Thursday, May 31, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman Review

At this point it’s pretty much a fact that Charlize Theron can play bad. Whether it be completely transforming her appearance as a serial killer in “Monster,” or in last year’s “Young Adult,” where she gave a multilayered performance as a cruel but pathetic overgrown teenager.

With “Snow White and the Huntsman” (Rupert Sanders’ stylish retelling of the popular fairy tale) Theron plays one of the most famous baddies, Ravenna, the evil Queen, and manages to give her a considerable amount of depth because unlike other adaptations, like the classic Disney version, or even the sugar drenched semi musical kid spectacle, “Mirror Mirror” (which came out earlier this year), Theron actually portrays Ravenna as being in pain.

No matter how the Snow White story is presented, Ravenna has always been deeply in pain and insecure. That’s why she’s so evil after all. Thanks to a magic spell given to her as a child she’s been able to stay young and pretty for a good while now, but even something involving magic still requires work. She has to constantly maintain her beauty by absorbing other young ladies’ beauty. At one point in the film, there are literally five or six corpses of young women, strewn about her throne room, like scotch bottles in an alcoholic’s bedroom.

She has to constantly check in with her magic mirror--which this time appears in the shape of a liquescent golden hooded figure--to make sure she’s still the “fairest one of all.” But here’s one of the interesting things about Ravenna, she wants to be young and pretty, yet she doesn’t seem to like men. In a prolog we see how she makes King Magnus (Snow White’s father) fall in love with her, only to kill him on their wedding night because she says that men use women and then throw them away.

She’s a fascinating, fractured character and I don’t think I’ve seen a more complex depiction before. Theron’s performance is at once quiet and subtle, and then loud and commanding. She steals the scene every time, and if the movie had been even more focused on her, then it would be near great. But of course, since it’s called “Snow White and the Huntsman,” our story has to be about Snow White and Theron’s performance becomes less and less.

We get Snow White (Kristin Bell) and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), along with a charming prince, played by Sam Clafin, and the seven dwarves, played by Ian McShane, Ray Winstone and Toby Jones, among others. And they all do their thing. You know the story, so there’s no use in going over it. But compared to Ravenna’s struggles it feels tired and trivial and turns into one action set piece after another.

Hemsworth, who recently played the hammer wielding, demi god Thor in “The Avengers,” doesn’t venture far away from that bruiting performance, except instead of wielding a hammer he wields an ax. Clafin does what he can, playing a handsome but dull character, the actors who play the dwarves deliver a few hardy laughs, and Stewart, god bless her, is at least slightly more expressive than she has been in previous movies (“Twilight”). But she still gives a dopey, open mouth, exasperated and ultimately unconvincing performance. I know that by the standards of the story Snow is the fairest one of all but with Theron in the picture, she shouldn’t be.

To the movie’s credit there are some splendid visual effects, such as the aforementioned mirror creature, there’s a scene where Snow ingests some kind of hallucinogenic plant, which causes her to have a bad trip in the “dark forest,” and later on, Snow and the others come upon an enchanted forest complete with fairies, baby animals and a white cow-dear creature with gigantic antlers.

More so, as the movie’s tag line promises, “Snow White and the Huntsman” is no fairy tale. Everything is grittier, darker and dirtier, as it should be (even the Disney version was somewhat dark). But all of that doesn’t matter if the characters and storytelling aren’t strong, and with the exception of Theron, everything else is underwhelming.

But oh! How wonderful Theron is. She’s a powerhouse, a force of nature, and she has enough baggage to inspire her own film. However, I’m still not sure if the rest of “Snow White and the Huntsman” is worth sitting through.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Men In Black 3 Review

I have vague recollections of the first two “Men in Black” films. From what I do remember and from what other people have told me, the first film from 1997 was good, nothing landmark but a fine futuristic comedy, and the second one from 2002 was a repetitive and contrived mess. I didn’t bother re-watching them in preparation for the third film, mainly because I had better things to do (more interesting films to watch).

To my surprise “Men in Black 3,” directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (who helmed the first two) doesn’t rely on the earlier films as much as I thought it would. You have to know the main characters, naturally, and a little of their history but this film doesn’t reference itself very much.  Judging mostly by when the audience members, at the preview screening I attended, laughed there weren’t any inside jokes, or surprise cameos from characters in the previous movies.

Since “Men in Black 3” was made ten years after the sequel you would expect it to be high on its own nostalgia. Instead Sonnenfeld and crew make it into its own movie, with its own story--a story involving the element time travel--making for a fun and somewhat endearing science fiction comedy.

The movie takes place in a slightly futuristic New York, where aliens co-exist with humans and there’s a secret agency that monitors that extra terrestrial activity. As in all “Men in Black” films there’s a plethora of funky looking alien creatures. The top-secret agency base is crawling with them, and there’s an early scene in which our two leads go to a Chinese restaurant and blast a few away, including a big, disgusting fish.

The film focuses on the two agents, agent J (Will Smith), the smart talking, rather hyperbolic junior agent of fourteen years and his partner agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). At 65 Jones’ age is really showing, his face heavy with wrinkles like a crumpled up piece of paper and his eyes drooping.

K has been in a funk recently, and with the energetic J breathing down his neck, wanting to know more secrets of the universe (he’s a lower rank and pay grade) he’s not getting any better. Then one day, he suddenly disappears. Why? Because Boris (Jemaine Clement), a recently escaped, super alien criminal traveled back in time to the year 1969 and killed the younger version of agent K, effectively erasing him from the future. Now it is up to J, using something called Time Jump, to go back a few days further in time to kill Boris before future Boris can come and kill past agent K. Sigh!

After an impressive sequence showing J plunging off a skyscraper through time, he lands in 1969, where he (and the audience) is greeted by a number of 60’s and early 70’s clichés: hippies, Vietnam War, retro clothing, etc. And the alien activity is even freakier than it was in the future. There’s an alien/human party hosted by Andy Warhol, who, according to this movie, was actually an undercover agent. By accident agent J runs into the young agent K (Josh Brolin) and convinces him of what is going on. Luckily for J, the 60’s agency still has many of the same high tech gadgets and big guns that are used in the future. Except, oddly enough there are typewriters in the agency office. So they have the ability to wipe a person’s memory but they don’t have computers? All right then, no need getting caught up in miniscule details.

All I’m going to say about Brolin is that Sonnenfeld was wise to acquire him, because it’s almost uncanny how much he looks and sounds like a young Tommy Lee Jones. They have similar jaw structures, Brolin can do a similar southern twang. And you can see the same facial creases beginning to form on Brolin’s face. And yet he’s not distracting one bit.

For how crazy the film can be, Sonnenfeld’s direction is slick and he keeps it going at a steady pace. The script by Etan Cohen, David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson and Michael Soccio is funny and intelligent, with most of the jokes being verbal instead of physical. The picture doesn’t get too sidetracked or stretch a certain gag or sequence out to the point of stalling the pace.

And by the time the movie reaches its outrageous climax, involving the launch of Apollo 11, it doesn’t feel exhaustive because there weren’t a thousand chase and gunfight scenes preceding it. Not only that, the movie goes for some emotion. Toward the end we get to see how agent K and agent J first met in a fairly touching scene; Sonnenfeld lets the scene play seriously without comic interference and that’s followed by another equally touching scene between Smith and Jones at the end.

The real question is: did the world need another “Men and Black” picture? Before seeing it I was convinced the answer was “no” but since it turned out to be good, I would say, “sure, why not?”


Friday, May 18, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting Review

Kirk Jones’s “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (inspired by the bestselling book by Heidi Murkoff) continues in the popular trend of romantic ensemble comedies (a recent disastrous example “New Year’s Eve”) that exploits—more like propagandizes—a particular subject. “What to Expect” is about (guess!) babies.  It’s a relatively, pain-free movie. Jones’s direction is breezy, the cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet is polished and glossy, like a magazine, and it features plenty of pretty, well off, mostly white characters and their “issues.”

The movie focuses on four main couples and then there are a bunch supporting players. I don’t really want to go into all of them and their different situations but the cast features a number of well-known actors like Jenifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick, Chris Rock, Ben Falcone, Matthew Morrison (from TV’s “Glee”), Dennis Quad, Chase Crawford and more. All of them are dealing with babies (well more like pregnancy) one way or the other, whether it’s a miscarriage, an adoption, or a pregnancy that wasn’t planned.

And I give all of them credit for at least trying to make something happen, even though they’re destined to go down the same forced path set up from the beginning, and there are a few moments here and there that work. Funny moments: There’s a club of baby daddies that meet and walk around in the park together; or serious ones: Kendrick’s character has the miscarriage, and the wordless scene where we see her finding out in the hospital is touching.

Overall, however, the film feels so muddled and contrived. Even at four main couples that’s still too much. Jones and his pair of writers, Shauna Cross and Heather Hach, could have taken just one or even two of those storylines and left it at that. But no, we have to get all of the angles. And for how much there is in the picture there isn’t much in the way of serious conflict, besides Kendrick’s miscarriage.

Sure there are a few small hurdles here and there but they all get resolved fairly quickly and smoothly. And I must stress again, these are all mostly white, pretty and relatively well off characters living in the best apartment or home in the prettiest sector of their designated romantic comedy city settings. Not much is at stake. Where’s the middle class couple who are actually struggling?

I imagine “What to Expect” will be a fine date night movie, whether that is in the theater, or a rental at home. As far as fulfilling expectations for its target audience it does (although you would really be better off renting another, better rom-com). On the other hand, if a montage of baby deliveries by four different couples isn’t your cup of tea, then I’d strongly urge you to take a pass.


Battleship Review

“Battleship” is a big, loud and dumb action movie. No seriously, I mean really big and really loud. Its budget is approximately $200 million and every penny of that is on screen. Whether it’s the massive CGI battleships, the massive alien robot ship things, or the big stars that director Peter Berg has assembled like Liam Neeson. The motto for “Battleship” seems to be: Why have one explosive climactic action sequence when you can have fifty?

As for the loudness, it’s almost ear shattering. I know that at movie theaters the sound is turned way up, but you can feel the vibrations in your seat. Not only that, as if the action by itself wasn’t loud enough Berg felt the need to blast loud rock music from bands like AC/DC in every other scene. It’s a full on assault on the senses.

As far as plot there isn’t much. Just some exposition at the beginning and some basic plot advancements throughout, just to remind us why there’s so much big loud action going on. The movie takes place in Hawaii, and the Navy is in the middle of an annual war game, with other countries like Japan.

The entire fleet is led by tough as nails Admiral Shane (Neeson). On one of the ships, there’s Lieutenant Alex Hopper (hunky Taylor Kitsch, from “John Carter”) who’s not exactly on good terms with Shane, and is expected to be kicked out of the Navy when the war games finish. To add more intrigue he happens to be dating the Admiral’s daughter Sam (Brooklyn Decker).

Anyway, they’re out on the water, doing their thing (except for Sam, who is on one of the islands) when they run into aliens. They come down in pod form. Bang! First they hit the city of Tokyo, causing a few tall buildings to topple over. Smash! Then they hit the water and create a force field around three of the ships training-- one of which includes Alex’s. Splash! Big alien ships that look like Transformers rise out of the water. They shoot some missiles, totally destroying one of the ships. Uh-oh! They sunk our battleship!

Before we know it the alien ship boat things spew out more missiles, but not before releasing a different kind of missile. Missiles that can roll around, causing even more destruction. Bang! Boom! Splash! Blam! There’s so much action happening in this movie simultaneously that it’s like being pummeled repeatedly by Mike Tyson.

In all seriousness though, I don’t have a major issue with the bang-bang boom-boom, because what else do you expect with a movie called “Battleship”? No, my problem lies in the fact that the antagonists are aliens yet again. Alien invasions are one of the easiest situations to fall back on in action movies (ahem! Michael Bay). You can make up anything you want and no one will get offended.

 Who are these aliens? Oh you know, they’re from some planet somewhere. Apparently the U.S. Government created some kind of communication device through satellites on one of the Hawaiian Islands and somehow it attracted an alien race.

It’s bad enough that the movie is loosely based on an old board game, but Berg and screenwriters Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber can’t even come up with a clever, deeper angle for these extraterrestrial beings. I guess that would take away from the constant bombardment of action. On top of that, since this is a large-scale action movie it has to include every possible cliché action movie character and their baggage. To name a few: The nervous scientist played by Hamish Linklater; the retired Marine who has two prosthetic legs; and of course an entire conference room full of government suits, barking orders.

In terms of box office I’m sure “Battleship” will do big business. Not as much as “The Avengers” but still pretty impressive. It delivers action, and lots of it. I admit, there are a couple impressive spectacles and the movie kept me awake at least. But for the most part it’s overlong, unimaginative and unintentionally hilarious. Berg didn’t even get someone to say, “They sunk our battleship!” I had to say it instead.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Dictator Review

You know a comedy has no barriers when it begins with a dedication to the late Kim Jong Il.

“The Dictator”(the latest creation from the mind of British character actor Sacha Baron Cohen, and directed by Larry Charles) is one of those movies you probably shouldn’t enjoy or laugh at but then, there comes a point where you just can’t control yourself. As in Baron Cohen’s and Charles’ previous efforts, 2006’s “Borat” (which I consider to be a comic classic) and the sub par but still amusing “Bruno” in 2009, the movie is offensive, in utterly poor taste, disgusting, vulgar, shocking…and yet I could not look away. It’s easily the most consistently funny movie of the year so far and it shies away from nothing.

“The Dictator” rips on every single race or political group possible: blacks, the Jews (oh how Baron Cohen likes to rip on the Jews), the Chinese, feminists, Dick Chaney, and a million others. In fact I would say “The Dictator” goes farther than both “Borat” and Bruno,” mainly because it’s scripted as opposed to being a semi-scripted semi-documentary.

After that blasphemous dedication we’re transported to The Republic of Wadiya (it’s sort of a stand-in for Iraq), where we meet its cruel dictator (oh! Excuse me, I mean “Supreme Leader”) General Aladeen (Baron Cohen in yet another Middle Eastern disguise, this time sporting a large beard and a general’s outfit) who’s really living the life. He gets to live in a gigantic mansion complete with pools in the shape of his face, an army of sexy woman bodyguards and the ability to have men executed by doing the throat slitting gesture (he does that a lot).

He replaced over thirty words in the dictionary with Aladeen. (Both the words “positive” and “negative” have been changed, along with “safety on” and safety off”.) He held the first ever Wadiyan Olympic games, where he won a record fourteen medals, and finally after a long hard day of dictating he plays a Wii terrorist game. (One level takes place in Munich, Germany…ha-ha?).

The plot is very slight, as you can tell from that description of the opening fifteen minutes and it doesn’t get any less so after that. After going to the U.S. and losing everything (including his beard) he’s forced to live as a regular person, where he meets a feminist vegan played by Anna Farris, who runs a feminist vegan social justice store in New York. (Take that Feminists and Vegans!)

As with “Borat” and  “Bruno” the movie is more about the individual jokes and there’s no shortage of them. Those jokes mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg. The script by Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, is packed with jokes, and they get released at rapid-fire speed, like an automatic rifle. It’s reminiscent of “Airplane” and the joke book style structure of that movie.

Just when you finish laughing from one joke another one gets released. The shock and offensiveness start out small (although in this case small is still very extreme) and gradually build up, only to explode at certain points, recharge and explode again. For how shocking it can be though, the movie is surprisingly clever (like in “Borat” Baron Cohen slips in some social commentary on current politics) and there never comes a point where it feels like Baron Cohen and Co. ran out of ideas.

That’s about all I’m going to say about the movie’s content. Like all comedies it’s better for you the viewer to discover the rest for yourself. It won’t be for everyone, you’ll either enjoy it or be completely offended. As I said before, the movie is offensive and in poor taste, but since when does comedy have to be nice?