Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Beaver

The Beaver - Dir. Jodie Foster (2011)


"I'm the Beaver, Walter, and I'm here to save your god damn life."

There’s no need to delve into the erratic behavior of Mel Gibson, the former Hollywood power player who has since become headline fodder for the tabloids. Once a bankable star, he is now considered persona non grata in the movie industry. Members of the cast and crew on The Hangover: Part II went apoplectic when it was announced Gibson was in line for a cameo and the offer was withdrawn. Gibson’s ballyhooed return to acting went largely ignored by general audiences. A violent revenge thriller was likely not the best vehicle for a comeback. Will they be more accepting if he were to play a mentally disturbed individual who communicates through the use of a hand puppet?

The Beaver was written by newbie Kyle Killen (who would go on to create the critically acclaimed, but short-lived Fox series Lone Star) and made the famed Black List in 2008. Steve Carell and Jim Carrey were both attached to the lead at various points before Gibson signed on at a time when his reputation wasn’t too tarnished. Then, the ugly calls to his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, were leaked to the media and Summit Entertainment went from having a potential awards season centerpiece to a forgotten direct-to-video release. Predictably, The Beaver was shunted down the pipeline several times before receiving a very limited release in mid-May.

In a moment of heavy-handed symbolism, the opening scene introduces Gibson as a man at wit's end lying in a Christ-like position with his arms out. He stares blankly into the sky as he floats across a swimming pool. Gibson is Walter Black, the CEO of a once-successful toy company, who is now crippled by a debilitating bout of depression. He is barely able to summon the strength to get out of bed. Walter's wife, Meredith (Jodie Foster), who ironically designs roller coasters for a living, can't deal anymore and boots him out of the house.

While throwing away some belongings, Walter finds a tattered beaver puppet in a dumpster behind a liquor store. He takes it back to his hotel room where he gets drunk and fails to kill himself while watching a rerun of Kung Fu. Awakening the next morning, Walter begins speaking to himself as the Beaver, affecting a Cockney accent and sounding an awful lot like Ray Winstone. Passing the Beaver off as a legitimately prescribed treatment, Walter is given a new lease on life. His youngest son, Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), loves daddy and his new puppet pal. Their bonding over woodshop projects inspires Walter to market a Mr. Beaver Woodshop Kit that revitalizes his sagging company. Meredith even welcomes her estranged husband back into the house, but not everyone is enthusiastic about the new Walter.

His eldest son, Porter (Anton Yelchin), still wants nothing to do with him. Porter actually catalogs bad habits he shares with his father on post-its as a means to eradicate any chance of becoming Walter. Meanwhile, Porter has been making easy cash by writing other students' papers for them due to his ability to write in someone else's voice. He also romances Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the school valedictorian and head cheerleader, who has lived a more traumatic life than she lets on.

By no means is The Beaver a modern day take on Harvey. There's no attempt to pass the Beaver off as a separate entity nor do they even hide the fact that Gibson is moving his lips when talking as the Beaver. It's hardly a whimsical comedy either. There are some cute moments in the first half of the film, such as Gibson brushing the Beaver's teeth and taking a shower with it. The story takes a very dark turn during the second half when it becomes clear Walter can no longer communicate without relying on the Beaver.

Invariably, you're ability to watch The Beaver will rely almost solely on your ability to separate Gibson's real life with his on-screen persona. It's hard not to think of the real Mel Gibson since the plot is an odd convergence of fact and fiction. Without a doubt, Gibson gives one of the best performances of his career as a man who is charismatic, disturbed, and sometimes downright pathetic. It's not hard to fathom that he tapped into a wide reservoir of personal experiences to portray the character. There's also a running commentary involving the media's culpability in furthering the damage of Walter's already fragile psyche. Walter makes the talk show rounds doing interviews with Matt Lauer and NPR's Terry Gross, but when the novelty wears off, he is cast from the spotlight like a leper.

There are weak spots in the narrative with vital plot points being glanced over too quickly. Walter gets invited back home after a montage, for example. The focus is spread too thin drifting away from the central character towards the toy company and media appearances. The love story between Porter and Norah feels like it was lifted from any generic indie flick, despite solid performances from Yelchin and Lawrence. Directed with earnestness by Foster, The Beaver gets points for crafting a serious drama around an outlandish premise

Rating: ** (*****)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids - Dir. Paul Feig (2011)


Bridesmaids is a rare species, an R-rated, female-driven comedy. More importantly, it's one that scored big with audiences and critics alike. Bridesmaids is a product of the Judd Apatow comedy machine and directed by Paul Feig, who worked as director and producer on Apatow's short-lived (but much loved) TV series Freaks & Geeks. The script was written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who first met as members of famed improvisational group, the Groundlings. This is the first starring role for Wiig, who remains one of the few bright spots on the otherwise stale Saturday Night Live.

Life has been rough on Annie (Wiig), a single woman living in Milwaukee. Her bakery went out of business and she's stuck living with an oddball brother and sister (Matt Lucas and Rebel Wilson). Her only relationship consists of self-destructive booty calls to a douchebag playboy (an uncredited Jon Hamm), who kicks her out the morning after. Annie enters a new level of hell when she becomes the maid of honor for the wedding of BFF, Lillian (Maya Rudolph). This role is far more involving than best man. As maid of honor, Annie is in charge of planning luncheons, fittings, the bachelorette party, and the bridal shower.

Poor Annie hardly has her own shit together so mounting Lillian’s pre-wedding escapades is a daunting task akin to the Twelve Labours of Hercules. Her job is made all the more difficult when she meets the eclectic bridal party consisting of Lillian’s cousin Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), an embittered housewife; Becca (Ellie Kemper), a na├»ve, whitebread newlywed, and Lillian’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Megan (Melissa McCarthy). But, the one Annie has to watch out for is Helen (Rose Byrne), the trophy wife of the groom’s boss. Helen is everything Annie isn’t. She’s rich, glamorous, well-connected, and appears to be gunning for Annie’s spot as best friend.

Bridesmaids acts as a counterpoint to Apatow’s male-dominated comedies, which some (Katherine Heigl, I’m looking at you) have described as “sexist.” However, the film is more than just the same Apatow formula with the genders switched. Neither is it simply a female version of The Hangover. It's a poignant story about the turbulent relationships between women and the disillusionment of middle age. The protagonists are well-rounded characters antithetical of the general stereotypes like the idealized object of lust or the domineering shrew. Take for example, Megan, who is played with gusto by Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore Girls, Mike & Molly). At first, she appears to be a crude and oversexed caricature of the overweight person. It doesn't help that she's wearing a golf cap like Homer Simpson in that episode where he purposely gains weight (at least, she skips the flower-print muumuu). But, she has one of the more touching scenes during a third act confessional that forces Annie to re-examine the decisions in her life. By the way, McCarthy deserves major kudos for fearlessly putting herself out there to portray this character. She gets some of the biggest laughs during the movie.

Wiig has previously shined in supporting roles in movies such as Knocked Up, Ghost Town, and Adventureland as well as a meatier role earlier this year in Paul. Here, Wiig displays a wide range of talents beyond mere comedienne. She excels at low-key humor, over-the-top zaniness, and physical humor, all of which are on display here from exasperated facial expressions to a wild meltdown after Helen steals her thunder one too many times. Wiig has also shown she is capable of more dramatic roles as evidenced by her turn as the den mother to a team of rambunctious roller derby girls in Drew Barrymore's Whip It. As Annie, Wiig imbues a sense of pathos not commonly found in a raunchy comedy.

This being an Apatow production, Bridesmaids has its fair share of salty language and gags built around bodily functions. The most uproarious sequence takes place at a snooty dress shop after Annie and the gals unknowingly ate tainted meat at a strip mall Brazilian restaurant. There's plenty of vomit and poop, but none of it is more amusing than Wiig's quiet and sweaty desperation as she vainly pretends to not be sick. Wiig is even funnier during an airplane sequence when she suffers a bad reaction to a mixture of Valium and Scotch. She also has great chemistry with former SNL castmate Maya Rudolph and it makes you wish they do buddy comedy to establish themselves as a 21st century Lucy and Ethel.

Symptomatic of other Apatow pictures, Bridesmaids runs over two hours, which is about fifteen to twenty minutes too long for a comedy. Despite some much needed trimming, Bridesmaids is funny, insightful, and stands as one of the best comedies of the year.

Bridesmaids marks the final role for Jill Clayburgh, who appeared briefly as Annie's mother, before passing away in November of 2010 due to a long-time battle with leukemia.

Rating: *** (*****)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Dir. Rob Marshall (2011)


"Does this face look like it's been to the Fountain of Youth?"
"Depends on the light."


A two and a half movie based on a ride at Disneyland seemed like an iffy proposition back in 2003. The world wasn't exactly lit on fire by The Country Bears or The Haunted Mansion. Yet, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl went on to become an insanely lucrative blockbuster and instantly embedded into the lexicon of modern pop culture. It was the kind of rousing, light-hearted adventure that hasn't been made since the heyday of Indiana Jones. Just as Harrison Ford's iconic fedora and bullwhip became a signature look so did Johnny Depp was his thick eyeliner, red bandana, and dreadlocks. Depp's performance as Captain Jack Sparrow surprised everyone by defying expectations of what a swashbuckling hero should be. Studio execs were aghast when they viewed dailies of Depp playing Sparrow as an addled and effeminate rummy. But, the performance scored Depp his first Oscar nomination and Sparrow is one of the most popular characters in modern cinema.

Naturally, Disney punched out two sequels in Dead Man's Chest and At Worlds End, which were filmed back-to-back. Both pictures scored major box office, but were lambasted by critics for nonsensical storytelling. The conclusion of At Worlds End established Capt. Jack's desire to find the mythical Fountain of Youth and set the course for the fourth film, On Stranger Tides. Never has a MacGuffin Device been more apropos. If anything needed rejuvenating, it was the Pirates franchise, which grew more excessive with each installment thanks to the presence of squid men, surreal netherworlds, and ancient sea goddesses. Disney seemingly took the criticism to heart and promised the next sequel would be streamlined. Then, the announcement came that the film would be shot in 3D and budgeted at $250 million. Yes, On Stranger Tides proves to be just as convoluted and ridiculous as the last two movies.

Jack Sparrow has made his way to London in order to rescue his first mate, Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally), from being executed for piracy. The good captain winds up meeting a corpulent King George II (Richard Griffiths) and put back onto the path of the Fountain. Next thing you know, he's leading the king's men on a rip-roaring chase through the cobbled streets on top of a series of carriages before bumping into Judi Dench and Keith Richards, who returns for a brief cameo as Jack's father, Capt. Teague. Our hero is soon press ganged onto the crew of the Queen Anne's Revenge, a ship run by the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and his daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a feisty former flame of Sparrow's. They too seek the Fountain of Youth. They aren't the only ones. The Spanish are looking to follow in the footsteps of Ponce de Leon and are led by Oscar Jaenada, who looks like Prince after wandering off the set of Purple Rain. Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is back once more as a privateer for the royal navy looking for revenge against Blackbeard for costing him the Black Pearl and his right leg.

Of course, no one can just bathe in the waters of the Fountain. It's never that simple in a Pirates movie. This is one of those treasure hunts where you have to find fifty other things to get the one thing you're actually after. First, everyone needs to locate a pair of silver chalices then harvest the tears of a mermaid. Don't expect these mermaids to be cute redheads singing duets with Rastafarian crabs. These mermaids are vicious temptresses who drag men to their watery deaths.

The preceding plot summary barely scratches the surface of On Stranger Tides. Even with a run time of 2 hours and 17 minutes, it's actually the shortest in the series. Gore Verbinski steps away from the franchise and handed the directorial duties to Rob Marshall, who helmed Chicago and Nine. Marshall's experience with staging musicals allows him to choreograph elaborate set pieces with a showy finish. The opening carriage chase is the highlight of the film and it's followed up with a fun sword fight between Jack Sparrow and an imposter. It's a clash of cutlasses surely inspired by the Marx Brothers' mirror routine from Duck Soup. The later action sequences don't have the same spark. They become too repetitive with the climactic battle feeling like a re-hash of the Black Pearl climax.

The story moves forward in fits and spurts. Just when the movie hits a brisk pace, it grinds to a halt. The nonsensical narrative is anchored down by a never ending multitude of subplots and weak characters. With Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley gone, the filmmakers have replaced their insipid love story with one even more insipid between a young missionary (Sam Clafin) and a mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The dreaded Blackbeard becomes a thoroughly generic villain with Ian McShane given little to do, except growl and snarl. More ship worthy is Penelope Cruz, who is at her most beautiful as an arch-rival and love interest to Jack Sparrow. The two spend the entire movie alternately trying to kiss and kill one another. Cruz has far more chemistry with her leading man than Angelina Jolie did in The Tourist.

Speaking of Depp, remember when Jack Sparrow was the comic relief supporting character in the first film? He has become the focal point of Pirates, but the novelty has worn off with Depp relying on mere shtick. Jack Sparrow is a unique character and a gimmicky one by his very nature that cannot evolve. While Jack hasn't changed, Capt. Barbossa has and winds up being the most intriguing character in Tides due to the amazing Geoffrey Rush. Painted in shades of gray, he cannot be pigeonholed into the role of hero or villain. Equipped with a peg leg, Barbossa is more pirate-y than ever, part-Long John Silver and part-Ahab. Like Ahab, he embarks on an unwavering path of vengeance against Blackbeard.

Zombie pirates and vampire mermaids, On Stranger Tides is as bloated and overblown as the sequels. The story doesn't feel like it was written using a dartboard or mad libs. However, if you were one of the few who actually enjoyed Dead Man's Chest or At Worlds End, the fourth picture will assuage your desire for swashbuckling on the high seas. Not that it matters. Pirates of the Caribbean is utterly critic-proof. People will flock to the theaters no matter how good or bad the movies are. On Stranger Tides opened in the U.S. to a box office take of over $90 million with international receipts at a staggering $256 million.

Rating: * ½ (*****)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Priest

Priest - Dir. Scott Stewart (2011)


Priest is supposed to be based on a Korean comic book series. Upon viewing the final product, it seems as if the filmmakers didn't even bother to read the books and chose to rip off better and more successful pictures. It's a sci-fi, action Western that's heavy on the religious imagery and light on plot and intelligence. Paul Bettany once again steps into the role of post-apocalyptic avenger with his Legion director Scott Stewart. Just as Legion was essentially Assault on Precinct 13 with angels and demons, Priest is The Searchers with vampires instead of Indians.

Priest begins promisingly enough with an animated prologue done by Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Lab, Samurai Jack). This opening details how the world was ravaged by a centuries-long war between humans and vampires, re-envisioned as feral, eye-less creatures. Eventually the Church employed priests, skilled warriors bred to hunt and kill vampires. The priests cut down the blood-sucking hordes and forced the remaining survivors onto closely guarded reservations. With the battle now over, the priests found it difficult to re-integrate into normal life. They are forced to work menial labor and considered pariahs to a frightened society ruled over by the Church.

Bettany, as the nameless Priest, lives in a walled off city filled with neo-Gothic skyscrapers adorned with video billboards that may remind sci-fi fans of Blade Runner. Orwellian speak placards (FAITH WORK SECURITY) are plastered throughout the theocratic metropolis. He receives word that the vampire menace has returned and attacked the family of his brother, Owen (Stephen Moyer), and kidnapped daughter Lucy (Lily Collins). The Church council headed by Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer) refuses to acknowledge the growing danger lest it tarnish their image of infallibility. Priest defies their commands, teaming with Lucy's boyfriend, a young sheriff named Hicks (Cam Gigandet) to rescue her and defeat Black Hat (Karl Urban), a former Priest transformed into a human/vampire hybrid. The Church sends the lovely Maggie Q and a trio of other priests to apprehend their errant brother.

Leaving the dystopian city, the setting shifts to a post-apocalyptic wasteland that's equal parts Judge Dredd, Mad Max, and Star Wars. The characters zoom across the desolate horizons on high-tech motorcycles. Priest doesn't bother with trifling things like logic and character development, jumping into one action sequence to another. Not counting the end credits, the film runs a little over eighty minutes so, at least, it knows not to overstay its welcome. The action is completely silly with more slow motion shots than all of Zack Snyder's movies combined. Priest doesn't use guns to fight vampires because he's armed with crucifix-shaped throwing stars. When Priest visits his brother on his deathbed, you can't help but think Stephen Moyer looks in good shape despite being mauled by demonic creatures.

The acting is as wooden as the stakes you usually see being plunged into the heart of a vampire with Cam Gigandet faring the worst as the dull gunfighter. Christopher Plummer (perhaps his most embarrassing pic since Starcarsh) and Karl Urban are wasted in one-note roles as is the great Brad Dourif in a throwaway part as a snake oil salesman.

Following the 3D trend, Priest was converted in post-production, but I viewed it in old fashioned 2D. The majority of the film occurs at night or in dark underground settings. I had enough of a hard time trying to see what's happening and I can't imagine how much darker it was in 3D.

Priest is the kind of mindless action movie that may satisfy those craving for junk food cinema. Anyone else will see it as a boring, derivative mess that will soon find its way into the Wal-Mart discount dump bin underneath unsold copies of Ultraviolet and Jonah Hex.

Rating: * (*****)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Everything Must Go

Everything Must Go - Dir. Dan Rush (2011)


Whenever successful funnymen look to branch into dramatic fare, they generally choose a low-budget indie project that requires them to give a subdued performance. Will Ferrell has followed the same career path as Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, and Bill Murray before him. After wildly popular comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Ferrell has tried to show his acting range with off-beat films like Adam Rapp's Winter Passing and the Charlie Kaufman-esque Stranger Than Fiction. Now, the man known for his hilarious George W. Bush impression gives his best performance yet in Everything Must Go by first-time writer/director Dan Rush.

Ferrell is Nick Halsey, a middle-aged sales exec for an office supply manufacturer based in Arizona. Rather ironic, considering his recent guest stint on The Office. Anyways, Nick has struggled for years with his alcohol addiction and his boss (Glenn Howerton) has been more than patient with him. Some wild shenanigans at a conference in Denver are the last straw and Nick is summarily fired.

Arriving home, Nick finds his wife has left him, changed the locks on the house, and dumped all his belongings all over the front yard. Nick deals with the situation the best he can by kicking back in his recliner and shotgunning tall boys of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Not exactly the most ringing endorsement for PBR, but it's better than Blue Velvet. Neighbors call the cops and it's a lucky thing Nick's AA sponsor is Det. Frank Garcia (Michael Pena). He buys Nick time to get his shit together by citing a law that allows homeowners to hold a yard sale for no more than five days. In between moments of drunken self-pity, Nick forges a friendship with Samantha (Rebecca Hall), a pregnant photographer who has moved in advance of her husband still in New York. Nick also becomes a surrogate father to Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), an awkward overweight boy aimlessly riding his bike around the block.

Everything Must Go was based on Why Don't You Dance?, a slight short story (just 4 pages long) by Raymond Carver, an author noted for battling his own alcoholism. Dan Rush elaborates on the basic premise of a down-and-out man divesting himself of his possessions as a means of shedding his own faults and demons. Rush's screenplay doesn't go for a driving plot, but a character piece with an indirect journey. Rush does tend to spell things out for the audience by dotting his film with some obvious symbolism and an ending coda literally taken from a fortune cookie. Nick points out that he bares his whole life (warts and all) through his inverted world. As we learn, his neighbors, safe and warm behind their walls, have plenty of skeletons in their closets. Nick's nostalgia for his youth and his disillusionment of the present is summed up with a collection of vintage records he is reluctant to part with. He also gives Samantha an old Polaroid camera, which she uses to capture just the right image of Nick in all his schlubby glory.

Ferrell's performance is both sardonic and packed with quiet desperation. Nick Halsey is a logical extension of the idiot man-child persona Ferrell has perfected. This time around, the character is forced to examine himself with a newfound level of maturity. Ferrell brings a low-key sense of humor to the drama without resorting to the maniacal fits of rage that have become his trademark. In fact, Ferrell doesn't even raise his voice once. To no surprise, Rebecca Hall is wonderful as is Laura Dern as a former high school sweetheart of Nick's. The great Stephen Root is hilarious, despite only appearing in a handful of scenes, as Nick's condescending neighbor. Aside from Ferrell, the actor who has gotten the most positive press is young Christopher Jordan Wallace, the son of Faith Evans and the Notorious B.I.G. In only his second film, Wallace gives a natural performance that avoids the cloying precociousness usually found with children of indie pictures.

"They say everything can be replaced…"

So goes the opening lyrics of The Band's "I Shall Be Released," which plays over the end credits. It's safe to say without a spoiler warning that Nick will eventually learn to define himself through his choices rather than his material belongings. His road to redemption is mapped out clearly for the audience and while Everything Must Go may be a tad predictable and on-the-nose; it's a strong character-driven drama. It may not be worth dashing to the theater to see, but it's worthy of at least a rental.

Rating: *** (*****)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night - Dir. Kevin Munroe (2011)


Comic book movies are a staple of the summer movie season. 2011 is another big year for Marvel with Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Captain America while DC and Warner Brothers look to reinvigorate their characters with Green Lantern. There are also lesser-known, non-superhero properties like Cowboys & Aliens and Priest. Then, there's Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, an obscure picture based on an obscure comic. Dylan Dog is a paranormal investigator created by Italian author Tiziano Sciavi. Though virtually unknown in the States, the comics are extremely popular in Europe. This reviewer is unfamiliar with the source material, aside from the knowledge that Dog's sidekick was a Groucho Marx impersonator. Sadly, Groucho doesn't make it into the movie due to likeness issues. Previous awareness doesn't matter since the movie is only loosely based on the original character. Dead of Night was savaged by Italian critics and fans while meeting with deaf ears in the U.S. due to a miniscule theatrical run.

Former Superman Brandon Routh looks to head up another comic book franchise by stepping into the title role. Routh even enlists the aid of Superman Returns co-star Sam Huntington (who played Jimmy Olsen) as his mystery solving partner. This version of Dylan Dog is a private investigator based in New Orleans and specializing in the supernatural. His motto, "No pulse, no problem." After a tragic case that resulted in the death of his wife, Dylan gives up the paranormal detective game and makes his money by taking dirty pictures of adulterous husbands and wives.

Dylan is dragged back into that world by Elizabeth (Anita Briem), whose father, a dealer of antiquities, is apparently murdered by a werewolf. Dylan traverses the various factions in the city with the biggest power players being Gabriel (Peter Stormare), the patriarch of a werewolf family, and Vargas (Taye Diggs), a nightclub owner and leader of the vampires. Meanwhile, Dylan's buddy, Marcus (Huntington), is killed and brought back to life as a zombie. Luckily, Marcus attends a zombie support group to help manage his condition.

Dead of Night slavishly follows the basic formula of a film noir with a dour detective as the protagonist. He encounters double crosses, a femme fatale, and bad guys who tell him to lay off the case. The plot centers around the search for a McGuffin, in this case, it's a powerful artifact known as the Heart of Belial. If you've seen any classic noir like The Maltese Falcon or Chinatown, then you'll easily see every twist and turn coming a mile away. The film is also littered with the requisite voiceover with Routh robotically reciting Raymond Chandler-esque narration throughout the story.

It's too bad Routh got the boot as the Man of Steel. He made a passable Superman and an excellent Clark Kent. Perhaps, if the movie was more action and less soap opera, he might still be donning the iconic red and blue suit. Routh has shown he has comedic talents when given better material as evidenced in Zack & Miri Make a Porno and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. In Dead of Night, Routh is an uncharismatic bore monotonously delivering his leaden lines. His castmates are equally lifeless to the point where the notoriously hammy Peter Stormare can't be bothered to do anything memorable. As the other primary antagonist, Taye Diggs is thoroughly unconvincing as a ruthless vampire with blinged out fangs. Huntington is downright annoying after seemingly graduating from the Shia LaBeouf School for Comic Relief Sidekicks. Huntington even dresses as LaBeouf did in I, Robot and Constantine.

Dead of Night was directed by Kevin Munroe, a former animator whose only previous directing credit was on 2007's TMNT. Munroe surely gave it his best effort in spite of a limited budget of $8 million. Yet, the action scenes are thoroughly pedestrian and the werewolf make-up is utterly laughable. Gabriel's son, Wolfgang (randomly played by pro wrestler and Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle) looks like he's wearing a cheap-o mask from Party City when he morphs into wolf form. The vampires appear to have been recycled from the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Screenwriters Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer also penned the atrocious adaptations Sahara and A Sound of Thunder as well as the upcoming Conan the Barbarian. Doesn't bode well for fans of the Cimmerian conqueror.

It's not all bad. There are a couple cool ideas scattered about. Dylan arms himself with wood tipped bullets and silver knuckles. Vampires sell their blood to humans as a designer drug. Zombies frequent chop shops that sell replacement limbs for the undead.

The cheesy movie review headline for this would be Dead of Night is dead on arrival. The film completely misses the mark for what could have been a fun mash-up of noir, horror, and comic book action. Dead of Night is to Dylan Dog as Constantine is to John Constantine. It's a pale imitation with direct-to-video level production values.

Rating: * (*****)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor

Thor - Dir. Kenneth Branagh (2011)


Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.

Summer movie season arrives with the booming sound of thunder and the blinding crackle of lightning. That raging storm heralds the arrival of Thor, the latest Marvel superhero to hit the silver screen. This isn't the Mighty Thor's first foray into live-action. He made a laughable guest appearance in the 1988 made-for-TV, Return of the Incredible Hulk, alongside Lou Ferrigno and the late-Bill Bixby. At one point there was talk of another made-for-TV picture with former pro wrestler and one-time Sabretooth, Tyler Mane, in the lead role. Thankfully, the project (which likely would have lived on in infamy next to David Hasselhoff as Nick Fury) never came to fruition.

Thor is arguably one of the trickiest comic book characters to bring to life. You can buy into a rich genius who builds a high-tech suit of armor. Even scientist who mutates into an irradiated monster is somewhat believable. A mythical god of thunder empowered by a magical hammer is a tough nut to crack. Marvel Studios proved they were up to the task by crafting a rousing adventure that seamlessly integrates into their shared cinematic universe.

In Thor, the Asgardians are re-imagined as an advanced civilization inhabiting a wonderland far off in the cosmos, rather than an ethereal realm. Eons ago, their king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) led the Asgardians into battle against the Frost Giants, driving them back to their icy homeworld of Jotunheim. An uneasy truce is established but threatened when a trio of Frost Giants sneaks into Asgard in an attempt to steal an ancient weapon known as the Casket of Ancient Winters. Disobeying his father, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) violently confronts their ruler, King Laufey (Colm Feore) and plunges both races into all-out war.

As punishment, Odin strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth where he is to learn humility. He learns it in spades as the former godling suffers one indignity after another from getting tasered to being struck by a car twice. Thor is found outside a tiny New Mexico town by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), an astrophysicist working in the fringes of science. She studies wormholes and alternate realities with her mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and hipster research intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings). Meanwhile, Thor's brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), makes his play for the throne when Odin falls into a deep coma (the Odinsleep).

Marvel has enlisted their most accomplished filmmaker to date in Kenneth Branagh, an actor and director known primarily for his Shakespearean adaptations. The gods of Norse mythology are not too far removed from the words of the Bard with themes of patricide, betrayal, and jealousy running throughout the film. Much like Iron Man director Jon Favreau before him, Branagh is more concerned with the emotional core with special effects used as an enhancement and not a crutch. The current thought process with developing comic book movies is to utilize a realistic approach to the outlandish characters. Thor embraces its four-color roots and finds plenty of drama and humor from the culture clash between mortals and super-powered beings, from Asgardians in full battle armor walking a dusty Main Street to Thor's anachronistic bouts of gallantry.

As a first foray into big-budget blockbusters, Branagh equates himself well with some thrilling fight sequences and dynamic canted angles. The phenomenal special effects effortlessly capture the majesty of Asgard, which looks like a futuristic take on Lord of the Rings. In fact, an earlier draft of the script by Mark Protosevich set the picture entirely in Asgard and the Viking era. This is the genre ascended onto an epic scale. Asgard is a realm beyond mortal imaginings. The skyline is dominated by the golden, ornate halls of Odin's palace, which is complimented by the shimmering rainbow bridge known as Bifrost and the spinning observatory of Heimdall (Idris Elba), the near-omniscient watchman of the gods.

In the title role, Chris Hemsworth shines just as much as the Asgardian architecture. Primarily known for his brief role as Captain Kirk's father in Star Trek, Hemsworth gives a star-making performance as the impetuous and hot-headed Odinson. He follows a similar trajectory as Tony Stark in that Thor starts off as an arrogant jerk, yet conveys a boisterous charm throughout the story. Tom Hiddleston also gives a breakout performance as the scheming god of mischief. His Loki has much in common with Shakespearean antagonists like Richard III and Iago. This is a master of Machiavellian machinations who is always thinking several steps ahead of his opponents, building layers of lies upon lies. With only a cocked eyebrow and subtle eye movements, you can see the wheels spinning inside his head. Yet, at the heart, he is still a tragic character. He is the overlooked son, living in the shadow of a beloved older brother and desperate to live up tot the high expectations of a demanding father. Hiddleston's Loki is one of the best comic book movie villains, ranked right up there with Heath Ledger's Joker and Terence Stamp's General Zod.

Natalie Portman puts on one of her liveliest performances highlighted by unique line readings that breathe life into some rather pedestrian dialogue. The supporting cast is all excellent with Anthony Hopkins exuding the perfect bluster of the All-Father. As Thor's compatriots, there's Jaimie Alexander as the warrior woman Sif, Ray Stevenson as the hearty Volstagg, Joshua Dallas (channeling Errol Flynn by way of Cary Elwes) as the swashbuckling Fandral, and Tadanobu Asano from Ichi the Killer and Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi as Hogun the Grim.

Marvel sprinkles in plenty of Easter eggs for the fanboys, such as references to Bruce Banner and Thor's comic book alter-ego, Donald Blake. Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo as does J. Michael Straczynski, one of the credited screenwriters whose run on Thor was heavily influential to the film. SHIELD Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) returns, picking right up from the Iron Man 2 coda. He is joined by SHIELD agents Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez) and Jeremy Renner in an uncredited appearance as Clint Barton aka Hawkeye. Despite his brief screen time, Renner deftly exhibits the roguish charm needed to play the Avengers' ace archer. A billboard hangs in the background emblazoned with the motto, "Land of Enchament…Journey Into Mystery," a reference to the title in which Thor made his debut. And was that the Eye of Agamotto displayed in Odin's treasure room? Of course, be sure to sit through the ending credits to catch a glimpse of just where Marvel is going with The Avengers.

If Thor has a weak spot, it is that the story feels as if there is a vital chunk missing. The movie unfolds in such a brisk pace that just when you think you've reached the midpoint, the film is already at the climax. There are moments when it seems as if Marvel is more focused on building towards their grand finale, instead of laying the foundation for a Thor franchise. These are only middling quibbles. Thor may not be on par with Iron Man, but it is the action-packed spectacle expected of a summer blockbuster. Long-time comic book fans will regress into giddy little children at the mere sight of Thor swinging his enchanted Uru hammer, Mjolnir. The beauty of Asgard glimpsed here will only serve to whet their appetites for the possibilities of future installments: Surtur the Fire Demon, Valkyrie, the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Absorbing Man, the Wrecking Crew, and maybe even Beta Ray Bill.

Bring it on Marvel!

Rating: *** ½ (*****)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fast Five

Fast Five - Dir. Justin Lin (2011)


The Fast & the Furious franchise revs its engines for an improbable fifth time. The gang is all back, faster than ever and not as furious as before, according to the shortened title.

Fast Five immediately picks up where Fast & Furious left off with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) rescued from a prison bus by rogue law officer Brian O'Connor and girlfriend Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster). The trio flees to picturesque Rio de Janeiro where they find themselves on the hit list of local kingpin Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida), who has an army of goons and half the police force at his disposal. Our protagonists strike back by initiating a daring plan to steal $100 million locked tight in a high-tech vault underneath the police station. In order to do so, they must assemble an all-star crew of characters from previous films, including the laid-back Han (Sung Kang), Israeli bombshell Gisele (Gal Gadot), and glib motor mouth Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson).

Their complex scheme grows even more complicated with the introduction of a hard-assed federal agent named Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) tasked with bringing in the fugitives.

Fast Five is everything you expect it to be. This isn't Harold Pinter, but a robust precursor to the big-budget extravaganzas of summer movie season. Fast Five speaks to the inner child of anyone who spent their youth smashing Hot Wheels together. If you tune into NASCAR events in the hopes of seeing a fiery wreck, then this is the movie for you. Fast Five is junk food cinema so slickly directed by Justin Lin (who helmed the previous two pictures) that even the subtitles have to stylishly fly across the screen. The franchise is refreshed by its new environment with Rio deftly replacing the urban cityscapes of the earlier movies. As required by any film shot in the Brazilian city, there are sweeping panorama shots all revolving around the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. Fast Five is hardly a travelogue to promote tourism considering all the drug labs, corrupt cops, and machine gun toting teenagers. It's a far cry from the city full of happy-go-lucky song birds depicted in Blue Sky Studios' Rio. The local government is probably longing for the days when all they had to deal with was The Simpsons.

Lin isn't the most innovative action director around, but he's competent enough to achieve the wanton destruction necessary to sate the ids of the audience. The film opens with a bus crash, and follows up with the gang stealing muscle cars off a moving train. As seen in the trailer, it all culminates with Toretto and O'Connor driving off a bridge and leaping into the water ala Butch and Sundance. The climax sees our heroes ripping through the streets while hauling behind the aforementioned vault. Storefronts are shattered and dozens of cars are wrecked, crumpled, and flung off the roads. The action isn't all vehicular carnage, there's a fast-paced foot chase over the rooftops of the favelas and a bald-headed alpha male smackdown between Vin Diesel and the ass-kicker formerly known as The Rock. While there is a surprising lack of scantily-clad babes, Gal Gadot does show off her shapely bikini bod as a welcome contrast to all the sweaty beefcake being thrown about. Also added to the mix is Elsa Pataky (wife of Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth) as a rookie cop and the lone officer not on Reyes' payroll.

The acting is exactly what you'd expect as well. Paul Walker continues to be the definition of white bread imbuing O'Connor with a special kind of blandness. Meanwhile, co-star Vin Diesel almost lapses into self-parody as Toretti, a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions. Diesel mostly stands stoically and growls a few curt sentences.

Long-time followers the series may be disappointed to find street racing has taken a backseat for this latest sequel. The drastic change is wholly exemplified when Toretto and O'Connor return to a familiar setting to challenge a local racer. The race is glommed over entirely as the movie cuts to Toretto enjoying his spoils of war. Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan reach out to a wider audience by turning Fast Five into a heist picture with an Ocean's Eleven-sized ensemble. The almost unwieldy cast isn't the only thing bloated here. Indicative of Hollywood excess, Fast Five stands at two hours and ten minutes, which is about thirty minutes too long for a movie like this. Screen time is padded out by unnecessary and laughable scenes attempting to inject some sort of gravitas and emotional depth to its cardboard characters. Let's face facts; the majority of the audience isn't invested in heartfelt soliloquies about Toretto's search for familial stability or O'Connor's struggle with impending fatherhood. They want to see cars get smashed, smashed real good.

Who would have thought these films would still be kicking around a decade later? Fast Five is easily the best picture in the series, which might sound like a backhanded compliment. The original movie was essentially Point Break with cars, instead of surfboards. The ridiculously named 2 Fast 2 Furious was just Bad Boys-lite and the less said about the direct-to-video level Tokyo Drift, the better. Fast Five more than makes up for the leaden actioner that was the article-less Fast & Furious by offering the simple pleasures of loud, tire-screeching spectacle. Even if it does feel like it was written by a five-year old.

Be sure to stay through the ending credits for an additional scene that serves as a prelude for the inevitable Fast Six.

Rating: *** (*****)