Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Hangover: Part II (2011)

When you’re responsible for the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, a film that grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, then you don’t want to tinker with a winning formula of a surprise hit. Naturally, with that kind of money, a sequel was inevitable. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School, Due Date) is back and so is everybody and everything else. You’ll get a strong sense of déjà vu watched The Hangover: Part II. That’s on purpose. This calculated, rather soulless cash-grab sequel wants to recreate the organic experience of the first film. If you played The Hangover and The Hangover: Part II on simultaneous TVs, I would not be surprised if the same plot points happened at the exact same minute-marks. It might even be like a Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz experience. I paid twice to see the same movie two years apart.

Stu (Ed Helms) is about to get married in Thailand to Lauren (Jamie Chung). Our favorite wound-up dentist is apprehensive about any sort of bachelor party shenanigans after the events of two years ago in Las Vegas. His pals Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha), and the socially inept Alan (Zack Galifianakis) make the trek to attend the festivities. For Alan, it’s a reunion of the Wolfpack and an excuse finally to venture out of his parent’s home. Stu has some ground to make up with his bride-to-be’s father. Her father seethes about the prospect that his beautiful daughter is going to marry Stu, a man he compares to watered down rice. Lauren’s younger brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a pre-med student and concert cellist, is left to the Wolfpack’s care the night before the wedding. They’ll just have one drink on the beach. What’s the worst that could happen? Flash to the next morning. The guys awaken in a strange apartment. Teddy is missing and missing a finger as well. Stu, Phil, and Alan must once again retrace their steps and solve the mystery of their hard-partying antics before the wedding ceremony.

The Hangover: Part II is a carbon copy of the original. Because the same joke is just as funny the second time around, right? This empty enterprise gives its audience exactly what they want, which is precisely the same experience they had with the first film. But so much of comedy is predicated on surprise, so how can you recreate the experience of discovery that people so heartily enjoyed with the first film? The Hangover: Part II is like a cheap comedy Mad Libs game: it reuses the same gags and just fills in the blanks. Hey, if Joke A worked before, why couldn’t we just have Joke A in this different location (instead of two guys walking into a bar, they walk into a different bar)? It’s like somebody copied and pasted the screenplay from the original movie, changed the locations and minor details, and cashed a check. Let me get into how stunningly indolent the screenwriting is (small spoilers to follow). Once again a person in their group goes missing before a wedding. Once again Stu has some self-inflicted wound to his face. Once again the guys have stolen someone else’s unorthodox pet. Once again they find themselves with a ward (baby in first film, Mr. Chow in second). Once again Stu has gotten involved with a prostitute. Once again Alan was secretly responsible for their drugging. Once again Justin Bartha gets left out of the escapades. Once again Mr. Chow shows his junk for shock value. Once again Mr. Chow jumps out of a locked container attacking the guys. Once again the guys have to return money to a gangster. Once again Stu plays a song of his own creation bemoaning their situation. Once again they have to race to the wedding minutes away. Once again we have a Mike Tyson cameo. Once again the guys find pictorial evidence of their debauchery and they play over the credits. Even directing touches like a time-lapse high-rise shot passing the time before they wake up is reused.

That’s what kills the movie is the lack of surprise. It throws the guys into a different setting, gets darker and meaner, but it’s rarely funny. I was surprised how many jokes left me in stony silence. Phillips and his screenwriters have gotten into the trouble of having to top themselves, so they rely on the “bigger is better” approach to match the outrageousness of the original. If Las Vegas is Sin City, then what would be even seedier? Bangkok, of course. Where would they go for a third film? What gets seedier than Bangkok (The Hangover 3 to be set in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s office). Yet the film curiously ignores much of what makes Bangkok the world’s preeminent hotspot in the sexual trades. The payoffs are darker and lack the bemusement of the original. Knowing some guy is missing a finger is not as whimsical as somebody missing a tooth. The movie has an unpleasant homophobia to it thanks to male genitalia being used to shock and horrify and humiliate. The horror of being involved with transsexual women made my theater audience groan with extra relish, like the presence of a penis or homosexual content makes everything automatically more disgusting to the common people, as if anything gay is the worst thing that could possible befall a man. Mr. Chang is an odious and fairly unfunny stereotype, and Jeong (Role Models, TV’s Community), so funny in just about every other role he’s ever had, is a braying, high-pitched annoyance. This go-round the jokes feel stale, the characters feel tired, and the payoffs seem too mean-spirited to be satisfying.

When you have a movie where the comedy is situation-based, then those situations better be funny because the characters are only serving as a means to an end. The premise allows the filmmakers to have it both ways. They can fulfill the hedonistic spectacle that will make people blush, and at the same time they can have button-uped, likable, relatively relatable nice characters that an audience will root for. If we watched these characters acting like irredeemable morons, then audience sympathy would wan. But having the guys investigate their previous dirty deeds, and react in horror, does not lessen audience sympathy. I enjoyed how the main trio played off each other in the first Hangover, and the central mystery was a solid glue to hold together a loose collection of mostly worthwhile gags. Just as the first film fell short of its potential, so too does the second movie. A monkey serves little purpose other than to get it to do things that seem outrageous just because it’s a monkey (it smokes, it mimes oral sex – hilarious!). But the second time around, the amusement of seeing Stu fly off the handle, or listen to Alan’s moony non-sequitors, doesn’t have the same draw. Galifianakis (Due Date) made the film watchable for me despite the fact that the screenplay makes his character a petulant and highly irritating character rather than a man-child doofus. And the women are once again relegated to the sidelines when it comes to being in on the comedy.

For The Hangover‘s legions of fans, more of the same will likely be exactly what was desired. But without the cheeky element of surprise, the comedy just seems like it’s hitting pre-ordained stops according to its formulaic cheat sheet. For the original Hangover I wrote: “Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? …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?” Well, The Hangover: Part II is the answer. If the first film was a comedy with an expiration date, then The Hangover: Part II is one comedy that’s gone rancid.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

The public reaction to the two previous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, were decidedly mixed, though that didn’t stop them each from earning a bazillion dollars. Fans didn’t care for the darker tone, the confusing interlocking of the story, and especially the bloated running times. It feels like Disney’s uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer must have taken notes from the sequel backlash and they amounted to: “Less of everything.” Welcome to less plot, less character, less involvement, and far less entertainment. Welcome to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

It’s been a few years since the non-world-ending events of At World’s End, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been in London putting a new crew together. Except, it’s a Sparrow imposter. Turns out it’s Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former lover of Jack’s who woud still like to settle some scores. She and her father, the feared pirate captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), force Sparrow to lead them to the Fountain of Youth. Apparently, Jack at one point had the map. King George II (a delightfully hammy Richard Griffiths in one of the film’s best scenes) is in a race against the Spanish crown. The English monarch hires Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Sparrow’s occasional enemy and ally, to find the fountain as well. It’s a race to see who can benefit from eternal youth first because, apparently, no one can share a source of water. Second grade teachers nationwide are very disappointed, Disney.

The entire enterprise just lies there on the screen, devoid of all energy or danger. The entire picture is just so shockingly inert, lazy, phoned in from every angle, missing any resonance of magic. Rob Marshall was the wrong man to be tapped as the new director of this series. Marshall has a fine eye for visuals, but the man couldn’t stage an action sequence to save his life. The Oscar-nominated director of musicals like Chicago and Nine stages his action sequences like dance sequences, which on paper don’t sound too far off. That’s until you realize action needs to incorporate story, location, build in tension, create organic obstacles, and be easy to follow. The action sequences in On Stranger Tides aren’t outlandish enough. It’s all so dull, a sword fight here a sword fight there. Short of a mermaid attack sequence, there’s no excitement to be found onscreen. That is disastrous for a franchise that has built a reputation for its anarchic, wild action and storylines. Marshall’s action angles and editing don’t communicate urgency. There’s no mood to these set pieces. The editing feels like it’s always catching up, always too late, needing a myriad of trims. Action cinema has been lambasted when it’s hyper edited and the audience cannot see what is happening; On Stranger Tides is not edited enough. One of the reasons these half-baked action sequences can never get going is because they always seem to be starting and stopping with the lackadaisical editing, always a step behind. The shots linger when they shouldn’t. The ingredients are there for a tasty meal but the chef (Marshall, screenwriters) doesn’t know what to do. The musical score by Hans Zimmer tries very hard to compensate and rattle the audience, compelling them to think what is transpiring on screen is exhilarating. It is not, and the music is just loud and annoying.

One of the chief criticisms of the two Pirates sequels were that they were overstuffed with storylines, characters, setups, and were just far too convoluted and confusing for their own good. So with On Stranger Tides we get a simplified, pared down one-off movie. Much of the film is just characters walking in circles and, likewise, talking in circles. Motivations are flimsy. The dialogue is stilted; Sparrow’s malapropisms and one-liners feeling sloppy (“I agree with the missionary’s position,” he quips. Groan). The entire premise is to get to the Fountain of Youth, and then they get there and, well, very little happens. The characters will talk about little, walk a few feet, talk about little more, and this process repeats. Barbossa should be an interesting foil, going from fop to pirate by film’s end, and yet his every appearance in the movie feels like when the next-door neighbor appears on a TV sitcom. It’s an intrusion meant to remind you that you, the audience, like this character, even if they don’t serve any point in the story. The plot lacks any twists and turns, ultimately having every competing force converge on the Fountain of Youth at exactly the same time for a slapdash climax that involves more lackluster sword fighting, just like all the other sequences. On Stranger Tides is a full half-hour shorter than the third movie, and yet it still feels like an eternity at two hours and seventeen minutes because it spends so much time doing so little.

At least the other three Pirates movies found clever ways to mingle their sci-fi mythology into an old-fashioned Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. With On Stranger Tides, the sci-fi fantasy elements are just as underdeveloped as the characters. The Fountain of Youth is another of those magic do-hickeys that involve gathering magic tokens and blah blah blah, mermaid tears, silver chalices. Hey, if you wanted to drink up some mermaid tears, have them watch 2009’s Oscar-winning best documentary, The Cove. That ought to do it (a scene driving the mermaids into nets oddly reminded me of The Cove). Blackbeard and Angelica have a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll, which is highly effective, and yet this plot device is nearly forgotten for the entire film. There is no clever application of this unique device. Blackbeard has a magic sword that makes ships come alive. Why? How? It’s just another magical Macguffin, like Jack’s compass. Man-eating mermaid temptresses is an interesting idea, and a great way to squeeze in a lot of obfuscated nudity in a Disney film for teen boys who have not discovered the Internet. Too bad the mermaids are confined to one scene, albeit the highpoint of an otherwise bad film. Their feeding frenzy is the only moment in the film that channels that high-flying sense of verve that made the original so memorable. Don’t even get me started on the fishy romance presented between the captive mermaid (played with all the acting capability of a French perfume model) and a missionary (Sam Claflin). The whole experience feels like a shambled, draggy, inarticulate rip-off of Last Crusade, complete with a climactic drink from a magic chalice. I appreciate Marshall’s emphasis on practical special effects but if these are the results then bring back the previous sequels’ CGI vomitorium. This franchise feels like every ounce of energy and danger has been squeezed out of it.

So does that means that this Pirates venture is more character-based now that it has jettisoned side characters and complex plots? Fat chance. The problem is that Jack Sparrow is not a good lead protagonist. He’s not meant to be a classic good guy. He’s a libertine, somebody who makes selfish choices but will revert to do something proper when his conscience nags him enough. Sparrow is more of the dashing rogue at best. Does anyone remember how he was going to trick doomed men into signing their souls to Davy Jones? He also needs a foil, a striaghtman to bounce off of. I almost miss the wooden performance of Orlando Bloom. Without a do-gooding striaghtman, Jack Sparrow plays like a man adrift, searching for his groove. Unfortunately, Sparrow never finds it in this vehicle, which just asks him to go through motions and mannerisms. Blackbeard makes for one very bland villain. McShane (TV’s Deadwood) can glower and chew scenery with the best of them, but his baddie never seems too menacing. He burns one guy alive and threatens to kill his own daughter in order to keep Jack in line. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t even compare after the previous films included a monstrous ship captain who would readily slice prisoners’ throats and a British bureaucrat who hanged an eight-year-old before the freaking opening credits. Blackbeard, in contrast, just comes off like a crusty old man in need of a shave.

The film’s biggest addition was bringing in Jack’s former flame Angelica, a woman he robbed of her virtue and personally betrayed. But is there any tension? No, because Jack and Angelica don’t have any old feelings for one another they rehash (oh how I was even pleading for a trope like that), and the characters don’t really feel any antagonism either. Sure they will parry and threaten one another, but it’s so devoid of danger or tension or interest. This is no screwball romance. They feel like a couple that can’t be bothered working up any notable feelings toward one another. Therefore, all their shared scenes, and there are many, sink the film’s flow. Their bickering should bring some sparks. She should be exciting; she’s the daughter of a notorious pirate, she was going to be a nun until Jack Sparrow came sailing into her life. She should be sore. She should be angry. She should be a lot of things that ultimately the character is not. Cruz (Nine, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) doesn’t come across as an equal or love interest, she just feels like an annoying sidekick, harping on “Yack.” At one point, Jack tells her, “If you had a sister and a dog, I would take the dog.” When she’s got a personality like this, I’d agree.

Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd) is obviously a comic gift and his Sparrow character will go down in the ages as one of the most universally beloved figures in cinema history. Everyone adores this character, a loveable scoundrel. But that doesn’t mean the screenwriters can just strand him in a crummy story with nothing to do. Depp will always be enjoyable when he puts on his Captain Jack eye liner and does that funky, swishy walk of his, but even he feels like he’s phoning this one in. He realizes that his character is trapped in a sodden adventure that offers little to do as a character and an actor.

I never thought I would say this, but On Stranger Tides makes me positively reevaluate the other Pirates sequels (I admit to being one of the few critics who liked Dead Man’s Chest a good deal). If this is what a simplified Pirates of the Caribbean film gets you, bring me back the messy, maddening plots of the previous films. Bring me back the scope, the danger, the clever mingling of genre elements, the adventure, the sizzle, the anarchy, and bring me back director Gore Verbinsky. Marshall has no feel for this material or how best to serve story. I never expected a movie with this kind of budget to be so lifeless. It all just sits there on screen, expecting the pieces to come together through ardent wishful thinking. On Stranger Tides suffers not because it strips away some of the excess and convolution that plagued the other films, it suffers because it gives no reason for its existence. It does not enrich the characters, the Pirates universe, or provide a rip-roaring story. Obviously, the film exists to line the coffers of Disney. It may earn plenty of booty this summer, but this is no way to rejuvenate a sinking franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Marvel’s X-Men franchise had some serious damage it needed to undo. The once mighty superhero series had been harmed by that age-old foe – bad sequels. The collective stink from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and the 2009 Wolverine debacle, the franchise had lost some serious luster. While the recovery was not nearly as deep and cataclysmic as what the Batman franchise had to deal with in the wake of 1997’s Batman and Robin, a film that flirted with salting the earth, the X-Men needed some kind of facelift. Enter director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust), the man who was going to save the series back in 2006 when original director Bryan Singer flew away to direct a different man in tights. Vaughn was originally tapped to direct Last Stand but he dropped out and was replaced by the hack Brett Ratner (Rush Hour). Thus began the slide toward mediocrity. Now Vaughn is back to tidy up unfinished business, taking the series back to its historical roots in the 1960s. It seems that a trip back in time was just what was needed to make the X-Men fresh.

Back in 1944, Erik Lehnsherr is a prisoner in a Polish concentration camp when Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) discovers the young boy’s great potential. When enraged, Erik can control anything metallic. In upstate New York at the same time, young Charles Xavier discovers a young shape shifter named Raven. She’s blue from head to toe and afraid. They’re delighted to find one another, fearing they were the only ones “different” in the world, children of the “atomic age.” All three of these people are headed for a collision course. In 1963, Charles (James McAvoy) has become an Oxford professor, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has followed him to England, and Erik (Michael Fassbender) has been systematically hunting down the Nazis responsible for his pain and suffering. Dr. Schmidt has now become Sebastian Shaw, a younger-looking playboy with the intent to push the Soviets and Americans to nuclear war. Shaw has his own team of mutant henchmen, including telepath Emma Frost (January Jones, proving once again that she can really only ever be good as Betty Drapier) who walks around in white lingerie the whole movie. Together with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Charles and Erik assemble their own team of young mutants to thwart Shaw.

Similar to 2009’s Star Trek, this film provides the opportunity to reboot a franchise by going back in time. It transports the series back to the beginning of the friendship between Charles and Erik, and spends the next 130 minutes filling in the rationale for the “why” of their varying personal philosophies. By dialing back, we’re able to play around with 40 years of back-story and histories. While we know the end results, that these two giants will become enemies, that Charles will lose the ability to walk, and that Raven/Mystique will eventually side with Erik, that doesn’t mean there isn’t pleasure to be had in watching the journey. There are all sorts of self-aware in-jokes for fans and a few nifty cameos that left me howling with glee. The script, credited to Vaughn, his writing partner Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), and four others, smartly moves the film forward; no scene seems at a waste. Even better, the film strikes a tone that manages to take its real-world implications seriously (nuclear brinksmanship, Holocaust, and fighting for equality and acceptance) without diminishing its popcorn thrills.

As a summer movie, X-Men: First Class has enough razzle-dazzle to compliment its intelligent social pontification. Vaughn and his screenwriters have composed action sequences that neatly incorporate the mutant abilities of its subjects while building the tension and smartly utilizing the contours of geography. I hate action sequences that don’t play to the potential of location and subject. An evil teleporter (Jason Flemyng) finds a fiendishly clever way to dispatch 20 CIA agents. Magneto efficiently takes out former Nazis residing in Argentina in one chilling sequence (“I’m Frankenstein’s monster,” he tells one man). Shaw makes for an actual formidable opponent for our fledgling heroes. The personal connection he has with Erik, on top of Bacon’s devilish glimmer of villainy, makes Shaw a strong antagonist that the audience can rally against. Vaughn has a splendid reveal with Shaw. Back when he was a Nazi doctor, he asks young Erik to move a coin with his abilities. The shots consist entirely from one side of his office, showcasing it to be a bookish study. Then when Shaw calls the Nazi guards to bring in Erik’s mother for a little more direct incentive, the camera flips position. We see the opposite side of the room, a medical station on the other side of large glass panels. Inside is a torturous display of medical cutlery. It’s a fantastic reveal that kicks up the tension while adding to the terrifying character of Shaw. The action highpoint, a mutant vs. mutant battle amidst the Soviet and American naval fleets, provides plenty of parallel action to follow that keeps the movie alive and kicking.

The film mixes a frothy, James Bond-esque spy thriller feel in production design and whatever-goes plot savvy, but then recomposes real life events as mutant enhanced. Alert the history textbooks, because the Nazi scientists experimented on mutant children and that mutants averted World War III. Some will chafe at the alternative history approach, but I find it to be more interesting, suspenseful, and a natural fit with the overall Cold War paranoia feel of the setting. Melding the X-Men into history makes for a more intellectually stimulating adventure, tipping its hat at various historical revisions that payoff as small rewards for a well-informed audience. I’m not saying that the movie is like Noam Chomsky’s take on X-Men by any means, but it’s certainly the most heady film in the series since the departure of Bryan Singer (he serves as producer on this flick). Indeed, this is a rather talky X-Men adventure with plenty of philosophical debates and speeches. But then it’s got naked women in blue too. But you see, it’s not just naked women in blue, it’s that a naked woman in blue can become a political statement – man!

And it’s on that note I’d like to say a few words. Mutants have always been a central metaphor for the oppressed, be they Jews, African-Americans, homosexuals, whatever minority group you’d like to slot in. That’s been one of the secrets to the continued success of Marvel’s flagship series – anybody can identify with the fear of being judged, feared, and despised because of who you are. That’s why the character of Raven/Mystique, short of Magneto, is the most fascinating character in the movie. Her true form, scaly and blue, is what keeps her feeling like an outcast. She doesn’t have an invisible power like her surrogate big brother, Charles. She constantly disguises herself in order to fit in, albeit her disguise is the alluring natural figure of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone). “Mutant and proud,” she says in disdain when she stares at her bluish reflection in the mirror. It is through Erik hat she begins to believe in this mantra, gaining pride that “blue is beautiful” and she need not even wear clothes to cover who she is up (millions of teen boys celebrate this decision and wish it had become more widespread in application). Raven/Mystique is the figure torn between the two philosophies argued by Charles and Erik. She is the central figure that has to struggle with reality vs. idealism. It’s also a little funny that a movie piggybacking the civil rights movement of the 60s (mutant rights!) also trades in the casual misogyny of the 1960s (women in lingerie as outfits, regularly practiced sexism). I suppose some of this is intentional. I guess the women’s movement will be saved for a sequel.

While the retro setting ties in nicely with the series’ core metaphor about being different/disenfranchised, the dichotomy of ideas presented by Charles and Erik are not given equal measure. That’s because, quite frankly, Erik is a much more powerfully interesting character and more sympathetic than a rich kid who can read people’s minds. Charles Xavier and Magneto have always represented a comic book version of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when it came to the ideas of integration, equality, and representation. Charles believes that mutants should assimilate and that humanity will accept in time; peaceful and hidden. Magneto, on the other hand, takes a more militant stance and feels that mutants need not hide who they are out of fear or shame, that they are the dominant species and should not be threatened by the weaker Homo sapiens. But where X-Men: First Class runs into some trouble is that the ideological deck is completely stacked in Magneto’s favor. He’s the one who suffered through concentration camps, Nazi experimentation; he’s seen the worst of what mankind of capable of. He’s a tormented man seeking vengeance, which is character motivation that is easy for an audience to fall behind. Then, even after the mutants save mankind’s bacon during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the first person who tells me this is a spoiler gets a history book thrown at them), they still get treated as the enemy. Almost everything that plays out onscreen aligns with Magneto’s ideology, which makes it hard not to be on Team Magneto as the movie draws to a close. I suppose the film utilizes our knowledge of future events to counterbalance Magneto’s pessimistic world philosophy.

The other issue that lends more credibility to Magneto than perhaps the filmmakers were hoping for is the fact that he’s the most interesting character in the movie, easily. The X-kids are a pretty bland bunch of boys and gals. This is the first class the filmmakers chose? Did they have recruiting violations at the school? Havok (Lucas Till), a goy who can shoot energy beams, Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a guy who can scream loudly and fly, somehow, Angel (Zoe Kravitz), a gal with fairy wings and an acid tongue, and then Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a guy who… adapts? Darwin’s power is so obtuse to explain, it’s no wonder he doesn’t last long in service to his country (it’s a bit tacky that when one character says “slavery” the edits have to cut back to the one black mutant for a reaction shot). Each one of these teenagers has a different reaction to their powers. Some are ashamed, some are afraid, others proud or apathetic. But they are all singularly uninteresting. Once they establish their power, they become less a character and just another piece on a game board to be positioned. And Lenny Kravitz’s kid in fairy wings? Plus she spits little fireballs? I’m sorry but that should have been the first thing removed from rewrites. This crew makes it sure that we empathize even more with Magneto as he refines his powers to reach his personal vengeance, which is the film’s pre-designed payoff. We’re not really looking for the team to band together, which they inevitably do, but we’re awaiting that splash of vengeance. And when it does come, it’s satisfying, stylish, and dramatically fitting (“At the count of three, I’m going to move the coin.”). The fact that the movie still has like 15 minutes of material afterward is almost inconsequential.

Vaughn certainly delivers the spectacle, it’s the actors that produce the real fireworks. This is a vehicle for McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) and Fassbender (Ingloruious Basterds, Jane Eyre), and both men provide admirable gravitas. McAvoy’s role offers a more jocular performance, showing Charles to be a bit of a lady’s man in his younger years, harnessing his telepathic powers to bed him some beauties. Then again, as I’ve been told from my female friends, looking like McAvoy will certainly also help matters. But this is Fassbender’s show. He has a chilly intensity to him, rather than just being cold and indifferent like January Jones (she is really poor, I’m sorry). His performance captivates you from the start, and his slow-burning hatred consumes the man. It’s a dramatically rich performance given the material. After being discriminated against for being a Jew, than a mutant, he has to sell that his character, haunted and rage-filled, would ironically follow the same social Darwinism that his Nazi tormentors evoked. And Fassbender sells every bit of an iconic Marvel villain coming into his destiny. However, his Irish accent slips out in the film’s final reel, and I’m really curious why the studio couldn’t have shelled a few bucks to fix that with ADR. Rushed for time, or revealing that Magneto has unheard of Irish lineage?

Going back in time manages to open up all sorts of possibilities for the X-Men franchise. There could be a whole slew of sequels that play around with the rich, complex back stories of the X-Men without having to serve the aging stars of the original trilogy. Vaughn keeps the proceedings amazingly fluid, stylish without being overtaken by visual artifice, and the swinging 60s provides a groovy backdrop. The action delivers when needed, the smart script doesn’t downplay the clash of ideas to go along with the clash of fists, and the special effects are relatively up to snuff as summer escapism goes. The movie is not without its misses, including a cadre of lackluster junior mutants. But Vaughn has re-energized a flagging franchise and given hope for a future (past?). In the pantheon of X movies, I’d place X-Men: First Class as an equal to X2, the best in the series. It may not be at the head of the class, but this superhero flick earns is stripes with a solid effort and strong potential. Just get rid of January Jones when it comes time for the age of feminism.

Nate’s Grade: A

Bridesmaids (2011)

To refer to the bawdy new comedy Bridesmaids as a “female Hangover” seems disingenuous and a facile comparison cooked up in some marketing laboratory. This is nothing like The Hangover, a conceptual comedy that, can we all agree, was a funny movie but not the funniest movie of all time? Bridesmaids is a byproduct of the Judd Apatow comedy factory, and that’s what it feels like. This is no mere concept comedy built around a madcap premise. This is a magnificent character-based comedy that lets the women finally be in on the joke rather than the butt of it. Bridesmaids proves that the ladies can do everything their gender counterparts can do and better.

Annie (Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay) is a woman down in the dumps. She lost her bakery due to the crummy economy, she lives with a pair of cretin roommates, and she’s a sleazy creep’s (Jon Hamm, wonderfully douchey) number three choice whenever he needs some casual sex. Her lifelong best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), has just gotten engaged and asked Annie to be her Maid of Honor. Annie is threatened by Helen (Rose Byrne), a rich socialite who has grown close to Lillian in Annie’s absence. Helen is also apart of the bridal party and is always at the ready with a classy alternative when Annie stumbles. Annie gets pulled over by state patrol Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) who takes pity on her but warns her to get her taillights fixed. She continues to meet Rhodes at different spots and the two seem to be circling something romantic. Annie’s life seems to be unraveling just as Lillian’s is coming together.

Apatow himself has been accused of making overly guy-centric comedies about rude adolescent man-children (I wouldn’t agree fully with that statement), and people have been rightfully asking when do the girls get a chance? When will the ladies be able to be something other than “love interest” or “device that triggers male character’s metamorphosis into maturity” (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, even from a clear male POV, was rather charitable and empathetic with its feminine characterizations). Well here it is, folks. Bridesmaids let’s the ladies are just as rude, crude, crass, and sexual as the men in the comedy universe. Bridesmaids is a terrific gross-out adult comedy told from a distinct feminine point of view. They can be just as crude as the dudes. But what really sets it apart is that it’s even more so a story about the dynamics of female friendship and the pain of growing apart due to the circumstances of life. Much like the joyous male camaraderie as one of the hallmarks of an Apatow film, we get to witness an entirely female dynamic that feels authentic. These women, their troubles, their friendships, all feel real and deeply felt. Even the supporting characters get a chance to be fleshed out with added dimension rarely seen in mainstream comedies, like Becca (Elli Kemper) and Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) confiding in each other about their disappointments with married sex. In other movies these ladies would just be “Bridesmaid #3” or “One-note Bridesmaid,” and while Becca and Rita could both be designated as types, they transcend classification when the script allows them to become rounded out as people. Another hallmark of an Apatow production, this is a true ensemble work.

You really do care for these people because of how relatable they are. I’ve never been the operator of a uterus, but that doesn’t stop me from being able to greatly relate to the anxieties of the female characters on screen. I know how significant female friendships are, and that is the central focus of the movie. You buy the relationship between Lillian and Annie, the comfort level they have with one another, the importance, the history, and you feel the pains of Annie’s plight. You feel like the entire bridal party could actually be a group of friends instead of a collection of wacky caricatures. These feel like real people, and people you want to see experience good times. Even the treatment of Helen feels thoughtful. She’s not this shrewish antagonist, but a trophy wife trying to impress the one person she could call a friend in her own life. For Helen, her friendship with Lillian means the world to her. She comes across as another real person, albeit a fabulously looking one. Annie’s romance with Officer Rhodes is indelibly cute and the duo has a warm, charming interaction. You pull for their union. Their relationship spawns a very funny sequence where Annie tries an assortment of illegal driving activities to get his attention. A romantic subplot is expected but that doesn’t mean it has to feel like rote, and in Bridesmaids the romance feels just as authentic and charming as the female friendships.

But don’t let my adoration with its character-work fool you into thinking this is some sort of “chick flick,” a divisive term tragically slapped onto anything female-centric or female-led. Just because there is rarely a Y chromosome on screen does not mean that this is some frilly, frothy sentimental fantasy replete with a “trying on clothes” montage and some sequence where the main characters break out into song in a bar. A wedding central to the plot should hopefully not be disqualifying for male audiences (men don’t get married too?). This is not a story about a crazed, jealous woman who wants to shiv another pretty lady in her pretty lady ribs because she stole her Maid of Honor duties. The cinema is littered with plenty of awful movies that revolve around women battling over petty squabbles. This is not that movie. It is not about who wields the title of Maid of Honor. It is a tale about your friends making new friends, entering new phases of their lives and possibly leaving you behind in the process. It’s about insecurity and holding onto those important people in your life, despite a gradual pulling apart. Relationships change over time, and it’s terrifying to have to adjust to the people closest to you taking lesser stations. It’s terrifying to feel like you’re being pushed out by new people. That sounds fairly universal to me, not some chick flick pabulum.

There were several spots where I laughed so hard I was crying; the film kept me in fits of laughter throughout. The fact that a great majority of the comedy is character-based and not situation-based makes the jokes richer and more satisfying. Even a hard-to-top gross-out sequence where the girls are trying on bridal dresses at a chic store and all start losing control over their bodies due to food poisoning is related to character. Annie took the bridal party to a cheap restaurant to save money, because she’s too proud to admit her own penniless nature and too stubborn to allow Helen to swoop in and claim another victory. So the women all get terrible bouts of food poisoning, which causes them to spew vomit and forces Megan to make one very unfortunate decision with a sink (“Don’t look at me!” she bellows). The movie doesn’t shy away from the gross-out goods but doesn’t overly rely upon them for surefire gags.

The film has several terrific comedic set pieces that connect back to the fractious relationship between Annie and Helen. The two get into a competition when it comes to party toasts. They must upstage the other, asserting who has the closest relationship with Lillian. Just when you think it’s done, one of them grabs the mic again and takes it to another level. Bridesmaids has several comic set pieces that carry on longer than you would expect for a comedy. Director Paul Feig (director of episodes of Arrested Development, The Office, and co-creator with Apatow of Freaks and Geeks) has the resolve to keep the situation alive, steadily building the comic momentum as situations get more and more out of hand, but pulling back before we reach farce levels. The movie goes one step further, convinced that the audience would be there to follow. The movie expertly lays out setups, finds satisfying payoffs, and ties up its storylines in worthwhile ways.

The dialogue is sharp and jokes work on a very fundamental level of context and defying expectation. Annie is terribly nervous to fly. She sits next to a passenger (Wiig’s co-screenwriter, Annie Mumolo) who is also deadly afraid of flying. “I had a dream last night. This plane went down,” she sys. “You were there.” That last part just turns an okay joke into a great joke. There’s a great visual gag where people keep assuming that the unkempt men standing behind Annie at a party is her husband or boyfriend. And then there’s a conversation between Annie and Officer Rhodes about being born for a profession. He encourages her to get back to baking, relating that if he were not a police officer he would still “patrol the streets and… shoot people.” These are just a few small examples I wanted to share that illustrate that, to its core, Bridesmaids is a funny story and knows the fundamentals of comedy.

Wiig has been a comic that I have found grating due to her ever-present dominance of Saturday Night Live. Her stable of wacky characters grew tiresome, but now she gets to play someone who has three dimensions. Annie is often as big an antagonist in the story as Helen. She can be self-destructive and stubborn and when she finally decides to stop being quiet is when people get hurt in her wake. You give her some latitude because, like many comedies, Annie begins as a put-upon character and has to regain her dignity and put her life together. Her life hasn’t turned out as she’s hoped, and how relatable is that? Wiig is a tremendous center for the film. Her rapid-fire eyes communicate so much nervousness and indecision, as well as her crinkly defensive smiles. But she’s also funny, tremendously funny as she loosens up and becomes more aggressive. The film is impeccably cast from top to bottom, another Apatow hallmark.

What Melissa McCarthy does in this movie is incredible. You’ve never seen a person steal a movie at this high degree of theft. McCarthy, best known from the TV show Gilmore Girls, is Megan, the sister of the groom and an unapologetically brash woman with limitless confidence. She’s built like a linebacker but, thankfully, no attention is made to the fact that McCarthy is an overweight woman. That’s not significant to her character, though it does provide for a nice character moment as she confides to Annie late about the horror of being fat in high school. It’s not funny because she’s overweight; she’s just a brash woman without a filter who happens to be overweight. The fact that nobody cracks a joke at her expense or even comments on her weight is refreshing, and a reminder that character is not confined to outward appearance. With all that said, McCarthy is flatly hilarious. There won’t be a scene that McCarthy doesn’t get in one solid belly laugh out of. She is consistently funny from scene to scene, but stays true to her character at the same time. I would love for Megan to have her own spin-off movie much like what Russell Brand earned after his scene-stealing work in Sarah Marshall.

Bridesmaids is a comedy and it is one hell of a comedy. It may no be the best movie under the ever-expanding Apatow banner, but it is easily the funniest film yet. Yes, I said it. Bridesmaids is funnier than Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Superbad, and all the rest. Wiig deserves to become a star and so does McCarthy. This movie left me sore from laughing and giddy with happiness. It’s funny, touching, and genuinely entertaining, and destined to become a modern classic worth revisiting. I foresee this becoming a word-of-mouth sensation this summer, particularly from appreciative female ticket-buyers who feel like they finally have a worthy, relatable, very funny comedy that they can call their own. It’s kind of like the old slogan for female deodorant: strong enough for a man, made for a woman. That may sound too flippant, so I’ll just put it like this: do yourself a favor and RSVP ASAP for the funniest film of 2011 and one destined to charm members of both genders.

Nate’s Grade: A

Thor (2011)

thor_ver5I had strong misgivings going into Thor. How was a powerful Norse god going to seem remotely relatable? How was the most improbable member of Marvel’s Avengers ensemble going to be explained in a way that didn’t feel like a ton of cheese richly slathered in hokum? I was expecting this movie to be a silly, trippy, LSD-enhanced flashback (rainbow bridges! Pass the bong!) that could barely strain any sense of believability. It’s one thing to have stories about super heroes who have gotten their powers via genetic defect, scientific accident, or act of God. But what about when your character happens to be a god? It just seemed too goofy for it all to be pulled off with any conviction. A Thor movie seemed destined for some Xanadu-level of camp. Get a load of the blonde with the big hammer, boys. Not every super hero flick has to be as brooding and dark as The Dark Knight. Marvel’s own Iron Man was a great example of a briskly entertaining movie. Now that I’ve prefaced my experience, let me publicly admit that Thor is indeed a somewhat silly but mostly fun entry in the mighty realm of summer blockbusters.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the god of thunder on Asgard, a distant planet populated by the Norse mythical figures (apparently, they visited Earth and the Scandinavian amongst us worshipped these… space aliens?). Thor waits to inherit the throne from his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), a wise king who has kept a tenuous truce with the fierce Frost Giants, inhabitants of another planet. But Thor is not ready to assume the responsibilities of leadership. He’s quick to action and temper, arrogant, and defies his own father’s orders by trying to start some intergalactic conflict with the Frost Giants on their home turf. Thor is robbed of his powers, his mighty hammer, and banished to Earth to walk amongst the smelly Earthlings. He crashes in the New Mexico desert and is retrieved by a team of scientists (Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard) led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). The group wants to learn where exactly this man from the sky came from. So does the government, led by the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency who takes possession of Thor’s hammer. Thor thinks if he can reunite with his beloved hammer, then he can go home. But for a thunder god, he’s got a lot of lessons to learn. While Thor is out of the picture, his younger brother, Loki (Tom Hiddelston), plots to take what he feels he is owed – the kingdom of Asgard.

hero_Thor-imageThe biggest surprise for me was that the Asgard sequences are the best part of the movie; thankfully the majority of the running time is spent in this fantastic realm. I credit Kenneth Branagh’s direction, which neither hides the silliness of the material nor fully acknowledges it. By the time Thor hurtles to Earth, I was completely engaged in the operatic tale of fathers and sons, gods, jealousy, hubris, intergalactic conspiracies, you know, the stuff of juicy drama. It jus so happened that these characters wear funnier costumes. The family dynamic between Thor and Loki, the infighting and the scheming, intrigued me. Some critics have thrown around the word “Shakespearean” to describe the movie’s outsized family conflict, but I think that’s just the critical community getting lazy. Would they even approach that term is Branagh was not the director? This opening section of Thor effectively explains the history of Asgard as well as its place with the other eight worlds, the shaky relationship with the Frost Giants, the family responsibilities at play as Odin must decide the future of his ABBA-infused nation, as well as the various mechanics of how this different world operates, like Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) stationed at the end of the rainbow as a gatekeeper to the other worlds. I liked discovering how all the pieces of this world fit together. If analyzed out of context, any part of the Asgard section just seems stupid. But taken in the film, Thor‘s crazier, more fantastic elements come together and spark genuine interest. I wanted to spend more time in this magical realm. The more ridiculous and fantastical that Thor got the more interesting it became.

But unfortunately Thor was sent tumbling to our ordinary planet. It is the Earth section that seriously deflates the movie’s vibe. It’s a relief that the fish-out-of-water comic relief is kept to a minimum, because the character of Thor isn’t an idiot, just an arrogant brat. But it’s the period on Earth where the God of Thunder learns his Really Important Lessons and finally understands what it means to be a good leader. It’s all very expected and the execution is less than inspired. The trio of scientists that Thor encounters (Portman, Skarsgaard, Dennings) could easily have been consolidated into one character. Their contributions to the story are weak. Skarsgard is mostly there for fatherly advice and the occasional expository ejaculation. As a gawky little sister scientist, I don’t even know why Dennings is in this film other than to make my eyes happy. I anticipated that Portman would assume the “love interest” spot in comic book movies that we now reserve for Oscar-winning actresses, and I assumed that role would be underwritten. But I never expected Portman’s part to be this underwritten. She’s practically nonexistent except for that winning smile of hers. Over the course of… two days, she falls in love with our banished brute. But to be fair, it’s not every day that a guy looking like Hemsworth falls out of the sky. New Mexico isn’t exactly looking like a great singles mingles hotspot. Anyway, their relationship is supposed to be the trigger that makes Thor realize he’s been a selfish and reckless fool. But their scenes lack any tension, any charm, anything of interest. They feel like two actors sitting in chairs telling stories. You don’t feel any romance between them. The drabby Earth sequences only serve as a losing contrast to the crazy Asgard territory. You can’t compete with rainbow bridges (imagine the tolls on those suckers).

thor-natalie-portman-chris-hemsworthBranagh has never directed anything of this magnitude in size before, and it shows at parts. While none of the action sequences are particularly bring, none of them are particularly thrilling. The beginning battle between Thor and his pals on the Frost Giant planet (Jotunheim) is so poorly lit that the darkness forces you to squint to focus on what’s happening. Why spend $150 million on a super hero flick and shoot a dankly lit action scene? What’s the point in that? The choppy editing can also be too hectic to follow with all the quick-cuts that fail to orient the action geography. Really, there are only three serious action sequences in Thor, but then again I remember Iron Man having a light load when it came to on screen action. That film was devoted to character and performance. This film, under Branagh’s watch, is devoted to just making the entire universe of Thor credible. It’s a lot to take in, and Branagh’s biggest accomplishment is producing a sense of grandeur to the film that saves it from falling into the sticky clutches of camp. The world of Asgard feels convincing in production design and infrastructure; the cities look like pipe organs. Branagh’s film expands the Marvel universe significantly, broadening the scope for future installments. Mercifully Thor does not hard sell the upcoming Avengers movie as appallingly as Iron Man 2.

The acting in Thor is as splashy as the Asgard scenery. Hemsworth gave a notable performance as the doomed father of James Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek. He as only in the film for that ten-minute prologue, and yet the actor found a way to do much with what he was given. You got to see his character hurdle through a gauntlet of emotions: fear, duty, relief, desperation, and acceptance. His sacrifice still can make me tear up, and Hemsowrth deserves some of that credit. However, Thor is a different matter entirely. Obviously it’s going to be a more challenging role to play a buff cocky god with a magic hammer. Buff he does quite well. Cocky he does fairly well, but this is not a great starring vehicle for the actor. Hemsworth looks too self-satisfied, like he’s playing his character as an intergalactic hotel heiress. In sharp contrast, Hiddelston (Wallander) commands your attention. Those penetrating eyes, the cold yet calculated demeanor, this is an actor who feels like he walked off a Shakespeare production and just changed his headgear. You want to spend more time with Loki than watch Blondie futz around on Earth. Loki has much more depth to him than Thor; he feels betrayed by his family and an outcast to his society. I’m glad that we’ll be seeing more from this trickster in future Marvel movies (have I said too much?). Hopkins knows how to sell silliness like few other actors. And for those who have been wondering where Renee Russo has been for the last six years, well here she is, as Thor and Loki’s mother, a role that’s best suited to confirm that she is still alive.

thor-2011I was expecting far worse judging upon the scraps I had seen from the Thor advertising campaign. So I suppose that beating my low-flying expectations might not necessarily be something to champion. Thor is an inherently goofy, yet mildly satisfying and credible action film. It doesn’t have the style or panache of other heroes, but the fact that Branagh could make a two-hour Thor film that didn’t cause me to laugh derisively from start to finish is an accomplishment. Again, that sounds rather dismissive. I’m just very surprised that this movie works. Because if you take it apart, it doesn’t seem like it should. The acting ranges wildly in quality, with Hiddelston outshining everyone else. Thor is a solid if inconsistent start to the summer season of blockbusters. If you must turn your brain off for some movie, you’d do far worse than Thor. It has pretty colors.

Nate’s Grade: B

Skyline (2010)

skylineThis movie is out-of-this-world terrible. Who wouldn’t want to spend an alien invasion stuck in some L.A. condo with a load of insufferable Los Angelinos? From a storytelling standpoint, watching characters I don’t care about talk about amazing and horrible things happening off camera is not the best use of anyone’s time. Skyline is a movie that keeps surprising you with the depths of its stupidity; just when you think it couldn’t plumb any deeper, the aliens have invaded to eat our brains. Yes, they’re after our brains. So that explains why gigantic monsters will claw away at a building, scrounging for the tiniest morsel of human (that still doesn’t explain it, really). That does not explain why they targeted L.A. if they’re after brains. The special effects are notable for a $10 million dollar movie, but due to the budget restraints, that’s probably why most of this alien invasion is spent indoors and behind trusty sets of Venetian blinds. The pacing is as shoddy as the character work. I kept waiting for these nitwits to step into the light and be vacuumed up into the alien mothership. The end almost looks like it might redeem part of this monstrosity, with our survivors accepting a doomed fate together. But then… I can’t even put into words how shocking, dreadful, and groan-inducing the true ending is for this junk. Suffice to say, it ends with zero resolution, a jagged plot left turn, and setup for a sequel that I’m absolutely positive not one person will be demanding.

Nate’s Grade: D

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