Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Hangover Part II

Originality.

Is it worth a damn?

Before you answer, bear in mind that this is THE question in Hollywood right now; at least on the creative side.

Also bear in mind that the accumulated evidence of the past ten years points strongly to "no."

Yes, Hollywood is hurting financially, but that's because the dvd market has dried up thanks to the digital revolution.

In fact, Hollywood is NOT hurting at the theatrical box office. It continues to break all-time records nearly every year.

And that brings us to The Hangover Part II, which just became the highest-grossing live-action comedy of all time.

Rising ticket prices certainly diminish the luster of this accomplishment, but considering that every other entertainment venue is suffering from audience fragmentation, no one can dispute the fact that HO2 did huge, huge business over the weekend.

And it doesn't have a shred of originality in it.

The movie follows the continuing adventures of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis as they drink too much, lose a friend and wake up with no memory of what happened.

What's changed is the setting -- we're in Thailand now -- and the prospective groom -- Ed Helms is the one with a wedding the next day; the missing friend is the brother of his bride.

The newborn infant of the first movie is replaced by a capuchin monkey. The role Ken Jeong played is now occupied by Paul Giamatti.

Faces have changed, but fundamentally it's the exact same story.

And here's why people struggle with the originality question: because this mindless retread of a sequel is really funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

I know. I'm surprised myself.

It's hard to explain why this movie works so well without regurgitating my praise of the first movie. The thriller plot structure makes a great counterpoint to the comedic content. It also keeps the stakes high and the clock ticking, things which make comedies more funny, not less.

Only the jokes are different, so the experience of watching HO2 is a lot like watching HO1 after an interval of several years, long enough to forget the particulars and be surprised again by the humor.

So it works. And it makes money.

And I ask again: is originality worth a damn?

Such a question is too broad for a curt answer, so let's narrow it down a bit. Does originality matter in the movie theater in 2011?

Nope.

And that's okay.

A strange thing has happened to visual entertainment. Premium cable tv, with its small niche, paid-subscription audience, has found an environment conducive to original storytelling. Thus we have Mad Men and Breaking Bad and The Wire and all the groundbreaking work a consumer could ask for.

With their high production values and serial natures -- as opposed to episodic -- these shows don't resemble traditional television series nearly as much as they resemble... well, movies.

Meanwhile, the movies have morphed into something much more like television. We have episodic franchises where every installment has the same basic formula, but we enjoy it anyway because we like the characters and don't expect the same level of quality as, say, we do from our television.

(!!!)

So if you think about movies as the new tv, and tv as the new movies, it's a lot easier to take in stride -- and perhaps even enjoy -- the current slate of sequels, adaptations and remakes being served at the movie theater.

You just have to relax a little.

It's only the cinema.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 48/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Midnight in Paris

When he was a young stand-up comic, Woody Allen told the following story:

"I once had a pain in the chestal area.

"Now, I was sure it was heartburn, y'know, cause at that time I was married and my wife cooking with her Nazi recipes, y'know, chicken Himmler.

"I didn't wanna pay 25 bucks to have it reaffirmed by some medic, that I had heartburn. But I was worried 'cause it was in the chestal area. Then it turns out my friend, Eggs Benedict, has a pain in his chestal area, in the same exact spot. I figured if I could get Eggs to go to the doctor, I could figure out what was wrong with me, at no charge, so I con Eggs. He goes.

"Turns out he's got heartburn. Cost him 25 dollars, and I feel great, cause I figured I beat the medic out of 25 big ones, y'know. Called up Eggs two days later... he died.

"I check into a hospital immediately, have a battery of tests run... x-rays. Turns out I got heartburn. Costs me 110 dollars.

"Now I'm furious. I run to Eggs' mother, and I say 'Did he suffer much?' And she said: 'No, it was quick. Car hit him and that was it.'"

Funny guy, that Woody Allen.

His cheerfully absurd sense of humor exploded in a spate of early films: Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper. Pure laughers, every one.

But Allen was not just funny.

He was also a smart guy consumed with philosophical issues. When his humor and philosophy converged, the result was an artistic peak that resulted in his strongest films: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters.

This was Allen's golden period.

It was fated not to last, of course, and when it was over, Allen would never again combine philosophical thoughtfulness with shuddering hilarity quite as well.

Nevertheless, Allen has continued to generate lots of fine movies.

Lately, however, the equilibrium between philosophy and comedy has swung decisively in favor of philosophy -- or theme, as it's called in drama.

In these latter days, Allen likes setting forth the theme of his movies right at the outset. Who can forget the opening of Match Point, with its tennis ball bouncing atop the net. In the first scene of Whatever Works, Larry David address the camera directly to inform the audience of theme.

So too with Midnight in Paris, a breezy and charming film about a young American screenwriter visiting Paris. The screenwriter, played by Owen Wilson, is engaged to marry Rachel McAdams, but he's not in love with her nearly as much as he's in love with the City of Light.

We get the theme early on, through a friend of McAdams', who pedantically -- but, Allen will show, accurately -- derides nostalgia for the past as a deluded manifestation of one's inability to cope with the present.

This describes Owen Wilson's screenwriter, who isn't in love with Paris of the present nearly as much as he's in love with Paris of the 1920's, that bohemian paradise which sheltered Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and pretty much every other major artist of the era.

Wilson's character rejects the theme statement and continues to yearn for Paris of the 20's. He yearns so hard, in fact, he ends up getting transported there.

The whys and hows are unexplained and unnecessary, which gets at the point. Allen isn't strictly concerned with dramatic plausibility, narrative coherence or even humor. All the above are present in Midnight in Paris, but only in moderation. What dominates is theme.

Theme is in the driver's seat in Woody Allen films now. And while that's not ideal, it's not a terrible situation either.

Theme so often seems trite, lame or completely absent in Hollywoood films. In arthouse films, theme is often ridiculously obtuse. So it's kind of nice to see someone set up a simple thematic premise, then work it through scene by scene with mildly comic characters and situations.

Manhattan it's not.

But the days of Allen making films like Manhattan -- or telling jokes as funny as "Eggs Benedict" -- are long gone.

And we shouldn't yearn for those days. We should be happy with what we have in the present.

At least, that's what Midnight in Paris tells us.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 67/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bridesmaids

Every so often a movie comes along that is written by women, features women and deals with a woman's perspective on love and life, and you realize that if more Hollywood decisions were driven by women, the resulting movies would be every bit as shallow and phony and shoddily crafted as they are now.

Such a movie is Bridesmaids, the badly-structured and poorly-conceived new comedy written by hands down the best performer on Saturday Night Live, Kristen Wiig. Co-writing is Wiig's old Groundlings chum, Annie Mumolo.

The movie is currently lighting up the box office on the strength of the movie's good qualities -- its title, its relatable premise and its poster --

--and also the strength of circumstance: the female audience is massively underserved and, given the chance, they will turn out in droves to see a movie directed at them.

They will even convince themselves they like said movie, but when it comes around on cable, no one will watch it, and when future movie conversations take place, no one will mention it, because the truth is, Bridesmaids is terrible.

The story follows a bankrupt, unlucky-in-love thirtysomething former bakery owner, Wiig, who gets drafted into the wedding party of a childhood friend.

Within the wedding party, Wiig discovers a classier, wealthier rival for the bride's affections, a heavyset, foul-mouthed mother of three, a heavierset, fouler-mouthed mother of none, and a thin, wispy nonentity.

The obvious comparison is to the comedy across the gender aisle, The Hangover, whose sequel comes out in a couple days. But unlike the unfocused Bridesmaids, Hangover features only three main characters, all of whom represent completely different aspects of the male psyche.

By contrast, Bridesmaids is saddled with six principal characters, and it can't even pull off two.

The Hangover also put its characters into an ingenious situation with dire consequences, so the tension was high and the laughs were proportionately bigger. Bridesmaids literally has no situation. It's just a normal build-up to a normal wedding.

On the surface, Bridesmaids is about Wiig's struggle to reconnect with her childhood friend, outdo her rival in the wedding party, find love with the right man and rediscover her passion for baking.

But under the surface, Bridesmaids is about... well, nothing.

The movie has no heart. In fact, it has no internal organs at all, and this perhaps is the reason the structure is so weak.

Structure, after all, is about the placement of Important Moments. And Important Moments don't exist if character is faked, conflict is contrived and emotional purpose is murky.

And hey... how could it have been otherwise?

Judd Apatow approached Wiig with the idea that she should write a movie -- ANY movie -- and he would produce it. Wiig quickly grabbed her acting buddy and wrote a movie. As well she should have. Right now, Apatow's got the clout to get anything made, but that won't last forever.

(I think he's got about fourteen good months left in him.)

Sadly, it's just not possible to put a rush order on things like plausible characters, meaningful conflict or wracking emotional purpose.

So we get Bridesmaids, a movie that looks funny and sounds funny, but it's about fifteen drafts and four years away from being worth the price of admission.

And we shouldn't be too hard on it. The most impossible thing in the world is to infuse your story with heart and substance and a portion of our own reality.

It doesn't happen here.

No big surprise.

The surprise is that it ever happens.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 26/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 23/100

Monday, May 16, 2011

Thor

Boy, I loved this movie.

I loved the look, the tone, the casting, the special effects, and I especially loved Kenneth Branagh's superb direction.

In case you don't know, Thor is based not on the Norse legend slash religion, but rather the Marvel comic book, which itself is based on the Norse legend -- but set in the present day, so that Thor might interact with Spider-Man or the Hulk, and have memorable fights with them.

He doesn't -- the crossover movie The Avengers isn't coming till NEXT summer -- but he does interact with a group of humans, including astrophysicist Natalie Portman -- who conjures uncomfortable shades of Elisabeth Shue's nuclear physicist in The Saint -- jokey sidekick Kat Dennings, and gruff but congenial mentor Stellan Skarsgard, essentially reprising his role as the math professor in Good Will Hunting.

The reason Thor interacts with these people is that he's been banished from his home dimension of Asgard by his father Odin, due to a combination of his own reckless arrogance and his brother Loki's machinations.

This estranges Thor from his nifty uniform, his famous hammer, and his companions-in-arms, the boisterous "Warriors Three."

Even his famous strength isn't what it used to be, so when Natalie Portman runs him over with her car, it hurts.

He, by the way, is Chris Hemsworth, a newcomer to the Hollywood scene selected by Branagh to portray the more-than-human Thor. In a lot of ways, the success of a superhero movie hinges on how well the lead actor captures the essence of the comic book character. Hemsworth makes for an energetic, bellowing Thunder God not without a streak of charm. Check, check and check.

But what draws the eye in Thor is Branagh's direction. He has the right idea for how the movie should look:

Vivid.

Thor sports a lipstick red cape. The quasi-divine realm of Asgard shimmers in gleaming pastels. Literally, a rainbow bridge connects Asgard to Earth, as well as other realities, like the perilous domain of the warlike, blue-toned Frost Giants.

This is all well and good. Thor should be colorful, the same way a Superman movie should be. When you're dealing with a cosmically powerful character -- and to put it in perspective, Thor could go toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel any day of the week -- it's no good to play for realism. You have to go for grandeur. Branagh goes for it and gets it. The Asgardian scenes dazzle.

The Earth scenes work for the most part, too.

Thor's enemy on Earth is the FBI-like government agency called SHIELD, a group of men-in-black types who descend on Thor's fallen hammer and try to unlock its secrets. Not only are they incapable of doing this, they can't even lift the thing, since anyone who knows anything about comics knows that "whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy--" and ONLY if he be worthy "--shall possess the power of Thor."

Sorry, bureaucratic paper-pushers, you don't make the cut.

Sadly, not even Thor can lift the hammer these days, having been judged unworthy by Odin. And this is where Thor's character arc comes into play. He's got to learn a bit of humility, and getting beat up by guys in three-piece suits is enough to humble any kind of god, let alone the thundering kind.

But he's got to learn fast, because back on Asgard, Loki is plotting Odin's overthrow, and if Thor can't get back in time to thwart these designs, he'll never get the chance to redeem himself in his father's eyes.

There are some moments of genuine excitement in Thor. There are moments of genuine emotion. And there's lots and lots of solid craft in every phase of the film-making process.

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed Thor.

Then I talked to my friend Mike.

Mike is the biggest Marvel fan I know.

In high school he grew sideburns like Wolverine. He's exactly the person you want to talk to after seeing a Marvel comic book adaptation.

Alas, Mike was not as high on Thor as I was.

He disparaged the flick for its strategic choice to create two different casts of characters, one on Asgard -- Odin, Loki, Frost Giants, the Warriors Three -- and one on Earth -- Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, SHIELD.

These are two separate worlds, Mike complained, that generate two different movies.

As a consequence, the amount of time Thor can spend with any group of characters is cut in half, and so is the emotional impact those relationships can achieve.

In particular, the wannabe romantic subplot between Thor and Portman fails to convince. Toward the end of the movie, Thor tries to give Portman a courtly kiss on the hand. Instead, she thrusts her lips on his, giving him a passionate kiss so unsupported by the story it felt like sexual assault.

Mike also hated the fact that it's never clear who's tougher than whom in a given fight. Sometimes Loki seems much weaker than Thor; sometimes he's an equal. The giant robot served with the under-imaginative name "The Destroyer" is sometimes the most implacable force in the universe; other times, a solid hammer-blow to the noggin will take him out.

Mike calls this effect "stacking." When it's done right, the viewer knows that in a straight-up fight, character A can beat character B but not character C. Character D can beat character C, but not character E. Mike likes to know where all the forces of a fictional universe rank, and he's right to want that. And he's right that Thor doesn't deliver.

But for all Mike's objections, I stand by the movie's good qualities, and the fact that Thor is still an effective visualization of the comic book Thunder God.

And that's more than I could have hoped when the movie first appeared on the summer '11 slate. Enough for me to give the movie the following

SCORE

How Accomplished: 63/100

How Much I Enjoyed (pre-talk with Mike): 88/100

How Much I Enjoyed (post-talk with Mike): 67/100

Friday, May 13, 2011

Fast Five

You know what always works in movies?

When there are two good guys.

And even though we love them both, they can't stand each other.

So they spend the first two-thirds of the movie fighting. But they are so evenly matched, neither can get a real edge on the other.

Then...

...they overcome their differences. They join forces to take on the bad guy. And together, they are unstoppable.

The first Pirates of the Caribbean was structured like that. Seeing Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp one-up each other was arguably more fun than the climax against Geoffrey Rush.

Star Wars was like that too. Han Solo is a good guy, but he's essentially opposed to the other good guy, our boy Luke. They don't really join forces till the last five minutes.

Midnight Run. Rocky III. Heck, Sense and Sensibility.

It always works.

And it works in Fast Five, the latest installment in the sensational and increasingly popular series of movies about street-racing virtuosos turned international fugitives.

The movie opens with an action sequence every bit the equal of any James Bond teaser in memory.

Former Fed Paul Walker, who gave up his badge but found his integrity -- man, I wish someone would describe me that way someday -- and his girlfriend Jordana Brewster, sister of the mysterious and missing Vin Diesel -- find themselves trying to steal a few million-dollar cars off a train in South America.

(Don't ask.)

Alas for them, the job goes sour.

Turns out, the sketchy characters who set up the job have sketchy intentions. Just as the valuable cars are off-loaded onto a car hauler speeding alongside the freight train at about a hundred and ninety miles an hour, the menacing baddies are going to stab our heroes in the guts, then spit at them and taunt them as they lie bleeding on the floor of the empty freight car.

Except it doesn't play out that way, because the missing Vin Diesel suddenly gets a lot less missing.

Fast Five isn't big on plausibility, but the level of dramatic tension it achieves is consistently stupendous, especially considering we know full well no recurring characters were harmed during the filming of Fast Five, nor will they be in any of the next ten sequels.

Nonetheless, we're pretty absorbed by events on screen when Vin and Paul take one of those million-dollar cars off a cliff, then plunge a few thousand feet into a river.

Of course, they pop up sputtering a few seconds later, but since the baddies have them surrounded, we don't have time to wince at the unlikeliness of their survival.

Which is a neat trick, one which writer Chris Morgan and director Justin Lin practice throughout the movie. Our team -- yes, it grows to a team, comprising seven or eight characters from previous Fast and Furious movies -- is always on the brink of disaster, so the fact that they keep getting out of said danger by leaping through windows, dodging bullets or even, in Vin's case, romancing a sexy Brazilian translator working for the cops (!) doesn't bother us much.

I'm glad I mentioned the cops.

They're not just any cops. They're US Federal Marshals, a super-team of their own, led by Duane "The Rock" Johnson, the former pro wrestler with the cocked eyebrow, steroid-amplified physique and happily abundant charisma.

The Rock is a single-minded predator intent on catching his man, Vin Diesel.

And this is where the "two good guys" dynamic comes into play. The Rock, you see, is a hero in his own right. He believes in truth, justice and the American Way, and he thinks Vin has violated all three.

So he's going to bring Vin down even if he has to shoot the hell out of the entire city of Rio to do it.

But it turns out, Vin and Paul, in their quest for enough money to stop thieving and racing and running from the law, have targeted the nastiest druglord in all of Rio, a snarling mustachioed blackguard named Reyes.

If the Rock catches Paul and Vin before they steal Reyes' vast, ill-gotten fortune, he'll just be doing the druglord's dirty work for him.

Once the Rock realizes this, it sets up another great moment of schmaltzy, brilliant dramatic intensity. It also sets up act three, in which Vin, Paul and the Rock try to steal a bank vault the size of a Brinks truck from the basement of the central police station in the heart of Rio.

What follows is a massive street race involving superfast sports cars, fleets of police cruisers and helicopters; and which results in the city of Rio pretty much getting trashed. There are doublecrosses, triplecrosses, even a quadruple-cross, and in the end, Reyes is transformed into a charred flake of cinder.

Which is fun.

That accomplished, we're left with the question of whether the Rock will let Paul and Vin get away with their stolen money, or whether he'll return to his role as adversary.

Two good guys. Such a great technique.

The Fast and Furious franchise has really found its stride and, judging by its box office performance, its audience.

Here's hoping #5 isn't the high-point of the series, but just the start of its macho, ridiculous, thoroughly satisfying prime.

Vroom vroom!

SCORE

How Accomplished: 77/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 85/100