricality. Our two romantic leads - Bloom and Knightley - do a fine job of drawing a line down the middle of the film between pirate and civilian, and their chemistry is palpable; that is, romantically, we get it between these two. (It doesn't hurt that Knightley is probably at her most attractive here, and it's no wonder that I had a major crush on her when the film first debuted in theaters.)

Of course, any talented actor will run around aimlessly without a taut script to guide him or her, and fortunately Pirates is one of the best written action films in recent memory. Credit Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio for penning a screenplay that triumphantly inverts a lot of the old pirate movie tropes - the mutiny occurs off-screen, and these pirates are returning treasure rather than taking it - while still seeming to adhere to the ideal platonic form of a pirate movie. In much the same way as the film is divided between pirate and citizen, the script is divided between action and comedy, such that I've invoked the Pirates name when talking about films that similarly split their time between comedy and action. The script is funny when it needs to be and exudes a sense of breathless urgency, such that we genuinely believe that there is a threat to the safety of the film world. In addition to being endlessly quotable, the film is also very clever with its dialogue, such that I actually got chills when a character in the film justified the audience's attachment to the pirate Jack Sparrow by saying, "Perhaps on the rare occasion pursuing the right course demands an act of piracy, piracy itself becomes can be the right course?" In addition, Elliott and Rossio do a first-rate job of keeping the disparate plot elements from becoming muddled in a tangle of plot soup. We have at least four competing agendas (five, if you count Commodore Norrington) at any given time in the film, but it's apparent who's fighting for what and - even more tricky - who's double-crossing whom. There are those who bemoan the film's confusing nature, but I feel those concerns are misguided and stem from something short of a full attention span. (For more on how clever the script is, take a look at LiveReal's take on the film.)

But the best script in the world can be tragically mismanaged, and so a hearty helping of kudos ought to go to director Gore Verbinski for making a film that's endlessly (re)watchable, which remains entertaining and nearly immortal as the film approaches the 10-year mark. If the script is a juggling act, Verbinski is the juggler who deftly keeps all the requisite plates spinning, to the perpetual amusement and amazement of the moviegoing public. What's even more remarkable is that Verbinski knows the perfect balance between action and comedy, even within the same scene - as when Jack and Barbossa duel with swords and with wordplay simultaneously. Though scenes like these are side-splitting, they're also intensely and precisely coordinated to attain that perfect edge-of-seat ratio. Doubtless this position of the audience on the precipice of their chairs (recliners, folding chairs, it doesn't matter) requires at least some small credit be given to the rousing score composed by Klaus Badelt, known disciple of Hans Zimmer (whose influence is very acutely felt); here's another Depp flick whose tune you'll be humming long after the credits roll. (Speaking of which, be sure to stick around for an after-credits treat, which actually has some bearing on the second film of the trilogy.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I love this movie. It's got an audaciously charismatic performance by Depp, but it's also a solid movie in and of itself. If nothing else, if you ahven't seen this movie, consider it part of a "Great Books" curriculum in which the objective is to become fluent in popular culture. If this country should ever be subject to a full-scale pirate attack, you'll at least know what to tell them so they don't kill you. (Hint: It's not parsley. Not palu-li-la-la-lulu, either.)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is, rare for a Disney flick, rated PG-13, here "for action/adventure violence." There's some typical swashbuckling swordfighting afoot, a few zombie pirates that may prove unsettling for younger viewers, and an unusual fascination with eunuchs that arises periodically throughout the trilogy.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Depp Week Delayed

Ahoy, folks. Bad news on the docks. Due to unforseeable consequences - namely, being hijacked by pirates in search of bewitched treasure - Depp Week is being postponed until at least the weekend, if not Monday/Tuesday.

Keep a weathered eye on the horizon, mateys. Here there be Pirates of the Caribbean reviews soon as we be returnin' from Davy Jones's locker.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)

2003 was a big year for Johnny Depp, if only because that's the year that Captain Jack Sparrow sailed into our hearts, propelling Depp to the top of the A-list. But Pirates of the Caribbean isn't until tomorrow, folks, so let's take a look at Depp's other 2003 film, Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico - which I predict will become a cult film (if it isn't one already) on the strength of Depp's performance alone.

Nominally, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is Antonio Banderas's film, the third entry in his and Rodriguez's "El Mariachi trilogy" (which began with El Mariachi and Desperado). In practice, though, it's Depp's: Depp plays CIA agent Sheldon Jeffrey Sands, who hires gunslinger El Mariachi (Banderas) to prevent General Marquez from successfully staging a coup against the Mexican president. But there are many other factors at work here: El wants revenge against Marquez for the murder of his wife Catalina (Salma Hayek), while Marquez is being paid by cartel lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe) and his henchman Billy Chambers (Mickey Rourke), and Sands is working the case from every angle - including police officer Ajedrez (Eva Mendes), one-eyed informant Bellini (Cheech Marin), and retired FBI Agent Jorge Ramirez (Ruben Blades).

If it sounds a little confusing, don't be alarmed. On first viewing, there are parts that don't immediately make sense; it's not that the film is intentionally puzzling, but the fast pace and the "crank it up to 11" sensibility toss the plot twists at the viewer faster than might be comfortable. What's more, the plot is the kind that lends itself to plot twists, with betrayals, double-crosses, and downright duplicity governing each principal character's actions; in fact, you'll have trouble enough just trying to figure out where Sands's loyalties lie (hint: like all great Depp characters, Sands is principally looking out for Number One).

But, in the opinion of this reviewer, none of the action-on-speed mentality hurts the film. Indeed, the film challenges itself to top itself, topping a rousing gun battle in the streets with an epic one in the presidential palace. Moreover, by beginning the story in media res, the film creates the suggestion that the plot is actually secondary to the exciting explosions and innovative visuals, that what these characters do is less important than how they do it.

Thank goodness Rodriguez has assembled a cast who can pull off a film that's all about flair. And rather than remain as mere straight action fare, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is often genuinely funny, adding a challenge to the actors, albeit a challenge they can all meet. Banderas is dynamite as the strong but silent type, but his character is crafted in such a way that it never feels out of place when he breaks his silence for a wry witticism. Hayek, who appears often in flashbacks and whose presence is acutely felt even though her character has technically died, is the perfect "straight man" to the occasionally ludicrous action sequences, and her screams of terror at the precarious situations Catalina finds herself in are genuine and hilarious at the same time. Of course, though, Depp steals the show (partially because it feels like he has the most screen time of any other character), because Sands is one of those ultra-compelling supporting characters that comes along once in a blue moon. As his loyalties flip and flop, there's something endearing at the heart of his character; it's quite possible that he's a bad guy (he does, after all, kill a cook simply for making a piece of slow-roasted pork that's too good), but the way Depp behaves makes us want to root for Sands, if only so we'll see him on screen more often.

This is an ensemble piece, and while the three leads are all doing fine work, they're backed up by a supporting cast that carries the rest of the film one piece at a time. Willem Dafoe is admittedly a strange choice for a Mexican drug lord, but once you see him as Barillo you'll either think, "Why didn't someone cast him as a Mexican before?" or "Well, Willem sure can act." Mickey Rourke isn't really acting so much as performing his trademark confident swagger on-camera, but his broad personality fits right in with the rest of the outlandish tone of the film. Eva Mendes finally gets to play a cop rather than a cop's love interest, and there's something compelling in that pout of hers where she's surprisingly believable as a hard-as-nails rookie. Cheech Marin floats in as embodied exposition (and recap for those who missed the other entries in the trilogy), and it's always a delight to see Danny Trejo chewing scenery as a tough guy.

One final character in the film bears mentioning - the gaudy and vibrant action sequences. There's a shootout in a marketplace, replete with exploding fruit and sudden auto collisions, that is impossible to watch without getting a little keyed up. Blame the soundtrack, too, which is filled with catchy Latino tracks that you'll be humming until you run out and grab the CD (which stands on its own very well, indeed). But even when the characters are simply sitting around and chatting - as Sands does for most of his screentime, until he picks up his guns and joins the fight against the coup (with a bonus twist, extra-cool, that it'd be criminal to spoil) - there's still a sense that firecrackers are going off. The dialogue, equal parts Rodriguez and ad-lib, positively crackles, with quirky mannerisms and stylistic turns of phrase that might make Diablo Cody sit up and take a few notes; perhaps the best of these come about due to Sands's apparent refusal to swear, substituting "screw the pooch," "sugarbutt," and "oh, gosh" at markedly incongruous moments.

But the intentional flashiness and the quest for spectacle make the film a dazzling vision that doesn't even require a viewer's cognitive powers to be switched on. Indeed, the film practically asks the viewer to switch off, kick back, and enjoy the ride. Typical rules of science no longer apply, and the film doesn't need to be understood so much as it needs to be absorbed. And that is the film's greatest strength - it's engaging, with performances and action pieces that are just plain fun.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is, naturally, rated R "for strong violence, and for language." Most every character uses F-bombs quite liberally, in English and Spanish; you can't swing a bat without hitting some bloody violence in this film, so leave the less mature kiddies at home.

Depp Week continues into Thursday with The Cinema King's take on the role you've been looking for - Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (sequels to follow). Stay tuned!

Charlie St. Cloud (2010)

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Depp Week programming to bring you Charlie St. Cloud, Zac Efron's latest - and lightest - box office outing.

Efron plays the eponymous Charlie, taking off his dancing shoes and donning a winter coat of angst as the troubled teen who blames himself for the car crash that killed his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie would have died too, were it not for the prayerful intercession of paramedic Florio Ferrente (Ray Liotta), but now that he's alive, Charlie has the unique ability to communicate with ghosts - particularly with Sam, with whom he had promised to practice baseball every day before college. But as Charlie wallows in his grief, working as a caretaker in a graveyard and throwing away his potential, he meets Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew), a spirited sailor who teaches Charlie the meaning of life - and letting go.

Allow me to first begin by saying that there is a very specific type of audience for whom this movie will hold almost unanimous appeal - and I'm not referring to the two old ladies I met this weekend who raved up and down about how "fantastic" and "spectacular" this picture was. For fans of the emotional catharsis, for Lifetime subscribers who can't get enough "life is for the living" morals, for people who just want to see Zac Efron take his shirt off - this movie offers all that in spades. But for more discerning viewers, I think Charlie St. Cloud comes up wanting.

Let me also add by way of preface that this isn't necessarily a bad movie. It's not terrible, but it's just not very good; on a scale of 1 to 10, it's probably a four or a five. The film itself is not very well-made, consisting mostly of fluffy emotions and hints of a story with more potential (potential perhaps lived up to in the Ben Sherwood novel on which the movie is based) than is acted upon. The biggest distraction in the film is Efron himself; I've admitted that I'm a fan of his career, and I think he's on his way to at least B-list stardom. But Charlie St. Cloud as a movie seems determined not to let him advance; for all the emoting and performing that Efron seems willing to do, the film spends far more time on shots that director Burr Steers (of 17 Again fame) must have consciously orchestrated in order to elicit maximum attractiveness out of Efron. There are a myriad of shots such as Charlie walking toward a window as soft light streams from the drapes and brings out the baby blue in his eyes; college students may one day craft a drinking game in which participants imbibe each time Efron takes his shirt off - two shots if the disrobing is not essential to the plot (which is, to say, always).

There are other people in the film, too; chief among them is Amanda Crew, who isn't asked to do very much in the film but who seems like she might be the next Jessica Biel if given the opportunity and a better haircut. Tahan is similarly unchallenging as ghostly Sam, but there's a sense of sibling chemistry between him and Efron which lends their scenes a genuine sense of authenticity and are some of the less improbable scenes in the film. As is often the case, Ray Liotta is criminally underused; though he makes the most of his two scenes in the film, the fact remains that he is only given two scenes in the film - hardly the stuff of a comeback, though he's an able caretaker of the film's "second chances" message, which is hammered repeatedly throughout the movie. Oh, yeah - and Kim Basinger's in here too, though I think the crew forgot about her during production as her character simply disappears with little more than an oblique "She moved" reference.

For a discerning viewer, a lot of the film will come off as very unsubtle. Dialogue consists mostly of characters shouting morals at each other - "Life is for the living!" and "You have to let go!" and "You were given a second chance for a reason!" among them. More notably, there's a plot twist borrowed wholesale from The Sixth Sense (no, Zac Efron's not actually dead, so I didn't spoil it... or maybe I did), but it's so blatantly obvious that the textbook foreshadowing barrels through the film like the freight train from Inception. But the most important lesson the film can teach us, it seems, is that Zac Efron has dreamy good looks that will plop ticketholders into seats faster than Dennis Miller can craft a metaphor.

If you've got a craving for eye candy, please see Charlie St. Cloud, if only to send a message that we're done with this whole Twilight business. Discerning moviegoers? You can still catch that Inception matinee.
Charlie St. Cloud is rated PG-13 "for language including some sexual references, an intense accident scene and some sensuality." I actually thought the innuendo was pretty tame, though parents might not like the "romantic interlude in a graveyard" scene, in which nothing but shadowplay is seen. The accident scene is startling but in a way that's been done to death; some mild blood accompanies this and another accident scene.

Stay tuned, folks, because your regularly scheduled programming for Depp Week continues next on The Cinema King as we go south of the border for Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

If it's Day Two of Depp Week here on The Cinema King, that means it must be Tuesday. And if you're smelling cocoa beans, don't adjust your set, because that indicates only that we're coming under the chocolate waterfall to the next Depp/Burton collaboration under scrutiny (and a surefire chance for yet another food metaphor) - 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Here Depp plays eccentric recluse and chocolate bar wunderkind Willy Wonka, who for the first time is opening his factory's doors to the five lucky winners of a candy bar contest. Those bearers of the golden tickets - gluttonous Augustus Gloop, uber-competitive Violet Beauregarde, covetous Veruca Salt, media addict Mike Teavee, and good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) - are treated to an all-access tour of the factory and all its magical secrets. But as this is a Roald Dahl story, the children's own vices - and the sins of their parents - will prove to be their chocolatey downfall, and the most virtuous of them will be rewarded.

I'll say in honesty that this is not Johnny Depp's finest performance. It's a good turn by him. It's typical Depp - wholly engrossed in the part and just this side of normal. But it's not his best. Comparatively, it's about as good as his turn in Alice in Wonderland. Willy Wonka is good, and there's nothing wrong with him, but it's just that we know Depp is capable of so much more. Of course, there's no other performance in the film that comes close to what Depp's up to (save perhaps Deep Roy, who portrays all the Oompa-Loompas, even the female ones), but Willy Wonka is just good but not great. But then again, even when Johnny Depp "phones it in," it's only the difference between an express train and a bullet train.

But I think the strongest comment I can make in praise of Charlie - and really, I did enjoy it, even after about one or two viewings a year until this most recent one - is that it's leaps and bounds better than its predecessor, 1971's ill-advised Newley/Bricusse musical version, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, led by Gene Wilder. A large part of this is due to the fact that this interpretation - as recognizable as it is as a product of director Burton's unique vision - adheres much closer to Roald Dahl's sensibilities than did the music-and-whimsy Wilder version. As much fun as Wilder was as Wonka (indeed, his version remains definitive in a way that Depp's isn't yet), the fact is that the original movie is a stinker; the acting is lame, the songs lamer, and a corporate espionage plotline shoehorned into the already meandering screenplay. Here the only songs are from Dahl's own book, sung gleefully by the Oompa-Loompas (all voiced by the unequivocal genius and frequent Burton partner Danny Elfman) after each child's inevitable and quasi-grisly exit from the factory; that the songs are all different (one a Brit-pop ballad, another an apparent homage to Queen) and closer to the source material belies a more earnest feel, something I never got from "Pure Imagination" or "I've Got a Golden Ticket" (which I detested so much that I can't be bothered to verify that was the actual title of the song Jack Albertson sang in the 1971 version).

So it sounds good, but the film looks even better, filled with Burton trademark flourishes and near-cameos by Burton regulars Helena Bonham Carter (as Charlie's mother) and Christopher Lee. It's Lee's turn as Wonka's father - dentist Dr. Wilbur Wonka - that's one of the more inspired additions to the film; while Wilbur appears nowhere in the original novels, his addition feels natural and lends a degree of plausibility to the otherwise indulgently kooky Wonka character. It humanizes the character in a way that it's almost impossible to remember that the candy mogul didn't originally have a chocophobic dentist for a father. But this is a movie that would work just as well on "Mute" as it would with the audio on; it's more colorful than a 96-count Crayola box, and it's fluid in a way that recalls the chocolate waterfall at the film's centerpiece.

But I do need to answer the criticism that I've often leveled while invoking this movie's name. I've said before that this film and others suffer from a creative mindset of "These are the story beats we need to hit, so let's keep moving because there's a lot we have to cover." Perhaps it's a casualty of the actual plot of the movie - a tour through certain rooms in which dramatic set pieces occur. But there's never a feel that anything in this movie is not preordained; certainly there are overt implications that Willy Wonka has planned each child's demi-demise, but there's a similar lack of creativity in the screenplay adaptation. Wilbur Wonka aside, it's almost too faithful, slavishly loyal to the source material; there's never a sense, for example, that there are other rooms in the factory beyond the few the kiddies get to see (although we do get shots of other rooms much later in the film). Consequently, it feels almost too generic, as though there are no other alternatives for how this whole thing will shake itself out.

In short, it's better than that other one. It feels pretty close, but it looks vastly different. That's the most critical deviation - the Burton look. And tossing Johnny Depp into the mix never hurt, either.

Hey, look at that. Nary a culinary metaphor in sight. Well done, indeed.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rated a mere PG "for quirky situations, action and mild language." I'm not even going to pretend I know what that means. It's cartoonish, so the kids can probably handle it.

Depp Week continues into Wednesday with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, but keep your eyes peeled for a special bonus post between now and then, featuring a certain doe-eyed Disney star who's no stranger to this site. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Happy Monday, folks, and welcome to Depp Week at The Cinema King. In celebration of the work of one of the most talented actors of our generation, we'll begin our look at some of Johnny Depp's recent work and evaluate how he's done over the last ten years. We'll begin with the performance that netted Depp his third Oscar nod and his first (and, to this date, only) Golden Globe win: that of the singing, slicing barber Sweeney Todd.

One of my earliest musical reviews (of Hairspray, also from 2007) conducted itself in a song-by-song analysis, which was a format I found a) conducive to musical reviews and b) a stylistic shake-up amid the tedium of formula. I'll begin by way of a few prefatory notes. First, I am enamored with this movie; I've said before that it is the movie Tim Burton's been trying to make all his life. Second, I concede that it is not for everyone: Johnny Depp's performance is among his best, but it may not be for everyone; the brutal violence is stunning in a way that may repulse; and a few alterations to the source material may cause Sondheim diehards to spurn this adaptation. Finally, it is a musical, a fact not made apparent by the marketing team, and so some moviegoers may feel tricked. But, if you're like me - an open-minded Depp-head with a Burton fetish (for that is how best Burton's imagery may be described) - Sweeney Todd might be more delicious than a meatpie - with or without human filling.

The film opens on a ship (no, not a pirate ship; that's later on in Depp Week) with the mysterious Sweeney Todd (Depp) and the wide-eyed sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) each arguing that "There's No Place Like London." Anthony comes from a place of naivete, suggesting that London is the most beautiful city in the world, while Sweeney Todd - fresh off an unjust stint in prison - remarks on the ugliness of the city by way of an anecdote about a barber (Sweeney, pre-prison) and his wife who were targeted by the dastardly Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). The story ends unfinished, and the two part ways. Depp instantly inhabits the skin of the dark and disturbed stranger, evoking pathos before we even know why his eyes are so sunken; Bower is sort of beige, more of a sounding board than an actual character, but at least his singing voice is professional-sounding.
Sweeney finds his way to Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and her meat pie emporium, wherein are sold "The Worst Pies in London." It's a perfect introduction to Mrs. Lovett and a perfect opportunity for HBC to show off just how delectably nutty she can be as she bemoans the bad luck her business has suffered. HBC continues to shine with "Poor Thing," as she reveals to Sweeney that his wife has killed herself, which leads Sweeney into the revenge ballad "My Friends," essentially a love song to the razors he plans to use as murder weapons. As Mrs. Lovett cloys and attempts to ingratiate herself with Sweeney, HBC gets one more chance to kook it up, but all eyes on this number ought to be on Depp, who pushes his voice as far as it can go - and succeeds.

The plot takes a step back for a moment as Anthony meets the love of his life - Joanna (Jayne Wisener), Sweeney's daughter and ward to Judge Turpin. The catch is that she's locked up ("Green Finch and Linnet Bird"), and her legal guardian isn't too keen on letting her go. The obvious solution here is to sing about it - Anthony gets the solo "Joanna" and promises to free his love before the end of the movie. This set of tracks might turn a few viewers away, but do stick with the film: Anthony and Joanna are slower parts of the picture, but intentionally so, as they're to provide a sort of counterpoint to the Sweeney/Lovett madness. Indeed, Joanna is more a MacGuffin than an actual character, since she's the thing Sweeney, Anthony, and Turpin are all chasing.

The plot takes a second, albeit more intriguing detour with "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," a street-performance-turned-sales-pitch. The host, the Italian Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), serenades about his potion, which he and his young apprentice Toby (Ed Sanders) promise will regrow hair. But Sweeney calls them out and initiates "The Contest," a shaving competition to see who is the better barber. I won't spoil who the victor of the challenge is, but I will say that this is a great branching-out role for Cohen. Though he's known for his prankumentaries like Borat and Bruno, Cohen is at home as Pirelli, whose theatricality demands an actor who can play comedy with a straight face; Cohen is that actor, balancing the disingenuous front Pirelli wears with the actual menace beneath the blue frills.

Disheartened that his scheme is running slowly, Sweeney sulks as Mrs. Lovett encourages him to "Wait." It's a fairly low-key moment, but compared to the high intensity to come, it's a much needed breather, and it gives Burton a chance to play with some interesting angles and shots of mirrors in what is otherwise a scene of just one person singing to another. The calm, of course, precedes a storm, and with "Pretty Women" Sweeney gets his opportunity for revenge on Judge Turpin. It's a fantastically tense moment, as Sweeney readies his razors. It's also a unique scene because how often do you get to hear Alan Rickman sing? As quickly as this scene begins, it ends abruptly; Anthony interrupts, sending the Judge out of the barber shop and Sweeney into a rage. Suddenly, Sweeney has his "Epiphany" - the world is filled with monsters like Judge Turpin, which means the revenge scheme is thinking too small. As Sweeney vows to slit as many throats as possible, you'll get chills; finally, after about an hour of playing his cards close to the chest, Depp cuts loose and unleashes the full scope of his character's madness. It's this scene, as well as the next hour to follow, that I'm convinced earned Depp his nomination, since it's what fans of his trademark audacious insanity have come to expect and cherish.

And how do we top a number about genocide? Add cannibalism to the mix, suggests Mrs. Lovett in "A Little Priest." With all the bodies piling up, she teases, why not use them to boost my business, too? The song is infectiously loony, catchy in a way that giggles after laughing gas are; we know this is wrong, but the sheer normality and the subdued mirth evident in the performances of Depp and HBC are precursors to the kind of dark humor that governs the movie. But the movie pulls back a little from high satire and returns to its tragic roots with a reprise of "Joanna," in which Anthony's continuing love for Joanna is counterbalanced with Sweeney's sad realization that his original mission has slipped away from him - and that he no longer cares. Visually this is the most spectacular number, loosing Burton's bloody vision for the character by depicting throat after throat slit in spectacularly gushing fashion like something out of Tarantino's wildest imaginings; by pulling back on the intensity of the singing, it provides a built-in apology for the somewhat odd choice of casting Johnny Depp in a musical, since the feelings behind the music are vastly more important - and Depp does a dynamite job of revealing those emotions.

Mrs. Lovett dominates the next few tracks: "God, That's Good!" in which she introduces a hungry London to her latest culinary concoction; "By the Sea," a perfectly deluded number in which she details her lovestruck vision for a blissful future with an otherwise disinterested Sweeney; and "Not While I'm Around," in which she's forced to make a difficult promise to Toby, who's beginning to grow wise to Sweeney's machinations upstairs. The real highlight, though, is the Shakespearean tragedy that governs the film's ten-minute "Final Scene." Here, all the disparate plot threads - Sweeney's quest for revenge on the Judge, Mrs. Lovett's conflict over her love for Sweeney and for Toby, Anthony's pursuit of Joanna, and even that nutty old beggar woman who's been meandering in and out of the plot - tangle together with lightning speed, and before you know it, it's over - culminating in the most heartbreaking homage to the Pieta. Burton omits (wisely, in the opinion of this reviewer) the stage production's songs in the final scene, making it more about the things that characters aren't saying to each other; it's visually stunning and composed in a way that instills a building sense of dread that closes with a cathartic collapse of the house of cards these characters have built for themselves.

It's a film that'll leave you breathless. Once you've caught your breath, though, you might find yourself humming along to a few bars. It'll take a lot more than ale to wash that taste out.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is rated R "for graphic bloody violence." The movie is littered with angry arterial sprays, though all the blood appears in a highly stylized form, much thicker and color-desaturated than its real-life counterpart.

Tune in tomorrow, folks, because we're looking at another Depp/Burton collaboration - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - as Depp Week continues here at The Cinema King.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Other Guys (2010)

Let's have a few more laughs and one more cop film before Depp Week kicks off. Here's the movie that dethroned Inception from its perch at the top of the box office. And while I'm certainly not going to suggest The Other Guys is the stronger film, it's got a lot of laughs, and it's a solid choice for a trip to the theater if you've already seen Inception (sorry, Cats and Dogs 2).

Writer/director Adam McKay continues his series of collaborations with Will Ferrell (a series which began with Anchorman and continued into fellow funny flicks Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, the latter two introducing John C. Reilly to the mix) here, with Ferrell as desk cop Allen Gamble. After the spots for "top cop" are made vacant at the precinct (thanks to clever surprising cameos by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), Gamble and his partner Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) find themselves in the running to fill the open celebrity shoes - much to the consternation of their stressed captain (Michael Keaton). Gamble and Hoitz find their big case when a scaffolding permit violation leads them to Gordon Gekko-esque David Ershon (Steve Coogan) and an investment scheme that's skimming money from... well, somebody.

It's been MUFMW [(Mostly) Unintentional Food Metaphor Weekend] here at The Cinema King, and so I'll keep it going by saying that The Other Guys is, like many of Adam McKay's other films, a root beer float: two things at once, both tasty and cohabiting without overpowering each other. We have the root beer of a comedy film here but the ice cream heart of a cop film. And if I can stretch the metaphor a little further, the comedy part (the root beer) runs out first; about halfway through, The Other Guys becomes more of a straightforward police movie (ice cream) without losing sight of the comedy roots that make the first half of the film a gutbuster. That's not to say that the second half is less funny; it's just more cop conscious. Perhaps the best example of this divide is Sam Jackson's presence in the early scenes of the film, providing some of the deepest laughs ("Did someone call 9-1-Holy s**t?") but exiting quickly, leaving the film to be something a little more earnestly police-centric.

Fortunately, all the performers are well-equipped to handle the switch. Though Ferrell is obviously more comfortable with the funny stuff, moments when Gamble grows serious are reminiscent of his stellar turn in Stranger Than Fiction, proving that he's a little better than Michael Cera at switching off the "goofy" setting. Wahlberg, conversely, is more at home as the cop, but he wisely draws on his role as Sgt. Dignam in Scorsese's The Departed (which, if you haven't seen it, is pretty much the greatest movie ever made) to create a compelling police character with a prominent funny bone. Though Coogan is finely restrained (a far cry from Tropic Thunder and Tristram Shandy), the master of comedic timing in the film is Michael Keaton, who's already earned high marks from me for his role as Ken in Toy Story 3; Keaton is fantastic as the exasperated Captain Gene, juggling punchlines about a bisexual DJ son at NYU and a side job as a manager at Bed Bath & Beyond without ever feeling forced. I'm not saying this is an entirely compelling character, but Keaton's delivery certainly prevents the character from feeling like a mere receptacle for outrageous subplot after outlandish character trait. (One final note - is it a rule that Eva Mendes can only appear in cop movies? She's plenty funny as Gamble's "plain" wife, but it's a little jarring that I've only tagged her name in posts about cop movies.)

I want to go back briefly and reexamine the root beer float claim. No, I'm not going to strain the metaphor any more (though you'll probably see the phrase come up several times more on this blog), but I do want to talk a little bit about how movies can be two things at once - and do that well; failure to do so is, after all, one of the most frequently recurring complaints on this blog. I claimed that Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers all do this; Anchorman begins as a slapstick frat pack flick but becomes a commentary on the battle of the sexes, Talladega Nights changes gears between egotistical satire and satire on the cult of celebrity, and Step Brothers lampoons conventional sibling rivalries before metamorphosing (or, as the phrase goes, taking the shape of a unicorn) into a thoughtful meditation on growing up. For some, this can be jarring, but I think McKay's screenplays do a decent job of handling the left-hand turns that I've come to expect - and appreciate - from his work. Kudos, then, Mr. McKay, for doing what I've often said might be impossible. Now if you can get Megan Fox to actually act, then we're in business.

Until then, just keep making funny movies; I'll be in the front row until my sides split.
The Other Guys is rated PG-13 "for crude and sexual content, language, violence and some drug material." I thought it was all pretty tame; there are a few lines between Ferrell and Mendes that push the envelope, and a few sexual jokes crop up, but the most omnipresent objectionable content is the coat of cocaine that envelops Ferrell's red Prius.

Training Day (2001)

Before we begin Depp Week 2010 here at The Cinema King, we're going to flashback to 2001 for a look at the performance that netted Denzel Washington a much-deserved Academy Award: dishonest cop Alonzo Harris in Training Day.

The film is pretty much a Denzel Washington performance with a plot and a few other actors around it, but there's a formula to a Cinema King review, so let's remain consistent: It's Jake Hoyt's (Ethan Hawke) first day on the job as a narcotics officer, and he's assigned to veteran Alonzo Harris (Washington), who's got a mean streak and a penchant for dispensing brutal "street justice." Over the course of 24 hours, Jake has to decide what side of the law Alonzo is on - and what side he himself wants to be on.

I really liked this movie - in fact, I fully expected to - so I'm not going to kid around about it. I've never met a Denzel Washington movie I didn't like, and Training Day is no exception. To keep the food metaphors going, it's a little like a steak - I'd been interested for a long time but was waiting for just the right moment; it didn't disappoint but rather is now something I'll be ready to revisit later (just not every day). It's just delicious. If I have a complaint about this movie, it's that there are scenes where Denzel isn't on camera, and when it's a performance this fine we feel cheated when he's not the permanent center of attention. (Of interesting note: an early choice for the role was Samuel L. Jackson; not sure how that would have compared to what we have here, but it makes me long for a prequel crossover between this and Lakeview Terrace.)

I've said before that the hallmark of any Denzel Washington performance is the way he conveys the fun that he's having into the audience. Maybe it's his infectious grin, or maybe it's his discreet naturalism - whatever it is, it's working. Alonzo Harris is fascinating in a way that a lot of crooked cop characters aren't; where most are fairly one-dimensional, Alonzo is unique in that he's deceptively sympathetic. Like Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, Alonzo is compelling to the extent that the audience might actually begin sympathizing with him - coming from Alonzo, taking drugs and setting up a dealer for a fall all sound like good ideas until we remember that this is the bad guy talking. It's not difficult to see, then, why Jake begins to be seduced by Alonzo's ideas; Hawke's performance doesn't hurt, either, since here he's as good as he was in Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

It's part of the trivia surrounding Training Day that its screenplay was written by one man and one man only, with no team of rewriters - David Ayer, who does a taut job introducing plot aspects and tying together loose ends which seem at first to be disconnected. The dialogue is sterling, too, realistic while still presenting itself as quotable: Denzel's closing monologue is already a staple for Denzel impressionists, and you'll be riffing a few of your favorite lines in the days to come, I'll bet. Fuqua's direction is on top, too, particularly in a grueling scene in which Jake finds himself at gunpoint in a room full of angry gang members.

But the film's greatest strength is turning Denzel loose and letting him work his magic. That alone - the opportunity to see one of the greatest living actors work his magic in a role that isn't exactly the type he's known for. Training Day is a far cry from John Q (the film that introduced me to Denzel), but it's as compelling a performance as any other one he's given... and maybe it's even his best (I'm still enamored with Malcolm X as the topper).
Training Day is rated R "for brutal violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief nudity." Definitely one of the more in-your-face violent movies, without shyness when it comes to gore or intensity; of course there are F-bombs galore and some heavy drug use in a few scenes, as well as an attempted rape and a fleeting scene of out-of-focus nudity.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Youth in Revolt (2009)

It's been said that Michael Cera only plays the same character - the gangly, awkward teenager with his unrequited emotions on his sleeve and a mouth full of verbose non sequiturs. In a sense, Youth in Revolt is a response to that theory; here Cera plays a character desperate to reinvent himself as a "dangerous" casanova. This reinvention is fascinating, but much else about Youth in Revolt is otherwise fairly forgettable, marking potential but leaving the audience with little more than in-the-moment laughs.

Cera stars as the unfortunately named Nick Twisp, the standard Cera character, forced to relocate to a trailer park after his mother (Jean Smart) and her lover Jerry (Zach Galifianakis) are involved in selling a dud car to a few sailors. There Nick meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a girl he recognizes instantly as the love of his life despite the fact that she's already seeing someone. Sheeni's less convinced, encouraging him to "be bad" so that the two can move closer together once Nick is forced to move in with his father (Steve Buscemi). In order to be Sheeni's dream man, Nick crafts a "supplementary persona," Francois Dillinger (also Cera) - a chain-smoking, mustachioed arsonist. Oh yeah, and Fred Willard shows up a few times as Nick's uber-liberal neighbor Mr. Ferguson, who's more often than not eating those kinds of mushrooms.

First, the bad news. Zach Galifianakis isn't even in this movie. Sure, he has screen time, but his trademark stage presence is nowhere to be found; he plays a much more subdued, muted version of himself for the twenty minutes he's in the movie. That's right; it's sort of a spoiler, but the-man-who-would-be-Alan disappears from the film before we've had a chance to get to know his character. It's sort of a letdown, but it's a problem that plagues the rest of the film, too; Buscemi is almost a non-presence in the film, Justin Long peeks his head in for a bit of overplayed stoner humor, and the only thing genuinely funny about Willard's near-cameo is that Fred Willard is on the screen - otherwise, it's a part that could have been played by anyone capable of lying face-down on shag carpet. I haven't even mentioned Ray Liotta, who's also here. Liotta plays another cop, this one a potential paramour for Jean Smart's character, yet my problem here is the same one I had in Observe and Report - namely, that Liotta seems to be slumming. He's obviously talented and does a good job with what he has, but between this and a bit part on Hannah Montana, I'm close to putting Liotta on the "could have been" pile.

The film belongs almost entirely to the two Ceras, who are more than capable of supporting a movie on their own weight (it's just that I hate to see people like Buscemi, Liotta, and Willard reduced to being extras, when they're capable of so much more). Though Cera's definitive role for me will always be Superbad (George Michael on Arrested Development garners a close second), he does a very good job here, mumbling his way through the more awkward parts but doing it all with a sincerity that almost makes you forget this is but a variation on the same character he's been playing his whole career. His turn as Francois Dillinger is the more inspired of the two roles, since Dillinger is cool and confident (inspired, the film implies, by the iconic Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's Breathless), and it demonstrates there's a little room for growth in Cera's resume. Indeed, Dillinger provides the most laughs in the film, both because it's slightly incongruous for Cera to be speaking lines like "Thanks for breakfast" before overturning his cereal bowl and spitting on the carpet and because Dillinger is so cool about it that he himself seems almost a non sequitur in the movie.

So Dillinger is the star, and his role alone is worth the price of admission, but there are serious problems with the film's own identity. I referred to Sheeni as a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" with my tongue firmly in cheek and a note of disdain because I'm growing tired of this stock character that's overstayed her welcome. Perhaps, then, that is the best thing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did for me - put nails in the coffin of the MPDG by exposing her as a fallacy. Early in Youth in Revolt, Nick tells us that the difference between real life and movies is that "In the movies the good guy gets the girl. In real life it's usually the prick." Fair enough; one might expect the movie to go the route of (500) Days of Summer, deconstructing the conventional plot threads while grounding the film in a sense of realism. And it seems to do that for a while; Nick remains obliviously in love with Sheeni while she seems to be willing to dismiss him as a "summer fling," but somewhere near the halfway mark the film becomes the same old story we've seen a million times before - boy overcomes obstacles to be with girl happily ever after. It's frustratingly inconsistent, both because of what the movie has already told us (these endings don't happen) and because of what the movie has already showed us (Sheeni is unwilling to leave her boyfriend Trent for Nick). I'm not averse to changing gears mid-stream, but here it seems purposeless, forced, and implausible. (See Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist for a way to do this shift correctly).

Youth in Revolt, then, is a little like a chocolate chip cookie. When you look at it on the shelf, it looks like exactly what you've been craving. As you're indulging in it, it's delicious. As you're almost done with it, you start to become disappointed. Once it's gone, it doesn't wash so well because you realize it's insubstantial - almost exactly like all the other cookies you've had. But it tasted good doing down, so perhaps that's all that matters.
Not for the kiddies, Youth in Revolt snagged an R rating "for sexual content, language and drug use." Frank sexual dialogue and implications and F-bombs fly freely, and a few scenes revolve around psychotropic mushrooms and marijuana.

Memento (2000)

Memento was Christopher Nolan's first big picture (a smaller film called Following preceded it), but it's indicative of the caliber of filmmaker Nolan is that Memento displays none of the unpolished nascence that many "early films" possess. Instead, it's a smart film, engaging in many of the same ways that Nolan's other films are.

The protagonist of Memento is Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance salesman who, following the murder of his wife, is no longer able to form new memories; since he has only a weak short-term memory, Leonard must write down or photograph anything he needs to remember. Leonard is aided by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss, in her pre-Matrix days), who has also lost someone, and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a cop who apparently was one of Leonard's wife's attackers. Take note - that's not a spoiler. The entire film is told backwards, with Leonard killing Teddy at the beginning of the film. Consequently, the film unwinds in reverse, putting the audience in Leonard's shoes as we try to connect scenes and uncover motivations.

The hallmark of any Christopher Nolan movie is its intellect, and Memento is as sharp as anything else Nolan's done thus far - perhaps even smarter than its successors (though Inception is pretty darned brainy). What's particularly brilliant about Memento is the way that it creates and sustains audience interest by forcing us to feel the psychological plight of Leonard; just as he cannot remember where he has been, so too are we left in the dark, fumbling for answers about backstory. When Leonard asks himself (as he does repeatedly), "Where am I?" the audience is asking right along. But the added level of ingenuity comes from the fact that the film doesn't simply feel like it was written forward and then put backward; the screenplay instead makes perfect sense in its own nonlinear format, spiraling backward to answer one mystery while asking yet another. It's like Lost at its most addictive, with a plot twist every five minutes - only here, the mysteries matter, and most of them are answered at the ending.

No, Memento doesn't tie everything in a neat little bow; like a crazy straw, it forces the viewer to work hard and only then follow the path that the film has taken. If you're coming to a Christopher Nolan movie without moral noir in your bloodstream, you're in the wrong theater. Memento, like everything else Nolan has done, is marked by brutally murky shades of moral ambiguity, especially once the film reveals who's lying to whom (hint: the lies we tell ourselves, the film suggests, may be the deadliest of all). Consequently, the film hits what might be a slip-up for some; Memento appears on first glance (and even on second) to fail to explain the significance of the story of Sammy Jankis, here heartbreakingly played by the criminally underrated Cinema King-favorite Stephen Tobolowsky. Sammy Jankis suffers from the same disorder Leonard does, and Leonard tells the story of Sammy Jankis throughout the film; he even has "Remember Sammy Jankis" tattooed on his hand. But remember him why? The lies told by characters throughout the film call into question the integrity of the Sammy Jankis narrative, to the point where you'll ask the question that almost every Nolan film inevitably invites - is any of this even real? If the ambiguity weren't intentional, I'd be complaining, but I think I've got it cracked, anyway. (Hint: it's all about lying.)

But there are other things going on in the film other than cerebral interrogations of morality and the art of knowing things. There are some very good performances, chief among them Pearce's; though Pearce has been a favorite of mine since his turn as the villainous Mondego in 2002's The Count of Monte Cristo, Memento is probably his strongest role, equal parts mysterious and mystified and perfectly plausible as a man with all the answers but who has forgotten where he has put them. Moss is solid and a little shady as Natalie, making me mourn the fact that The Matrix series seems to have put an otherwise promising career on hold, and as Teddy "Joey Pants" reminds me how delightfully seedy he always is (particularly in his top role, as the scummy Ralphie on The Sopranos). And I've already praised Tobolowsky, with whom readers should know I'm cinematically in love.

Memento is certainly not for everyone. It's intelligent unlike a lot of what Hollywood's churning out, but its downer note on the human condition's tragic attraction to self-destructive moral uncertainty. But for anyone acquainting themselves with Nolan's oeuvre, Memento is a fine place to continue your sojourn. Just try to keep up.

Memento is rated R "for violence, language and some drug content." The violence gets a little on the bloody side in a few fight scenes, and the film isn't shy about F-bombs (about 75). There's some brief discussion about rape, an implied romantic interlude, and fleeting rear nudity during a fight scene that seems like a precursor to Eastern Promises.