Category Archives: Movie Reviews

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘THE MUPPETS’

As a moviegoer these days, you’ve got to be wary of Hollywood’s manipulative attempts to pull dollars out of unsuspecting pockets through nostalgia. Those who grew up devouring the cartoons and assorted creative properties of the late 1970’s and early 80’s have become prime targets for the major studios’ seemingly endless parade of re-makes, re-boots, and re-imaginings of these cherished pop culture touchstones. But sweet sentimentality can go only so far without well-developed characters and a solidly-constructed narrative. Thankfully, The Muppets is one of those rare instances where heartfelt reminiscence is blended in perfectly with an excellent production.

The premise of The Muppets is kept intentionally simple to allow the audience to re-discover their love for Kermit and the gang: A brief and amusing prologue introduces us to an “everyMuppet” named Walter who – along with his very tall and very human brother Gary (the goofy, gleeful Jason Segel) – grew up watching Muppet Show re-runs and idolizing Kermit the Frog. During a tour of the long-abandoned Muppet Studios in Los Angeles with Gary and his girlfriend Mary (the sweet-as-pie Amy Adams), Walter eavesdrops on a nefarious plot by evil oil tycoon Tex Richman (the scenery-chewing Chris Cooper) to raze the Muppet Studios and drill for some black gold underneath the property. Horrified that his longtime idols are about to lose their former home, Walter enlists Gary and Mary to help him find Kermit and the rest of the Muppets so that they can re-unite for a telethon at the theater to raise the $10 million necessary to retain the deed to the property.

The film keeps the necessary Muppet film caveats intact: Muppets living alongside humans, constant fourth-wall breakage, numerous silly-yet-sweet musical numbers, and of course, the trademark charming, cornball vaudevillian humor that modern audiences likely haven’t experienced since Kermit and Miss Piggy tied the knot in 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan. All of these elements work effectively and mix seamlessly with some modern-humor flourishes such as The Moopets – a hard-edged, cynical group of Muppet dopplegangers dressed in gangsta attire, tats, and goatees. Or the painfully honest sequence where network-head Rashida Jones informs the Muppets that they are way off of the current pop culture radar; their cheesey humor and song-and-dance numbers long forgotten and replaced with reality fare like Punch Teacher (In which the reliably maniacal Ken Jeong urges kids to, well…punch their teachers).

Minor pacing issues aside, the only real flaw of The Muppets is the same issue that has plagued Muppet projects since Jim Henson passed away – the voice work. No living soul can ever hope to duplicate the subtlety and true emotion that Henson brought to Kermit, Rowlf, Dr, Teeth and others (the same goes for Frank Oz’s Miss Piggy and Fozzy the Bear), but the voice work on display in this movie is by far the best it’s been since the mid-1980’s (The old hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, still aren’t even close, however). At times, Walter’s story and the relationship drama between Gary and Mary (he wants to be there for his brother, she wants him to devote more time to her and propose) threaten to eat away at the film’s running time; throwing a monkey wrench into the main ambition of the production – namely, the resurrection of Jim Henson’s felt creations back into the cultural vernacular. Thankfully, Segel’s script knows when to veer away from the obligatory human element and focus on Kermit, Fozzy, Gonzo, Miss Piggy as they try to recapture the chemistry and camaraderie they once shared.

It’s obvious to anyone who has ever seen Segel’s brilliant puppet musical number at the end of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that he has a deep-seeded love for Henson’s menagerie. With the help of his longtime writing partner Nicholas Stoller, that affection is on full display in The Muppets. The duo do their best to let all the characters shine – everything a Muppet fan could want in a movie is here, from Gonzo’s zany stuntman antics to Fozzy’s corny jokes to the Swedish Chef’s classic BORK BORK BORKS!. Under the stylish direction of James Bobin, whose previous work includes Da Ali G Show and the delightfully insane Flight of the Conchords, The movie plays like a big-budget event picture; not the previous cheap, half-hearted Muppet productions like Muppet Treasure Island or Muppets in Space. Bret McKenzie, one-half of the aforementioned comedy musical act Flight of the Conchords, provides much of the rousing and sunny musical numbers here, and while they may not live up to the brilliance of Paul Williams jaunty tunes, they are beautifully written and performed (not to mention catchy as hell!).

Though Henson is long gone, his gentle – and genuine – spirit inhabits every frame of The Muppets, somehow watching over his creations and imbuing the film with magic that made Kermit and the gang feel like their old selves for the first time since his untimely death in 1990. The Muppets hits all the right emotional beats (just try not to get choked up when Kermit and the gang launch into “Rainbow Connection”). This film is not nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake; rather it’s a warm, funny, and heartfelt return to glory for a wonderful assortment of oddball characters that at one time nearly matched Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s places in the cultural zeitgeist.

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MOVIE REVIEW – KEVIN SMITH’S ‘RED STATE’

In 1994, this strange little black and white movie called Clerks entered my VCR, and changed the way I thought about movies forever.  The movie’s director, Kevin Smith, wrote an entire movie that entertained mostly through dialogue, and almost all of that dialogue was about sex and drugs.  Smith portrayed the character Silent Bob, half of the stoner duo Jay and Silent Bob (who had small but particular roles in the next two Smith movies, and a prominent role in Dogma before getting their only feature film, 2001′s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.)  Clerks was an independent success, and is still a sort of rite of passage with college kids, nearly 20 years later.

It didn’t take Smith too long to feel his first failure, as his sophomore effort Mallrats was panned by critics and ignored at the box office.  Smith jokingly apologized to critics for the film, and strangely enough the film eventually found its footing through VHS and DVD sales (for the record, ‘Rats is my favorite Smith movie.)  Smith’s success waxed and waned through his nearly 20 year career, enjoying highs (his third film Chasing Amy, the aforementioned J&SBSB) and many lows (Jersey GirlCop Out,the Clerks animated TV show, protests over Dogma – though it was still a moderate box office hit.)  Even if Smith has never had a theatrical smash hit, he’s always had a loyal cult following – comprised mostly of film wannabes and stoners –  who bought up the action figures, comics, and shirts with such tenacity that Smith owned two boutique/comic stores, all in the name of the mini-empire he created.

Since 2001, my faith in Smith has dwindled almost to the point of no return.  I own two copies of both Clerks and Mallrats on DVD, yet when I had the chance to purchase 2008′s Zack and Miri Make a Porno for a paltry $5 at Best Buy recently, I left it on the shelf.  I do get a kick out of his Q&A DVDs, and with his recent announcement to retire from directing, I think it would be a wise career move to continue the series; if there is one thing Smith is still good at, it’s telling a funny story.

When it was announced that his next (and apparently penultimate) film was to be Red State – a horror film – my skepticism was high, expecting it to be some dumb ripoff of every stupid torture porn film that fill theaters these days.  After all, it didn’t take long for Smith to jump ship and begin using cameos and sight gags to elicit laughter, something he used to be able to do just through well-timed, witty and sometimes smart dialogue.  Red State kept getting pushed back, leading me to believe this was to be Smith’s first direct to video film (though it has a September 22nd theatrical release date, you can rent it through Zune and iTunes.)

Smith’s 10th movie delves into fresh ground for the 41-year-old film maker, though I’m not convinced he is ready for what he started out to accomplish.  The plot is simple enough – three high school boys plan to meet up with an older woman who will have sex with all three of them.  Once they arrive, they’re in a whole new world, ruled by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), a David Koresh-type religious fanatic who is waging a holy war on queers and fornicators.  Cooper’s followers are made up of only family members, so they can’t be infiltrated by the authorities. When federal agents catch wind that Cooper has finally gone too far, ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) is called in defuse the situation and live with the outcome, whether he believes in it or not.

The film starts off and ends like any typical Smith film, plenty of  juvenile jokes about sex and prison rape, proving that despite new territory, Smith’s still not matured enough as a film maker to make a good film without dick jokes.  These jokes, however, have no place in this movie and make it frustrating to watch.  The film takes a different, and refreshing, tone once they show up to get it on.  Perhaps the writer in Smith hasn’t grown up enough to leave the dirty talk for another movie, but as a director he efficiently demonstrates his progression into deeper techniques.  His camera work is top-notch, which can be accredited to the parallel progression of cinematographer and frequent collaborator David Klein.

Like the camera shots, his actors also appear to have lost the static personality so prominent in his previous work. As I write this I note to myself its very unfair to compare this to his previous work, whereas one-dimensional characters and mise en scene photography are okay in a comedy, they have no place in action/thrillers, and this movie is nothing like his previous work.  In between all the crude dialogue that envelops the movie is the good film, the one I wish I had seen from beginning to end.  It’s very terse, tight, and even shocking.  This is real, no holds barred stuff.  It works as a true thriller, too, as I found myself invested in the dilemmas Keenan and other characters faced.

This isn’t the first time Smith stuck his neck out to make a religious film, before the release of Dogma it had already created controversy and the director, then a newly married and father of a newborn, received death threats before the movie even came out.  Red State is sure to cause an uproar at some point going into its theatrical release, as sensationalists are standing by to jump all over the religious themes and direct aim at zealots.  I commend Smith for sticking with the subject matter and making another film, this time one that may even deserve the notoriety it may receive, should people even care enough to notice Smith made another film.   I also give him credit for knowing his source material enough to build a convincing crazy preacher who quotes scripture at the drop of a hat and not just phoning in a script full of made up drivel.  Though not his best work, Red State is a solid film and with some practice, Smith shouldn’t have much trouble making a decent follow-up to this, hopefully this time without the childish humor  he’s relied on so much.  Assuming, of course, he’s even still making movies.

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘COWBOYS & ALIENS’

Back in the brutal cold of winter, when the promise of warm summer nights spent basking in the glow of countless blockbuster explosions and superhero battles felt like nothing more than a distant dream, a trailer for one of those far off event films played at my local multiplex. It was chock full of everything summer blockbuster audiences flock to: Directed by Iron Man’s Jon Favreau! Dazzling explosions! Spaceships! Gunfights! Laser Blasts! Seat-rattling sound effects! And most importantly, James Bond and Indiana Jones together in one movie! An epic western mixed with an alien invasion!  Then, the title card came up – “Cowboys & Aliens”.

As the text faded from the screen, something about the combination of those words caused the audience I was with to chuckle and snicker. I knew right there that the mainstream audience wasn’t sold and the film was doomed. In a Summer already packed to the rafters with big-ticket sequels, giant robots, and more superheroes than you could shake a power ring at, this movie with the blunt yet high-concept title was going to get lost in the shuffle. I however, held out hope that it would still be an awesome combination of Daniel Craig pseudo “man-with-no-name” bad-assery and Alien-level extra-terrestrial menace.  Unfortunately, while it’s heads and shoulders above similar Old-west meets technology disasters like Wild Wild West and Jonah Hex, Cowboys & Aliens is a mildly entertaining clash of clichés rather than a compelling mixture of genres.

The plot is set in motion when outlaw Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with no memory of who he is, and a strange alien weapon strapped to his wrist. He eventually makes his way to the town of Absolution, a small mining community that barely survives thanks to the cattle trade lorded over by the fearsome former war hero Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). After getting into some trouble in town, Lonergan runs into the mysterious Ella (Olivia Wilde), and is taken into custody by sheriff Taggert (Keith Carradine). However, before Lonergan can be delivered to Federal Marshalls, Dolarhyde rides into town and demands Jake’s head for robbing him of some gold bullion. At this point, alien spaceships appear in the night sky, snatching townsfolk with high-tension ropes. After the attack, Lonergan and Dolarhyde band together with the survivors to track down the aliens and rescue their captured loved ones.

With a title like Cowboys & Aliens, one would expect the aliens to be a unique and  frightening  presence in the film,  but once again, we are subjected to generic grunting creatures in the ID4/Battle L.A./Cloverfield mold that do not communicate their motives or intentions to the humans at all.  We know nothing about them other than what a key character reveals about them late in the movie in an out-of-nowhere exposition dump.  They also happen to be inexplicably dim-witted for such an advanced species.

For instance, why does a technologically advanced alien race come to Earth and capture humans one by one with simple wires shot from their ships? Do they not have tractor beams or transporter technology? Why not simply fly over the town in the giant ship, capture as many humans as needed, then annihilate the rest of the entire town? Why engage the inferior humans in hand-to-hand combat on the ground when you could simply rain laser beams down upon them? I understand that in order to make it seem believable that a technologically inferior race has a fighting chance against the monsters some liberties must be taken, but these plot holes are just a little too nonsensical to overlook.

Despite being populated by stock western characters like the badass drifter, the vicious cattle baron, the honorable sheriff, the bumbling saloon owner, the beautiful prairie woman, the obligatory black-toothed outlaw gang, and of course a tribe of stereotypical hootin’ and peyote-pushin Apache Indians, The classic western aspect of the film is its strong point.  But considering how ineptly handled the aliens are, unfortunately that’s not saying  much.

Harrison Ford is eminently watchable as always, even though he lays the “surly cattle rancher” shtick on a bit too thick at times. Daniel Craig is captivating  in his usual steely eyed way, dismantling humans and aliens alike with a graceful brutality. Sadly, it’s a one-note role  that never develops much of an arc. Olivia Wilde, who manages to make a frumpy prairie dress look impossibly hot, spends most of the film spouting the exposition necessary to help Lonergan regain his memory and get the audience up to speed on his fairly predictable back story. Veteran faces like Clancy Brown, Keith Carradine,  and Sam Rockwell do the best they can with the so-so dialogue that their old-west ciphers spout in between the explosions.

Jon Favreau continues to lose steam as a big summer blockbuster director. Continuing a trend that has only gotten worse since the second half of the first Iron Man film, Favreau drops the ball when it comes to delivering truly spectacular action sequences that have a sense of danger for the characters involved. Although Cowboys & Aliens is competently shot and has a decent narrative structure, it’s ultimately pulled down by clichéd dialogue and a flat screenplay that surprisingly took five screenwriters to produce.

Cowboys & Aliens promises an intriguing mash-up of two successful genres, but delivers only an adequate summer diversion, nothing more. The whole thing  sort of stays on an even keel, shuffling along like a drifter on horseback who sticks to the safe main path and never deviates into unknown frontiers. It’s shame, there might have been more satisfying adventures off  in the caves and valleys.

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER’

As we near the end of Summer Blockbuster season 2011, superhero movies are teetering on the edge of a deadly precipice. One more misstep like the dismal Green Lantern, and public backlash to a glut of capes in the cinema could send an entire genre careening into the abyss. Thankfully, a film has come along that rights the ship and restores faith in the superhero movie – a shining symbol of hope in a morass of mediocrity. Captain America: The First Avenger more than lives up to expectations and is everything you could want in a rollicking Saturday afternoon popcorn adventure.  Not only is it the best comic-book adaptation out of the four  this year, but it just might be the best overall film of the Summer.

Set in the midst of World War II, the film follows “Scrawny” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a frail 90-lb. weakling who repeatedly fails to gain entrance into the armed forces on account of his sickly physical condition. Meanwhile The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), evil head of the Nazi’s “Deep Science” division known as HYDRA, searches for and discovers the Tesseract (Marvel’s famed Cosmic Cube), an ancient artifact belonging to Thor’s Asgardian Gods. With the aid of creepy Nazi scientist Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), he uses the Tesseract to power invincible Sci-fi-influenced weaponry that will turn the tide of the war.

Back at home, Scrawny Steve hangs out with his soon to be deployed best friend Sgt. James “Bucky” Barnes at the World Expo and gets shot down trying to enlist again. But Steve’s sense of honor and big heart garners the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German Scientist now working for the Allies on a super-soldier serum that can transform American troops into Nazi-crushing super-warriors. Steve goes through the candidate training under the command of ornery (and very funny) Sgt. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the gorgeous British officer Peggy Carter(Hayley Atwell). Steve proves his mettle and wins the chance to become the first test subject, which is a complete success, transforming him into the perfect physical specimen and the ultimate hand-to –hand fighting machine known as CaptainAmerica.

The First Avenger successfully combines a heroic World War II tale with elements of Science-Fiction and Nazi relic-hunting adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark. The result is a pulpy, thrilling superhero romp that also knows when to slow down for comedic moments and character development.  Sure the action here is spectacular, but none of it would make a difference if you didn’t care about who Captain America was and what was at stake. Some of the best moments in the film occur when we are learning about Steve’s sense of responsibility and duty to his country and his fellow man, or when Dr. Erskine counsels Steve before his procedure, telling him, “Whatever  happens, stay a good man.”

I had my doubts about Chris Evans when it was announced that he landed the role of Cap, but he completely won me over with his performance. Evans is Captain America, imbuing Steve Rogers with an unapologetic sense of nobility and innocence. It’s so refreshing to see an actor portray a true hero in every sense of the word, without an affected smugness or irony. Chris Evan’s Cap is a man of honor; an everyday Joe just looking to serve his country and do the right thing.  As a longtime comic book fan, it was downright gleeful to see Evans in full Captain America attire in action on the big screen doing things that I had read in countless comic books through the years – throwing his shield at HYDRA goons, jumping through the air off of exploding German war machines,  performing daredevil escapes on a motorcycle, fighting alongside the Howling Commandos, and going toe-to-toe with his arch-nemesis the Red Skull with the fate of the world at stake.

The rest of the film’s cast affords itself well, especially Hayley Atwell as the badass Brit Peggy Carter. She and Steve don’t get to share a drawn-out clichéd romance, but her blossoming affection towards him evolves naturally over the course of events and never feels forced or dull (unlike Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds snoozefest in Green Lantern). Their chemistry is genuine, as is Atwell’s stunning screen presence. Tommy Lee Jones as the gruff Sgt. Phillips is terrific as always; getting the lion’s share of the snappy one-liners.

Comic films often fail or succeed on the quality of their antagonists though, and Weaving as The Red Skull provides a truly menacing villain that’s a classic combination of terrifying appearance and megalomaniacal fervor. The makeup and CGI crew who created the Red Skull’s horrific crimson visage should be commended for pulling the character directly off of the comic page and into the screen. It’s an absolutely perfect translation.

There was some concern that director Joe Johnston, with less-than stellar films like Jurassic Park 3 and the recent Wolfman debacle on his resume, wasn’t a suitable fit to bring the grandeur and glory of Captain America to the big screen. But, as he proved with 1990 cult favorite The Rocketeer, his background in production design (he designed Boba Fett and many iconic starships for George Lucas’ Star Wars saga) makes him a master at capturing a lavish, 1940’s design aesthetic. Every frame of this film is beautifully shot and captures the era perfectly, from the colorful USO propaganda shows, to the grainy newsreel footage, to the secret government science labs complete with old-fashioned dials and electrodes. It’s clear that Johnston just “gets it”. He absolutely nails the visual dynamic and sets just the right tone. All of it is nicely complimented by a triumphant military fanfare-like score by composer Alan Silvestri.

Certainly in this political climate, a Captain America film might have fallen prey to political-minded filmmakers looking to exploit the perceived jingoistic aspects of the character, but Johnston and his screenwriters never let the film get bogged down in heavy handed political metaphor;  instead they embrace Cap’s earnest, flag-waving sensibilities and play everything very straightforward. This is a cut-and-dry good vs. evil story, and a wildly entertaining one…you’d be hard pressed to find a better piece of Summertime escapism at the theater this year.

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART II’

Ten years ago, kiddie-friendly director Chris Colombus took on the challenge of turning one of the true pop-culture phenomenons of the end of the 20th century into a mega-budget, mega-grossing blockbuster film franchise. Although these early entries (The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets) were marred by dodgy CGI, wildly uneven  acting performances by the child cast, and an overabundance of sugar and schmaltz – the franchise came into its own with the arrival of auteur Alfonso Cuaron on the third (and arguably best) film of the saga, The Prisoner of Azkaban.

The films immediately took on a visual depth and a tonal maturity that were largely absent from the introductory adventures. Aesthetically, what was once bathed in a warm amber glow became grim and ashen; and as the young actors came into puberty and honed their craft, they were able to convey true pathos as the stakes were raised. After Cuaron, David Yates came aboard to helm the franchise as it delved into deeper and darker territory, culminating in Professor Dumbledore’s death in The Half-Blood Prince, and the dreary existential journey of Deathly Hallows, Pt. I. If that film was the slow  burn (some would say far too slow), then Deathly Hallows Part II is the exploding powderkeg.

In this second half of the grand finale, the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), and his followers, which include the traitorous Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and the nasty witch Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) have taken over Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Meanwhile, the wand-wielding heroic  trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) set out to finish their quest to find and destroy the remaining  pieces of Voldemort’s soul, which he spread apart over several physical objects (called Horcruxes) in an effort to gain immortality.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is a film that filled me with indifference. It’s a two-hour climax that, more often than not, feels frustratingly anti-climactic. Structurally, it is very similar to Transformers: Dark of the Moon – there is an hour of set-up (highlighted by a gorgeous ride on a white dragon), followed by a spectacular, hour-long  battle full of dazzling light bursts from dueling wizard wands, stone knights battling hideous giants, and spiders the size of volkswagons menacing the school walls.  

For some odd reason, it seems director David Yates, (who ably manned the previous three Potter films) decided to eschew impactful character-driven moments in favor of this murkily-shot spectacle. Major character deaths that stabbed readers in the heart on the written page inexplicably occur off-camera. Perhaps it was an intentional move on the part of Yates to soften the blows for the franchise’s younger disciples, but for more mature fans of the Potter saga, much of the emotional resonance was stripped away.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments that truly hit hard, even for casual viewers of the Potter movies. Harry’s  final confrontation with Voldemort is ominous and rife with tension; Yates allows for dramatic silence during this encounter that makes arm hair stand at attention. Alan Rickman, who has always lent the series the commanding, weighty  presence it needed, is once again masterful here as the complicated Professor Snape. The true motives behind his actions throughout Harry’s life are finally revealed in a moving, well-crafted exposition dump towards the end of the film.

Since Prisoner of Azkaban, the real strength of the Harry Potter saga is the relationship forged between Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Despite the miscues and mis-managed bombast of the final battle, I can ultimately recommend Hallows Part II because these three talented young actors have done a remarkable job of fleshing out their characters and making us care about what happens to them. Without that vital connection,  muggles, quidditch, golden snitches, gillyweed, dementors, and boggarts would just be silly words in a series of movies that have no lasting cultural impact. But thanks to Harry Potter’s message that friendship conquers all, and the realization of that moral by the fine young actors, this saga will endure for generations to come. If only they could have gone out on a bit of a higher note…

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