“War Horse” review – written 11/2/11



Ever since “Saving Private Ryan” (or arguably “The Minority Report”), director Stephen Spielberg has been hit-or-miss. I would be among the first to say that the brilliance evident earlier in his career (with “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.,” and “Jurassic Park”) has been sadly lacking recently. Considering that Spielberg will go down in history as being one of the most iconic cinematic visionaries in American film’s history, I – and others like me – have hoped for the last decade that we haven’t seen the last of that classic Spielberg touch. Finally, our wait is at an end with “War Horse,” which is both a model of cinema done right and – even more importantly – the epitome of Spielberg done right.

Based on a beloved children book and a Tony-winning Broadway play, this story is a great one. We start on a rented farm in Devon owned by the Narracott family – a father (Peter Mullan), a mother (Emily Watson), and their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine). When the father gets too caught up in an auction and buys a beautiful horse for three times its work value, Albert becomes enamored with the animal and trains it, naming it Joey. Their bond becomes as strong as possible between a human and an animal. But right at the outbreak of World War I, the English army arrives in Devon and buys the horse along with many others in the county. Albert promises Joey that they’ll find each other again one day. In four years during the war, the rest of the story is Joey’s amazing journey; from being the mount for a brave English official (Tom Hiddleston) to a German workhorse to a gift from God for a dying little girl. Albert ultimately enlists just to find his friend. Joey gives us the unbiased soul of war in all its waste, showing us just a glimpse of all the soldiers, both young and old, who never deserved to die so young.

With the last five films of Spielberg’s career being middling at best, “War Horse” is not only a return to form for the iconic director, but also one of the finest films in his illustrious career. Of all the masterpieces in his career, I would say that – in terms of raw humanity and epic grandeur – it is only surpassed by “Schindler’s List.” I can’t imagine any scenario where this film isn’t in the top two films during awards season.

The film is everything an iconic film should be: genuine in its emotion, unflinching in its reality, epic in its grandiose, effective in its performances, and imaginative in its storytelling. John William’s beautiful score, Janusz Kaminski’s stirring cinematography, and Spielberg’s earlier style of directing only enhance these qualities.

The battle sequences (especially two large ones in particular) are easy rivals to those we’ve seen in “Saving Private Ryan.” What makes them that way is how Spielberg is able to still capture the violence and horror he needs us to see while still sticking to the PG-13 rating. Peter Jackson couldn’t have done a better job.

The performances are comparable to “Lord of the Rings” in how no one stood out from the others due to how great all of the actors are – including “Breaking the Waves”’s Emily Watson, “Thor”’s Tom Hiddleston, “Sherlock”’s Benedict Cumberbatch, “Harry Potter”’s David Thewis, “Tyrannosaurus”’s Peter Mullan, and newcomer Jeremy Irvine. Of these, Hiddleston and Mullan sound out the most (especially Hiddleston’s final shot), but there is no denying that Irvine has something special about him.

My single complaint is a lack of compelling storytelling during the beginning of the film. As a viewer who deems the opening as a super-crucial aspect of a film, I was initially disappointed in how utterly ordinary and rather mediocre the beginning of the film was. Just another “emotional” horse movie. But as soon as the war began, my worries were erased and I reveled in the rest of the picture. The film is around 150 minutes long, with its slow beginning only taking about 20 minutes of space. And trust me, what we see in the remainder of the film completely makes up for it by sweeping us up in a tidal wave.

What it all comes down to is “War Horse” is as flawless a film as we’ve ever seen from the director. Seeing something as brutal, terrible, and human as war through the innocent eyes of a noble horse is an ambitious form of storytelling, and Spielberg completely pulls it off as being something honest and authentic. I felt each emotion as if I was a marionette, manipulated by Spielberg’s strings. It’s odd. This isn’t the work of the Spielberg we’ve come to know in the last decade. This is back to basics. This is the Spielberg we had from the 70′s to the early 90′s: powerful, gutsy, honest, and effective.

This film holds a very fascinating concept as its primary theme that I found wholly absorbing – for soldiers during war, there is rarely good and evil. There are just scared individuals, trying to survive the horror that they are witnessing around them. There is goodness and humanity on all sides. The best example of this is evident in what is my absolute favorite Spielberg scene of all time. In No Man’s Land, the Germans and English fight; the Germans hidden in one trench, the English in another on the other side of the battlefield. The area in the middle is filled with barbed wire. In this scene that involves a German soldier, an English soldier, a pair of wire-cutters, a horse, and a casual conversation of home, we see what drew Spielberg to this incredible story. We see what makes us love this story. We see exactly why this is a film we won’t soon forget.

That, my friends, is the mark of a true master creating yet another priceless artifact in the annals of cinema. This is the kind of movie that is watched generation after generation, with each one crying and cheering in all the same places. Spielberg has officially found one of the greatest stories he’s ever tackled and tells it with the perfect supply of visual panache and raw humanity. This is story told in such a way that we can’t take our eyes off of it for even a second. Honestly, I can’t wait to see it again and relive the imagination, the heartbreak, and the sheer storytelling that Spielberg has given the world.

When all is said and done, “War Horse” is beautiful to behold in its celebration of the good in people through its aura of simplistic-yet-authentic humanity. What it all so utterly fascinating is how Spielberg captures the humanity of war: through the entrancing black abysses of a majestic horse’s eyes.

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“Drive” review – written 9/17/11


Rating: A

Drive poster

In the same unrestrained fashion of “Taxi Driver” and “Reservoir Dogs,” “Drive” is an realistic, intense, and stylized character study about inherently violent people trying to cope with the world around them. Creatively and visually, this is a quintessential example of why I love movies as much as I do.

Our main character, known merely as the Driver (Ryan Gosling), is a mystery. Like Clint Eastwood’s the Man with No Name, the Driver doesn’t talk much. He speaks mainly through silence and looks. But when he does talk, we listen. He lives in an L.A. as unglamorous as Gotham City; cruel, dirty, and corrupt. The Driver hides behind a hard exterior and impressive driving abilities to try fitting in, working as both a mechanic for Shannon (Bryan Cranston) and a Hollywood stunt driver. He starts getting into trouble when he meets his next door neighbor, a young mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan), and Shannon gets into business with violent local gangsters Ross (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman). Saying any more would be criminal.

I can’t call this an action film, per se, because it really isn’t. And if you’re going into this expecting an action film you won’t find what you’re looking for. It’s an art experience that tries mixing aesthetic film noir, 80′s music, and a relaxed realism which uses vicious brutality to further enhance its characters. “Taxi Driver” is a worthy comparison in how, like voyeurs, we view this man’s existential reality. The universal themes of loneliness and morality are subtly and effectively injected into Gosling’s Driver; so well so, in fact, that no words need to be said for us to understand his actions. That is, in itself, a great mark of quality.

There is so much to love here, whether you’re a hardcore film student or a casual action buff. But the more you love film as a creative form of expression, the more you’ll appreciate Hossein Amini’s layered characters and the general uniqueness of the film itself. I’ve never seen a film quite like this before. There is something so precise about every frame, prop, gesture, and word that indelible images are literally popping off the screen in rapid succession. These are the types of scenes homages are designed for.

The mark of fame the film takes upon itself is its grasp of reality. Here we have a film that doesn’t try making excitement or action. This is the real world, with real people, and we’re just following them around. Things happen like they would here, without any flying cars or miraculous escapes. That is what makes the violence feel far more swift and vicious than it is. We’ve seen violence like this before. But not like this. The movie sets itself into our world, and – somehow – gets us to see the world through the eyes of real time. We feel emotional stakes. When characters die, it means something to us. When cars crash into one another, they look and move like real cars. The realism is distinctly defined.

Chilling performances abound across the board. Of the stellar cast, two stand out the most. The first is Ryan Gosling. The second is Albert Brooks. Gosling outdoes himself, easily surpassing “Blue Valentine” with the Driver’s difficult part. He effortlessly conveys a sense of irresistible hardness that hides a haunting past and a dark side we never quite see. There are so many little moments where we feel the violence behind his eyes just itching to kill someone before he pulls back. Brooks memorably sheds his comedic roots like Robin Williams did for “Insomnia” in creating what could become the latest iconic villain. His performance is as stunning onscreen as Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurgh or Chrisoph Waltz’s Hans Landa. He easily deserves an Oscar bid for this.

But as spellbinding as the performances consistently prove to be, the real stars are director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson”) and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“The Usual Suspects” and “X-Men”). The cinematography is so utterly riveting in every single scene that, in a sense, it becomes its own character and Refn provides a focused vision that brings it all together.

Some will write this off as an intelligent “Transporter” with far less action. Don’t make that mistake. It’s much more than that. I’ll concede to the prospect that there will be a large portion of viewers who will dislike this movie and find it utterly boring to sit through. After all, silence and looks make up a large portion of what we see. It’s a minimalistic film. And when we do get action, it has that suddenness where it’s over before most action scenes really begin. Everything happens in a practical way, even when – visually – it seems rather anticlimactic. But that’s the world of the film. That is why we feel a deeper connection. This feels genuine. Unfortunately, our society has become predisposed in its judgment of such movies by how ridiculously complex and rousing the action scenes are. Naturally, the scenes in “Drive” don’t hold the same epic satisfaction of action films like “Die Hard” or “First Blood.” It’s simplistic and seemingly ends before it should. But that’s real life – and real life in L.A. is what “Drive” is trying to show.

But when it comes down to it, “Drive” could be just the thing cinema has needed to inspire imaginative writers and innovative directors to do exciting things with a long-thought-stale genre. This is the kind of movie that stimulates people to become filmmakers.

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“Moneyball” review – written 9/15/11


Rating: C+

moneyball-poster Post

For a sports movie, “Moneyball” is a peculiar curiosity. Packed with the impressive creative power of Oscar-nominated director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) and Oscar-winning screenwriters Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), the film tries being wholly unique by focusing on statistics rather than playing, skipping the rousing climax we’re so used to, and not hitting any of the traditional sport beats. By doing this, it challenges why we watch sports films in the first place and tries penetrating the genre as being a movie ABOUT baseball rather than simply being a movie OF baseball. Sadly, while it does deliver one of the more intelligent cinematic tributes to baseball since “Field of Dreams,” “Moneyball” mainly fails at being enjoyable, emotional, or even particularly memorable.

Based on Michael Lewis’ book, weary Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt in an average performance) is faced with creating a championship team with $39 million against the Yankees’ $125 million. Things look hopeless until Beane meets Yale graduate Peter Brand (a surprisingly solid Jonah Hill), who tells him that changing the conventions of how teams evaluate players’ potential could save the A’s, Beane attempts to build one of the most unorthodox baseball teams of misfits ever assembled.

Like the 2002 Athletics, “Moneyball” may be ballsy in its ambition to change the way we view baseball, but it’s also highly erratic in how its main goal succeeds and fails in turn. When things are running smoothly, the result is undeniably appealing and we find ourselves wanting to enjoy ourselves. But when things get rough, it gets almost painful to watch. Finally, we get no payoff – as this is a true story. The A’s don’t get to win a World Series. The story just ends with a team of losers winning a couple big games without ever getting much better. Rags to slightly cleaner rags, as it were.

Now this isn’t a bad movie. It simply underwhelms considering the raw talent and aspiration involved. So many ill-timed, boring, or downright bad moments occur that they hinder us from establishing a genuine emotional core for the characters or the film. From an atrocious musical score that viciously detracts from every scene it enters to the bland and sluggish variety of filler scenes, the film has its blah moments. Even stranger, nothing remotely resembles the memorable Oscar-worthy brilliance of Sorkin’s writing. There is nary a discourse I remember enough to write down.

The scenes that remind us why we’re still kinda enjoying ourselves are the ones when Beane is putting his maverick negotiation tactics on overdrive, remembering his engrossing past, or raptly listening to Brand’s exposition. These scenes are funny, witty, engaging, and not nearly as often as I’d like. All other scenes only succeed at canceling out these good parts.

Ultimately, “Moneyball” isn’t so much about Billy Beane or the Oakland A’s as it is about the elusive integrity of baseball. Its moments of greatness occur when it asks tough questions no other baseball movie has asked, like Beane’s final monologue. Other films may show baseball, but “Moneyball” tries observing baseball’s iconic stature and asking why it means so much to so many. It asks a seemingly simple question: can the magic of the game be based on statistics rather than intuition?

The question is relevant. If you’re someone whose reverence of the game approaches an understanding impossible to express, “Moneyball” might just be the baseball film you’ve been waiting for. But for me, the film is oddly never as engrossing as it should be. Since its creation, the term ‘moneyball’ has entered baseball lexicon as an alternative way of viewing baseball. It may not have changed the game, but it has become something worthy of remembrance. Unfortunately for this film’s creators, their obvious passion just doesn’t pan out as being worthy of the same benefit.

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“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” review – written 8/18/11


Rating: A-

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark Latest Movie Poster"

Sally Hirst is a well-cast child character who automatically gets believability points regardless of how stupid her decisions may be. That’s one of the biggest positives “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” has considering how good it is. For a horror like this to work, the inherent choices the characters make must be – at least partly – understandable, if not believable. In many ways, “Pan’s Labyrinth” can be used as a fascinating companion piece because of this, as both have young female protagonists who look at their new-found fantasy realm with a wide-eyed hope that the creatures they find will take them away from their unhappy home life. Unfortunately for Sally, her other-worldly creatures aren’t so innocent.

When Sally’s father, Alex (Guy Pearce; “Memento”), and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes; “Batman Begins”) move into a large unused mansion with the hope of renovating and selling it for a fortune, Sally (Bailee Madison; “Brothers”) is sent to live with them by Sally’s partying mother. Kim is well-played by Holmes as a woman who desperately doesn’t want to take the role as the evil stepmother, yet she can’t help but want to intervene at how distant and off-putting Alex is with his daughter. Sally is a sad and quiet little girl, who feels unloved and alone by everyone she knows.

The family finds a hidden basement stairwell behind a hollow wall which leads to one of those uber-creepy dungeon basements that always seem to be chosen for such films. It seemed to have been used by the last owner, who mysteriously disappeared decades ago, as an art room of sorts. A bolted-shut old-fashioned fireplace (which leads down into a deeper part of the mansion’s foundation) lies dejectedly in the corner. Sally is fairly quickly drawn to this fireplace, where she hears hissing voices that intrigue her. They call out from the darkness, asking her to free them and to be their friend.

It’s right around here where “Pan’s Labyrinth” is helpful. For most audiences, we assume that, if a little girl really heard creepy voices from a fireplace, she’d run screaming and never come back. If she had done that, none of this crap would have happened to her. True. But we forget what kind of character Sally is, her age, and her issues. She is alone. And when anyone that young feels that alone, I could easily see that child putting far too much faith in even the possibility of escape. Like Ophilia from “Pan’s Labyrinth.” In Guillermo del Toro’s mind, the faith of a child can lead to monstrous things.

Anyway, once these creatures are free, we slowly learn just how terrifying they can be, what they did to the inhabitants who lived there a century ago, why they hate the light, and what their truly eerie plan is for the poor three individuals who live in that house. The light gives some small weakness, so that gives our threesome something to do in order to protect themselves, but these creatures are dang crafty and know how to keep the ball in their court by turning off all the lights. And so goes the story. On the surface, it’s a very average premise, I’d say. Not one that is really original or unique.

What IS unique is Guillermo del Toro.

Written by del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and first-time director Troy Nixey, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has lofty ambitions. It takes a tired, overused trope of the horror genre (the “creepers in the haunted house” gimmick) and reinvigorates it with that Guillermo del Toro’s style of hypnotic discomfort you feel right in your gut.

We enter an unsettling darkness that feels far more unmistakably chilling than any other horror similar to its plot. An engrossing tidbit worthy of mention is how this film has no language, no gore, no blood, no sexuality, and no nudity. Yet we get an R rating. Originally, the MPAA passed down the unprecedented rating as “pervasive scariness.” So here we have a horror film that got slapped with an R rating just for being too freaking scary. Does it deserve that uniqueness? In many ways, it does. The terror inflicted on our senses is almost invasive with nightmarish imagery and Madison’s jarring performance.

Speaking of performances, here we get acting performances – especially from Holmes and Madison – that are consistently better than horror films traditionally get. Instead of “Final Destination,” we get “Frailty.” Madison – who is easily the greatest part of the movie – ups the game we saw in “Brothers” and promises future greatness that may surpass Dakota Fanning. She outshines Pearce and Holmes with raw emotion.

The Gothic art design (especially the house itself, basement mural, and the Blackwood paintings), unforgettable cinematography (Oliver Stapleton is a certified genius with his transformation of darkness as the movie’s greatest menace), imperial writing (del Toro’s precise ear for terror) and perfect music (Oscar-nominated Marco Beltrami) always overshadow the bare-bones premise – which is a huge compliment. Film-making wise, I don’t think del Toro himself could have directed this better.

Ultimately, the film’s components make themselves far more majestic than the premise deserves. The components alone easily make this one of the most guttural horror experiences I’ve had in years. The unflinching infliction of fear upon us approaches primal ferociousness.

I only felt slight disappointment with how the nightmare didn’t remain without a face. The film had masterpiece potential if we never saw the creatures other than the terrifying artwork. It’s an unfortunate reality that we tend to stop fearing the things we can put a face to – and the CGI creatures are rather underwhelming.

The greatest success of this film is a small miracle considering how numb we’ve become to a genre filled with fake scares and clumsy killers. This movie produces that irrational kind of fear that paralyzed us as children. We remember what made us so squeamish about going down in the basement when all the lights were off. We remember why we were afraid of something particularly hungry lived beneath our bed. We remember why we hid our heads beneath the sheets, as if that would protect us from the approaching carnage. Where horror films are concerned, what more could you possibly want?

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“Fright Night” review – written 8/4/11


Rating: A-

Remaining in the same vein as many recent horror outings, “Fright Night” is more of an eerie action comedy than a straight-out scare fest. Good. That’s my favorite type, especially considering scares in and of themselves hardly garner a pull anymore. Also, with a title like “Fright Night,” we have an understanding with the filmmakers that we’re getting one of those throwback horror flicks. You know, the ones that gave the horror genre that fun movie-going reputation it had in the 80′s before tasteless gore and tiresome predictability defiled the genre? This film succeeds on that promise, quickly turning itself into the quintessential “fun” horror flick perfect for Friday night.

Styled after Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (which inspired its own modern retelling, “Disturbia”) with a suave vampire living next-door instead of a mysterious stranger, this plot is very similar to its original. Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin; “Star Trek”) is a ex-nerd who has joined ‘the cool crowd,’ dropping his oldest friend “Evil” Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse; “Kick-Ass”) for a hot cheerleader girlfriend (Imogen Poots; “28 Weeks Later”). Things are looking oh-so-grand for the little flake (I mean, come on, any guy who hurtfully tells his friend “the day my life got better was the day I stopped hanging with you” is… well… a douche), he gets a new next-door neighbor that his mom (Toni Collette; “The Sixth Sense”) takes a liking to: Jerry Dandrige (Colin Farrell; “Horrible Bosses”). Now Jerry seems like a cool guy, but as we all know, you don’t cast Colin Farrell to be your average next-door neighbor. Ed’s attempts to convince Charley that Jerry is actually a vampire fail, but when Ed himself goes missing and Jerry shows proof of what he is, Charley goes to the only person who might have the answer: Peter Vincent (David Tennant; “Doctor Who”), the Las Vegas magician who boasts of supernatural knowledge on how to kill vampires.

The choice to modernize the original 1985 “Fright Night” doesn’t like that bright an idea considering the current rule that all horror remakes suck, but somehow this became a unique effort due to diligent actors, a reliable director, and successful laugh and scare gags. It is, without exaggeration, the first great entry in the long line of atrocious horror remakes. It takes what we liked about the original and comes up some clever changes that update the story 26 years to the present.

From an ingenious kill method at the end to wickedly suspenseful chase scenes, “Fright Night” boasts some surprisingly memorable scenes – some of which are incredibly suspenseful considering we think we should know what to expect from a vampire thriller. The opening is a startling 3D shot through dark thunderclouds that ends in an impeccably-executed family massacre. With Craig Gillespie’s (the outstanding director of “Lars and the Real Girl”) imaginative direction and Ramin Djawadi’s (scorer of “Iron Man” and “Mr. Brooks”) jarringly effective and wholly memorable musical score, the film hits all the beats it strives for with manic zeal.

The all-star cast deliver a gratifying romp of suspense and chuckles, but the movie belongs to its villain and its anti-hero, Colin Farrell and David Tennant. The rest give solid performances (especially Mintz-Plasse), but they pale compared to the main act.

Colin Farrell, when given the opportunity, revels in the grittiness of villainy whenever he can. For Jerry Dandrige, Farrell is at an all-time evil high and unchains his dark side. Part Hannibal Lector in his charming menace and part Buffalo Bill in his vicious brutality, Farrell carves himself a sweetly unpredictable part filled with great moments (from his menacing way of asking for a six-pack of beer to his ultimate way of overstepping house invitation rules to a great moment where his decision to do absolutely nothing produces far worse results).

The fascinating part about Jerry is he isn’t like regular vampires. He seems more inspired by the worst of modern serial killers than mythical killing machines, with his secret torture rooms and closet full of dozens of uniforms signifying authority (from firemen to the post office to the police). He’s modern without being “Twilight.” He’s a ominous hulking mass. Those characteristics mixed together with his bizarre personality create a rather unique Hollywood vampire. Due to this, I wish the “transformation” to full-on vampire face was never included, as it is poor CGI and takes away from Farrell’s menace.

David Tennant, who I will admit I adore as the 10th Doctor Who, is a cinematic gem. His acting style has always been that of a Shakespearean extremist, and I can’t think of a better role that has such obvious wicked glee in allowing him to let loose. There is something strangely mesmerizing in Tennant’s scenes as the vulgar magician-turned-vampire-killer, especially in his first big scene where his vehemence and wide-eyed enthusiasm is outstandingly exaggerated. Also, seeing him acting with a giant shotgun is way more fun than I expected it to be. He’s about as entertaining – if not more so – than the performance given by Roddy McDowall.

In the end, what really matters about this movie? Is the movie suspenseful and thrilling? Yes, especially when Jerry really is allowed to let loose his menacing charm and kill with the same love of general violence of a “Reservoir Dogs” character. Is the movie funny when it tries to be? Absolutely. The pop culture references – especially in a crack on “Twilight” and comparing Jerry to the shark from “Jaws” – work particularly well. This is a huge amount of fun. So if you walk into this expecting the right kind of movie, “Fright Night” is that perfect Friday night scare.

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“Cowboys and Aliens” review – 7/27/11


Rating: B+

I miss movies like this, where cowboys are real men who drink hard and shoot even faster and aliens are real monsters that don’t make that one stupid mistake that ends the entire species. Intelligence. That’s what I miss. I’m not sure if stupidity has become a lazy writer’s crutch or a director’s handicap on solving story problems, but it has become far too much of a given in far too many Hollywood flicks. For once, it’s nice to see a crisply-scripted action-adventure where the excitement meter is on maximum and no lazy writing occurs.

We start off with a mysterious man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert with no memory and a strange clamp on his left wrist. But the man isn’t wimpy, that we know, for he beats three men to death before the 5-minute mark. He then makes his way to a little town nearby called Absolution, where he meets the town’s preacher (Clancy Brown), the bartender at the saloon (Sam Rockwell), and Percy (Paul Dano), the rowdy son of the town’s major businessman, Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Percy goes around shooting the town up for some fun, but the stranger doesn’t much care for that. The fistfight ends up getting a deputy shot in the shoulder, which gets both the stranger and Percy put in prison.

Up to this point, this is an excellently-told western, which mysterious characters and confrontations for power. Now we get to the aliens part of the plot. The town figures out that the mysterious stranger is really a wanted man by the name of Jake Lonergan, a murdering bandit. But before they can use this knowledge on Jake, aliens attack the town and begin grabbing random people (including Percy and the bartender’s wife). Right around this time, Jake’s cuff transforms to a laser weapon and he shoots down one of the alien ships.

Upon seeing Jake’s power, Dolarhyde decides to refrain from shooting the bandit and instead gather up a posse with Jake at the lead to hunt down the aliens (or “demons,” as they call them) and get their people back. On the way, they meet a woman (Olivia Wilde) with the key to Jake’s past, Indians, and the power behind the menacing creatures they face.

Like “Horrible Bosses” was for comedy, Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys and Aliens” is my ideal concept for a western. I love cowboys. I love aliens. I love the cast, especially Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, and Clancy Brown. I love the writers, specifically Damon Lindelof (“Lost” co-creator). With this kind of star power and basic mash-up premise, it would have taken a horrible script to make it uninteresting. Thankfully, the writers’ approach to the project is exactly the way it should be and Favreau brings the same freshness and excitement he gave “Iron Man.”

This movie is, first and foremost, a western – and a pretty good one, at that. The actors – from Daniel Craig to Harrison Ford to Sam Rockwell – are perfectly cast and look absolutely authentic in the rustic setting of the wild west with their leather boots and six-shooters. Craig’s careworn look of intense glumness that can swiftly transform into deadly intent makes him as fascinating of a cowboy as Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. Ford has made a recent living out of playing the stunt-capable grumpy grandpa, and that attitude works to grand effects with his character as the colonel. These men actually feel like real cowboys, the ones who we cheered on from “Unforgiven” and every other Clint Eastwood phenomenon. Cowboys, when done right, have always been the kings of cool, and – for a PG-13 film – their inherent violence and power remains intact without feeling cheapened or limited.

The science-fiction of the story works in making the western aspect more intriguing, but it is fairly weak when considered in and of itself. The aliens are bland and their actions are trivial outside of the incredible action sequences. But then, it isn’t the new technology, the spaceships, or the aliens that hold our interest – it is the cowboys and their attempt to tackle a power far more capable than them.

I’ve always been more of a science-fiction fan than a western one, but “Cowboys and Aliens” has shown me the broad capabilities in which the average western can soar. While the science-fiction elements aren’t as entertaining or as riveting as the cowboy ones, the balance must be taken into account.

There are, as you would expect, some questions unanswered at the end. But enough information was given to make us not really care too much about them. The mash-up delivers more than I expected it to, and the several main character characterizations are a very pleasant surprise in how they are better than most seen in either genre. Daniel Craig’s Jake has surprising nuance for the stereotypical tough guy and Harrison Ford’s Dolarhyde shows a much-needed growth from the mean gunslinger to a sympathetic father figure.

Completely engrossing from the mysterious beginning to the rousing finale, “Cowboys and Aliens” delivers a first-class western that brings with it some neat sci-fi elements. The result is a fantastic way to spend two hours, all of which I don’t regret a second.

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“Captain America: The First Avenger” review – written 7/21/11


Rating: B+


Authentic characterizations and a genuine sense of greater purpose are two forces that make Joe Johnson’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” a better movie than it deserves to be. Johnson has many of the components that make up a great superhero epic, but he doesn’t seem experienced or passionate enough to piece them all together. In the end, the parts we like, we like a lot – from briefly seeing what the original 1941 costume design actually looks like when worn to the beautiful period locale of America when it was at its greatest heights. The rest of the film…? Eh.

The origin story begins in the 1940′s during World War II with Steve Rogers (a perfectly-cast Chris Evans), a 90-pound gangly man who longs to fight for his country with the absolute noblest of intentions. Of our many Marvel protagonists, there is a reason Steve Rogers is a symbol for the American way – his stand as the epitome of patriotism. Steve, along with his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan in a career-starting supporting role that should turn heads in Hollywood casting departments), both get accepted by the Army when they try to enlist (although this is Steve’s 5th attempt) – but for Steve, he must be part of a secret government program.

Steve is sent to army boot camp, where he tries his hardest to keep up with his superior comrades and fails miserably. Watching him are Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Bavarian scientist Abraham Erskine (played by the instantly-likable Stanley Tucci). Erskine was who got Steve picked. Phillips can’t stand looking at him, failing to see why he should be chosen. But Steve proves himself not by showing off brawn, but by showing an unstoppable sense of courage – even in throwing himself onto a runaway grenade to protect his fellow soldiers. Erskine believes that Steve is his only choice for the program.

The program, which is also being funded and co-researched by Tony Stark’s father Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, hilariously channeling Robert Downey’s charm), ends up being an injection of a new serum that basically turns the user into a super-soldier. Steve is given this injection and turns from a 90-pound doormat to a beefcake with muscles the size of axle rods. But, of course, we can’t have an army of Captain Americas, so a covert spy kills Erskine (who apparently was the only one who knew the formula to the serum) and then kills himself before Steve can get answers. But before he dies, the spy gives a cryptic message: “I am just one of many. Long live HYDRA.”

Now we get into our film’s villains. HYDRA is a group of brilliant scientists who work directly for Hitler, headed by the diabolical Red Skull (an underused Hugo Weaving). Now for fans of the character, don’t expect a Joker-like portrayal of pure evil. Rather than Amon Goth from “Schindler’s List,” we get Voldemort from Harry Potter. There are some menacing moments where the Red Skull surpasses his expected villainy more than usual for a Marvel villain, but he can’t quite escape the cartoonish quality of the character’s figurative mustache-twirling regarding world domination.

Now the Skull is obsessed with ‘the gods’ (who fans of “Thor” know actually exist in this universe) and has discovered the outlandish squarish device which the after-credits scene in “Thor” showed – the Cosmic Cube. The film never quite gives us an idea on just how powerful this device is. All we know is that the Red Skull will kill for it without too many quibbles. We also find out that HYDRA has weapons far beyond the capabilities of the 1940′s Nazis, especially a particularly-effective energy pistols that can vaporize anything from a person to a tank. The Red Skull plans, of course, to use the power of the Cosmic Cube and his new weapons to take over “everything.”

At first, the U.S. Army decides to use Steve as a marketing campaign, garbing him in a hokey Americanized costume with a shield, giving him the name “Captain America,” and sending him on a state-by-state tour to rally morale by making propaganda films and singingAmerican classics with a dozen dancing showgirls. The kids love him and the adults think he’s an entertaining joke. Yet the soldiers think he’s a national embarrassment. He agrees with them. Phillips’ female assistant Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) sympathizes with him and recognizes his drive to become something more.

Steve is given the chance to prove himself when Bucky and 400 U.S. soldiers are captured by HYDRA. Single-handed and dropped by a plane over Germany, Steve – now officially looking like the militarized Captain America we’ve seen in the trailers – uses his trusty shield and a couple revolvers to free all 400 prisoners (including Bucky) and destroy one of HYDRA’s main headquarters. From here on, the battle between Captain America and the Red Skull wages on, with Cap continuously taking down each of the Skull’s barriers until their final climactic battle inside a military airplane containing a nuclear bomb set to go off in New York.

“Captain America” is an at-times rousing WWII-set action-adventure, bringing an old-fashioned fun which feels reminiscent of something like “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There are moments of great entertainment easily accessible through this latest addition to the ever-growing Marvel Comics universe. While it is easy to see that Marvel Studios believed (and rightly, in a way) that the Avengers roster was saving its best origin story for last, this plays far too much like an extended trailer for “The Avengers” rather than its own standalone film. At 124 minutes, not enough really happens to make the movie worth existing on its own merits. It feels far too much like “the first chapter” of something bigger for my taste. Captain America is a big enough character that his first big movie should have been able to carry itself.

Now the updated costume designs and character arcs of Cap, Red Skull, and Bucky Barnes are exactly what fans would hope for. Both Evans and Weaving are extremely fitting for their roles. Evans crushes this part with an acting ability I didn’t even know he had, landing each emotion – from an inherent gentlemanly nature to a heartbreaking radio conversation near the end – with a passion and finesse we’ve never seen from him before. Weaving, while not given quite as sadistic of a role as we know the Red Skull deserves, is effective and quite chilling when he gets the chance to be. Weaving is a master at subtle menace, as we have seen in Mr. Smith in “The Matrix” and V in “V for Vendetta.” A sequel will do him good, I’d think.

The portrayal of heroism is perhaps the film’s greatest attribute. Real heroism is rarely defined by brawn. Few movies focusing what elements a hero consists of understand that, especially in the world of comics superheroes. Heroism usually falls into the background amid brash decisions of arrogance or ego while doing good deeds rather than courage and dedication. Tony Stark’s Iron Man falls into this category, as does Thor and the Hulk.

But Captain America is actually the real deal. Steve Rogers isn’t a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants playboy looking for a thrill by playing god or an actual god who just doesn’t have anything better to do than smash his antagonists. Steve Rogers is a bonafide America hero whose indomitable strength and courage are far more a part of his character than the superpowers he possesses. That is his true power. Considering the old idiom “show; don’t tell,” here is a superhero film that gets the mix right in showing us exactly what has made Captain America such a figure of strength and power for our nation. We immediately understand why this guy is special rather than it just being told to us that we should consider him special.

Cap has a few more layers than most superheroes (outside of Batman, Spider-Man, and Hulk) have, and those layers are laid out bare pretty early on in the storytelling. We get Steve. We like Steve. That’s a powerful driving force. Joe Johnson tackles the most complicated elements of the famed national hero’s mythology and translates it to the screen with clarity when it comes to why we should care about this guy.

Cap has always had the same issue as Superman in being a dull one-dimensional hero. They are both ultimate boy scouts. Yet here, we get a Captain America that remains true to this ideal at its core, yet he is willing to use a gun and shoot Nazis in the head. This automatically puts him in a different category from other heroes we’ve seen so far. His part in “The Avengers” should be fascinating considering he’s willing to take his patriotism much farther than, I think, everyone else will.

Armed with a neat action-adventure premise, a villain vile enough to hate effectively, and a charismatic hero, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a snappy love letter to America. Yet it never feels as complete or as fulfilling as it should be. Still, even with that glaring fault, there is something to be said for a superhero origin story that actually focuses on its characters instead of mindless action. Too bad that same meticulous care couldn’t have been put into the overall plot, as well.

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“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″ review – written 7/14/11


Rating: A

Few words can describe the emotions that swirl through my mind when I consider David Yates’ “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.” Few examples of cinema have left me in such utter awe in both emotion and spectacle. When it comes to ambitious epics, this eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter film franchise stands on equal footing with iconic classics like “Lord of the Rings” and “Ben-Hur.” I can’t think of a better way director David Yates could have allowed us to say good-bye to this beautiful worldwide phenomenon.

Effectively meshing with the first part of author J.K. Rowling’s seventh book, “Deathly Hallows Part 2” basically joins its immediate predecessor as a 5-hour epic. Harry, Ron, and Hermione continue on their deadly trek to destroy Voldemort’s Horcruxes and end the evil wizard’s reign once and for all. Things have indeed darkened. Snape has become headmaster. Death-eaters move at will. Voldemort no longer needs puppets to show his power. It all comes down to a final confrontation at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry between the forces of good and evil, and, man, it’s jaw-dropping.

“It all ends,” say all the posters. After seven books and eight films, Harry Potter’s story has come to an end. And what an end it is. It is an end that many other franchises, both in literature and in film, could only pray to have as effectively or as emotionally. It ends with sufficient aplomb and consideration of all things Harry Potter. From the raw attention to character detail and narrative flow to the refined conciseness of story to the choice of imagery translation from book to screen, it all comes together exactly the way I always imagined.

For the shortest entry in the saga at 131 minutes, Yates uses every second of its runtime to pack in the greatest elements that make Rowling’s final book so satisfying. It delivers the indelible imagery, from Harry’s “Green Mile”-like walk into the woods to meet Voldemort to the Death-Eaters’ violent breach of Hogwarts with a multi-species army harkening to the Orcs from “Lord of the Rings.” It delivers the stirring emotion of Harry’s realization on what he must do in order to truly defeat his enemy and especially the last tear-worthy scene. It delivers the best musical score of the series with perfect scene placement by Alexander Desplat that maximizes each scene’s effectiveness.

The battles will become legendary on how to do terrifying war spectacles. There is something more personable and intimate than Peter Jackson’s awe-inspiring battles in “Lord of the Rings,” as we actually have many faces we’ve come to know and love within the ranks of the dead and dying. We also don’t have the luxury of “Lord of the Rings” of knowing which Potter characters will survive the ultimate battle. Death is real and, at times, sadistically random in whom it takes.

What surprised me is how Yates (who has helmed the last four installments) doesn’t get as obsessively caught up in the action as I figured he’d be. This is a good thing. Rather than a brainless unfulfilling action flick which uses the traditional video game mentality of endless battles that lead up to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, we instead get a well-told drama where every battle is infused with emotion and dread. No mindless deaths to be found here. Who could ask for more than that? The deaths all hit as hard as they should. Also surprising about Yates’ final installment in the Harry Potter franchise is that, somehow, he was cinematically able to get me to feel that same feeling all over again. I hadn’t expected that. After all, the last seven films never got me feeling quite as fulfilled as their literary counterparts. Yet I had the same emotions I felt when I had read the book.

This is not just the ending we deserved, but the ending we hoped for. Emotionally, it’s powerful, fully satisfying, and just as flawless as the book it is adapted from. Spectacle-wise, we have an epitome of a grand and thrilling epic. We find ourselves succumbing to the same type of tearful catharsis that those of us felt during the endings of “Toy Story 3” and “Lost.”

I read the final book with my family the day it came out in 2007. We read it together over the course of three days. We rolled with the emotional roller coaster that J.K. Rowling had crafted with such skill and energy, from the deaths of some of our favorite characters to the final showdown at Hogwarts. I remember feeling that I just had a part of my growing-up years end with the final sentence of that book. To this day, I don’t know why Rowling’s series meant so much to me and to millions of others like me.

For everyone else who read the final book when it was released, we’ve known these characters’ fates for nearly four years now. In that time, we hoped that these lives, both those that would live on after the final scene and those that would be tragically or justly cut short, would be given their deserved gravitas when the time came to witness it all on the silver screen. Yates treats every single character as a member of his family, giving each of them the weight they deserve to have and the sendoff they deserve – from Neville’s brightest moment to Professor McGonagall’s badass magic to Molly Weasley finally showing off her own wand skills against Bellatrix Lestrange.

The main trio constantly find themselves surrounded by a plethora of vivid characters portrayed with expert clarity. But for once, it isn’t merely watching the new British actors who take positions as new supporting characters. In each of the other films, there has always been one core performance that overshadowed all else – from Kenneth Branagh as smarmy Professor Lockhart in “The Chamber of Secrets” to Gary Oldman as the mysterious Sirius Black in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” to Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in “The Half-Blood Prince.” This time, we get two.

The first is Alan Rickman, who acts the hell out of Professor Severus Snape. Acting as a longtime fan of Rickman since “Galaxy Quest” and “Die Hard,” I haven’t been anywhere near as thrilled with a performance of his as I was here, especially during a crucial and extensive flashback scene where we finally learn the elusive past of Hogwart’s veteran Potions teacher. Rickman nails Snape’s character and ultimately allows us a glimpse behind the man and his tragedy. Regarding Snape’s memory, I would say that it’s easily the greatest scene ever to populate the Harry Potter franchise. The power it packs in performances, writing, and cinematography is astounding.

The second is Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Voldemort, who takes a role that could have easily been the cartoonish mustache-twirling antagonist and turns it into a raw evil that brings to mind his Nazi war criminal from “Schindler’s List.” While we must wade through a few monologues, Voldemort never loses his menace or his credibility, and that is all thanks to Fiennes.

For readers and non-readers alike, I can’t imagine anyone leaving this film without a sense of both sadness and satisfaction. Only the greatest movies make us take a moment of silence in contemplation of what we’ve just witnessed. I’ve liked every single Harry Potter film, but this is the first that surpassed my overblown expectations and delivered a majestic visual extravaganza of mythical proportions. This showcases why we’ve loved Harry Potter as long as we have: the magical freshness of the first two, the ingenuity of the third, and the growing sense of menace and darkness that comes from the fourth through the seventh.

It’s been seven years since I first met a scrawny 11-year-old boy who lived in a cupboard under a stairway and dreamed of a better life. Since then, like so many others, that little boy and his many adventures in a strange world full of magic have enchanted me. I’ve reveled in learning each new update in his world. I’ve cared about his life, even during his annoying angst phase. Harry Potter will always be among the great literary and cinematic characters that I will remember with the greatest fondness and nostalgia.

With haunting imagery, indelible sequences, and an angelic chorus, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” is the greatest adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s rousing vision in its grasp of classic storytelling and the grandness of the material as a whole. The best of Harry Potter did end up being saved for last. I’m sorry to see him go. Thanks for the memories, Harry.

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“Horrible Bosses” review – written 7/6/11


Rating: A

If you combined the nihilistic randomness of Quentin Tarantino, the off-kilter thoughtfulness of Charlie Kaufman, and the genuine moments of humor of Judd Apatow, the end result would be “Horrible Bosses” – a comedic masterpiece that is awesome to behold in its bizarrely appealing glory.

The movie opens with three separate stories of employer/employee abuse. Nick (Jason Bateman) is a worn-out corporate office worker who has been working in the same position for 8 years and has had his company president (Kevin Spacey) both humiliate him in various ways (like threatening to fire someone because Nick was two minutes late) and sadistically dangling a promotion only to yank it away when the time ultimately comes to award it. Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) is a womanizing chemical company manager who’s kind-hearted CEO (Donald Sutherland) suddenly dies and leaves his uninformed, prejudiced cokehead of a son (Colin Farrell) as the new CEO – who then proceeds to fire all the obese and disabled employees because they’re “sad to look at” and put thousands of locals in jeopardy due to his uncaring attitude towards the dangerous chemicals his company harbors. Dale (Charlie Day) is a sensitive recently-engaged dental assistant who’s boss (Jennifer Aniston) has made up her mind to screw his brains out (whether he wants it or not), and if he doesn’t, she’ll blackmail him by telling his fiancé that he cheated on her.

With motives for utter hatred firmly in place, we then have a meeting of the three at a local bar. Apparently, they’re all close buddies that met in high-school and have been a BFF trio ever since. In a drunken tirade, they agree that they can’t quit their jobs due to the horrible economy (a fact cringe-worthily reiterated when an old-friend-turned-Yale-graduate bumps into them at the bar and proceeds to show them just how poor he is and how far he’ll go for $50) and they assuredly can’t deal with their irredeemable bosses any longer. Through this logic, Kurt makes the ultimate suggestion: if their lives would be significantly better without their bosses, perhaps they should turn their fantasies into reality and kill all three. How? By hiring a professional.

Immediately, we see that these three guys have no idea what they’re doing outside of watching reruns of “Law and Order” and “CSI.” They decide to find their hitman by going to “the closest bar with the most carjacking incidents.” There they meet Dean “MF” Jones (Jamie Foxx), a dangerous-looking hood whose only offer is to act as their murder consultant. His advice is to use Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” as a guide and have each of them kill each other’s bosses so that the cops could never trace the motive. So the three show their further ineptitude by holding stakeouts and raiding their bosses’ houses to consistent laugh-worthy results (from realizing they had broken in without gloves to spilling a load of cocaine and “accidentally” snorting some to Dale unwittingly saving Nick’s boss’s life). We frequently find ourselves wondering not only if these guys will be able to bring themselves to taking a life, but also if they are even mentally capable of planning such an action successfully. In a way, this is how I imagine “The Hangover” trio acting if they had hatched a plan to dispatch their bosses.

An utterly flawless comedy in both tone and talent, Seth Gordon’s “Horrible Bosses” easily has my vote as the best comedy of the year due to a shrewd screenplay and an undeniable ability to channel its talented cast’s individual strengths. Each wacky performance is an entertaining showcase of comedic timing.

I can already tell this will have a high re-watch value. Like “Groundhog’s Day,” I love every single component that makes up practically every single frame of this 98-minute comedy. I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard consistently since “The Hangover.” I’d go so far as to put this in my top 5 favorite comedies of all time.

Without a single exception, the cast is a riot. The three bosses each perfectly embody the ultimate tendencies that bad bosses can have – sadism, irrationality, and sexual harassment – with a twist to make those tendencies a vehicle for humor. Spacey has further perfected the lethal menace he created in “Swimming with Sharks,” while Farrell rocks his first ugly look with manic zeal and Aniston is surprisingly sexy in her newfound vulgarity. Of the abused employees, Charlie Day shows off his humor chops that fans of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” are already aware of, Bateman pulls off the same laid-back observer performance that Bill Murray perfected, and Sudeikis sheds his PG-rated SNL persona for some sexist raunchiness.

But as always, the actors wouldn’t be half as entertaining if their characters weren’t so well-written. These characters are fascinating in how – unlike traditional comedy’s stock characters that are given funny lines to say from time to time – we actually believe that their asinine perspectives on the events around them are funneled through such ill-conceived microcosms. Each has the selfish inclination that the world revolves around them, and as we know, such individuals rarely work together well. Like “Seinfeld,” watching a well-written bunch of selfish people trying to coexist while doing selfish things for ridiculous reasons does have its own hilarity to it. Perhaps the reason for why we enjoy characters like this so much is because we feel better about ourselves knowing we are nowhere near as bad or as stupid. Hence the success of the Darwin Awards.

The premise is surprisingly timely and funny in how – with today’s poor economy – it is actually easier for these characters to kill their bosses rather than find a new job. The setup seems almost too good to be true, but Gordon and his cast blew away my high expectations. For once, the trailer delivered everything it promised. The reason for this film’s success is its ability to revel in its own brand of absurdity. Aside from “Burn after Reading” and “Death to Smoochy,” this is my favorite black comedy premise.

Ultimately, “Horrible Bosses” is like a great family-based inside joke. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, regardless of how many times it may be brought up during the annual family reunions.

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“Friends with Benefits” review – written 7/1/11


Rating: B+

Keeping a stable emotional relationship can be a massive inconvenience and rarely looks like it does in the movies. This we all know. So do Dylan and Jamie, our two main characters in “Friends with Benefits.” They’ve also seen all the same romantic comedies we have, and frequently reference a few of them with obvious disdain (most obviously when Jamie screams “I hate you, Katherine Heigl” at a “The Ugly Truth” poster right after a breakup). They both have the ideology that, since the clichéd Hollywood happy ending is impossible to attain, they might as well skip having an emotional relationship and just jump right into the sexual benefits that come with a healthy relationship.

Seem familiar? Well, it should. While this film stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, there was another film not that long ago, in January to be exact, entitled “No Strings Attached” which starred Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. Both films have the same basic premise: two people who are sick of the emotional complications that come with relationships and just want to have all the fun with none of the strings. Yet of the two, “Friends with Benefits” actually asks more of its characters and expects them to answer as a real person would. This flows far more and feels less like a romantic comedy than it should.

I liked “No Strings Attached” more than I expected to. Whether it was due to the on-again-off-again humor itself or the fact that my judgment was probably clouded due to my adulation for Natalie Portman, I plead the fifth. But here, in a genre world lamely ruled by Jennifer Aniston and Ashton Kutcher, I’d go so far as to say that “Friends with Benefits” is the best romantic comedy in years.

Yes, yes, yes… I know I like to pile on the hyperbole and superlatives, but bear with me here.

The first thing “Friends” does right is casting a couple that actually has some chemistry. Portman and Kutcher in “No Strings Attached” worked… I guess… but they were more little cardboard boxes that helped move the jokes along. Fine with me, in that case. The jokes were sometimes really funny. But where Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis succeed where Kutcher and Portman failed is by having real chemistry and real conversation. Mila Kunis is hot, yes. Justin Timberlake is a male sex symbol, sure. Both they both bring more acting chops to the table than most romantic comedies deserve. This may be what, perhaps, makes this film much better than quite a few of its recent predecessors. Both actors take turns in being witty, horny, forlorn, and just plain unadulterated human. They feel far more human than cardboard, which is – I think – the best thing I can say about them.

The jokes, unlike the majority of romantic comedies, don’t merely strike a few times in the middle of a bunch of dead space. “Benefits” makes its characters oddly observant of the world around them and the culture they – and we – inhabit. The opening sequence starts with both Dylan (Timberlake) and Jamie (Kunis) having their significant other (played by Emma Stone and Andy Samburg in two of the film’s many outstanding cameos) trivially break up with them. This starts us off on a different way for romantic comedies using dialogue. The “Social Network”-like speed of dialogue and natural wit ‘feels’ right, for once, rather than being words written on the page to sound funny. The spots where the film goes beyond just funny and becomes hysterical is when it stops trying to outwit us and just lets the characters do the talking. No joke, the first intimate scene had me in stitches due to some Aaron Sorkin-like writing magic. For once, these characters aren’t emotionless puppets manipulated by writers who haven’t been laid in years – they think quickly and talk even faster. Timberlake’s childhood obsession with and impromptu singing to Kris Kross’ “Jump” is, alongside Jason Segal’s hysterical cameo as the film-within-a-film’s romantic protagonist who says every single cliché in the book, one of my favorite parts of the film.

Now I hate saying a movie has “heart.” Rarely does such a thing exist – and when it does, it shouldn’t be referred to in such a now-derogatory way. This movie does have an emotional core sorely lacking in many others of its ilk. This positive change can be aimed towards the acting of Woody Harrelson, Patricia Clarkson, and the ever-amazing Richard Jenkins. Clarkson and Jenkins create some powerful scenes that could have fallen woefully flat without their performances, turning their prospective clichés into powerful statements, while Harrelson is probably at his funniest similar to “Zombieland.” That’s the magic of this film, I think. It takes clichés and somehow manages to spin it even while still catering to it in a small way. The acting all around was pretty superb for the genre.

The cameos are the best part of the film. From Masi Oka (shockingly inquiring on whether Timberlake is a real American due to his snarky comments on American airlines) to Woody Harrelson (as a gay GQ sports editor who keeps hoping Timberlake will change his mind on his orientation) to Emma Stone (whose obsession with John Meyer is psychotic) to Shaun White (who in his self-parody ginger rage has perhaps the best cameo of the movie). Every single appearance got a genuine lasting laugh out of me.

Oddly observant of culture norms and expectations, “Friends with Benefits” is amusing in its own observations on relationships. “No Strings Attached,” while periodically funny in some really positive ways, still never quite figured out how to escape the cliché formula. It worked well with the film, but you knew that you were watching the same thing you’ve seen before – just a bit funnier and with Natalie Portman (and yes, I’m dedicated to squeeze her name in as much as possible here because she’s most likely not doing another movie for a while and I’m already feeling bad about the prospect of not using her name for a while). Yet “Friends” generally surpasses genre boundaries (although it still can’t escape the dreaded “boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again” dynamic).

I must applaud how this is the “Scream” of romantic comedies. It looks at previous exploits into the genre and actually manages to mock and judge its predecessors without ironically falling into the same tired clichés. As I said, it can’t stop from being what it is, a happy-ending romance story, but I can’t think of how one can escape that cliché. Honestly, that’s just what the genre is: a giant and tired cliché. But “Friends” knows how to at least give us such a great time that we can forget about that for its duration. It also tries its hardest to throw us off with the beats on where each of those segments are supposed to go. That helps, I guess.

The amount of witty banter and the level of realistic growth in the relationships positively sets “Friends with Benefits” apart from the babble. While a bit more crude and gratuitous than necessary, its sharp observations, genuine humor, and scenes seemingly written with the same frenetic realism of Aaron Sorkin make the film stand with prides of the genre like “When Harry Met Sally.”

Ultimately, I smile when I think back at the humor and the characters and the earnest genuineness of “Friends with Benefits.” It made me laugh, it got me having a surprisingly good time, and I can’t think of another romantic comedy I can say the same for since “The Wedding Singer.” Which came out in 1998. That’s saying something.

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“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” review – written 6/29/11


Rating: B+

Finally, director Michael Bay has created a Transformers film that is everything the first and second movies wanted to be. He officially kept his promise that he would get things back to basics and make the series better than ever. Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” effectively evolves from the mindless smash-smash flick of its immediate predecessor into more of a passable superhero-like spectacle that actually feels deserved.

Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf) is just as aimless an action hero as before, but this time he’s got a new girlfriend. Gone is Megan Fox. Now we  have Carly (played by model-turned-actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Sam’s life has made a drastic turn, as he is no longer an immediate integral member of the fight for Earth. The Autobots are all doing their own thing, while he’s stuck living off his girlfriend’s job (she works for Patrick Dempsey) doing what the rest of the young adults his age does: holding a job (and working for John Malkovich, no less).

But, of course, this wouldn’t be a Transformers movie without SOMETHING happening. The opening premise starts things off with a fascinating look back at our past by retelling what ‘really’ happened with the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, which was all a government conspiracy to hide the fact that we had found alien remains of a ship. But no one knows about it now. There are several instances where “Moon” feels imaginative in its Tarantino-like approach to trivializing historical events and reshaping them to better fit the story. Sam and his new girlfriend are brought into the mix when a strange man (Ken Jeong) warned Sam about the ship on the moon, and the Transformers discover that it is one of their lost-long ships called “The Ark.” Inside is the Autobot protector of their long-gone planet, Sentinel Prime (gravely and sagely voiced by the original sci-fi badass, Leonard Nimoy). The U.S. Government (led by Frances McDormand as Charlotte Mearing) joins with the Autobots to try and protect Sentinel Prime from the Decepticons, who would use Sentinel’s power to recreate their home world right on top of Earth

Things, of course, twist and turn and explode and burn and anything else destructive you can imagine during this (what seems to be) final stand between the Autobots and the Decepticons. The battle is appropriately epic (and actually quite stunning in 3D) as we see New York pretty much leveled in the attack.

As a Michael Bay film, “Dark of the Moon” is surprising in its level of encompassing entertainment value and meticulous crafting. Unlike “Return of the Fallen,” I didn’t feel like I had just become a hapless victim amid hackneyed pacing and overwhelming editing. This is a spectacle, pure and simple. Yet it’s a spectacle where there is very little unfunny idiocy that hurts the film as a whole.

For both “Transformers” and “Transformers: Return of the Fallen,” there were way too many moments of downright stupidity that almost ruined the films for me: the exhausting action sequences that felt overbearing in “Revenge of the Fallen,” the general lack of making us care about any human character, and especially that atrociously inane humor of which Bay has always been so fond. When approached with moments like these, the franchise always felt painfully juvenile. Thankfully, Bay backed away from the trivial stuff and got it right.

You’ve still got some of the same annoying characters from ages past (especially the too-heartrendingly-embarrassing-to-be-funny mother), but we also have some welcoming new faces in John Malkovich as Sam’s new boss, Patrick Dempsey as Sam’s girlfriend’s boss, and Ken Jeong as a crazy software developer. They bring a piercing humor (and sometimes menace) that isn’t found with any other character, all of whom feel more like stereotypes.

Outside of the generally uncharacterized main characters and a few (thankfully) brief unfunny quotes, I have absolutely no complaints. My whole reason for liking this movie as much as I do is the total change in vibe and focus. Before, I liked the series but I never got excited about it. This time around, I actually felt like I had witnessed something incredible. That doesn’t happen often.

We actually have some real urgent stakes this time – and we have physical reminders on how bad things are getting by a rather large body count for a PG-13 film. There were a couple serious moments where we experienced death – or something close – and that was when I realized that, somehow, Michael Bay had made me care about the Autobots. Maybe not Sam or any other human outside of John Turturro’s Agent Simmons (who is at his coolest ever here), but definitely the Autobots. How did that happen, I don’t know. But it did.

The story offers about the same as the others did in being little more than a platform in which to give motivation for the robots to justify beating the crap out of each other. The explosions are still the same, as are the necessary acting requirements. Yet this has a deserved bigness that doesn’t feel convoluted or cheap. Of course we all knew this was going to be “bigger” than the last two. Heck, it is Michael Bay. But it also surprisingly pulls off is being “better,” as well. It does everything that we actually liked from the other two installments and combines all of them into a rousing action piece that captures our attention in stylish entertainment throughout its run.

“Dark of the Moon” ultimately succeeds because Bay knew when to reign in his now-trademark idiosyncrasies and allow for an uncomplicated helping of amusement and fun. The annoying stuff is very minimal and the action makes up for them by a large margin.

In “Moon,” we get the full effect of the Transformers world without getting marred down by pointless humor or pathetic attempts at making us care. Bay has had enough experience under his belt at this point to move away from the crap that alienates us from what we come to see: awesome smashing robots smashing our world and one another in imaginatively destructive ways (a highlight in this regard would be that awing trailer shot of Shockwave’s tall tower topple).

The film’s climax is Transformers at its best and Bay at his personal best – we actually get an opportunity to savor the stunning sequences rather than having them barrage us before we can fully appreciate them. Bay has always known how to blow things up – now he knows how to do the same thing but with some much-needed flair and personal style.

Sure, the robots all talk with a weird sense of English and actually think using phrases like “Decepticon punk” and “class dismissed” are hip, but – for once – it doesn’t matter anymore. Kinda like when we all saw Green Goblin for the first time in “Spider-Man.” Remember that gut-wrenching feeling of horror where we feared we were just about to watch a childhood hero’s integrity raped before our very eyes? It quickly passed due to the awesomeness of the movie. Even with all its weaknesses (be it from the characters or the storytelling), the film consistently remains an example of my kind of entertainment value, offering me just the right amount of action, wit, and explanation to keep me supremely happy. This is the Transformers film where I recall my “holy crap that was awesome” feeling from when I first saw the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” film.

Of all the third installments of film trilogies I’ve seen over the years, this is among the few that ultimately felt inherently satisfying. Maybe that is the key of my utter enjoyment in this latest chapter of the Transformers saga: satisfaction. The other films were always missing something, no matter how cool the action sequences were. Now for the first time, everything came together in a delicate mix of rousing action, laugh-worthy humor, and passable exposition in between. What more do you want from a franchise about a bunch of transforming robots that smash and bash one another for nearly three hours?

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“Green Lantern” review – written 6/16/11


Rating: C+

"Green Lantern Poster"

Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern” seems more at home with the “Star Wars” prequels than with other superhero films with its use of rousing-yet-overwhelming outer space action, poor exposition, standard characters, and outlandish aliens. Just like the “Star Wars” prequels, the film is extremely fun when it works and almost painful when it doesn’t. The key problem is, even with the completely different comic book mythology, enough great comic book adaptations have been released in the last 10 years to make us realize just how much of “Green Lantern” we’ve already seen in far superior films.

This particular superhero origin story has as its main character Hal Jordan, played by Ryan Reynolds. Of the many superheroes we have seen given a feature film treatment, Hal may be the most boring one yet. Reynolds might be a reliably amusing actor, but here he is a poor imitation of Robert Downey’s Tony Stark, with Stark’s snappy one-liners and surprising likability replaced with “American Pie”-like clichés and stupidity.

Now Hal channels his inner “Top Gun” as being a fearless test pilot who is willing to do whatever it takes to take down the bad guys. As his partner/hesitant-love-interest is tycoon daughter Carol Ferris (“Gossip Girl” Blake Lively, who couldn’t possibly be more lifeless), who at first can barely tolerate Hal’s stupidity and attempts at humor anymore than we can. We learn that Hal lost his father to a plane crash as a child, so he has spent his adult years trying to become his father in terms of being fearless (which he confuses with pure recklessness). An interesting trait, to be sure, but the dry exposition-heavy execution of Hal’s human story is ultimately emotionless. Until the 40-minute mark, I couldn’t have been more uninvested in any single character.

Outside of Earth, we have the story of the Green Lantern Corps. They are basically guardians of the universe who can channel the power of will into green energy rings that allow them to create anything they can think of. At the beginning of the movie, they are attempting to stop the evil galactic devourer of worlds, Parallax. They aren’t winning, as Parallax controls the power of fear – signified by the color yellow – which is their natural weakness. Sinestro (Mark Strong in the film’s best performance) is the lead warrior of the Corps and just as helpless as the rest as Parallax butchers the best Green Lantern fighters. He believes that the only way to stop such a monster is to forge a yellow ring and, literally, fight fire with fire. He does this due to his fierce loyalty to the Corps, his unstoppable bravery, and his genuine desire to save the universe.

When Parallax fatally injures one of the Green Lantern soldiers, the soldier crash-lands on Earth and has his ring – in his death – seek out a candidate who has the qualifications of a Green Lantern: a man without fear. It chooses, of course, Hal – who is then thrown into the intergalactic universe just when Parallax is about to strike. It takes Hal having taken the power of the Green Lantern ring and being summoned to the Green Lantern planet to learn of his purpose where the film finally begins to get interesting.

The only worthwhile Earth-bound character would be Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), the brilliant-though-unattractive son of a senator (Tim Robbins) who – through performing an autopsy on the dead Green Lantern who gave Hal his ring – gets partly possessed by the yellow power of Parallax and allows him to hear other people’s thoughts. There is just something about this character that feels much more compelling than our hero.

Hal is looked at in disdain by most of the Corps due to being human, including Sinestro who sees him as “the weakest link” of the Green Lanterns. But Hal has his strength of humanity that allows him to succeed where others have failed… if he can only channel his will. So now Hal, as all heroes must do, needs to conquer his fear and show his indomitable power of will in order to save his world and the rest of the universe from the power of fear and Parallax.

So how does one rate a film where the first half is excruciatingly unoriginal while the second half does succeed at being entertaining? I can say that, overall, I liked it more than I disliked it. The film’s most obvious flaw is its uninspired sense of dialogue and characters. But saying that, “Green Lantern” does sport some excellent action sequences that feel bigger and better than those of Marvel’s “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” This is one element that DC knows how to use and how to use well.

Martin Campbell is, perhaps, the reason for this unevenness. He has a general idea on who this character is and what Hal is trying to become, but he seems to think that telling a good origin story is enough. This is a decent origin story, but I have a suspicion that ‘decent’ just isn’t enough anymore.

It is a crucial requirement for superhero films to show us something fresh and visceral that we haven’t seen before, from “Superman” in 1978 to “Batman” in 1989 to “X-Men” in 2001 to “The Dark Knight” in 2008. Every effort must up the ante to come out ahead of its many predecessors. “Green Lantern” does have impressive action sequences and effectively hints at the almost-limitless universe of the character, but it is with the human story and characterization – possibly the most important part of any origin story – where everything feels tired and retread. We’ve seen this all before.

“Batman Begins” showed us exactly what we should have in an origin story. Its key to success was focusing on the man behind the mask rather than the mask itself. The film didn’t try to merely get the non-action scenes over with to get to the action. Every single scene flowed with a precise sense of characterization that spawned perhaps the greatest origin superhero story of all time.

The trick Mark Campbell pulls after that 40-minute mark that straightens its zigzag trajectory is by not trying to make merely a passable superhero flick. The by-the-numbers beginning is quickly made up for by some quality filming and some decent storytelling. As soon as Campbell figured out that he should stop trying to make Ryan Reynolds the DC Comics version of Tony Stark, the film gets itself a nice focus and pace that lasts the rest of the film.

Outside of Nolan’s Batman series, this is perhaps the first time that I’ve been genuinely surprised by the chronicling of events during a superhero film. Usually, I’m pretty good at that. But several things totally went by me and my respect was quickly earned when I discovered that fact. The two aspects that stand out include Carol and Sinestro. When Carol is approached up-close by Green Lantern, I couldn’t help but role my eyes as the Lantern pulls a Bale with his voice while talking. Oh, great. So yet ANOTHER vaguely-veiled superhero is able to completely trick a girl he’s known all his life. Yet another Lois Lane? Seriously??? Ah-ha! That’s what Campbell wants us to think, and the resulting line is perhaps the single greatest moment the film has to offer. As for Sinestro, I can’t think of another time where a character acted completely differently than my expectations granted. Mark Strong pulls Sinestro off perfectly as much more than even fans would expect. His characterization is handled with almost surprising care.

Ultimately, “Green Lantern” is enjoyable enough when it gets itself into the right gear, but even with its action and its villains, there is no excuse for such its atrociously uninspired first act, bland hero, lifeless love interest, and predominant retread feel. With the majority of the film, almost everything it does was done better in other films – especially “Iron Man” and “Thor.” DC Comics should stick with its realistic Batman adaptations, because apparently they don’t know how to create the same consistently engaging frivolity of Marvel that is essential for a character like Green Lantern to succeed.

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“Super 8″ review – written 6/7/11

“Super 8” is the Epitome of Modern Science Fiction Thrillers

Rating: A-

Who knew “The Goonies” with a badass man-eating monster invasion could be so flipping mind-blowing? If nothing else, this stunning cinematic achievement proves director/writer J.J. Abrams to be the most effective candidate in ultimately taking over Steven Spielberg’s long-held crown as the most modern innovative creator of sci-fi entertainment for the masses.

Abrams’ “Super 8” is a perfect tribute to how science fiction can, in fact, be an outstanding platform which can dip into all other genres. The film consistently keeps an intriguing balance between being a pitch-perfect horror, a suspenseful thriller, a coming-of-age drama, and a sensational mystery – and in so doing, it becomes one of the freshest films in years to come from a non-franchise with no recognizable stars. Here, we – as an audience – must coast solely through Abrams’ direction and writing, and, apparently, that is more than enough.

“Super 8” is a film where the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy yourself. But as I must, as a good critic, relate something of importance as to the plot itself, here it goes. We start with a perfectly poignant opening where we get surprisingly large information on our adolescent main character (Joe; played with innocent maturity by Joel Courtney) with only two short non-vocal scenes. We soon learn that the story is occurring in the late 70’s in – yay for the home team – Ohio.  Joe is part of a small, interwoven society; a society we would expect more from the innocent of the 50’s than the 70’s. His father is an overwhelmed deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) who doesn’t know how to relate to his son. His preteen friends are some pretty characteristically-rich kids; Charles (Riley Griffiths) is a budding filmmaker who is obsessed with all things creative, Alice (Elle Fanning) is a shy girl who has a lot of secrets and can act better than anyone else in town, Martin (Gabriel Basso) is Charles’ head actor who can’t seem to function when things don’t go according to plan, and Cary (Ryan Lee) is simply a giddy pyromaniac who doubles quite nicely as a special effects guru. Together, they take Charles’ Super 8 camera and spend most of their time on school and filming his movie.

Now the characters themselves are deep enough and interesting enough to warrant their own film. Yet that’s not what this film is about, and here is where things get awesome. When the group attempts to film their latest project (a “Dawn of the Dead”-like zombie thriller) outside of town at midnight near the train tracks, they witness a magnificently-staged train derailment/explosion which is undoubtedly an awing destruction sequence destined for iconic status. After the explosion, the kids find the dying man who caused the explosion, who warns them to leave immediately and never tell anyone that they were there. They soon learn that there was something inside the train which is now free and feasting upon the town, while the U.S. Military busts in and enacts the mandatory taking-away-of-civil-rights on these poor Ohioans. The kids find that their super 8 camera might be the only thing that can save the town from the unspeakable horror that is now hiding in the unknown.

Abrams tackles his direction with a childlike giddiness which couldn’t be a better match for the material. Throughout each scene, one could easily see this as a massive wish fulfillment on Abrams’ part – the kids’ filming techniques and sense of banter even amid the most outlandish of scenes makes us understand what must have been Abrams’ personal experience with his own budding mind of creativity. Abrams has always had a talent at planting specific images in our minds that end up becoming iconic – from the “Lost” pilot plane crash to the stunningly emotional “Star Trek” opening – and now we can see that in practically every major scene in “Super 8.” The train derailment takes center stage, but the unseen monster attacks (especially one involving a military transport) and more subtle images (like Joe sitting outside his house on a playground swing holding a locket) are all moments that I will remember as some of the best of the genre.

I normally don’t like the usual dialogue between children characters in the majority of movies, as it always comes off as an adult trying to talk like a child in order to move the plot forward. There is rarely any real sense of honesty in the youthfulness. Yet with “Super 8,” I couldn’t get enough of these kids just talking amongst themselves. Their banter is so much fun and actually flows with realism that hasn’t been rivaled since “The Goonies” in the 80’s. Actually, in many respects, I consider this coming-of-age story and sense of child thought to be more fun and exciting than both “Stand by Me” and “The Goonies.”

There are certain directors that grow up with a fantastical sense of wonder in the beauty of their craft. We see this best with their early work, from Quentin Tarantino with “Reservoir Dog” to Sam Raimi with “The Evil Dead” to Christopher Nolan with “Memento.” The project is just as much fun to watch as we’re sure it was to make. With Abrams, he captures on film why there are people in the business who can be passionate about filmmaking for decades upon decades, weaving a monster story together that breathlessly never falls into camp or cliché.

Ultimately, the greatest appeal of this film is how Abrams takes the magical adventurism of “The Goonies,” combines it with his contagious sense of wonder in the art of filmmaking and storytelling, and just lets everything that we’ve seen in his previous work (from “Alias” to “Lost” to “Star Trek”) pour out in an extravaganza of visual and emotional excitement. This is a bondafide classic the likes of which I wish we saw far more of today.

Aside from the rather disappointing decision to show the monster (and making the monster look like the end result of Christopher Lee having a baby with Optimus Prime) and the ending that doesn’t live up to the epic build-up of the rest of the story, “Super 8” is perhaps the greatest sci-fi film since the glory days when Stephen Spielberg reigned king over all heartfelt science fiction. Subtle, honest, pure, touching, and – perhaps the most amazing thing – really as smart as it thinks it is, “Super 8” moves fast and thinks even faster, especially when you consider how the story evolves in the same methodical, paced, and delightful fashion of “Lost.” The great J.J. Abrams has smashed another one out of the park with the intelligent showmanship and grandeur we’d expect from the mind that has created some of the greatest entertainment in the last 20 years. Spielberg should be proud.

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“X-Men: First Class” review – written 6/3/11


Rating: A-

The biggest mistake you could make with Michael Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” before seeing it is writing it off as an unnecessary Wolverine-less prequel. I know I almost did. But not only is this film downright fantastic, it also allows us a more multilayered viewing of the original trilogy. Similarly to “Batman Begins” and “Star Trek,” this film uses equally lofty ambitions of storytelling rather than just explosive special effects in going back to the very beginning so that we may better understand the present. The result is a genuine work of art which makes up the best installment of the X-Men series and one of the strongest Marvel films to date. After eight years since “X2,” this X actually marks the spot.

The year is 1962. Roughly around 30 years before the stories of the X-Men – specifically, Professor X and Magneto – we know. Mutants aren’t out of the closet yet. Here, Professor X is Charles (James McAvoy; “Wanted”), a college Oxford graduate whose wisdom beyond his years doesn’t hide the less-restrained excitement he has for others’ mutations which makes him far less refined than his older Patrick Stewart counterpart. Magneto is Erik (Michael Fassbender; “Inglorious Basterds”), a self-proclaimed “Frankenstein’s Monster” who is driven to destroy the Nazi officer who destroyed his life during the Holocaust. In a “Sophie’s Choice”-like scene that feels far more adult than anything I’ve seen in the Marvel universe, the man gives young Erik an ultimatum which truly puts the Magneto we met in the original trilogy into a fuller light. Charles and Erik – one with the power of empathy, the other the power of magnetism – bump into each other while on the hunt for the same man: Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who is single-handedly trying to start World War III with what we now know to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. But as we know, their friendship isn’t one that was meant to last. But while they are partners, they go out and recruit other individuals with mutant powers, including Charles’ childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence; “Winter’s Bone”).

I’ve always found it fascinating how the two comic book companies – that would be DC Comics and Marvel Comics – currently differ in how they approach their lynchpins. DC has reinvented a heroic world with 100% realism. Marvel stays with the pure-entertainment comic book formula with very little else involved. This pattern has been going on for so long that we don’t even question it anymore. We either expect good fun like “Spider-Man” or edgy realism like “The Dark Knight.” We forgot along the way that they can shoot for the stars and come up with gripping Oscar-worthy material like “American Beauty.” This story is aiming for just such a higher quality.

This isn’t a reboot as much as it is a “Fast Five”-like transitional film, trying to become a different type of franchise. Considering how horrible the last two installments (“The Last Stand” and “Wolverine”) were, this is as wowing of a comeback as when Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” effectively erased the stench of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin” from the dark knight’s franchise.

There is real genius throughout the way this story and these characters unfold before our eyes. In several ways, “First Class” is just as much of a warped product of its time as Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” with the whole history of the Cuban Missile Crisis being deformed for the sake of our alternative retelling of reality.

The cast works exceptionally well, but most of them tend to get lost amid the power of the main two powerhouse performances of Fassbender and Bacon. McAvoy and Lawrence are quite effective in their roles, and we can definitely see them as younger versions of their older selves, but it is Fassbender who challenges his character the most.

As usual, a great superhero movie only works with a great villain. “First Class” has two characterizations of villainy. Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw provides your traditional villain, a worthy Marvel adversary whose evil we see the best during his first chilling scene. Yet for me, the greatest villain is always the one who doesn’t start out as one. Shaw is a traditional villain – lofty goals of world domination and little else.

Yet with Michael Fassbender’s presence-filled portrayal of Erik, we get a truly stirring portrayal of blind hatred that cannot be denied. Erik’s interesting characterization shines brightest when we compare his loyalties throughout the film. When we first meet him during adulthood, he defines a badass attitude with his dealings with some former Nazi soldiers. Up until he meets Charles for the first time, Erik’s revenge-blinded sense of existence is practically worthy of his own film in how cinematically potent he is. Yet when he meets Charles, we see that Charles did, however briefly, helped Erik find his humanity again. Even with us knowing what Erik will end up becoming, like Anakin in the “Star Wars” prequels, we can’t help but hope that Charles can get through to him.

Charles and Erik’s friendship redefines the both of them. This friendship has always been at the heart of the whole franchise, and it is shown with the appropriate gravitas. The part that amazes me? Most of this is conveyed through Fassbender’s eyes. It is this sense of character and writing where I actually feel like Fassbender could be looking at some Best Supporting Actor nominations later. While completely different from Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Fassbender tells the story of a completely different character that is mesmerizingly compelling in his own dark way. The bar scene alone is worth as many accolades as the similar scene from “Inglorious Basterds” was.

There are moments we can immediately recognize as the best of the franchise. While few scenes can top the Nightcrawler White House attack, the storming of the X-Mansion, and our sole moment where we see Wolverine in all his violent glory (at least as much as we can in a non-R flick) in “X2,” “First Class” has its moments that enrapture us – Erik’s dismantling of a cruise ship, Erik’s ultimatum scene, Magneto’s final kill, the recruiting montage where we get an awesome cameo, the true origins of the Magneto mask, and the awing climax over the Cuban attack.

But there is, for me, one particular scene which is the greatest of the film. This occurs during Erik’s quest on going through various Nazi sources in order to find Shaw, when he finds three of his targets in an empty bar, subtly introduces himself in German, proceeds to have an intense Tarantino-like subtitled conversation, and finally uses his powers in a spectacular manner. It’s the slow burn of the scene that makes it brilliant, almost Hitchcockian, in how Erik unveils himself. I literally got fanboy goosebumps (a reaction previously attained only through Nolan’s Batman) when Erik subtly turns his arm over, revealing his tattooed Nazi identification numbers, to a previous Nazi. A priceless setup.

“First Class” is, by all counts, an adult movie. There are no events toned down to fulfill the by-the-numbers genre requirements. Erik’s violent ultimatum, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Erik’s final downfall into darkness are storytelling tidbits worthy of acclaimed directors like Francis Ford Coppola or Quentin Tarantino.

While I still prefer Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass,” this is still like watching a master decorator putting together an exhibition of all his talents. This is Marvel’s perfect film, with nothing pedestrian or half-baked to be found anywhere. Armed with an unflinching screenplay and a spectacular ensemble cast headed by Fassbender, “X-Men: First Class” is an appropriately first-class superhero masterpiece that doesn’t misstep.

As much as I would miss Hugh Jackman as the indelible Wolverine, I would still be one of the people cheering for this to be a full-on reboot for the X-Men franchise. Let Wolverine have his stand-alone films. “X-Men: First Class” is the type of X-Men that longtime fans deserve.

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“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” review – written 5/17/11


Rating: C+

For me, the Pirates of the Caribbean series has always been a source of childlike reckless abandonment. With “Curse of the Black Pearl,” director Gore Verbinski crafted a genuine pirate masterpiece that hearkens back to original swashbuckling action flicks like Errol Flynn’s “Captain Blood.” I loved the character of Captain Jack Sparrow, the brilliantly chaotic sense of unpredictability, and the high-octane world in which we see him reign supreme.

Unfortunately for this fourth installment and fans worldwide, replacement director Rob Marshal just doesn’t have the sense of scope or excitement for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” that Gore Verbinski had in abundance for the trilogy. Verbinski may have overextended his reach, but Marshall takes the opposite approach in not pushing the story far enough to reach the appealingly uncharted feel that made us like the series even amid the sequels’ ridiculous nature.

The story has to be the most simple installment the series. Occurring some time after the events of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” a shipless and crewless Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp; “Sweeney Todd”) is in London. He has two reasons: to save previous crewmember Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from a hanging and to find out who is using the Jack Sparrow persona to gather a crew for a trip to the Fountain of Youth. While achieving these two ends, Jack’s latest adventure starts when he bumps into Angelica (Penelope Cruz; “Blow”), a woman who years ago was about to take her vows and join a Spanish convent before Jack used his wiles on her and has since become the only woman whom Jack has ever felt “stirrings” for. She proves to have ulterior plans for Jack when she shanghais him and places him on ‘The Queen Anne’s Revenge’ under the intimidating command of Blackbeard (Ian McShane; “Kung Fu Panda 2”), the pirate who all pirates fear with his calm-before-the-storm ferocity and ability to zombify his sailors. Blackbeard is determined to find the fountain with Jack’s help, but Jack has some competition considering that an English armada led by the peg-legged Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush; “The King’s Speech”) – who is now a proud privateer for Her Majesty’s service – and a Spanish armada are hot on the trail of the Fountain, as well. All three forces converge in a massive race, where they come across deadly mermaids (one of whom takes the role of the new Elizabeth Swan with a minister of God who is one of Blackbeard’s captives), caverns, and jungles.

After viewing “On Stranger Tides,” I have decided that I will never get sick of Johnny Depp playing the indelible Captain Jack Sparrow. What I am capable of getting sick of is an utter lack of genuine imagination and sense of fun. This has far too much of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get feel – some fun may be there, but Verbinski’s previous thought and care is noticeably absent.

The film does make a real effort in smartly trying to get back to basics by focusing on one story instead of having a bunch of subplot tangents. This makes a simpler sense of fun than the other sequels. But, mainly, we just don’t have any of the first film’s entertaining balance of wit, action, and charm.

My biggest complaint is how, considering the amount of adventure and the unpredictability in the previous installments, “On Stranger Tides” only feels like half a Pirates film. There just isn’t much substance to be found here. It’s, dare I say it, far too simple.

Before seeing this, I was hoping that this fourth film’s approach would be, ultimately, taking the Indiana Jones approach of individualized tales where each stands alone from the rest. Each film feels great in its own right. This was supposed to be the equivalent to “The Last Crusade” to the first Pirate film’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” We just didn’t get that feeling.

Even though this was supposed to stand alone, we are seemingly getting another convoluted pushing for a sequel. The ending has far too man wink-wink moments where, when we should have closure, we instead get questions which only a sequel can answer. I loved the first film as much as I did because it didn’t have to rely on the prospect of a sequel or anything additional to keep grand and complete in its own right. The two sequels never felt as great as they could have been because they lost sight of their potential approach – which was episodic looks at the adventures of Jack Sparrow.

The truth is that Sparrow is – and always will be – the star attraction of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series. The trick of the first film that separated it from all the sequels was how it knew how to use Sparrow in the best way possible. But to make him work, we need a great story as visceral and complex as he is. Do we get that? No.

The swordfights and battles, while carrying the same frenetic movement and obvious skill, are usually nowhere near as incredible as those from “Dead Man’s Chest” or as fun as “Curse of the Black Pearl.” They are far too limited in scope and just feel askew to how grand all the previous swordfights felt.

At this point, we already know what to expect with Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow – awesomeness. Even though we know what to expect, Jack continues to entertain us and make us laugh. His chaotic craziness and shrewd intelligence has always been a brilliant combination. Since the last Pirates, we’ve had Depp in a variety of different roles; from an eerie serial-killing barber in “Sweeney Todd” to a charismatic bank robber in “Public Enemies.” Yet it is through Jack Sparrow where he finds his greatest audience – and I do think it is here where I enjoy watching him the most.

Through her fiery spirit and seductive sensuality, Penelope Cruz proves a better match for Jack Sparrow as a character than anyone outside Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa from the original trilogy. We can easily see, amid all the women we know Jack has come across, why she has been the only woman who has stirred real feelings in the pirate who can never get tied down. She also fits right into this pirate world.

It is with Ian McShane where I feel the most disappointed – and it has nothing to do with his acting. McShane is a spectacular actor, filled with subtle poise and intimidation that I can’t help but be mesmerized. His greatest performance I’ve seen is hands-down his role in the miniseries “Pillars of the Earth,” where he played a corrupt bishop. I truly was expecting a villain that surpassed the other Pirates antagonists. But the character is so lifeless that McShane is cruelly used. He could have gone to such better use. Basically, he makes one or two violent actions and then just sits around looking menacing. When it comes to Pirate villains, apparently Captain Barbossa still sits at the top of greatness.

Jack’s shtick has always been his stark ability to be at least two steps ahead of everyone else, yet that unpredictable ability is sadly missing with “On Stranger Tides.” We never get the payoff noteworthy moment where we see the same old Jack Sparrow who brilliantly made the Interceptor/Dauntless switch and subtly snagged a gold piece from the Aztec chest to guarantee himself a winning fight. Here, Jack is literally along for the ride – and that’s not a seat where we like to see him.

After four years of waiting in anticipation, what we should have gotten for “On Stranger Tides” was a sequel like “The Last Crusade.” Instead, we get a sequel like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” with practically nothing grand, challenging, or original. It’s a safe sequel, choosing to fully rely on the already-established characters we love rather than taking us on a grand new journey full of rousing adventure.

Ultimately, I may have expected too much. I loved “Black Pearl.” I liked the other two, but felt that they railroaded on their potential. With “On Stranger Tides,” I just don’t consider it to carry the pace or the feel of what made the others so much fun.

All I really wanted was to be entertained, just like the previous films. Even during the dumbest of scenes in “At World’s End,” I never really stopped being entertained. I don’t need intellectual depth or philosophical complications. I just want fun. I’m not being picky here: the sad truth is that, after a bit, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” just isn’t fun anymore.

The film is most definitely not a failure, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a success, either. It is merely passable. But as for me, I just think the series deserves better than that.

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