Monday, July 27, 2009


Review: In the Loop
4.5 stars
(out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The dialogue in the biting British politi-comedy “In the Loop” is delivered like rounds from a machine gun. Before the impact of one furiously funny joke can even sink in, you've already been slugged with five more zingers. A brilliant, seamless blend of ace comedic writing and masterful actor improv, this satire of the zany inner-workings of the U.K. and U.S. governments on the brink of Middle Eastern war is teeming with acidic wit. It's a rare specimen of intelligent comedy, constantly remaining a step ahead of you and commanding full control of both your brain cells and your funny bone. A hit at this year's Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, “Loop” is rude, shrewd, scarily suggestive of actual governmental goings-on, and populated by an immensely entertaining ensemble cast. It draws inspiration from (and comparisons to) some of the cinema's funniest political films, and in the process, rightfully joins their ranks.

An offshoot of the award-winning BBC series “The Thick of It,” “Loop” is directed by series creator Armando Iannucci and written by original series writers Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche. A few of the show's actors reprise their small screen roles, including Peter Capaldi, who brings riotous and brutal volatility to Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister's wildly unbalanced but exceptionally erudite director of communications. Presumably set during the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq (it is never explicitly said), “Loop” begins with Malcolm up in arms about a recent radio interview in which Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), Britain's simple-minded minister for international development, shoves his leg down his throat when he calls the impending war “unforeseeable.” The ambiguous remark ignites a media firestorm and disrupts the delicate balance of the U.K's official position on the issue. Joined by a new political advisor named Toby (Chris Addison), Simon is soon shipped across the pond to D.C., where a ravenous batch of American bureaucrats is waiting to pounce. Stateside, the colorful players include TV alum Mimi Kennedy as hard-assed assistant secretary for diplomacy, Karen Clarke; “Soprano” bad boy James Gandolfini as a hot-headed Pentagon general; and “My Girl” Anna Chlumsky as Karen's eager assistant, Liza, whose hastily-penned document on the unnamed conflict becomes a key element in the film's hilariously hectic plot.

Like the egocentric airheads in last year's “Burn After Reading” (funnyman David Rasche even appears in both movies), all the characters in “Loop” are out for themselves and intent on deceiving one another. Here the laugh and fear factors are raised considerably since many of these characters' actions and words have a direct effect on the global climate (it's fiction, but undoubtedly drawn from fact). The filmmakers have a field day with the various consequences of language, be it the way the press gobbles up Simon's daft, on-the-spot comments about “climbing the mountain of conflict”; Malcolm's mind-blowing, obscenity-laced tirades that he unleashes on anyone who crosses his path; or how some simple editing can sway the decision of the U.N. Security Council. The most fun to be had in this movie is watching its inhabitants duke it out in an endless stream of articulate arguments, each one sprinkled with a generous dose of clever pop culture references. As the interns, officers, advisers and assistants attempt to one-up their adversaries in mini-wars of corrosive wit, nods to Harry Potter, Julie Andrews, YouTube, “Bugsy Malone” and “Love, Actually” are tossed around like grenades from the characters' verbal arsenal. And yet, none of the nods are flaunted – they're simply woven into the film's razor-sharp comedic synergy. (Watch also for a diverting side bit with the invaluable Steve Coogan.)

The components of “Loop” call to mind some imperial predecessors from Hollwood's laugh factory. The melding of the machine of media with the machine of war evokes memories of Barry Levinson's “Wag the Dog,” while the message that basically tells us to stop worrying and love those machines is an unmissable connection to Stanley Kubrick's immortal “Dr. Strangelove.” The hand-held, primarily soundtrack-free, pseudo-documentary style is reminiscent of the films of Christopher Guest, and the sheer, manic hilarity of the British actors' uncensored delivery immediately brings us back to “Monty Python.” Thinking in terms of television, that same hand-held, two-camera approach also reminds us of the deadpan scenarios in “The Office,” while the entire cast of “Loop” might be described as the brainiacs on “The West Wing” after having swallowed fistfuls of performance-enhancing drugs. Iannucci, who makes an enormously impressive feature debut, combines all of these winning ingredients, boils them, and serves them up as a deliciously twisted tea of smart, scalding humor.

2009 is shaping up to be a banner year for comedy, the most difficult film genre to execute well. Though I wasn't as drunk on “The Hangover” as the rest of America, that film became a huge success and is inarguably a cut above many other titles of its screwball kind. Disney/Pixar's “Up” – still the best movie of the year thus far – is packed with consistent, genuine laughs. And speaking of year's best, I recently hailed Sacha Baron Cohen's shockfest “Brüno” as 2009's funniest movie. I consider “In the Loop” a very close second. Next up is Judd Apatow's latest, “Funny People,” which throws the raison d'être right into the title. Let's see if Mr. Apatow can't keep this hysterical movement cooking with gas.

Monday, July 20, 2009


Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
4 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Things bloom and things wither in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the sixth big-screen rendering of J.K. Rowling's seven-volume literary phenomenon. What's surely dead and gone is any trace of the sprightly and sparkly kids stuff from Chris Columbus' “Sorcerer's Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets.” What's blossomed in its place is a black rose of fantasy-horror that's as deadly serious as the darkest parts of Peter Jackson's “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Handled with great care by “Order of the Phoenix” helmer David Yates and crafted to visual perfection, “Half-Blood Prince” is a very strong, very confident film, one that doesn't take itself lightly but also knows how to very effectively lighten itself up. It is the best movie in the series since Alfonso Cuaron's “Prisoner of Azkaban.” But it is also very long and at times overconfident, milking its newfound sophistication for every dime by dawdling with lesser story elements instead of bloody getting down to business. After a stellar first half, I eventually felt as if this movie kept grabbing me and then letting me go. But when it had me in its clutches, it took me to some beautiful, thrilling, funny, profound and surprisingly scary places.

When “Half-Blood Prince” begins, only a week has gone by since the climactic battle in “Order of the Phoenix,” which ended with – among other things – the death of Harry Potter's godfather, the mysterious Sirius Black. From there, things only grow gloomier, as the Death Eaters – super-villain Lord Voldemort's nasty, jet stream-producing minions – tear up the streets of London and begin formulating the ultimate plot to infiltrate the beloved Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, an act that would afford them the opportunity to commit one very dastardly deed. In need of an inside man, the baddies tap Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Harry's classmate and longtime rival who's still rocking that “Village of the Damned” look. All but confirming the popular belief that he's mighty evil on the inside, Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) vows to protect Malfoy as he attempts to carry out that deed (which, in case you couldn't tell, is intentionally cryptic). Everyone at Hogwarts knows full well that trouble's a-brewin', especially wise old headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), whose asked a former faculty member, Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), to return to the school for reasons beyond his potion-making skills. Slughorn alone holds a crucial memory regarding Voldemort's past, and it's up to Harry to extract the memory and use it to combat the enemy. That is, after he's finished navigating Hogwarts' increasingly hormone-filled hallways and reading the magic spell cheat sheets of a guy who calls himself the Half-Blood Prince.

This movie possesses a great deal of gravity, more than any of the other “Potter” titles. I found the experience of it to be as weighty and legitimate as, say, a gritty war drama or a gripping political thriller. It's clear that everyone involved believes wholeheartedly in the material, approaching it with the utmost earnestness and artistic integrity. In doing so, they've finally made a believer out of me, a casual “Potter” viewer at best. Yates – who will also direct parts I and II of the “Deathly Hallows” finale – has visualized Rowling's sixth tome in a mature yet still very magical way, and he's got his entire cast and crew working on his wavelength. Apart from a somewhat overly tidy epilogue, series regular Steve Kloves' script skirts the easy banter and avoids talking down to viewers. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel – a new recruit who in the past has shot gorgeous stuff like “Amélie” and “Across the Universe” – drapes the film in foreboding shadow and adds glowing tinges of copper and silver, arriving at an exquisite look that is both eerie and enchanting. Thrown in the mix are a few extraordinary action set pieces, which are all the more outstanding since the movie is relatively effects-light.

In the acting department, Rickman remains the most devilishly entertaining as the slippery Snape, and Broadbent creates a very memorable character as the charmingly paranoid Slughorn. Emma Watson continues to exhibit talent beyond her years as the by-the-book Hermione Granger, while Helena Bonham Carter is dread in a dress as the freaky and unhinged Death Eater Bellatrix LeStrange. Of everybody, I was most impressed by Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe, who's grown into quite an accomplished actor. Perhaps baring it all on stage in “Equus” sharpened his chops. Or maybe he's been playing Harry for so long that he knows the character through and through. Whatever the contributing factors, Radcliffe has developed a commanding screen presence. Scene for scene, he matches his co-stars, many of whom are among the most celebrated British thesps in the business.

As “Half-Blood Prince” presses on (inching ever closer to the end of its 153-minute duration), all this grown-up dramatic weight, all this talent working in tandem, begins to yield some endurance-testing results. I'm all for a fantasy flick that takes the time to nurture its nuances, but this one takes a little too much time. Running parallel to the looming threat of Voldemort is the brighter element of teenage romance, which is blossoming all across Hogwarts. “Half-Blood Prince” throws out in the open attractions that were only hinted at in the past, and many of the developments therein are sweet, honest and amusing. But we start to realize that there's quite a bit of talking and snogging going on, and by the time we reach some of the meatier plot progressions (like the revelation and extraction of that crucial memory, for example), it feels well overdue. This movie establishes an ominous tone in frame one and keeps on reminding us that it's barreling toward SOMETHING BIG. But as it burrows deeper into its second act, its momentum starts to wane, as does our patience. It bounces back, and when it takes off, it truly soars, but the tarnishes left by those low points are unfortunately un-ignorable.

As I said, I'm no Potterhead, but I've an enormous amount of respect for the Potter universe (or “Potterverse,” as it's affectionately called). What Rowling created is one of the great treasures of modern storytelling, and the film franchise it spawned has become an ever-evolving, ever-improving cinematic saga. As the days pass, I find myself thinking a lot about “Half-Blood Prince,” flaws or no flaws. It is an unexpectedly powerful piece of work, and I continue to relive parts of it my head while strongly considering seeing it again. You could say it cast a spell.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Review: Brüno
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

As “Brüno” unfolded before my eyes, tears of laughter were pouring out of them, which is pretty much the best thing one could say about a comedy. Doused in debauchery and bolder than “Borat,” this new feature-length farce from mockumentary mastermind Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't just push the envelope, it sets it on fire. Like its 2006 predecessor, it thrives on awkward moments and sheer shock value, causing its viewers severe discomfort and then rewarding them with severely funny, I-can't-believe-they-just-did-that surprises. Parents, hide the kids: if ever there were a movie that earned every inch of its R rating, it's this one. Staunch conservatives, beware: “Brüno” was not made for you, and in fact, its larger mission – beyond its offensive gags – is to highlight what it believes are your more shameful views and characteristics. Everyone else: strap yourselves in for a gasp-inducing, laugh-'til-you-cry trip down Cohen's latest highway of hilarity. As far as I'm concerned, “ Brüno” is the funniest movie if the year.

Based, like “Borat,” on a persona from Cohen's sketch comedy series “Da Ali G. Show” from the early 2000s, “Brüno” follows its title character – an outrageously flamboyant, gay Austrian fashion reporter – through a series of hysterical hijinks. Played by Cohen as an over-the-top cross between Steven “Cojo” Cojocaru and Heidi Klum with man parts, Brüno introduces himself as Austria's hottest style commentator (as a riotous side note, he also claims to be 19 years old). On his hit TV show, “Funkyzeit,” he announces things like which diseases are “in” and which are “out” (autism, he tells us, is “in”). He attends posh venues as one of the fashion community's elite, until an incident at a Milan runway show involving a Velcro suit gets him blacklisted, fired and dumped by his Pygmy flight attendant boyfriend. Deeming the international fashion world as “shallow,” Brüno decides to travel to Hollywood to become “the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler” (or “the biggest gay movie star since Schwarzenegger” – take your pick). With his hopelessly devoted assistant, Lutz (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten), by his side, the crazily clad dreamer proceeds to test every modern method of obtaining overnight stardom, from making a sex tape to adopting a third-world child. (It's a sort of D-list campaign that would make Kathy Griffin proud.) The journey isn't boring for a second, and boasts some of the most unbelievable and unforgettable comic sequences of recent years.

You'd think that with the massive success and popularity of “Borat,” everyone on Earth would recognize Cohen's face, with or without the guy-liner and spray-on tan. But, as “Brüno” proves, many folks out there are none the wiser, and what Cohen gets his interview subjects to say and do will thrill or appall you, depending on the scene and depending on your level of moral sensitivity. Some of the vignettes – such as a roaringly funny “sit-down” with Paula Abdul – lead you to believe that they must be staged, but most – such as an even funnier focus group session, a bit with Congressman Ron Paul and an appearance on a Texas talk show – seem all-too-convincingly candid. Working with an “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” mentality, “Borat” director Larry Charles sticks to the same format of his previous Cohen vehicle, following his star from mishap to mishap with an unflinching eye. The no-holds-barred, fly-on-the-wall style is still very effective, and Cohen is such a wildly gifted one-man army of in-your-face humor that you don't dare miss a moment, even if it's one that's making you squirm. Not only is the British comedian a fearless whiz at slapstick physicality, he's got the jokes: he throws in enough priceless lines to fuel a stand-up marathon. (My personal favorite comes during a chat with an Arab terrorist: “Your King Osama looks like a kind of dirty wizard or a homeless Santa.”) Forget “The Hangover” – you'll be quoting “Brüno” for months.

What viewers may least expect – and what makes this movie more than just a limit-testing side-splitter – is that Cohen has more to deliver besides pranks and punch lines. Though he'll arguably go further than anyone else to make you laugh (even, as he recently told David Letterman, to the point of risking his life), he's out to make you think as well. Of course, he's intent on satirizing the get-famous-quick trends of contemporary celebrity culture, but deeper than that, he's found a ridiculously entertaining way to point out the absurdities of ignorance and intolerance. That's right: the reigning king of bad taste and brazen vulgarity is a humanitarian after all. Bruno's label-happy extravagance and kinky sexual obsessions serve the craziness of the character, but they also underscore the silliness of stereotypes. And many of the situations Cohen gets himself into – namely a one-on-one with a Jesus-touting “gay converter” and a cage match amidst a rowdy crowd of would-be gay bashers – are used to call out right-wing America on its unending homophobia (the cage match scene veers into disturbing territory, depicting a real-life arena that's brimming with rampant, furious hatred). The actor even gives Hollywood a jab: when all of Bruno's fame-seeking schemes fail, he realizes, if he wants to be a big star like Tom Cruise or Kevin Spacey, he'll have to be straight like them, too. The genius of “Brüno” is that it's a message movie hidden by the misdirection of shock and awe.

And of that, there is plenty. If you thought the naked brawl in “Borat” was shameless, get ready for (what could only be) real sex, talking penises, babies on crosses, mechanical dildos and much, much more. If you're up for it, the sinful joy of “Brüno” is the pure amazement at how far Cohen is willing to stretch the boundaries of censorship. There's a kind of liberating delight in the fact that nothing is off limits for this man (save a segment with LaToya Jackson, which was cut following the news of Michael's death). And it's all in good fun: apart from shaking things up, Cohen isn't trying to cause any real harm. He may very well, however, cause a few hernias.

Monday, July 6, 2009


Review: Public Enemies
2.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Michael Mann likes patterns. At least, that's what “Public Enemies,” the celebrated director's fact-based account of the heyday of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger, suggests. Immediately indentifiable are the visual patterns. Teaming again with Dante Spinotti, the cinematographer who lensed “Heat” and “The Insider,” Mann frequently fills the screen with striking compositions of graphic designs based on line and repetition: stripes, bars, hallways, windows, flickering switchboards, pretty trees all in a row. Images like these paint “Enemies” as more of an art film than a gangster picture, and other, far less effective aesthetic choices confirm that “art film” was a concept at the forefront of Mann's mind throughout the production process. For me, though, the pattern in which Mann chose to tell this story became the most conspicuous: a blandly systematic sequence of events that everyone's seen before. Think of “Enemies” as “American Gangster” – or even “Heat” – with the clock turned back a little further and without the immersive thrill or epic tone. In terms of period pics about men with guns, Mann's film boasts few distinguishing factors aside from its look, and it's a mismatched look to boot. It's clear the movie was intended to be something special; however, it's anything but. It eventually grows tiresome and is, in the long run, forgettable.

Written by Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, the script is an adaptation of the non-fiction book, “Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34,” by Brian Burrough. The title of the book basically sums up the plot of the movie. Mann kicks things off in 1933 at an Ohio penitentiary (hence the stripes) where, disguised as a prisoner, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is brought in by a partner only to break out his captured crew members. Said crew then high-tail it to Chicago, where they proceed to rob multiple banks under Dillinger's cool and calculated supervision. Elsewhere, in an apple orchard (hence the pretty trees), federal agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is introduced while gunning down Pretty Boy Floyd, another hot criminal commodity of the time (played, inexplicably, in one brief scene, by hot Hollywood commodity of today Channing Tatum). The kill makes Purvis the top choice of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) to run the Bureau's Chicago office, a job that comes with the chief directive of capturing Dillinger, a.k.a. “Public Enemy Number One.” So begins a shootout-filled, cat-and-mouse chase that drags on far longer than it should. There are some amusing touches (such as Dillinger's uncanny talent for escaping right under authorities' noses), and at least one gripping gun fight set in and around a wooded hideout, but most of the time I found myself unconcerned with where all the bullets were headed. Before long, I was more than ready for the G-men to nail Dillinger, which – as should come to no surprise to those who know their history – they do, in 1934, the year that marked the end of “America's greatest crime wave.”

“Enemies” does little to make Dillinger an interesting character. In scenes such as an early one in which he throws a foolish cohort out of a car rather than kill him, we learn he was ruthless but reasonable (he also let bank customers keep their money during robberies). In scenes in which he proclaims things like, “I'm having too much fun today to be thinking about tomorrow,” we learn he had every intention of continuing his “vocation” until his death. In scenes such as a later one in which he waltzes right into the FBI's Dillinger Squad headquarters, we learn he reveled in the rush of coming within inches of being caught. In scenes with Billie Frechette, Dillinger's devoted love interest played by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (“La Vie En Rose”), we're meant to learn he had a softer side and interests beyond cleaning out vaults. But the relationship has virtually no potency, and Dillinger has virtually no dimension. Everything that's presented about him – his celebrity, his simple pleasures (“football, movies, fast cars, whiskey”), his penchant for one-liners – feels like a fact from a book and, in that way, perhaps the filmmakers remained too close to their source material. By the end, I knew much about the man, but I never felt as though I knew (or cared about) who he really was.

For Depp, Dillinger is a faint star in a career filled with brilliant performances. I was going to employ a cliché and say the actor phones it in, but I won't, because he never does. Compared to most, his work is effortlessly, magnetically convincing. But compared to his own standard of excellence, Depp's heart is noticeably absent here, possibly because his character isn't given a heart to convey. Maybe Mann and company got it right. Maybe Dillinger was heartless and lacked dimension. All I know is, it makes for humdrum cinema. Bale, another great actor, fares even worse. His Purvis – for whom he adopts a voice that's a hybrid of Dubya's southern twang and Obama's emphatic declarations – is flat, flat, flat. He hunts bad guys, finds more effective ways of hunting bad guys, talks about hunting bad guys, and that's about it. There's no depth of character, no internal conflict. Again, this may have been the way it all went down, but I was as bored as a kid in church. There are two scene-stealers: Cotillard, who despite her struggle with the English language is a radiant charmer, and Stephen Lang (“Tombstone”), all killer composure as Charles Winstead, the Texas Ranger brought in to school Purvis' men on how to better catch those pesky bad guys. Cotillard and Lang share the film's final scene. It's a great moment, albeit too little, too late.

By and large, the most deplorable thing about “Enemies” is the manner in which Mann chose to shoot it. Sticking to a stylistic pattern that started with 2004's “Collateral” and continued with 2006's “Miami Vice,” Mann captures the action on high-definition digital video, a medium that, for all its sharpness (you can see every pore in Depp's movie-star mug), tends to create trails when recording movement. The director also had his cinematographer go hand-held, shooting everything from prison breaks to courtroom scenes with a distracting, dizzying wobbly-cam. This docudrama look clashes terribly with the subject matter, and sucks much of the beauty out of the aforementioned visual motifs, Coleen Atwood's elegant period costumes, even Elliot Goldenthal's sweeping dramatic score. If it's art film experimentation Mann was after, here's hoping he's had his fill. “Enemies,” which unfolds as it should rather than in a way that's exciting and unpredictable, is a movie that serious filmgoers and even critics are practically programmed to like: “Not into 'Transformers 2?' Here's a serious picture with serious stars by a serious director!” Seriously, though, while it ain't as bad as “Transformers 2” (is anything?), it ain't that great at all.