Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Hurt Locker ****

The Hurt Locker
**** out of ****

Note: This post contains mild spoilers.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my first four-star review since I started this blog. And I can almost guarantee that no one who reads this has seen this movie yet, and less than half of you have even heard of it. The Hurt Locker is an indie movie that audiences can smell a mile away, the kind that the trailers try to sell to them by using blurbs in the trailer like "a really great movie" and such because the footage can't sell itself. It's the kind of movie that regular moviegoers point their noses up at and professional critics have orgasms for, the kind of movie that gets dozens of four-star reviews but in actuality flops at the box office and is generally considered an artsy piece of crap. Well, this is the indie movie for the general population- one that reaches the critics and the audience. (It should be noted that the film isn't really an indie at all; it's produced by Summit Entertainment, a new company that is currently earning bank by making the Twilight movies; it's just getting an indie release, meaning it's playing nowhere for now.)
The film opens with a quote that says, in so many words, that "war is a drug." We see what it means by that: the main character is nothing if not addicted to the thrill he gets from being in a war, from being an inch from death and having the skills necessary to stop his own death. The place is Baghdad, Iraq. The time is 2004. Anyone who doesn't know what's going on then should smack themselves right now. The film follows three Americans in the Army whose job is to find bombs and disarm them. At the beginning, the group is led by a Sergeant Thompson, played by Guy Pearce. A disarming goes badly and he dies. His replacement is Staff Sergeant James, a forty-year-old Army man with the discipline of a third-grader. He doesn't take his job seriously in the slightest, probably because he's defused hundreds of bombs and is the best at what he does. His partner is Sergeant Sanborn, a black man that isn't used to James' work tactics and who clashes with him from the very first day. The youngest member of their group is Specialist Eldridge, who talks to a counsellor and seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, especially after Thompson's death. When the three of them get news of a possible IED, as they call it, they strap their leader up in an explosive suit that makes him look like an astronaut and he goes to try and disarm it.
The first half of the film follows them on a few of these expeditions and the storyline seems rather loose, making the audience wonder where the film is going. The guys talk together, swap stories, they drink and beat each other up. It's not until the second half where we see the point of the film is to portray war as it actually is. They say war is 99% waiting around and 1% sheer terror. This film reflects that perfectly (if the percentages are slightly skewed). It has much more suspense than it does actual combat and shoot-outs. You find yourself gripping the chair, expecting something to happen like in a horror film, and nothing does happen. But just as you're sure nothing will happen, something does, scaring the crap out of you. Just like actual war. The characters are just like real soldiers: these guys aren't heroes, they're just guys in the desert with guns.
The casting is strangley perfect: they cast little-known actors in the leads and big names in small parts to reverse the Hollywood perception of war films, and allowing you to focus on the situation at hand. James is played by Jeremy Renner, who you'll recognize from TV's The Unusuals. Renner plays James as a cocky smartass who's constantly cracking jokes, yet turns it off immediately when there's danger around, because that adrenaline rush is his heroine, and he can't miss a single second of it. Through the course of the film, we see him lose his cool for the first time. Sanborn is played with intensity by Anthony Mackie (Million Dollar Baby, Notorious). While he's a person the audience inherently trusts, he drives one of the most uncomfortable scenes, where he contemplates killing James and making it look like an accident. Brian Geraghty (Bobby, The Guardian) plays the scared kid Eldridge, giving the film a sensitive side. He drives the film's most emotional scene. Ralph Fiennes appears briefly as a soldier they meet in the middle of nowhere, right before being caught in a shoot-out. Lost's Evangeline Lilly has a small part as James' ex-wife back in America, at the end of the movie.
As far as war films go, this one's pretty low-key as it concentrates more on suspense than action. The handheld camerawork makes it all seem more real, but there are a few very cinematic slow-mo shots. Honestly though, the movie is so funny, so gripping, and so addicting to watch that I can't find any serious flaws with it. Even people who don't like war films would be sucked in, although the pervasive language of the soldiers might alienate some viewers. It's without a doubt one of the best films of the year, and- I'm serious- definitely in the top 10 best war films ever made. It's an early Oscar contender, and will surely find its way into the Best Picture race.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes war movies, and suspenseful thrillers.

You can watch the trailer here:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ***1/2

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
***1/2 out of ****

Surely to be the biggest movie of the summer, the sixth Harry Potter film is finally out, after an eight-month delay that infuriated millions of fans worldwide. Well, now they can finally rest easy because not only has the film been released, it's everything they would hope for and more. Of course, some fans aren't so happy about the way the film turned out, but more on that later.
Everyone planning on seeing this movie has undoubtedly already read the book and is familiar with the plot, but here it is anyway: our favorite characters Harry, Ron, and Hermione return to Hogwarts for their sixth year of magical education, where they encounter difficulties not only with their studies but with Voldemort's dark forces on the move. A new character, Professor Slughorn, comes to Hogwarts to teach Potions and immediately becomes fascinated by Harry. Harry finds an old Potions textbook with the instructions scratched out, rewritten, and with random text scribbled in the margins. With this improved text, Harry moves to the front of the class. The book claims to be the property of the Half-Blood Prince, whoever that may be. (If you ask me, this subplot is not important enough to be part of the title.) Romance brews around every corner. Harry discovers he has feelings for Ron's sister Ginny, while Ron and Hermione realize their feelings for each other. But another girl, Lavender, is crazy for Ron (go figure), complicating things. Another subplot involves- fans rejoice!- the glorious return of Quidditch, which was cruelly cut out of the last film. Ron joins the team as the Keeper (basically the goalie) and there is a very impressive match sequence that lightens the mood. Dumbledore recruits Harry to retrieve a memory from Slughorn that is vital to their quest to defeat the Dark Lord. Draco Malfoy has been ordered by Voldemort himself to do something- and Professor Snape has taken a vow to help and protect him in doing it. The plot is thick, like the book and the rest of the films, but most everyone familiar with the literature can follow it.
The cast is absolutely superb. The three leads- Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron, and Emma Watson as Hermione improve on their acting skills as they age, giving their beloved characters depth, humor, and a soul. Tom Felton is surprising as Malfoy; the character has changed, he's more malicious and yet more torn than ever. We actually see him cry in this film. Felton has truly embodied the character. Evanna Lynch returns as the wispy Luna Lovegood, once again providing comic relief. I had my doubts, but now I believe she is perfectly cast. The adult actors, mostly secondary characters, are also pitch perfect. They are led by Dumbledore, grandly played by Michael Gambon in the movie that will define his career. Alan Rickman gets much more screen time as Snape, and Maggie Smith is still grandmotherly yet fierce as Professor McGonagall. Jim Broadbent plays Slughorn as very funny but somewhat creepy, seemingly more interested in fame than education. Sadly, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid only appears in a couple of scenes. Newcomer Hero Fiennes-Tiffin becomes an instant star with just one scene, where he plays an 11-year-old Tom Riddle in a memory where Dumbledore meets him for the first time in an orphanage. His portrayal of a Damien-esque creepy kid is one of the best parts of the film. (Sadly, Ralph Fiennes does not appear as the adult Lord Voldemort.)
David Yates returns as director, but strangely, this film feels differently than the last one. The film is injected with several awkward pauses, mostly for comedic effect, but I was surprised at the number of unintentional awkward pauses, breaks between dialogue that just seem unnatural. For another thing, its rating has moved back down to PG, when the last two films were PG-13. I was afraid this would mean the film was more tame. Well, it is more tame than the last couple of films, but in many ways, it is much more mature. The rating is due to the fact that the film mostly focuses on the humor of classes and young romance, and leaves the fantasy action stuff for the last quarter of the film. There are simply less exciting moments in this film, but that's the way it was in the book as well. There are probably too many sexual innuendos for a PG film, but it's all in good taste. And of course, the film ends with such a devastating cataclysmic event that it changes Harry's world forever, and leaves the viewer thirsty for the next installment.
While the Half-Blood Prince isn't the best in the series (I give the Order of the Phoenix that honor), it delivers an exceptionally well-made summer film, complete with humor, thrills, and amazing special effects that don't overwhelm the story. Hardcore fans of the books- of which there are many- may be disappointed with the amount of stuff taken out, modified, and added. A good example is the first five minutes, of which I'm pretty sure none of the material originated from the novel. While it's true the book is better- it's nearly impossible to make the movies better- this movie is still very aware of the book and owes it a great deal. Movies and books are two totally different mediums; scenes in literature that aren't very cinematic should be changed for the benefit of the film.
I would recommend this film to all fans of the books and movies, and fans of fantasy in general. If you have not seen all of the previous films, it is unlikely you will understand the plot.

You can watch the trailer here:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bruno ***

*** out of ****

I don't think there's ever been an entertainer quite like Sacha Baron Cohen. Search around the world, look through the history books; has anyone devoted so much to a role before? This man will do anything- literally, anything- for a laugh. I would bet he would be willing to die in a role if it was funny enough.
Sacha Baron Cohen, who most people know from Borat, returns in Bruno, a film very much like its predecessor. The plot is completely unimportant, but here it is in a nutshell: Bruno is the flamboyantly gay host of a popular Austrian fashion TV show, until he screws up big in public and gets fired, and he decides to move to Los Angeles to become a huge star. He takes his assistant Lutz along with him (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten, who is also unusually devoted to his role) and after failing to become an actor, attempts to make a show interviewing celebrities. After many failures, including losing his adopted African baby (named O.J.- not kidding), he decides to convert to heterosexuality. Of course, they probably made this story up as they went along.
Like Borat, this film is very unusual bordering on experimental film: a semi-faux documentary with just a handful of actors interacting with real people, with only the cameras and film crew around to give away that it's all a giant hoax. The film plays out like several episodes of Punk'd, if that show was rated X. Meant to expose homophobia and prejudice in people, it succeeds more at just being very funny, and ultimately isn't very deep or discussion-starting. Most people are very much aware of the cameras in the room and are very polite and accepting. It's the people who are not polite who cause the most jaw-dropping scenes in the film. And yes, the film is very funny, although it does have many cringe-inducing moments and excessive sexual humor. A gay sex montage early on is so cartoonishly offensive that it may inspire some people to leave. Not every joke hits home (his thick Austrian accent is sometimes distracting from what he's actually saying), but Baron Cohen proves he has no fear and will stoop to any level for a laugh.
He does manage to dupe some celebrities, very surprising indeed since he himself has become a celebrity since the success of Borat. He manages to punk Harrison Ford, Paula Abdul, and most notably, Ron Paul, who he tries to seduce into making a sex tape. (It doesn't go so well.) There are some wildly histerical and inspired moments, including Bruno interviewing the head of a known terrorist group begging the man to kidnap him, Bruno and Lutz chained together in leather and dildos crossing paths with a God Hates Fags group holding signs, and running into a focus group meeting that has just condemned his new show pilot and then dancing for them.
Bruno is every bit as funny as Borat, although it goes a lot farther in terms of crude behavior. It's not quite accurate to say the film goes over the top sometimes; the film never goes below the top. For this reason, the film could only be found funny by a select group of people, who are open-minded and have an intense love for comedy. Everyone else will probably not get the humor, and find it disgusting. But regardless of whether you like the movie or not, you have to admire Baron Cohen for losing himself completely in the part, never dropping character for a millisecond, even if he's in danger of being physically hurt. (The camera guys are also brave; they get thrashed more than once.) He definitely deserves an Oscar for acting- try putting Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, or any great actor in these situations and see if they keep a straight face, and can produce jokes as outrageous as he does as often as he does. Sacha Baron Cohen is a visionary; it's just he's an extremist, and refuses to make films that appeal to the more mainstream audience.
I would recommend this film to everyone who liked Borat or is familiar with Baron Cohen's comedy, and people who like reality prank shows.

You can watch the trailer here:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Public Enemies ***

Public Enemies
*** out of ****

The Oscar race seems to be starting early this year. A summer film rarely gets remembered when it comes time to vote for the best in Hollywood, but something tells me voters will remember this film.
Michael Mann has crafted an intelligent period crime drama that features stellar performances from the entire cast. The year is 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression. (At least that's when the movie opens; it's unclear how much time has passed by the end.) The script focuses on two main characters: John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber; and Melvin Purvis, the famous FBI agent hunting Dillinger. The cat-and-mouse game is seen from both angles and the triumphs and mistakes of these two intelligent men are supremely entertaining. Johnny Depp makes another career-defining performance as Dillinger, a private man that doesn't let people in easily, and so we learn very little about him. We know that he's very suave and loves being a celebrity. He's violent but doesn't kill people unless he feels he has to. Christian Bale (another actor having a very good summer; see: Terminator: Salvation) plays Purvis, a man who seems to have no private life at all: he has devoted his entire life to catching and killing John Dillinger.
The movie opens with Dillinger breaking his gang out of prison and then going on the run. Purvis is promoted to the head of the Chicago police and starts his Dillinger investigation. The gang continues robbing banks and eluding the police. Eventually Dillinger is captured, arrested, and sent to prison, where he escapes after about ten minutes and gets away with as much charisma and cool as James Bond. Purvis seems to take this personally and intensifies the investigation, resulting in multiple deaths. The movie's long ending chronicles Dillinger's death, (spoiler here if you don't know your history) in which he is betrayed by a friend and shot after walking out of a movie. Interestingly, the movie was a Clark Gable gangster flick, which the filmmakers clunkily try to put into the plot and help bring the film to a close. The dialogue is also noteworthy here. All of the 30's jargon makes sense and sounds accurate, and Depp always has the best lines. My personal favorite, used brilliantly in the trailer: "We're too good for 'em. They ain't tough enough, smart enough, or fast enough. I can hit any bank I want, anytime. They got to be at every bank, all the time." Another line destined to be a classic: "What's the score?" See the movie to find out why.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Billie Frechette, played by the regal Marion Cotillard. Dillinger meets Billie by chance and quickly and easily sweeps her off her feet and makes her his girl. Despite what you'd think, Billie is not stupid or slutty, just a country girl looking for adventure, and finding it in this real-life Robin Hood. All three leads- Depp, Bale, and Cotillard- deserve Oscar nominations for thier portrayals of real-life people in this unsettling time. It's already pretty much guaranteed its win for Best Costume Design.
Other stars appear in smaller parts, and they each serve their purpose. Billy Crudup (of recent Watchmen fame) plays J. Edgar Hoover, who is desperate to catch Dillinger to defend his reputation. David Wenham (Faramir in The Lord of the Rings movies) plays one of Dillinger's gang members who he springs from jail. Channing Tatum has a small but cool role as Pretty Boy Floyd, a criminal on the run who Purvis kills early on. Lost's Emilie de Ravin has a painfully small part as a woman Dillinger kidnaps from a bank heist and uses as cover so the cops won't shoot him.
There seems to be some hate out there for this film, and I think I can pinpoint the reason why: the trailer advertises it as a complex action thriller, and while it does have plenty of shoot-outs, prison escapes, and bank heist sequences, it is predominantly a character-driven drama. The handheld camerawork gives the audience a fly-on-the-wall feeling as if you were riding in the same car with these people. It also rarely uses a musical score to make the action seem more real, and sometimes this backfires: although the film moves along very quickly for its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the lack of music seems to make some scenes drag. Some audience members also seem to be turned off by the fact that we don't get to know these characters very well, but I think that's intentional; these people lived in the public spotlight, and so we see what they showed to the public.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes crime films, noir films, Johnny Depp, or Michael Mann.

You can watch the trailer here:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen **1/2

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
**1/2 out of ****

Oh, Michael Bay, you crack me up. You make these movies, thinking they're the biggest and most epic things in the world, and they're really just little films that look like they're made by children. The only difference is, your childish films cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. (And, I'll admit, have Oscar-worthy special effects. Which is hardly a saving grace.)
This sequel to the 2007 smash hit is pretty much the same as the first, just with a slightly different storyline. It starts out with Sam (the still-charming Shia LaBeouf) going off to college away from his hottie girlfriend Mikaela (the still-dull Megan Fox). If that sounds like a slightly interesting story, don't worry. He doesn't stay there long. The film quickly takes him away from college and instead chooses to put him in the middle of big action sequences that are much more interesting than boring ol' classes. The plot involves a robot stalking Sam, naturally in the disguise of a hot girl, and then them all going to Egypt to find some ancient key to stop an invading Decepticon inexplicably named the Fallen. All the important characters return, including the soldiers now fighting alongside the Autobots, Sam's wacky parents, neither of which can get a clue, and in a rare stroke of genius, Agent Simmons, former head of the now-debunked Sector 7. Bringing back John Turturro for the second half of the film is a welcome surprise and brings actual comic relief. A notable new character is Leo, Sam's new roommate, who is a pathetic coward and never opens his mouth without something stupid coming out. (I read the part was originally offered to Jonah Hill. I can easily imagine that.) All the robots are back, including Optimus Prime and Megatron- back from the dead- and even some new Autobot sidekicks. Two such sidekicks are incredibly annoying (and slightly offensive) twins named Wheelie and Skids, constantly fighting Autobots who have way too much screen time and bring nothing whatsoever to the film. They're both voiced by Tom Kenny, who also does Spongebob Squarepants, and you can tell it's him.
The film's main flaw is that it often drifts off into silliness, ignoring the story, the characters, and the running time in favor of sex jokes, drug jokes, and even robot testicle jokes. It's all incredibly childish and unnecessary, especially for an action movie that tries to be as big a deal as this one does. Also, the film goes on way too long, and could've done with a trim. Despite it dragging on way past the point where the audience has lost interest, it ends very suddenly, without wrapping anything up, leaving the audience slightly confused (assuming, of course, they were paying attention, which most people probably were not). LeBeouf's real-life hand injury is poorly written into the film and then just ignored, leaving the audience to wonder where they got the time to put such a big, bulky cast on his wrist.
Rainn Wilson has an amusing cameo as Sam's astronomy professor. (The late Bernie Mac had a similar such cameo in the first film.) Sam has a mental breakdown in his class, the result of touching a shard of the All Spark. Scenes like this remind us of how good an actor LaBeouf really is, and that he belongs in much better movies than these.
Most people see the film just for the giant robot fight scenes, in which the film has plenty of and delivers with pizzazz and headache-inducing camera pans. The film is watchable because of these lengthy fight scenes, which are really the whole point of making a movie like this. The potty jokes are put in between the fight scenes because the filmmakers can't think of anything else to entertain us with. Of course, there is the sweeping musical score and the awesome rock soundtrack, including an original song by Linkin Park. The band also contributed to the score; as an avid fan, I was thrilled.
Revenge of the Fallen is the perfect example of what a summer film has become: a giant mess of a movie with huge action scenes, eye-popping special effects, very little heart, and stupid dialogue with lines like "Let's roll." It also made an obscene amount of money, proving that audiences just don't care. These kinds of movies are said to be critic-proof, which means that whoever reads this review will either see the movie anyway or continue to love it despite my harsh words. Which, frankly, is the way it should be.
I would recommend this film to anyone who liked the first film, and people who like big, dumb action movies.

You can watch the trailer here:

Year One **

Year One
** out of ****

The trailer gives away pretty much everything from Year One. As with many comedies nowadays, the previews for the film give away the funniest parts of the movie and leave little else for you to feast on. Despite there being a joke every five seconds or so, the film doesn't rack up many laughs, but honestly, what more did you expect?
The premise of the film is putting characters who act like modern people in prehistoric times. Hence, the presence of Jack Black as loser caveman hunter Zed and Michael Cera as loser caveman gatherer Oh. The opening of the film establishes that these guys are losers who can't get women or even dinner, and are quickly kicked out of the tribe. They go over the mountains, farther than any caveman's ever traveled before, and have many adventures based on stories ripped from the Bible. The inane plot involves Cane murdering his brother Abel (a humorous scene with David Cross as villain and Paul Rudd as victim); trying to save their crushes from slavery; meeting Abraham, played with unfunny gusto by Hank Azaria, who wants to cut off their foreskins; and ultimately trying to dethrone an evil king, played by Xander Berkeley. There's a couple gross-out scenes involving rubbing body oil on a fat man, urine, and- what else- sex. Even the prescence of funny performers Oliver Platt as a High Priest and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (forever McLovin) as Abraham's son Isaac can't liven the mood much, and only add scarce laughs to the proceedings. Worst of all, Black hogs the screen so much that Cera seems kind of an afterthought, too shy and quiet to say very much around Black's rantings and ravings and wild arm-waving.
Year One is typical summer fare, no heart at all, but it does offer minimal entertainment, which is exactly what the people who see the movie demand.
I would recommend this film to fans of Black and anyone who got a kick out of the trailer.

You can watch the trailer here: