Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Horrible Bosses Review

Horrible Bosses
Directed by Seth Gordon
Released in 2011

Michael Scott may be an ineffectual business negotiator, or even a social debacle, but he is a caring man at heart. He considers his employees family, in the way Papa Bear looks after his young. Not the same with these bosses. Made and set in a time when our country's economic outlook could be equated to a partisan, agonizing sinkhole, Horrible Bosses offers a dream scenario for those cubicle sheep out there sick of their employer but not willing to bite the hand that feeds. Three buds take aim at the source of their unyielding misery, and with hilarious results.  

Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day comprise the hapless trio. They, for different reasons, loathe their bosses so much they conceive an idea, while drunk of course, to kill them in order to return to happiness. Kevin Spacey slithers with a deadly bite as Dave Harken, the bane of Nick Hendrick's (Bateman) existence. He is brilliant, brilliant in his methods of manipulation that confound and humiliate his reluctant man-servant Nick. And evil as well, with a dark side that reveals itself verbally until physical introductions. Kurt Buckman (Sudeikis) leads a content work life, with his boss a loving father figure (a warm Donald Sutherland). That is, until the unexpected happens and his soulless tool of a son tacks his name on his daddy's desk. His depravity is not so self-aware, but part of his blood; he does not know how to not be offensive and shamelessly covetous. His addiction to cocaine only exacerbates such qualities. The last of the three differs, drastically. Dentist Dr. Julia Harris, an alluring Jennifer Aniston never acting or looking better, targets her assistant Dale (Day) as the object of her sexual desires. All would be fine if Dale was not engaged to be married to a loving fiancé. Dale's struggle is looked down upon by his friends, but Dale has the right moral center even as Julia yearns to corrupt it.

The three leads and their evil counterparts define the film in its unrelentingly comical, raunchy glory. But a number of other familiar faces appear for amusing moments. Modern Family's Julie Bowen is Harken's wife, polar opposite in affection and faith to her husband. Jamie Foxx surfaces multiple times as the hitman the three consult. His name itself is unfit for print and he makes for amusing racial commentary. Even Mr. Fantastic himself, suave British bloke Ioan Gruffudd, appears for a cameo that is as confusing as it is priceless. 

But it is the leads here that excel. Bateman is the best "straight man" in comedy around, and while that is the core of his role, he surpasses it in moments like while cleaning up the mess Charlie Day made. Day is the real standout of the film. In this scene in particular, the manic, fumbling style he shines with in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia has quite the literal stimulus, but all induced by Day's acting alone. He possesses a distinctive, shrill voice that makes for laughs even when he isn't delivering winning lines. The always-solid Jason Sudeikis has, much like the characters in the movie, for years filled small roles without much recognition. But with Hall Pass and now (and more notably) this film, he is gradually making his way to a leading man. His character usually is the overly confident, but strong-willed dude who gets into trouble but seeks for redemption. It is not an original role for him but he makes it work. 

Colin Farrell's tenure could have been more fleshed-out; this is after all the actor who mixed mirth and tragedy to brilliant effect with In Bruges. And his American accent is nowhere near as fun as his natural Irish quaver, really. He makes the clichéd cocaine-fueled businessman role not feel too stale, however. Spacey is the most convincingly evil of the bunch, but as a two-time Academy Award winner can likely achieve, he brings a little more to it. He is psychotic, a devotee to schadenfreude. He feeds on the pain of others, and, as he says, "it feels good". Aniston may be the surprise of the whole film. She has slummed it in so many romantic comedies we forget she is a winning comic item, not to mention a very sexy one as well. Her seductive thirst for men feels voluptuous but genuinely creepy, just what the script is aiming for to reach equality amongst the three. I cannot imagine anyone else filling this part, at least more effectively. 

Horrible Bosses does not seek to inspire or enlighten, and it really does not want to comment on the current state of employment other than repeat that, hey, bosses suck. The meditation on the inability of three middle-class men to carry through with such a heinous task is all too short; tears don't have to be shed but the psychological effects could have been addressed to greater, and campy, extent. Oh, and what a deus ex machina of an ending. But such qualms do not detract from the enjoyment, which, as box office numbers so far have shown, many have experienced. It moves at that "laugh a minute", and often greater, pace, not losing steam. And while directed without much style or distinction, there are some clever touches here and there, especially the well-timed overhead shot of the three leads awkwardly pulling out of a parking lot. The maladroit dexterity the characters hold on their own ludicrous premise is in the end why the film's premise prevails.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars out of 5

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger Review

Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston
Released in 2011

When the good guy is a little guy, you know he will use his wits to defeat the big bad guy and win in the end. When the good guy possesses such mindful tactics and is still jacked up with super soldier serum, the bad guys have no chance. Once comic books were recognized as more than just pulp entertainment but a tool for propaganda, Timely Comics (precursor to Marvel) bolstered Captain America as a hero for all of us, especially the little guy. With his red, white and blue tunic and indestructible shield, Captain America - whose real name is the comfortably normal Steve Rogers - was an incredibly effective symbol of patriotism in tough times. It is not so much the "punching Hitler in the face" gambit that maintains the Captain's image today, but his bravery when forces beyond his control hold him down, as well as his substantial, though not ordinate, powers. He can throw a punch like no other, but he is ultimately mortal and modest with his powers. The 70 year old hero finds new life, and a new audience, in this satisfying, polished 2011 reboot. 

The Nazi menace threatens the freedoms of all in the world, and millions are enlisting to help. Unfortunately, short, sickly Steve Rogers cannot make the cut. Asthma is just the first of his ailments. But determination runs through his blood; he would rather spend the night volunteering for what surely would be another failed inspection than spend a night on the town. Stanley Tucci, as Dr. Abraham Erskine, takes notice, running Steve through a training course where he and Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, never more grouchy or entertaining) pick the worthiest soldier for an experimental enhancement procedure. Steve's selflessness and gallantry wins out, and what was once a gaunt, petite "boy from Brooklyn" transforms into a buff, nimble symbol of American offense and science. Nazis are not even the main enemy; that would be the anarchic branch, HYDRA, within the Third Reich in charge of weapons so powerful its leader, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), deems der Führer unworthy of harnessing the might of the gods. 

Preparing for the role with an exercise program fit for the gods, Chris Evans balances his action star looks with genuine down-to-earth humility. Captain America has the strength that perhaps his entire country is relying on to bring peace, but he remains likable by never abusing it and always looking out for others. It makes for an almost too perfect protagonist:  there are little flaws in the Steve Rogers' character, leading him to remain about the same throughout the film. Same can be said about the love interest Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who sees an admirable figure in Rogers before the transformation and only likes him more as he proves his abilities (and sports washboard abs to boot). It is better than a woman only interested in the protagonist's newfound looks and power, but it makes for a rather uncommon arc for romance. All that aside, it takes painfully long for "the kiss" so the payoff manifests in typical, overdue fashion. 

The numerous actors filling the supporting roles are talented and well-suited. Tommy Lee Jones channels not No Country for Old Men's solemn meditation but more Men in Black's deadpan. Never content and always discouraging the risky route (read: the right route), Col. Phillips gradually gains respect and confidence in the Captain over the course of the film. Jones has winning lines but it is his worn, grizzled mug and demeanor that bring wit and charm to a archetypal character. Stanley Tucci excels, as always, whether he regales through clever banter or cautions Rogers to never lose the charity he so embodies. While the time on-screen is awfully brief, Dr. Erskine does not create as so secure the ideology Captain America sees the world through. 

Dominic Cooper is a young Howard Stark, looking nothing like the John Slattery middle-age version that is seen in Iron Man 2. However, it is an excellent character, one I found to be a great, rather unlikely addition that does not only tie together the Marvel universe but sheds light on some truths the movie aims to reach. With short-skirted dames beside him, he unveils a prototype flying car at New York's World Fair early on for an eager, scraggly Steve Rogers to see. The playboy persona appears untouchable, of another lifestyle and class. But as he affixes his (stylish) lab goggles by the super soldier machine, little Steve Rogers' mouth drops that such an illustrious figure would help him reach his potential. Stark's aid does not end there, for he flies, experiments, builds, scavenges, fabricates, does science, fondues, and so forth throughout his generous tour. Such a character comments on the idealistic image of the most privileged sacrificing so much for the cause of war. Very admirable, and unfortunately not too true, Howard Stark's benevolence certainly carried over to his like-minded son and champions such figures.

The rest of the crew alongside Captain America, as seen through a well-placed kick-ass montage, looks out for one another and can inflict some serious damage, even when beside a cellularly enhanced beast of a man. Rogers' best bud throughout, Bucky Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan (most likely remembered as "that guy from the bar" in Black Swan), strengthens the heart of his friend and reveals in the mighty Captain what matters most. Band of Brothers' Neal McDonough sports a classy bowler and burly mustache as Dum Dum Dugan, a soldier who clearly revels in enacting revenge upon his former captors. And there is clever social commentary with Kenneth Choi's character Jim Morita. An Asian-American, Jim exasperatedly sighs "I'm from Fresno" when he receives a few skeptical glances from the others in his squad. That is all they need to hear.

Heath Ledger spoiled us, for we expect so much from our comic book villains now. Remember that it was our own Tommy Lee Jones who played Two-Face before The Dark Knight. But when expectations are higher, quality must improve as well. For this reason I found the antagonist here underwhelming. Not Toby Jones' Dr. Arnim Zola, however. A brilliant scientist aiding Johann Schmidt out of fear more than loyalty, Zola is given gravitas by Jones. He watches from the sidelines as what he creates destroys so much, perhaps an analogy to Einstein. But Hugo Weaving's Johann Schmidt aka Red Skull chews the scenery relentlessly, and with a faux German accent. Weaving's greatest success was at a villain who purposely embodied a flat stereotype in the Matrix films; that is not to speak down on the actor but only that his bad guy persona is fairly one-dimensional. He brings menace to the megalomaniac but not much more. The blame can be pointed more to the visual effects department, for he suffers a Hulk effect in which, no matter how good the actor is, once the face morphs into CGI, a human connection is lost. 

The connection between the audience and Captain America, however, never falters. Chris Evans always stole the show in other action flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers, and in his first title role he leads with reserve and revelation, as a man in many ways adolescent discovering himself and the world around him. He does not instantly jump into the battlefields of Europe, but tours the country first in a War Bonds promotion, gaudy tights strapped on and shield in hand. The story flows with an easy energy, not rushing to get to the next set-piece, and certainly absent of any kinetic editing that we are used to with Zack Snyder and Guy Ritchie's wacky fare. It is deliberately old-fashioned, with an old-fashioned aesthetic and old-fashioned characters. They kick and punch in impressive action scenes with special effects that do not override the human story at the heart of the film. Director Joe Johnston does not possess gifts to prevent the choreography and action, however, from getting stale in the final battle, nor do he or screenwriters Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely provide much of a journey for the characters, where they learn, adapt, convert. But in that sense it is fit for the serialized comic book influence it so directly aspires to be (and tailored for sequels no doubt). It is an underdog story with extreme modifications, slick and built to please.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 Review

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Directed by David Yates
Released in 2011

So long, childhood. I’ll miss ya, but I would be hard-pressed to think of a better way to end. There is no product of the imagination in our time, in any medium, that resonated with more youth, and even adults for that matter, than the Harry Potter saga. J.K. Rowling’s scripture – which created an exhaustively detailed, unique universe to promote such lofty morals as love and loyalty in the face of adversity, and ultimately overcoming such forces of evil – ended four years ago. It is now time for the film series to follow suit. What has been a remarkably consistent streak (what other series of four, five, let alone eight, films maintained such a level of quality?) has now reached its peak in the final film, showcasing inspired filmmaking and harboring more than ample affection for the millions of fans who made the series the literary, cinematic and cultural touchstone it was.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 faces Harry against ultimate evil, Lord Voldemort, in one final battle. Or two, or three, or ten, because this film is effectively a war movie. As fate may have it, Hogwarts serves as the final battleground, laying waste to what was once beautiful in the bedlam of war. Significant life is lost, as fans already know, plus an added minor – and particularly gruesome – death that may catch you by surprise.  The comedy that cavorted so freely with our adolescents before is still present, but notably relegated to the backburner for the somber emotional ties to reveal themselves and the plot strands unravel. With the exception of a trip to Gringotts Bank that, while very well-done, felt more like a preview for what surely will be ride at Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the action feels grounded, real, even as colorful spells whiz across the screen. Director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves set the stakes for this violent conflict high. Perhaps even more effectively than Rowling’s material, the filmmakers illustrate what, or mainly who, hangs on the precipice of death and destruction. Much of this can be attributed to the wonders of editing, wherein images of others can be easily interpolated with Harry to establish connection. The soulful, purposeful special effects (the anti-Transformers effect) actually raise our empathy as well; when the invisible, dome barrier disintegrates to smoldering embers, a true sense of fear instills. Or as the camera sweeps over an army of Death Eaters charging the school – in what surely is a fraction of the actors actually physically present, a nod to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings style of visual effects – we loathe the intruders, full-aware of the evil they have already committed and what they can further destroy. Here, the effects, directing, story, and acting intersect in such a deliberate, artistic way that is rarely witnessed in blockbuster action films.

And what diverse, numerous acting wonders are on display here. The three leads have shown such steady improvement over the years, and to start from what was really no more than a children’s movie to this film – which in content, theme and execution is certainly not – it is fortunate they grew into their roles so well (and didn’t age awkwardly for that matter, either). Rupert Grint abided to the narrative's details by growing exponentially over the years, to the mountainous presence he is now. From cute little girl to Vogue cover girl, Emma Watson matured with class into a role that demanded a vessel of it. The long-brewing romance between Watson and Grint's characters works here with that final payoff even non-readers knew was approaching. And both actors work familiar chemistry with the main star, Daniel Radcliffe, surely because they are the best of friends in real life after all these years. Notably, Hermione's tears when she comes to terms with a long-time truth of Harry's is heartbreaking. Such heavy material is what all of the actors have to make their own, and Radcliffe delivers his best performance as he translates Harry's pain, strife and ultimate heroism to the screen. Perhaps in part due to the media's proliferation of Dan's image, but it is indisputable that Daniel is Harry. A role that once espoused such lines as "There's no Hogwarts without you, Hagrid", Harry Potter has grown to one of the strongest leads in movie franchise history. As Dumbledore astutely notes, the "brave, brave man" that is Harry sacrifices all while wielding the most powerful weapon, love, against the surrounding fog of evil. Radcliffe has proven the choice surrogate for such a powerful and inspirational character of our times.

Ralph Fiennes personifies evil in haunting style. Previously the terrifying Amon Goeth in Schindler's List and In Bruges' infuriated hitman, Fiennes possesses a proclivity for such roles of poor moral stature, but acting can be at its best when depicting humanity's worst (Daniel Plainview and The Joker for our recent times). His face, with those reptilian slits of a nose on skin resembling palish green cartilage, contorts in fury, euphoria and even laughter. With phenomenal special effects making his mask the sickly sight it is, the sinister, soulless creature Fiennes uncovers still rumbles beneath. Note his hand gestures as he elegantly waves a wand, treating his weapon as an extension of himself. Or as he awkwardly embraces Draco, showing compassion while genuinely showing none. Or as he, with a blasé flick of the wrist, kills his own obsequious kin. As the Horcruxes protecting his soul are destroyed with rapid efficiency (a notable difference from the last film), we feel the fear of a god turning mortal. A villain for the ages, Voldemort bears a venomous bite but, an extant, though long-rotten, heart. Those stubborn Academy voters should take note of one of our time's most consistently impressive actors, Mr. Fiennes.

Or better yet, recognize the strongest character of the saga, not only due to Rowling's prose, but the tour-de-force portrayal Alan Rickman gave all for Severus Snape. Certainly the most complex and perhaps most tortured of Rowling's creations, Snape surpasses the grossly intolerant but admittedly shallow character that enunciated such memorable lines like "Page three-hundred and ninety four" (though his scene-stealing pronunciation is made light of in an early scene). What he is here is so much more. In what may be the greatest passage of the entire series, Snape's backstory is revealed, turning him from a slithery source of dry humor to a great figure of modern literature. The film's interpretation fulfills the lofty expectations readers held, and then some. The amusing lines of the text are stripped, making for a solemn sequence of tragedy. Edits flow seamlessly and logically, and any cuts made by Kloves from the source material are sensible and unworthy of debate. But it is Rickman's acting here that makes for the emotional apex of the film, and perhaps the whole series. We watch, stunned, as he oscillates between lust, fear, anger, and ultimately loss. The use of Nicholas Hooper's score from Half-Blood Prince (this film is actually composed by Alexandre Desplat for the most part) establishes a connection to previous events and successfully, thought not overbearingly so, wrings emotion from the audience. Snape's tears become your own as you form sympathy for the devil, or someone who may not be after all. It is a beautiful scene with so many wise choices, but anchored first and foremost by only Rickman.

This film series has served as a modern British acting powerhouse - such a weird phrase to use to what will likely become one of the highest grossing films of all time - and the wealth of great actors populating the wizarding universe provides for a blockbuster on such a rare plane of quality. Maggie Smith returns as Professor McGonagall, and she is no longer a passive observer of the horrors taking place at her school but a leading force in relinquishing them. Her role as maternal figure to Harry is visited again, telling him "It's good to see you again" in a way only a mother could deliver. And her giddy excitement to exercise one of the most powerful - and coolest! - spells in her arsenal is a comic highlight. This occurs when the film really kicks off, as the allied teachers, Order of the Phoenix members and students arm Hogwarts' defenses. It is both nostalgic and quite fitting to see all of the faces reunite for the final battle, as those who aided Harry on his path are there with him until the very end. Jim Broadbent's Professor Slughorn is shown all too short; he owned his intrinsic role in Half-Blood Prince with drunken antics covering a guilt-ridden conscience. His role in the final book was slightly larger (only a few added lines really). It would have been great to see more of him. Time is given to others though, as Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid returns, Harry's original portal into the magical world. His role appears late but still completes an emotional circle.  Actor Warwick Davis works overtime as the useful but scheming goblin Griphook and the charming (pun certainly intended), powerful Filius Flitwick. Such disparity in the morals of both characters proves Davis as a nimble, graceful actor. Even Filch makes one last appearance, and his miserable demeanor thankfully subsides in such testing times (his job, however does not).

Molly Weasley is back (!), as is most of the Weasley clan (no Percy redemption, sorry). Molly's final duel is as satisfying as action scenes go. Matt Lewis slips a cheesy one-liner here or there as Neville Longbottom, and while some may view his St. Crispin's Day's speech as overly sentimental, it contains themes so tied to the story I empathize with its inclusion. And, besides, his killing blow in battle casts a memory modification spell on those who recall him as an awkward, forgetful youth. Evanna Lynch's Luna Lovegood isn't caught up in the clouds as much as before, and as she rebukes Harry for ignorance, we see, and hear, both a character and actor who have come a long way. Tom Felton tosses and turns in the mind of Draco Malfoy, a closet good heart being pushed to the dark side. He redeems himself besides his mother, played by Helen McCrory, whose powerful facial expressions speak louder than words.  Meanwhile his father, the true source of his inherited hardship, flees unloved by any side. Bellatrix Lestrange, of course, stays evil to the end. Helena Bonham Carter absorbs the darkness in a way that would cause even the Dark Lord to bat an eye. It is a delight to then watch her play Hermione play her own character in a doomed-to-fail disguise. Good girl Hermione cannot meet such levels of vileness. And Ciarán Hinds, almost unrecognizable, plays Aberforth Dumbledore, the brother. He casts a shadow of doubt over the prospect of victory, but, again, redemption is such an integral theme to these stories that his progression is very satisfying.

A nice surprise apparates with Michael Gambon's Albus Dumbledore in a short, but crucial, scene. Steve Kloves wisely kept nearly all of Rowling's original lines for this exchange, and the lighting and design likely matches what many readers visualized. Sticking close to the source material works wonders here, as there are some really brilliant quotes. And how welcome is it to see Dumbledore before not just his prize, but closest friend, Harry, one last time.

David Yates marks his fourth time in the director's chair with this one, more than any before. Order of the Phoenix was poorly paced and lacked the drive of all the previous films. Thankfully with Half-Blood Prince he was able to show his talent that was apparently muffled from exterior sources for his first endeavor. At least according to him. Nonetheless, the last three films (including the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2) have been the strongest consecutively, and he focuses all of his strengths for the final hurrah. The pacing, thanks to Kloves in part, shoots by with nary a dull moment, yet does not feel too short (though it, at 130 minutes, is the shortest film by far). Occupying that many characters on the screen, yet still prioritizing the leads and finishing their story, must be the secret.

Action flows with an energy that can only be described as exhilarating. As Hogwarts' defenses are set - not even one "Stupefy!" or "Expelliarmus" cast yet - excitement and anxiety builds for what happens once those barricades break. A skyset camera captures the crystalline, clear dome as it is built, and while the entire shot is likely all CGI, a united spirit radiates from the screen. We believe real people are enacting a fortress to fight for their lives. Since when have computer effects and green screens done that? Thoughtful direction makes all the difference.

While books describe images to be interpreted individually by the reader, film is a visual medium. Yates is aware of that. Voldemort's undoing is achieved with shots of artful composure, occasionally with the bare minimum of audio and no dialogue whatsoever. The silent prologue shows the last scene of Part 1, as Voldemort exhumes Dumbledore's grave to retrieve the Elder Wand. His silent depiction of requited lust is chilling. Even more so, later he drifts through a shockingly bloody pile of corpses, looking down at those fallen beneath him, a madman at the monarch. And the scene at the boathouse is immaculately staged; Yates has a future in stage direction if he so chooses. Once Voldemort turns desperate, failing again and again to slaughter the boy who brought upon his downfall, we see whatever man there is slowly disintegrate to nothingness. As he flies through the air with Harry (a noted addition not in the book), slashing and gnawing, all primal fury expels and his collected composure dissipates. This strange, but wisely included, encounter leads to their final faceoff, both stooped, taking aim. Yates believes in the dramatic significance Rowling prescribed this battle, and even takes it up a notch while maintaining thematic consistency.

It is so worth to recognize all the forces that make the film's setting so convincing, who add their artistic touches in each frame. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra knows that the devil is in the details, and, with Yates direction, turns a group of students entering school into a Hitler Youth rally. He utilizes this fictional England they create - with ravines and hills more representative of, say, Switzerland - to utilize depth, as in that final leap of faith Harry and Voldemort make. Nick Dudman, supervisor of make-up, transforms an actor (Warwick Davis) into two different characters, each convincingly lifelike. Stephenie McMillan, Barry Wilkinson and Stuart Craig - set decorator, property master and production designer, respectively - fill the Room of Requirement with knick-knacks and all sorts of fascinating bits of magical "trash". You feel bad for the ultimate fate of the room. The vivid, numerous costumes led by Jany Temime are among the best in Hollywood. John Richardson helms special effects, including the stunning dragon at Gringotts. Its pause upon breaking free, taking in the air and land it has long been deprived of, makes the collection of pixels and rendered models into flesh and blood.

As I have already noted, screenwriter Steve Kloves makes many wise choices when translating the book to film. No matter what length the film would have been, content would have to be cut and fans would demand blood. I understand such thinking; everyone has a favorite scene that they want to see on screen. And there are a few curious absences:  no follow-up with Peter Pettigrew? Perhaps a subtle nod to the cloak? (it's in the title, after all). We all have our individual gripes, and it is this reason that shows how much we care about the characters, the original text. The films have served as a companion to the books; it is in the pages we read for the first time where are imaginations served scenes of Hogwarts in its most intimate form. The films flesh out what we already are close to, occasionally offering a different interpretation. Britain's finest fill the roles, bring life to the characters on-screen. Alan Rickman's portrayal of Snape is even more stately, sad than the book's version. How magical that the books and films can coexist, crossing each others boundaries yet ultimately stay separate artistic entities. Anyone who has not read the novels gets much less from those who do; even knowing all that happened beforehand offers rewarding surprises in watching your vision realized, or perhaps tweaked. Even butchered, it offers a personal experience. The script caters to those who read the book:  for instance, a mention of Lupin and Tonks' child late in the film comes as common knowledge. However, the child was never acknowledged in the movies previously; only in the book. Those who stuck with it for the longest get the most out of it, in the end.

The last entry in the highest grossing film series of all time has no obligation to be good. In fact, a montage of the best moments from the previous films might have even broken records. But, in such a rare instance of filmmaking and production, in a time when robots, lustful vampires and comedy remakes passed as sequels rule, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 marks the highest artistic achievement of its creators yet. All the aspects mesh together just as the story's jigsaws fall into place. Most humbling of all is to watch the actors, those dozens of grade-A stars and child actors that grew up before our eyes, surrender all for a story they believe in. It is a story of one boy, and so many others beside him, using love to defeat irreconcilable evil. I cannot think of a more heartwarming theme. Now, it is time for us to shelf our collection, hang our robes. I will revisit my childhood; there is no question I will. The books and Blu-rays have more wear and tear to come. But eventually little hands will wonder of such a story their parents have long kept on display, a light film of dust beginning to settle. We will be more than happy to satiate such curiosity. And so the cycle begins again.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

Monday, July 4, 2011

Midnight in Paris Review

Midnight in Paris
Directed by Woody Allen
Released in 2011

We all wear our rose-tinted glasses when looking back at the past. When time cements itself in history, only captured through the technological and cultural means of yesterday, it codifies the events, making our present look featherweight in comparison. Such literal backward-thinking frames the characters of Midnight in Paris. It fittingly serves as the folly for them as well. 

Woody Allen's 41st feature length picture strolls through fantasy while still lightly harnessed by reality. There is surprise in the very nature of the story, in how it deviates from what is likely expected from a film billed as a "romantic comedy".  Paris, a character of such pronounced beauty, wonderfully captured by cinematographer Darius Khondji, housed the great intellectuals throughout history. Their contributions and spirits have left an imprint on the city to this day, as if their aura still lingers in the air. And in Midnight in Paris, not only does their ambiance remain, but their flesh and blood as well. See, the main character Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) transports back to a 1920s version of Paris by midnight, via an antique Peugeot. He freely interacts with them, and they with him, until the night is no longer young. The science behind such time-travel is never explained, and it does not need to be, for the audience's suspension of disbelief is willfully checked in with the coat hanger from the start. 

Gil is visiting Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her two parents, played by Kurt Fuller from Wayne's World and Mimi Kennedy, the nagging Karen Clark from In the Loop. Gil falls in love with the city (who doesn't?), though Inez does not share such a passionate bond. It does not help that Inez's two old friends appear without invitation, dictating their trip's events from then on. They are Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), the former "didactic" and a "pseudo-intellectual" espousing trivia of such obscurity to cover their falsity, and the latter simply fawning over her prize. It is no surprise Gil and Inez take notice, but for different reasons. Paul's arc from insufferable hack to something more stands by as nothing more than a minor subplot but is both entertaining and interesting as it is not hard to imagine Allen's critics labeling him the same in the past. The company Gil finds himself with Paris by day is rather dull, and certainly by conscious choice. 

But of course everyone will look unappealing when put beside Paris. Yet, Allen proves us wrong. He fills The City of Light with an equally bright set of faces. Tom Hiddleston (also in Thor this summer) perfectly embodies F. Scott Fitzgerald, as does Alison Pill as his wife, Zelda. Corey Stoll's Ernest Hemingway speaks with such profound formality that either serves to prod at our current lack of eloquence or perhaps reveal the romantic view Allen himself regards these subjects. Perhaps it is neither, but rather a parody (he is basically drunk the whole time) that remains completely unironic and respectful. Kathy Bates actualizes the strong-willed Gertrude Stein whose Paris years are so storied. There are so many other familiar costumes donned, hair styles recognized, names dropped that threaten to push this film into a cameo circle of famous flappers and sheiks. But Allen directs the nods so respectfully and with enough restraint, and the actors fill their respected roles so brilliantly, that it never sinks into a panache but remains a loveletter to a place and time. To reveal any more names would rob a sense of surprise (do not look at a cast list for your own good), but I will say to be ready for a lively appearance from Adrien Brody.

There probably is not another actress alive who better personifies the elegance, maturity, and, of course, beauty of Paris than Marion Cotillard. Her grace and looks do not belong to our time it seems - filmmakers have taken note by casting her in period pieces like Nine, Public Enemies and her Oscar-winning La Vie en Rose - and she turns in a dignified performance as the mistress of the arts that eventually catches Gil's eye. Her character, Adriana, is similarly stuck idolizing a past she knows not much of like Gil. Their shared infatuation for the yesteryears forms a special bond, one that ultimately faces conflict as they face reality. There is an endless longing for what came before throughout mankind that ultimately inhibits progress if pursued to action, or inaction. We must face the realization that the history books are not written until after our time, at which point the longing to return to a time before the most recent stretch of progress, technology and life seems so enticing. Allen explores this theme with interesting results, both heralding the past yet not declaring it the be-all and end-all. 

Owen Wilson fits into the Woody Allen mold remarkably well, handling such lofty themes and variable moods with ease. Watch The Darjeeling Limited for proof of the skills of the Drillbit Taylor star, and then this film will cast aside any lingering doubt. The lines, of course written by Allen, are witty and quick, filled with references to pop culture yet not to the point they are esoteric. Gil's first midnight stroll produces hilarious reactions of disbelief and stunned silence, and Allen creates realistic situations (as realistic as they can be in a fantasy really) that Wilson handles with subtlety that never turns outrageous. A successful but shallow screenwriter searching for depth as he struggles with composing a novel, Gil encounters the dream scenario when he hands his manuscript to Stein. His story, about a man who owns a nostalgia shop ("what's that?"), and the insightful critique Stein offers, helps him reconcile with his true self and his own time. 

There is so much to admire in Allen's direction; you would think after 40 films he would take the easy road but that is not his style. The early scenes when Gil, Inez, Carol and Paul stroll through Versailles display Allen's talents as equating blocking to power. Paul leads and dominates the frame, for he craves the reverence. Gil is a stronger man than he, and when he calls Paul's bluff on his lack of knowledge (with a piece of info acquired through a rather humorous circumstance), he simply walks out of frame, leaving Paul to answer to the two cheerleaders who may raise doubt. Allen provides such careful coverage of the party scenes as well, surveying the scene with purpose, showing key faces, hiding others to find out later of their presence. He is an undisputed master, and Midnight in Paris may as well be his 21st century triumph showing his skills have not faded but only aged like the wine they drink so liberally here. 

I love Midnight in Paris. It is one of the more charming films to arrive in some time, reminding me much of the aforementioned The Darjeeling Limited in its respectful treatment of such a beautiful locale, transferring to a rich celluloid feel that is best seen in a cinema. The dialogue is witty and lacking pretense, and offers a new look - and perhaps renewed interest - in such critical figures of our Western culture. It digs even deeper, however. Its mediation on love, of its weight and potential for eternity, ties with its views on the past, for both must be carefully considered before diving into. The initial glamor can wear off, for only time can tell what is true. Only time...

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Review

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Directed by Michael Bay
Released in 2011

There are movies that can change your outlook on a social issue, inspire you to pursue a career in an unexpected field, speak to you on a wavelength that no person ever has. Suddenly the field of speech therapy, or even the seedy favelas of Rio de Janiero, feels acquainted, familiar. They stick with you and remind you of the boundless potential cinema has in its past and future. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not one of those films. And it does not try to be. That is the problem. Its highest ambitions are to serve the lowest denominator. Mindless, loud, turn-off-your-brain entertainment. How should one who analyzes the artistic merit of film approach one that purposely has none? The faults of such a film like this do not make as much of a dent in its box office performance (in fact, it is these faults that make it so commercially appealing). So my job here is utterly pointless. But, stubborn I am, I will break this movie down nonetheless. 

The third installment in this billion dollar plus franchise once again centers around Sam Witwicky, the fast-talking, short-tempered, incredibly lucky early twentysomething played by the talented but often misused Shia LaBeouf. Megan Fox is nowhere to be found, with only a few brief allusions to her cultural shockwave of a role voiced through Sam's robot sidekicks Wheelie and Brains, seemingly serving as Michael Bay's mouthpiece ("I didn't like her. She was mean.").  Rosie Huntington-Whiteley now occupies the role of impossibly beautiful love interest. Bay frames her at such exploitative angles that the Victoria's Secret model's lack of acting experience is irrelevant. So, in a sense, Fox's absence is barely felt.

In a form of revisionist history, the Transformers universe collides with our own in the third. The pre-title sequence devotes itself to fabricating a plot in which the 1969 moon landing was actually a cover-up to explore a crashed Autobot ship containing very precious cargo. Fake Kennedys and Nixons are used, along with clips of Walter Cronkite spliced in between for an attempt at verisimilitude. There is even a curious inconsistency in HD quality picture and 8mm filters that seem to be carelessly edited together to communicate the 60s style while simultaneously promoting the opposite. NASA finds their objective in the form of a crashed spaceship, and Optimus Prime later retrieves several teleporting pillars (if you are not following me by this point, you are not insane) and the former Autobot leader, Sentinel Prime, voiced by the sci-fi god himself, Leonard Nimoy.  Even poor Buzz Aldrin himself saunters in to espouse such lies about his famous mission. It is a ludicrous plot rife with holes, inconsistencies and unexplained tangents. It is simply perfect.

From the basic plot summary, the film branches in dozens of directions that make any essay analyzing it equally confusing (Mr. Bay may be a genius after all...). The rest of the cast is a good place to continue. Josh Duhamel returns as the Army solider Lennox; his character, over the course of three films, has never been more than the handsome, skilled soldier that always seems to be in the midst of the action. We are only acquainted with him because he has been on screen for so long, and we do not know why he fights, or what makes him tick. A halfhearted attempt to flesh out the other soldier, Air Force Chief Epps (Tyrese Gibson), at least is present yet still keeps the audience remarkably distant from a character they have seen for three films now. John Turturro returns as the outlandish Seymour Simmons. Bay handles his entrance well, throwing Bill O'Reilly in the mix and lampooning both actors in the process. His blocking and moves are cut quickly, building upon the psychotic Turturro seen in The Big Lebowski and the other Transformers films. Barely a third into the movie, however, a random event physically restricts his character and any humor or personality instantly dissipates.

New characters hit, miss or completely fail. Seymour's assistant succeeds as played by the diverse and always talented Alan Tudyk, from Firefly, 3:10 to Yuma, and, yes, Dodgeball as Steve the Pirate. His mysterious - and of course unexplained - past struggles with his soft German demeanor for comic moments. Ken Jeong randomly appears as a colleague of Sam who holds secrets. Jeong is hilarious, but milks (no pun intended) his bizarre role in the Hangover films to a point of self-mockery. I will not deny the undeniable laughs I got from his peculiar performance in the elevator scene, however. A disturbingly tan John Malkovich kicks and punches as Sam's gung-ho employer. His off-kilter style shines briefly before inexplicably dimming to darkness. In an unseen transfer of power, the once power-hungry boss morphs into nothing more than a court jester before the mighty Sam. It is a sad, pathetic scene that embodies the problems with this film so aptly.

Two new antagonists fall flat from their lack of dimensions. Frances McDormand - Best Actress winner from one of my favorite films Fargo - is relegated to a myopic, nagging National Intelligence Director. The slight arc in her character in no way atones for the relentless obstacles she throws in the way of any sensible progress (hey, I end up rooting for Sam, look at that). Her Bush-era security paranoia reveals political judgment on the part of Bay and a little too heavy-handedly, too. And the worst of the bunch stands tall and debonair as Patrick Dempsey's laughable villain Dylan Gould. The boss of Huntington-Whiteley's character, Carly, Dylan takes uncomfortable interest in his employee, leading Sam on anger tantrums. Of course, there is a bigger plot at hand and it is here that his character falls apart. Dylan never has control over the situation and Dempsey lacks any hold on his role as well.

Oh, and the robots. I have neglected to mention the namesake of the series much as of yet, and that could be a wonderful thing. Do humans take the main role this time around, leaving the mechanical fighters to perhaps fill the role of metaphor of technology on today's society or an even more insightful theme? No, I simply do not have much to say about them. Optimus Prime once again waves the American flag as the pinnacle of our patriotic values. Bumblebee sits on the sidelines for the most part; the first film actually portrayed the bond between Sam and his robot protector well, but the last two films have muddled such connection. Sentinel Prime makes for an interesting new character with a distinct set of values, ones put to the test. Megatron, this time around, holds little importance and erratically shows up to show his influence that is never proven (and even disputed at one point). The special effects powerhouse Shockwave rips through matter with devastating ease, such as collapsing a skyscraper that houses Sam and the soldiers in one of the more outlandish, yet equally impressive, scenes of destruction I have seen. His chaos carries no motive or purpose, and in an interview with USA Today, Bay claimed Shockwave is a main antagonist. No indications in the film prove that, despite the gratuitous special effects.

The main actor in Transformers: Dark of the Moon is not Shia LaBeouf or Peter Cullen but that man himself, Michael Bay. With a nearly $200 million budget, I must say it is impressive Bay maintains such creative control on his work. It is not surprising, however, since his MO coincides with the proletariat's desires more than, say, Darren Aronofsky.  James Cameron, Tony Scott and Paul Greengrass all approach the action scene differently but successful in their own individual way. A sense of space (or lack thereof in the last one's case) establishes itself naturally along with subtle indicators of who to root for, and if that matches or breaks from who is winning at the present moment. This artistry is missing in Bay's scenes. The stellar visual effects and audio design (which still may be the franchise's strongest suit) exist with no motive behind their form or implementation. A key moment about an hour, fifteen minutes in, involving both significant death and betrayal, feels off. It takes a few seconds to realize what happens on the screen, and the blame for the audience cognition rests on the director's shoulders alone. A closer shot, not so detached and pointlessly broad, could have communicated such a significant character choice much more effectively.

Bay does not resolve who is the ultimate protagonist, leaving the field hazy and unclear. We follow Sam the most, yet hear narration throughout from Optimus. The humans at one point are utterly hopeless, yet, in a nice touch, conquer an enemy alone, steel versus blood. But just after, Optimus slays a main antagonist by himself, Sam nowhere to be found in the crucial final moments.  The mystery may be unraveling? Unfortunately no, since the victorious soldiers stroll in slow motion with no real gratification given to the Autobots. It makes the ultimate theme unclear, a rather notable flaw in any film.

There are fewer scenes than the last film that contain such unintentional hilarity, but those that are here are winners. Try not to laugh during Dempsey's last scene (and the inexplicable plot hole it presents) along with Huntington-Whiteley's entrance (following such a serious story montage). And the slow motion (used so liberally in this movie) meditation of Huntington-Whiteley in the midst of entropy may be the best shot in the series.

Hate Bay we all, or at least I, might, I can see he is trying a little harder. There are some choices here and there that are admirable. A POV shot through a gas mask immerses you rather well. A quick cut to black and back - a blink, if you will - is a wise editing choice that saves time as the edit itself implies the quick duration of time that passed between the two scenes. And his comic timing and capture may lack much creativity but always works. He incorporates some imagery that does not always succeed. The easy task of Star Trek allusions are there, if a little pointlessly. The much more difficult trial of the Challenger explosion is not handled as well. The image is thrown in, but the emotional weight that stays with such a rough event is not conveyed to the audience. It is a requirement to not just incorporate an image but to explore the meaning within.

After all this, I realize everyone who will see this film will do so unquestionably and the wiser ones will simply stay away. All of the above is quite redundant in the end, isn't it? But what had to be done was done. And, if I may partake a secret:  I did enjoy Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Most of it at least. The last hour fell apart but the first hour was entertaining in its many stupid ways. It was in this first hour that characters were introduced or perhaps fleshed-out so slightly; it was then in the last hour and a half (yes, this is a whopping 157 minutes long) that this did not continue. But it does not induce headaches or bitter anger as the second installment did in its never-ending, maddening stupidity. And that, slyly and sincerely, is a compliment. Perhaps the existence of such films like these leeches on the collective intelligence of our country. But its brilliance in creating the perfect anti-film, in all its logic-defying, product placement-heavy, jingoist glory, makes any artistic statements Bay attempts seem like blatant and unforgivable accidents. And his potential is there!! I will continue to shake my head and wag my finger all the way down here, where I am but a harmless mite easily whisked away. But he does not notice me anyway, for he is too busy playing with his gold-plated toys.

Final Verdict:
2 Stars Out of 5