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If you know Steve Carell from “The Office,” then you know he’s mastered the art of awkward and tense humor. He has the ability to take a cliched movie scene and make it believable and realistic, partly by making it uncomfortable when it should be using his body language and short, punctuated sentences. What Carell is less known for is presenting this in more serious types of comedies, like “Dan in Real Life” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” Carell is the everyman, who is able to make us laugh, make us feel sorry for him and make us want to be just like him. This why he shines in the new comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Carell plays Cal Weaver, who’s wife Emily (four-time Oscar-nominee Julianne Moore; “Boogie Nights,” “The Kids Are All Right”), has just informed him that she has slept with someone else, and is now asking for a divorce. As Cal tries to pick up the pieces of his life, he finds himself in the same swanky bar most nights spouting off the details of his divorce to anyone within earshot. He’s soon approached by the extremely well-dressed Jacob Palmer (Oscar-nominee Ryan Gosling; “Half Nelson,” “The Notebook”), who Cal has noticed is a very successful pick-up artist. Jacob offers to help Cal regain his manhood and move on with his life, and this odd couple friendship begins. Jacob takes Cal under his wing with tips on wardrobe, conversation and generally how to carry himself. Soon enough, Cal is a bit of a ladies man, with a new attitude and a new look that surprises his ex-wife. Meanwhile, Cal and Emily’s 13-year-old son Robbie is struggling with the woes of true love, as his infatuation toward his babysitter, Jessica (former “America’s Next Top Model” finalist Analeigh Tipton), begins to reach an unhealthy level, despite Jessica’s infatuation with someone else.

The reason “Crazy, Stupid, Love” works so well against some romantic comedy cliches is its ability to walk that line without actually crossing it, particularly the moment it begins to pour rain on Cal and he simply mutters, “What a cliche,” completely redeeming the scene. This might be the point of his character and of the divorce plot. When going through such a situation, it’s probably difficult not to feel like a cliche, or like you’re living out a movie. We see Cal go through a transformation in his appearance and his confidence, but he remains the good person he was. His promiscuity is merely an attempt to move on with his life. Jacob comes off as an arrogant womanizer when we first meet him, but he gradually reveals the person beneath who is simply trying to buy and screw his way to happiness. Jacob meets his match in Hannah (the charming and hilarious Emma Stone; “Easy A,” “The Help”), who was the only female we see able to resist his charm. Hannah is able to break through Jacob’s exterior, and Emily is able to cut through Cal’s newly developed shell. Young actor Jonah Bobo, who plays Cal’s son Robbie, is an awkwardly intelligent youth who seems to understand the true pain and perseverance of love – more than any adults in the film. Robbie’s ideas about love are written off because of his young age, but everyone soon realizes that it might just be that simple after all. Oscar-winner Marissa Tomei (“The Wrestler,” “My Cousin Vinny”) and Kevin Bacon (“Mystic River,” “Apollo 13”) make good comedic additions (Bacon as the man Emily cheated on Cal with). As everything progresses the way a comedy should, every sub plot collides in moment so well orchestrated and entertaining. You realize there were plot twists you weren’t expecting, and everything takes a new turn that ends in a dramatic, yet spirit-lifting speech at an eighth grade graduation.

“Crazy, Stupid, Love” might not be for everyone. I mean, I’m pretty sure no matter who you are you’ll find something funny and enjoyable about this film. But not everyone will fully appreciate it. This story is about love. It’s not just another romantic comedy, but instead it seems to really have a deeper understanding of love. In one case how it can change someone overnight, in another how it can never really leave and in yet another case, how it knows no age or restrictions. In any case, it’s about how love can be messy, and it can cause you to do crazy and stupid things. But it really exists in people, and it’s something that can be put through awful circumstances and still be there on the other end. So some people, who may have known true love in their life, can understand why very little about this film is cliche. It’s a laughable, painful and uncomfortable mess. And in the end, everything is far from perfect, but it’s hopeful. And that’s the truth.

“Love sucks.”

-Brendan

Since the announcement of “The Avengers,” which brings several years worth of summer blockbusters together next year, the most anticipated film seemed to be the story of Captain America. It’s clear in the title that this film, the last to be released before “The Avengers,” that he is the central figure tying all these Marvel superheros together. What’s been interesting since this concept began was how they’ve been able to place all the heroes in the same realistic universe and time period – except of course for Captain America, who came about in the 1940s amidst World War II. That being said, this film stands alone as both a superhero film and a period film of the war.

Chris Evans, most known for his portrayal of another Marvel superhero, Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in the two somewhat disappointing “Fantastic Four” films, surprises as one of the most genuine and authentic heroes created. Steve Rogers is scrawny, but makes up for it in heart and courage. His repeated attempts at lying his way into military service land him in the super soldier program, created by Dr. Abraham Erksine (Oscar-nominee Stanely Tucci; “The Lovely Bones,” “Devil Wears Prada”), who frankly deserved more time in the story, but serves as a pretty stereotypical yet necessary character in any superhero film. Rogers is transformed into a faster, stronger, overall improved version of himself. When the military isn’t sure what to do with him, he does his duty as pro-military/anti-Nazi propaganda and entertainment for children. When overseas, he finds that his best friend from back home is part of a large number of POWs, held by the renegade Nazi scientist, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving; “The Matrix,” “Lord of the Rings”). Rodgers, as his cheesy Captain America persona, sneaks himself into enemy territory to prove his abilities to the stubborn Colonel Phillips (Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones). Rodgers then leads a group of rescued prisoners on a pursuit to take down Schmidt’s development of futuristic and devastating weapons.

What makes Steve Rodgers and Captain America so likable is that he is a simple guy, who is as loyal and pure as they come. He’s not necessarily patriotic or militaristic, but he just wants to do the right thing and stand up for the little guy – because he is one. Digital editing allowed Rodgers tiny physique to be a simply shrunken image of Evans’ actual body. The historical backdrop is refreshing to the modern-day superhero films, allowing us to imagine superheros before there was such a thing.

The supporting roles are strong all around, and the film does a good job of telling the back story, but it falters a bit when trying to draw in the excitement. Sometime after Captain America took over as the leader of his little squad, there was a montage of ambushes and attacks done by his group that seemed to just be filler for the story. The final showdown against Schmidt (more comically known as Red Skull), didn’t deliver the way it could have. In a particular scene, Jone’s Colonel Phillips seems to trying really hard to imitate Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine from “Inglorious Basterds.” I have yet to mention Rodgers’ love interest, Agent Peggy Carter, played by the beautiful Hayley Atwell, who frankly I don’t have much to reference regarding her past films. I haven’t mentioned her because other than her appearance stealing some attention on the screen, I didn’t connect much of anything to her character. She was definitely a badass girl with gun, but that didn’t hold up much consider the large number of supporting characters. I apologize for not yet mentioning the inclusion of wealthy inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper; “The Devil’s Double,” “An Education”), the father of Tony Stark/Iron Man. He has proven himself both enjoyable on screen and the perfect tie-in to previous Marvel superhero films. He fit in perfectly with the time period and also gave a bit of futuristic flair to it as well. Though the time line doesn’t quite make sense there, considering that even if he’s only in his 20s in this film, which takes place in the 1940s, how can his son Tony be in his 30s (or older) in the current Iron Man universe, which takes place in the present?

Regardless of all that, both the beginning and the end of the film allude to Captain America’s presence in the current Marvel universe, which is actually how it went in the comics. Rodgers is used as the centerpiece to create The Avengers, which has been a gradually building idea since the end of 2008’s “Iron Man.” I have yet to see “Thor,” which should be an indication of what I’ve heard about it. Honestly by the time “Captain America” came out, I had lost a lot of the hype. I’m still excited for next summer’s “The Avengers” to see how an idea four years in the making ties everything together, but I can’t help but think a certain part of these films is simply a means to an end.

“Why someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power…”

-Brendan

Robert Pattinson (“Twilight” series, “Remember Me”) plays Jacob Jankowski – a Great Depression-era veterinary school student who is forced to leave his home and his studies with nothing but the clothes on his back. When he jumps on the first train that comes along, Jacob is thrust into the world of the circus with little option to get back out. The business-minded ring master, August (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz; “Inglorious Basterds”), spares him from being thrown from the moving train only because of his animal expertise. August’s wife, Marlena (Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon; “Walk the Line,” “Legally Blonde”), is the star of the show who commonly works with the animals of the circus. As Jacob and Marlena begin to bond, August’s bottom-line workings and violent temper bring tension to his marriage and the circus, as everyone around him begins to question their safety. Behind the awe of the big top and the spectacle of the show, the workers of Benzini Brothers Circus hope not only to eat and be paid, but to make it to the next day in a time of prohibition and financial meltdown in America.

Based on the novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants” is a unique look at this time period in America, and at an entertainment industry often overlooked. Jacob and Marlena are simply at the forefront of this story, as their feelings for each other build in the suspecting and possessive eye of August. Bring an elephant named Rosie into the mix and everyone’s true colors begin to show. What is first presented as a golden time for the wonder of the circus becomes a story of despair. The men and women of the circus find pleasure in a nomad lifestyle and the little things they can enjoy each day in spite of being more or less trapped in their situation. A love story that blossoms all too typically turns out to be full of such strong emotion. The time period and setting provide a more classic romance not seen in modern stories. Well-acted by Witherspoon and Pattinson (redeeming of his unfortunate “Twilight” stardom), and brilliantly acted by Waltz (no surprise there), the three lead a fairly large cast across state lines in a story of deceit, opportunities and animal training.

There are moments of laughter and love, along with raw emotion and dramatic tension. The characters’ moods sometimes jump so quickly but in such realistic ways. The story benefits from the quality writing of its source material, and although I haven’t yet read the novel, it appears it was translated well on screen. “Water for Elephants” is a film worth seeing, if only to feel some magic of an old time circus and to see a pure love blooming in the wake of hopelessness and staggering odds.

“You’re a beautiful woman, you deserve a beautiful life. Nothing less.”

-Brendan

When Harry Met Sally” – 1989

Golden Globe nominees Meg Ryan (“You’ve Got Mail,” “Sleepless in Seattle”) and Billy Crystal (“Monsters Inc.,” “Analyze This”) team up in one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. Harry and Sally are paired up to drive together from the University of Chicago to New York City as they both are separately starting their new lives there. Harry, narcissistic yet humorous, believes that men and women can never just be friends because sex always gets in the way. Sally, neurotic yet cheerful, can’t stand Harry’s theories and outspokenness. When they reach New York, they part ways, only to run into each other again five years later, and yet again five years after that. It is then, when Sally’s relationship has ended and Harry has been through a divorce, that the two become close friends. They help each other through the hopelessness of heartache and dating in your 30s, as they begin to form a strong and unique friendship. When they both start seeing what everyone else sees, they attempt to cross the line from friends to something more, despite their desires to want the opposite.

Nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, “When Harry Met Sally” is what it is thanks not only to the pair of Ryan and Crystal, but also Oscar-nominated director Rob Reiner (“A Few Good Men,” “The Princess Bride”) and writer Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail”). The title characters are in fact based on Reiner and Ephron, respectively. The story is interwoven with real-life stories from elderly couples on how they met, relating to the pairing of Harry and Sally, which seems nothing short of “meant to be.”

The film is set on a vibrant, late-80s New York backdrop and discusses not just dating, but several aspects of society and status. The relationship between men and women and Harry’s question of whether or not the two can ever really just be friends is a constant theme being analyzed throughout the story. The chemistry between Ryan and Crystal is something so rarely seen in today’s romantic comedies, and it drives such well-written characters. There also such great iconic scenes, such as the “I’ll have what she’s having” joke, that make this a classic in many critics’ eyes. It’s one of the most simplistic and beautifully honest stories about relationships, and it’s definitely worth seeing if you haven’t.

“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”

-Brendan

No Strings Attached – 2011

Okay, this is a very recent pick for this week. This movie got me thinking though, and I wound up comparing it to the older style of romantic comedy and the typical style of today.

After several chance interactions over the course of 15 years, Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Academy Award winner Natalie Portman) are acquaintances at best. When Adam realizes his ex-girlfriend is sleeping with his aging celebrity father (Kevin Kline; “Definitely, Maybe” and a bunch of movies you’re parents used to watch), he searches for a quick hookup. When he ends up in Emma’s apartment the next morning, the two soon find themselves in an agreement to be “friends with benefits,” and to fill each others’ sexual needs. It begins to resemble a game, as the two challenge each other back and forth and come up with fun rules. When things get too serious. they attempt to back off, only becoming jealous over the idea of being with other people. As feelings intensify and get more serious, they struggle to maintain the boundaries of their agreement before they get in too deep.

Unlike a lot of modern romantic comedies, this movie has some subtext. Emma’s career as a doctor is her excuse for not wanting a committed relationship and she prides herself on being fine on her own and rejects the idea of love and relationships. Adam works in the t.v. industry, trying to make a name for himself while living in his father’s shadow. The arrangement works out well as Emma doesn’t want something serious and Adam is, well, a man. Stereotypical…maybe, but it works for any romantic comedy, as the characters are usually the image of an average person (if only…). What’s interesting is how clearly we see stronger feelings develop in the actions of both characters, even as Emma tries so hard to reject them. Portman is enchanting like always, and surprisingly Kutcher didn’t get cheesey or annoying (if you’ve seen most movies he’s been in then you understand). Kline has found a new niche as the suave old man who dates girls in their twenties, and that’s not a bad thing. He’s always been great as the character you have a love/hate relationship with. Kutcher and Portman’s chemistry is not the best around, but it’s much better than some.

The way this is a good example of a modern romantic comedy is clearly seen in its’ basic plot: friends with benefits. This is clearly a concept the current generation of 20-somethings is comfortable with (look for, “Friends with Benefits,” out this year starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. I rest my case). When it comes down to it, today’s romantic comedies give the idea that everyone sits around talking about nothing but sex, and that people randomly just smoke pot when they’re bored (probably because most movies are written and filmed in California). Okay, not that these things aren’t normal, but it gives the impression that everyone is like this. Despite all that, it’s the implementation of texting into romantic comedies. It’s a big part of social interaction now, and especially in the way people date.

What keeps “No Strings Attached” somewhat separated from other modern rom coms, is its ability to still stay pretty joke and situation heavy, and Oscar-nominated producer/director Ivan Reitman might be to blame for that. Having directed some 80’s classics like “Ghostbusters” and “Stripes,” as well as produced plenty of newer comedies and the acclaimed “Up in the Air,” (directed by his son, Jason), he’s got an old-style that existed in the days when texting and Google weren’t key points of dialogue in a movie. But he brings that old style of directing and character development to a new-style script. Old jokes like a misunderstanding of who Adam slept with and the height difference between he and Emma blend well with jokes like cell phone photography and Adam making Emma a “period mix.” There is a scene when Adam tells Emma not to call, text, email or write on his “wall” that she misses him. You rarely see a character pointing out the impersonal ways we communicate in modern dating. And in contrast, the beginning scenes where Adam and Emma keep bumping into each other at different times in their lives is very reminiscent of “When Harry Met Sally” as it implies a sense of fate, like the two areĀ  meant to cross paths in their lives. It’s about mixing old and new so good story telling can appeal to young audiences.

In romantic comedies, we always know how it’s going to end. So it’s never a question of, “will they end up together, but rather it’s, “how will they end up together?” We know the end, but will the means help it make sense? In the case of “No Strings Attached,” we’re shown the difference between sex and love, and how no matter how hard we try, love isn’t something you can brush off or ignore.

“We don’t get to pick who we fall in love with, and it doesn’t happen like it should.”

-Brendan

Doug Riley (James Gandolfini; “The Sopranos”) lives a life of routine, and typical not-so-secrecy, while his wife Lois (Academy Award winner Melissa Leo; “The Fighter,” “Frozen River”) has developed a fear of ever leaving her house. The two have been married many years and barely speak. Their lives, though not so ordinary, have become routine and ordinary to themselves. They lost their daughter many years ago, and it seems like their ability to love and live have gone with those years. When Doug goes to New Orleans on business, he goes to one of its many strip clubs, mostly just to be alone. He finds himself in the company of Mallory (Kristen Stewart; “Twilight,” “The Runaways”), a young dancer (and more) who is trying to make her money for the night, only to find that Doug is only interested in conversation and company. Doug puts her suspicions to rest with money, and finds himself staying in New Orleans to be a somewhat uninvited father figure to Mallory. When Doug mysteriously chooses to stay down south, Lois attempts to overcome her fear and venture out past the boundaries of her home. As Doug attempts to turn around Mallory’s life, she struggles with being told what to do by an authority figure, and the Rileys realize just how much life is still flowing through them.

Set in the gritty side of New Orleans, Mallory’s story is shown raw and real – a sixteen-year-old supporting herself in her decrepit home by stripping and prostituting with nothing sugar-coated or lightened. Doug finds a reawakening in being a father once again, and even Lois takes on a motherly role. The relationships, as awkward as they start out, become pretty genuine. The three learn that some things can’t be completely changed, but it’s still possible to make a positive impact on someone’s life.

Gandolfini hasn’t been seen a great deal since his time on “The Sopranos,” and this is a reminder that he is a serious and accomplished actor. Melissa Leo further proves why she is one of the most underrated actors of the past few years. And Kristen Stewart takes another big leap this year in her attempts to separate herself from the “Twilight” series and her often criticized success. Between this and “The Runaways,” Stewart has shown she has no problem doing whatever it takes on screen to prove her talent and dedication. “Welcome to the Rileys” is filled with strong performances, hinging almost the entire story on these three characters. In a realistic sense, things aren’t instantly changed for the better in these three lives, but undeniably there is hope.

Sequels don’t always turn out too well, and that’s no secret. Following the massive box office success of “The Hangover,” not to mention its unusual Golden Globe win for Best Picture: Comedy, expectations were very high. Probably too high. The concept of the first film was very simple, so when it was implied and later announced that a sequel was being made, I don’t think I was alone in picturing a movie that would have more of the same. So the question is, when you’re set up with such a basic and funny premise, how could you possibly go wrong making a sequel?

“Part II” begins the same way the previous film began. Phil (Bradley Cooper) on the phone with Tracy (Doug’s wife) saying that “It happened again,” and we see the Wolfpack (minus Doug, of course) distraught and exhausted. Then we flash back to the beginning and learn that in the time since the last film, Stu (Ed Helms) is now about to marry a Thai woman (so…not the stripper he clearly fancied at the end of the first film?), and the boys are preparing to head to Thailand for their wedding. Stu makes it clear that he does not wish to have a bachelor party, nor does he want to invite Alan, as the events from the last bachelor party are clearly on his mind. After some convincing, Alan becomes a part of the wedding, but he does not like Stu’s soon-to-be brother-in-law imposing on their time together. Before you know it, a quick beer with the boys turns into another hellish morning after. Stu, Phil and Alan wake up in the middle of Bangkok, and although Doug is safe, they are missing Stu’s fiance’s brother, who is sixteen, and the pride of her father. A mixture of drug deals, gunfire, monks and monkeys eventually get them on the right path to piecing together their night in Bangkok.

Honestly, why didn’t they just stick with Vegas? This group of actors blew everyone away with their raucous night in Sin City, and the effort it took to figure out what had happened. The chemistry they showed and the clash of personalities never allowed a dull moment. What was great about their night in Vegas was that the wedding guests were none the wiser when they showed up at the last minute for Doug’s big day. There was a feeling like they had gotten away with the greatest night they’ll never remember and the idea of another great weekend in Vegas seemed like a great idea. So I guess the logic of producers, and likely director Todd Phillips, was that audiences wouldn’t pay to see the exact same movie again. Well, why wouldn’t they? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sure, “Part II” had some great laughs, mostly in the vein of the jokes audiences loved in the first film. The characters haven’t changed, and that’s good. It seems to be the setting of the film that set it on a bad track. Putting the boys in Thailand doesn’t necessarily offer you new jokes, because the jokes haven’t changed much. Instead, they’re in a much more frightening atmosphere. They are in a particularly dangerous place, and the situations they find themselves in are often more scary than they are funny. The envelope is definitely pushed a few times, and the missing details the group can manage to figure out aren’t as quirky and funny as last time around. It really is difficult to tell if the movie is too similar to the original or not similar enough.

It’s also unclear why Doug never gets to be a part of the group more often. Also, it was announced long ago that Mel Gibson would make a cameo. He was then replaced by Liam Neeson, who was then replaced by a guy that no one has heard of, who’s part in the film was pretty minimal anyway. So the story rests entirely on the shoulders of Phil, Stu, Alan and the return of Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). The cameo by Oscar-nominee Paul Giamatti helped a bit, but he’s not the kind of name that would impress fans of “The Hangover.”

All in all, the Wolfpack are still funny, even if many of the jokes feel forced like you’d expect out of the sequel to a great comedy. Although their best element is clearly the streets and deserts of Las Vegas, “Part II” proves that some situations are funny no matter where you are. Let’s just hope that “Part III” doesn’t happen. If it does, hopefully this time around Alan is the one tying the knot.

“Bangkok has him now.”

-Brendan