Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Hangover (2009)

The Hangover is the breakout hit of the summer. It’s a simple concept that’s fully executed by Old School director Todd Phillips, the biggest name in the movie is Mike Tyson, and the people are lapping it up. It’s going to become the first comedy to pass the $200 million mark since 2005’s Wedding Crashers. Is it that good? The studio was already planning a sequel before The Hangover was ever released.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married and thus must embark on that last passage of manhood — the bachelor party. Doug and his groomsmen are headed out to Las Vegas for a wild night. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a handsome science teacher ready to cut loose. Stu (Ed Helms) is a nerdy dentist completely at the command of his icy, domineering girlfriend (Rachael Harris). And then there’s Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s prospective brother-in-law. Alan is clueless to the point that he asks a hotel clerk if Caesar’s Palace was at one point the emperor’s actual residence. He’s also desperate for some friends and he wants this Vegas trip to be unforgettable. Cut to the next morning and the boys awake to discover their hotel suite in shambles, a tiger in the bedroom, a crying baby on the floor, and Doug is nowhere. Phil, Stu, and Alan have to retrace their steps and fill in the holes of their collective memories.

The central mystery provides surprisingly intriguing glue for all the gags. The idea of Vegas-laden debauchery is practically a cliché of a cliché at this point, especially with how Vegas has been somewhat morphed into a family-friendly Disney Land theme park for adults compared to its mob origins. With that said, the movie hits all the regular Vegas bender exploits you would think it would, which includes, speedy marriage ceremonies, strippers, drugs, gambling. Several of the jokes themselves are somewhat on the cheap side; however, their laugh quotient is elevated by spontaneity and the comic abilities of the cast. The plot to The Hangover is cleverly constructed so that the audience is trying to figure out the latest clues just like the main characters. The movie trades heavily in raunch and crudeness, but this is a comedy that never gets too dark or too mean-spirited; there’s always a playful bemusement at the “What did we do last night?” revelations. Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) are silly about their naughtiness. It doesn’t go to the limits of good taste like Peter Berg’s pitch-black bachelor party gone wrong comedy, Very Bad Things. That movie, which is a guilty pleasure heavy on the guilt, really looked at the hedonist philosophy about “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” — including murdered hookers buried in the desert. The Hangover actually comes across like some absurdist film noir, and Phillips shoots the movie like it is a film noir. The cinematography even includes watching a car drive into the desert via the reflection of a man’s sunglasses. The movie looks like a serious film noir, a caper filmed in the rarely seen daylight of Vegas, which only makes everything that happens even funnier.

The Hangover is consistently funny once the boys get to Vegas. Beforehand it’s all setup, and generally setups are not that funny because they lay ground for the punchlines to come later. There are well-executed running gags and then there are also missed opportunities, like the baby and the surprise wedding. Certainly a newly discovered baby offers better gags than miming the little fella masturbating. The jokes themselves aren’t terribly sophisticated (hence: male nudity = laughs, taser to the balls = bigger laughs) and plot revelations, like how Stu lost his tooth, can be letdowns. The screenplay speeds through its comic setups too quickly, briskly running to the next and leaving little room to settle. A healthy dose of the adolescent humor is unmemorable from other crass-fests, but the setups allow the actors to bounce off each other for better jokes. The best laughs come from the threesome of dudes just ping-ponging back and forth in the moment. The end credits finally reveal what really happened that debased night, and the montage of pictures serves as a meaty, satisfying payoff to 90 minutes of sophomoric setup. It’s a terrific way to get the audience laughing all the way to the parking lot.

The humor is mostly situation based. The characters all fall under comedy archetypes (henpecked husband, loudmouth, socially inept doofus) but it’s the interaction and male camaraderie between the actors that made me smile the most. Cooper (He’s Just Not That Into You) is full of smarm but he comes across like a less manic, still self-absorbed and obnoxious version of his jerky character from Wedding Crashers. His main job is to center the other two actors. Galifianakis (The Comedians of Comedy) is the go-to source for the screenplay’s laughs and his role makes good use of his talents. He plays a buffoon without an ounce of self-awareness, which gives the character a touch of sweetness even as he bumbles in total social awkwardness. He plays the character straight and innocent, which makes his moony behavior more unnerving and yet acceptable at the same time. But for me, this is Helms’ movie. The supporting actor from TV’s The Office has honed comedic chops, which explains how he can find the perfect tone for an uptight, hopeless, delusional dentist to be sympathetic and not overly pathetic. He comes completely undone over the course of the film’s events and Helms bounces off the walls in hysterics.

Like other Phillips movies, specifically Old School, the women not only get shortchanged as comedy characters but they are presented in an unflattering light. Essentially, the women are either vicious, soul-sucking shrews or exploitative whores. It’s not exactly an enlightened atmosphere but then again The Hangover is a vulgar comedy set in Sin City. The nicest female character is portrayed by Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) as a breastfeeding prostitute (“I’m a stripper. Well, I’m an escort but stripping is a great way to meet the clients.”). I’m not asking for every comedy to be written from a feminist standpoint, but it’s disconcerting when the women in a comedy only get to be the jokes instead of being in on the jokes. The extremely flamboyant, overripe gay Asian mobster (Ken Jeong of Role Models) ensures that women aren’t alone in getting marginalized for giggles.

Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? I think perhaps Phillips has crafted a comedic version of The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 thriller that plucked Michael Douglas into a crazy “what the hell is going on?” trip down the rabbit hole. But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date? I think The Hangover will lose some of its appeal once the surprises are all out in the open, but I think the chemistry of the cast and some of the riffs on Vegas will still earn chuckles even on multiple viewings. This isn’t the instant classic that its rapid grosses and frothing word-of-mouth might have you believe, but The Hangover is an enjoyable guys-gone-wild trip down the empty road of Vegas hedonism.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Up (2009)

With every new movie Pixar re-establishes itself as the most creatively reliable studio in the business. And every year some critics beat the drum that THIS is the movie that will break free from the animation ghetto and earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination. If anyone out there would like to tell me how The Reader could be a superior film to WALL-E, by all means enlighten me. Pixar has been producing engrossing and complex entertainment, not merely cute cartoons. But if WALL-E failed to score a nomination in a so-so film year, then I doubt that Pixar’s latest, Up, will fly into the winner’s circle.

Carl Frederickson (voiced by Edward Asner) is a cantankerous 78-year-old man who wants nothing more in life than to be left alone. He lives in a house he built with his late wife, Ellie. They met when they were kids and bonded over a shared love of thrill-seeking adventure, like their hero, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Ellie’s dream is to eventually travel to Paradise Falls in South America, but she never lives to see it. Carl is about to be thrown into a retirement center and have his home demolished, so the geezer hatches an escape plan. The former balloon salesman attaches thousands of balloons to his house and floats away headed for Paradise Falls. Carl is ready to enjoy the quiet when he gets a knock at his front door. He has a stowaway. Russell (Jordan Nagai) is an overweight eight-year-old determined to get his last Wilderness Scout badge, which involves helping the elderly. Together, they journey through the jungles of Venezuela and find remarkable discoveries and constant danger, including the presence of a sinister and still very-much-alive Charles Muntz.

Up is the colorful tale of a dreamer who longs for escape, and you feel the same rush of excitement to be unbound and take off. Naturally, there will be bonding between the grouchy old man and the earnest kid. Up really becomes an altogether different movie once it lands in Venezuela. It transforms into an unconventional adventure story replete with talking dogs and giant birds. I loved the Dug character and was bemused at hearing the scattered thought patterns of man’s best friend (“I have just met you and I love you”). The side characters somewhat steal the show and, at the same time, feel overextended. With that said, I’ll probably end up buying my wife a talking stuffed Dug. The last act soars with about 20 minutes of thoughtful, exciting, well-constructed action weighted by an emotional connection to character. At the same time, Up tackles some major issues and does so without getting mired in sappy sentimentality. Carl is dealing with loss and has hardened against a world he feels indifferent to. Up almost had me in tears within the first 10 minutes during its elegant wordless montage charting the courtship and marital life of Carl and Ellie. It’s a fabulous moment and greatly economical, packing an emotional punch unequaled by the rest of the film.

The visual storytelling is still top of the line entertainment. The animation is superb as usual. The flying house is an explosion of colors and instantly brought a smile to my face. Carl’s character design looks like he was a Lego character that was brought to life. He’s all square and boxy whereas Russell is round to the point of being an Easter egg with legs (is Russell Asian-American or biracial, or is it just a character design that I’m reading too much into?). The South American jungles are lush and filled with inventive creatures. I saw the movie in a conventional theater but the option is out there to catch the movie in Disney 3-D, but I don’t think it will add much to the whole experience.

The central image is lovely and instantly iconic: the house floating through the clouds thanks to thousands of colorful balloons. It’s a beautiful image and a perfect metaphor for the memory of Carl’s deceased wife. They built that house together and lived a full life inside, he refers to the house as “Ellie,” and at one point Carl even ties the floating house to his back, tethering her memory to Earth while simultaneously carrying his grief with him at every step. The idea of a flying house tickles the imagination and yet never once demands more critical examination. We accept that Carl has rigged the house to take flight and never once stop and question the extreme engineering improbabilities. The flying house is just the mode of transportation for the characters to complete their story, but it is not the whole story. Think of it as a more comfortable mode of family flying than a queen-sized mattress that included Angela Lansbury (1971’s curious Nazi-fighting family flick, Bedknobs and Broomsticks). The rest of the movie never quite matches the directness and depth of that visual metaphor.

Up ducks out on making its tale more of a feeling, living movie, something more than striking visuals and some fun set pieces and odd characters with a dash of sentiment. Up establishes its strange story elements but then doesn’t plausibly make much more out of them. The story becomes a somewhat constricted rescue caper to return a Mama bird to her babies and keep her out of the hands of a Bad Man. Charles Muntz is a fairly weak villain. I’ve also got a burning question: if Carl is 78 years old, how old exactly is his childhood hero, Muntz? It’s a bit simplistic and that’s fine, and it’s still an enjoyable conclusion, but the movie doesn’t ascend from the sum of its parts like the finest works of Pixar, like WALL-E and The Incredibles. This one’s just missing some of that Pixar magic. Yeah, there’s the overall arc of Carl overcoming the loss of his wife and softening his hard exterior, but tell me what exactly else happens that matters? The kid makes a friend? It’s about human connection but how exactly is that best served by giant birds and talking dogs flying biplanes? Up also isn’t as visually arresting or creative as previous Pixar flicks, aside from that floating house. As far as Pixar films go, this is about square down the middle (between Monster’s Inc. and Finding Nemo, better than Cars and A Bug’s Life). But even that statement is prefaced by the fact that Pixar’s output is generally head and shoulders above every other studio in technical precision, creative ingenuity, and emotional heft.

Up takes some fancy flights of imagination and has plenty of humor and charm to make it a family-friendly winner. I have some reservations with the movie and its plot, but there’s no question that Pixar knows how to construct a movie that manages to appeal to everyone, even if it involves cranky old men as unlikely action heroes. I feel like perhaps Up is suffering because it has the rotten luck of following the release of WALL-E, a timeless masterpiece that I have since watched probably over 30 times. Up is a warm-hearted and engaging film even if it never reaches the creative and emotional heights of other Pixar masterworks. Still, a “pretty good” Pixar movie has a legitimate shot at being the best movie I see this summer.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Angels & Demons (2009)

Angels & Demons works better as a movie. It is a better movie than The Da Vinci Code, but since I found that film to be one of the worst of 2006 you should know this is not high praise.

Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, with a better haircut) is the world?s foremost expert on ancient symbols and texts, which is why the Vatican recruits him for a very important mission. The Pope has recently died and Vatican City is in the middle of the cardinals deliberating who will be the newest leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Four of the cardinals, top candidates for the Pope position, have been kidnapped. The Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society, says that a cardinal will die every hour, from 8 PM to 11 PM, and then at midnight Vatican City will be destroyed. The Illuminati was made up of followers who felt the church was rejecting science, and so we?re told that in the 16th century the Catholic Church responded reasonably by branding the Illuminati followers and executing them. 400 years is a long time to wait for revenge. To make matters worse, antimatter was stolen from the CERN facility in Switzerland and placed somewhere within Vatican City. The battery holding the antimatter is scheduled to die about, conveniently, midnight, and the antimatter will result in a huge explosion (science note: antimatter is real but it is entirely harmless and not combustible). With the help of Carmenlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGreggor), acting church leader until there’s a new Pope, and particle physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), Langdon must race against time to save the Catholic Church.

The time element gives the movie a sense of urgency that was missing before, and a kidnapping plot provides a firm structure and supplies more chances for action than unraveling a 2000-year old church conspiracy on the divinity of Jesus. The plot of Angels & Demons works out like a high-stakes scavenger hunt, shuttling Langdon across the many sights of Rome to find the next clue. However, the narrow timeline of killing a cardinal on the hour every hour makes for some tight squeezes, both for Langdon and the cardinal-killing man. I never understand why the villains give themselves such a small window to work with. I know the whole “dead cardinal every hour” thing has a nice ring to it, but is it wholly practical? There’s all that driving around Rome and the Vatican, which has got to be crowded since millions are awaiting news about a new Pope. Beyond this, why must Langdon and crew always show up to a site with like five minutes before the cardinals will be murdered? Are they stopping to get subway sandwiches in between? The timeline and plot setup provide more action sequences that make the movie fleetingly entertaining in spurts.

What doomed the Da Vinci Code movie was not the endless blather, though that certainly bored me to tears, but the fact that the film wanted to have its cake and eat it too — it wants to be a brainy thriller but get away with hokey thriller shortcomings. Angels & Demons suffers more or less the same killing blow. The flick wants you to shut your brain off and swallow these trite lapses in judgment and reality, forgiving the movie for zero character development and polluting the narrative with stupid genre stock roles, but then it also wants you to pay close attention and activate your brain to untangle the origins of symbols, conspiracies, and church doctrine. Angels & Demons introduces the idea of a ticking clock so it’s a far better paced affair than the previous film, but the movie still finds ways to get bogged down. Once again, Dan Brown’s novel has been adapted to a series of chases and sit-down chats, although this time Langdon does a lot of speed walking while he dishes out the minute history of church doctrine and architecture. To borrow from my own review of The Da Vinci Code: “You can?t be a brainy thriller and fill the story with hokey moments and lapses in thought, and likewise you can?t be an enjoyably straight forward thriller if you bookend all your action sequences with talky sit-downs to explain the minutia of your story.”

These stories are just meant to work better on the page than on screen. Puzzles and word games work when the audience can take a moment to pause but film is a medium of images and cannot simply go dead waiting for the audience to posit a guess. Movies don’t have time for you to chew things over. So then the puzzles just devolve into waiting for Langdon to explain everything, which he will do at great length. This can get tedious at a rapid rate. Langdon is less a character in this movie and more a walking, talking encyclopedia of exposition. He is robbed of anything that could be charitably described as characterization. Symbol decoding just does not work on the big screen, and Langdon is an expert whose profession is limited in application. I can’t foresee too many instances where a top-notch symbologist will be needed at a moment’s notice. Sure, it’s nice to get a history lesson and see plenty of those swell ancient churches, even if the filmmakers had to recreate them as sets because the Vatican refused them entry to film, but what point do these Dan Brown thrillers serve as movies? There is an intriguing discussion between science and the role of the church somewhere in this movie, but good luck finding much to stir your intellect. I confess never having read one of Brown’s tomes, including the super colossal mega-selling do-it-all Da Vinci Code, but surely the man deserves a better fate than to have his works die on the big screen as lamentably lame thrillers.

There are no characters in Angels & Demons, only stock roles and suspects. Langdon’s female sidekick (Zurer,Vantage Point) serves no other purpose but to translate Latin and Italian. Really, if Langdon is a scholar on the conspiracies revolving around the Catholic Church then perhaps he should put in the time and money to learn the language. The Vatican police are there as escorts and little else. Stellen Skarsgård (Mamma Mia!) serves as the chief of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s security team, and Armin-Mueller Stahl (Shine, Eastern Promises) is a German cardinal running the ongoing recounts for a new pontiff. Both men are presented as sly, untrustworthy suspects. Stahl’s character routinely dresses down McKenna as well, saying the young pup in the collar is not fit for church hierarchy. It?s not much to go on but the “characters” are just figures that occasionally get in the way of the film’s long-winded art history tour.

I think a lifetime of watching movies has just made my mind too analytical to be surprised by the twists in these kinds of dead weight thrillers. I?m already thinking ahead from the first minute and I don’t think I’m alone. When we are introduced to two characters, one gruff and unhelpful and one kindly and overly helpful, it is rather obvious which character will be revealed as being treacherous to provide the biggest jolt. Does anyone still suspect that Hollywood would produce a pointedly obvious evil suspect and then have it actually be that person? Not in today’s class of Hollywood thriller. You see kids, today’s Hollywood thriller is more concerned with piling on the twists than constructing a story that sticks together upon reflection, which is why many a Hollywood thriller simply falls apart as a jumbled mess by the time the end credits roll. Sometimes the endings sabotage everything logically that happened before. For an example of a textbook modern thriller, go rent the French film Tell No One and marvel at how the movie manages to be mysterious without being ludicrous. Angels & Demons doesn’t quite suffer from this screenwriting malady, but the essential evil plot by the eventually revealed evildoer is the most convoluted, ridiculously complicated scheme I have seen since that terminal 2005 thriller, Flightplan.

Director Ron Howard is able keep the film moving, almost distracting the audience away from the plot holes, but Angels & Demons is an adaptation that was doomed to fail from the start. The film plays like a lecture on tape with the fast forward button stuck. I might find more of the blitzkrieg of acts and anecdotes more intriguing if I could verify that they were all accurate. This is a thriller that wants to be seen as smart, so it empties exposition without haste, but it also wants to get away with narrative cheats common in your direct-to-DVD idiotic thrillers. You cannot simultaneously tell me to engage my brain and then a second later tell me to shut it off, sorry. Angels & Demons would have been better served without the Illuminati conspiracy and just plunged fully into the debate about bringing religion into the modern age, the friction between science and religion. Any substance the movie does present ends up being window dressing to an average potboiler mystery. This isn’t an awful movie but it never rises above “acceptable waste of time.” Hanks and Howard will probably be back in due time with the movie version of Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which will be released in September 2009. I just hope the duo, and screenwriter Akiva Goldsmith, have learned enough from their mistakes. I myself have little faith.

Nate’s Grade: C

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek has a hold on geek culture like no other franchise. It’s lasted over forty years, sustained five television series, and ten feature films (about four of them good), and let’s not forget the plethora of fanatical merchandise that includes everything from Trek cologne to Trek coffins. Star Wars has all the box office clout, but Trek has followers so devoted that they will create and learn a separate language, Klingon, that almost assuredly will never be spoken by anyone else outside of the festival circuit (you will never see a written Klingon exam that asks you “Where the library is?”). The Star Trek fans have been a foundation of geek culture for over four decades. People take this stuff very seriously. Trek has always been a headier brand of sci-fi, more devoted to ideas and moral dilemmas than shoot-outs and space chases, though Captain Kirk did teach the universe how to love, one green-skinned buxom alien babe at a time. 2002’s abominable Star Trek: Nemesis was meant to open up the franchise to a wider audience, but the film was the low-point for a franchise that also included William Shatner writing and directing the fifth flick (Nemesis also broke the odd/even movie curse).

When director J.J. Abrams approached Star Trek with the purpose of reinvigorating the flagging film series, you would think the man would wade into such a storied franchise with trepidation. Nope. He openly said he was making a “Star Trek movie for people who weren’t fans of Star Trek.” He was even going to change Trek canon. I imagine Trekkies (and no, I will never use the preferred nomenclature “Trekkers”) were nervous about an outsider, the author of the cinematic classic Gone Fishin’, meddling with hallowed ground. As I suspected, these fears were unfounded. The newest Star Trek does more than put a new coat of paint on an old franchise. This movie boldly goes where none of the Trek movies have gone before — turning reverent geek culture into a grand populist entertainment smash.

This new incarnation looks backwards, explaining how the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise came together. The movie shows the path of Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), from troubled youth to eventual starship captain. Kirk’s father captained a starship for about 10 minutes, but he managed to save 800 lives under attack, including the birth of his son. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) recruits Kirk to Starfleet Academy with the promise of doing something more with life. We also witness the boyhood of Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is teased for being half-Vulcan and half-human. His human mother (Winona Ryder) encouraged Spock to embrace his human emotions instead of cutting them off, Vulcan-style. Kirk and Spock clash at the Academy, and then an emergency requires all the recruits to saddle up for their first mission in space. Nero (Eric Bana) is a dastardly Romulan who has traveled back in time. In the future, he blames an older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for the destruction of his home planet and the deaths of billions of Romulans. To ensure this does not happen, Nero is going to eradicate Starfleet home planets, starting with Vulcan and then Earth.

J.J. Abrams is a geek’s best friend. He understands geek culture, and yet the man is able to take genre concepts and make them easily accessible to the unconverted while still making a finished product that is respectful, playful, and awesome. Abrams is an expert on the pop culture catalogue, and he knows how to make genuinely entertaining productions that succeed on brains as well as brawn. He brought tired spy conventions into the twenty-first century with the cool, twisty Alias and Mission: Impossible III, which was really an extravagant two-hour episode of Alias, and I mean this in the best way. He has an innate understanding of action sequences and knows well enough that an audience needs to be engaged emotionally, so he makes the action as character-based as much as possible. Abrams has a terrific imagination behind the camera, and he reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg in his ability to marry artistic integrity with big-budget crowd pleasers. Abrams and his screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, TV’s Fringe) have crafted a stellar Trek that will appeal to die-hards and those who couldn’t tell a Romulan from a Vulcan (I fall somewhere in between).

The time travel storyline could have used more juice, however, it serves its purpose by establishing a parallel Trek universe to work with. Beforehand, Trek had established so many previous stories that it hamstrung writing new stories because they had to be extensively researched to make sure they did not conflict with 40 years of canon. Abrams and company wrestled free from the grip of the established history and can now play around unencumbered to a degree. I mean, fans don’t want to see something radically inauthentic, but Uhura and Spock as a couple? Sure, why not? The fan favorite character catch-phrases (“She’s givin’ it all she’s got,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor?,” etc.) are organically worked into the story so that they don’t become falling anvils.

Star Trek‘s pacing can be whiplash inducing. It speeds through two hours of action and setup while still maintaining an emotional connection to the characters involved. The movie has a boyish enthusiasm for adventure and it’s fun watching well-known characters assemble and amble into new and interesting directions. The action is routinely thrilling and I enjoyed Abram’s small touches, like watching a crew member get sucked out into space and cutting all sound to illustrate the cold, empty vacuum. The amount of humor injected into the movie can be distracting at times, not because it isn’t funny but because of the brisk tone breaking. One second it’s a life-or-death scenario and the next Kirk is running around with giant goofy hands. Still, it’s good to see some humor in the Trek universe that isn’t related to alien culture clashes.

The young ensemble is amazingly well cast. I didn’t think a younger generation of actors would be able to step right in and play such lived-in characters, but they pull it off. The hardest shoes to fill are unquestionably Kirk’s, and Pine (Smokin’ Aces, Just My Luck) carries that same cocksure bravado without stooping to a stilted Shatner impersonation. His performance feels at times like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one, and he’s an appealing presence that captures the essence of a dashing and rebellious scrapper. This Kirk is still an adventure-seeking, skirt-chasing 1960s kid at play. Quinto (TV’s Heroes) is blessed to look remarkably similar to Nimoy, but the actor also gets to explore the human side of Spock. He feels compelled to harness emotion, like all Vulcans, yet it’s intriguing when certain emotions slip out and build a bigger picture about what’s going inside the mind of a being dominated by logic. Quinto has less to work with by design and yet the man finds interesting ways to ensure Spock can be recognizable. Each of the supporting actors has their moment, but my biggest surprise was Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Urban has mostly been confined to lame action movies as of late, like Doom and Pathfinder. But he’s really funny and his performance captures DeForest Kelly’s mannerisms down without turning into a caricature.

If there is a main weakness to Abrams’ Trek outing it’s that it feels far more like the opening act of a larger movie. Nero is a fairly weak villain, though Bana gives him a nicely polished glower. The villain is really just a tie-in for the time travel storyline, which is also a narrative quirk to secure an open field for further stories. Meaning, that much of the movie can be seen as assembling the pieces to simply move forward on their own. It’s an expensive set-up movie, and Abrams makes sure that the audience sees every dollar of the splashy visuals onscreen. Personally, I was also getting tired of the cinematography decision to fill the screen with as many light flares as possible. It seemed like every other moment had a blast of light beam in from some direction. After a while it sort of felt like an eye exam where the optometrist shines a flashlight back and forth. And it takes far too long for Scotty (Simon Pegg) to appear in the movie.

J.J. Abrams does more than hit the restart button. He has made a Star Trek that manages to be respectfully reverent but at the same time plays along to the mainstream visual sensibilities of modern cinema. It’s fun without being campy, reverent without being slavish, and this Trek never forgets to entertain from the opening assault on a starship to the Michale Giacchino’s closing credits score. This is an enjoyable rush of sci-fi escapism. The Star Trek series was always deeply hopeful and humanistic, believing in the best for humanity and that man, in cooperation, could achieve greatness. I think further escapades with this cast and Abrams at the helm could reach greatness. For now, I’ll be happy with this rollicking first entry into a franchise that seemed adrift in space. Bring on more of the green-skinned women.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)

Cute but very dumb would be the best way of describing Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which is miraculously one of the highest grossing movies of 2009. Kevin James stars as the titular security man and he proves to be a capable physical comedian, throwing himself into the jokes. It’s too bad that some of these jokes don’t deserve James’ efforts. A group of extreme sport crooks (they ride around on BMX bikes and skateboards like they’d rather be at the X-Games) hold Blart’s mall hostage on Black Friday, and Blart is the only security officer of any kind left on the inside. It’s Die Hard in a mall, but, surprisingly, the movie has some decent jokes when it’s riffing on tired action movie tropes. Some of the comic setups have funny payoffs because they work against audience expectations (like a bottle of hot sauce you know will be key at some point). Mostly, this is a goofy, almost saccharin comedy, with James earnestly playing a man held back from his life’s pursuit by his diabolical blood sugar. The flick is a bit more character-based than most slapstick farces, so I’ll give it that. Blart is a lovable loser who eventually wins respect and the girl of his dreams (Jayma Mays). The film is also more leisurely than an 87-minute comedy should be. The bad guys don’t take over the mall until after 40 minutes in, leaving little room for the comic clashes with Blart. The movie also doesn’t maximize its potential, much like its title figure. This is Blart’s mall, and he has an innate knowledge of it, but he doesn’t use this to turn the tables on his opponents. Paul Blart: Mall Cop has plenty of dead moments but in the end I found the movie to be tolerable thanks to James.

Nate’s Grade: C

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine has been slashed from all sides. First, the movie has not been able to shake bad buzz, from extra reshoots to rumors about conflicts between the studio and the director. There was even one rumor that the head of 20th Century Fox Studios ordered a wall repainted a happier color. Then in early April it got even worse. A DVD-quality print of Wolverine was leaked onto the Internet and spread like crazy, and once something finds itself inside the realm of cyberspace it cannot be put back. The reaction to the leaked copy was mixed, at best. The studio went into damage control mode, stating that the leaked copy was an unfinished work print, that they too were not thrilled with this version and paid millions for reshoots, and the final version that would be released in theaters had 20 minutes of new stuff and 10 minutes additionally edited out. But guess what? The wolverine’s out of the bag, it’s the same exact version minus some completed special effects shots. What amuses me about this whole situation is that the studio is on record trashing the movie, saying they were unhappy with this version, and yet this is the final release. After having seen Wolverine, at least I can say that those Fox execs know mediocrity when they see it.

We get to witness the storied history of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), which goes all the way back to the pre-Civil War era. Born James Logan, and a mutant, the kid had the unusual ability to produce three jagged bone claws from his knuckles. Logan also had the ability to miraculous heal like his older brother, Victor “Sabertooth” Creed (Liev Schreiber). The two of them make use of their primal, animal instincts and near invulnerability by fighting in every major U.S. war, from Civil to Vietnam. Eventually that kind of thing gets noticed, and General Stryker (Danny Huston) recruits the brothers to be apart of a mutant mercenary group. The group also includes the likes of William “Deadpool” Wade (Ryan Reynolds), “The Blob” (Kevin Durand), and some other unimportant mutants (one of them played by a Black Eyed Pea, will.i.am). Wolverine walks away from the group when he decides that he isn’t cut out for a cutthroat life.

The man finds a quiet place to live along the Canadian Rockies. He’s found a hard-working job, lumberjack, and a good woman, Kayla (Lynn Collins), who loves him. All of this is ruined when Sabretooth comes back around, intent on eliminating the former mercenary members one by one. Stryker appeals to Wolverine to apply for the Weapon X program. He says he can give Logan the tools for his revenge. Wolverine then undergoes the famous procedure that bonds his skeleton with adamantium, an unbreakable metal, and his bone claws become extra sharp metal. Stryker has other plans, naturally, and Wolverine breaks out of the facility. Stryker tells his assassin, “Bring me back his head.” Sorry pal, but you’re the one that just spent half a billion dollars giving Wolverine an unbreakable spinal column.

Is this origin tale worth telling? Short answer: no. The mysteries behind Wolverine’s back-story aren’t too involving and the answers make the character less interesting. I don’t really care why Wolverine got his metal skeleton or how he came to be an amnesiac, I just accept that the man has some mystique to him. I care even less that one of the answers to those mysteries is a murdered lover. The plot is incredibly thin; Wolverine meets one mutant who tells him to meet another mutant who tells him to meet another mutant, etc. Eventually the film heads for a mutant showdown that plays out like a lame video game, specifically the mid-90s Mortal Kombat (the Final Boss super villain resembles the blade-handed Baracka). What are Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Emma Frost doing in this? That?s not the end of the mutant cameos, either. I feel like the only thing we learn about Wolverine is that his super sense of smell cannot detect the difference between real blood and stage blood. The filmmakers think character development involves someone saying no to slaughtering innocents, and then other characters keep telling him, “You’re not an animal.” The movie meanders from one unimaginative special effects set piece to another, stopping at points to shove in various mutants that serve little purpose to the story other than diehard comic fans will be more forgivable.

Oh, but what to do when your main character is indestructible, your main villain is also indestructible, and your other lead villain cannot be killed because he?s due for an appearance in X-Men 2? Why you bring in a third, nigh indestructible being into the stakes, however, this being doesn’t already play into the established X-Men onscreen mythos, so this guy’s okay to kill off, that is, until he too gets a movie built around his character and then that movie has to backtrack to fill in on time before its capped ending. We already had a healing ability mutant with super claws vs. a healing ability mutant with super claws smackdown in X-Men 2, where Lady Deathstrike fought Wolverine. That fight was brutal and well staged. The fights in Wolverine’s big show are uninspired; how much stabbing can you watch between people who instantly heal? Also, apparently another side effect of the Weapon X program is that these metal claws are self-cleaning, because every single damn time Wolverine stabs someone there isn’t a droplet of blood to be found on his claws. It?s hard to get emotionally involved in characters that are fearless and have little at stake. Which, of course, is why Logan had to be given a cruddy romance where he gets to hold his dead lover?s body in his arms and bellow to the heavens for what feels like the 80th time. Seriously, twenty percent of all the dialogue in this movie is some combination of growling, spitting, and bellowing.

Wolverine isn’t a terrible movie but it’s rather shoddy and thoroughly mediocre. I never thought I’d see this character do the beyond-cliché action movie motif of strutting in slow-mo while an explosion sizzles in the background. This is the kind of film that involves a super team standing shoulder-to-shoulder to walk down like they’re from The Right Stuff. This is the kind of movie that opens with a needless family squabble about Logan finding out the pointless identity of his real father. What was that about? (After killing his father, I remarked to myself, “I guess that he gets that whole healin’ thing from his mother’s side of the family.”) This is the kind of movie that hires Ryan Reynolds and then disarms the man of his greatest asset, his smart mouth. This is the kind of movie that theorizes the only thing to kill an adamantium-skeleton man is with an adamantium bullet, like a sort of werewolf. This is the kind of movie that sends a super assassin, with super bullet-bending powers, out to kill Wolverine but does not arm the super assassin with those special adamantium bullets. Why not shoot this guy in the eye? That is an open body cavity. This is the type of movie where the final super villain is controlled by, get this, key commands like “Engage.” This is the kind of movie where an assortment of characters refrain from killing super bad murderers out of the morally pretentious idea that they, too, would be no different from the super bad murderers. Excuse me, executing super bad murderers would be doing the world a favor here. This is the type of movie that fills the running time with pained dialogue like, “You wanted the animal, you got him,” and, “Nobody gets to kill you but me,” and the best line of them all: “I thought you were the Moon and I was your Wolverine. Turns out you’re the Trickster and I’m just the fool who got played.” Top that, screenwriters.

Whatever the budget was for this movie, well, apparently it wasn’t enough. The adamantium effects looked perfectly reasonable in the first X-Men film and that was nine years ago, so I cannot understand why the claws look astoundingly fake this go-round. They look like direct animation, like Wolverine is holding cartoon claws a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit? When did they become so thick too? These claws are like the size of the steak knives you get at restaurants.

Jackman deserves some of the blame here since he is listed as a producer and he hand selected director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) who does not have the interest or the eye for this kind of material. Hood lacks the finesse and vision to stage exciting action sequences, which explains why he falls back on tired genre tropes like the slow-mo strut in front of fireballs. I am dead certain that this stupid super assassin was pushed into the movie after film producers saw how much money the bullet-curving Wanted made the previous summer. The movie borrows heavily from recent Marvel Origin comics, or so I’m told, which is where the whole “Wolverine through the ages” storyline comes from. Personally, I don’t much care for the idea that Wolverine’s healing ability also deters aging until you hit that agreeable, desirable Hugh Jackman age range, but fine, whatever. The movie takes great effort to showcase Jackman’s flawless physique, and this dude is ripped to the point that you can see bulging veins. I just wished Jackman made more use of his acting muscles in this movie. He snarls and glares, and even has a softer moment or two with Collins, but rarely does Wolverine get to prove why he is such a beloved comics character.

Thank goodness for Liev Schreiber (who actually also co-starred with Jackman in the forgettable romantic comedy, Kate & Leopold) because this man entertained me from start to finish, which is more than I can say about his movie. Schreiber has fun with his role and totally buys into the character’s animal instincts. He relishes the kill. The bizarre sibling rivalry between he and Wolverine is the best part of the movie, and the interplay between the two actors is when the movie has its few moments of life. Like Watchmen, the film finds its creative peak during the opening credits, as we watch Jackman and Schreiber claw and bite their way through American battlefields.

Here’s an easy solution to the Wolverine amnesia issue that doesn’t involve the use of admantium bullets. Kayla (Silverfox) has the power of hypnosis through touch, so why not in the emotional climax have her touch her dear lover Wolverine and wish, “Forget me. Forget all about me.” There, problem solved, and this way it works emotionally and organically with the story. It took me an hour after seeing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to come up with a better ending, so just imagine what more time will allow. Jackman and company are lost thanks to a mediocre script that sacrifices character for action beats, and even then the action is fairly mundane. There are a handful of cool moments, like Wolverine propelling himself onto a helicopter from an exploding car, but after four movies nothing has come close to producing the adrenaline rush that was the X-Men 2 sequence where Logan unleashes his berserker rage on the commandos in the mansion. By the end of his first solo outing, Wolverine is left without any memory. I won’t say we should all be so lucky but the X-Men filmmakers would be better off paying little attention to this origin tale, unless they want to bring Schreiber back, which they should do at all costs.

Nate’s Grade: C

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Jonathan Demme’s dark comedy is a movie at battle with its context. At heart, there is a fantastic and engrossing family dysfunction that rears its ugly head and re-opens old wounds. Watching Rachel (Rosemarrie DeWitt, who didn’t get nominated for an Oscar why?) unleash years of repressed pain upon the likes of her toxic, needy, narcissistic little sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), just fresh from drug rehab, is enthralling because of how raw and hurtful the emotions are. You can feel the sting of the words. Through the arguments, a picture emerges of this family’s tragic history and he emotional tug-of-war between the siblings. This is the great stuff, but then the setting of the movie overpowers the drama and sidelines it. Rachel Getting Married will make you feel like you are apart of this martial extravaganza, so we see about fifteen minutes of toasting from EVERY PERSON, because, really, much of this is all exposition from characters who won’t be heard from again. We also see about 15-20 minutes of eclectic musical performances, dancing, and all the rest that comes at the close of a reception. While the wedding/reception is an interesting multicultural blend, it feels like an unyielding intermission from the terrific family drama. Hathaway is as good as advertised and soaks up the troubled life of a notorious problem child defined by little else than her problems. DeWitt is outstanding as the big sister tired of being pushed aside. Demme’s handheld camerawork, and the extensive ensemble of slightly eccentric characters, made me feel like this was an Oscar-serious version of one of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman. There is succulent family misfortune here, with great acting, but I wanted less wedding and more Rachel and friends.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

I maintain that no story has been redone, recycled, re-purposed, and parodied more so than Charles Dickens’ classic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ tale of redemption aided by supernatural ghosts and time travel has appeared in everything from Muppets to the Odd Couple. Statistically, the odds are good that right now as you read this very sentence television is airing some adaptation of this story right now. I suppose it was only a matter of time before Dickens got reduced to a romantic comedy setup. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a charmless and mostly empty movie that makes you pine for the comparative masterpiece of A Muppet Christmas Carol.

Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey, playing himself for the thousandth time) is a hunky fashion photographer for Vanity Fair magazine and, boy, is he in-demand. Everyone wants his photo services and every woman wants to rip his clothes off. Connor is a notorious womanizer and he travels to the country to attend his younger brother Paul’s (Breckin Meyer) wedding. Connor is intent on dissuading his brother on the prospect of marriage, which Conner dubs archaic and he feels love is “comfort food for the uneducated and lonely.” It just so happens that Connor’s ex-girlfriend from way back, Jenny (Jennifer Garner), is the maid of honor at the wedding. She hasn’t seen her dubious ex for some time, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to make his move. Jenny and Connor were childhood pals, but an early bout of heartbreak led Connor to become the disciple of his Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas), a boozy playboy who taught the kid everything he knew about bedding the babes. During Connor’s stay, the ghost of Uncle Wayne informs him that three spirits will visit to showcase Connor’s checkered past, present, and dodgy future, Dicken’s-style.

The movie is wholly unbelievable even for a contrived romantic comedy. The central romance between Connor and Jenny rests on the silly notion that after ten years apart, a lifelong selfish jerk can sweep his former girlfriend off her feet during a single crazy weekend. Connor’s redemptive arc is lackluster at best, and the movie just mimes the steps it feels that it needs to take to turn its lead insensitive jerk character into a sensitive jerk character. It doesn’t work. I refuse to believe for one second that a pretty, smart, confidant doctor such as Jenny would allow herself to get so completely suckered in by Connor’s “Baby I’ve changed” speech. It’s insulting and degrading. The compressed timeline reflects poorly on Jenny’s decision-making. The expedited timeline makes every human action seem far-fetched. There’s a scene where Connor opens a champagne bottle in the kitchen. The cork flies out and knocks one of the legs loose on the multi-tiered wedding cake. The cake is about to slip over when Connor slides in to stabilize it. Instead of redistributing the weight via the available legs, he tries reaching for the out of reach champagne bottle with his foot (the size of the bottle and the cake leg are not even close). A more believable situation would involve Connor trying to reach the fallen cake leg, not a champagne bottle, but alas. To make this example even worse, the filmmakers set up the disaster of a fallen wedding cake and then amazingly fail to show the goods. We only see the smashed aftermath. This is a comedy fundamental: set-up food disaster, let audience witness ensuing food-related disaster.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past also doesn’t have one redeeming or marginally realistic female character. I would expect, given Garner’s star power and the natural importance of being the romantic lead, that Jenny would come across as a reasonable woman or someone worth fighting over. Sorry, Jenny is a powerfully underwritten character and Garner is left without much work other than serving as a reservoir of reaction shots. Seriously, that’s her main purpose in this movie; she is a cutaway image. Sandra (Lacey Chabert) is a shrieking high-maintenance shrew of a bride. The other female roles are largely one-note misogynistic fantasies (thanks male screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore). The trio of bridesmaids is gossipy chatterboxes and eager to get laid. Connor’s introduction to his future mother-in-law (Anne Archer) involves him casually groping her breasts, much to her prosaic approval. Connor has an irresistible way with the ladies, which makes everything without a Y chromosome want to sleep with the man. A young famous pop singer watches Connor dump three women simultaneously on an Internet conference call, insult them, and then she still strips off her clothes to bed the cad. She even states, “I don’t even know why I’m doing this,” and continues along. I’m just as confused what power Connor holds over the fairer sex because to me he’s just a twit.

Here’s a telling example about how obvious this movie is written from an unenlightened male perspective: the central relationship dilemma is that Connor is afraid of cuddling. In the past, Jenny asked him to stay and cuddle but that was the breaking point, so he bolted. All of these women somehow manage to fall head over heels in love for a guy who willingly goes through women likes changes of underwear. It makes all the women comes across as emotionally needy, insecure, vapid bubbleheads who will sacrifice everything, including self-respect and dignity, to get a taste of McConaughey’s back sweat. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is not a flattering movie for either sex.

The tone of this movie never finds an authentic and satisfying balance. Being a half-hearted tale of redemption during the period of a weekend, the movie crams in plenty of gooey sentimental claptrap. You’ll listen to characters talk about the true meaning of friendship, tear up over family memories, and then someone will make an inappropriate sex joke. There is a high level of semi-racy sex jokes that populate the world, appearing at odd moments, destroying any assembling emotions. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past will pretend like it’s building to something that actually matters and then it will throw it all away for a cheap sex gag — har har. There’s a moment where Douglas is illustrating how much ire Connor has wrought with visual metaphors. It begins to rain and he says that the downpour is made up of all the tears shed from ex-girlfriends and flings. Then it starts raining ripped pieces of confetti, and this we are told is all the tissues used. And then comes all the used condoms, and we watch Connor try and take cover before the aerial assault of used (and presumably “filled”) contraceptives annihilates him. It’s kind of gross and tonally disjointed from the rest of the sappy, happy PG-13 storyline.

The movie is at its most amusing when it’s riffing on the expectations of following the Christmas Carol model. Connor is quite aware of the tried-and-true formula, so his comments along the way provide the movie’s only genuine laughs outside of Douglas. Really, Douglas’ character is the most entertaining character, and I kept wishing that the film would follow him even after death. Wouldn’t it be interesting to watch the life of a ghost involved in a Christmas Carol scenario? I imagine it would be a bit like a play rehearsal. I would enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the scenario. I want to see ghostly foremen plot out unique scenarios for a list of real-life Scrooge cases, I want to see the ghost tryouts, I want to see the mechanics involved in the spiritual setup for this whole process. I enjoyed watching Uncle Wayne hit on his fellow spirits. But I suppose that approach would be too literary and break away from the cozy confines of the stillborn romantic comedy genre. And to prove that it is indeed a romantic comedy by the numbers, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past even includes the last minute dash to stop the romantic party from leaving via some method of transportation.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past manages to squander every opportunity it has to be a better movie. The central idea could have worked but the execution is exceedingly lazy, charmless, and degrading to women in particular. The comic scenarios miss out on better laughs, and some of the better laughs are obvious and just around the corner, but the film routinely falls back on being a sexual farce. The characters don’t feel remotely like people and Connor is a terrible lead character with unfunny dialogue that reduces women to disposable pleasures. His transformation is contrived even for a romantic comedy. I’m not saying a cad character could not make for an entertaining lead here. Clearly Douglas is the best character, and his sleazy 1970s swinging sexpot has a fun Bob Evans vibe. Every moment he’s onscreen the movie comes alive in a new way, and Douglas is an actor that knows how to make lecherous appealing and appalling at the same time, like what Michael Caine pulled off in Alfie. This movie pales in comparison. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past should have been visited by the most important spirit of them all – the Spirit of Screenplay Rewrites.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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