Monday, February 27, 2012

Monday at the Movies - February 27, 2012

Welcome to Week Nine of “Monday at the Movies.” Last night was Oscar night, and I realized I only saw one out of the nine nominated Best Picture films, but there seemed to be a few other films that cropped up in the acting categories. I’ve already reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rango, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so here are two more Oscar-nominated films from the past year.

Bridesmaids (2011) – Touted as “The Hangover for ladies,” Bridesmaids is something more than that because, rather than repeat a line of gags (as funny as those are in The Hangover), the film goes for an actual story anchored by a series of absurdly escalating vignettes around wedding planning. Because it was billed as “for ladies,” I was surprised by how much bathroom humor was present (saying something, I think, about gender politics in 2011) – not that I don’t find that kind of humor extremely funny, as when bad Brazilian food induces Maya Rudolph to defecate in the middle of the street (beneath the folds of a wedding dress, for those who have delicate constitutions). Melissa McCarthy snagged a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her outgoing and outrageous performance as raunchy bridesmaid Megan, although I’m not sure that anyone expected the nomination; it’s certainly strong acting, but nothing about it screamed “Oscar!” for me. In part, that’s because the ensemble cast in the movie is also strong – Jon Hamm as a sleazy beau, Rose Byrne as the one-upping aspirant to the “maid of honor” title, and the sweet and clean-cut Ellie Kemper who doesn’t quite get enough screen time. It’s ultimately not as rewatchable as The Hangover, but it’s not two hours that I regret spending in the first place.

Hugo (2011) – I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m a huge Martin Scorsese fan, and the promise of his first 3-D movie was enough for me to give the entire visual gimmick a second try. Here’s another case of a film being billed as something it isn’t – I was told this was Scorsese’s “children’s film” made for all-ages as distinct from his other, more violent work. But the film is actually Scorsese’s love song to the work of early cinema pioneers like Georges Méliès, whose Voyage to the Moon plays a pivotal role in the film. Young orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives in a train station with his late father’s few belongings, including a mysterious key-operated automaton. The key comes into his life around the neck of Isabelle (Chloe “Hit Girl” Moretz), leading Hugo into a brave new world populated by cinematic dreams and hope for a magical future. I don’t want to spoil many of the little delightful surprises tucked into this deceptively complex film, but beyond the remarkable ensemble cast (including Sacha Baron Cohen as the sneaky station security, Michael Stuhlbarg as film historian René Tabard, and Sir Ben Kingsley as a train station toymaker) there’s a particularly strong soundtrack offered by Howard Shore, catchy and whimsical without losing sight (or sound?) of the powerful emotions the film elicits. As a meta-reflection on the magic of the movies, Hugo doesn’t disappoint and will leave audiences wistfully and blissfully satisfied.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Monday at the Movies - February 20, 2012

Welcome to Week Eight of “Monday at the Movies.” Between rewatching the first season of Alias (say what you want about subsequent years, but that was a hell of a freshman season) and reading Samuel Richardson’s 1,500 epistolary novel Clarissa (which, according to Ian Watt, birthed the English-language novel), I haven’t had a chance to watch a single movie this week. Instead, I’ll start something I’ve always been meaning to do – a few reviews to get you ready for the second-most anticipated movie of Summer 2012... The Avengers. Since I’ve already reviewed The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Iron Man 2 on this site, we’ll look at the two most recent additions to the series.

Thor (2011) – Kenneth Branagh isn’t the first choice for a comic book movie director, but there’s a reason the Internet was disheartened when he announced he wasn’t returning for the sequel. Branagh brings his background in Shakespeare to bear in Thor, which blends perfectly the high theology and overwhelming pride of Asgard and the Norse deities with the restrained and comic scenes on planet Earth. When Thor falls from the heavens, we feel his pain, but angst is not the order of the day; instead, we’re treated to a never-too-ludic “fish out of water” narrative in which Thor finds himself unable to blend into human society. What’s unique here is that almost everyone is a scene-stealer: Tom Hiddleston as the trickster Loki, Anthony Hopkins as paterfamilias Odin, Kat Dennings as Natalie Portman’s sassy assistant Darcy, and Stellan Skarsgård as Swedish (and occasionally intoxicated) scientist Erik Selvig. Even Natalie Portman, who’s sometimes insufferable off-camera, is charming sweet, and intelligent as Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest. It’s a fantastic cast with a powerful story behind it, and it’s all grounded by Chris Hemsworth, whose turn as Thor is undeniably the centerpiece of a story which hangs together on his not-unimpressive shoulders. I’ve never read a Thor comic book, and what’s nice is that the film doesn’t assume you have; instead, there’s plenty of exposition and Norse mythology dabbled in without ever feeling too cumbersome. Even better, the film cues itself for a sequel without feeling unfinished, and the nods toward The Avengers likewise don’t necessitate another film to complete the narrative arc of this delightful movie.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – The second Avengers film of 2011 takes us all the way back to World War II and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny shrimp turned super soldier by way of Stanley Tucci’s magic elixir. Rebranded as Captain America, Steve ventures overseas to fight the Nazis and their secret weapon, The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, who chews a bit of scenery but never fails to remind us why he’s perfectly cast as a villain). This is another Marvel flick with a wonderful cast, including Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, the aforementioned Tucci, and the obligatory but still delightful cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. I was always a fan of Joe Johnston’s other superhero flick, The Rocketeer, and Johnston channels his WWII nostalgia here, creating a perfectly retro atmosphere without feeling less than modern. Marvel fans may balk at the presence of Chris Evans after his lackluster Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four (the subject, perhaps, for another Monday at the Movies), but his Captain America is respectful and dignified, and I can’t wait to see how he handles the time disjunction that happens when Cap joins The Avengers sixty years after the events of this film. (Don’t worry, the logistics of how that works is covered in this film, although it’s governed by what’s known colloquially as “comic book logic.”) There’s more action in this than in Thor, making it a perfect popcorn pick with an emotional punch at the end.

Come May you’ll see a full review of The Avengers when it’s released, as well as that “most anticipated” movie of 2012 from the Distinguished Competition.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday at the Movies - February 13, 2012

Welcome to Week Seven of “Monday at the Movies.” Only one movie this week, and right in time for Valentine’s Day, to boot!

Wedding Crashers (2005) – I’d forgotten how funny this movie is, partly because I can see retrospectively how much influence this had on the buddy comedy genre in the past seven years. The premise is simple: Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play divorce mediators who crash weddings in order to score notches on their bedposts, but their plans go askew after they’re invited to the weekend home of Treasury Secretary Christopher Walken, who very nearly steals the movie altogether. But it’s Vaughn who holds court over the entire film; although Wilson is ostensibly the romantic lead in a love triangle with Rachel McAdams and a cusp-of-fame Bradley Cooper, Vaughn nails every line, eliciting guffaw after belly laugh with memorable lines like “You lock it up!” and “You and I both know I’m a phenomenal dancer.” And unlike most comedies, there are very few parts that drag, with each bit character having a specific trait that lends itself to laughs, like the nutty old grandmother or the uncredited surprise cameo of Chaz Reinhold (which I won’t spoil for the three people in the world who haven’t seen the movie yet). Seven years out, though, it’s impossible not to notice the legacy the film has left – the rapid-fire overlapping dialogue (our generation’s His Girl Friday?), the appearance of a star who’s funny just to look at (Walken), the supporting role chaired by a future leading man (Cooper), the cameo from a comedy superstar (Chaz)... the list goes on. Wedding Crashers is one party you’ll want to be invited to – and then crash – again and again.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Monday at the Movies - February 6, 2012

Welcome to Week Six of “Monday at the Movies,” in which I’m continuing our theme from last week. Since the only movie I watched this past week was Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (a full review is already available on this site), let’s take a look at three more Batman animated films and see how they stack up.

The Batman/Superman Movie (“World’s Finest,” 1996) – Bridging the gap between two Batman cartoon series and connecting Batman to the Superman animated mythos, this three-episode arc of Superman: The Animated Series works extremely well edited together as a short movie, in large part because of the strong voice cast (which I praised at length last week). Here, The Joker finds himself strapped of cash but in possession of a large quantity of Kryptonite; he offers his services to Lex Luthor, leading Batman and Superman to collaborate in order to stop this lethal alliance. Batman is placed out of his element, a dark knight in sunny Metropolis, but the film finds a good place for him, and the team-up with Superman feels neither forced nor guaranteed. That is, the film strikes a comfortable balance between Superman’s cheery disposition and Batman’s grim and brooding ethos, between Lex’s disdain and Joker’s anarchy. Caught in the middle is Lois Lane, whose emotional vacillations are nuanced perfectly by Dana Delaney. And the rest of the voice cast is spot-on, as with any DC animation from the era – Tim Daly as the omnipotent but vulnerable Superman, Kevin Conroy as distinctly both Batman and Bruce Wayne, Clancy Brown as a tight-lipped and gravelly Lex Luthor, and of course Mark Hamill back as the clown prince of crime, The Joker. While some resented the visual update to the Batman style, it’s only the redesign of The Joker that feels somewhat less than perfect (I miss the red lips). It’s somewhat lighter fare than Mask of the Phantasm, but it’s as close to a perfect Batman/Superman team-up that we’ve seen on film or television.

Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) – Critical consensus suggests that this film is better than Mask of the Phantasm (100% on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to Phantasm’s 87%), and while I’m not willing to go that far, I will say that Under the Red Hood is the best animated Batman venture since. Grieving the murder of Jason Todd (Robin II) at the hands of The Joker, Batman is forced to reconcile with his past when a new player in town is murdering the Gotham mob, working his way up to the top boss, Black Mask. While I’m a big fan of Judd Winick’s original comic series on which this film was made, I was skeptical of the new voice cast being used. Fortunately, newcomers Bruce Greenwood (Batman) and John DiMaggio (The Joker) serve as worthy successors to Conroy and Hamill; even Neil Patrick Harris is undistracting as Nightwing, but Wade Williams steals the show with his over-the-top Black Mask, at once a self-parody and a fearsome tyrant. But beyond the voice cast, the film itself captures the emotional essence of Winick’s original, even if some plot points are changed along the way; we understand very readily what Jason Todd meant to Batman, and we can tell very early on why the Red Hood and Batman philosophically collide as they do. And if it didn’t make sense already, the movie’s haunting last scene – a flashback to Jason’s days as Robin – will leave you clamoring to experience the film once more.

Batman: Year One (2011) – Here’s another case of a classic comic adapted by a new voice cast, but this time the results are a bit more disappointing – though not unworthy of viewing. Frank Miller’s iconic soft reboot of Batman’s origins gets adapted with Benjamin McKenzie as Batman and Bryan Cranston as soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon in this retelling of the first year in which Batman and Gordon fight crime, first separately then collaboratively. Again my skepticism of the voice cast arose and for the most part was not unfounded; while McKenzie’s emotionless voiceover captures Bruce Wayne’s internal deadness, it’s less engaging than I feel Conroy would have made it. The real star, though, is Cranston’s Gordon, who’s given the most screen time and surpasses the voice work done by Bob Hastings in the 1990s cartoon, approaching the definitiveness of Gary Oldman in the Nolan films. The film’s biggest detriment, though, is its overzealous devotion to the source material, leading to a few dead ends that don’t quite work on film. The plotline with Catwoman, for example, doesn’t quite go anywhere (even the DVD back-up short doesn’t help), nor does the diminished presence of Batman do justice to his appearance on the cover. I can’t help feeling that if the film had been titled Jim Gordon: Year One, I wouldn’t have this same complaint. The movie does, however, do a good job translating Gordon’s rise and struggles, and Cranston ably proves himself a superb Gordon. (And who can resist Alex “Moe Greene” Rocco voicing Gotham’s top Mafioso Carmine Falcone?)

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!