Archive for May, 2011
YATES: “Hangover 2,” the Wolpack is back
This week should be fun as Anna and I take on two comedies squaring off at the box office in “Bridesmaids” and “The Hangover Part II.” When I first saw the trailer for “Bridesmaids,” I turned to my wife and said, “this is the hangover film for women,” so it is apropos the He Said/She Said blog offer a split review of the two films this week. Much like the plot of “The Hangover,” just getting to the movie was a challenge. Although we arrived 20 minutes early, the theater turned us away when the evening showing on opening day sold out. I wasn’t completely shocked as the first film was wildly popular, and the buildup to this film has been sizeable, beginning with an ambiguous teaser featuring the Wolfpack wandering the streets of Bangkok with Jay-Z’s “Reminder” setting the stage. Additional trailers would follow, but it is the short teaser that will be remembered. Thanks Jay-Z, I guess we did need a little reminder.
Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) — or the Wolfpack as Alan lovingly calls the gang — reunite two years after the Vegas incident for Stu’s wedding in Thailand. When the Wolfpack is joined by an outsider — Stu’s soon-to-be brother-in-law Teddy (Mason Lee, son of film director Ang Lee) — Alan takes steps to take Teddy out of the equation. In typical Hangover fashion, Alan’s plan goes awry and the boys find themselves in Bangkok, retracing their steps after a wild night that includes kidnapping a monk, reuniting with Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), and of course, Stu’s Mike Tyson-inspired face tattoo. With Teddy missing and Stu’s wedding a day away, the group slowly begins piecing the evening together while searching for Teddy in a race against the clock.
The biggest challenge for director Todd Phillips (“Old School”) was to keep the sequel fresh while using the exact same formula. Phillips seems to embrace this by including a grim rooftop scene where Phil has to let his wife know, “It happened again.” Anyone who ever woke up with a terrible hangover trying to piece together events from the previous evening no doubt says to themselves, “I won’t do that again,” until it happens again. And it usually does, typically in the same fashion that it does in Part II — with old friends getting together for a night of fun. While the plot may be formulaic, Phillips manages to make the film somewhat distinct with new locations, situations, and minor characters.
The cast shines once again, with tremendous chemistry between Cooper, Galifianakis and Helms. Though the exposition is a bit heavy with silliness from Galifianakis, he has his moments with a repeated mispronunciation of Thailand (thigh-land) and constant quoting of mundane Thailand statistics researched in preparation for the trip. He also utters what could be the line of the movie with, “I wish monkeys could Skype.” Helms’ off-screen musical prowess shines while summing up the trip with an improv version of Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” Helms also utters the classic one-liner, “All I wanted was a bachelor brunch!”
The film’s soundtrack provides just as much fun as the plot. Midway through the film I asked myself when Phillips would work in the 80’s one-hit wonder “One Night in Bangkok” (look it up, kids). He makes the audience wait for it, but it finally arrives in a most spectacular fashion. Music fans will also love the Billy Joel motif throughout the film. Who else could provide the musical backdrop for the Wolfpack? Also keep an ear open for a Ska Rangers cover of A Flock of Seagull’s “I Ran” and a muzak version of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.”
Critics have been pretty harsh in their reviews of “The Hangover Part II.” They are complaining that the film is a carbon copy of the original. I argue that while some films break new ground artistically and some go as far as to create a sub-genre, sometimes a film exists solely for entertainment and laughs. That’s exactly what “The Hangover Part II” is, and given the fact that the first film was the highest grossing R-rated comedy ever I say that Phillips was right to give us more of the same. Judging by the $61 million part II took in during its first two days, audiences agree. The Wolpack IS back, and as funny as ever.
WIEGENSTEIN: “Bridesmaids” — funniest movie all year
“Bridesmaids” is a two-hour film. My first thought upon leaving the theater was that I wished it were longer — not due to any of the typical critiques that often implies, but because the world the movie created was one that I’d love to spend more time in. The script, co-written by Annie Mumolo and leading actress Kristen Wiig, creates a lived-in feel to the characters instantly, and that feeling of easy-going comfort remains for the entire runtime.
Oh, and I should probably mention — it’s the funniest movie I’ve seen so far this year.
It’s both a blessing and curse that the critical response to “Bridesmaids” has become wrapped up in its questionable designation as a “chick flick,” typically among the most dismissive insults a film can have thrown its way. Using a comparison such as “The Hangover — WITH GIRLS!” is akin to summarizing a film like “Star Wars” as “Cowboys — IN SPACE!” There are girls, yes, and several hangovers, but “Bridesmaids” is entirely its own film, and it’s a great one.
Annie (Wiig) is named maid of honor for her closest childhood friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph). Alongside her in the bridal party: Megan, the bluntly spoken sister-in-law to be (Melissa McCarthy, undoubtedly the breakout star of the film); Rita, who longs for a respite from the trials of parenthood (Wendi McLendon-Covey); Becca, a newlywed herself, who suggests things like a Pixar-themed bachelorette party (Ellie Kemper). But most importantly, there is Helen (Rose Byrne), who’s bonded with Lillian in recent years and would like nothing better than to take over the MOH duties and color-coordinate them, maybe toss in some butterflies for effect.
Though the promos have presented “Bridesmaids” as an ensemble comedy, it’s Annie who provides both the comedic and emotional center of the movie. Wiig, who has previously been identified by her prominence in “Saturday Night Live,” leaves all over-the-top zaniness at the door to create a fully-rounded character, albeit one whose life is constantly teetering on the verge of collapse. However, this focus results in the latter-half disappearance of both Kemper and McLendon-Covey’s characters — the biggest flaw in the film’s storytelling, as earlier scenes prove that their actresses are more than up to the job.
The conflict between Byrne and Wiig is perfection; it says something when a tensely quiet fight between the two is able to take place alongside a physical comedy moment as terrible/funny as any “guy-centric” movie (hint: it involves food poisoning), and come out just as hilarious. Wiig is also able to show her colors in her scenes alongside love interest Chris O’Dowd, and their tentative stop-start romance is a lovely counterpoint to the chaos that surrounds much of the film, not to mention a number of awesome scenes featuring Wiig’s friend-with-benefits, a dapper gent you may recognize from “Mad Men.”
I really loathe using standard critic-ese phrases like “humor and heart,” but with a film like “Bridesmaids,” it’s difficult not to. It’s rich in both, and is able to deftly move between the two. “The Hangover: Girl Version” it’s not, thank God — if it were busy being a redo, it wouldn’t have time to be the stellar film that it is.
YATES: Film breaks new ground in cinema
Director Darren Aronofsky has a unique gift of bringing dramatic verisimilitude to his films, be it drug use, an aging professional wrestler, or in the case of “Black Swan,” an ambitious ballet dancer. He seems to go beyond the traditional narrative structure to add a layer of psychological content missing from today’s cinema. An overused description in the film world that I’ve never personally used until now is “haunting,” but that is just what “Black Swan” is — a haunting look into the disturbed mind of a high profile ballet dancer at the peak of her career.
Dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) lands the role of a lifetime with the lead in Swan Lake. After dedicating her entire life to ballet, the pressure of the demanding dual-role lead in Swan Lake slowly builds to a haunting crescendo. Under intense direction of eclectic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel, “Ocean’s Twelve”) and facing competition from rival dancer Lily (Mika Kunis, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), the impeccable Nina begins to lose her grip on reality while trying to channel the necessary emotions to perfect the nefarious Black Swan portion of the role. At the film’s unexpected climax, Nina manages to reach the pinnacle of her on-stage career while her personal demons engulf and ultimately define her life and career.
Much like he does in 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream” and 2008’s “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky brings a callous authenticity to “Black Swan.” The trademark handheld voyeuristic cinematography and cramped, closed framing of Nina’s home and backstage life draws you in to her plight and growing insanity. Portman and Kunis share tremendous chemistry in an on-screen relationship that traverses the bounds of bitter adversaries and fervent sexual partners.
There has been some controversy surrounding the legitimacy of Portman’s dance scenes in the film. Shortly after Portman won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “Black Swan” the claim was made that most of the dancing was done by dance double Sarah Lane. Aronofsky says 80-percent of the dancing is done by Portman, while Lane says it is around five percent. My guess is only the film editor knows for sure, and the true number is probably somewhere in the middle. Despite the controversy, it is the acting that steals the show here, not the dancing. Portman delivers a graphic portrayal of Nina as she struggles with the everyday grinds of a grueling profession, conflicting relationships and a loosening grip on reality. The ballet is a simply a beautiful side attraction in an already masterful work of art.
Art is what it comes down to, as the plot of “Black Swan” is a classic case of life imitating art and asks the question – how much is a person willing to sacrifice in the name of their craft? Aronofsky revisits the successful formula used in “The Wrestler” with an intense look into the psychological toll of an obscure profession, but the similarities end there. “Black Swan” is like nothing we’ve ever seen before – a testament to Aronofsky’s artistry as he continues his rapid ascent as one of Hollywood’s top young directors. While Tinseltown has a habit of churning out the same formulaic material, Aronofsky manages to use his own familiar formula to break new ground in cinema.
WIEGENSTEIN: Scenes from film linger in mind
“Black Swan” is a film about the ballet, and it approaches its subject in the best possible way: almost sheer mimicry. Director Darren Aronofsky has crafted a movie that gives all that ballet does well – striking imagery, attention to detail, stylized use of color and light — and added in a dose of cerebral horror.
Natalie Portman won the Academy Award for Lead Actress earlier this year for her work as the newbie prima ballerina in the company, Nina. After the director casts her in the lead of “Swan Lake” almost against his better instincts, his only directive to her is to loosen up (albeit his words were a little more sexual predator-y than mine). For a girl like Nina, the obvious next step is to obsessively focus on relaxing, to try and plan spontaneity.
To say that this chafes with her usual style is a massive understatement, and once we’re aware of the psychological areas within Nina that are already questionable (living in your childhood bedroom filled with stuffed animals at 28 years old, for example), “Black Swan” becomes less about toe shoes and more about the minds of those wearing them. Nina excels at sheer technique, her footwork is flawless. But when she’s asked to, gasp, add emotion to her dancing, the consequences aren’t great.
Of course, the plot arc of “Black Swan” isn’t so much an actual arc as it is the tightening of a string over the course of two hours. Something’s gotta give, for the audience as much as for Nina. The pressure cracks in two sequences: the evening before the inaugural performance (nicknamed the “Night Of Terror” scene, so there’s a tip-off), and Nina’s onstage debut itself. While “Night Of Terror” steers the film dangerously close to devolving into weird-for-weird’s-sake territory, the final act is every bit as visually beautiful as it is creepy as hell.
In the wake of “Black Swan” and movie award season, Portman has shown up in string of noticeably more light-hearted films: “Your Highness” from earlier in 2011, and this past weekend’s summer kickoff flick “Thor.” That it now seems odd to see her paired up with a wise-cracking superhero, a fairly traditional spot for a young actress these days, is a credit to Portman’s work here. Mila Kunis shows up as a foil for Nina, but the machinations of the script leave her character largely blurred.
As a whole, “Black Swan” is epic initially — there’s nothing quite like descending into movie madness for the first time — but later rewatches didn’t add much to my appreciation. Yet even though I’m not tempted to see “Black Swan” again, there are images that linger long afterwards, which might be a bigger mark of success for both Aronofsky and the film.
YATES: Film questions what we are willing to accept as entertainment, while ignoring what goes on behind the scenes
“Water for Elephants” is a classic romance and coming of age story set in the depression era with the world of the traveling circus as a backdrop. The film is based on the 2006 novel of the same title by author Sara Gruen. Film adaptations are nothing new to director Francis Lawrence, who did the same in 2007 with Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend.” This is a completely different genre, however, and I was curious to see if Lawrence could pull it off.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson, “The Twilight Saga”) is a semester away from finishing school and becoming a veterinarian when receiving the news that his parents have died in a wreck. Leaving his old life behind, he takes to the road and becomes a vet for the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. It is on the cross-country journey that he falls in love with Marlena (Reece Witherspoon, “Walk the Line), the star attraction and wife of hard-nosed circus owner August (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”). Jacob and Marlena bond over Rosie, the newly acquired elephant who will join Marlena as part of the star attraction, and soon find themselves facing a choice – abandon the Benzini Brothers circus and face the unknown together, or continue living under the thumb of August.
The movie teems with verisimilitude. Throughout the film, Jacob has opportunities to do the heroic thing, but cannot summon the courage to pull it off. It is refreshing to have a protagonist appear as an everyday man, especially in a plot that attempts to encapsulate a magnificent journey. Sure, Jacob always seems to be in the right place at the right time, but he doesn’t always do the right thing. As far as Jacob’s traveling counterparts, the film effectively drives home the desperation the men feel in giving up their lives to find work with a touring circus during the depression era. Though only minor characters, you find yourself rooting for them as much as the protagonist.
Much of the film takes place in the cramped quarters of the traveling circus train, where special effects are traded in for gritty mise-en-scene. The overall production design of the circus world is beautiful, accompanied by sweeping cinematography that pulls you right into the big top as if you were a circus mark being thrust by the crowd towards one of the carnival attractions. Pattinson was an excellent choice as Jacob as the role required much brooding, and Waltz shines as a complicated antagonist character with ample depth.
The film’s early character development is a bit questionable. Lawrence seems very rushed to get Jacob on the Benzini Brothers train, offering a convoluted opening scene to show us how close Jacob is to his parents. When we first view Marlena and August together as a couple, she actually seems rather smitten with her husband, who is presented to us as a callous, heartless business man. I don’t expect obvious foreshadowing, but in sticking with the film’s verisimilitude it would have been nice to see Marlena struggling with the relationship she is trapped in rather than enjoying it. There are also some rather awkward ongoing dinner scenes with just August, Marlena and Jacob that seem unnecessary and beg the question – how surprised should August be of their affair after continually forcing onto his wife the company of a handsome young man who shares her love of animals? Perhaps the folly of the shrewd businessman is that he cannot see past his own wallet.
While the film doesn’t serve as a circus biopic, it does peel back the tent canopy somewhat on the working conditions of the three-ring spectacle. It is a cerebral film that features heavy themes such as abuse, imprisonment and interdependence and casts somewhat of a spotlight back on the audience. Much like the circus atmosphere surrounding reality television and celebrity and athlete worship of today, the film makes you question what we are willing to accept as entertainment while ignoring what goes on behind the scenes.
“Water for Elephants” is a film about friendship, love and perseverance, and captures the despair of our society during a time of great unrest with the depression and prohibition. The tagline of the film is “Life is the most spectacular show on earth.” It does certainly get you thinking about your own journey — both the one you’ve taken and the one that lies ahead. Much like “The Notebook,” the film reminds you that we’re living the journey every day, and before we know it, the journey comes to and end, so we should enjoy it while it lasts.
Sara Gruen’s “Water For Elephants” is a novel that was fated to be a film from its first printing. It’s a period piece that gets to work in the historic-yet-glum atmosphere of the Great Depression, while its setting in the midst of a traveling circus maintains the needed glamour perfect for a pageturner — or a movie.
(Fittingly enough, my screening was prefaced with a trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett‘s Southern-fried-fable “The Help,” perhaps the second-most obvious page-to-screen transition of late.)
Placing the action in a circus basically requires the film to be gorgeous, if only on the surface. And in the end, that shallow level of enjoyment is all that director Francis Lawrence is able to give a story that deserves far better.
Tragedy befalls aspiring vet Jacob (Robert “I’m Not Edward Cullen” Pattinson), and sends him crashing into the railway path of the Benzini Bros. Traveling Circus. He learns the ropes slowly from the traditional array of clowns, burlesque dancers, and sideshow barkers. But the true stars of the show are the quintessential top-hat-and-tails ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) and his wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who controls show horses, does acrobatics and looks great in a sparkled leotard, to boot.
Jacob eventually finds himself among the group’s upper echelons once his skill with animals is revealed – a path that leads him directly between the husband and wife at the heart of Benzini Bros. There are a number of static shots attempting (and failing) to showcase the unspoken passion boiling between Marlena and Jacob, an underwritten subplot about Jacob’s ailing friend, and an elephant. Not nearly enough of the last, I’m sad to report.
Despite the flack that Pattinson has gotten (and will continue to receive until something happens to overshadow the behemoth of “Twilight” in his career), his performance in the film is quite serviceable, though it’s hard to imagine him growing into the salty older version of himself later played by Hal Holbrook. Reese Witherspoon, on the other hand, turns in a remarkably stilted and dull performance. Her character is intended to be even more of a firecracker when not on the back of a show horse; instead, the fake smile she puts on under the lights of the big top is about as meaningful as any of the other expressions she gives.
As is so often the case, the truly interesting bits of story in “Water For Elephants” are hovering on the outside of the thoroughly boring romantic core. Christoph Waltz won an Academy Award for the combination of flamboyance and evil he brought to “Inglourious Basterds,” and that same level of intensity is felt in his ringmaster persona here. That August suffers from sort of psychological issue is hinted at, but not delved into the way it should.
The close of “Water For Elephants,” book form, is a look into all the research Gruen painstakingly went through to craft a world capturing both the glitz of the traveling show and the reality of the work behind the spectacle. Those stories are fascinating and would be amazing to explore onscreen. It’s a shame that “Water For Elephants” ends up diluting its true intrigue with such snoozeworthy performances.