Thursday, April 29, 2010

Summer Movie Preview

Sorry for the long absence. I just went through a move which always makes me unable to do anything else for a few weeks, but I'm back now! And with May a couple days away, what better time to look ahead at what movies this summer has to offer.

Now, maybe I'm alone in this, but they seem pretty lackluster this year. Sure, there are a couple of movies I'm very excited about, but a lot of the biggies aren't getting me pumped. Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, Eat Pray Love....just not for me. Still, I've sifted through my Entertainment Weekly summer preview issue and picked out ten movies that, at least as of now, seem worthwhile.

Iron Man 2 (May 7th)
Summer movie season begins next week with one of its most highly anticipated offerings and most fun sounding sequels. Adding in Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke to the cast could make it overstuffed a la Spider-Man 3, but more likely this will be a straight-up good time.

Robin Hood (May 14th)
Despite word of a troubled shoot, all of the trailers seem to suggest a cool epic emerged in the end. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe are definitely back in Gladiator mode, and that's something I want to see.

Get Him to the Greek (June 4th)
Usually this kind of comedy spin-off would go the direct-to-DVD route, but instead this is getting a high-profile summer launch. Since Russell Brand's Aldous Snow was arguably the best part of instaclassic Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I'll be seeing it.

Toy Story 3 (June 18th)
A great Pixar movie in the summer has become a given the past few years, and this year it will be Toy Story 3. I don't expect it to live up to Wall-E, Up, or Ratatouille, but it can fall below that high threshold and still be one of the most enjoyable movies this summer.

Knight and Day (June 25th)
I had pretty much written off Tom Cruise (and to a lesser extent Cameron Diaz), but after seeing the highly entertaining trailer for this spy comedy it looks like the comeback is in full swing.

Cyrus (July 9th)
With so many of the big blockbusters likely to disappoint, it's the lower-profile indies that will likely emerge as the best of the season. And early word says Cyrus will continue Fox Searchlight's streak of break-out summer hits.

Inception (July 16th)
Far and away my #1 must-see movie of the summer. Christopher Nolan's promised a Memento-like puzzler, but gets to do so with a post-Dark Knight budget and an awesomely eclectic cast. Can I buy my midnight tickets yet?

Dinner for Schmucks (July 23rd)
Between the Paul Rudd/Steve Carell collaboration and Jay Roach's first movie in what feels like awhile, this seems like one of the safer bets among this year's crop of comedies.

Salt (July 23rd)
I'm not much of an Angelina Jolie fan, but there's a reason this made Entertainment Weekly's cover. I figure this one will be too big to ignore.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (August 13th)
Michael Cera may be playing into his comfort zone again, but a guy fighting off his new girlfriend's seven evil exes makes for a pretty cool plot. Similar-in-my-mind Kick-Ass may not have exploded the way the buzz suggested, but I bet this one does.

So what am I leaving out? What are you most excited about seeing? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Meet the Greenberg

Grade: A-

It's becoming increasingly clear that Noah Baumbach's movies are an exercise in empathy. From Jeff Daniels' horrifyingly pretentious professor in The Squid and the Whale to, well, everyone in Margot at the Wedding, his characters tend to be self-involved, clueless to others' needs, and very vocal about their strong and unpopular opinions. So in that sense, Roger Greenberg, as played by Ben Stiller in Greenberg, is very much a Baumbach lead.

How you feel about Greenberg may have a lot to do with how able you are to tolerate its protagonist. Having left LA for New York in his youth, Roger returns after a mental breakdown to housesit for his far more successful brother. Unable to drive (since he's a New Yorker, natch), he soon buddies up to his brother's assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a pretty and much younger woman inexplicably interested in him. Much of the rest of the movie consists of them hooking up, him freaking out on her, then asking her for another chance.

See, Greenberg is pretty much an asshole from start to end. He constantly badmouths the wife of his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans) while insisting Ivan devote all his time to driving him around. He's unapologetic about ruining his high school band's chance at the big time by turning down a record deal for creative reasons. And he continually treats Florence terribly, whether because she's too young for him, works for his brother, or because he'd rather be with his high school ex-girlfriend who barely remembers him.

But lest you think this is just Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Movie, there is a lot to sympathize with in Roger too. As a guy returning to his hometown after leaving over a decade ago, as a New Yorker in LA, and as someone who never grew up when all his friends did, his disconnection and desperation is legitimately sad. Despite telling everyone he's concentrating on "doing nothing," he spends a lot of the movie begging people to meet him for a drink or for dinner, desperate for company. And he continually has to hear that they're too busy with family and children. Helps forgive some of his jerkier qualities.

As you may have also gathered, it's not a typical part for Ben Stiller. He's not the everyman nice guy from Meet the Parents nor the comical bad guy of Dodgeball. He's not even playing a grown-up Jesse Eisenberg, as I had guessed from the trailer. It's a very different kind of role for him, which makes his performance all the more impressive. He makes all of Roger's more unlikable qualities believable, but he carries in his own charisma so that somewhere in that awkward little smile you sense you should feel for him.

And as downbeat as some of the story can be, Baumbach is fantastic at finding a way to add humor in all the right places. There's a great recurring bit in which Roger writes complaint letters to companies about all sorts of minor things. Even the most ordinary scenes have some great lines that are just so clever or witty that I found myself laughing through a lot of the movie. Then again, other people I know who have seen it didn't think it was funny at all, just sad. So everyone's likely to have their own personal reaction, good or bad. As always, comedy is extremely subjective.

Whether you laugh or not, Greenberg's bound to make you feel something. And unlike in Margot at the Wedding, all of the supporting characters are generally likable, so it makes an impact when Roger does or says something particularly outrageous. This early in the year, it's good to have something a little more thoughtful in theaters.

Best Pairing Ever

I wasn't planning to write about Date Night for reasons of obvious bias, but after going to the premiere last night I realized I'd be doing my readers a disservice not to tell them it's the first great comedy of 2010 and the funniest movie to be released since The Hangover. And I'm totally not just saying that cause I got to see Tina Fey. Though I did.

The idea of putting Steve Carell and Tina Fey in a movie together seems brilliant on paper, but turns out it's even more brilliant in reality. Not only are they both individually hilarious, but they have amazing comedic chemistry. Their interactions make every scene ten times funnier. It would be a huge shame if this was their only chance to work together, but seems like a safe bet it won't be.

While the two of them are certainly the biggest draw, everything else about the movie works just as well. The supporting cast is absolutely ridiculous, with people like Kristin Wiig, Mark Ruffalo, and Leighton Meester filling in some of the smaller roles (and for any Curb Your Enthusiasm fans out there, J.B. Smoove plays a bit part and is just as great here). The script keeps the jokes going strong and consistent, and contains two big sequences I won't spoil here that kept me laughing from start to finish.

With Baby Mama better in concept and casting than execution, Tina Fey's biggest success in film is still for writing Mean Girls. This will be the movie that launches her as a movie star. So if you enjoy laughing, go see Date Night this weekend. It's a far better use of your money than the super lame looking Clash of the Titans, and you don't have to pay the extra $4 for added-after-the-fact 3-D.

Also, 300th post!!!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Alice in Narnia

Grade: C+

I saw Alice in Wonderland opening weekend, and given its crazy box office numbers, many of you have probably seen it by now as well. It may be a month later, but I figure there's still plenty of people out there wondering if they should pay what I think is now $17 in New York for 3-D tickets, so here we go.

Despite seeing the many negative reviews heading in, I hoped for the best in Alice's first half. Sure, the opening segment was almost identical to the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean. I mean seriously. An ahead-of-her-time 19th century young British woman who doesn't want to marry a boring guy and complains about wearing corsets? Makes you wonder if they even switched out the script. But in case you were wondering, Alice is a Disney movie far more than a Tim Burton movie, and one that borrows liberally with previous Disney movies.

Still, the beginning left me hopeful largely due to Mia Wasikowska's performance as Alice. She gives the part a nice touch of spacy oddness, like Luna Lovegood-as-Disney princess. She embodies Alice's curiosity in a believable and appealing way. And when she first enters Wonderland, or Underland as it is inexplicably called here, there's a certain amount of good will for Tim Burton's visual sensibility. Based more on Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass than Alice in Wonderland, the movie has a very Return to Oz vibe - dark and busted up. Unlike Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Burton went all circus-y, here he actually delivers the dark Burton vision his fans crave.

But as soon as it becomes clear the movie has more of a plot than just following Alice through the land, the movie quickly begins to lose steam. Taking the Jabberwocky poem from Looking Glass as an inspiration, the script has some prophecy say that Alice must slay the Jabberwocky. This is said many, many times. Also, she may not be the "right" Alice. Oh, and there's an evil queen in control of the land who's only major difference from the queen in Chronicles of Narnia is that she didn't create permanent winter. And she has a big head. That's also mentioned a lot.

By the time you realize Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is not a wacky loon but in fact a super serious rebel leader dead set on creating a revolution against Helena Bonham Carter's Queen of Hearts, Alice has been shrunk to Thumbelina size and begins to spend most of the movie in people's pockets. The curse of getting a big star like Depp is that he insists on playing a major role, so he practically becomes the main character. And at this point Depp just recycles the same "I'm crazy" act he's done in the last however many movies. It's getting old.

Alice's biggest sin though is that for a movie based on the most infamously drug-induced fantasy ever written, there's just not enough fun. Everyone's so dreary and straight-to-business, whining about the queen and talking about the resistance. Alice still has some time to wander and react to the wacky characters, but it's all rushed through to get to the "big movie plot." Which is pretty lame. Especially since by the time the White Queen and Red Queen's armies are fighting each other, it's become clear the movie has just turned into a direct Narnia rip-off. Except with a very silly talking dragon.

A lot of these problems wouldn't matter if the movie didn't take itself so seriously. But the only one in the cast bringing any levity is Carter, who has a ball with the Queen's catchphrase of "Off with their heads!" After sucking all the humor from her lines in Sweeney Todd, she's made up for it by being the sole source of it here. There's a lot of cool effects on display here, from the visual palette to, ok fine, the 3-D (even if it mostly consists of stuff jumping out at you. It's no Avatar and probably not worth the extra $4). But there's no wonder to be found in this Wonderland, and Johnny Depp dancing doesn't change that.