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Friday, July 15, 2011

Larry Crowne

Rating: ★★

The Cast Away and the Pretty Woman

Larry Crowne is the sort of movie you watch with anticipation of it being different somewhere along the way. I’m sure you’ve heard the joke by now that it’s two hours of Tom Hanks on a scooter, and that’s pretty much accurate. Obviously there’s a bit more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it. Tom Hanks is on a scooter, and he’s a nice guy who gets the girl. Spoiler? No, because you’ve seen movies about nice guys before. This one is no different. You can see it coming from about a mile away, just like a Vespa.

And there are tons of Vespas in this one. Our story begins with nine-time employee of the month Larry Crowne (Hanks) becoming a sudden ‘non-employee’ of the month when he’s downsized at the local retail store for not going to college. Sacked, and recovering from a crippling divorce in the middle of an awful economy, what’s a man to do? Well, he sells his worldly possessions, climbs aboard a scooter, and goes back to community college. At least that’s what people would do in Nia Vardalos’ world (remember how good her screenplay was for My Big Fat Greek Wedding?). I wonder if she would do the same if she were finally thrown out of Hollywood… Her films since Greek Wedding haven’t left too much to be desired.

There isn’t much to say about a movie that doesn’t have much to say. Larry Crowne is the ultimate everyman, but that doesn’t make him a character. The only true character in the film is barely discernable, and not even the focus. Julia Roberts plays Mercedes Tainot, Crowne’s “Speech 217” teacher - her life is hard, she hates teaching, and her marriage to her husband (Bryan Cranston) is crumbling. She does excellent work, as does Hanks admittedly, and their chemistry together is perfect. But when there’s nothing going on in the film to invest in, how do you invest in the characters? Sure, you can look around and find pieces of yourself… but that only goes so far.

Crowne joins a ‘gang’ of scooter-enthusiasts after making quick friends with the quirky, flirty, and beautiful Talia (Mbatha-Raw). This isn’t the type of gang you might think of. That would require the film to have some sort of conflict or dramatic engagement. No, this scooter gang is the type that might do a drive-by redecoration. Of course it’s hinted that both Crowne (whom she has renamed “Lance Corona”, as if it sounds cooler) and Talia might have feelings for each other, but note that she’s a flighty girl with a free spirit in a movie about a guy who needs a push in his life. That’s all you really need to know. The only true human relationship hinted at in the film is between Crowne and Mrs. Tainot, watching how their own personalities collide and push each other to grow.

It’s important to understand this - Larry Crowne isn’t a bad movie, anymore than Larry Crowne is a bad guy. It’s nice, sweet, and simple. Two hours of good stuff happening to a good guy. A good guy who rides a scooter and helps influence other people. And, this will sound weird, but… remember in That Thing You Do!, how there was so much positive energy floating around that you couldn’t notice that the film was terribly bland until after you finished watching it? Tom Hanks directed that the same way he directs this - positive flow; bland payoff. Once it was over, I felt like I had witnessed something uplifting and genuine, but in reflection while writing this, I couldn’t help but notice the utter lack of spirit surrounding the whole project. It’s as if Vardalos and Hanks simply wanted to pour sugar on something bitter.


Rating: ★★★

"Don't ever call me 'Bobo' again, damnit"

You’d think that a movie about Kevin James talking to animals wouldn’t be amusing, right? I would think that, too. And, I did, since I started seeing the banners all over San Francisco during my coffee outings with friends and co-workers. We’d joke back and forth about him being a tubby Dr. Dolittle, or Dr. Eatmuch, or whatever. But, those are low blows. Fact is, Kevin James is a talented guy, and a decent actor who gets stuck doing the second-hand Chris Farley shtick for Camp Sandler (you know, Adam Sandler and his best friends; Grown Ups, being as good as it is, is an exception). Here, watching Kevin James have talk soup with a gorilla isn’t as bad as it might seem, simply because of what they’re saying. Of course, you can raise an eyebrow or both about the screenplay taking five writers to finish, but… no, let’s just enjoy the story.

Griffin (Kevin James) is a zookeeper. Get it? That, and he’s a hopeless romantic. The film opens with a seemingly out of place shot of him riding on a horse with his girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Gibb). She’s not the one for him, as she turns down his proposal in a heartbeat. Never mind all the stops that were pulled out. Those don’t matter, really. Five years later, Griffin seems to be back on his feet, still working for the zoo, tending the animals, and kind of crushing but not really on the infinitely better-for-him Kate (the infallible Rosario Dawson). I can say infinitely better because there’s a formula at work here that’s as old as animal husbandry. Goofy guy tries to get his hot ex back using goofy routines, only to discover that being goofy is suave and gets a better girl. The difference here is that the animals are hooking him up.

The voices of the animals are as follows - Bernie the Gorilla is Nick Nolte, Donald the Monkey is Adam Sandler, Joe the Lion is Sylvester Stallone, Janet the Lioness is Cher, Barry the Elephant is Judd Apatow, Jerome the Bear is Jon Favreau, Bruce the Bear is Faizon Love, Mollie the Giraffe is Maya Rudolph, Sebastian the Wolf is Bas Rutten, and then there’s simply ‘frog’ by Don Rickles. That’s a hell of a voice-over team. And each actor is perfectly suited for their animals. They’re the most entertaining part of the film, especially the way their dialogue is designed, almost as if to fit whatever extra footage they had of the animals playing around. Their interactions are fantastic.

It’s unfortunate that the film follows as much formula as it does, given the opportunities for gold that it mines; the idea of using the animals’ own mating habits to get Griffin his girl isn’t exactly screenwriting gold, but the execution is loads of fun. Could have run a bit deeper and meant a bit more, and the humor probably could have been either broader or darker (think, oh… Strange Wilderness, for example). But, that might belie the intent of the screenplay. Just to show a sweet story about a man, a woman, their love, and its connection with nature. Or, maybe I’m even reading too much into that. Maybe they just wanted Kevin James to be fat with some animals for an hour and a half. Either way, both intentions were realized, and they pay off was better than it should have been. Predictable ending, but… formula. It’s almost Darwinian.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Rating: ★★

"Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Optimus?"

You know your movie is in trouble when you’re 20 minutes in and there’s no discernable plot. That’s also an indication that your movie is directed by Michael Bay. Also, that it’s part of the Transformers series. A general rule of screenwriting is that you have to hook your audience in the first ten pages (one page equals about one minute). Transformers assumes its audience is hooked from the first trailer, expecting people to shell out money for the tickets like they would for the refills of popcorn. And, of course, they were right. This is one of the biggest films of the year, and there seems to be no stopping it.

What we don’t seem to know about American history is that during the Apollo 11 moon landing, the astronauts discovered alien life. Not just any alien life, but the Transformers. Buzz Aldrin and his team unearthed a transport ship carrying “pillars” that were meant to build a space bridge, transporting pieces of the doomed planet Cybertron to a new location. Where? Well, if you’ve seen the last two movies, you can piece that together. We have the Autobots and the Decepticons locked in eternal war, battling for control of their race. Make? Design? Can we even call the Transformers a race? Whatever. That part isn’t important. What is important, however, is that the Autobots have formed an alliance with the humans and there’s… a war. Again. For a third time.

The flaw in the Transformers movies is that there’s the plot, and then there’s the action. And then there's the last hour of the movie that the two shall never meet. Think of it like the old adage - “Sex scenes in movies help drive the plot. Plot in porn helps drive the sex scenes.” The action scenes in Transformers, and in most action movies these days, drive what little plot there is. And by drive, I mean hammer. Right into the ground. There’s excess, and then there’s “a film by Michael Bay”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the mythology the films have set up, let me break it down for you. There’s this kid, Sam Whitwicky (Shia LeBeauf) who got a car. Not just a car, but a classic Chevy that is actually a transformer. And there are other Transformers and they do some things. That’s really the extent of it. Yes, fans will cry “foul!” over that description, but that is sincerely all there is to make of it. If you can go further and not make me laugh, be my guest.

The problem, and this is the most integral problem of the whole franchise, is that it’s hard to care for a hunk of metal. The only reason that people are involved at all is, instinctively, because these hunks of metal come with power windows, four-wheel drive, automatic locks, plenty of trunk space, but absolutely zero personality. So, to circumvent that, we’re given Shia LeBeauf and John Turturro. That, and a slew of other actors. Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, John Malkovich, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson... all actors too talented for a mess like this.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a fan of Megan Fox - I think she has a lot more on the ball than people are giving her credit for; and there’s a lot of talk about the disputes between her and Michael Bay during the filming of these films (hence her being replaced in this). But, that’s a story for another article. The point is, the actors are the best part, and the dialogue, no matter how inane, is always well delivered. Michael Bay has that part right - the easiest way to hook your audience in an action film is good, quick dialogue; not just big, loud explosions.

Bay is a talented filmmaker who makes bad movies. Sure - the story goes that with the second Transformers, that got critically destroyed, there was no script, the actors improvised most of their lines, Megan Fox wasn’t even present for most of the filming, etc. There’s all that - and then there’s the fact that even while Michael Bay can direct his actors to say things well, and then put a couple of big, snazzy explosions in between those lines, he just can’t tell a coherent story. There’s the miracle film of his called The Rock, and then there’s everything else. Big, pretty, loud, fun =/= intelligent.

Bad Teacher


Bad teacher, worse car-washer.

There’s a special place in Hell reserved for people like Elisabeth Halsey. She’s a drunk, drug-abusing, materialistic gold-digger, and makes no bones about it. If you took one look at the woman, you’d think trophy wife, and move on. As well you should. What you wouldn’t think, however, is “teacher”. Role model, etc. Of course, that’s all part of the joke of the movie. Get it? Of course you do - it’s spelled out to the point where it isn’t funny anymore. Bad Teacher takes the idea that made Bad Santa so funny, and pile drives it into slapstick oblivion. Where in Bad Santa, the Santa was a criminal posing as a Santa. In Bad Teacher, this woman is actually a teacher, posing as a good person. The joke is lost in the translation.

I don’t really get it anymore.

More after the cut--

Horrible Bosses

Rating: ★★★

Cry me a *beep* river, Charlie. 

Part of my process for reviewing whatever it is I watch, I sit down and read as much about the film as possible - be it production notes, or other reviews. Reading other reviews for Horrible Bosses, I’m surprised that the film has taken off as well as it has. Certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes at 75%, and many critics have given it three-four stars. Note - this of course doesn’t mean that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the movie. It’s a comedy perfectly suited to my tastes, even if a bit sloppily executed. In the realm of “awful workplace” comedies, it falls just short of the greatness achieved by 9 to 5 or Office Space (the granddaddy of them all). Still, though, even on reflection, Horrible Bosses takes pinches of both and creates something unique to itself.

More after the cut--

Thursday, July 14, 2011

In Theaters This Weekend

Does this mean Ralph Fiennes can stop whispering in everything now?

The time has come, the Rowling said - seven books took ten years and eight movies to get to filmgoers like us. And has the ride been worth it? Well, about half the time. The series has survived different directors, casting problems, and most other ailments that production companies dread. But, they've been released nonetheless, and always to gigantic box office numbers. I feel bad that cute little Winnie the Pooh has to go up against the giant that Harry Potter is destined to be. It's almost unfair. Also, this is the only chance I'll have to write about a Harry Potter movie being released. Until they're all remade in about thirty years. 

But, there has to be some sort of respect paid to the series, non? Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, and David Yates have given their visions and we give our thanks. Except to Mike Newell. He crapped on one of the best books ever written. But never mind. This is about the Deathly Hallows. 

So let's get down to it. 

More after the cut--

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer and Others on DVD Tomorrow

"Outta my way, pointless supporting character."

Finally, a group of DVD's worth spending some money on! It's been a while since a stock of good films was put out on shelves at the same time as one another, so tomorrow is a day in which we can rejoice. A Grisham novel on steroids in The Lincoln Lawyer, a haunted house thriller in the same vein as Poltergeist in Insidious, and the foreign drama that stirred up emotions all over the country - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  

So, let's take a look at each, shall we? I don't have to tell you which is worth your money. They all are. 

More after the cut--