Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Review: The Hangover: Part II
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

The work-backwards mystery of “what the hell happened last night?” is the best thing both “Hangover” movies have going for them, so there's little room for detail dissection in a review of either film. The details, after all, become clues as to why the nocturnally cursed trio of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up on the scummy floor of what's more crime scene than room – nothing wiped clean but their memories. To spill the clues would be to spoil the fun that's terribly precious to this, shall we say, accidental franchise. Thus, in regard to “The Hangover: Part II,” I can't explain to you how the film dimwittedly, offensively and hilariously evokes “The Crying Game”; how a crack about a monkey and a penis scores some surprisingly infectious laughs; why a line about P.F. Chang's is the film's best; why marshmallows are significant; what, exactly, a severed finger has to do with all this; and why, oh why, Paul Giamatti's name is in the credits.

So, what shall we chat about, then? Let's start by acknowledging that, along with whatever else they ingested to land them in round two of WTF hell, Phil, Stu and Alan – collectively and obnoxiously known as “The Wolfpack” – apparently swallowed up the lightning in a bottle that director and co-writer Todd Phillips captured with 2009's “The Hangover.” A rude hack who deals in the unapologetic “coolness” of aggression (see if you can count how many brooding, angry and expletive-laden tracks he crams in this time), Phillips proves ill-suited for high demands and shows a rather pitiful lack of inspiration, structuring his sequel in just about the exact fashion as its predecessor. Again, I won't divulge the particulars of how the mirror-imaging ultimately disappoints, but even those who proudly subscribe to Phillips's brand of middle-fingers-in-the-air humor (“It's a bad man's world,” plays the opening song) will sense the dragging of the filmmaker's feet.

It's no spoiler to say that the comparisons begin with another wedding. Following the nearly-ruined nuptials of Doug (Justin Bartha), the group's tame and sidelined member, it's time for Stu to make it official with his exotic, impossibly stunning fiancée, Lauren (Jamie Chung), whose highfalutin family has planned a picturesque vacation wedding in Thailand. The locale prompts Phillips to gracelessly show off his increased budget, stringing together swooping crane shots of tropical shorelines with the same boorishness afforded the soundtrack arrangement. A whoosh across a jungle road and a rise above a tree line reveal a swanky beachside haven, where Lauren's father, the male Amy Chua, waits to hurl insults at Stu while lauding Lauren's whiz-kid brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a brilliant cellist and pre-med student ripe for corruption. Reluctantly, Stu, who's “still putting the broken pieces of [his] psyche back together” after his two-year-old trip to Vegas, brings the whole Wolfpack to join the well-to-dos for the blessed occasion, including Alan, whose singular social deficits, we learn, can be partially credited to his being a “stay-at-home son.”

Galifianakis handily runs away with this movie, bagging up the spotlight even more enjoyably than he did in “Part I.” What started as an unsubtle showcase of an edge-of-fame star has become an almost effortlessly uproarious one-man show of awkward comic greatness. Intimately and eerily aware of the twisted gears that make his Baby-Huey-from-outer-space character tick, Galifianakis is better than he's ever been, responsible for most of the sequel's plentiful crack-up moments. Not to be undersold is Helms, who, hot off his terrific turn in the very good “Cedar Rapids” earlier this year, keeps up his enviable talent for imbuing Average Joes with riotous befuddlement (his reactions to “Part II”'s ever-mounting mishaps are never less than priceless). The two second-billed funnymen cast a shadow over man-of-the-moment Cooper (whose penchant for playing handsome, cocky pricks is looking more and more like one-noteness), and their ace contributions are reasons enough to recommend this movie.

This is coming from someone who didn't much care for “The Hangover,” an average-at-best fluke that ranks among Hollywood's most overrated and undeserving success stories. Never mind the fact that Phillips – along with his fluctuating grab-bag of co-writers – can't develop a decent female character to save his life (the guy ain't exactly interested in stretching far beyond his target audience). The real sin was that the 2009 phenomenon wasn't all that funny. Shocking attractions like a diminutively-endowed Ken Jeong (who also appears here) made a splash, and the setting of Vegas lent much to the material (another virtue of the sequel, which mainly unfolds in seedy, merciless and atmospheric Bangkok). But honest viewers will admit that “The Hangover” was a mindlessly viral, communal triumph, not one of genuine wit or craft. It's the kind of movie that's howled at and revered because of some unspoken, inexplicable social requirement. That, and because it taps into the layman's thrill of drinking to forget, and then straining to remember. At the “Hangover: Part II” screening I attended, a sponsoring radio station staged a “hangover contest” in the front of the theater, where two young women had to act out their best morning after, mock-vomiting into a microphone and feigning memory loss and migraines. The crowd cheered and the girls received prizes.

I'm not going to turn this into some sort of preachy indictment, as I don't blame Phillips for the sad display in the theater anymore than I blame Nicholas Sparks for the widespread acceptance of abysmal melodrama. Let's just say I rest my case as far as illuminating how an unworthy beast became a box-office juggernaut. As for “The Hangover: Part II,” similar returns can be expected, only this time there's more to boast. The humor is much bigger and much better, even if it's inexorably snuffed out by a same old, same old framework. Why is there a monk wearing Teddy's hoodie? Why do events lead to a scene with a 9-year-old getting a tattoo? Why does Stu claim he has “a demon” in him? The devil truly is in the details.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 3 stars (out of 5)
Kung Fu Panda 2, 1.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

It's a common opinion that we have Steven Spielberg to blame for the beast that is the summer blockbuster, what with his “Jaws” being the watershed film of what's very much become its own genre. But Spielberg has never made movies like “Kung Fu Panda 2” or “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” two brand new, back-to-back summer sequels that epitomize the uninspired, dollar-driven traditions of this more-is-more season. Not even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” arguably Spielberg's worst movie, can match the pomp or needlessness of these two strikingly similar behemoths, whose 3-D visuals can't mask the transparency of their common purpose. In the traditional sense, neither are superhero movies, which, year after year, have dominated summer slates throughout the past decade. But both are so dutifully constructed by familiar factory standards it's a wonder the 3-D glasses don't reveal bar codes in the bottom corners of the screen. Stories do not progress or evolve in these movies; they are merely crammed, like poorly mixed mortar, between heavy, brick-like action setpieces so redundant your mind clicks off as they unfold. To say that this is simply par for the course when it comes to summer films is admitting defeat. With eyes wide and mind all but empty, you may well go home happily convinced that you got your money's worth, but, I assure you, that wasn't the sort of pig-in-mud response audiences had when walking out of “Jaws.”

This isn't to say that there's no fun to be had in these movies, and I'll be the first to admit that the latest “Pirates” installment scratched my summer-adventure itch with its jungle locales, rousing music and fearsome, well-imagined villains. When comparing it to “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Pirates 4” is by leaps and bounds the better film, if only because there's evidence that at least a few human hands took part in its creation. Thankfully branching away from the storyline of the initial trilogy (folks like Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley are nowhere to be found), “On Stranger Tides” pins the focus on good ol' Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a character whose trademark arrogance has become little more than a reflection of the filmmakers' pride of property (Need a fun drinking game? Take a shot every time Jack's name gets a god-like utterance in Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot's script). Seeking out the Fountain of Youth for reasons that are quite literally all over the map, Jack is joined by Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a duplicitous Latina and former nun he once bedded and corrupted. The Coyote Ugly vixen of this Very Jerry Bruckheimer affair (directed, unremarkably, by Rob Marshall), Angelica wants the Fountain's waters to save the soul of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), her evil pirate daddy who practices voodoo, cheats death and controls his monstrous ship with flicks of his cursed broad sword.

The film is punctuated with such preposterous piles of exposition that you might laugh if you weren't so busy attempting to process it all. Again, the talky bursts of plot are caused by action-sequence overload – the need to put money on the screen trumping the need to spin a clear and compelling yarn. The first 40-odd minutes play like a clip reel of outtakes – generic fights and chases strung together with bits of commentary to make sure everyone's up to speed. Such has become the most discouraging aspect of these big-budget moneymakers: noisy action is now so terribly commonplace that filmmakers no longer feel the need to make it exceptional. So long as it's in there, the job has been done. But, my god, am I ever sick of feeling entirely empty as a junkyard's worth of swords clash across the screen, a sloppily edited horse chase drags on for eons, or a cheeky remark caps off an escape as indiscriminate as a grain of sand. It isn't until it gets over a massive heap of these very blunders that “Pirates 4” begins to validate its existence. Blackbeard proves a deliciously odious baddie (the series has always excelled in that arena), and when it's not preoccupied with making a racket, the film succeeds at delivering slivers of Jack's brand of stream-of-consciousness randomness (an odd cliff-side argument involving a voodoo doll and Russian Roulette turns out to be more involving than any of the derring-do).

Strong antagonistic forces – which, in “Pirates,” also include nifty predatorial mermaids – are, in fact, the only strengths that straddle our two summer specimens, as apart from its villain, “Kung Fu Panda 2” hasn't a redeeming quality to boast. If “On Stranger Tides” is lazy, then this wholly uncalled-for family flick is inches shy of comatose. Also featuring a bumblingly competent lead character who's much more beloved by the filmmakers than the audience, it strains to tell a story no one cares to know, and pits it against a barrage of action that no one will ever remember. Po the Panda (Jack Black), whose obesity and appetite are still being grossly exploited in pursuit of everyman-sitcom guffaws, is suddenly catching onto the fact that his noodle-making goose of a father isn't his real father. Thus, a comfy origin story can support the present action, only neither the past nor the present have even kiddie-sized value. Every iota of Po's identity quest is sucked dry of sincerity, its abandoned-infant, you-had-the-power-all-along trajectory not even attempting to nudge the edges of the cookie cutter (you hear that, world? Adoptive parents are people, too!). And lest we at least find some diversion in the excitement of the driving conflict (Po and his butt-kicking buddies, the Furious Five, must fight to stop the eradication of Kung Fu), every action sequence is of the mindless, “Pirates” sort, with animated limbs flying but zero interest as to what or who they strike.

The nasty nemesis and sole inventive element is Lord Shen, a vengeful, terrifically rendered peacock voiced by Gary Oldman. A grown-up brat who concocts the Kung Fu-killing machine and also murdered Po's parents (oh, don't give me that spoiler nonsense), Shen is the kind of villain Disney classics became known for, and his snazzy fighting techniques (swiping tail feathers that double as blades) offer visual dazzle that can no longer even be found in the formerly fetching Asian environments (the 2008 original, you'll remember, was quite a looker). Perhaps the strangest of the movie's myriad faults is that returning writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger – who couldn't seem more studio-pressured if they wrote Shrek into this DreamWorks product – make Po such a narrow-minded focal point that they alienate him from his own movie. The Furious Five (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, David Cross and Seth Rogen) have been whittled down to convenient window dressing tossed the occasional bone of a line, and Po, who's written to hog the spotlight with the same gluttony that drives his hunger for dumplings, comes off as both greedy and unsure of how to handle the burden of carrying a film. Once a nominally successful example of the fat buffoon bewildering the “regular” folks, his humor now seems miles beyond the other characters' very comprehension, as every joke, like this movie, goes over like a lead balloon.

Do you feel gloomy reading this? I feel a little gloomy writing it. Movies like these, even “Pirates” with its occasional canon-fire of stimulation, generally fail to inspire even hearty, worthwhile critical responses. They operate with such minimal personality that one winds up writing not about the films themselves, but about the bottom lines of the shameless forces that propel them. Surely, don't blame Steven Spielberg for the pirates and pandas that are robbing millions of you blind as we speak. In fact, Spielberg might well be our cinematic salvation this summer, serving as the producer of “Super 8,” J.J. Abrams's mystery-shrouded sci-fi flick that seems to feature the now-nostalgic hallmarks of hits like “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” Spielberg may have invented the summer blockbuster, but certainly not the summer blockbuster as we now know it. At the end of the day, at least his had teeth.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Review: Thor
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In “Thor,” there aren't any phallic jokes about the titular thunder god's mighty hammer, but there might as well be. Such innuendos are about the only things this “Avengers” lead-up doesn't milk for laughs in its attempt to bring levity to the serious business of an alien beefcake falling to Earth after pissing off his Zeus-like daddy on a distant planet. Comic relief is indeed one way to make comic-geek hogwash relatable, but it's also a way to dilute sincerity and drama – trading punch for punch lines, as it were. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) faces the same dilemma that's befallen so many of his ilk: He's a weirdo trapped in a human society that's so not his speed. Thus, there's ample opportunity for director Kenneth Branagh (yes, that one) and a trio of screenwriters (Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne) to play the culture-clash card, having Thor blithely walk through traffic, pose for Facebook pictures, and name-drop things like Asgard (his home) and King Odin (his father) without the tiniest tinge of irony. Some of this is funny (“I need a horse!” the fish-out-of-water declares in a pet shop), but it's all rather strained, like the muscles of the many mortals trying to dislodge that blasted hammer, which follows Thor to Earth and embeds itself in the ground like an asteroidal Excalibur.

Truth be told, for a movie that was essentially made to help usher in the ultimate superhero mash-up film (“The Avengers” drops in summer 2012), “Thor” is hardly a slouchy production. Its pace is nimble, its casting is just right and its visual grandeur exceeds the sausage-factory look that's grown so prevalent in superhero cinema (“Green Lantern,” anyone?). For every tedious, overwrought action sequence (an early battle on an icy planet is meant to establish Thor's cockiness, but is really just cocky filmmaking), there's a crisp and pristine otherworldly tableau, or a gleaming interior furnished with inspired production design. Asgard – which, along with Earth and that ice planet, is one of the story's “nine realms” – is a Shangri-La plucked from a 1980s fantasy, where mauve galaxies and orange nebulas hover in full view, and a disco bridge of rainbow light stretches to a golden chamber that zaps folks in and out of foreign lands. It's a place, Thor says, where science and magic coexist, and things are all relatively peachy until the zealous prince's thirst for war prompts Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to banish him from paradise. He lands in New Mexico, conveniently close to the headquarters of a curious trio of sky-studying scientists, and with that, science and magic truly do join forces.

Though welcome for their inclusion of actors like Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgärd (who play the scientists – Jane, Darcy and Dr. Erik), Thor's earthbound escapades have a limpness that's never overcome, even when a familiar S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Clark Gregg) shows up to link the proceedings to those of the “Iron Man” films (for the fanboys, Tony Stark gets a well-placed mention). The infernal humor keeps a-coming to help make up for the comparatively lackluster setting, and the inexorable developments of Thor's and Jane's romance and Thor's Arthurian redemption (he really does need to muster nobility to reclaim that immovable hammer) arrive with a quickness that's jolting, since it feels our hero only just dropped in moments ago. Put the blame on a lack of balance, a mismanaged insistence on telling two tall tales – one of Asgard's mythology and one of Thor's trial run with the human race. The latter is greatly shortchanged by the former, which, however more fascinating, is liberally fleshed out with scant regard for running time. We get the layered scoop on Thor's lineage, his responsibility to protect the nine realms, and his people's precarious relations with the fearsome Frost Giants, but we feel next to nothing when he and Jane share a kiss, or when a glimmer of changed-man-hood returns that hefty phallus to its rightful hand.

Where the movie does triumph is in the acting department, which is almost certainly a result of having Branagh at the helm. An unlikely candidate who reportedly took the gig because he was once nuts about the “Thor” comics, the Shakespearean actor/director squeezes in multiple moments of gripping gravitas, which, like the visuals, top what one expects from such a dime-a-dozen product. Naturally, the thespian-driven scenes that work best are those that evoke the Bard – heated bits of familial strife that don't need gods to summon thunder. Hemsworth, Hopkins and unfamiliar talent Tom Hiddleston (who plays Thor's power-hungry, villainous brother, Loki) bring classy intensity to well-directed segments that would shake the stage for which they seem perfectly appropriate. Twenty-seven-year-old Hemsworth is particularly impressive, especially given his short filmography and his dismal hamminess in the prologue to J.J. Abrams's “Star Trek” reboot. Throughout the see-sawing quality of “Thor,” Hemsworth remains a disarming, knightly constant, stepping into the burly-adventure-hero role as if cloned from Dolph Lundgren and Brad Pitt. He growls like a bear, but he can play tame, too, and he admirably pushes what substance he can into the movie's cracks. If you wanted to go there, you could say he tries his very best to give a golden heart to his golden god.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Review: Meek's Cutoff
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

In the long-lingering, observational western “Meek's Cutoff,” there's always something big within director Kelly Reichardt's frame, some bold gesture or stirring vista counteracting her expert minimalism. The film's contemplative nature yields many unhurried, seemingly simple shots, but none have the pretense or thematic forcefulness of what's found in, say, Sofia Coppola's “Somewhere.” Though the delivery never feels like more than an effortless trickle, meaning and purpose flood Reichardt's imagery, be it in a slow transition that hauntingly illustrates a journey's progress; the urgent, volumes-speaking, landscape-scanning pursuit of a windswept item; or a final shot – easily the year's best thus far – that's brimming with irony, unease, retribution, reflection and also hope. This is a movie of great beauty and profundity, both unspoken and plain-spoken. What it has to show and tell is at once bracingly frank and perfectly subtle. The intimations of the carefully-chosen language and the intimacy of the immediate circumstances suggest the piece would work very well as a stage play; however, it is invaluably thrust into an unforgiving wilderness, affording it dire stakes and rich visual texture.

The setting is somewhere near northeastern Oregon circa 1845, where three families with three covered wagons are following the rough-and-tumble explorer Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a mountain man they hired to guide them across an uncharted desert offshoot of the Oregon Trail. In actuality, Meek led some 1,000 pioneers with about 200 wagons along the alternate route, which would allegedly bypass a treacherous mountain range. Working from a script by Oregon-based writer Jon Raymond, whose short stories inspired both of her most recent efforts, “Wendy and Lucy” and “Old Joy,” Reichardt narrows the focus to a cross-section of travelers, and thus, a cross-section of 19th century America. In the filmmaker's gently feminist purview, the men are more static and far less knotty than the women, who form a neat trifecta of presumably accurate female types of the day: the hard-nosed, self-sufficient skeptic (Michelle Williams); the selfless, idealistic wife and mother (Shirley Henderson); and the naïve, vulnerable hysteric (Zoe Kazan). This is not to say that the men, or husbands (played by Will Patton, Paul Dano and Neal Huff), are underdeveloped, nor that the deep and tremulous feelings are reserved for their wives. Everyone in the group, including a young boy (Tommy Nelson), are strangers in a strange land, and Reichardt makes brilliant use of their uniform, comprehensive fear of the unknown.

“Meek's Cutoff” is a treatise on ignorance and how it has spread and thrived throughout our country's history, fueled by dangerous influence, word-of-mouth and groupthink. The travelers regard their promised-land destination as both a heaven and a hell, a place where dreams may come true, but where alien nightmares may also be waiting. The growly, heavily-bearded Meek (the creation of whom would net Greenwood awards if not also a feat for the makeup department) serves, on the outset, as these people's messianic shepherd, but he's also a reckless source of fear-mongering. The group's narrow-minded terrors are soon embodied by a Native American wanderer they encounter – and capture – during their unnerving trek. Meek beats the stranger, and ceaselessly tells his followers that such “heathens” are deadly, deceptive and worthless. But a need for water and a growing uncertainty of place makes the wanderer an asset, turning the tables until it's clear who's truly guiding the sheep.

One of the more impactful components of Reichardt's political shift is the complicated relationship that forms between Williams's character, Emily, and the Native American. The first to discover him, she's as repulsed and wary as the rest of her white company, but she has the wisdom to try to communicate rationally and pursue mutual benefits, which inevitably results in a semblance of understanding. While one might naturally mark Williams's Oscar-nominated work in “Brokeback Mountain” as the start of her unceasing artistic ascent, it's difficult to pinpoint when, exactly, she became one of America's most exciting actresses. She's beginning to rival even Tilda Swinton in terms of her taste in projects, and while she's hardly a chameleon, she has an impenetrable, unswerving naturalism that does wonders for her films. Her hardened, increasingly soiled face begins to dictate how we process this story's themes, her stares and reactions saying more than perhaps anything else in the movie (which, indeed, is saying quite a lot).

Aside from the visage of her muse (Williams, of course, was also Wendy in “Wendy and Lucy”), Reichardt uses extremely painstaking details and pacing to present the ways and travails of a people. We are usually just watching – watching Emily systematically load a rifle to fire a warning shot; watching the laborious steps of knitting or preparing food; watching Kazan's hysteric offer precious water to the parakeet that reminds her of home; or even watching the cultural line blur as the wanderer draws on a rock and echoes the young boy's earlier wood carvings. A lot of viewers are going to complain about the film's heavy gait, but the events are never needlessly slow. The pace is essential for relaying the arduousness of the characters' journey, and, like the best of the screen's sparing works of art, the thoughtful lack of action allows for severe intensity in the intermittent dramatic bursts (a wrecked wagon and a spilled water supply will make you gasp for air). Naturally, Chris Blauvelt's cinematography, which almost immediately calls to mind the lensing of “Days of Heaven,” keeps the eyes engaged, its harsh majesty and shrewd implications always highly transfixing. But, still, this is a movie of which the experience truly begins post-credits. It's astonishing how much Reichardt is able to convey and make you think about – and keep thinking about – with such a limited palette. She is an ace storyteller of mighty, artful intellect. In “Meek's Cutoff,” she covers more ground than her trudging pioneers.