Thursday, December 24, 2009

"The Hangover" is a Mixed Bag

As the saying goes, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas". This saying has become somewhat of a cliche. After watching "The Hangover", I would say this film is a bit of cliche as well. It's a story about three guys who take their soon to be married best friend to Las Vegas for a bachelor party for the ages. Sounds familiar. This bachelor party for the ages is meant to be an overnight party, not soon to be forgotten. But as the blood alcohol levels rise, naturally, their inhibitions, and eventually, their memory, dissapate.

The film stars Bradley Cooper ("Wedding Crashers"), Ed Helms (formally of John Stewart's "The Daily Show") and Zack Galifianakis as the three groomsmen who take their best friend Doug (Justin Bartha) to Las Vegas for his bachelor party. The morning after, the three groomsmen awake to pounding hangovers, their rented Vegas penthouse recked, and sans a groom. They quickly begin retracing their steps, picking up clues from wherever, and whoever they can. Along the way, they meet a prostitute (played by Heather Graham) a maniacal Asian business man (Ken Jeong), and a tiger belonging to boxing champ Mike Tyson, who makes a cameo. Hilarity ensues, and the three men endure being, among other things, beaten, mauled, tasered and arrested. One of the men, in his drunken haze, even has a quickie Vegas marriage.

There are some great things about this film, and some not so great things. We'll start with the bad. First of all, I think, while the details in the story are funny, the over all story is a little tired. We've all seen the buddy comedies in which one guy plays the pretty boy, one the uptight professional, and one the dimwit. Secondly, there's usually one character in these movies, be it a major or minor actor, that just sucks all the fun out of the film. This film certainly doesn't disappoint there either.

Now for the good news. Each of the main actors perform there respective roles very well. If you've seen any other films with these actors, you may say that they've been typecast. Bradley Cooper played the pretty boy jerk in "The Wedding Crashers". His character in this film is similar, but the difference is, in this film, he's a well meaning jerk. As I said earlier, the over all story of a bachelor party in Vegas is an old one. But this one relies on the hilarious details as the three groomsmen work backwards, retracing their steps in order to find their missing groom. I also find it interesting (not necessarily good or bad) that the main character is one that we really don't see at all, but the film is all about them in some respect.

This is a funny film. For those of you who know me, you know that I love stupid humor. Fart jokes especially crack me up everytime. "The Hangover" certainly delivers on both fronts. Finally, on one hand, the story is a bit stale, but there's enough originality that keeps the viewer watching a laughing. I'd recommend this movie, but not for the squeamish.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Tis the Season for an Excellent Holiday Film

As I was contemplating the next film I was going to write about, it donned on me that I have yet to write about any holiday films. There are so many great ones to choose from. You can't go wrong with the many incarnations of the Charles Dickens classic "A Christmas Carol". One of my favorite versions is the 1984 version starring George C. Scott. But that's not the film I want to discuss. One of my favorites is the 1942 film "Holiday Inn" starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. As I mentioned in one of my earlier entries, I'm a sucker for a musical. But it also has to have a great story behind it. This film certainly does not disappoint on either front.

Crosby and Astaire star, naturally, as show-biz partners, Astaire as the hoofer and Crosby as the crooner. Starring with them are two women, one being a sweet, albeit naive singer and dancer named Linda (played by Marjorie Reynolds), and the other being a somewhat of a femme-fatale, Lila, played by Virgina Dale. In the beginning, Lila and Crosby's character, Jim Hardy, are an item. But Astaire's Ted Hanover has made no secret of stealing Lila away to begin a separate career. With this news, Hardy decides that it's time to take himself out of the limelight. He buys a rundown old farmhouse in the Connecticut countryside, with the intention of turning it into an inn. But not just any inn. He decides that he only wants to open 15 days a year, on every holiday.

Eventually, sweet naive Linda is out of work, and comes to Jim's inn seeking work. As the months ensue, love blossoms between Jim and Linda. But all of this is about to be upset. Ted comes to the inn as well, after being dumped by his wife to be, Lila. He too sees Linda, and so begins the love triangle.

The film is set against a beautiful background, showing very well the changing New England seasons. Equally excellent is the Irving Berlin score. He wrote a song for every holiday, even the minor ones, such as Washington and Lincoln's birthdays. We are also introduced to the classic Irving Berlin tune "White Christmas" which would later, in 1954 have a movie made based off of it (another equally excellent film, starring Crosby and Danny Kaye). In addition to Crosby and Astaire playing their respective roles as dancer and singer, both men show their excellent comedic skills as well. The two leading ladies show excellent comedic prowess throughout the film as well. Finally, there are several supporting players throughout the film. The group's comically unsure, and somewhat inept manager, Danny, played by Walter Abel, and the headstrong, matronly cook at the inn, Mamie, played by Louse Beavers.

This is my go to film for the Christmas holiday. It's not a Christmas film, per se, but it has enough of that amazing holiday cheer. Plus, it's just a feel-good movie in general.

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Angels and Demons" Has its Demons, but Overall is a Good Movie

A couple of years ago, I read Dan Brown's novel,"Davinci Code". This was a book that, as the cliche says, was hard to put down. When the movie came out, I was excited, especially since one of our finest actors, Tom Hanks was cast as the novel's hero, Professor and symbologist Robert Langdon. But when I saw the film adaptation of the novel, I came away disappointed. This has often happened, and not just me. This time was different. I have not read Brown's "Angels and Demons", a fact that, as I was renting the film, I started to regret. I'd heard all of the rumblings, saying that the film left out a huge portion of the novel, or there were parts of the film that had nothing to do with the plot of the novel. Of course, not having read the novel, I can't say. What I can say is that I enjoyed this film much more than the adaptation of "Davinci Code".

The film re-introduces Harvard professor Robert Langdon, a well-known and highly touted symbologist. As the film opens, the pope has just died. While this may seem innocuous, or just a part of life, the cardinals expect fowl play. When the top four candidates to take over the papacy are kidnapped as a part of a terrorist act against the Vatican, Professor Langdon is called upon to help solve the mystery of the missing cardinals, as well as the supposed innocent death of the pope. Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer round out the main cast.

As I watched it, I found that the film certainly had its high, as well as it low points. The first high point of the film is the pairing of director Ron Howard with the film's star Tom Hanks. These two, while huge stars in their own rights, are a huge force when paired together. I can only imagine that Hanks does not need much direction in order to do what he does. And Ron Howard knows that. They've worked together in several excellent films (i.e. Apollo 13, The Davinci Code). Secondly, the role of the young priest, played by Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is an intrical part of the film. He has shown his acting range through several films. We saw him play a dual role in director Michael Bay's "The Island", the first as a cloned version of someone in the outside world, and then of the man himself. The first man spoke with McGregor's natural Scottish brogue, and his clone spoke with a flawless American accent. Finally, the antagonist of the film, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and known in the film only as the assassin, plays his role of antagonist very, very well. He'll make your skin crawl.

While the acting in the film is excellent, the story in the film was good, but it was somewhat conviluted. There are several stories within this film. If you could pick one, you could certainly either write a novel or make a film with that one underlying idea. In this film, there are several stories that would never otherwise co-exist together. The underlying religious story is palpable, but not to a point that you're overwhelmed with it. But when you throw in an act of terrorism, and a murder, you get lost within the mix.

This was a good movie. It was well casted and had good special effects. But the old addage of the film never being as good as the book is probably true. Having never read the book, I can't say. What I can say is that if you read the book, you probably shouldn't see the movie. Now, after seeing this film, I am inclined to read the book. Call it an underlying curiosity.

Friday, December 4, 2009

"Up" Continues Studio's Tradition for Excellent Family Films

Pixar studios has an excellent reputation for high quality family films. "Toy Story" broke new ground in 1995 with the studio's now trademark style of computer generated animation. They continued with "Finding Nemo" in 2003, another groundbreaking film in that it took place nearly all under the surface of the ocean, something that had never been done before, at least not to such a huge and life-like scale. The year 2004 saw "The Incredibles" a film by Corvallis High School alum Brad Bird. This film garnered the Academy Award for the best animated feature the following year. Pixar's latest film "Up" is another excellent addition to these exceptional films.

In the film, Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner) is a elderly man who has recently lost his wife Ellie. Carl is perfectly content to stay in home, or if he's feeling pent up, he gets his coat and hat, unlocks the multiple locks on his door, and walks the few feet to the chair on his porch. Everything is changing around Carl. His beloved wife has recently died, he has no other family or friends, and the city he has lived in is now, in an attempt to keep up with the times, is trying to force him out of his beloved home in order to make way for a mall.

He and his wife had made plans years ago to travel to South America. When she passes, he all but abandons those plans, until one day. After a disagreement with the city, he's forced to go live an a retirement home, but he has no plans of actually going. Carl, a long time balloon salesman, rigs his house with thousands of balloons and begins his journey to South America. But he soon discovers that he's brought more with him than his home and memories of his life with Ellie. As he sails over the countryside, he gets an unsuspecting knock at the door. As he opens the door, he finds Russell (voiced by 9 year old Jordan Nagai) a wilderness scout who is determined to earn his final badge by assisting an elderly person.

Carl and Russell form an unlikely friendship as they embark on an adventure, albeit an inadvertant one. While scaling clifts and walking through jungles in an attempt to re-locate his home, Carl and Russell encounter an endangered bird, a talking dog, and a maniacal collector and aviator (whom once, we later find out, was one of Carl's childhood idols) who wants nothing more than to capture the bird in order to give him credibiliy again.

This film was excellent. The scenery throughout the film was beautiful. And the film has plenty of Pixar's stunningly seemless life-like animation. To animate a film like this, every small detail, down to the wind in the character's hair has to be perfect. These films make you forget you're watching an animated film. All of these films have something in common. There's always a character in them that undergo some kind of transformation. In this film, the relationship with a young child transforms a closed off old man into a caring male figure for a young man who has very little male influence in his life. There are many touching moments in the film. Most of them come in the process of young Russell trying to break through Carl's tough shell, which he eventually does.

If you've never seen Pixar film, go out and rent this one. They make great films, and this one ranks up there with some of the best.

Monday, November 30, 2009

"Memento" is a Backwards Film, literally.

As the film's title suggests, this film is about mementos. However, they're not necessarily the kind that are kept for sentimental reasons. They're kept to help jog a memory. Christopher Nolan directs Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss (of "The Matrix") and Joe Pantoliano (also of "The Matrix") in this psychological-thriller about a man suffering from short term memory loss. He uses Polaroid photos and tattoos himself with clues to help him solve the mystery of his wife's death.

Pearce is excellent in the role of Leonard, a man desperately seeking answers and clues in the brutal death of his wife. He meets many people along the way, each of them offering a different piece to the puzzle. He spends his days collecting the pieces of his puzzle, documenting them one at a time. When he wakes up the next morning, his mind is blank, and the only clues are inked on his skin and photographs of people and items. These clues all help him to find his wife's killer.

This was a very interesting film, although it took me awhile to get through it. This is not a movie that you can turn on and walk away from. If you get up and miss one scene, you'll be lost, because the next scene will build from the last. I made that mistake, twice, as a matter of fact. I finally was able to sit down and watch the whole film from start to finish. The filming style is excellent, using color for the present-day part of the film, and black and white for Leonard's past.
This combination helps the film's watcher to keep abreast of Leonard's background, and helps us to understand what he's doing and why he's doing it.

The film's director took the short story "Memento Mori" written by his brother Johnathan Nolan, and adapted it into the superbly written script. Nolan has also directed "Insomnia" another equally excellent dark thriller, and one of my personal favorites in the genre. More recently, Nolan directed "Batman Begins" from which the late Heath Ledger garnered the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award posthumously.

As I watched this film, I couldn't help but compare it to the 1994 Dana Carvey comedy "Clean Slate" in which Carvey plays a detective who also suffers from short term memory loss. He plays a detective who has to testify in court, but due to an accident, his memory only lasts for one day (as it is with Leonard in this film). Carvey must rely on a tape recording of himself every morning recounting the events of the previous day. It's almost unfair to compare these two films, but nonetheless, it's amazing how closely related the overall idea of the two story lines are.

Watching this film is like playing a game of dominos. If you take out one scene, or one tile, you risk toppling all the rest and end up having to start over again. My advice to my readers, however many of you there may be, is to go out and rent this film, but watch it when the kids are in bed and the ringer on the phone is turned off. If you miss one scene, or one moment, you'll have to start over. Words to live by.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Powerful Performances in "There Will be Blood"

"There Will be Blood" is a powerful story about oil, money, greed and religion. The title of the film aptly describes the story of oil drilling at the turn of the twentieth century. I had mixed feelings about this film. On one hand, it was a film well-deserving of its 2008 best picture nomination. On the other, there were several scenes of superfluous dialogue that didn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the story. But this was clearly a performance driven film.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview (in his second Academy Award-winning role), a successful oilman who travels the country at the request of farmers who believe their land is rich with oil. He operates on his keen sense of intuition. He travels to these places, only if he believes that there is actually oil. If his gut says there is, he goes, hires the local townspeople to set up a drilling operation, and pays them all an excellent salary. When a young preacher (played by Paul Dano) approaches him about his supposedly oil rich farm land, Plainview's life changes, at first, it seems, for the better. But as the film and story unfolds, he suffers setback after setback.

In the beginning of the film, it's 1902, and Plainview and one of his best friends are working on an oilrig together. Suddenly, the rope which is tied to the wooden structure of the tower snaps under the intense weight of the buckets of oil being hoisted out of the well. A large piece of woods comes crashing down to the well, killing his friend with its force. His friend has a son, the mother of whom, we later find out, had died during the birthing process. Plainview adopts the boy as his own, and the two, it seems, become unseperable. But then, tragedy strikes. His adopted son is working for Plainview on an oilrig. There is an explosion that knocks his son off the platform. While this doesn't kill him, it causes him to go deaf, and causes much tension between father and son.

This is, very much so, a performance driven film. Day-Lewis gives one of the most dramatic and intense performances I've ever seen from him. He is one of those actors who gets completely lost in each of the characters he portrays. He plays characters that, as much of a cliche as it is to say, you love to hate. He plays a sadistic, homicidal butcher in Martin Scorsese's 2002 film "Gangs of New York". In this film, he plays an oil tycoon who is sadistic, but yet saavy and business minded. The other stand out performance is Paul Dano as the young, tenacious preacher. His character, to me, can be compared to the modern day televangelist, relying highly on his strong belief that he is a messanger, sent by God to heal the sick and preach God's gospel. He reminded me of a turn of the century Jerry Falwell.

At times during the film, the long scenes of dialogue made me want to turn it off and take a nap. But the excellent performances never failed to suck me back into the story. With a running time of over two and a half hours, this is not a film that you can simply put on and then walk away from. You have to devote your time to it with as minimal distraction as possible. It's an excellent film with strongly acted roles and a great story. I highly recommend it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

S.O.B. is a Huge Departure for it's Star

We've all seen Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, and as Maria in "Sound of Music" (one of my personal favorites). A loveable, seemingly magical nanny, a mischevious nun who is sent to govern seven children, and ultimatley falls for their milataristic erotic film star?? Yes, that's right.

The film opens with a musical number starring Andrews. Cut to a gentleman and his dog running on the beaches of Malibu. He drops, clutching his chest. He then crawls up the beach, towards a house to let someone know of his dire condition. Ultimately, he doesn't survive. Throughout the film, we are continuosly shown the body of this man, whom we later find out is a popular actor, his loyal dog remaining by his side. This is among the very strange events that unfold throughout a very strange film.

Andrews plays Sally Miles, one of the most popular movie stars in the world. Miles is married to Felix Farmer (played excellently by Richard Mulligan) one of the most successful directors in the business. Together, they've formed an unstoppable team, making hit after hit film...until one. In fact, the latest film is such a monumental flop, it sends its director into a nervous breakdown, one that he seemingly will never come out of.

During the first half of the film, the supporting players, played by William Holden, Robert Loggia, and Robert Preston, are trying to stop Felix from killing himself. As unfunny as this situation would be to any of us, Felix fails several times, each attempt more comically inept than the last. Probably the most comedic of the events is when Felix gets into his running Cadillac in a closed garage. When the groundskeeper finds him, he reaches in to pull the keys out of the ignition, but instead nudges the gear shift into drive, sending the car through the wall of the garage, down the dune, and into the Pacific Ocean.

Nearly half way through the film, Felix has an epiphany. He's going to buy his flop back from the studio, and re-cut the movie. The only caveat; his squeaky clean movie star wife must do a scene in which she appears topless. Understandably, she has serious morality issues with doing this. What will her fans think of her? What will this do to her career? And so on. But in the end, and with the help of a little liquid courage, she does it.

The fallout begins. The studio executives refuse to allow Felix to re-cut the film, claiming it will lose them millions of dollars. So he takes matters into his own hands. He leads the police on a high speed car chase, and ends up dying at their hand. His friends decide that a proper send off for the unconventional director is an unconventional one; a viking funeral.

I had many mixed feelings about this film. At first, I really didn't care for the movie. Do you ever have the urge to yell at the screen, because the hero is in peril, or the actors play their inept characters so well, that you can't help but to hate them? Well, that's how I felt at the beginning of the film. How the hell can so many people ignore a dead man on the beach? How can so many people be so careless? About half way through the film, I had a change of heart. The comedic happenings throughout the film were just too much to ignore. Probably one of my favorite actors in the film was Robert Preston, in a HUGE departure from his iconic role as Professor Harold Hill in the "Music Man". He plays a somewhat inept, slightly alcoholic doctor to Felix Farmer. His lines from the well-written script are delivered in such a way, it's hard not to follow his sometimes backward reasoning.

There were many surprises during this film. Obviously, one of the biggest is it's star, Julie Andrews, the squeaky clean Disney icon, is not squeaky clean. She swears like a sailor, drinks like a fish, and appears topless, albeit very briefly. But nonetheless, if you see this film, it will shock and entertain you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Bandwagon is perfection!

So for those of you that know me, you know that I'm a lover of movies. All types. So I thought that I would start critiquing some movies (a la Roger Ebert...kind of) They won't necessarily be brand new movies, just some of my favorites, from my personal collection that I pull of the shelf and dust off from time to time, or ones that I haven't seen before that come in the mail via Netflix. Well, here goes nothing...!

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for musicals...that's right...musicals, especially those made by Fred Astaire. When I was six years old (again, for those who don't know me, this will be an FYI. For those that do, this will be redundant) I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. My parents and I (and our large following that is both sides of my extended family) traveled to San Francisco for the initial surgery. When I was recovering from surgery, I would watch movies. While most kids were into the action or sci-fi genres (some great films are in each of these genres) I was watching a classic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers All of the nurses would come into my room after their shifts and watch them with me, amazed that a six year old had such refined taste. Almost 20 years later, that has not changed.

The Bandwagon is the best post Astaire-Rodgers film ever made, in my humble opinion (kind of the point of this whole endeavor). Suffice it to say, I will never tire of this movie. I had to search high and low to find a copy, but I finally found it on Amazon. The movie comes in a two disc set. The first is the re-mastered film, along with an optional commentary by the film's director, Vincent Minnelli's daughter, Liza (yes...that Liza). The second disc has a making of the movie featurette with interviews from the surviving cast of the 1953 film (there's actually only one surviving actor of the primary cast to date.)

When I was younger, it was the music and the dancing that fascinated me about these films. Now that I'm older, that's certainly still dazzling, but even more dazzling is the story (yes, believe it or not, most musicals actually have a story behind them, albeit sometimes, not a very good one.) This film is certainly no exception. Equally amazing is how closely the story of the film parallels the story of it's star.

In the film, Astaire plays a song and dance actor who is essentially retired and forgotten (a fact that is stated fairly regularly throughout the movie). Everything about this film makes me feel great. I got home last night, and I wanted to watch a movie. It was a toss up between Singin' in the Rain (another equally excellent musical film) or this one. There's some movies that entertain you, certainly, but they're forgettable. Then there are FILMS (some of which can be forgettable as well) This is an UN-forgettable film. Not only for the music and the story, but the warm fuzzy feeling it gives you after watching it, like the feeling you get when you're wrapped up in your nice thick comforter on a cold day. As the headlining song says "That's Entertainment!" This film certainly is that, and more. Enjoy!!

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is hit and miss

I'm sure you've all had that feeling of being really excited about something, be it a party, a new job, a date or a movie. I had that very feeling about this movie, and while it certainly delivered on action and suspense, there was that certain something that was missing. I liken it to going out on a date with a beautiful woman (or guy). But midway through, you figure out that there's just something a little off about her (him).

This is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, which starred the late Walter Matthau. In this version, Denzel Washington takes over Matthau's role, as a public transit worker with a checkered recent past that unfolds with the film. No matter what you find out about him, your heart goes out to him. He's a family man who is simply trying to put bread on the table.

It's helmed by director Tony Scott ("Man on Fire"). Several of Scott's trademarks, are evident throughout the film, such as the casting of Washington, spectacular action sequences, and his use of quick, choppy camera movements. If you've never seen a Tony Scott film, his useage of these camera movements may be somewhat nauseating, but you'll quickly find that they add poignancy and intensity to his films.

There are a few actors who can play the role of the antagonist so convincingly, it sends chills up your spine. Examples would be Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in "The Matrix" trilogy), Jack Nicholson, or more recently, the late Heath Ledger (The Joker in "Batman") or John Travolta (Gabriel Shear in "Swordfish"). In this film, Travolta plays Ryder, the tattooed, angry and jaded ex-Wall Street exec who has fallen on hard times. This was one of the first roles that Travolta took after grieving the loss of his son, who died unexpectedly last year. Seemingly an odd choice, but Travolta plays his roles, whether it's good or evil, with such enthusiasm that you wouldn't know that the man was still hurting. And no matter what role he plays, he always has a grin on his face, whether it's kind and genuine, or sadistic.

This film is certainly entertaining and full of suspense, but it's a very straight forward story with few twists. The twists that are in the film are somewhat formulaic of the action genre. The story is certainly well written and casted, down to the extras on the street. But if the film had been done with anybody else than Washington and Travolta, it wouldn't have worked. These actors carried the film.

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is a great popcorn movie. But it's just that, a well written and casted popcorn movie