Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a refreshing romantic comedy. I say refreshing because it may be the first romantic comedy in a while that 1) I would recommend my mom watch it, and 2) I could actually stay in the same room while she does so. There is no gross out humor, no misplaced raunch, and while I enjoyed Bridesmaids as much as anybody, it’s a nice change of pace to have a film be so relentlessly good natured.

Not that the film is all hugging and brunches, mind you. The characters definitely go through their trials, and the central question of the film is: “What are you willing to do once you’ve met your soulmate?” There are a lot of films that center around characters discovering their soulmate, and then it’s roll credits. This film takes a look at relationships across three generations, and does a good job representing all of those, with a couple of twists and turns along the way.

Where the film really shines though is in the performances. Steve Carell is well casted as Cal, the main character, as he is mostly just doing a more grown-up, reserved version of his shtick. It suits him well, and I hope he capitalizes on it in the future. I was slightly dismayed when I heard of Carell’s departure from The Office, especially since his film career has been hit and miss-miss for me, but if he continues to deliver performances like this, well, all’s forgiven. However, the real standouts in this film are Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

Emma Stone is easily one of the best new actresses for this generation, as she does funny/cute in a way that I can only describe as ‘younger, female Steve Carell.’ She’s awkward enough to be empathetic while pretty enough to be mesmerizing. I’ve enjoyed her in everything I’ve seen so far, and Comic Con buzz bodes well for her performance in next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man. As for Gosling, I haven’t seen a lot of his work, but I was really impressed by his ability to bring pathos to what otherwise may have been a one-note schmuck of a character.

The breakout star of this film, though is easily Jonah Bobo, who plays Steve Carell and Julianne Moore’s son. He has been in a bunch of other films, but how could you not love this kid after seeing him play the lovestruck and wise-beyond-his-years 13-year-old. Oh, and I want to also make mention of Josh Groban, who is actually really funny in his small role in the film. I would love to see him in a Wes Anderson film.

Besides being very funny, I also enjoyed that this film possesses very well-rounded characters. All of them were fleshed out enough where they felt like real people, even relatively minor characters, which is quite an accomplishment from a writing perspective.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. remains entertaining the entire way through, and it’s also one of the few comedies in this genre that feels like the ending is earned rather than forced. Maybe it’s because we start this film way past the point where most others would end.

List of Shame File #9: My Neighbor Totoro

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

While a lot of my friends went through a heavy anime phase in high school (or for all I know, they are still as obsessed as ever), I never got much beyond Dragonball Z, Akira, and a few other things. One of those was Spirited Away, the 2001 film by Hayao Miyazaki. It left quite an impression on me, though the film is rather strange and dense feeling for someone not already versed in that style of filmmaking. As a consequence, I didn’t see many more of Miyazaki’s work until I was in college.

It was actually Pixar that brought me circling back to the films of “the Japanese Walt Disney.” As I read more about the studio, I found that John Lasseter (director of Toy Story, etc., and now Disney guru) was not only a huge fan of Miyazaki, but had actually supervised the English dubbing and release of Spirited Away. The titular character actually appears in last summer’s Toy Story 3:

My most recent foray into Miyazaki’s animation is the 1988 classic  My Neighbor Totoro. For those who are not aware, the film takes place in Japan in 1958, centering on the Kusakabe family. The father, a university professor, and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei (about 10 and 3 years old), move into an old house in rural Japan to be closer to a hospital where their wife/mother is recovering from an unnamed illness. The house appears to be inhabited by soot sprites, who live in unoccupied spaces, and serve as an introduction to the world beyond the one we normally see.

Eventually, Satsuki and Mei meet some of the “keepers of the forrest,” including the large, cat-like Totoro, who shows them the forrest, as well as a bus shaped like a giant cat (or a giant cat shaped like a bus?). There are adventures involving a giant tree, and a tense sequence involving the girls wanting to visit their mother.

While largely rooted in nature, Totoro plays on the nostalgia of peaceful postwar Japan, showing a period that is obviously not contemporary. This contrast is augmented by the rural context as well, and arriving in a place that is as unfamiliar to the characters as it is to the audience only helps us identify more quickly with Satsuki and Mei (this is only enhanced for Western viewers).

They are central to the story, of course, and the true beauty of the film is in these two girls, their relationship, their curiosity, and their feelings for their mother and father. Satsuki and Mei are as fully realized as any characters in animation and live action, and they behave exactly like little girls in their situation would.

Thematically, the film borrows a lot from classic works like Alice in Wonderland, what with the two girls discovering a hidden world just beyond their front door. However, the film also draws heavily from Miyazaki’s own life. Miyazaki’s father was an academic and his mother, who suffered from tuberculosis, was successfully treated in a rural sanitarium. In an interview published in Starting Point: 1979-1996 Miyazaki mentioned he made the main characters girls so it wouldn’t be too close to his own life.

This actually brings us to the contrast between Miyazaki and his American admirer Lasseter. The latter was named Father of the Year 2011 by Esquire magazine for creating children’s entertainment ostensibly for boys. While you may disagree with the premise, Lasster’s films are much more “male friendly” than Disney’s largely princess-driven output. Miyazaki, by contrast, almost always puts female protagonists in his stories. These girls are strong and independent, and are shown in a diverse variety of careers over the course of Miyazaki’s films.

For a movie geared toward children, it treats them like adults, at least in portraying real life. As Ebert said, “It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.”  There are no villains in this film, instead it is a movie about growing up, discovering new things, and gaining maturity.

This is a fantastic film for people of all ages, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

In a summer brimming with nostalgic offerings, spanning the gamut from the toy-fueled bombast that is Transformers: Dark of the Moon to originals like the Spielberg tribute Super 8, Captain America: The First Avenger is still able to make a distinguishing mark in the cinema landscape. I think this is because rather than dwell on the nostalgia of our childhoods like Transformers, it shares the outlook of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, romanticizing a time period that ended before we began (I imagine this is true for 98% of the audience anyway, except for the octogenarians).

World War II is probably one of the most romanticized eras in American history, and since the roots of Captain America are in that time period, setting the film during the ‘last great war’ was a smart one. Director Joe Johnston, likewise, was a perfect choice for the material, as he came into his own in the Spielberg school of effects-heavy adventure films, like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jurassic Park III, but the best comparison is his supremely underrated The Rocketeer, a pulpy comic book film which was also a WWII-era period piece.

Setting the film as a period piece allows the audience to accept that a character like Captain America could exist. Not so much the science fictional origins of his super strength, but the unbridled patriotism the character wraps himself in. I doubt many people would take the character seriously if he had decided to do this present day. The film also provides a nice comment on the origins of the name and costume, which include a lavish USO-style show, complete with music emulating that of the period. Consequently, this film feels more like a comic book than any superhero film. The costumes are over-the-top, and the sets are lavish and bright, and there’s even a meta-reference to the character becoming a comic.

However, the film will not be known for it’s amazing action sequences. Not that they aren’t good, but they end up being fairly middle-of-the-road, not displaying the visual wow factor or cleverness to be particularly memorable. This is good in that it’s easy to imagine a guy running around with little more than a shield being extremely silly or boring, but it manages to be neither, and the shield throwing is one of the better aspects of the action.

What separates this film from the rest of the superhero fare this year are the performances. While I thought everyone in Thor and the principles from X-Men: First Class did fine work, Johnston really gets the most out of his cast. I’ve been a fan of Chris Evans (I particularly enjoyed him in the sublime Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but he brings a performance to Steve Rogers that I’ve never seen in him before. He tends to play to the brash, cocky type, and Rogers is the opposite. Evans is able to bring a remarkable sincerity to the character, and I think that helps to carry the whole movie. Hayley Atwell is dynamic as officer Peggy Carter, and her romance with Evans’ Captain America brings a strong romantic subplot to the film, and one that feels natural, and not a lifeless addition added by the studio (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).

The supporting cast is fantastic likewise. Hugo Weaving pretty much does his thing as the villainous Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, and what more do you need? Dominic Cooper works well as Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father, and I enjoyed his portrayal as a Howard Hughes-esque figure, with women and machines being his two great passions. Stanley Tucci has a pretty convincing accent as the defected German scientist Dr. Erskine, and has some particularly touching scenes with Evans. While Tommy Lee Jones described his character as the archetypical commander you see in many war films, he gives his best performance of the past few years.

Captain America spends a lot more time with Steve Rogers pre-super solider than I would have expected, but it really helps make the character more believable. By getting to know Steve Rogers as the scrawny kid who stands up to bullies and wants to fight for his county, the audience is completely endeared to him prior to his transformation, which carries through the rest of the film.

Being the fifth film in the Avengers franchise, Captain America benefits from being able to nod to the established universe without having to waste time with exposition not directly related to the film. We see Iron Man’s dad, the World Tree and other references from Thor, and of course the end of the movie involves a certain character who criss-crosses all five of these films. Captain America already feels integrated into the whole universe, and it should, being the final film before they all come together.

As such, the film’s ending is a direct set-up to next summer’s The Avengers, and it is kind of a shame, because it makes the climax feel rushed and more forced than if they were able to leave it open-ended. The post-credits scene is actually a trailer for Avengers, and seeing that has already made the Joss Whedon directed crossover jump to the top of my most anticipated blockbusters of next year!

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Here is our first ever podcast, a review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2! Spoiler Alert!

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, and click the link below to listen in your browser or download (faster option).

HP_DH2_cast (runtime 22:38)

Music for this podcast curtesy of The Aliens “Magic Man” from their 2009 album, Luna.

Review: Horrible Bosses

Summer 2011 is turning out to be a fantastic summer for comedies– despite the presence of the second Hangover film. Horrible Bosses is a very funny film, and that success is largely due to the easy camaraderie between lead actors Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis. The cast is the crux to making a dark comedy work, and this trio hit a home run.

The movie revolves around one of America’s favorite pastimes, fantasizing about the death of your boss. Now I’m sure we’ve all been there, even in just a passing day dream, like Jason Bateman’s character in the movie, of grabbing our boss by the tie, dragging him across the floor, and throwing them out a high window. Right? Right. (To my boss, if you’re reading, NOT YOU.) Well what if your boss truly was a horrible person, and their death might even help just more than yourself? (Again, to my boss, NOT YOU.) In the film, what starts as a hypothetical undertaking quickly turns real, with Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis), and Dale (Day) deciding that their bosses really deserve death.

Nick’s boss is played by the amazing Kevin Spacey, who shines in his role as the psychotic and egotistical Dave Harken. While he has always been a terrible boss, what sets Nick over the edge is being lied to about a promotion, while Harken gives it to himself and calls it ‘motivating.’ He also refused to let him leave early when his grandmother was dying. Dale’s frustration over his boss’s (Jennifer Aniston) sexual harassment finally crescendos when she threatens to show disingenuous pictures to his fiancé. When Kurt’s boss, Jack Pellitt (Donald Sutherland) suddenly passes away, his son Bobby (Colin Ferrell), described as a ‘weaselly scion,’ takes over. To make matters worse, Bobby is also an amoral cokehead who only wants to use his father’s company to squeeze out as much money has he can as quickly as possible (presumably to spend it all on hookers, drugs, and martial arts lessons).

All three of the bosses are played with wicked zeal, and Spacey is especially fear-inducing as Harken. I would really like to single out Aniston, though, who gives her best film performance in 5 or 10 years as Dale’s sexually aggressive knows-no-boundaries boss. Aniston has been starring in commercially successful yet awful films, and this is a nice change of pace for an actress with great comedic chops.

In watching this film, I couldn’t help but be struck by the idea that this is what The Hangover 2 could have been. It’s a similar situation in that a trio of characters try to navigate an escalating horrible situation, but with more charm, wit, and originality than Todd Philips’ sequel could muster. It’s almost a shame they didn’t just buy the script when they had the chance. But I’m glad they didn’t, because I love this film so much.

I love dark comedies, and Horrible Bosses is one of the best in recent memory, and the second ‘don’t miss’ comedy of the summer. It’s the kind of film with a lot of raunchy humor, but what makes the film funny is not the shock value, it’s the delivery and the earnestness of the characters. The leads are lovable screw-ups, not unlike Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. You want them to succeed in spite of their mission, because you want things to get better for them. Ultimately, of course, the film shows that it isn’t always possible to work in an ideal environment, even if you like your job.

Review: The Tree of Life

I’ve thought about this movie a lot since seeing it last Saturday. I’m still not sure how to put into words exactly how I feel about it. But love it or hate it, this film does give audiences something interesting and new to ponder. This fact, is what I’m certain of.

But before I get started, there is something else that also has me somewhat bewildered, and it has nothing to do with wheeling through space-time. It’s the varied reactions of audiences around the globe to this movie, and whether or not people are justified in being so pissed off over a film that they even demand their money back.

Honestly, if this movie upset that many people then there has to be something remarkable about it. I don’t know what that is, I think it varies from person to person. The funny thing is people are getting upset, not because of the story (it can’t be, because people are leaving 15 minutes in, and in a two and a half hour movie that’s not long enough to know where a good film is headed). They’re getting upset because the film is challenging them to view a story in an unconventional way.

This film, if you haven’t heard already, is “nonnarrative,” an art housey way of saying that is doesn’t have a beginning, middle, climax, and denouement. I understand that with movie ticket prices as high as they are today, people are bound to be upset at forking over $10 (or more) per person for a dud…but I’m not sure theaters should be held accountable for the varying tastes of movie audiences. Buyer beware, right? Plus, shouldn’t it be the goal of filmmakers to challenge audiences with new ways to view movies? Less we be bombarded with the same old formula?

On that note, I want to return to the crux of everyone’s scorn or equal admiration for this film. It’s true, there are some points that make absolutely no sense in terms of story cohesion, but I wasn’t really bothered by it. This is probably because I understood what I was getting into before I even stepped into the theater (Lesson 1 to take away: this film isn’t for everyone. Read up on it!) The film begins with a couple learning about the death of one of their sons. There’s little dialogue, just a series of beautifully edited shots, that demonstrate the family’s grief in the present, and then the film jumps back to when the children were younger. And then it jumps to space and dinosaurs. And then back to the family. And then we kind of get an ending, but it’s an unsatisfying one.

We only learn which of the children dies (there are three sons) at the very end, and even then it’s not always so clear. The film is occupied more with showing the dynamics of a father and his sometimes frightening relationship with his children. And of course, how the children are affected by their father’s inconsistent methods of parenting. We never know how the child dies (well, the adult, he’s 19 when he dies), and we never see him as a grown man. But there is an ethereal heaven-limbo scene that I suppose ties up some loose ends, but I’m sure most of it was lost on me.

I could write volumes on this movie. About how truly gorgeous it is, and my admiration for Malick’s directing style, and the cinematography. Notice how I’m only commenting on the technical aspects of the film. I believe the visual spectacle alone is worth the price of admission, but that’s just me. Ryan even goes so far as to compare this film with the latest Transformers. It’s a highly orgiastic feast for the eyes (albeit for different reasons) that’s best appreciated in the moment of viewing it. I wouldn’t try piecing together anything until you’ve left the theater. Just let the film wash over you, and sort out the details with your companion over a cup of coffee later. You’ll be less exasperated, and less likely to leave the theater in a huff.

But that’s just my humble opinion.

You can view the trailer here-and be the judge! Does it work as a standalone, or are you compelled to see how far down the rabbit hole Malick can take you?

Review: Midnight in Paris

I must admit at the outset that I am not a Woody Allen aficionado by any stretch of the imagination. Midnight in Paris is only the third Allen-directed film I’ve seen to date (and one of those is Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and yes I know that many of his films are on Netflix Instant). And really we only saw it because the reviews have been quite positive, and at 9:45 PM after a long day at work is not the time to walk into a Tree of Life screening (Jill’s review of that tomorrow!).

Midnight in Paris is a wonderful and delightful film, even for people who may be wary of Allen’s usual schtick. Owen Wilson’s turn as Gil Pender is just so charming and affable that his performance gives the overall film an air of relaxation and ease. The film follows Gil’s discovery of Paris while vacationing with his fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her wealthy, conservative parents. Framing the entire film around Gil’s sense of excitement and curiosity allows the audience to feel as though they are on vacation with him, becoming immersed in his newfound love for the City of Lights.

After a loving musical montage exploring modern Parisian streets, the first act of the film largely centers around Gil and Inez sightseeing with her friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his wife. Paul, best described in the film as “the pedantic one” comments as an authority on everything they do, even though he seems to have only a superficial, if confident, knowledge on any topic. “If I’m not mistaken,” he seems to preface every statement with, culminating in an attempt to correct a tour guide about the life of Rodin. To Gil’s misfortune Inez is quite taken with Paul and his blubbering, and reveals that she previously had feelings for him.

Having had enough of Paul at a wine tasting, Gil forgoes dancing or more sightseeing for a walk through the streets of Paris. Here is where the film takes its most interesting turn. Sitting on a stoop around midnight, Gil is picked up in an old-fashioned car, and whisked away to the 1920s, where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston, and Allison Pill) , Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and eventually others (Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali is a particular delight).

The performances really seal the fun to be had amongst these giants, and Tom Hiddleston may end up being the breakout actor from this summer. Allison Pill, one of the most delightful actresses from our beloved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is convincing as Zelda Fitzgerald. I would watch a full film based around these two. The writing for Corey Stoll’s Hemingway is amazing, and I have no idea if they are his words or Allen’s, but they seem to fit (I may have a better idea soon).

The film becomes a close and fantastical examination of nostalgia, and more to the feeling of being born in the wrong time period (which I myself have felt from time to time). Through Gil’s interaction with these figures of artistic history, the Lost Generation, he (and we) come to discover more about ourselves in the present. This is an especially pertinent release for this nostalgia-filled summer, consumed with toy-based movie franchises, super hero period pieces, and new films masquerading under the masks of classics from decades before. Nostalgia here is the mark of a romantic, and the film ponders whether a true romantic like Gil can be happy in a relationship with a cerebral non-romantic like Inez or Paul.

Midnight in Paris is the perfect aperitif to any of the “popcorn” films, a delightful stroll through days gone by, while still offering morsels to ponder over long after the viewing.