The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011)

Breaking Dawn Part 1

☆☆☆☆☆

Directed by: Bill Condon

Written by: Melissa Rosenberg

Based on the Novel by: Stephanie Meyer

Let’s get this over with: I haven’t read Stephanie Meyer’s oft-derided YA paranormal romance novels. I probably never will. But I have seen the other movies in the series so far and while they aren’t great nor even good, there is at least some entertainment value to be found in there.

I’m no vampire purist so I don’t care if Meyer wants to make sparkly vampires; I don’t think these stories are any more about how important having a boyfriend is than any other female-oriented YA book. Let’s face it, to the target demographic here, having a boyfriend is really, really important so if someone is just upset that the book strikes a chord, you might as well rail against the idea that teenage girls can be a little frivolous. Which would be like railing against the idea that teenage boys can be clueless, hormone-soaked morons. In other words, a pretty big waste of time.

Whatever people seem to think they hate about Twilight, whether it’s the unedited, angst-ridden whine of the books or the casting of morose anti-starlet Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan, I think most of it sounds like sour grapes. Listen, this territory has been well covered before (Buffy the Vampire Slayer—at least the TV incarnation—did it, and did it very well thank you very much) but it gets revisited because it works. Vampires and werewolves make great allegorical characters and they allow writers to speak about ideas  such as immortality and love and loss and power and seduction and darkness and light in a language that everyone can understand and, when you get right down to it, it’s pretty easy to make it entertaining, too. Because frankly, most of the work has already been done in the pop culture that has been refining these myths for hundreds of years. Dropping a sunlight allergy isn’t going to make or break this minor revision.

So I view the Twilight movies for what they are: Paranormal teenybopper romance. And the first few movies were fine for what they were although admittedly they dipped into heavy corn territory far too often for my taste and, as I pointed out in a separate blog post, I thought there was a pretty big plot hole in the second film, New Moon. Whatever. I’ve been watching these because my wife likes them and she’s put up with enough super hero and science fiction nonsense from me that I can at least give her this series.

Or so I thought until I saw Breaking Dawn.

Here’s the thing about Breaking Dawn Part 1: This is not a movie.

Let’s summarize what you need to have a movie: Conflict; resolution.

Breaking Dawn has practically zero conflict. The cabal of vampires who were set as the primary antagonists in the third film are utterly absent here and the first whole hour of the movie is dedicated to an extended music video about Edward and Bella’s wedding and their honeymoon during which they consummate their marriage once and then the rest of the half hour is devoted to a will-they-or-won’t-they kind of sexual tension which is utterly null and void because they have already had sex. It’s barely enough to hold even the most forgiving moviegoer’s attention if your principal obstacle is whether or not two attractive young characters are going horizontal, but you cannot in good conscience devote the better part of half an hour to whether or not they will do it again.

About halfway through the movie Bella discovers she’s pregnant, something no one seemed to think was possible—I guess everyone assumed Eddie was shooting vampiric blanks or something. In any case, they head back home and the Cullen clan sit around wringing their hands while Bella’s gestating child grows at a supernatural rate and seems to be killing her. Eternally friend-zoned and back-burnered werewolf Jacob shows up, pissed off as usual at Edward for his continued existence and they exchange some terrible dialogue before Jacob’s wolf pack show up, somehow forcing yet another Uneasy Alliance between Jacob and Edward. Something to do with the wolves wanting to destroy Bella’s child because it’s an abomination or something? If it’s an abomination they were looking for, they might have wanted to start with the film’s hack of a director.

At any rate the last, laborious third of the movie is one torturous Mexican standoff between the Cullens and the werewolves culminating in a pretty unnerving birth sequence which isn’t really graphic but is still kind of harsh mostly due to the incredible foley work done. And let me pause for a minute to marvel at a film whose primary claim to excellence is a four minute sequence performed by the sound effects crew. Thinking about it, this may be all you really need to know about Breaking Dawn Part 1.

But just for laughs, let’s back up to that list of two things you need to have a movie. Having already established a dearth of conflict, we now arrive at the end of the movie wherein we realize, as the credits roll (or flash as the case happens to be), that we have not really resolved any of the questionable levels of conflict we managed to scrape off the unending scenes of poorly written and terribly delivered dialogue. Unless you count “vampire family gets married and starts new life together” as an acceptable synopsis for a movie—and you shouldn’t—that is literally all you get out of Breaking Dawn. Sometimes movies need to find a way to get more of themselves onto the cutting room floor, but in this case I can’t see why all 117 minutes of this had any reason to not end up in some Final Cut Pro user’s trash folder.

Perhaps—just perhaps—you could make a case that a condensed, five to ten minute version of the last half hour of this movie could serve as an acceptable prologue prior to the title card for a different movie as a setup for something that actually qualifies as a story. But this entire film counts as one huge example of the Wadsworth Constant.

Here’s my hope: Somewhere, someone decided that the book Breaking Dawn had to be filmed in its entirety in spite of the fact that the plot doesn’t kick in until the halfway point and therefore the forthcoming Breaking Dawn Part 2 actually contains the movie this one was supposed to begin. If that’s the case, okay. I guess I get it: This one’s for the fans of the book only, to stave off their ire at not including a true-to-source adaptation. I think I would have preferred it be a feature on the deluxe edition DVD, but whatever. But please, for the love of all that is good in loving husbands and boyfriends: Put a disclaimer in the ads warning potential audiences that what they are about to pay the better part of $20 to see is, in fact, DVD extras.

And then for your own sake, give Breaking Dawn Part 1 as wide a berth as you are physically able.

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tron: Legacy

★★★☆☆

Directed by: Joseph Kosinski

Written by: Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal

Based on Characters Created by: Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird

The visual effects in Tron: Legacy are pretty spectacular throughout, with one glaring, highly unfortunate exception. Because the story in the film spans the time from the original movie (1982) until the present day, a gap of just under 30 years, Jeff Bridges, who reprises his role of Kevin Flynn, needs to appear both as his 1982 self and his current 2010 self. This achieved via computer-generating the young Bridges and the uncanny valley is so wide in those scenes, it seriously hurts your mind to watch it.

I suppose you could say it’s fortunate that Legacy follows Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son, rather than Bridges’s character because at least Sam (played erratically by Garrett Hedlund) remains the same age throughout. Sam is the heir to Kevin’s Microsoft-eqsue company, a far step beyond what it was in Kevin’s heyday. But Kevin disappeared a few years following the events of the original Tron movie and there are rumors that he was on the verge of something extraordinary before his disappearance. Sam is resentful at what he can only perceive as abandonment and so, in spite being heir to a wealthy company that gives him license to do basically as he pleases, he bides his time playing high-tech pranks on his own company and doing daredevil things like a young man with nothing to lose.

Of course a mysterious communication guides him back to Flynn’s arcade where he finds a secret workshop that reveals his father was working on human-to-program transformation (similar to that which kicked off the events in the first Tron) and, in a short sequence that is noteworthy both for being a very contrived and convenient way to get Sam into The Grid (Tron’s inner mainframe world) as well as for featuring remarkably realistic depictions of computer interactivity (the Unix commands issued are briefly seen but genuine), Sam gets sucked in as well. Once there, Sam is quickly dumped into updated versions of the classic Tron action sequences: Lightcycles and disc battles until eventually he is rescued by a beautiful program who calls herself Quorra (played with impressive naivety and heart by Olivia Wilde), a raccooon-eyed protege of Kevin. After Sam and Kevin reunite, there are a couple of vague plans hatched to try and escape The Grid, a bunch of high tech action scenes take place and eventually the ending happens which is both incredibly disappointing and yet kind of fitting.

Okay, let me back up to look at the movie as a whole. This film is very much like its predecessor wherein it has a lot of cool and even grand ideas, but it doesn’t seem willing to delve into the cerebral territory that it really demands. There are plenty of opportunities for choice allegories, moral stances and explorations of the nature of man, machines, creation, information, ethics and potential. Instead, Legacy dances around all of them as if terrified to be accused of sermonizing. The result though is bland and, again keeping with the original, results in a very slow middle act where there is a lot of talking and sort of been-there-seen-that action sequences which look an awful lot like remakes of sequences from The Matrix trilogy, any number of Mission: Impossible movies, Die Hard, etc, etc. It does pick up again toward the end but at that point Tron: Legacy has already demonstrated that it doesn’t really stand for anything and can’t be bothered with anything like a point so it’s just more popcorn and eye candy which—surprise, surprise—manages to nicely set up a sequel in the process.

There are plenty of problems here, such as crazily uneven dialogue which is at times hilariously awful and yet again at other points strangely effective. The acting on all the principals ranges from wooden to impressive (the lone exception is Michael Sheen as Castor, who brings a bit of jesterly enthusiasm to his role which the rest of the film lacks) and most of the revelations and twists along the way somehow don’t ever seem to really have as much punch as the script probably assumed they would. Perhaps this is due in part to the direction, which is—say it with me now—inconsistent and uneven. Perhaps Joseph Kosinski was too worried about the 3D effects to pay as much attention to pacing and acting, but it makes for a frustrating watch.

Because deep inside, there is a really good movie trying to get out of Tron: Legacy. If the script had been given a once-over (mark the date as I’m about to recommend a rewrite here) by someone familiar with both science fiction and focusing a story around a theme (let’s throw the name Joss Whedon out there, just for laughs) to tighten it up and give it a soul, the makings of awesome are here. As it is, Legacy stumbles along, mildly entertaining but not much else and occasionally not even that until it finally ends. At that point, the biggest takeaway is Daft Punk’s glorious (but strangely beat-deprived) soundtrack and a few cool visual effects that would make nice desktop wallpapers.

Curiously, as a follow up to a cool (but flawed), campy classic SF film, it’s unintentionally suitable. I think the filmmakers were actually shooting to eclipse the original but they missed the mark, somehow managing to remake rather than re-invigorate a franchise that I doubt was ever intended to be a franchise. You can do worse than Tron: Legacy, but you can also do much, much better so in the end I give it the mildest of recommendations and hope you don’t ever intend to pay much money for the privilege.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter’s Bone

★★★★☆

Directed by: Debra Granik

Written by: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini

Based on the Novel by: Daniel Woodrell

Debra Granik’s dingy film about a determined girl living in the Ozarks, trying to do whatever it takes to keep her family’s house when her father skips his bond and misses a court date, is best summarized with the word “deliberate.” That shouldn’t be read as meaning Winter’s Bone is dull or plodding, only that it moves along at a measured pace, intentionally, drawing out sequences of main character Ree (played with a striking cool-on-the-outside/inferno-on-the-inside conviction by Jennifer Lawrence) caring for her siblings, walking around, staring reflectively into the distance. Ree is wise beyond her 17 years but that doesn’t mean she has all the answers and while her family and their associates are dangerous, violent people who are anything but forthcoming with information about Ree’s dad, she toes the line between desperation and thoughtful prudence.

There are several moments when Winter’s Bone could have transitioned itself into something else: It could occasionally turn very dark indeed, it could have been angry and hateful, it could have been sappy and overly sentimental. Instead, Granik sets a just-so aura of slowly crushing dismay, letting the creeping sense of dread inherent in a young girl forced to ask for help from lawless amphetamine dealers carry the atmosphere. In many ways the rich symbolism and quiet seething that happen outside of the words on the script, the volumes of dialogue that pass from character to character in glances and nervous twitches are more effective at telling the story than any of the authentic-sounding lines could be.

By the end of Winter’s Bone we have a curious relationship with Ree. Some movies might go out of their way to make you want to love her, but Ree has enough love. We can’t really empathize with her—her situation is far removed from anything most will have to deal with, and while we can admire her, we know she doesn’t want that admiration. We settle, in the end, for acceptance of Ree’s fate, just as she does, knowing that all may not be right in the world, but all that matters is. For now.

Bad Teacher (2011)

Bad Teacher

★★☆☆☆

Directed by: Jake Kasdan

Written by: Gene Stupintsky, Lee Eisenberg

The most amusing part about Bad Teacher, to me, is how desperately it wants you to think it is an edgy, raunchy Apatow-esque dark comedy. Throughout you can practically see the notes in the margin of the script, written in red ink that circle certain lines or stage directions which say, “NOT a RomCom!” Bad Teacher wants you to know it is not a romantic comedy. It’s zany because the antagonist in the plot, Amy Squirrel (played memorably high strung by Lucy Punch) is secretly crazy! It’s edgy because the protagonist (Cameron Diaz who manages to be both triumphant and the film’s biggest flaw at once) is a school teacher who isn’t nice to kids! What made me laugh was that every time Bad Teacher tries to lampoon a romantic comedy formula, it ends up somehow misfiring and feeling even more like a standard Kathryn Heigel/Kate Hudson vehicle than before.

The movie follows Elizabeth Halsey, a lazy, gold-digging middle school teacher who hoped to escape her dull career by marrying a wealthy man and becoming a trophy wife. When her fiance breaks it off, she’s left with no alternative but to return to school and try to figure out how to find her next target. She becomes convinced that the reason she can’t keep a rich man’s attention long enough to get to the vows is that her breasts are too small, so she finds a clinic and gets a quote for her dream boob job and then begins scheming on how to earn the ten grand she needs. It’s important to note that this boob job motivation is supposed to be sufficient to explain an awful lot of her activities through the course of the movie and to call attention to the fact that this never stops feeling like a contrivance.

Elizabeth feels she needs the boobs to land the man, but she also needs the man for them to work on. She meets a new substitute teacher named Scott Delacorte (played by Justin Timberkale who can never quite sell his tweedy, dipstick-y role, despite an admirable effort) who may be the heir to a designer watchmaker’s fortune and marks him as a candidate, all the while brushing off advances from the school gym teacher named Russell (Jason Segel, reprising his character from I Love You, Man). Throughout she butts heads with Amy, a near-unhinged go-getter who suspects and/or knows the extent to which Elizabeth is skating by but can never quite get the proof she needs to get rid of her.

The upshot is that the set-up is flimsy and what it sets up is a very long sequence of Elizabeth doing questionable, illegal, immoral or destructive things in order to save up the cash. It’s funny because she teaches middle school, get it? Admittedly there are a few laughs to be had, but standard comedy issues abound as Bad Teacher lingers too long on unfunny jokes, takes forever to set up certain gags, forgets about humor altogether for several lengthy sequences in order to establish character or plot and, above all, drags on and on. This is a movie that needed to leave about a third of itself on the cutting room floor. For example, Lucy Punch’s Ms. Squirrel character is memorably lunatic, but she has an incredible amount of screen time and most of it isn’t justified. We don’t need two or three sequences of her debating with the principal (John Michael Higgins) about whether Elizabeth has crossed the line this time, I think it’s safe to assume that Amy is working furiously behind the scenes to get her fired. One such lengthy scene chews up four or five minutes just to get to one single fart joke.

Still, the movie was Diaz’s to make or break. Cameron Diaz is a curious actress in that, given the right role, she can certainly sell it and command the screen. I believe it was her work alone that made There’s Something About Mary such a success: She managed to nail the object-of-all-men’s-affection femme without coming across as intimidating to women or butch and you can only give so much credit for making that work to the writers. But Diaz struggles with other roles, typically serious ones, where she manages to blend into the background (did you even remember she had a pretty key role in Any Given Sunday? I had to look it up) possibly because she isn’t always great at creating distinctive characters. Here, she absolutely works as the irresponsible child in a woman’s body but the problem is that she also comes across as too smart to act as dumb as Elizabeth does. In her scenes with Segel she displays a world-weary self-awareness that hints that she should very well know better than to think her breast size is any sort of a factor in her life’s success and the fact that later in the film she is able to seduce just about anyone she wants without the implants, often to great financial gain, leading one to wonder why she bothers with the plastic surgery at all. There has to be plenty of nerdy trust-fund babies she can weave her spell upon. Her “8/8.5” speech early in the movie, delivered to co-teacher Phyllis (Lynn Davies, appearing here exactly as she does in The Office) is pivotal to establishing Elizabeth’s reasoning and motivations and, unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.

The key problem with Bad Teacher is that the parts that work best are the least explored: There is a parallel storyline thing happening between a nerdy, sensitive poetic boy and the popular girl in the class, plus a few sly “we never grow up” scenes involving the teachers all of which work very well but make up a very small amount of the story. Instead we get interminable hours of Diaz exploiting a car wash by dancing sensually on car hoods, Scott serenading Amy in a thin falsetto that is—I guess?—supposed to be amusing but isn’t and plenty of scenes where Elizabeth smokes pot, drinks and says cruelly insightful things to kids. There is plenty of promise in the movie, but it’s almost entirely drowned out by the hackneyed premise.

Then again, we get to the finale where the standard romantic comedy tropes file in, take their bows, and walk out again. Bad Teacher tries to smirk at them, but behind the smirk is an I-can’t-quit-you affection and it fools precisely no one. In the end, there is nothing about Bad Teacher that makes it worthy of a recommendation, which is not the same thing as saying it’s a bad movie. In fact, I’d say it was a good movie surrounded by too much pointlessness and the end result is tepid, unworthy of notice. However, Bad Teacher does accomplish one feat which my wife points out and assures me is significant: It manages to make Jason Segel look more desirable than Justin Timberlake. So I guess that counts for something? 

Scream 4 (2011)

Scream 4

★☆☆☆☆

Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Kevin Williamson

Since the beginning of the franchise, I have maintained that the Scream movies are not horror. In fact, most horror movies these days are not horror in the definition of the genre I adhere to which is that horror movies have to at least contain a hint of a supernatural element in order to qualify. Because, my theory goes, otherwise the movies are a subgenre of the suspense/thriller category which permits non-supernatural terror to occur. That subgenre certainly takes elements that were established within the parameters of many supernatural horror movies—especially slasher pictures. Namely, overt violence and gleeful revelry in gore. But lacking a supernatural component, you can’t really compare and contrast films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw and Hostel with The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street because the fundamental conceit is different.

Granted, Scream has long tried to side-step this technical quibble by internally avoiding (for the most part) the term “horror” in favor of the more generic “scary movie.” But it feels important to me to make the distinction because Scream’s self-awareness of a world in which horror/scary movies exist and yet suspenseful events that mirror the lampooned deconstructions still happen often to comedic (or, more aptly, ironic) effect is supposed to carry the cachet of horror and yet it must, in order to work, fixate on a plausibility that anchors it within the suspense parameters.

To be honest, trying to unwind the twisted layers of postmodern irony present in Scream is an exercise in futility. To a certain extent Scream’s sequels have been criticism-proof because they have such a winking self-knowledge they can just as easily cite any legitimate gripe as parody, satire or outright homage and in a certain way of thinking get away with it because, who knows what was intended? Is the fact that Scream 4 includes an early death sequence involving a garage door—implausibly operating despite universal safety precautions that would inhibit it—a second example of idiocy on the part of the writers or an intentional self-parodying reference to the oft-bemoaned garage-pet-door death sequence from the original Scream? Is the fact that the opening intro-within-an-intro-within-an-intro (Scream-ception, anyone?) contains a bit of banter regarding Scream (proxied here as Stab) being, in fact, suspense more akin to torture porn than true horror an exemption of its intentional misclassification or just a dismissive acknowledgement of it? It’s frustrating to try and get a handle on the levels of shrugging, smirking, logic-mocking smarm on display here although it helps to understand that Scream 4 (I refuse to write it as Scre4m—gah), itself, doesn’t really give a rip about anything, including itself.

Which makes it all the easier to not care about Scream 4. Previous sequels, especially the mind-lubricated third installment which I’ve seen at least three times and still can barely keep in my head such is its forgettability, failed principally because they let the tangle of the franchise protagonist Sydney Prescott get too tightly integrated into its own mythology and by the end of the third movie we have to include some long-lost brother plot that we don’t care one iota about just to give someone an excuse to keep tormenting Neve Campbell’s character. For a franchise that was supposed to re-enable suspension of disbelief by setting the suspense in a world more closely mirrored to our own where scary slasher pictures are as ubiquitous as they actually are, it continued to defy logic that separate, uniquely motivated killers would all use the same modus operandi. Suspension of disbelief, indeed.

There is a snarky line in Scream 4 where a character (it doesn’t matter which one since nothing in the movie is particularly memorable except for Hayden Panettiere’s unfortunate hairstyle) bemoans that nothing gets greenlit in Hollywood anymore unless it’s a remake or a reboot, which I suppose is funny because Scream 4 is an anti-remake reboot. Or something. The sad part is that Scream, as a franchise, has continually dropped the ball when it came to actually deconstructing the genre it claims to be picking apart. We’ve now had so many chances to do something different and original from having one of the principals snap and become the killer for a later installment (it’s not a spoiler to say that neither Dewey, Gale or Sydney are Ghostface in Scream 4) to having the protagonist actually die (Randy doesn’t count, he was always dispensable) to having the killer actually get away with it (a truly squandered opportunity in Scream 4, especially, though I admit that in legitimate horror movies this isn’t actually that uncommon to a degree). I can think of countless other ways any of the Scream sequels could be improved—what if they had actually added the element of the supernatural at some point? What if the notion of an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre(s) actually mattered for more than a scene or two in each film? Instead Scream itself has become formulaic in a way that, as I said before, kind of defies criticism.

But here’s the thing, and this is not above reproach, no matter how much irony you try to blanket the franchise with: Scream 4 is not scary. Not even a teeny, tiny bit. It’s not funny, either. It’s barely even entertaining. Despite all it’s self-defense mechanisms and too-cool-for-school self-importance, it’s a crappy, barely watchable movie. It’s not that it didn’t have to be made, it could have gone a different way and become something of note, something that had a point or a purpose. But no. Instead it donned its cinematic hipster slouch and sneered its way into that dippy middle ground of pointlessness where a movie isn’t even bad enough to be lampooned or good enough to find purchase with a select number of misguided souls and instead must comfort itself with utter vanilla mediocrity so encompassing it might as well not even exist. If you want to see a genre deconstruction, go watch Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and see what self-referential horror can actually be. If you want to see cartoonish parody, watch the Scary Movie franchise which are awful but at least they revel in being awful instead of posing as pop culture commentary while actually being as or more vapid and ephemeral as gore-makeup magazines once you peel away the protective coating.

Just whatever you do, don’t see Scream 4.

The Book Of Eli (2010)

The Book Of Eli

★★★★★

Directed by: Albert and Allen Hughes

Written by: Gary Whitta

Deliberately paced and strikingly delivered, The Book Of Eli speaks volumes about its subjects without delivering speeches. The principals are convincing and the action has a moral heft. Highly recommended.

Tangled (2010)

Tangled

★★★★☆

Directed by: Nathan Greno and Byron Howard

Written by: Dan Fogelman

Based on the Fairy Tale by: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Before I get into the review, I need to confess something here: My daughter adores this movie. I mean she really, really loves it. Anyone else with kids knows that if your child likes a movie, you end up watching it, a lot. I can’t say that it’s been a daily occurrence (I mercifully get out of the house about four days a week), but at this point I’ve probably seen every scene in the film at least two dozen times. To a certain degree, this has to color my review because seeing something this many times does several things including: Making you sick to death of the movie and everything about it, giving you ample time to dissect and analyze the movie just to give your brain something to do on the 48th time through, and highlighting flaws you might never notice the first ten or twelve times watched.

So let’s just say up front that I recommend this movie. It’s very, very good by any standards, so don’t read too much into the rating just know that I couldn’t rate it any higher or my own overexposed brain would stage a violent revolution.

Anyway, about Tangled. Tangled is the story of Rapunzel, told the way Disney tells fairy tales. Well, not exactly the way Disney tells fairy tales. I’ll get to that in a minute. The point is, this movie could have been called “Rapunzel.” It’s not because Disney is trying to make money and when The Princess and the Frog didn’t do that well, marketing folks decided it was because little boys don’t really want to go see movies about princesses because they’re for girls. So they changed the name to something ambiguous and advertised it as an adventure film. And the thing is, I don’t think that was a bad move on their part because while I was even somewhat reluctant to watch Tangled for the first time, I definitely would have resisted a movie called Rapunzel.

Part of the problem is that the original story of Rapunzel is kind of dull and pointless. But Disney did what they do best (when they get their own formula right) and used the original fairy tale as a loose guide to craft a much more interesting story. In this version, Rapunzel is a princess, and her queen mother was given a medicine during the pregnancy made from a magical flower that had the power to heal and reverse the effects of aging. As a result, Rapunzel’s hair has the magical power the flower once held. But a woman named Gothel had been using the flower to keep herself young for eons and she was vengeful when her flower was destroyed to save the queen. She intended to just steal a locket of the princess’s hair but found that when the hair was cut it lost its power so in desperation she kidnapped the child and hid her away from the world in a secluded tower, pretending she was Rapunzel’s mother.

Sticken by grief, Rapunzel’s royal parents began to release hundreds of floating lanterns into the night sky each year on their daughter’s birthday, as a tribute perhaps, or as a beacon to guide their child home. Rapunzel, not knowing the lanterns are meant for her, watches them each year as she grows up, always wondering what they mean.

The story then skips ahead to the eve of Rapunzel’s eighteenth birthday when she finally works up the courage to ask her mother (Gothel, that is) to leave the tower she’s been hidden away in her whole life, so she can see what she refers to as the “floating lights” up close and in person. Gothel refuses and then departs. Meanwhile we’re introduced to Flynn Rider, a thief being pursued by the royal guard for swiping Rapunzel’s jeweled crown. Desperate to escape, he stumbles on the hidden tower and breaks in, only to be subdued by Rapunzel. When Gothel returns, Rapunzel tries to use Flynn as a rationale that she’s strong and brave enough to see the world but Gothel has none of it. Thwarted, Rapunzel hatches a hasty plan to get her mother out of the tower for a few days and revives Flynn, hoping to blackmail him into leading her to the lights in exchange for the crown.

Okay so let’s cover a few things here: First, we have a couple of athropomorphic animals (this is Disney after all) in Pascal, Rapunzel’s pet chameleon, and Maximus, the lawful royal horse of the captain of the guard who carries on his mission to arrest Flynn even after he is separated from his rider. Both provide plenty of comic relief although unlike some less successful Disney pictures, the humans have funny lines as well so the entertainment burden doesn’t lie in these secondary animal characters. Secondly, unlike the Pixar movies and 2008’s Bolt (the previous computer-animated film by Disney Animation Studios), this is a full-fledged musical and I’m happy to report that the music in this film is up to the standards of the late-80s heyday with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Granted, I’ve heard these songs so many times by now I kind of want to shove my head in the microwave each time they come on, but I know rationally that these are good musical numbers. Finally, the technical execution on display here is phenomenal: The style is evocative of lush, painterly storybooks and the nuance of the character animations is wonderful, even down to small touches like having Rapunzel not be a generic white storybook princess (she has a slight overbite and pigeon-toes); the animation artists are able to express such a dynamic range on the faces that characters often doesn’t even need to speak to convey a great deal of emotion. I’m not sure that even the oft-cited prowess of Pixar animators has matched this level of subtlety. Case in point: You may not notice (as I did not) in the first five or six viewings that the king and queen, while given a moderate amount of screen time, never once speak a line. Everything you need to know about them is conveyed through animated facial expression to the extent that you may come away from the movie thinking they had actually spoken a great deal.

The most remarkable part of Tangled is that it manages to be several things simultaneously. Firstly, it’s a grand adventure story, which is why they did right by advertising it as such, even if it would be a bit less disingenuous to have titled it “Rapunzel.” But while it’s swashbuckling and exciting it’s also often very funny, not necessarily in ground-breaking ways but organically through character development and entertaining musical numbers. There is a sequence right after Rapunzel finally leaves her tower for the first time where we cut back and forth between scenes of her frolicking in the forest, convincing herself that deceiving her mother was justified (“What she doesn’t know won’t kill her, right?”) and then chastising herself (“Oh my gosh, this would kill her!”), resigning to the mistake she’s made (“I am a horrible daughter. That’s it, I’m going back.”) and then reveling in her new freedom (“I am never going back!”). It’s both a funny moment as well as a very revealing portrait and then again at the same time it’s a very relatable, a very human scene. It’s like watching her experience the entirety of adolescence in the span of two minutes. And despite being joyous and exciting, there is a whole range—a great depth in fact—of emotion happening, from the underlying sadness of the premise to the romanticism of exploring the wide world which is mirrored in the blossoming (if inevitable) romance between Rapunzel and Flynn.

And this is the greatest strength of Tangled and example of what I mean when I refer to “wasted scenes.” Tangled doesn’t waste scenes: Everything that happens propels the plot forward, gives the audience a chance to understand a character a little better and manages to entertain at the same time. Plus you can see that so much work was put into making this tale, one which so easily could have been cookie-cutter, different. The complexity of the relationship between Gothel and Rapunzel, for example. Gothel isn’t actually evil: She’s completely self-centered which is her overriding motivation, but she does have affection for Rapunzel and even loves her in a sense. The two of them carry on an exchange a couple of times which really drives this home (even cementing the selfish nature of Gothel) when Gothel says “I love you, dear,” to which Rapunzel replies, “I love you more,” and Gothel finishes, “I love you most.” Touches like this are why the storytelling is so advanced for a Disney film and part of why adults can and certainly should enjoy this movie (though perhaps not dozens of times).

While it isn’t necessarily a key strength to the movie, the one tidbit that I find I appreciate the most (especially since my daughter is so enamored with the film) is that despite Flynn Rider’s swashbuckling presence in the film, it is actually Rapunzel that saves him over and over again. It’s such a welcome and yet natural flip of the expected norm that it’s easy to miss the first time through, but since the story is about Rapunzel and how she comes to realize how very capable and resourceful she is, to find the fire (or the light as Tangled’s writers would point out since light is a recurring theme) within herself it kind of has to be her that overcomes all the obstacles. But the audience isn’t beaten over the head with some phony grrrl power message stamped to the bottom of a cast iron frying pan, it just is that way and that’s the kind of strong female characterization I like, especially for a daughter I’m trying to raise to understand that she doesn’t have to rely on some guy to rescue her.

All that said, there are a handful of less than gushing points to make, just to be making with the full disclosure. First, this is actually a PG rated film and it’s worth noting that there are very dark moments here: Most of the violence is cleverly handled with a Looney Tunes kind of air but late in a movie a couple of sequences get extremely grim and much more violent than you might expect from Disney. It’s sort of necessary to lend the requisite gravity to the scenario, but there is a particular age of child who will probably have some trouble with this. Also, while it’s not entirely necessary to comprehend since the gist is conveyed, the plot itself gets fairly complex with several layers of betrayal and scheming culminating in a kind of odd exchange that sets up the climax. When you’ve seen it a million times it makes sense, but first time through you may be left scratching your head at what just happened. Likewise there are a couple of points where some of Gothel’s plotting seems to rely a bit too much on circumstance and foresight. And again in that same vein, the reveal (to Rapunzel) of what her true birthright really is hinged on a kind of tough-to-swallow concession. Finally, and this is really minor but I have to mention it, the closing voiceover contains a punchline delivered by Flynn followed by a scold from Rapunzel and then Flynn re-states the comment. Bearing in mind the lady-don’t-need-a-man thread that runs throughout the rest of the movie, this final exchange sits somewhat badly with me. It doesn’t undo the strength of the rest of the presentation but it does call too much attention to a facet of the traditional gender lines that is really unnecessary.

Still, it must be said that Tangled easily sits alongside the upper echelon of Pixar films (Wall-E, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo) and while Bolt was a good first outing, Tangled is leaps and bounds beyond that plus it includes that classic Disney X factor that reminds one why that company was able to build an empire on the strength of animated feature films. I hope this is the start of a new era for Disney where they can blend both their traditional strengths in creating lovable characters and inviting worlds out of familiar tales with a self-awareness of some past mistakes intentionally overridden to create a whole that is far beyond the sum. And I can’t do anything but recommend Tangled, except caution to try watching it only once. Maybe twice. Just don’t ruin it for yourself, okay?

Despicable Me (2010)

Despicable Me

★★★☆☆

Directed by: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Written by: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Sergio Pablos

It’s not hard to understand why the advertising campaign for Despicable Me focused on the cute-funny Minions which are a fairly minor part of the film, rather than anything to do with the story or the film’s protagonist, Gru (voiced with silly faux-Russian aplomb by Steve Carell). Because, for a kid’s movie, the plot is kind of a tough sell: Gru is sort of a comic book super-villian of middling notoriety who is being upstaged by bad guy scene newcomer, Vector (a barely recognizable Jason Segel). Gru decides to enact his greatest heist ever, swiping the moon from the sky to declaim a top spot among the world’s most feared evildoers. But he lacks the funds to make his dream a reality so he applies for a loan at the Bank of Evil, is turned down for lack of evidence that he can actually pull off the caper, and must focus his attention temporarily on recovering a shrink ray from Vector’s near-impregnable compound.

The only plan Gru can come up with that might work is to elicit the help of a trio of precocious orphan girls who sell cookies Vector loves door to door as part of a scheme by the cruel orphan director, Miss Hattie (voiced in marvelous honey-over-bear-trap schizophrenia by Kristen Wiig), to supplement her income. Gru adopts the girls and slowly they begin to transform him, softening him up all the while helping him achieve his ultimate goal. Like I said, a pretty tough sell. But somehow, it totally works. The transition of Gru from lovable curmudgeon to tender father figure is believable, the girls are cute and spunky, Vector is affably loathsome without being sinister and of course the Minions provide plenty of comedic moments. The great thing about Despicable Me is that the laughs don’t all come from the one-joke ad-ready mutants: Each character has their own contribution to the plot and the action is silly, stylized and over-the-top, appealing to kids with the slapstick and adults with subtle touches like the Egyptian pyramid stolen by Vector that he keeps in his backyard, painted blue with white clouds to camouflage it against the sky. Fun touches like that make it a good family film (in the best sense of that term).

A few complaints might be leveled here and there: Gru is never truly likable which makes him resonate slightly and results in the film feeling somewhat forgettable; likewise there are a few hints at some interesting components of the world the characters inhabit which are never explored at all, giving the setting and occasionally the action the deus ex machina vibe of a Saturday morning cartoon land. Most significantly the film never quite reaches the emotional depth of a movie about similar themes like Finding Nemo, but I can’t possibly do anything less than recommend it, especially if you avoided it (as I did) based on the unusual and uninformative marketing campaign.

True Grit (2010)

True Grit

★★★★☆

Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen

Based on the Novel by: Charles Portis

The main character in True Grit, fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (played with astounding confidence by Hailee Steinfeld), remarks about Rooster Cogburn (a gruff and surprisingly nuanced character brought to vivid life by Jeff Bridges), “You have a great deal of poise.” The irony, of course, is that her awe of Cogburn is misplaced and it is, in fact, Mattie who has the most poise of all. Having lost her father at the hands of a scoundrel named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), Mattie sets out in defiance of pretty much every adult she encounters to extract justice by bringing Chaney to law, whether by arrest or, more satisfactorily, killing him herself.

Mattie is shrewd, extremely well educated and bull-stubborn which is why she ignores the repeated advice to give up and go home. She out-barters the local shopman, she speaks in precise, clipped English, handles a boorish Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (played blandly by Matt Damon) on the tail of the same man with a sharp wit and bullies the cross Cogburn into accepting her proposition to assist her in tracking Chaney. The relationship that develops between Cogburn and Mattie is complex; he is impressed with her moxie and her ability to push the wheels of her desires forward, she by turns finds him to be the ideal candidate to aid her in seeking the revenge she desires as well as the lowest of unreliable swine. This is not a romantic relationship in any fashion, the movie is mercifully devoid of nearly all sexualization (even LaBeouf’s admission that he contemplates stealing a kiss from the girl while she lies fever-stricken in bed is played both to set up a zinger from Mattie and to establish that his initial impression of her is that she is somehow sub-human, more object of curiosity than being). The Coen brothers even avoid the heavy-handed father/daughter relationship that could have been clumsily shoehorned into the interplay between Cogburn and Mattie. But it’s clear early on that Mattie is too perceptive, too keen to be drawn into such a simplistic psychological pitfall.

I confess that I don’t have any familiarity with the 1969 John Wayne original, so I went into True Grit with no expectations other than that it was a western (not usually my favorite genre) by the Coen brothers (often among my favorite filmmakers). Somehow I’ve begun to associate modern westerns as grim and brutal of the Unforgiven and Deadwood vein, but True Grit while certainly indulging in its moments of stark violence and blue language, is a surprisingly old-fashioned kind of film that while never boring has a measured cadence and a lot more sharply conceived conversation than relentless high noon style shootouts. The characters developed through the course of the movie become, if not exactly beloved (except in the case of Mattie whom you can’t help but wish were your own daughter or friend or ward) at least admired or doggedly understood. The plot is semi-predictable; there are no real twists or turns but rather a sort of classical arc that serves to highlight the complexities of the humans moving through it, the way they interact with each other and play off of each other’s particular attributes. As the audience we aren’t expected to wonder if Mattie’s father died the way she presumed or if there is something more noble about Tom Chaney, when we meet him near the very end of the picture he’s as weaselly and weak as we’ve been led to believe. There’s no real shocking revelation about Cogburn or LaBoeuf’s pasts, there are no skeletons in Mattie Ross’s closet, waiting to be uncovered.

What is waiting to be discovered is why a blabbermouth Texas Ranger, an ex-con serving in the U.S. Marshal’s office and a precocious fourteen year-old all end up working together to take down a pissant worm hiding out deep in Native American lands and how that adventure changes all four, some for the better, most for the worse.

True Grit isn’t quite a top-level film: The casting of Matt Damon (an actor I typically admire) is poor, there are some wasted scenes here and there such as the encounter with Bear Man and some of the fiddling with the boarding house Mattie stays at while she tries to arrange the mission to track Chaney. Also, while parts of the soundtrack by Carter Burwell are haunting and make brilliant use of melodies from old hymns, it occasionally relies on the same refrains to try to evoke various moods that don’t exactly fit the scene, which is a bit atypical for a Coen film since music is often a primary tool for framing a scene in their belts. Otherwise, though, it does have the Coen brothers’ stamp of quality and attention to detail on it which means even with a few minor missteps it’s still better than most of the stuff you could pick out of the Redbox or off the Netflix queue. I wonder if the few annoyances I found in the film were corrected if this would be at or near the top of my list for 2010. But then, as Col. Stonehill says, “I do not entertain hypotheticals. The world itself is vexing enough.”

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans

★★★☆☆

Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Written by: Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Based on the screenplay by: Beverly Cross

It’s always disappointing to me when a movie clearly has loads of potential but missteps along the way prevent it from being more than just that core promise. Clash of the Titans, a remake of a campy 1981 film, tells the story of Perseus, Zeus’ demigod son. Saved from death by a simple fisherman (a poorly utilized Pete Postlethwaite), Perseus witnesses his adoptive family’s death at the hands of a vengeful Hades (played with admirably sinister understatement by Ralph Fiennes), caught in a battle between the gods and the soldiers who defy them. Brought back to Argos by the soldiers, the king and queen mock the gods and attract their ire, bringing Hades into their banquet hall to give them a decree to either sacrifice the princess (Alexa Davalos, who is generic eye candy as Andromeda) as an offering or have the dreaded Kraken unleashed upon them. The only hope for the king is if Perseus can find some way to kill the Kraken before Hades’s countdown ends.


For a hero’s quest myth, the set up isn’t the problem. Sam Worthington as Perseus is in a little over his head trying to play the lead here and he seems to revert to an assembly-line kind of action hero with predictably reluctant compassion for his companions, a lot of yelling as he charges into battles and the occasional bit of gallows humor. His inability to ground the character effectively puts the movie off to a rocky start since he isn’t really good at portraying some of the emotions the first half hour or so requires (grief over the loss of his family, reluctance to fight on the king’s behalf, disbelief over the revelation of his actual parentage, etc). Meanwhile the script does the rest of the work of dismantling the potential drama early on by being both dull with the excessive exposition and slow as the pace meanders from Perseus backstory to quarrels on Mount Olympus to hand-wringing over the defiance against the gods to travel and training montages as the band of soldiers begin the trek toward the Stygian Witches to try to figure out how to kill the Kraken.

Meanwhile we have to sit through a retelling of Perseus’s origin story so we can get some background on a secondary (or tertiary at this point I suppose) antagonist in the form of Acrisius/Calibos (the husband of Perseus’s human mother who hates his wife’s bastard son) until finally some action begins. Of course once the fighting does start it scarcely stops until the closing frames, as the battle with Calibos transitions almost seamlessly into a battle against some giant scorpions which somehow results in a new party member being added to what is rapidly becoming a standard Dungeons and Dragons raid group, the Djinn Sheikh Suleiman (played 100% by the 3D effects artists painting over Ian Whyte’s body). The party then basically gets a screen wipe to arrive at the witches (whom they more or less bully into giving them the idea to use the head of Medusa against Kraken) and at last a scene unfolds which nearly lives up to the promise of the whole movie which is Perseus’s first confrontation with Zeus (Liam Neeson, who is doing a sort of angry Jedi thing and has complicated facial hair) and then the encounter with Charon on the river Styx, who takes them to Medusa’s lair.

This whole sequence up until Perseus’s “stirring” speech on Medusa’s threshold hits the notes the rest of the film should have: Io (Gemma Arterton, the brightest spot in the whole film who manages to be convincing even when playing off the wooden reactions of Worthington) prepares Perseus for the coming confrontation with a mix of flirtation, exposition, backstory, action and intrigue and the entire sequence from set design (the fog-shrouded Styx and the boat-bound character design of Charon are wonderful, as is the detail-oriented shot of dead souls pulling the vessel along by swimming against their chain bindings) to pacing to dialogue is near enough to sublime. The whole sequence should have been part of a workshop teaching the rest of the movie how to convey story and mood and character to the audience all at the same time without being boring or relying on special effects.

Sadly, immediately thereafter the gang faces off against Medusa which sets off the next unbroken sequence of computer-generated effects culminating in the battle against the Kraken and the disappointingly predictable conclusion. I will confess that the Kraken design and most of the action sequences are well done for what they are, considering the Bourne trilogy-style hyper editing that makes combat scenes nearly indecipherable is woefully in vogue right now. At least in Clash of the Titans you can tell what’s going on almost all the time. Still, even though the film calls for a lot of action scenes by its nature, it’s sloppy because these scenes are treated like some sort of reward to the audience for sitting through the overwrought story sections. Call me old fashioned but I kind of like to think that sometimes the action can be the story. I don’t watch movies to see a video game sequence unfold so it baffles me when movie producers seem to shuffle their feet and apologize for trying to tell a story. Then again, maybe they should since in Clash of the Titans they seem to not really know how to accomplish it: The movie includes voice-over narration, flashback, flashforward, flashback with voiceover narration, expository characters, foreshadowing, audience mouthpieces and several scenes of nearly meta-level conversation between the omniscient gods just to try and tell the tale. The worst part is that none of it is necessary since obviously the filmmakers are capable of making a good, exciting movie that tells an interesting story since you can see it happening in one shining sequence halfway through the film.

The way to really make Clash of the Titans work would have been to start the movie as the initial group of soldiers set out to find the Witches and have each member of the party reveal themselves and something about the world around them (as well as the quest itself) through word and action, paced briskly but without being incessant until the audience caught up with the whole thing. That’s the movie I wanted to see, and in no part would any of that have undermined the special effects extravaganza the creative forces clearly wanted to make.

I don’t have a problem with special effects movies, as long as they are also movies. The problem with Clash of the Titans is that it forgets what it is and, most disappointingly, forgets what it could be. It’s kind of hard to recommend the movie: It’s a bigger movie in terms of ambition and potential than something I could write off as “mindless fun,” although in the end that’s all it manages to be. Part of me wants to not punish the film for accomplishing something  that passes for entertainment when it isn’t even always easy to find that sometimes. But I can’t help feeling let down when I know (and can even see) a good movie in there, waiting to get out. Ultimately I have to say it can be safely skipped. I lay a lot of the blame on the script and hope I’m correct in assuming the strengths on display are partially the work of director Louis Leterrier (who hasn’t quite lived up to the early promise shown in The Transporter, and had some similar difficulties reigning in a sloppy script with The Incredible Hulk), because I want to see an auteur capable of handling action scenes like Leterrier put out something that rises above that distinction alone.

Horrible Bosses (2011)

Horrible Bosses

★★★★★

Directed by: Seth Gordon

Written by: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Let me get my greater theory of movie comedies out of the way right here: I don’t think plot-driven movie comedies work very often. It’s in the format, I think. Two hours is often too long for a film to either sustain the laughs while conveying an interesting plot or to actually tell a compelling story while keeping up the gags. Shorter format comedies like half-hour television or variety shows can succeed because they can skimp on the plot and character in favor of the jokes or they can exist within the kind of framework where character development happens in the context of the humor. But people go to movies expecting some kind of story, not to be shown a bunch of short set-ups and rapid fire punchlines. So often movie comedies get hybridized with other formats, resulting in sub-genres of dubious utility like the dramedy and the action/comedy.

To be complete, I should point out that lighthearted dramas which are often classified somewhat falsely as comedies (I’m thinking of things like The Big Lebowski and Juno) don’t really have the same issues as the more overt comedy fare. And genre pictures that temper their approach with comedic elements like Shaun of the Dead or Stranger Than Fiction are a different beast entirely. It’s the raw comedies like Knocked Up and The Break-Up and The Animal as well as the stilted mash-up like Rush Hour and Pineapple Express and Miss Congeniality that tend to fall so very flat.

Which is why when a movie tries the straight-ahead comedy formula and gets it right, I take notice. It’s often hard to tell where a comedy succeeds or fails. Is it in the script where a joke might have killed in the writer’s head and during the rehearsal read but falls flat in the context of the rest of the film? Is it with the director and editor in their orchestration of the key to comedy? (Pro tip: Timing.) Perhaps it’s the performers who can’t either do justice to the material or improvise well enough to execute a believable gag? It’s probably a combination of all of the above and more. Sometimes bad comedies happen because a movie appears to be more fun to have made than it is to watch (witness The Whole Ten Yards, a follow up to a very funny lighthearted crime caper film that is utterly excruciating to watch but appears to have been a total hoot to film since the principals smirk and teeter on the edge of breaking throughout). Sometimes an actor just can’t sell a character well enough to make the parts of the movie they’re supposed to carry click (observe The Waterboy in which Adam Sandler’s Bobby Boucher ickily asks the audience to laugh directly at him rather than with him). Sometimes you just get a screenplay that defies rational explanation as to why it ever got greenlit (two words: Couples Retreat).

The reason I note successful comedies is because it seems to me that so much has to go right in order to create them, it’s kind of like seeing a celestial event, like Hailey’s Comet or an eclipse. And that brings up Horrible Bosses, a very successful comedy that has so much going right with it, laws of probability appear to have been happily discarded. It is the story of three regular middle class schlubs who all have difficulty dealing with their lunatic bosses: Nick (Jason Bateman who is basically Michael Bluth without the old money), Dale (Charlie Day who toes the line masterfully between shrill and annoying and shrill and hilarious) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis who exhibits remarkable comedic timing throughout). Their respective bosses are played by Kevin Spacey as a cartoonishly evil corporate executive, Jennifer Aniston who breaks her mold to superb effect as the sex-crazed dentist who takes sexual harassment to stratospheric new heights and Colin Farrell, heavily made up but exhibiting a master class in being a total douche. Feeling trapped by their situations already, the three principals each finds their work life taking a sharp downhill turn simultaneously and they hatch an at-first drunken and then tentatively more serious plan to dispatch their bosses and improve their lives.

Plot-wise, it’s nothing really that remarkable. Eventually it turns into a sort of Strangers on a Train fiasco and then some mishaps have unintended consequences and throughout the trio exchange banter, insults, stress out over the outcomes their decisions bring and display exactly the same level of savvy and sophistication that most anyone else would if they were genuinely (or semi-genuinely) trying to end someone else’s life, justified or not. Bateman, Day and Sudeikis are all spot-on with their performances, creating likably affable characters that you come to care about without ever having to endure lingering scenes of domestic tranquility, forced friendship-bonding or any of that kind of laugh-drought claptrap. The main villains played by Spacey, Aniston and Farrell are all over-the-top enough to permit the audience to root for the protagonists without feeling too guilty that it amounts to championing first degree murder and the resolution of the whole thing is funny, satisfying and just unpredictable enough to not feel formulaic.

What Horrible Bosses really gets right is that it paces out the genuine laughs without ever derailing the story in their favor. At no point do we have to endure wasted scenes as the boys go off the rails on some side expedition tangental to the plot at hand, instead the fabulous cameos (specifically Jamie Foxx in a howlingly funny turn as Motherf***er Jones) and escalating zaniness occurs in actual support of the story progression. Even contrived sequences such as a scene where Dale accidentally saves Nick’s boss’ life because he doesn’t know who he is or what he looks like don’t come across as unbelievable but just work to get laughs and set up later scenarios.

As a matter of fact, Horrible Bosses is so good it’s kind of hard to think of things to complain about. Lindsay Sloane is kind of wasted in her bit role as Dale’s fianceé, but she’s not really vital to the story so it’s forgivable (and preferable to expanding her role unnecessarily). Likewise Donald Sutherland as Kurt’s beloved boss before a fatal accident leaves Farrell’s Bobby in charge seems a bit like stunt casting but it’s a minor consideration. The only real criticism I can level at Horrible Bosses is that, in light of the review I posted for Bridesmaids, it does do that male-centric thing where the three real speaking roles for women in the movie (Sloane, Aniston and Julie Bowen as the Spacey character’s wife) are either unimportant or significant in their femininity mostly just for being sexy (and slutty as well, while we’re on the subject). It’s a drag that this is the case although I also believe it’s important that we don’t start to champion shoehorning or fabricating positive women characters into movies just to say it was done, but rather they should develop in screenplays naturally because women (yes, including the strong, positive ones) make up about half of the population. It is possible this movie just needed to be short on great women characters in order to work, but on the other hand that excuse feels ever thinner the more often it gets used. At this point it’s too worn to feel particularly authentic.

Still, I’ll give Horrible Bosses a reluctant pass this one time because while Aniston’s character isn’t what anyone could classify as a positive female character, she’s at least funny in her own right and owns her sexuality as opposed to wearing it like a weighted chain. She may be alone in a movie otherwise drowning in testosterone, but she exhibits more testicular fortitude than most of the guys so there’s something to be said for making the most of the women who do get some actual screen time. More than anything though I’m inclined to forgive Horrible Bosses it’s very few sins because it’s just a funny, funny movie. And more importantly, it’s a complete movie, that tells a full story, and manages to be interesting and funny at the same time. This feat is rare enough as it is, I can’t pass up the opportunity to reward it as highly as I can when it happens.

Red (2010)

Red

★★☆☆☆

Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Jon and Erich Hoeber

Based on the Graphic Novel by: Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner

I really thought I was going to like Red. I’m not all that familiar with Warren Ellis’s work, and I haven’t read the original graphic novel, but the premise sounded very intriguing and the idea of Helen Mirren as an assassin pretty much sold me on seeing the movie alone.

But, I don’t know. I kind of really disliked it. I recognize how milquetoast that sounds, so allow me to try and trace the path of uncertainty I have regarding my feelings about the movie.

The film follows Frank Moses (Bruce Willis, playing the Bruce Willis character), fifty-something retiree from the blackest ops assignments in the CIA. He’s destabilized countries, assassinated heads of state, engaged in silent as well as noisy covert operations and he was very, very good at what he did. But now he’s bored. He’s taken to fabricating a pension check boondoggle so he can chat up the claims administrator, a mousy and (we guess) unlucky in love woman named Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker, who has the biggest acting challenge and fails to rise to it). They enjoy their regular banter on the phone but then Frank gets attacked by assassins and, for reasons not precisely clear (something about him not knowing if they were listening to the calls?) he travels to Sarah’s house, where they are attacked again.

Sarah is rightfully upset. She’s narrowly avoided death, had a flirty crush show up unannounced at her residence and when she tries to opt-out of Frank’s suddenly singular purpose of getting to the bottom of it, he kidnaps her. Of course then he rescues her when she is nearly killed again by an agent in a cop disguise which I suppose is meant to indicate how real this all just got since she can’t even trust the boys in blue and Frank is now her only hope. But she mostly just seems confused and, in the audience, I was confused too.

Frank then begins to slowly recruit all his old black ops buddies (Morgan Freeman playing the Morgan Freeman character, John Malkovich playing Murdock from The A-Team only old, Brian Cox playing Boris from Rocky and Bullwinkle and Helen Mirren playing an actually interesting character who of course appears in only about six scenes) to figure out why he’s been targeted and for a while the movie drags down into a kind of Pelican Brief/The Da Vinci Code kind of mystery but then the director realizes there hasn’t been an explosion in ten or twelve minutes so somehow or other he drums up another excuse for Frank to light something on fire. Whatever.

Eventually we realize the whole thing is centered around a character we haven’t met before and don’t care about (played portly by a scene-chewing Richard Dreyfuss) and some vague conspiracy possibly involving the Vice President (who is fictitious and therefore we don’t care about him). People shoot vaguely at each other and some kind of half-baked spy scenario in a fancy cocktail party happens, which looks like it was lifted out of Alias or maybe Get Smart or maybe every James Bond movie ever. There’s a big confrontation at the end and somehow in all this there’s a younger CIA agent who of course Frank says “Reminds (him) of (himself)” and his witty kill saying isn’t something cheesy and cool like “Hasta la vista, baby” or “Yippee-kai-ya, motherf***er” but (I’m not making this up), “F*** you, Cynthia.”

Okay so as a spy/action story it doesn’t work. I mean, it’s all mishmashed from other sources, and poorly. Somewhere along the line Sarah is supposed to go from freaked out mousy kidnap to devoted lover of Frank without it coming across like Stockholm Syndrome. It doesn’t. It seems random and out of nowhere that she suddenly stops struggling against the lunacy that Frank has exposed her to (remember, his reason for involving her at all is, at best, tres flimsy) and begins acting like a giddy burgeoning psychopath at all the death and carnage around her. So it doesn’t work as an unlikely love story.

In theory the movie is supposed to be funny. Look! Old people can be action stars, too! I guess that’s a joke. Then again, Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon was complaining about “Getting too old for this s***” back in 1987 and that was sorta funny, but only because he kept saying it but he kept doing it. Also, I’m not sure how seriously I’m supposed to take jokes about Bruce Willis (indistinguishable here from John McClane) being too old when he’s four years removed from playing his most well-known character straight faced as an action star and I believe is currently slated to appear in Die Hard 5 (working title: Die! Die! Die My Hardy!). People in the movie call him “Grandpa” as if it were an insult just before he ruins their health insurance premiums and at no point did I believe that he had any reason to have retired. He outsmarts and outmuscles and outguns everyone he meets (even when he’s massively outnumbered), so why is he retired again?

Then there is the curious scene in which the “plot” starts to kind of come together after the team meets Dreyfuss’s chartacter, Alexander Dunning, for the first time. They’re trapped in a house surrounded by FBI agents and Frank has an exchange with the others down there with him in which they cryptically refer to something no member of the audience seems to understand. Several minutes later someone walks out of the house and is shot dead, which I think is supposed to be this courageous act of self-sacrifice except practically no one ever mentions it. No one mourns, no one calls out the act as being particularly noteworthy and it just sort of gets dropped. It’s disturbing and dark and if it didn’t feel like a total accident I’d say it was a brilliant piece of character development on the part of the writers to show that Frank is really a ruthless and coldblooded egoist who disregards the sacrifices of even those he counts as friends as long as it serves his purpose.

But that would be giving the creative team a lot more credit than they’ve earned up to that point.

I wish I could say I at least was inspired to check out the graphic novel in case the problem was just that it got lost in the transition to the screen. But I was sufficiently turned off by the whole triteness of it and the lack of genuine emotion or even a story I felt like deserved to be told to basically want no more to do with Red as an entity at all. I waffled on giving the movie one or two stars. My rating system is loosely defined as “1 - Hated it; 2 - Didn’t like it; 3 - It was okay; 4 - Liked it; 5 - Loved it.” In some cases things get bumped up or down for sort of abstract reasons like technical merit or a particularly noteworthy performance (or a spectacularly bad one). But basically if I can sit through a movie to the end without descending into Mystery Science Theater 3000 mode, I’m not sure I can say I hated it. So I give Red two stars and I feel that’s the most generous thing I can say about it: It was one step above my loathing.

Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan

★★★★☆

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin

Director Darren Aronofsky likes to chronicle obsession—dark obsession. He’s very good at it (witness Pi and Requiem For a Dream), but the end results are deeply disturbing, lingering, shadowy movies that don’t sit well with the audience. I believe this to be by design, a cruel and effective parlor trick to worm the grim subject matter into the heads of the viewers, forcing them to evaluate and re-evaluate what they’ve seen for days and weeks afterward.

A lesser director might come across as schlocky for attempting this (repeatedly), but Aronofsky is a technical wizard and a gifted storyteller, wasting no shots, using camera and special effects techniques subtly to evoke mood and unease (note how many sequences take place inside mirrored rooms, while the shot swirls around a dancer but no camera is visible in reflection, or how Nina’s skin ripples so lightly at times you wonder if you even saw it happen at all). You cannot find much to criticize about the filmmaking and yet this is not the kind of movie one gushes about, and a difficult one to truly enjoy in the escapist, “I’ve-been-solidly-entertained” sense.

Instead the director pulls startlingly good performances from his principals, Portman and Hershey in particular, with great support from Kunis and Cassel. He arranges a technically precise thriller set in a world most aren’t familiar with and then devastates the viewer with a dare-you-to-look-away train wreck in slow motion. Black Swan is a brilliant film, a feat of artistry…. which I cannot honestly say I liked. I can say I’m glad that I saw it, but I have no desire to repeat the experience; it already repeats itself in my head, days after viewing.

Bridesmaids (2011)

Bridesmaids

★★★★☆

Directed by: Paul Feig

Written by: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo

There’s a sequence in Bridesmaids in which the six principal actresses gain admission to a prissy, high-end bridal boutique shortly after having consumed some questionable food. As each bridesmaid dons a different dress option and the bride ends up in an overpriced designer dress, food poisoning begins to set in for five of the six girls (Helen, the film’s antagonist played with an intriguing blend of vulnerability and cruelty, opted out of the bad dishes). The resulting sequence, which may have been heavily improvised, rivals any gross-out scene in any dude-based comedy of the last fifteen years, both in terms of sickening repulsion from the audience and in belly laughs.

The curious part is how necessary it feels to contrast this movie with what is hard not to think of as the “guy” equivalent. Sure, plenty of comedies feature women prominently and sometimes the women are even presented as funny in their own right or manage to feel real. But all too often comedies feel male-oriented—if not in intended audience at least in presentation. Women in comedies are often either eye-rolling spoilsports or human macguffins who fill sweaters and little else. The occasional exception to this is inexplicably teen-oriented comedies like Mean Girls or Easy A which manage to somehow present their protagonists as more complete than the average man-com can muster for their principals, much less the marginalized women.

But it still feels kind of gross to think that a movie written by women and with women in all the funniest roles, with all the funniest lines that is also about women is somehow unique. And not diarrhea-in-the-fancy-sink gross, either, I mean disgusting that it is even noteworthy to have a movie about females that is smart and funny and doesn’t feel insulting to the audience for parading its stars around in underwear and bikinis to keep the XY audience member’s attention.

Bridesmaids is about Annie (Kristen Wiig), a down-on-her-luck pastry chef struggling in the wake of a failed business venture (and relationship). When her best friend from childhood Lillian (Maya Rudolph in a terrifically honest performance) gets engaged and asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor, Annie is thrown into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable realization that her old buddy Lillian is growing up, moving up and leaving her behind. Personifying the unwelcome changes in her friend is Lillian’s new upper crust pal Helen, who wields wealth and sophistication like a weapon poised to destroy everything that is poor and simple about Annie.

Newlywed naive Becca (Ellie Kremper, basically transplanting her character over from The Office), digruntled housewife Rita (Wendi McLenddon-Covey) and the groom’s brash but loyal sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy, who steals all her scenes) round out the rest of the wedding party.

The movie unfolds in a series of set pieces that loosely track the progression of Lillian’s engagement: The awkward engagement party where Annie gets the first glimpse of what her friend’s life is like now, the previously mentioned dress-fitting disaster, an aborted trip to Vegas for the bachelorette party, the gaudy bridal shower and the climactic wedding day. Throughout we get glimpses of Annie’s rapidly unraveling life as she botches a relationship with a good-natured state trooper (played with convincing pseudo-humility by Chris O’Dowd), loses her disliked job at a jewelry store, gets kicked out of her apartment and is forced to move in with her mom. Annie’s mishaps with the pre-wedding events mirror the stumbles in her life and she focuses her rage on rival Helen whom she presumes is stealing away her best friend.

The laughs in the first two thirds of the movie come easily and often, relying in many cases on the painful-but-funny can’t-look-away formula, but also seasoning in plenty of bodily function humor, screwball supporting characters (like the creepy British siblings Annie rooms with) and snappy dialogue. Then around the point of the bridal shower Bridesmaids hits a big lull as the script goes a few steps too far in chronicling the depths that Annie sinks into and the movie drags to a depressing, unfunny sludge while we wait for the inevitable reconciliations and redemption we know are coming.

The final act restores the warmth and the laughs resume, perhaps in spite of a somewhat clichéd guest-cameo backdrop to the resolution sequence and it’s easy to walk away smiling and quoting the best lines. As a whole, Bridesmaids isn’t perfect: A weird lesbian subplot between Becca and Rita is short-lived and never brought up again, the conflict between Annie and Helen feels a bit too formulaic and the pacing gets off occasionally even before the overwrought downer section toward the end. That said, Wiig is dynamite throughout, creating a character you’d love to hang out with and exuding a sort of natural chemistry with nearly all of her co-stars. McCarthy is a revelation, hitting perfect timing with every line and gesture, giving Zack Galifianakis a run for his money on best supporting comedy performance in recent memory.

But the real star of the show is Wiig and Mumolo’s script, which creates an incredibly large number of seemingly real relationships between girlfriends, lovers, strangers, mothers and daughters. Nearly every interaction in Bridesmaids carries an air of authenticity so that when things go horribly, hilariously awry, we can laugh with the certainty that’s exactly how it would go down if it were happening to us or people we know. The women in Bridesmaids aren’t eye candy, they aren’t shrews or straight men, they’re real people and that’s what sets the film apart, which we would find terribly sad if we weren’t so busy cracking up.