Captain America and Thor (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger

★★★★☆

Directed by: Joe Johnston

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Based on the Comic Book Created by: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon

Thor

★★☆☆☆

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich

Based on the Comic Book Created by: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby

I mentioned in my review of Iron Man 2 that Tony Stark and his alter ego were underdog favorites of mine as a kid. The same cannot be said of Captain America or Thor. Something about Captain America’s pseudo-sissy non-weapon of choice and his principal focus of patriotism made him a big yawn for me. Thor on the other hand, I just didn’t get. His costume was lame, he was based on Norse mythology which was kind of cool but then he was somehow involved in the rest of the Marvel continuity and he just felt like a Superman ripoff somehow. I dunno, I guess I’m funny about superheroes.

But the thing is, the characters themselves don’t really matter. What makes a comic book story interesting is not the origin story or the costume or the powers, it’s the story and what you do with the character that makes the difference. And from everything I ever tried, Thor and Cap always had boring books. However, as I also mentioned in my Iron Man 2 review, I’ve gotten pretty amped for the upcoming Avengers movie so I felt it my duty as an occasional comic book nerd and frequent movie dork to “catch up” as it were with the in-movie continuity. I rented both and watched them back to back.

What struck me initially was the difference in quality between the two flicks. Had you asked before I watched them both which I was likely to enjoy more, I’d have probably put my money on Thor as being the better of the two. The surprising thing is, I enjoyed Captain America immensely more than Thor.

This is a double review so let’s start with the weaker of the two. The principal problem with Thor is that it had way too many writers involved. Any time you see more than one or two names on a writer’s byline, it’s worth being cautious. Thor is a mess because it has too many characters, tries to cover too much ground and can’t possibly cram everything into its two hour running time. Now, lots of characters aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but lots of characters who have to portray believable relationships with themselves and lots of characters that need compelling arcs means you have to be laser focused to get it all into a standard length film. Consider: We have our title protagonist, Thor, who must have a principal arc himself, plus he needs relationship arcs with each of the following: His father Odin, his brother Loki, his band of warrior-friends (ideally this would be individual, with so much else going on it has to be collective, which means these characters ought to be combined into one or two at the most; here there are four) and his Earthly love interest, Jane. There is also the matter of his mother, Frigga, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson, the transporter guardian Heimdall and the leader of the sworn enemies of Asgard, frost giant King Laufey, each of whom should have some kind of purpose in the film but whom for various reasons can’t possibly get enough development to ever matter.

There is enough story inherent in the Thor/Loki/Odin dynamic, along with the frost giant threat and King Laufey, to make for a full and complete movie. There is also enough story in the dynamic of Thor losing his power, being cast to Earth and having to prove himself while he learns to love humans through the proxy in Jane for a complete movie. What you can’t do is take two entire arcs and try to interweave them or overlap them and hope that somehow, magically, they end up being complete as the sum of their parts. It’s too much to ask of everyone involved. Some of the things that get lost in this particular shuffle: a believable relationship between Thor and Jane; a believable character arc for Loki; a purpose for the frost giants and/or King Laufey; a coherent connection to S.H.I.E.L.D.; an explanation for why Heimdall has so damn much screen time and development when other characters like, say, Odin or Loki, do not.

It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact source of the problem, apart from an overly ambitious script. Chris Hemsworth—well, he certainly looks like Thor, I’ll give him that. He’s pretty good at portraying the cocky bravado of the pre-exile Thor, but he struggles to convincingly display character growth so that when he inevitably learns to deserve his powers it kid of feels like, “Uh, yeah, sure. Okay.” And bless Natalie Portman’s pretty heart: she is one of the most inconsistent actresses around. Given challenging, dynamic, expectation-busting roles (Closer, Black Swan, The Professional) and she can stand up with the best in the biz. But she advertises her satisfaction with the shoot and the script on her sleeve, and if she’s asked to come across as the girl next door, or she’s asked to put impact into flat dialogue, she struggles to even be believable as a human (Star Wars, Mars Attacks). Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo are wasted as Odin and Frigga, and Tom Hiddleston gamely gives his Loki what he has, but he’s no match for a script that can’t seem to decide what he’s supposed to be from one minute to the next.

What really frustrates about Thor is that it gets so caught up in its story that it forgets to even be big dumb fun. There are precious few special effects-laden action sequences, though there are an awful lot of scenes of people getting teleported in the Bifrost portal. I mean, there are so many that it starts to get funny. The Bifrost ends up being the most well-rounded character in the whole film, and its demise is the one that had the most emotional impact. Actually, I take that back because excepting King Laufey and the non- or semi-sentient Destroyer robot thing that Thor and friends fight at the end, everyone else makes it out alive. Not exactly high stakes for the good guys, you know? One early battle sequence between Thor’s warriors and the frost giants is pretty visually stimulating, but after that all the action is far inferior to even the Black Widow infiltration scene from Iron Man 2. If you can’t outdo Scarlett Johansson in spandex and you’re a friggin’ GOD—

Well, actually, I can see how that would be hard to stack up against. Anyhow.

So after Thor, I wasn’t really having high hopes for Captain America. But I was amazed to find that it was actually much, much better than Thor. The main thing Captain America does right that Thor doesn’t is it sets up the Rip Van Winkle bit at the very beginning and very end of the movie, but 98% of it is all origin story set in World War II. Now, I’ll grant that the set up of Steve Rogers being this wimpy little pencilneck and having beefcake Chris Evans play him with CGI kind of like a reverse Hulk effect is a bit transparent sometimes. But, I’ll be honest. You can tell in The Hulk that they got away with some cartoony effects because typically when the big green guy is onscreen, he’s jumping around, flinging Mack trucks and dodging tank shells. These are action scenes and we’ve trained ourselves as the audience to let go of some of our visual disbelief when the fightin’ starts. So it’s impressive that nearly every effects shot of Steve Rogers is a slow, lingering, well-lit shot and it almost always works.

The story follows über-patriot Rogers as he tries to enlist in the army but is constantly thwarted by the bad genetic hand he was dealt. A German expat, Dr. Erskine, working with the US Army against the Nazis, selects Rogers to be part of an experimental program to make super soldiers. The result of the serum and some tech help from a young Howard Stark (father of Iron Man’s Tony), the transform the scrawny Rogers into a muscle-bound badass with strength, speed, agility and stamina beyond any normal human. A saboteur from a fringe occult research branch of the Nazi party, Hydra, infiltrates the experiment and tries to steal Erskine’s serum. Rodgers stops him, but Erskine dies in the process, setting the program back. Rogers is then facing two options: settle for life as a professional lab rat, or try to do something to help. He agrees to become a pitchman for the Army, doing traveling bond promotional shows, and seems to be more or less into it until he goes to do a show for some actual front line troops who are disgusted by his phony showboating and boo him off the stage. When he realizes they’re so hostile because he’s a pretend soldier while they just got practically wiped out by Hydra, Rogers, aided by skeptical love interest Peggy Carter (played with smooth British charm by Hayley Atwell, channeling Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd from Casino Royale), stages a daring rescue.

Rogers begins to embrace his abilities and the Army falls in line, granting him leadership over many of the rescued POWs to form a task force specifically designed to combat Hydra, who are growing immensely powerful under the leadership of Johann Schmidt, also known as Red Skull. Red Skull happens to be the only other person to have received the serum, albeit in an earlier form that left him deformed with a blazing red, skull-like visage.

The nice thing about Captain America is that it uses a straightforward, classic hero’s quest tale to give a sense that you’re really watching an old comic book come to life. The action is stylized and unrealistic, but believable despite and it never goes so far off into lunatic territory that it feels it has to somehow out-tech Iron Man, set some eighty or ninety years in the future. Hugo Weaving turns in a toothy, fun performance as the generically megalomaniacal Red Skull, and the screenwriters resist the temptation to have Captain America rewriting history by getting in a fist fight with Hitler or something. Evans as Rogers is convincingly napoleonic when necessary and does some nice physical acting work early on after getting his powers, showcasing his excitement and glee at finding out what his newly juiced body is capable of. He has legitimate chemistry with Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones turns in a classic performance that is tailor made for his brand of deadpan delivery.

The movie does bog a little right before the climax with some extended montages of Captain and his pals busting up Hydra, and the Bucky character felt kind of shoehorned into the plot to give Cap a bit of emotional turmoil, but all of it is forgivable. My one complaint is that, in spite of my appreciation for them only bookending the film with the present day connection, Evans’s acting stumbles a bit right at the end when he’s supposed to be in awe of the modern world, so different from the one he remembers. Perhaps the script is what fails here, not giving him enough time to react, but there is just something about the whole scene that doesn’t work, and I’d almost expect it to have been something that occurred early in The Avengers film, not as a sour note to leave an otherwise very good movie on.

 I think, somewhere between the excellent first two Iron Man films, a half-decent Hulk movie, a very good Captain America vehicle and a mostly bad Thor, there’s enough reason to be  incredibly hopeful for the forthcoming Avengers. Maybe I’m also biased because Joss Whedon is behind the team-up flick, and I happen to think he rarely goes wrong, but Marvel Studios has been doing a lot of things right lately, and I think even though the average of these two movies is only three stars, I’m ready to pull down my fanboy goggles and line up opening weekend for The Avengers.

Red State (2011)

Red State

★★★☆☆

Directed by: Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

I decided to watch Red State after finishing Writer/Director Kevin Smith’s book, “Tough S—t.” It’s a bit difficult to know whether it would have been a different experience to see Red State without the contextual framework provided by the discussion in the book. And, to be honest, some of that is even dependent on the facts of my familiarity with Smith’s other work, because I was a big fan of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and to an extent Dogma, but starting with Jay and Silent Bob Strike back, I haven’t been as adamant about following along with Smith. I did get around to seeing Clerks II and Zack And Miri Make A Porno, but unlike the previous films which I practically saw on opening weekends, they were grudging, not-in-the-new-releases rentals. I never did see Jersey Girl or Cop Out. And I probably wouldn’t have bothered with Red State either, except Smith, in his book, describes it as his homage to Quentin Tarantino. And, well, I sort of masochistically wanted to see what a Smith-does-Tarantino flick would look like.

But this is why I think if I didn’t know that’s what Smith was doing, I wouldn’t have had the same reaction. Because Red State is a very different kind of movie from anything else he’s done. Oh, sure, Dogma had its scenes of intense violence and religious themes, but it was still essentially Mallrats with a much grander concept. Gone are a lot of the aimless asides and the shock-schlocky, replaced instead by a script that is curiously focused while at the same time never quite being pinpoint. It’s never easy to tell who the protagonist is in the story, though the villain is sort of obvious, except that it is really circumstance that propels most of the deplorable actions, not all of which are done at the hands of the “bad guy.”

Let me give you an example of one of the many unusual decisions Smith makes in the construction of this film: Following the initial set up and the introduction of a few key characters, Smith films almost the entirety of a sermon, delivered by Abin Cooper (played with a pitched charisma by Michael Parks) that starts off as a genial, inviting, small-congregation fireside chat but slowly—almost laboriously—descends into a seething roil of hate and hellfire, culminating in an uncomfortably unflinching ritual murder. Smith describes in his book a desire to never take the obvious path with his story and this comes through as the winding narrative feints this way and that, suggesting at various stages a campy sex romp, a torture porn thriller, a straight up horror slasher, a cop siege procedural, a dark morality tale, a supernatural allegory and a political potboiler. It’s sort of all and none of those things.

What it definitely adds up to is a Tarantino-esque indie shootout talker. On that level, knowing that’s what Smith wanted, it succeeds. From a pure storytelling standpoint, Red State is gripping and unpredictable, which is what I liked most about it. On the other hand, Red State also struggles in its effort to be unexpected, to have a sense of purpose. It seems like it might be fairly obvious that Smith is demonizing hate-in-God’s-name publicity morons like the Westboro Baptist Church (or any other unpleasant organization using warped ideals to judge or detest others) but aside from a base despicable-ness to their convictions, the Five Points Church (led by Cooper) respond to the circumstances the film throws them into with a peculiarly understandable motive. The “good guys” of the ATF, led by Joseph Keenan (played with superb, nuanced inner conflict by John Goodman), are the ones who, though ostensibly in the right, often make the most unconscionable decisions.

Most of the neutral parties caught in the middle are never really given a place in the theme, which means they become expendable to the script. Smith tries to make a certain amount of sense of it in retrospect with an overly expository interview scene. To an extent I like this choice because it cements the fact that tense, adrenaline-fueled scenarios like this only ever have context after the fact, but the highlight passage from the script in this scene suggests that Smith’s moral is the same as he leveled in Dogma: be wary of faith without reason.

And then the part that ultimately dropped the film an entire star for me comes in the epilogue. Note, this is (I guess) spoiler territory, but understand that the linear construct of Red State isn’t really that important; in any case, you can skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Anyway, the final scene in the film is Cooper in prison, wearing an orange jumpsuit and singing a hymn in his cell. It’s a long, intentionally ponderous shot and then finally, just before the credits roll, someone off camera (presumably a fellow inmate) hollers, “Shut the f—k up!” My problem with this is that it seems to be a semi-symbolic part of Smith’s message, hinting strongly that what he really has to say to misguided faith-based lunatics is “just go away.” I have a big problem with a film that is as thoughtful as Red State going for either a laugh or a frustrated outburst or both as its closing statement, especially coming from a guy who has made a career out of being overly honest, whether that’s with his character mouthpieces in his films or his podcasts or his spoken word public speaking or his book. It’s so simplistic and glib and counter-productive to summarize an issue like reconciling the troublesome nature of deplorable ideas that are so easily translated into antisocial actions with a simple gag order, even played for (non) laughs. The film, sadly, would have been at least 20% better without this final, 30-60 second scene.

All told, Red State is a promising new direction for Smith. Unfortunately, if you believe what he says in his Tough S—t book, it will be his penultimate film. Smith has been uneven as a filmmaker, even from the start, often accidentally achieving greatness. Here, he accidentally misses greatness and showcases a potential for something grittier and different from what others might say with similar material. And that’s exactly what you want from a filmmaker, I think.

Cowboys And Aliens (2011)

Cowboys And Aliens

★★★☆☆

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, Steve Oedekerk and Hawk Ostby

Based on the Graphic Novel by: Scott Mitchell Rosenberg

I like the premise of Cowboys And Aliens: Take a fairly stock alien invasion story and set it in an unexpected historical timeframe and watch the sparks fly. Of course, the movie isn’t as straightforward as that, and it seems to suffer badly from too many writers syndrome. Included in the fairly simple, promising premise is an amnesic hero, a mystery woman who can handle herself, a grizzled war veteran with a grudge against the hero, an unlikely buddy-cop formula, a young boy in a coming of age tale, several different rescue-the-beloved-family-member subplots, a proxy-son/proxy-father dynamic coupled with a real-son-who-is-a-disappointment and a burgeoning love story. If it sounds like a ridiculously over-complicated plot, it is, unequivocally.

It’s not that Cowboys And Aliens is bad, it’s just that with so many secondary characters and overlapping plot lines, the movie spends an insane amount of the two full hour running time dealing with backstories and relationship hassles and standoffs and squabbles that the titular aliens only seem to ever show up when the writers didn’t want to have to sort any of it out for real. As such, the aliens become sort of a plot macguffin, conveniently timing their attack at market-research-driven intervals when the audience starts to get bored realizing that there isn’t all that much mystery to Jake Lonergan (played with full-on damaged hero solemnity by Daniel Craig) and there’s not that much interesting about Colonel Dolarhyde (played with gruff, Air Force One stateliness by Harrison Ford). As in Tron Legacy, the standout is the surprisingly watchable Ella Swenson (played close to the vest by a confident Olivia Wilde) and Sam Rockwell makes the best of a necessarily under-developed Doc in his few real scenes, but by the time we learn the truth about Lonergan and find out the secrets Ella is hiding, the movie has started to wear out its welcome and I found myself slipping into impatient summer blockbuster watcher mode, hoping for something to explode again so I could stop pretending to truly care about it.

In the visceral, violent, special effects department, Cowboys And Aliens delivers eventually, but it’s only in aggregate until the final confrontation. The real problem is that Cowboys And Aliens misses the mark on two key points that it could have focused on to much better effect. One is that the film takes itself too seriously. I realize that with a semi-campy premise the risk of becoming a big, stupid action movie like Men In Black is high, but Cowboys And Aliens is far too somber for its own good. It’s hard to have fun watching a movie that isn’t itself a lot of fun. The other is suspense, which the film comes close to generating a couple of times but mostly sidesteps in favor of ever more inclusions from the vast database over at TV Tropes.

In the end, Cowboys And Aliens was okay. It wasn’t great, it was definitely overwrought and missed the mark a bit, but it has potential as a franchise and a follow up with less talking heads and more Shootout At The OK Corona would be something I’d love to watch.

30 Minutes Or Less (2011)

30 Minutes Or Less

★★☆☆☆

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Written by: Michael Diliberti and Matthew Sullivan

There is a peculiar moral bankruptcy that runs through 30 Minutes Or Less, a sort of bromance/comedy/crime caper of a movie. Never mind for a moment that the ostensible protagonist, Nick (played with affable familiarity by Jesse Eisenberg), has practically zero character arc and most of the film’s character development is focused on the bungling duo who involve Nick in a hair-brained plot so convoluted that I fear even trying to explain it below. What kills most of 30 Minutes Or Less is that it allows even the supposed heroes of the story to act like socially inebriated douchebags and has the audacity to demand we root for them anyway.

The basic plot is that Dwayne (played with tormented man-child bi-polar disorder by Danny McBride) wants to survive long enough to receive his inheritance from an overbearing, Lotto-winning father (played with zero originality as the overbearing military father guy by Fred Ward). A stripper convinces Dwayne that he would be better served by hastening the outcome and says she knows a guy who can help get it done, for the price of $100,000. Unwilling to put himself on the line, Dwayne recruits his pyrotechnically-inclined buddy, Travis (played with whipped puppy enthusiasm by Nick Swardson), to rig up a bomb vest and recruit some random sucker to earn their money, hire the assassin and net them with the funds to achieve their dreams.

Enter Nick, a stuck-in-neutral twentysomething who works as a pizza delivery guy, racing his car around and smoking dope. His best friend is Chet (a transplanted Tom Haverford from Parks and Recreation via Aziz Ansari) is a schoolteacher, and Chet’s twin sister Kate (the one bright spot in the cast, Dilshad Vadsaria, completely and utterly underutilized here) is Nick’s dream girl/friendzoner. She reveals plans to move away, which puts backburnered Nick into panic mode and he ends up telling Chet about an old rendezvous with Kate—the catalyst, apparently, for his unrequited love—and a lot of other secrets come out and the two part on bad terms.

When Nick is lured into a trap and kidnapped by Dwayne and Travis, they strap a bomb on his chest and tell him he has less than a day to come up with $100,000 and deliver it to the hitman or they’ll blow up the bomb remotely. Nick has to face his rift with Chet and recruit him to help and eventually they decide there is no other solution but to go ahead and rob a bank. The heist goes off with only a few hiccups, but when Nick takes the money to the hitman (played with squeaky-voiced semi-menace by Michael Peña), he realizes there was no attempt to provide the code that will disarm the bomb and he ends up escaping with the money and a long sequence of people yelling at each other occurs resulting in Dwayne and Travis kidnapping Kate to force Nick’s hand.

Okay, so spoiler alert: Nick and Chet rescue Kate and wind up with the money. It’s a happy ending. Hey, this is supposed to be a comedy, right? Here’s the problem: Throughout, Chet and Nick act like giddy schoolchildren as they elude police, terrorize a bank full of innocent civilians, find time to have a heart-to-heart about their disagreements and assault a number of people with physical violence before ultimately causing someone else’s death in order to elude capture. If not for a credit cookie at the tail end, it might be inferred that they willfully killed a second person.

Look, it’s thing to have a character who is a pothead and drives recklessly while delivering pizzas, it’s another to have a guy forced into committing a bank robbery who thinks that, when things work out in his favor, it’s perfectly acceptable to keep the money. For him to also get amped and excited about high speed police chases in which cops and probably civilians are injured or even killed, and to celebrate minor physical victories like hitting a guy in the face with a crowbar, it becomes very difficult to view these as relatable characters. It doesn’t help that they don’t get much in the way of actual progress; one supposes by the end that Nick and Kate will find each other and Chet will be okay with it and Nick will, having been prompted to also quit his dead-end job, turn his life around, but none of that is a given.

Even the film’s antagonists, probably intended to be slapsticky and funny-dumb, are sociopathic (excepting Travis who is portrayed as weak and simple-minded, not just in addition to being moral but it almost seems like because he is) and also ultimately victorious. It’s not really a dark comedy, but it feels like it oscillates between depravity and lightness unintentionally, as though the writers had no idea what their choices were actually doing. Contrast this with something like Pulp Fiction, which has plenty of lighthearted moments but never once loses sight of what it is and what its characters mean. 30 Minutes Or Less is full of characters who, by benefit of being witness to their actions, we can see as being incongruent with the tone and the context of the overall story.

It doesn’t help that while 30 Minutes Or Less has a handful of genuinely funny lines and a handful of funny scenes, is a “you saw most of the good stuff in the trailer” film. That is to say, the key jokes and gags are of the sort that you can get the full effect from a three-second snippet while you fiddle with opening your Junior Mints box. In other words: Fairly lazy.

There’s no reason for me to loathe 30 Minutes Or Less, and I don’t hate it at all, but I don’t like it either. I don’t like that I was annoyed by all the characters and that the contrivance of the plot took more work to set up than it did to resolve (did no one think of cutting the vest at a different section than the rigged front?), nor do I like that a goofy comedy caper made me think more about the morality of writing than I intended to at midnight before a Monday morning. I do like that I didn’t pay any more than my regular Netflix subscription for it, though. So I guess it had one thing going for it.

Super 8 (2011)

Super 8

★★★☆☆

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: J.J. Abrams

My initial impression of Super 8, J.J. Abrams’s celluloid love letter to Steven Spielberg, was that it was pretty great. But something occurred since the close of the credits and my attempt here to distill my opinion into a few paragraphs of review; something fairly unusual for me: My opinion changed. Not so far that I went from being very enthusiastic about it to hating it, but free of the nostalgic warm fuzzies immediately during and after, the ultimately low-stakes plot and deliberate pace made the movie forgettable, drifting out of my memory readily within hours.

The film follows a group of young teenagers who are trying to film a zombie movie under the direction of Charles. His friend, Joe, is a quiet boy who we learn in the film’s opening scene has recently lost his mother to a tragic factory accident, leaving him under the care of his busy and detached father, who is also the local sheriff. While filming a scene near the railroad tracks, the group witnesses a train crash, caused by a desperate man driving a truck. Meanwhile, their camera captures what appears to be some kind of creature escaping from the wreckage. The military muscle their way into to the train accident, but strange occurrences begin to build up and people start disappearing until finally the kids must try to use their knowledge to understand the threat and, if possible, stop it.

On the positive side, the young actors that are the principals are good (Joel Courtney as Joe, Riley Griffiths as Charles) to downright excellent (Elle Fanning as the love interest, Alice, who has a connection to Joe outside the film project) and the special effects are mostly superb as well. The plot isn’t terribly original but it unfolds in a satisfying way and there are enough nods and thematic similarities to kid-adventure movies from the 80s like E.T. and The Goonies to carry it through.

However, there are some issues, too. For one thing, Super 8 has a surprisingly slow burn, with a lot of unnecessary scenes and extended sequences that seem, at the time, to ratchet up the tension. But for all this creeping menace and character development, it doesn’t really amount to much. There’s a halfhearted affection triangle between Joe, Charles and Alice; a lot is made of the divide between Joe and his dad but it kind of seems like the Sheriff’s distance from his son is partially what enables the inevitable reconciliation; the alien/monster is missing from large stretches of the film and the movie’s central antagonist, Air Force officer Nelec (played with scowly enigma by Noah Emmerich) lack sufficient menace to even stop a bunch of junior high kids from breaking martial law. Certain sections of the film, like the train wreck, are deliriously over the top, in a bad way. The biggest issue is that when the reveal finally comes and the audience understands what’s been going on, the answer to all the questions is sort of interesting but doesn’t have enough emotional hook left to leave a mark on anyone.

It’s hard when thinking about this film to not recall another J.J. Abrams near-hit: Cloverfield. In that movie, we had too much set-up, a sort of dicey conceit and then a really solid long stretch of excitement before the thing unraveled by revealing too much at the end, most of which wasn’t necessary anyway. Here, we have a lot of set-up (though it works better in this case), a solid conceit and then a long stretch of quasi-exciting build up before too much is revealed. At least the answers provided here are welcome at the surface, but their nature deflates what little tension had been carefully built to that point. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of Lost (another Abrams project). The trend I’m starting to see (going back to Alias) is that Abrams is great with the ideas, he’s a solid filmmaker and storyteller but he lacks the punch to payoff his introductory ideas. Who knows, maybe he needs to try working from a darker place or starting at the end and back filling to the beginning or something. But he’s starting to frustrate me by creating awesome set-ups that don’t ever quite live up to early promises.

And that’s really why Super 8 faded for me after the initial high of watching wore off. Like Alias and Lost and Cloverfield there is a certain visceral enthusiasm he is able to effortlessly create, but when it’s over, there is a sense that it has been a lot of smoke and mirrors; that there was just a man behind the curtain cashing in on conceptual currency instead of truly delivering on the investment the audience has made. In this case, it’s not a bad final product, just one that fails to stay with you. For all the rest of the borrowing done from E.T. here, that’s the one part that mattered the most.

Attack The Block (2011)

Attack The Block

★★★★★

Directed by: Joe Cornish

Written by: Joe Cornish

The whole of why I love Attack The Block can be summarized by the inclusion of the following exchange, initiated by Pest, a teenage member of a gang in South London who become embroiled in a battle to stop a horde of toothy aliens from overrunning their housing project:

Pest: I’m sh*ttin’ myself, innit’, but at the same time…
Moses: What?
Pest: This is sick!

In this brief exchange we see with both sadness and delight why the coming generation isn’t the doom of all of us. Because while we may rightfully fret that their acquisition culture of entitlement and narcissism and cynicism is a threat to social constructs, we have to admit that if an alien attack or a zombie invasion were to take place, these are the little snots we want on the front lines, well versed in Call of Duty tactics and Ninja Turtle battlefield confidence.

Attack The Block takes place in a small neighborhood where the gang of teenagers robs a young woman named Sam (played with a pleasant matronly resignation by Jodie Whittaker) on her way home from work. As the robbery is in progress, a car is demolished by a falling extraterrestrial object and a squealing creature wounds the gang leader, Moses (played with striking confidence and growth by John Boyega), who vows revenge. The gang track the alien while Sam flees, and soon they produce a corpse and decide to bring it to a local pot grower, Ron (a stoned Nick Frost), for identification.

At Ron’s, Moses is tapped by the local druglord, Hi-Hatz, to work for him as a dealer but the kids soon discover that there are more aliens arriving, so they hype themselves up to defend their homes. In the process of fighting the creatures, who have glowing blue teeth and fur but otherwise seem to absorb rather than reflect light, Moses loses Hi-Hatz’s drugs and is reunited with Sam such that he must evade the angry druglord, fight the aliens and convince Sam to trust him for protection.

The overall progression isn’t startlingly original; plenty of other monster pictures have followed a similar formula. Where Attack The Block really succeeds is in making what other movies would have as disposable one-scene extras the central protagonists and developing each character and the relationships between them all while still managing to create an atmosphere that is simultaneously exciting, frightening, funny and just plain cool.

This is such an enjoyable movie because there are so few disposable characters which gives the action—and even the horror—a certain emotional heft that is often lacking from genre pictures like this. And the screenplay is masterful at creating prejudices within the audience that it is then able to subvert. More to the point, it achieves something remarkable by making an anti-hero into a legitimate hero and having the heroism come off as cooler than the grittier, darker assumptions up front.

I kind of expected this to be sort of a B-grade movie, but I was surprised that the special effects were really well done, with very little CGI and I had no problem with immersion at all. If I have any complaint at all it might be that the thickly accented and heavily slang-infused dialogue is a bit hard to decipher, such that I ended up watching with subtitles on. Even then some of the slang is lost on my old-fogey USian frame of reference, but the point is clear enough with context and it’s hardly a reason not to see Attack The Block. And in fact, I can’t think of a single reason not to see Attack The Block.

The Ides Of March (2011)

The Ides Of March

★★★★☆

Directed by: George Clooney

Written by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon

Based on the Play “Farragut North” by: Beau Willimon

A lot of political thrillers tend to descend into non-political thriller territory, sooner or later. You can tell the moment this happens whenever a gun is produced or a car chase looms imminent. It’s not bad, per se, for political thrillers to have stakes high enough for them to be spine-tinglers but politics has its own special kind of tension built-in and I think the exploitation of that facet is under-utilized.

Which may explain why I liked The Ides of March as much as I did. Because this is a movie about the game, the lifestyle, the scope of politics which uses human beings as much as ideas in a frankly chilling battle between the public good (also acting as proxy for morality) and raw acquisition of power. That both are intertwined is merely the reality, not necessarily a philosophical point whose merits or defects are worthy of merit in this context.

So we are introduced to Mike Morris (played with magnetic charisma by George Clooney), a governor in an Ohio primary trying to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for Presidential candidate. His top two aides are Paul (played with volumes of implied character by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Stephen (played with studly swagger by Ryan Gosling). They have the candidate that ought to win: He’s got good ideas, good appeal; a good chance of defeating whatever candidate the Republicans try to throw at him. But he just needs a bit of a boost to go the rest of the way and Paul thinks a previously dropped-out Senator who holds a significant number of delegates in check could provide that winning boost if he can convince him to throw support to Morris.

While Paul is trying to woo the Senator, Morris’ campaign manager, Tom (played with an affably sinister charm by Paul Giamatti), calls Stephen to set up a meeting. It’s risky for Stephen to meet the other campaign guys; there are regulations and social conventions that limit the kind of direct contact they can have. But Stephen decides to go for it anyway. At the secret meeting, Tom offers Stephen a position on the opposing team. He says they have the Senator already sewn up and they plan to get a lot of open primary support from the Republican voters in Ohio because the GOP worries they won’t be able to take Morris in the main election. Stephen declines but leaves the meeting rattled.

Meanwhile Stephen meets a girl, Molly (played with a not-quite-convincing awkward confidence by Evan Rachel Wood), a staffer on the campaign, and begins an affair with her. But Molly has a secret that threatens the entire campaign and as the stakes ratchet up and the election gets closer, Stephen’s paranoia starts to show signs of being not misguided at all.

What works best is that this never gets into cornball shootout in a parking garage or attempt-on-someone’s-life territory. There is plenty of suspense inherent in the politics and the web of interpersonal relationships that The Ides of March doesn’t need gimmicks like knife fights or stolen nuclear launch codes. The basic plot is riveting and the acting is either quite good or absolutely top notch (Gosling and Wood, notably, hold their own enough to not stand out against wonderful performances by folks we’ve come to expect good things from like Hoffman and Giamatti). The ending is unexpected and strangely satisfying, if cynical and dark overall.

There are a handful of issues here and there: There is a lot of set-up to be done early in the movie and the script is kind of jarringly transparent about it. Stephen’s character is frustrating as a protagonist because as the noose tightens around him he begins to act inconsistently with what we’ve been led to believe about him, going from swagger to outright jerk to mystifyingly ruthless by the final credits. A more accomplished actor (like, say, Giamatti) might have sold the transition better, but I guess it was more important that Stephen be young and pretty than convincing. There are also a few minor plot hiccups—not holes really, just oversights which are noticeable to the audience but not necessarily impacting on the story. Also the chemistry between Wood and Gosling never quite hits the notes I think it was intended. Coming off a recent viewing of The Adjustment Bureau where Matt Damon and Emily Blunt show how to make onscreen magic happen, it feels a little flat.

But there is plenty to recommend The Ides of March as well. Clooney’s direction is really top shelf here, and he makes great use of silence in the film, of unheard dialogue especially, to convey messages by relying on his actors rather than on the dialogue writing. It works remarkably. There are also a ton of memorable speeches by Paul and Morris, among others.

It did strike me as funny that Clooney, as Mike Morris, looked like a genuine political candidate and, in fact, came across as ironically less rehearsed than several actual politicians in the real-life campaigns going on right now often do. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of Morris’ political ideals were mirrors of Clooney’s own and it’s always disheartening to realize that fictional politicians are more inspiring than real candidates at least 95% of the time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Ides of March quite a bit. It’s not without a few issues here and there and I’m sure diehard GOP viewers will disdain what can occasionally sound like a Democratic propaganda film, but it’s a tight thriller that doesn’t cheap out and showcases great direction and some fine acting. Sounds like everything you need for a solid bout of entertainment. Or, for that matter, politics.

Drive (2011)

Drive

★★★☆☆

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Written by: Hossein Amini

Based on the Novel by: James Sallis

I get, to a certain extent, what Drive was trying to do. Or, to be more accurate, what it was trying to be. However, the problem that I have with Drive is that it thinks itself exceptionally clever in its design and is therefore often incredibly indulgent.

Drive is about a nameless guy (played with mute inconsistency by Ryan Gosling): a part time stunt man, part time mechanic, part time wheelman, aspiring race car driver. He has a certain set of skills that make him valuable to a certain set of people. We see, early on, how he operates. He’s not a stoic, unflappable kind of guy, but he’s good and that carries a body a long way. We get the sense that he’s maybe trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps he’s trying to turn over a new leaf. Perhaps not. Perhaps the line he walks is his comfort zone.

He meets a girl, Irene, a neighbor (played with watery-eyed vagueness by Carey Mulligan), at his new apartment building. She has a son and a husband serving a prison sentence. There are sparks, but he tries to be respectful and she tries to do the right thing, in spite of her feelings. It’s complicated, but perhaps less so than Drive makes it out to be because it tries to express everything in long sequences of unbroken silence. On the periphery of this are some unsavory characters: The driver’s boss, Shannon, (played with talkative enthusiasm by Bryan Cranston), a couple of wiseguys (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, both doing much with small supporting parts).

Then Irene’s husband, Standard, is released from jail and he’s in trouble with some toughs he owes money to. The Driver feels protective of Irene and her son, and he has a briefly dealt with but somehow significant connection with her husband as well. He tries to help. At this point in the movie the tone shifts. There is a double-cross. People start dying. Once they start, they don’t really stop. Drive doesn’t have much to use to ratchet up the tension since it seems unwilling to directly threaten the protagonist’s motivating characters (Irene and her son) so it uses brief but often unexpected brutality to serve as a proxy. The Driver’s character starts to unravel here, because we’re so disconnected from him apart from the filter we’ve been given (through Irene), and either the director or Gosling can’t seem to really convey a sense of him.

But then, as if the filmmakers sensed this, they apparently decide to embrace it and just let him be erratic and inexplicable. The movie starts to feel smug in doing so. “Look how edgy this sh*t is!” it cries. But in the audience we either do that thing, “Oh yeah. I get it. I totally get it. Yes.” Or, we do the other thing: “Wait. What. No. Huh?” And in the end either response is fine because what matters most is that whether we get it (or “get it”) or not, we can’t possibly connect with him. We can’t possibly care all that much. We care through him, for Irene, for Shannon, for Standard, but he is a ghost, a screen that reflects the projections of others but has no function of his own. The signature soundtrack tune plays a couple of times through the movie, embracing this and explaining it in a very clumsy, obvious way by declaring: “A real human being / And a real hero.” So, you see, he may be a sociopath, but he’s a sociopath for the right reasons. Which is totally better. Totally.

Drive isn’t a bad movie, by any stretch. But it’s not necessarily the movie it should have been, either. I cared more about the Driver character before Irene, at which point I cared about Irene but not the Driver. The fact that both exist in the same movie made both of their stories less than they could have been, and that’s a shame.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

The Adjustment Bureau

★★★☆☆

Directed by: George Nofli

Written by: George Nofli

Based on the Short Story by: Philip K. Dick

Early on in The Adjustment Bureau, I thought it was going to be really great. Take the scene where David Norris (played stoutly by Matt Damon) meets a mysterious woman who has just revealed herself to be hiding out in the men’s restroom, overhearing Norris rehearse a concession speech. The woman is played by Emily Blunt and the chemistry between the two actors and their characters boils off the screen. This is a pivotal moment in the film because it will set up the obsession Norris finds himself in over this woman that must last for years otherwise unaided and the direction, acting and writing find that magical sweet spot of doing everything the scene demands they do as precisely as you could want. In the span of maybe three or four minutes, we get—without being bludgeoned over the head with it—the intense connection between these two people.

Then in short order we start to become privy to a group of curious, hat-wearing men who hint of something perhaps sinister in their machinations. We get glimpses of their power or technology, far beyond what should be possible. And then there is some sort of accident and suddenly the world David Norris knew comes unraveled. A curtain is peeled back and the group reveal themselved to Norris and warn him to do two things: Keep his mouth shut and stay away from the girl.

So far, so good. The pace is swift and sure, revelations coming but opening more questions, the atmosphere tense and ominous. But then Morris just kind of accepts things and doesn’t really respond very convincingly. Of course eventually he and the woman (Elise) find each other and their on-screen heat returns to draw the viewer back in, but suddenly the movie starts on a rail toward an action/thriller that it never is really able to divert itself from. Norris acts implausibly in the face of powerful “others” and gets some help from a predictable source against a string of escalating antagonists (who are conspicuously all older white dudes), none of whom really give that initial air of threat much credibility.

I would still have forgiven most of The Adjustment Bureau’s flaws had the third act not completely crumbled into a tired race-against-the-clock cliche that overwhelms the audience with audacity and poor Emily Blunt with a challenge to convincingly portray a woman in the most mind- and reality-perception-shattering circumstance who must somehow reconcile a betrayal, a loyalty shift, a commitment and all this new information. Predictably, she fails, but I don’t blame her. I blame the writer who was unable to craft a sequence in which she was allowed to express a human range of emotion. No actress in the world could have pulled off that feat because the script seemed to simply say at this point: “She just copes. Whatever.”

Endings are funny things. Sometimes a great ending can salvage a bad or somewhat flawed movie (The Usual Suspects, Skeleton Key); sometimes a bad movie can utterly ruin an otherwise good movie (LotR: Return of the King, Signs, The Number 23). In this case the ending of The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t quite go so far as to ruin it, but it does diminish the promise of the first 45 minutes enough that it kind of feels like you wish they could have Adjusted the plot enough to make it actually about the stuff that works—the romance and the mystery.

Moneyball (2011)

Moneyball

★★★★☆

Directed by: Bennett Miller

Written by: Steve Zaillan, Aaron Sorkin, and Stan Chervin

Based on the Book by: Michael Lewis

I don’t think it’s possible for me to review Moneyball without contrasting it with the book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

I read Lewis’s book a couple of years after it came out, probably around 2005 or so. I’ve been a lifetime fan of the San Francisco Giants; though I don’t carry animosity for the over-the-bay American Leaguers, they have always been a sort of marginal curiosity in Bay Area sports for me. Other than the 1989 World Series, I generally wish the A’s luck. The book was recommended by a friend of mine who is a diehard A’s fan and it was, at first, a fun read about a team I knew a little about but not enough that the details in the book weren’t new and fascinating. Then slowly Lewis started doing something weird with all his digressions into baseball theory and statistical analysis and player valuation: I started to care more about the theme of the book than the team.

And that’s really the point, after all: The A’s were/are simply a team trying to do the best with a regrettable circumstance (low income) and it was their approach that attracted Lewis to the story. They could have been any team. But though General Manager Billy Beane and his sidekick Paul DePodesta are prominent characters in the book, they are vehicles to drive what matters most to Lewis: The subversive thinking that made a poor team ($41 million in team salary) competitive with much wealthier teams.

My concern was that a movie adaptation would skip all the interesting stuff about Bill James and his books or DePodesta’s sabermetrics, focusing instead on the character of Beane, perhaps becoming some kind of biopic. Interestingly, with the help of Sorkin’s drop-you-in-the-middle dialogue, the narrative flow of Moneyball (the film) contains plenty of the fascinating aspects of Lewis’s book without feeling like a powerpoint presentation. Due credit to the writers and director Bennett Miller for pulling off an impressive feat of filmmaking to take a fairly complex set of not just ideas but base assumptions as well (the heft of the techniques employed by Beane and company is only visible if you understand what the established practices were) and crafting something riveting from them.

Okay, sure, this is still a movie with characters and the interplay between Brad Pitt (playing Beane as a kind of odd hyperkinetic zen master) and Jonah Hill (who plays a composite character that is a lot DePodesta but also a lot not DePodesta) drives the soul of the narrative through the notional concepts to build a team that can’t compete on a salary level with markets like New York and Boston so must compete some other way. Put simply, it works very well for a story that is, more than anything else, about turning people into numbers. Pitt and Hill put together some memorable scenes and both turn in fine (though not, perhaps, exemplary) performances. If nothing else, Moneyball would be worth seeing just to watch the two of them riff off each other over the strength of the script’s dialogue.

Now, the 2002 A’s aren’t some Cinderella story: Spoiler alert, they don’t win the World Series. To establish a proper dramatically tense climax, Moneyball focuses on the team’s historic 20-win streak to provide the motivational hook and it works okay, though as with the book, the further past the events depicted you are the more the perception of the ideas within shifts from jaw-dropping to mildly fascinating. If this stuff were truly as revolutionary as it sounds on paper (or celluloid), the A’s would have a championship in the 21st century. They don’t, so there’s obviously a bit more to it than Lewis or Miller might lead you to believe. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, because the temptation to turn this into Rudy-level schmaltz might be unbearable if this were really that much of a rags-to-riches story. By virtue of the facts, Moneyball manages to be an above-average sports story.

Moneyball isn’t a drop-everything-go-see-this kind of movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman is kind of wasted in his role as Art Howe, even though he does a great job with his few scenes he just isn’t a pivotal part. I was disappointed that there isn’t much in the way of scene-setting (i.e. there aren’t many exterior shots of the Bay Area which gives it a peculiar lack of atmosphere) and the film can’t seem to decide if it cares enough about Beane’s character to give him a full backstory (there are a handful of sequences between him and his ex-wife, and him and his daughter) or if it prefers to stick closer to the book. For what it’s worth I’d be happy either way, but the split difference seems to just pad the film’s fairly long running time without much real development. But don’t let the few sour grapes fool you, I may have loved the book but I wasn’t disappointed in this adaptation and for non-sports fans, who I feel would probably struggle with Lewis’s work, this is a great way to get them the Cliff’s Notes version while providing a solid two hours’ worth of entertainment to boot.

The Muppets (2011)

The Muppets

★★★☆☆

Directed by: James Bobin

Written by: Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller

Based on characters created by: Jim Henson

It’s always a little disappointing when a movie’s biggest triumph is what it does (or could) represent at a later time. This happens a lot in second installments of trilogies, where the whole movie is basically a big second act. The film itself might be good, but unless that pivotal third installment pays off, it’s not really clear what good the set up did. Or, sometimes, there is a movie that is sound and solid but covers old ground and the question is, “Okay, now that you’ve established your canon, can you execute on it again?” I think Batman Begins was like that: It was a good movie but mostly it hinted that if Christopher Nolan could handle the Batman origin well, he might be able to do really great things once the marquee villains showed up. And lo and behold, The Dark Knight.

That said, let me get to the punchline first and then back into the statement: The biggest triumph of The Muppets is that it hints that, if this film succeeds, there might be a chance of a proper return on network television of The Muppet Show. I mean the real Muppet Show, not Muppets Tonight or direct-to-DVD rehash of “family” entertainment where family means “your kids” and not “everyone can enjoy this.” And I think The Muppets makes a very strong case that nostalgia is there and there are enough funny people around now who get what The Muppet Show was about to make such a venture successful. The nice thing about The Muppet Show is that it’s timeless: vaudeville, sketch comedy, short format, non-offensive zaniness that you can watch with your kids but still laugh at yourself.

There is a part of The Muppets that nails this whole thing exactly. But to get there, you have to suffer through a mostly uninteresting sludge of backstory and contrivance. The Muppets is the story of Walter (a Muppet) and his brother Gary (Jason Segel, playing a G-rated version of his character Marshall from How I Met Your Mother) who visit Los Angeles to see the Muppet Studios and get wrapped up in a contrived plot to drill for oil in the land where the theater rests. Along for the ride is Gary’s long time girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams reprising her role from Enchanted, more or less) and they decide to try and talk Kermit the Frog into getting the Muppets back together for a telethon to raise the ten million dollars needed to buy out the contract.

The antagonist here is Tex Richman (Chris Cooper in a surreal turn that might be parodying Tom Cruise’s character from Tropic Thunder, Les Grossman, or might be Chris Cooper playing himself or might be Chris Cooper playing a character from an entirely different movie altogether) and basically once the villain is established and the hook is set, the movie unfolds as a bunch of curiously angst-y Muppets get recruited in a self-referential and occasionally smirk-worthy roadtrip film in fast forward. There is a tired subplot about Mary being left behind because Gary is more concerned about Walter than her and some stuff about Kermit and Miss Piggy (are they divorced? separated? never married?). I don’t recall 1979’s The Muppet Movie well enough to know what happened at the end there and I can’t imagine they would expect this audience 32 years later to know, either, but it doesn’t matter because The Muppets is, quite intentionally, not edgy enough to skimp on the happy ending.

Anyway, they fix up the theater and rehearse the show and eventually they put on the telethon and we finally get to the movie that we should have been at all along. Because once the telethon starts, The Muppets is transformative. If you ever watched The Muppet Show as a kid or ever saw episodes played on video or DVD later, the magic is recaptured brilliantly here. The cameos are funny, the skits alternate between hilarious and downright weird enough to qualify and the whole thing is just sublime. They use even one-note Jack Black to great effect. The framework of having the audience trickle in slowly is dynamic and effective in building tension. The slow (although it’s actually pretty quick) way that TV exec Veronica (Rashida Jones, who needed a bigger role as I’ll explain in a minute) comes around is well executed. The finale is a nice blend of realistic melancholy and cheer-along triumphant, if a little heavy on the sugar.

Okay, so here’s the problem. The framing story just isn’t original or interesting or—most importantly—funny enough to warrant the screen time they give it. The original songs are okay but not spectacular and the acting by the humans is ironically wooden. The thing is, they didn’t need to be there. You could easily have cut Gary and Mary and Tex Richman out of the story entirely and still had about ten to twenty minutes at the beginning of Kermit learning they have to put on a telethon to save the studio. Have Jones’ Veronica act as the not-so-bad bad guy who grudgingly grants them some TV time and then devote the majority of the film to a long, awesome and crescendoing episode of The Muppet Show. Just like with the old show, there can be backstage antics and even an ongoing arc about saving the studio, getting the missing Muppets back in time and so on. You can still have the slowly growing audience but we don’t have to suffer through a trite and tired guy-who-realizes-what’s-important subplot that has nothing to do with The Muppets, The Muppet Show or anything I sat down in the theater to see. Chris Cooper doesn’t earn his screen time with is bizarre and unfunny rap interlude nor does his one joke of saying the words “maniacal laugh” (as opposed to actually laughing) warrant his presence.

The Muppets don’t work because everything they do is terribly original; they’re vaudeville so they draw on pop culture from the past and present and present it in a new way. I’m fine with that. But the problem with the Muppets as an entity since the end of The Muppet Show is that no one believes in them on their own merits anymore. Since 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, they’ve been either shoehorned into territory Disney farmed 60 years ago (A Muppet Christmas Carol; Muppet Treasure Island) or “re-envigorated” for modern audiences (Muppets Tonight) or thrown alongside human performers as co-bills (The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz and now this). Why? The Muppet Show worked for the same reason Sesame Street works: Muppets are cool and you can have puppets being silly and subversive and even just interesting as artistic creations all at the same time. There doesn’t need to be a bigger hook than that.

Before I wrap it up, I need to spend a short bit of time on Walter. More than anything else, the Muppet-from-human-parents thing is what worked the least for me. I get that the “Muppet or Man” number was cute but it doesn’t warrant all the weird and frankly kind of creepy backstory. Why couldn’t that musical number have been just a sketch on the Muppet Telethon? It would have been just as funny and silly and entertaining without it being some story-driven moment. More so, I’d say. And if they wanted to introduce a new Muppet, I’m fine with that. This seems like a good vehicle to do so. But a dull, boring, personality-less human-looking Muppet? Yawn. Who cares? I liked the thing they did with his talent at the end, but—and this is key—any Muppet could have done that. I’d rather any other Muppet had. Because by the end, I kind of hated Walter for being a whiny embodiment of the extraneous story bits that got in the way of my awesome Muppet Show movie. Die, Walter, die: Long live Fozzie and Gonzo and Kermit and Sweetums.

My wife summarized the movie very well: Let’s hope it works as a love letter to Frank Oz to show that there is still an audience for The Muppets and, more specifically, The Muppet Show. I didn’t love The Muppets as a movie, but I loved what I hoped it could lead to which is a return of The Muppet Show on my television set every week. I hope this convinces Mr. Oz to come back and give me what I really want which is not more Jason Segel or Amy Adams or Muppet narratives, but The Muppet Show. Bring back puppet vaudeville and variety shows with celebrity guests and goofy humor and the Swedish Chef and Waldorf and Statler making cracks about Fozzie’s bad jokes. The Muppets has been a very successful movie, coming in a solid number two for two weeks behind the top-tier, powerhouse Twilight movie (which is far, far worse than even the worst incarnation of this movie could ever be). The audience is there, and I just hope this movie—even if it is a bit disappointing—pulls off its ultimate triumph which would be putting the Muppets back in our living rooms.

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.

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.

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.