6/30/11

Huntsman and Bachmann throw their hats in

Thought I'd mention that Fmr. Gov. Jon Huntsman (UT) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) have entered the race for the Republican nomination for president. I know I'm a bit late, and I really don't have much to say about it.

As a Democrat supporting Obama, I can only be grateful for the current crop of hopefuls opposing the President, but as an American, I'm disappointed in our two-party system for such a woeful showing. But, again, mainly in the GOP. Perhaps I run the danger of seeming smug, but you try to think of something nice to say about them....

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

6/20/11

Review: Bridesmaids (2011)


Paul Feig's Bridesmaids is a hilarious, touching, Rabelaisian (that means poop humor!) born-loser comedy which has so many laughs it hurts (in a good way), bright human insights and identifications and an awards-worthy acting performance from the amazing Kristen Wiig ("Saturday Night Live," Walk Hard, MacGruber, Paul) as Annie, an endearing crazy woman on the edge.

The film isn't quite sure whether it wants to be a realistic-wacky or pure absurdist film, which is noticeable, but it's still remarkably of a piece. It goes for laughs like nobody's business, and finds quite a few, in good rhythm, so I won't inquire too much into its intellectual origins.

Annie's life is headed downhill. She's lost her business, a cupcake shop, and her boyfriend, and is in a self-destructive hook-up relationship with a real jerk (Jon Hamm, hilarious). Then her best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph, Away We Go, MacGruber, great), announces her impending marriage to a guy who seems pretty solid, understandably bittersweet news for Annie to hear.

But Annie tries to be excited for her friend and agrees to be the maid of honor, which involves various duties for which she is ill-suited for various reasons. Unfortunately a rival for her maid of honor role appears in the person of Lillian's "new best friend" (also now her rival for best best friend), Helen (Rose Byrne, Insidious, X-Men: First Class, wonderful), who is the wife of Lillian's fiancé's boss, very rich and quite interested in snagging Lillian away from Annie in the friend department. Whether through bad luck, fate, some kinds of passive-aggression or Annie's being frazzled over the many changes and insults happening in her own life, this proves to be pretty easy for Helen to do, as Annie navigates from embarrassing disaster to humiliating disaster in helping plan the lead-up to Lillian's wedding.

I won't spoil how exactly this happens, but some of these sequences are already justifiably famous, no-hold-barred classic comedy moments. Again, if you can't take a little humor about bodily functions, you are warned away. I've seen it three times, and did notice some people seeming to walk out at various points all three times. It may not be for everybody. But also, all three times, the laughs were abundant and satisfying, so we in the audience didn't seem to care too much that some in the crowd were oversensitive.

Many of the laughs come from seeing what big brick life will throw at Annie next. The film consistently makes these setbacks bigger and bigger, testing the audience's belief in the story while always bringing the laughs. It's fun to experience as a filmgoer, and it's also fun to see crowds react to this teasing.

Meriting special mention among the bridesmaids is the sister of the groom, Megan (Melissa McCarthy, priceless). McCarthy gets some (but not all) of the most outrageous moments, and is uproarious. Chris O'Dowd is great as Officer Rhodes, an Irish cop who loves Annie's cream puffs and notices her taillights. Look for O'Dowd in romantic comedies opposite every major Hollywood leading lady. The late great Jill Clayburgh is also funny, dotty and believable as Annie's mom.

There are several scenes of visual poetry which are like great short films in themselves, and most are mixed with a precise and joyous perfect comic timing. Again without spoilers, Annie's inebriated plane ride has a wonderful throwaway punchline you can use to impress your friends and neighbors, another scene plants two words in the viewer's head near the beginning which Annie breathlessly yells later for the payoff, and a scene in a car near the end has Wiig channeling Bugs Bunny and/or Wile E. Coyote to great effect. If you have an asthma inhaler, puff it just before the lights go down or bring it with you just in case.

If you don't mind or can appreciate some ribaldry and obscenity, and can laugh at people, Bridesmaids is a pretty good bet any time. There are waves and crescendoes of dangerous laughter. Give this Wiig an Oscar already, and more and more starring vehicles. And if we start giving Oscars for great comedic work, let's throw in at least a nomination for the masterful director Feig. Thank you, that is all.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

6/5/11

Romney's in, Santorum's set, Other, Ron Paul lead GOP presidential nominee web poll results for May

Last week Fmr. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) officially joined the presidential race, to great yawns of indifference, also "Anybody But Mitt" campaigns. Fmr. Sen. Rick Santorum (PA), who is kind of a crazy person, will officially announce his candidacy Monday.

Meanwhile, "Other" and Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) led May voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are May's results:

May 2011

#1 - Other ... 43.7%
#2 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 24%
#3 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 11.4%
#4 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 7.8%
#5 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 6.6%
#6 - Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) ... 6%
#7 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... .6%

167 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

I have now removed likely non-candidate Emperor Christie of New Jersey from the poll and the GOP field page. Santorum didn't declare in time to get into this month's poll, but I'll probably put him in for next month, if he's still in the race by then, even though he is kind of a crazy person. Still just indecisive indications from Fmr. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) and others.

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

6/3/11

Review: X-Men: First Class (2011)


Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class is so boring it kind of hurts. You want to like it, or I did, anyway. But there's no character development, sensitive historical subjects and events are made boring plot fodder and the usual climactic mutant fights aren't visually interesting or dynamic at all. I've only seen Kick-Ass of Vaughn's previous films, and I practically loved that compared to this.

The earnest James McAvoy (The Last Station, The Conspirator) plays Professor X, the role made famous in the first X-Men films by the great Patrick Stewart, and the brooding Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre [2011]) plays Magneto, the previous Ian McKellen part. This movie is about their origins, and the origins of the X-Men as a quasi-governmental arm, and the Brotherhood of Mutants as an anti-X-Men arm, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You didn't know that was really a mutant crisis, now did...zzzzz...z. President John Kennedy gets to give his famous speech warning against the U.S.S.R.'s stationing missiles in "Cuber." As for period flavor, that's what we get and all we get, along with some beehives. The screenwriters' understanding of history makes Sarah Palin's look like Ariel Durant's. Michael Fassbender has his least interesting alternate-historical beer with Nazis. What X-Men: First Class most reminds me of, for many various reasons, is Thomas Harris's only bad Hannibal Lecter novel, Hannibal Rising, which of course was made into a bad movie I can't even remember if I've ever seen. We know all about Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Could there possibly be an origin story dark, weird and rewarding enough to fit in with the rest of the story and still stand on its own? Answer: Maybe, but Hannibal Rising ain't it. Same for First Class.

The picture has lots of arguments about mutantism which press releases about the movie claim are metaphors for, or in some way about "civil rights," then the movie engages in the egregious, usually always offensive cliché of having the black guy kick first. Red did this too--to Morgan Freeman!--but had other redeeming qualities. The other mutant of color (besides the demon/devil guy and the blue ones) is a flying prostitute. You can't make this stuff up, people. I wish I were joking. "How'd you like a job where you get to keep your clothes on?" asks the "intuitive" Professor X, lounging with Magneto while declining her favors. Ugh.

The movie also shows a young boy in a Nazi concentration camp threatened with the death of his mother, who is standing between two guards. I won't say what happens next, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't square with the laws of physics, nor is it well explained by mutant interference with them. It's almost a continuity error, the camera is placed so poorly.

The movie has a lot of visual-logical problems. The effects surely look like they involved a lot of time, energy and money to create, and yet they are crutches, not visually impressive in themselves, nor, again, bearing much relation to how things move or look, even leaving room for the powers of many of the superbeings and some comic-book cartoonishness. Instead, they tie up boring plot points or substitute poorly for actual story excitement or interest. At one point, something has blood on it and it looks like digital blood. Boring digital blood.

It's difficult to blame the cast of fine actors, as we've all seen them all do better with better material. They're uniformly young folks who are exciting emerging talents, but here their characters are cardboard cutouts, their development wooden, their dialogue leaden. That's a lot of efficient packing material. We've seen this all done before, better. Caleb Landry Jones plays Banshee, and gets to break out of his usual typecasting as Guy Who Shows Up Near the End for a Significant Event (see No Country for Old Men, The Last Exorcism, The Social Network) by showing up near the middle and there are no significant events.

I went to see it again with an interested midnight crowd instead of a theater of critics, and they were bored, too. I left after 45 minutes because I was so bored, and also, importantly, because it was being shown way too dark on a digital projector configured for 3-D projection. It was easy to tell: there were two screens' worth of images being beamed out instead of one, and the white subtitles were a dingy grey. I explained this problem to the manager, and so should you if you spot it.

X-Men: First Class is not the worst superhero movie or aspiring summer blockbuster ever, nor certainly even the worst the X-Men franchise has had to offer. But I certainly can't recommend it, as I believe the average person interested in seeing it won't be interested much in the movie, or in ever seeing it again. Did I mention it's really dull and boring? The most fascinating existential question raised is why does Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone) have a receding hairline when she goes blue. I think this series could use a big rest, but I await the rest of the contemplated trilogy, presumably One Small Step for an X-Man and All the President's X-Men. Walk out of X-Men: First Class and get your money back if it's superdark because it's being projected wrong. Or watch Thor, it's really good and it's already supposed to be shown in 3-D, in which it looks awesome.

Credit where it's due: I worked in film projection in the past, but via the great Roger Ebert I read this Ty Burr article in the Boston Globe and learned how to spot incorrect digital projection, and you should, too, if you like movies.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

6/1/11

Review: Thor (2011)


Kenneth Branagh's Thor is an excellent comic-book-mythological superhero movie that's great to watch. An origin-and-adventure combo which exploits its Norse origins, graphic and plot history of the classic comics, and niche in the Avengers Marvel run-up begun with Jon Favreau's very good Iron Man and sequel Iron Man 2, and continuing through Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk, Thor and the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger, it bodes well for the series and whatever further spin-offs may come.

Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, his brother, wrote the early adventures of Thor as a Marvel character in the sixties, with memorable art by Jack Kirby, in which the Norse god was banished from Asgard and transported into the body of an ordinary mortal. Kirby is a comics legend, who often worked on big stories of galactic forces meeting and transforming, and the film takes ample inspiration from a lot of his work, creating an Asgard, Jotunheim (the realm of the Frost Giants) and the cosmic rainbow bridge or portal which unites and divides them in memorably beautiful ways. "Trippy" as a word could have been invented to describe the Kirby aesthetic. In many ways, if you're talking about modern comics, you're talking about Kirby. Thor rips out swaths of pages of this and renders them in some stunning 3-D.

Maneuvering around pitfalls which have brought down many a movie about mythology, or swords and sorcery, the film embraces the "ancient astronaut" theory which could loosely describe the Marvel sci-fi concept of the series from its beginnings, with updated computer imagery and effects which do not feel sterile or cold, but epic, and of a piece with the story and its action, Thor succeeds.

This movie really strips things down to the basics and provides an origin and first adventure which aren't dated or in rigid thrall to the history of the comics, but which also isn't disrespectful or unmindful of it. Thor drops in to New Mexico, by happenstance, or fate, into the path of astrophysicist and stargazer Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, good) and her colleague Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings, funny), who are out investigating aurora-like celestial anomalies observed in that area of the desert.

There's a light-comic tone from the beginning which suits the story of an ancient Norse god/superpowerful dimensional traveler who falls to Earth with us mere mortals. This continues, and interweaves with the Asgard story without damaging the regal, advanced technological world of the home of the gods. Chris Hemsworth leads this charge with winning charm, strength and credibility.

In Asgard, we see what led to Thor's banishment by Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and separation from his powerful war hammer, Mjolnir. A rivalry between Thor and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, pitch-perfect), the trickster god, plays out with betrayals, secrets, usurpation and twists. Hopkins is really good here, as he usually is, even in big blockbuster attempts which sometimes fail to use him effectively. Here, Odin is effective and powerful. His wisdom is multifarious and farsighted, in keeping both with mythology and the advanced technological world of the Asgardians. He's not quite as pluperfect a comics patriarch as Marlon Brando's Jor-El, but he's definitely in the same class, guiding Thor toward a better understanding of what is required of him and his powers.

The plot itself fits in well with the continuing Avengers build-up, so I won't spoil much of it here, but we know or can guess that the search for Mjolnir and its reclaiming by Thor will be important. Meanwhile, it's fun to see Thor and his battle companions, the Warriors Three, Fandral (Josh Dallas), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), as well as the female warrior Sif (Jaimie Alexander), act together against the Frost Giants, Loki's machinations and the robot Destroyer, when they threaten the Earth and the balance of power in heaven.

Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the rainbow bridge, who has his own inscrutable secrets, motivations and rules of engagement, is a particular pleasure, and well portrayed visually. Despite the relative scarcity of his scenes, they add a lot, largely due to his particular acting presence and the visual dynamism of Heimdall and his post. For reservations, the film is a bit long, and flirts with boredom somewhat before the climax. But the visuals, humor and good acting keep it from ever being actually boring for long at all. I particularly recommend the film in 3-D for the optimum impact.

Thor is good fun, smart, a good addition to the building story of The Avengers, and Chris Hemsworth's star-making breakthrough (and don't forget Tom Hiddleston). If you like Thor, or if you never quite liked Thor, or if you never paid any attention to Thor, this film is designed to satisfy, inform, and bring the character to a solid, epic new level. I've seen it three times already, strongly recommend it in 3-D, and am already ready for more. All in all, it plays to Thor's strengths, what's cool and original about him as a superhero, and satisfies. Watch all the credits....

Alex
The Magic of the Movies