By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, April 12, 2013 - 0 Comments
Despite the fact that Hollywood has harnessed its fortunes to the blockbuster engine of sci-fi futurism, our love of the movies is fundamentally a romance with the past. The Dream Factory traffics in memory and myth. Sometimes a film feels like the fabric of memory itself.
Opening this week are three films of radically different genres that frame the past: 42, which enshrines baseball legend Jackie Robinson; The Place Beyond the Pines, a tale of crime and punishment that bleeds through generations; and Trance, a riddling intrigue of amnesia and mind control. Maybe I’m feeling especially charitable to movies that are not about heavily armed Americans saving the world from foreign megalomaniacs bent on world domination, but I happen to like all three of these films—up to a point.
This inspirational story of Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major leagues, does justice to one of America’s most beloved and essential heroes, a heroic athlete who became the lead-off hitter for the civil rights movement. It’s styled as a history lesson wrapped in an old-fashioned Hollywood motion picture, a moral drama that swings for the fences in big, broad strokes and hits the message right out of the park. And the style feels utterly appropriate. With a subject so deserving of mythology, a figure plucked by history to be a hero in a brutally uncomplicated era of black and white conflict, it’s a movie that makes us want to cheer. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 8:10 AM - 0 Comments
Thanks to American Thanksgiving, this weekend’s movies are opening midweek. They include two blockbuster 3D adventures suitable for the family—Life of Pi and Rise of the Guardians—plus Silver Linings Playbook, an off-kilter romantic comedy that is about family, but is not family entertainment. All three movies are about clinging to hope in the face of crazy odds. Which, of course, is where Hollywood and the holiday spirit find common ground.
Life of Pi and Rise of the Guardians offer, respectively, case-book examples of how to use and abuse 3D. Handling the medium for the first time, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee seems to understand that it’s best used as an immersive medium, one that can turn the screen into an aquarium, and is well-suited for water, which is both transparent and reflective. His is a live-action movie that employs a lot of computer graphic imagery (CGI), especially in bringing a tiger to life on a lifeboat. But the live action and CGI swim together seamlessly, drawing us into the screen’s third dimension rather than reaching out to clobber us in our seats. Rise of the Guardians, an animated feature aimed at children, uses 3D in a more military fashion, bombarding us with roller-coaster zooms and rocketing chase scenes that fly out of the screen.
Pi is scrupulously faithful to the prize-winning bestseller by Canadian novelist Yann Martel. That degree of fidelity can often limit a film’s potential. But Lee’s movie is the exception to the rule and achieves something the book can only ask us to imagine. Although the magic of Martel’s remarkable narrative is grounded in meticulous research and visual detail, it still requires a forceful suspension of disbelief: at moments, I still found myself thinking: “A boy sharing a lifeboat with a tiger? Really? Could that happen?” But by melding a CGI tiger with flesh-and-blood animals, Lee puts that tiger on the boat with such convincing power that we never question its existence.
It’s no small feat that the tiger is as believable as the humans. But the three actors who portray Pi (as a child in India, an adolescent boy on a lifeboat, and an adult raconteur in Canada) are all superb. Suraj Sharma, who makes his film debut as the teenage Pi, carries the much of the film single-handed—acting on water, in water, and with an animal co-star who was no more than a blue screen much of the time. It’s an extraordinary performance. And as the older Pi, veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan anchors the narrative with a calm poise that personifies the transcendental clarity of Ang Lee’s direction.
It’s an exciting event when an auteur of Lee’s refinement creates a Hollywood spectacle with this kind of power. In a rare alignment of artistic vision and blockbuster ambition, Life of Pi stretches the horizon of cinema’s new technology to restore old-fashioned movie magic.
For more on Lee’s movie and my interview with the director, go to: A new life for Pi.
Rise of the Guardians
I’m sure this holiday extravaganza will be a big hit, and that kids will eat it up. But as much as I might try to simulate their point of view, I can only see it through my own battered eyeballs, which feel like they’ve aged 10 years in the 90 minutes spent watching it. In hectic, repetitive chase scenes, 3D pushes the threshold of visual tolerance to the limit. Maybe for kids there’s no such thing as too much fast-moving eye candy. Vertigo, after all, is highly subjective; some people can’t get enough of roller coasters. So I’ll set aside that complaint for the moment and look at what else this picture has to offer.
It’s based on a children’s story by William Joyce—which was sparked by a question from his six-year-old daughter, who asked if Santa and the Easter Bunny were friends. Joyce spun that innocent query into a legion of fairy-tale superheroes called the Guardians. Their leader is a Santa stripped of his Norwegian provenance and re-booted as a Cossack gangster named North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), a brash godfather who rules a Yeti sweatshop at the North Pole. His fellow Guardians include an ornery Aussie Easter Bunny (armed with boomerangs and voiced by Hugh Jackman), a sweet hummingbird Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), a mute, shape-shifting Sandman—and the freshly recruited Jack Frost (Chris Pine), a bratty lost boy who’s glum because children don’t believe he exists.
Like a superhero dream team of fairy-tale Avengers—or Xmas X-Men—the Guardians are on a mission is to keep children believing in them. With North as their crusty Jehovah, they wage a global war for the imagination. Their adversary is the bogeyman Pitch (Jude Law), who blackens the world with disbelief, unleashing a team of apocalyptic horses who could have galloped right out of The Lord of the Rings. The fight comes down to an existential clash between two outcast angels, the Christlike Jack and the satanic Pitch, mirror-image ghosts chasing different versions of their vanished childhood.
There’s a great deal of visual beauty and craft in the Guardians’ intricate toy-town universe. The script is hopping with ingenious wit. The action spits out gags at the industrial pace of the North Pole workshop. And a number of the characters are both richly drawn and drolly written, especially Jackman’s pugnacious Easter Bunny, who steals scenes like an Outback bandit.
But I found the film’s revisionist raison d’être deeply irritating. If children are young enough to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, the Byzantine plot of this the fairy tale on steroids will only confuse them. If they’ve grown out of those beliefs, the movie is too busy promoting childhood innocence to restore it. Just the notion that childhood imagination needs protection from a paramilitary force led by a Russian gangsta Santa is disturbing enough, never mind that the insidious voice behind bogeyman Pitch belongs to an actor who famously had an affair with his child’s nanny.
There’s something Orwellian about a movie that keeps telling you to believe. The Hollywood drummer boy keeps pounding home the fundamentalist faith of the Dream Machine: the message that fantasy needs to be enforced by doctrine, that magic is measured by firepower, and that good will vanquish evil with military honours. When it comes to spreading comfort and joy, these days it seems nothing short of an apocalyptic war will do the trick.
Silver Linings Playbook
Here’s a fairy tale for the grown-ups, a date movie worth hiring a babysitter for, even if its adult characters do behave like children. David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) directs Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro in a back-handed romantic comedy that has fun with mental illness. Cooper, on the verge of being typecast as the World Sexiest Master of the Universe, has re-purposed his alpha edge to play Pat, a human train wreck who has moved back into his parents’ home after being released from a mental institution. He’s lost his job and his wife—after a violent breakdown triggered by the wife’s adultery. Now, despite a restraining order, he’s determined to win her back. Pat finds an ally in Tiffany (Lawrence), a kooky Girl Interrupted who trumps him with her own record of mental delinquency, promiscuity and self-medication. She offers to serve as a go-between, relaying Pat’s deluded peace offerings to his wife, on the condition that he helps her compete in a ballroom dance contest. Big fat premise.
In an offbeat variation on his role in Meet the Fockers, De Niro plays Pat’s dad, a football fanatic with an arcane tool kit of OCD rituals for watching his cherished Philadelphia Eagles. While Pat’s mother (Jacki Weaver) helplessly tries to mediate the head-butting father-son conflict, this is a nuclear family on the verge of meltdown. Their antic scenes tend to slide into slapstick overdrive. But the volatile chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is dynamite. By rights, this movie should belong to Cooper. Yet he’s merely the foil as Lawrence hijacks every one of their scenes with impeccable timing. After her Oscar-nominated role as an Ozark teen in Winter’s Bone, and her action-figure finesse in The Hunger Games, Lawrence reveals yet another risk-taking persona, one that cuts even closer to the bone.
Although Silver Linings Playbook is high-concept fare, it doesn’t feel formulaic. The story unfolds with such loopy, oddball energy that you almost forget it’s a romantic comedy until the fourth quarter. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so effectively blindsided by emotion in a Hollywood movie—sacked behind the line of scrimmage. Perfect counter-programming for a Grey Cup weekend.
By Brian D. Johnson - Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 3:45 PM - 0 Comments
Silver Linings Playbook, an off-kilter comedy by David O. Russell (Three Kings), has been crowned the most popular film at TIFF—winning the Blackberry People’s Choice Award, voted by an online ballot of audience members. The prize was announced at an awards brunch today, the final day of the festival, along with a string of other prizes. TIFF, unlike Cannes, doesn’t host an international competition, but a jury does award cash prizes for Canadian films, and the festival’s audience poll has often been a predictor of Oscar success. Previous People’s Choice winners include American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech. Even without this award, Silver Linings Playbook—which features dynamite performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence—appeared to be Oscar bound, especially with Harvey Weinstein driving its campaign
TIFF’s $30,000 prize for best Canadian feature went to Laurence Anyways, the epic tale of a romance that’s derailed by the man’s transsexual awakening. The third feature directed by Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan, it’s virtuosic feat of filmmaking though some viewers, myself included, found its running time of almost three hours to be unjustified. Sarah Polley’s acclaimed memoir doc, Stories We Tell, was considered the front-runner.
In accepting his award, Dolan, who was shaking with emotion, said “I’m honestly surprised. At one point I thought this film would be forgotten.” Acknowledging the challenges of his movie, he said, “It’s as scary for people to go see it as it was for us to do it.” And as he embraced producer Lyse Lafontaine, praising her largesse and declaring his love for her, Dolan said, “Your balls are bigger than mine.”
The TIFF Canadian jury, meanwhile, split the prize for best Canadian feature debut between Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral and Jason Buxton’s Blackbird. TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey said that the prize would doubled so that each filmmaker would receive the full purse of $15,000.
Bailey, meanwhile, made a social-media booboo with a tweet congratulating Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell that leaked through the Twitterverse just as we were sitting down to the awards brunch. That’s ironic considering that Blackberry sponsors the award, and that the filmmakers will receive a Blackberry Playbook. The first runner-up for the audience award was Ben Affleck’s wildly entertaining, if irresponsible, Argo, about the C.I.A./Hollywood rescue of six Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. (It had more CanCon than most Canadian movies, and the local audience ate it up, but it would have been perverse if Canadians awarded a fiction that robs credit from Our Man in Tehran, Ken Taylor.) The People’s Choice runner up was Eran Riklis’ Zaytoun, an unlikely road movie about a Palestinian boy and a downed Israeli fighter pilot, both trying to get back “home” through war-torn Lebanon in 1982.
As for Silver Linings Playbook, it was also one of my top 10 faves of the festival. Here’s what I wrote about it: “Football, mental illness, dance and romance mix with Altman-esque chaos in an off-kilter crowd pleaser from David O. Russell. Bradley Cooper is pitch-perfect as an ex-mental patient who goes off his meds and moves back home to an OCD dad played by De Niro. Jennifer Lawrence steals the movie so deftly we don’t even realize we’re watching a romantic comedy until we’re hooked by the plot’s Hail Mary pass.”
Cooper meanwhile was the subject of a pre-festival piece I wrote for the magazine.
For the full list of TIFF awards click here.
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 11:40 PM - 0 Comments
The famously good-looking Hollywood star is out to prove he’s a serious actor, too
From the first time he caught our eye, as “Sack” Lodge, the Ivy League jerk engaged to Rachel McAdams in Wedding Crashers (2005), Bradley Cooper seemed too good-looking for his own good. Between the hubris-eating grin and the laser intensity of those blue eyes, he was all too convincing as a football-mad frat boy gloating over his superior genes. Since then, Cooper has gone on to play more likeable men—most famously, Phil, the alpha male leading the blackout brigade of losers in the two Hangover comedies, which have grossed $2 billion. And last year he was annointed People’s sexiest man alive. Neither that dubious honour nor the Hangover windfall have done much to burnish Cooper’s image as a serious actor. But lately he has seemed bent on changing that.
For a Hollywood hunk, playing a freak of nature may seem like a stretch, but this month the 37-year-old actor fulfilled a childhood dream—and completed his Actor’s Studio Drama School master’s thesis for New York University—by starring in an acclaimed stage production of David Merrick’s The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. (When he was 12, Cooper’s father gave him a video of David Lynch’s film of the play: it made him weep.) “I felt such a connection,” he told
The New Yorker. “Like, no one’s skull is symmetrical. Mine is all over the place . . . and my one hip’s higher than the other.”
While Cooper may have a hard time convincing the world that he’s deformed, he never seems entirely on the level. He exudes confidence with a megawatt charm that doesn’t exactly inspire trust. Which is what makes him such an intriguing screen presence. And as he expands his range in a prolific string of movie roles, he seems determined to scuff up his image. In the car-chase action comedy Hit and Run, which opened last week, Cooper is almost unrecognizable as a nasty, blond-dreadlocked gangster on a mission of vengeance. And in The Words, opening next week, he stars as a struggling writer who becomes a bestselling author after stumbling across a lost manuscript and taking credit for a novel he didn’t write.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, August 24, 2012 at 5:43 AM - 0 Comments
The butt end of August is usually a bad time for movies, especially action movies that didn’t rate a spot earlier in the summer. But Premium Rush is a spectacular exception to the rule. I may be biased because I’m an year-round, all-weather cyclist who likes to go fast, but for my money, this bike courier thrill ride is, jolt-for-jolt, the most exciting action movie of the summer. Sure, it doesn’t possess the dramatic heft of The Dark Knight Rises or the cataclysmic mayhem of The Avengers, but for sheer fun-on-wheels it leaves the superhero blockbusters in the dust. Premium Rush blazes a wonderfully fresh trail through Hollywood cliché. It’s not only an exhilarating antidote to the gonzo computer graphics that have come to dominate action movies. After watching countless car chases punctuated by pyrotechnics, it feels like an evolutionary leap forward to watch the breathtaking stunt work of cyclist warriors weaving through heavy metal traffic.
As if to drive home the comparison, Premium Rush is one of two chase flicks opening this weekend. The other is Hit and Run, a hokey action comedy written and co-directed by stunt driver Dax Shepard, who is also the star. A nostalgia vehicle for old-school gas-fueled comedy, it spins its wheels—literally, as Shepard burns rubber doing donuts in virtually every chase scene as if he has only just invented the wheel. The guy seems incapable of driving in a straight line. The cars in Hit and Run are like lumbering dinosaurs compared to the spartan bicycle that the outlaw hero of Premium Rush threads through Manhattan, running every light and breaking every law in sight. This is no fancy carbon 12-speed. It’s hard core: lightweight steel frame, no gears, no brakes. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 18, 2011 at 2:17 PM - 1 Comment
In the aftermath of the awards season, we scan the bleak horizon of new releases as if looking for signs of spring in frozen ground. Slim pickings. But this week boasts a surprisingly decent crop, and something for every taste. A scintillating Bradley Cooper is wired on super smart drugs and spars with Robert De Niro in Limitless; Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbinder breathe fresh life into the classic bones of Jane Eyre; and Seth Rogen brings his gruff charm to the role of chain-smoking, superannuated E.T. in Paul, opposite Brit buddies Simon Pegg and Nick Frost .
Paul is the weakest of the three films, a forced marriage between sharp English wit and the broad overkill of SNL sketch comedy. But even though this ramshackle road movie is less than the sum of its gags, there are ample laughs, while Pegg and Frost (who wrote the script) have some priceless moments as comic book nerds agog in the redneck wilds of America. For more on Paul, go to my video review.
Limitless, meanwhile, is an unadulterated blast. Rising star Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) makes a meal of his first leading role, cast as Eddie, a down-and-out writer who stumbles across a miracle drug—a transparent little pill that harnesses 100 per cent of his brain power and makes him super-smart. Eddie finishes his book in days, learns to play the piano overnight, masters foreign languages in a flash, and embarks on a business plan to conquer Wall Street. In his pharma-fueled rampage, there’s more than an echo of the ’80s cocaine craze that made various masters of the universe feel invincible, but the dream drug in Limitless, called NZT, seems vastly superior to any of its recreational antecedents. NZT won’t make you high; it just makes you “clear.” It seems like the perfect drug—as long as your stash doesn’t run dry—then things get nasty. Limitless is the kind of drug-porn flick that carries a vicarious kick. You can’t help but think: “I’ll have what he’s having.” And behind the quick wit and instant gratification lies the hot pulse of a crime movie—it has the ingenuity of soft-core Tarantino as various gangsters battle to control the NZT supply in a quest for world domination.
This brain candy fantasy is directed with eye-candy flair by Neil Burger (The Illusionist), who turns the camera into an omniscient space arm for Eddie’s quicksilver mind. But big credit goes to screenwriter Leslie Dixon (Hairspray, The Thomas Crown Affair). Her whip-smart script, adapted from a novel called Dark Fields, races along like a house-on-fire wit, convincing us that Eddie is as miraculously smart as he’s supposed to be. Her dialogue raises everyone’s game, including Robert De Niro’s. He’s cast as an old-school tycoon who uses Eddie’s wizardry to finesse a historic merger. De Niro has been on cruise control for years, but here he suddenly seems engaged, challenged.
Although Limitless is very much a guy movie—about men trying to stoke their unlimited ambition with an unlimited fuel supply—Abbie Cornish, who shone in the underrated Bright Star, makes the most of an underwritten role as Eddie’s love interest. As for Bradley Cooper, he’s made his career playing cold-blooded alpha males, kinda like an American Christian Bale. Here he’s cast in a heroic, sympathetic role, but the unnatural glare of those electric blue eyes animates the story’s Faustian theme with an ungodly glint of ambition.
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, March 18, 2011 at 8:00 AM - 3 Comments
The industry that has always liked its superheroes simple has had a brainstorm
If there was a pill that would make you super-smart, would you take it? Sure you would. I’d pop one right now if it would help me find my way to the next sentence a little faster. That’s what happens to the protagonist of Limitless, an ingenious new thriller about mind-doping. Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper) is a deadbeat author crippled by writer’s block. He runs into an old acquaintance who slips him a designer drug called NZT, a transparent little pill that’s like Viagra for the brain. It’s said we use just 20 per cent of our grey matter; this pill activates the remaining 80. With instant access to his brain’s entire data bank, and all neurons firing at warp speed, Eddie finishes his book in a flash, learns new languages overnight, masters martial arts, seduces women with blinding charm, and cooks up wily algorithms to become a Wall Street wizard—brokering the biggest corporate merger in history with a crusty old-school tycoon (Robert De Niro). As with most drug trips, there’s a downside: the movie begins with a flash-forward of Eddie perched on the ledge of a skyscraper, about to jump, with a trail of dead bodies behind him.
Harnessing a magic bullet to conquer the world is a fantasy older than Faust. But Hollywood traditionally favours the muscular variety. It likes its blockbusters dumb, its superheroes simple. Genius is always suspect, the stuff of psychopaths and mad scientists. Even Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man has to gird his brilliance in a clunky suit of robotic armour. Lately, however, the movies have become infatuated with the notion of pure brain power. Last year’s most ballyhooed summer blockbuster was Inception, Christopher Nolan’s twisty thriller about spies who use their mental prowess to invade dreams. And 2010′s most critically acclaimed hit was The Social Network, in which teen egghead Mark Zuckerberg outflanks Harvard’s jocks to create Facebook. (Portrayed as the Marco Polo of geeks, he’s as much villain as hero. But in a jiu-jitsu feat of media spin, the real-life Zuckerberg used the movie as a foil, emerging as a philanthropic crusader while airbrushing his image on Oprah and Saturday Night Live.)
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, June 11, 2010 at 11:13 AM - 2 Comments
The ’80s are back with a vengeance. This weekend offers reboots of two franchises from that era, with a remake of The Karate Kid and a movie adapted from The A-Team TV series. The Karate Kid is the better movie, with a higher martial arts pedigree than the original. It’s also the unplugged alternative, with the accent on physical stunts and uncynical sentiment. But if you’re looking full-bore blockbuster with a fireworks show of special effects, The A-Team offers the purest blast of action-adventure trash that we’ve seen so far this spring. I’ll get to The A-Team later in this post, but first my piece on remakes, sequels and The Karate Kid, which appeared in the magazine this week:
Karate Kid’s a remake with muscle—no kidding!
If you’ve seen a Hollywood movie this spring, chances are it was made from recycled material—a sequel, a prequel or a remake. The tally so far: Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood, A Nightmare on Elm St., Iron Man 2, Sex and the City 2, Shrek Forever After. Next up are The A-Team, The Karate Kid, Toy Story 3 and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. It’s hard not to get cynical about this glut of born-again blockbusters.
But what’s most irritating is not the slavish cloning of brands; it’s the contortions filmmakers go through to give them a novel twist. Do we really need to see a pre-Sherwood Forest Robin Hood defend Britain from an armada of medieval landing craft in a war movie that plays like Saving Private Ryan unplugged? And do Sex and the City fans really want to see their post-feminist icons recast as Barbie-doll drag queens, mocking Islamic dress codes while being pampered by Arabic slaves on a sheik’s junket?
Inbreeding has become Hollywood’s preferred business model, and the progeny just gets more and more grotesque. But on rare occasions, in the desperate effort to reboot old brands, filmmakers actually improve on the original. Notable examples are Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale and last year’s Star Trek. That’s also the case, in some respects, with The Karate Kid remake and Toy Story 3.
The ingenuity of The Karate Kid, which opens this week, lies in the casting. Ralph Macchio, who starred in the 1984 original and two sequels, was already in his 20s when he was first cast as the Kid, a New Jersey teen who moves to California with his mom and trains like a mini-Rocky to defeat a gang of blond bullies. The remake stars Jaden Smith—the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith—who is a mere 12 years old. He plays Dre Parker, a mouthy brat from Detroit, who moves to Bejing with his mother (Taraji P. Henson) when she’s transferred to a new job.
Shot in China, the fable plays out against a much broader cultural divide than the original—a breakdancing African-American child with cornrows is persecuted by Asian thugs twice his size. And the spectacle, fortified with Chinese pageantry, unfolds on a grander scale. It’s a virtual helicopter tour of breathtaking locations, from the Forbidden City and the Great Wall to the monastery peaks of the Wudang mountains.
Smith’s tender age makes his character’s romance—with a Chinese violin prodigy—painfully precocious. But it also makes his eventual prowess as a fighter more miraculous. And this impudent kid with charm to burn has an ideal foil in martial arts legend Jackie Chan—the remake’s other casting coup. There’s no karate in this Karate Kid, just kung fu.
Which is cooler. Taking on the role of the wily teacher created by Pat Morita, Chan not only proves himself as a character actor, he raises the bar for the fight scenes, which are tougher, more dazzling and more convincing than before. Chan rebrands the role with deadpan wit from his first appearance, as he tries to catch a fly in mid-air with chopsticks. The scene is almost identical to the one in the original—until he nails the bug with a fly swatter. A textbook case of creative cloning.
Toy Story 3 is a sequel, not a remake. But each movie in the Disney-Pixar franchise conforms to a strict narrative template: led by Woody (Tom Hanks), the vintage cowboy doll, a clan of animated toys get separated from their beloved master, Andy, and have to fight their way home. In Toy Story 2, the enemy was a venal collector. In Toy Story 3, Andy is off to college and his toys are once again playing dodgeball with oblivion. Will it be the attic? A yard sale? No, they’re donated to a daycare centre—a prison camp ruled with an iron paw by a strawberry-scented stuffed bear.
While the franchise’s sentimental mould is inviolable, this sequel has a darker, more satirical edge. Some of the Orwellian daycare toys are quite scary, like the mad-eyed, cymbal-crashing monkey on surveillance duty, or the big, blank-eyed baby doll. And in an apocalyptic set piece, the toys are sent on a harrowing flume ride through trash shredders to landfill hell. Of course, this Toy Story, like the others, ends happily. Some things will never change.
This kind of thing doesn’t usually appeal to me—a mindless action movie jam-packed with absurd stunts and bloated effects that are strung together by an utterly implausible plot. But The A-Team is . . . well, not so bad. I can’t compare it to the TV show. (I had better things to do in the early ’80s, although Mr. T was an inescapable pop icon.) So for me, this kind of genre piece calls to mind countless Dirty Dozen-style commando, heist and caper movies. The A-Team does not aim high. The script is closer to B-grade fare. But it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. The cast seems overqualified, especially A-list thespian Liam Neeson. Talk about range: for Neeson this is quite a jump from starring in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe. And even he appears to be having trouble buying himself as Hannibal Smith, the squad’s gruff, cigar-chomping leader. But he does look to be having a lovely time, like an actor on holiday. In almost every gesture you can see him thinking, “Oh, why the hell not!” (I also kept thinking he resembled Alan Alda in M.A.S.H., a notion that was impossible to get out of my head once it was stuck there.)
Bradley Cooper, however, looks utterly at home in The A-Team. He makes a meal of his role as Face, the charming con man. Cooper (Wedding Crashers, The Hangover) seems bent on usurping Matthew McConaughey’s title as the Man Who Always Acts With His Shirt Off (as parodied by Matt Damon on Letterman). It’s as if he’s on a one-man mission to turn an action movie into a chick flick. This rising star, who has forged a career from a shit-eating grin, is also endowed with a romantic subplot: his character is chasing an old flame (Jessica Biel), a military cop who becomes the team’s military nemesis. The troupe’s real surprise is Sharlto Copley, the South African star of District 9, who delivers a deliriously unhinged performance as Murdoch, the crazy chopper pilot. Copley carves out corners of scene-stealing brilliance in this script, elevating every scene he’s in. Rounding out the cast is former UFC light-heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who fills Mr. T’s shoes as B.A. Baracus, a hapless, thick-headed muscleman who’s afraid of heights. In the Age of Obama, this Black Power bruiser who discovers Gandhi in prison is a real throwback—not just retro, but retrograde. On the other hand, you don’t want to spend too much time over-thinking a movie that is styled as a self-conscious guilty pleasure.
What about the plot? I’m not sure if it matters to anyone. But it starts out as an origins story, showing how the quartet comes together as a brotherhood of former Army Rangers whose paths collide. The setting is updated, with the Iraq war providing the backdrop and a private military contractor named Black Forest—an obvious reference to the real-life mercenary army, Blackwater—serving as the villain. There’s even a dash of political content as Face greets the Black Forest operatives: “I thought you boys would be busy installing a dictatorship or overthrowing a democracy. . . You’re not soldiers, you’re assassins in polo shirts.”
The military, the mercenaries, the CIA and the A-Team square off as four corners of a ramshackle intrigue that revolves around the theft of U.S. dollar counterfeit printing plates. But it hardly matters if the plot is comprehensible, or credible. Not when the stunts include the men bailing out of a transport plane in a tank held aloft by parachutes.
What’s most unlikely, however, is that this story of global conflict, which is set in six different spots around the world—from the Iraq desert to a Frankfurt train station—was shot entirely in the Vancouver area. Talk about suspension of disbelief.
By Colby Cosh - Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 2:35 AM - 18 Comments
Nikki Finke’s deadline.com carries a compelling account of Warner Brothers’ sequel negotiations with the stars of The Hangover, who received less than a million dollars between them for the unassuming comedy that became a half-billion-dollar global box-office smash. (That $1 million doesn’t count the bonus of a million apiece the studio gave them shortly before commencing talks.) Production of Hangover 2 would normally be well underway by now, but Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, and Ed Helms presented a united front. Mike Fleming calls it “a perfect storm of leverage”.
The Hangover is a divisive movie—embraced with a greedy thirst by the masses, but considered seriously overrated by some. The funny thing about this is that the most notable quality of the movie, in general, is intelligence. (Sure, there’s low humour in it; can we take as axiomatic the patronizing explanation that there are pee jokes in Shakespeare and Swift and Sterne? I mean, I’m happy to patronize you if you really need it.) I found The Hangover much more admirable than hilarious. It took the cliché of the “increasingly chaotic and risky Vegas blowout” and essentially gave it a highly original time-travel twist without recourse to outright science fiction. Though I’ll concede that its ideas about the effects of Rohypnol are a little science-y and fiction-y.
The plot is intricate, but clear and free of detectable loose ends; it has the satisfying click-clack of a Rubik’s Cube, with the end credits as the satisfying flourish that finally restores order and clarity. All four of the main characters have or develop specifiable, interesting relationships with one another. Little comedy grace notes—most memorably, Ed Helms’ “Stu’s Song” piano number—impart some of the tenor of undirected real life to the tight, logic-driven narrative that yokes the characters. There’s legitimate suspense. And the whole thing kicks off with a demonstration of in medias res technique that would give a classics professor an erection. It’s a model exercise in screenwriting, and will certainly be used as one for decades.
So how, to ask the question that’s already on the minds of 60 or 70 million audience members, can the sequel not suck? The Hangover was attractive for its originality. By definition, it’s hard to see how a sequel could possibly succeed. And it’s easy to see how it could become a wearisome exercise in revisiting gags from the original. “Oh, no, it’s Mike Tyson! This can’t be good!” Even coming up with a first approximation to a premise for Hangover 2 is difficult; actually writing the thing seems like it would be a task on the same order of complexity as a lunar landing. Everybody wants the Wolf Pack reunited, but nobody wants to walk into the theatre on opening night and hear the words “Dammit, Alan! I can’t believe you roofied us again!”
By Brian D. Johnson - Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 6:54 PM - 3 Comments
I had to make a tough choice this week, between The Wolfman and Valentine’s Day—between gore and candy. There was just one advance screening for each film (usually not a good sign), and both were playing the same night. Although I try to approach this job with an open mind, I scouted the trailers, and the advance buzz. Neither picture looked hugely promising. Finally I chose Valentine’s Day—partly in the spirit of the season and partly because, if it did turn out to be mediocre, it has such an insanely star-rich cast that I figured it might be mediocre in an interesting way.
Building a movie around Valentine’s Day, the non-holiday everyone loves to hate, is a bit like building a restaurant menu around it. There’s no escaping the contrivance, or the pandering to cheap sentiment, no matter how you package it. The studio promo for Valentine’s Day boasts: “an all-star ensemble cast comes together.” But it doesn’t really. “All-star ensemble” is a usually an oxymoron. And this cast is more like an all-star assortment—a rom-com box of chocolates—because there’s not much ensemblin’ going on. If my arithmetic is correct, the plot has at at least nine couples in play, and that’s a load of romantic business to take care of. The female stars alone include: Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Taylor Swift, Kathy Bates, Queen Latifah and Shirley MacLaine. And they’re all so cute and frisky, as if every actor is on a mission to be adorable. There’s a lot of love flying around, but it’s largely between the stars and the camera—this valentine unfolds like a red-carpet collection of expanded cameos.
The movie is not unentertaining. But it is unsatisfying. Garry Marshall, the sitcom veteran whose confections range from Pretty Woman to Runaway Bride, wraps every scene with candied visuals and keeps the romantic traffic briskly moving. If you don’t buy this little love affair, there’s another one just around the corner. The director is busier than a florist on Valentine’s Day—which, incidentally, is the role played by Ashton Kutcher, who anchors the narrative. With his casual charm and puppy-dog air of unaffected modesty, Kutcher is actually one of the more likable things about the movie. His character kicks off the story as he prematurely pops the question to his sleepy-head girlfriend (Jessica Alba). He then discovers that his best friend (Jennifer Garner), a school teacher, is being two-timed by a heartless heart surgeon (Patrick Dempsey), who is sending flowers to both her and his wife. That intrigue is the long-stemmed heart of the narrative. But surrounding it is a lavish arrangement of subplots. Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Friday, June 5, 2009 at 5:22 PM - 5 Comments
I’m weighing in a bit late on this. While I don’t make a habit of reading other reviews, even the most cursory scan of the media shows that the critical mass of opinion is hailing The Hangover as this summer’s Wedding Crashers, or Knocked Up. Huh? Sure, I can see the parallels. The Hangover is another broadly physical comedy about overgrown frat boys behaving badly. And like those other summer hits, it belongs to the post-Judd Apatow universe, in which men can behave like idiots and salvage their battered manhood in a last fling of partying before surrendering to women who are smarter, more powerful and infinitely more evolved human beings. But unlike Wedding Crashers or Knocked Up, which had substantial female characters and credible stories, The Hangover is basically just a collection of gags strung to a clever high-concept premise—a farce about a Las Vegas bachelor party that is all about the aftermath, leaving out the wild events that caused the brutal hangover. As for the female characters, they remain strictly on the margins. Cooling their heels back home, there’s a trophy wife, a chilly fiancee, and a ball-busting, hen-pecking shrew of a girlfriend. The only woman who’s vaguely human in the picture is the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold played by Heather Graham.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a movie that boasts the same gender inequity as a stag party. Guys deserve their own Sex and the City, I guess. And these guys do generate some laughs. Aside from the groom (Justin Bartha), who goes missing for much of the movie, there’s the macho dork played by Bradley Cooper (the bad finance in Wedding Crashers), the p-whipped dentist who lies to his girlfriend that he’s on a wine tour of the Napa Valley (Ed Helms from The Office), and the screw-loose future brother-in-law (Zack Galifianakis). The boys wake up from their night on the town with severe headaches and a collective case of drug-induced amnesia. Their luxury Vegas hotel suite is trashed, there’s a tiger in the bathroom and a chicken in the living room, the dentist is missing a tooth, and the groom has vanished. The gang tries to un-puzzle the night’s activities, which involve the hooker who is freshly married to the dentist; boxer Mike Tyson, who is the owner of the tiger; and an effete Chinese gangster, who’s oblivious to the irony of his own flaming stereotype by making fun of Galifianakis’s character as the “fat guy.” Continue…