117 posts categorized "R"

05/13/2011

Bride and prejudices

First, the good news about the raucous comedy "Bridesmaids."

I laughed.  I laughed a lot, and so hard that I shook a couple of times.

And the bad news?  As funny as it is, this "Hangover"-for-women is sloppy at times and overindulgent.   Still, "Saturday Night Live" standout Kristen Wiig is so good that I'm ready to dub her "the new Lucille Ball."

Director Paul Feig, however, apparently doesn't know how to trim a scene down to its golden comic core.  I'm guessing Feig, creator of TV's "Freaks and Geeks" who has been working in TV lately, probably eats bananas peel and all.

"Bridesmaids" is, however, very, very hilarious much of the time.  And it proves women can be just as raunchy as men when it comes to bottom-feeder dark comedy.

Wiig teams with two close friends.  The modern female genius of goofball comedy (Come on, did you see her in "Paul"?) co-wrote "Bridesmaids" with former Groundlings co-member Annie Mumolo.  In front of the camera, Wiig joins forces with Maya Rudolph, the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member.

Wiig takes on the role of downtrodden jewelry store clerk Annie, who might as well be called "second-hand Rose."  Her dream -- to own a bakery in Milwaukee -- fell victim to the lousy economy.

Annie sleeps with a jerk named Ted ("Mad Men's" Jon Hamm) she doesn't even like and -- when she's really down in the dumps -- gets in a shouting match with a teenage girl who wants "Best friends forever" engraved on a locket.

Much of "Bridesmaids" involves a series of set pieces, which generally work but may remind audience members of extended sitcom or "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

Wiig is so good, though, that it matters little.  What the writers and Feig do right is allow Annie to suffer through angst that many of us snacking in the dark can identify with.  She has money problems, for one thing, and drives an old clunker car that may or may not start.  

That would be funny enough by itself.  But when Annie's asked to be her best friend Lillian's (Rudolph) maid of honor, she must somehow attend high society way beyond her means -- an expensive dress, parties at the country club and such.

Anyone who's ever been forced to drop off a beat-up old car for valet parking in a line of Mercedes and other ritzy rides will appreciate Annie's dilemma.

"Bridesmaids" is boiling over with humor like that, and much of it scores.

It also helps that Wiig is surrounded by very solid support.  Rudolph is always terrific and she is here.  So is the late Jill Clayburgh in her final film role.  Clayburgh plays Annie's mom.

Rose Byrne ("Insidious") does some interesting things with Helen, the high society bridesmaid trying to horn in on the longtime friendship between Annie and Lillian.  And Melissa McCarthy, co-star of the TV sitcom "Mike & Molly," might just have you rolling in the aisles as Megan, a woman of size who has a heart of gold and a suggestion for the bridal shower theme:  "Fight Club."

"Bridesmaids" ultimately, though, is Wiig's show.  With a little editing help, it could have earned extrememly high marks as brilliant lowbrow.

Still, I love Lucy.  I mean Kristen.

03/18/2011

Finally, McConaughey returns to drama

It's good to see Matthew McConaughey acting again.

I mean really acting, as opposed to yanking his shirt off in semi-entertaining comic adventures that, like the shifting sand in "Sahara," have little foundation as solid memories.

In the dramatic-thriller "The Lincoln Lawyer," McConaughey doesn't exactly return to a serious courtroom drama on the level of "A Time to Kill," the crusading lawyer drama of 1996.

Even though he's dressed like an adult -- suit and tie; appropriate courtroom attire -- this time, a bit of the McConaughey swagger remains evident as Mick Haller.  A Beverly Hills ambulance chasing attorney, although that's only implied, Haller operates out of the back seat of his chauffeured Lincoln Continental sedan.

There's a throwaway line or two about when Haller got his license to drive back.  I suspect that aspect of the character is better explained in Michael Connelly's bestseller of the same title.

The adaptation by John Romano ("Nights in Rodanthe") is a little sloppy on details, preferring instead to showcase Haller's coolness in a courtroom, on the streets where a motorcycle gang (led by country crooner Trace Adkins, no less) is prone to pull him over for some lawyer-client chatting and, of course, with the ladies.

This would be a much better thriller if "The Lincoln Lawyer" more closely mimicked -- Sorry, I mean paid homage to -- "The Verdict" and "Fracture," both of which deserve a slice of the profits.

Haller is a hard drinking attorney.  He has has made mistakes in the past, but is honorable enough to fight to try to make things right.  That's just like Paul Newman did in "The Verdict" in 1982, although the case details vary.

The other strikingly similar element is the old attorney/client tete-a-tete.  In this one, a wealthy client played by Ryan Phillippe is up on an attempted murder charge.  As the plot thickens, an all-too-common game of cat and mouse shows signs of becoming deadly.  

If you saw "Fracture" in 2007, you know that Anthony Hopkins admitted to shooting his wife in the head, then dared the assistant district attorney to do something about it.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" works best as an entertainment ride.  Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei ("The Wrestler," "Cyrus") works well with McConaughey as Maggie, his ex-wife and crusading assistant D.A.  (Small world, this.)

By the time the final gavel falls, it's quite apparent that McConaughey, who only takes his shirt off once, is well aware of where he's at.  More important, though, is where he might be going.

The hard-working Texan who began his career Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," then sort of got that way in mid-career, finally appears back on track.

"The Lincoln Lawyer" is flawed cinema at best.  But sometimes, on a purely entertainment level, the old "Lincoln" purrs across the screen.

'Paul' needs to phone home for more guffaws

Although comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost might not admit it, before "Paul," their latest effort, they were Great Britain's version of Abbott and Costello, or Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

In comedies like "Shawn of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz" and "Run Fatboy Run," Pegg pegged the straight role (Abbott and Martin) while Frost goofed around as the funny, or at least funnier guy (Costello and Lewis).

To put it bluntly, there are two Abbotts and a definite need for a Costello in "Paul," a mildly funny alien/human road picture featuring the voice of funny guy Seth Rogen in the title roll and a scene-stealing featured role for "Saturday Night Live's" Kristen Wiig.

Wiig made me laugh the most as Ruth Buggs, a one-eyed religious zealot who breaks away from her Bible-thumping, shotgun-toting father to join the adventure.

Adventure doesn't necessarily mean a consistently comic one, however. This one, written by best pals and frequent collaborators Pegg and Frost and directed by Greg Mottola ("Adventureland," "Superbad"), is rather pedestrian.

That's despite a computer-generated extra-terrestrial (Rogen) on the run to hook up with his mother ship and get home. Of course, there are buffoons (government and from Hicksville) who get in the way.

I kept waiting for Pegg and Frost to make me laugh, as they have many times before. But the duo of Brit wits are resigned to being reactors in this one, relying on the CGI alien and Rogen's quips to do the comic heavy lifting. Unfortunately, that just never materializes.

"Paul," and thus screenwriters Pegg and Frost, borrow heavily from Steven Spielberg's "E.T." and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Somehow (movie studio nudging, perhaps?) they even get Spielberg to phone in during an embarrassing conversation with the alien.

The talents of Jason Bateman ("Up in the Air," "Juno"), Jane Lynch ("Glee" on TV) and "Saturday Night Live's" Bill Hader are pretty much wasted in secondary roles.

"Paul" isn't a total washout. There are spotty laughs to be found here and there.

When it comes to the sparse comedy, though, it's impossible to tell who's on first.

01/28/2011

Taking 'The Mechanic' out for another spin

Slick, explosive and packing a revved-up cinematic Hemi, the redesigned "Mechanic" is ready for the showroom wall.

But what's under the substance hood?  How does it stack up against the original?

Not too many people will probably even recall the 1972 original with Charles Bronson as the tough-as-nails hit man teaching a young, perhaps faster gun the assassination ropes.

Those who do will consider the elder version a clunker compared to the new fire-breather putting British tough chap Jason Statham in the killer-for-hire lead.

This time around, exciting actor Ben Foster ("The Messenger," "3:10 to Yuma") takes on Steve, a loose cannon protege.  Steve claims to want to learn from the master, but all he really has on his enraged mind is revenge.

Anyone looking for a bombastic action-thriller with more kills per screen inch than most blood-splattered video games will find the desired adrenalin rush.

Statham, the former British diver, came along at the right time to inherit action audiences from aging tough guys like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.  He has no problem shooting first and asking questions later, if anyone alive is still around to question.

British director Simon West whipped up action sequences well enough in "Con Air" and "Lara Croft:  Tomb Raider."  Mainstream Friday night popcorn munchers looking for cheap thrills will find plenty here.  Explosions and gunfire are guaranteed to rattle the walls enough to disturb the art film audience in the adjoining auditorium.

From this aisle seat, though, this "Mechanic" is mostly about Foster.  He may not be a bona fide movie star yet, but Foster's got something special.  And plenty of nerve.

How else can we explain actual acting in a blow-everything-up-real-good actioner like this?

01/21/2011

A comedy of eros with benefits

Raise your hand if you know anyone who has made a "friends with benefits" hit-and-run, no questions, no entanglements relationship work.

I didn't think so.

Veteran filmmaker Ivan Reitman ("Ghostbusters," "My Super Ex-Girlfriend") does, though, with the edgy, against-the-grain romantic-comedy "No Strings Attached."

It's smarter than I expected and sweeter.  Also, Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher are darn good together as a doctor (she) and a TV teen musical production assistant (he) who hook up and try to keep it purely sexual.

It's an idea that might seem tattooed to today's twentysomethings.  Don't tell today's speed-dating youngsters, but Woody Allen wrestled with the same issue (and a reluctant self-proclaimed nymphomaniac) in "Play It Again, Sam" back in 1972.

The gnawing issue then and in "No Strings Attached" remains, "How did I misread those signs?"

In Reitman's comedy of eros, Emma (Portman) claims to have an allergy to all the usual stuff that goes along with sex; holding hands, naming each other's intimate body parts, going out on dates, etc.  She just wants to give Adam (Kutcher) a call at the drop of the hat and satisfy her basic needs.  There's to be no hugging, no hanging around and no custom-made mix CD.

If this sounds like the perfect relationship for a guy, it's not for Adam.  That's partially due to the fact that his former TV star dad (broadly played well by Kevin Kline) is dating Adam's former girlfriend.

Actually, what rookie screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether has done with Mike Samonek's original story is reverse the roles.  Emma is the one who fears commitment.  The traditional male, if you will.

Adam's a little goofy for Valentine's Day and tries to maintain the quirky mood with a bouquet of carrots instead of roses.

Portman, also sprouting wings on screen in "Black Swan," gets to go for the funny for the first time, really.  It works, and we can thank Kutcher (Yes, that Ashton Kutcher) for strong support.

To be honest, though, I think the script gets a little too edgy -- make that vulgar -- at times.  Portman isn't exactly America's sweetheart.  But there's something about Portman launching an F-bomb that just hits me the wrong way.

The principal characters are not of my generation, though.  That could have something to do with my sensitivity.

Maybe, like Woody Allen, I'm still misreading those signs

Recession depression & inhuman resources

Think "Up in the Air" without the funny stuff.

And, believe it or not, more job loss fall-out heartache.

"The Company Men," starring an exemplary acting ensemble led by Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones, deals with the guys in the cushy corporate offices when the designer rug is pulled out from under them.

Writer-director John Wells, executive-producer of the long-running "ER" TV series, actually wrote the "Company Men" for the previous recession.  For those a little behind in their recession knowledge, that was the early '90s one.  

Thank goodness Wells pulled the script out of the drawer when this current deep depression began to grip the country.  "The Company Men" opens on Sept. 15, 2008, when the Dow took an 800-point dip and proud working men and women began to clean out their cubicles and head for what  my grandfather Wally used to call the unemployment office.

I won't lie to you.  This was a very difficult movie for me to watch.  My professional world was rocked by the serious economic downturn, just as three central characters are here.  Yet in a complicated, odd way, going through the process of watching the cinematic events unfold -- as deeply painful as they are -- may have helped my personal healing process.

Corporate sales exec Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), who works for fictional shipping conglomerate GTX, is blind-sided by his lay-off.  So are Gene McClary (Jones), the company's No. 2 man, and top executive Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who scratched his way up from the factory floor to a corner office.

What "The Company Men" does that "Up in the Air," last year's dark comedy about lay-offs, did not is follow the men home.  These men have lost their jobs, their security, their sense of worth, their social status, their financial stability and, in some cases, their reason to live.

Affleck's character tries to hide the devastating unemployment news from his extended family.  Cooper's screen wife (Maryann Plunkett) makes him get dressed and leave the house every morning as if he's going to work.  She can't stand suffering embarrassment at the hands of the neighbors.

If you get the idea that "The Company Men" is a dismal affair, you've earned your movie merit badge for the month.  And, although the cinematography by Roger Deakins ("True Grit") is marvelous, the plot line and tone wobbles a little near the end.

So why should anyone go see it?

It is magnificently acted, for one thing.  I've never seen Affleck better in front of a camera.  Jones turns in his usual acting brilliance.  Also, Maria Bello (who appeared in 25 episodes of "ER" as Dr. Anna Del Amico) is very good as GTX's head of human resources.  She's a driven female exec who often disappears for long, uh, lunches with Jones's character.

Then there's Kevin Costner.  He plays Affleck's house-building brother-in-law.  Costner excels as blue-collar comic relief.  He's a blunt-talking good soul who works with his hands and oozes compassion from his heart.

If that's not enough, go see "The Company Men" for the Chris Cooper performance.

A supporting actor Academy Award winner for "Adaptation" in 2002, Cooper plays his aging executive character like a frightened, desperate man with a time bomb tied to his chest.

The three central characters all feel like that at times.

It's a desperation not uncommon in the real world either, bub.

12/20/2010

'Fighter' almost up for the count

Serious movie lovers know that any boxing drama based on real people enters the cinematic ring on the ropes and with the ref pointing and counting.

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro saw to that with "Raging Bull," the boxing movie of all boxing movies in 1980.

"The Fighter," though not as precise with its dramatic punches, matches "Raging Bull" blow-for-blow in authenticity and, in some cases, outrageous, offbeat style.

Scorsese used extreme slow motion, animal noises and blood splattering onto ringside fans to orchestrate pugilistic history into big-screen entertainment. Director David O. Russell, every bit as eager to punch his audience below the belt, goes for a big family, big 1980s hair and the fighter's big brother, mentor and failed idol sucking on a crack bong.

A dream project for star Mark Wahlberg, "The Fighter" instead becomes a macabre showcase in human and emotional transformation for Christian Bale. He may play the Caped Crusader in the modern-day "Batman" franchise, but it is as fighter-turned-crack head Dicky Eklund that I long expect to remember Bale's riveting acting.

Wahlberg is "Irish Thunder" Mickey Ward, the little brother once in awe of his elder, then later poised to perhaps get a title shot that his brother tossed aside for a crack not at a title, but at more crack cocaine.

"The Fighter" is such a good stirring pot for drama, in fact, that I found myself wishing Wahlberg were the great actor and Bale merely supported his performance. That's how it should be in a perfect cinematic arena.

But let's not be quick to criticize Bale's outstanding talent. His Dicky never chews the scenery in order to steal a movie. Instead, Bale gets so far under a real person's skin that it's impossible to muzzle a persona that pranced to the front row in prison like a movie star at a world premiere to take a seat for an HBO documentary on addiction that chronicles his downfall. Dicky truly believes it to be a showcase of his boxing comeback.

Like "Raging Bull," "The Fighter" will have you squirming in your seat at times. In addition to the usual tale of the cinematic tape that unfolds in steely Lowell, MA (and actually shot there), this is a drama that nails an equally vicious preliminary match between the boys' manager mom, Alice (Melissa Leo), and Charlene (Amy Adams), Mickey's steel-willed girlfriend.

Actually, the women are almost as intriguing as the men in this heavyweight battle of wills. Leo is the Oscar nominee as the desperate single mom of "Frozen River."

Adams is cast way against her usual softer type. Make no mistake, though, the double Oscar nominee ("Junebug," "Doubt") who shared the screen (if no scenes) with Meryl Streep in "Julie & Julia" is up to the challenge.

"The Fighter" isn't quite world champeen caliber like "Raging Bull," perhaps because Russell doesn't quite congeal all the excellent parts into a master work whole, as Scorsese managed.

Go for the performances, though. Three out of the four lead acting turns are knockouts.

12/10/2010

Carrey's frantic love call for 'Phillip Mor-ris'

Jim Carrey has been waiting a very long time to make a dagger of a movie like "I Love You Phillip Morris."

This outrageous tale -- based on actual events, by the way -- about a family man turned con man turned gay con man desperately trying to impress his soul mate, but having to continually bust out of jail to do it, is not a drama as such.

It's a black hole dark comedy congealed with drama.  In this case, that's an odd dynamic perfectly suited to Carrey's charismatic charm and fits of wild abandon.

If you're wondering just how dark the comic elements might be, know this.  "I Love You Phillip Morris," based on former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Steve McVicker's book, is co-written and co-directed by writing partners Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Can't quite place the names?  Ficarra and Requa are the screenwriters who fed Billy Bob Thornton's outstanding way-down and way-dirty performance in "Bad Santa" (2003).

"Phillip Morris" sneaks up on you.  When we first meet Steven Russell (Carrey), he's a seemingly happy family man playing organ for the church choir in Virginia and working as a police officer.

Never quite getting over the fact that his mother gave him up for adoption, Steven bends the rules, using his law enforcement computer to track down his birth mother.  The meeting doesn't go well, and "I Love You Phillip Morris" launches into a tale of self-discovery about living a lie (he's gay) and learning that his outgoing nature may be more suited to a career as a con man than a cop in uniform.

One of the things I like best about this raw embracing of a person's inner (and long-hidden) drives is that the co-directors (in their initial feature film effort) and Carrey flamboyantly keep the tone pedal to the metal.

Maybe it's because I've seen Carrey not reach his full potential in films like "The Number 23" (2007) and "The Majestic" (2001) that I celebrate (perhaps along with him) for gathering up his comic charisma, his likable on-screen nature and his yearning for dramatic effect and rolling it into an improbably charming cinematic snowball.
While refreshing, this is one snowball that hits us in the gut and leaves a mark.

Set primarily in Texas (but shot in Louisiana), "Phillip Morris" chugs along at a brisk pace.  Steven meets Mr. Right (Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris) in jail, then goes more than a little nuts busting out of confinement on several occasions to be with the man he loves.

Leslie Mann, who shared the screen with Carrey in  "The Cable Guy" (1996), brings proper charm and dismay to Debbie, the wife left not for another woman but for a man.  Any man, in fact, at least in the early going.

McGregor scored his own acting triumph this year in "The Ghost Writer." He tones everything down to play Phillip, who, in the long run, becomes as perplexed about Steven as his former wife did.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" will likely blindside you with real, growing sentiment near the end.  Not the fake kind, either, like in "The Majestic," a failed barely disguised remake of "It's a Wonderful Life."

I'm talking the real thing; convincing dramatic acting from a gifted comic who has always wanted to move his audience without a scrunched-up face or a pratfall.

I love you, "Phillip Morris," for finally giving Jim Carrey that chance.

12/03/2010

Tormented, driven birds of a feather

You probably need to be a little nuts to twirl around on bloody tippy-toes in a tutu as a serious ballet dancer.

Perhaps not as bonkers as the prima ballerina Natalie Portman embodies in Darren Aronofsky's macabre psychological thriller "Black Swan," though.

Nina (Portman), the daughter of an overbearing former-dancer mom (Barbara Hershey), appears to see a new reality (or is it?) with every spin of her  sculptured (and barely fed) body.

For those who might not recall, Aronofsky is the daring film-making visionary who provided a comeback and an Oscar nomination last year for Mickey Rourke as the tormented title character in "The Wrestler."

Aronofsky doesn't hesitate to link "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan," since both deal in what the filmmaker has called "bodily extremes, souls in turmoil" and a film-making style "that pulls the audience inside the character's fascinating inner worlds."

From this aisle seat, "Black Swan" takes tortured flight as a horror movie.  Portman's Nina is so tormented by the quest for perfection that her fragile mind wobbles off pointe way before her body follows.

Portman (Queen Amidala in the "Star Wars" franchise), an Oscar nominee as the stripper in Mike Nichols' "Closer," is no stranger to ballet, having studied seriously in younger years.  Portman has said she's kept it up as exercise throughout her acting career.

Like Rourke, Portman is primed to nestle deep into a tormented psyche.  As Nina, she's chosen to portray the Swan Queen in a New York City production of a leaner, meaner "Swan Lake."  "I want to strip it down to the core," flirtatious artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) croons.

"Black Swan" is shocking throughout, and not just because the artistic director of a major ballet company is straight.  Nina's determination to capture both the gentle innocence of the White Swan and the sensual, unbridled aggressiveness of the Black Swan sends her spiraling in at least the madness zip code.

When she finally does get in touch with her bad self, as ordered by her artistic director (portrayed with ample verve by Cassel), Nina opens her eyes to the shock that her mother (the definition of a helicopter mom) has parked herself in Nina's bedroom.

"Black Swan," unlike Aronofsky's almost unwatchable sci-fi fantasy "The Fountain" of 2006, channels the director's wildly creative talent into a hellish vortex of progressively surreal dark energy.

In addition to Portman, who turns in the performance of her career so far, Mila Kunis ("The Book of Eli") dazzles as Lily, this tale's dark side of self.

Hershey hovers nicely as the mom who never quite made it to the ballerina spotlight herself but may (or may not) be pulling for her daughter to over-achieve.  Also, Winona Ryder has some impressive pouty or fit-throwing moments as Beth, ballet's Cinderella who fights a forced exit when fame's clock strikes midnight.

What happens to Nina in "Black Swan" reminds me of Jack Nicholson's grim descent into madness in "The Shining."

Know this, though.  All work and no play doesn't make Nina a dull girl.  Not for a chill-down-your-spine moment. 

11/05/2010

Hitting the road with odd couple comedy

Ten years after kicking the tires and jump starting the old road movie premise with the inspired "Road Trip," director /producer Todd Phillips hits the road again with "Due Date."

Inspired?  Not so much.

But "Due Date" has something "Road Trip" didn't.  That's one exceptional actor, Robert Downey Jr., and another on the way to earning that distinction, if in a Will Ferrell, Seth Rogen buffoon-tilted manner.

That would be Zach Galifianakis.  The talented, furry-faced actor co-starred in "The Hangover," Phillips' raunch-fest of 2009.

In "Due Date," Downey  (The "Iron Man" franchise) and Galifianakis play an odd couple thrown together in a rent car for a long wacky drive from Atlanta to Los Angeles.  The two very different strangers can't fly because a series of contrived (if you ask me) events get them thrown off a flight and thrown onto the "No fly" list.

Peter (Downey) needs to be home by Friday.  That's when his first born is scheduled to arrive by C-section.  Ethan (Galifianakis), who schleps his recently deceased father's ashes along in a coffee can, is a budding actor with an ultimate goal of appearing on "Two and a Half Men" on TV.

Movie-goers with a fondness for the past will see more than a little of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987), which paired Steve Martin as the uptight responsible one and the late John Candy as the loose goof.

"Due Date" ups the raunch ante, of course.  Instead of two guys accidentally bumping body parts in the name of a laugh when they're forced to share a bed during a harried trip, this one features one guy getting a little friendly with himself (if you know what I mean) as the two spend the night in the confines of a mid-sized rental car.

Like "Planes, Trains ...," though, "Due Date" also manages to work in some tender moments.  Galifianakis changes character tone in a split second and is very likely to bring tears to audience members eyes with a simple one-sided telephone call.  

Downey and Galifianakis are the engine that drives this so-so road comedy by committee (a quartet or so of writers).  Sonny, a French bulldog with some disgusting personal habits, and Jamie Foxx, playing Downey's best friend, round out the featured cast.

Until "The Hangover 2" makes it to the screen, I suppose "Due Date" fulfills the compulsion for guys-on-the-run lowbrow laughs well enough.