22 July 2008

Mooney at the Movies: Step Brothers

Will: "John, do you think we'll ever be taken seriously?"
John: "Speak for yourself. I've already been nominated for an Oscar."
Will: "Well, at least we get to swear in this one."
John: "Shut the &*@$ up, Will." (Columbia)

Step Brothers (B-)

Starring Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott
Story by Ferrell & Adam McKay & Reilly
Screenplay by Ferrell and McKay
Directed by McKay

Most of the summer's biggest and best movies have had much more going on than entertaining you. Whether it was WALL·E's ecological message or The Dark Knight's moral conundrums, your brain got a workout too. But sometimes, sometimes you just want to forget about thinking and laugh about those $11 you just plunked down.

Step Brothers is one of those kind of movies. Here, you won't have to work for your laughs. There's plenty of jokes, but with that many swings, it's highly likely that not all of them will hit. And that's the case with this film. For every sight gag that works (Will Ferrell molesting John C. Reilly's drumset), there's at least one that doesn't (the boys sleepwalking and throwing things around).

But the difference between this and McKay and Ferrell's previous collaborations (Anchorman and Talladega Nights) is that now they've gone for the jugular (or in this case the testicular) with an R rating. No more shying away from F-words or Apatow's signature male nudity. It's all on profane, hilarious display here.

The set-up goes like this: Dale (Reilly) lives with his single dad (Richard Jenkins, immediately following up his two most serious roles in The Kingdom and The Visitor), and Brennan (Ferrell, recently fired from PetSmart) lives with his single mom (Mary Steenburgen, gleefully lowering her acting standards). The two singles get married, and the boys don't take a shine to each other at first (it's not that they don't like each other; they just feel threatened by each other's presence), but soon bond over their favorite dinosaurs and, um, magazines, as well as their mutual hatred of Brennan's younger brother Derek (Adam Scott).

Now if it sounds more like a framework for a bevy of sight gags and less a real plot, that's because it is. But of course what McKay lacks in storytelling, he makes up for in quotable dialogue. A sampling:

"You have the voice of an angel. It's like Fergie meets Jesus."

"Shut up! You're waking the neighbors! Let the dirt shower over you."

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but I will repeatedly kick you in the balls!"

And many more that I won't publish on this blog.

But if none of those strike you as particularly funny, or you've grown tired of Ferrell's man-boy schtick, than you'll probably hate this movie. This movie is a dividing line as far as comedies go. You'll either laugh or you won't. And there are both belly laughs and dry spells here. Just be forewarned: the laughs come easy and cheap but they don't come as frequently as they should or could.

20 July 2008

Sound Waves: The Mid-Year Awards 2008

Let me start by saying that I've decided to end music reviews on this blog, and strictly do film. However, the occasional rant about music or anything else pop-culture related will still pop up. That being said, here are the best albums, songs and videos from January 1 to June 30, 2008...

1) Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs
With this album, the Seattle band officially cemented their status as the best band in America (and one of the best in the world) with daggered couplets like "Sometimes I think of leaving/But it's something I'll never do/'Cuz you can do better than me/But I can't do better than you." Also painful: "Your New Twin-Sized Bed," about a lady who had to throw out her queen-sized mattress because she knows she's destined to be alone.

2) Coldplay - Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends
After the ever-so-slight disappointment of X&Y, the UK's best group returned with a vengeance, delivering a strong, measured, world-weary effort.

3) Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
Only a DJ you say? Well, the Pittsburgh native pulled a Radiohead (distributing his album on his website for whatever you felt like paying) and got his music (an ear-to-ear orgy of hip-hop, pop, and hits from every genre over the last four decades) to a wider audience.

4) Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
The weird, wonderful Icelandic band took a serious departure from their ethereal, moody ballads and got all excited and folky. And it still worked.

5) The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
Not as awe-inspiring as their booze-soaked short stories on Boys and Girls in America, but still a welcome departure from the disposable mess that is Top 40 radio.

1) Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"
Easily one of the saddest #1 hits in recent memory, Chris Martin sings of a man "who used to rule the world" with layers of regret.

2) Death Cab for Cutie - "I Will Possess Your Heart"
Only the full 8-minute version is worth hearing, with its eternally crescendo-ing intro and pangs of unrequited love.

3) Black Kids - "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You"
After becoming a Top 20 hit in the UK, the Jacksonville natives bring their buoyant dance-club tune Stateside. Imagine Robert Smith fronting Junior Senior and pretty close.

4) Vampire Weekend - "A-Punk"
The album didn't quite live up to the hype, but this first single was inescapable during SXSW, and for good reason.

5) David Cook - "Always Be My Baby"
The crowning achievement of Idol winner's magnificent season.

1) Evangelicals - "Midnight Vignette" (dir. Matt Leach)

2) Kanye West featuring Dwele - "Flashing Lights" (dir. Spike Jonze)

3) The Black Keys - "Strange Times" (dir. Lance Bangs)

4) Gnarls Barkley - "Run" (dir. Happy)

5) Weezer - "Pork and Beans" (dir. Mathew Cullen)

17 July 2008

Mooney at the Movies: The Dark Knight

Batman and Joker share their taste for the theatrical. (Warner Bros.)

The Dark Knight (A)

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman
Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer
Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan (based on characters created by Bob Kane)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

The stakes have been raised. The bar has been set. The Dark Knight is now the gold standard for pretty much any genre of film. From Heath Ledger's incredible final performance, to the magnificent stunt work and special effects, to the multi-layered storytelling, The Dark Knight is about as perfect as films get.

So let's start with what everyone will be talking about: Mr. Ledger's last completed work. Would it be as talked about nearly as much if he hadn't sadly passed away earlier this year? Well, when it's this good, I think so. As much as I loved Jack Nicholson's perfectly over-the-top performance in Tim Burton's '89 feature, this is on another level entirely. There's never a moment where you'll think Ledger is giving anything less than his very best. His Joker isn't funny, only sadistic. "Some men only want to watch the world burn," Alfred (Michael Caine) tells Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). And burn things he does: people, piles of money, even hospitals. If this all sounds darker than any previous Batmans (or any comic book movies for that matter), it's because it is.

The Dark Knight barely squeaks by with its PG-13 rating. There's basically no language or blood, but the tone is so murky that no one under, well, 13 should see it. It's that jarring and shocking. But that only adds to the film's mastery. The Nolan brothers have no regard for how well the movie will do with families or how well the toys will sell. They set out to make a brilliant film and that's exactly what they've done.

However, while this is a movie about Batman, the caped crusader is onscreen as much as the diabolical joker, the valiant Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and the hard-working Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). This film leaves so much to marvel at. There are so many directions this film could have gone in, but everything here is perfectly crafted. Like the Joker says, "It's all part of the plan."

And this plan includes more than entertainment. There's modern day moral conundrums, too. Like terrorism, domestic spying, corrupt politicians, and whether or not the truth is the best thing to tell someone. Discussion will abound. There's just so much beyond what would be required of a picture like this. Sure, it's jam-packed, but it's perfectly paced, cast, scored, shot, edited, written, directed, marketed, everything. It'd be nearly impossible to make any improvements.

Bleak as it may be, The Dark Knight proves that any parameters set by convention or past films or studio heads can be broken. And once they're broken, and a writer's imagination can run free, and the possibilities are unlimited. This has what's been created here and however long it's remembered or honored, it will be a touchstone of what bold filmmaking can accomplish. And that's no joke.

12 July 2008

The Mid-Year Awards 2008

Only films released between January 1 and June 30 qualify.
That's it.

1) U2 3D (dirs. Catherine Owen & Mark Pellington)
More than just a concert film, this super-cool doc (from the uncoolest of places: National Geographic) is better than a front-row seat. It's front-row, onstage, behind the drummer, in the pit, everywhere. One of the all-time great moviegoing experiences.

2) WALL·E (dir. Andrew Stanton)
Just when you think Pixar has outdone themselves, they do it again with this rebirth of the silent film (in its first half) and a scathing satire of American laziness (in its second) with a love story joining its magnificently crafted parts.

3) Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau)
The bar is now set for pure entertainment. Let's see who raises it.

4) Forgetting Sarah Marshall (dir. Nicholas Stoller)
In his screenwriting debut, Jason Segel (of the mildly humorous How I Met Your Mother), has already beat producer Judd Apatow at his own game: balancing the sweet with the raunchy.

5) Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (dir. Nathan Frankowski)
It's a bit uneven and a bit biased, but like all great documentaries, it's got a killer guide through the mess (Ben Stein) and it makes you think and ask questions for yourself. Chief among them being: If Intelligent Design is as worthless a concept as the scientific community says it is, why are they so quick to silence anyone who believes it (or even questions the many holes in the theory of evolution).

1) Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron Man
Here, the notorious actor portrays a super-rich, alcoholic degenerate who turns his life around. Sound familiar?

2) Russell Brand as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall
We Americans are just now getting our first taste of something the UK has known for years: Brand is a stellar comedic talent.

3) Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart in Get Smart
Forget The Office: this is the role the brilliantly deadpan funnyman was born to play.

4) Dylan Moran as Gordon in Run, Fatboy, Run
Perhaps the only reason Moran played Simon Pegg's sidekick instead of Nick Frost is so audiences wouldn't think it was one of those masterful "Blood and Ice Cream" films. And even if this British import (directed by David Schwimmer--yes, that one) isn't quite a classic, Moran's one-liners carry the film above its clichés.

5) Abigail Breslin as Maya in Definitely, Maybe
This last one may be a stretch, but the always delightful Oscar nominee continued to show up everyone in her age group by deftly playing the daughter of a couple going through a divorce.

11 July 2008

Mooney at the Movies: Hellboy II

That's the last time he'll try the three-bean salad from Crafts Service. (Universal)

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (A-)

Starring Ron Perlman, Doug Jones, Selma Blair
Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro (based on the comic book series by Mike Mignola)

If you'll pardon the expression, comic book movies have been flying high lately.

Earlier this decade, we've experienced the greatness of Sin City and Spider-Man 2. But this summer, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the boundaries have truly been stretched as tales ripped from the dime-store racks have been worthy of the term "masterpiece."

If Hellboy II doesn't quite get there, it's certainly not for lack of trying. While the first film was entertaining, it was still a red-headed (or in this case, red-bodied) stepchild: plagued by a too-tiny budget (compared with other comic book flicks), distributed by a lousy studio (the now-defunct Revolution), and a trailer that made it look cliché as all get-out. Despite all this, it still managed to be much better than many higher-profile action films (this means you Fantastic Four).

But after the financial and critical success of Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has been allowed to flesh his wild imagination out, and the universe he's expanded is truly extraordinary. Now there's much more than a few creatures that "go bump in the night," as John Hurt put it in the first outing. You've got your underworld princes, your troll markets, and your cranky German ectoplasmic spirit. And don't forget those nasty Tooth Fairies.

Still, with all the vivid characters, this is the cigar-chomping, ill-mannered Hellboy's show. Thanks to Ron Perlman, returning under all that makeup, Hellboy is now a character as delightfully foul as Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow. But, as the Village People once sang, "No man does it all by himself." And to the audience's benefit, the supporting players are given real purpose. Abe Sapian (played and now voiced by the indelible Doug Jones, who plays nearly all of del Toro's most fascinating creations) has much more of a presence (and gets to duet with the demon on a killer drunk version of Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You") as does literal firestarter Liz (Selma Blair) who's hiding a major secret.

One thing that's apparent though: there's not much of a story. Bad dude wants to take over the world, hero (or anti-hero as is more often the case lately) tries to stop him. But in all fairness, comic book movies are rarely known for their plots. Besides, when a movie is this eye-popping and imaginative, some witty banter will suffice.

Hellboy II is adequately stuffed. Still, when it comes to sci-fi portions, some may find this sequel to be it a bit much (I doubt anyone would find it short of its potential). Whether or not it sets any box-office records, I think time will be kind to this franchise, for its wonderful effects, its wild imagination, and its brilliant focus on the relationships of its characters. Not many films (comic-book or otherwise) get this last one right, and the fact that this gets it right alone is worth the price of admission.

Mooney at the Movies: Hancock

Hancock takes a load off. (Sony)

Hancock (B-)

Starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman
Written by Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan
Directed by Peter Berg

Hancock is a pretty gutsy for a summer flick. But anyone familiar with Peter Berg's knows that his last few pictures have been basic genre fare elevated to greatness level with good performances and, as the anti-Michael Bay: lets the audience use their brains. And here, the superhero flick gets a shake-up: our hero ain't such a good guy. Of course the anti-hero's not a new concept, but it's hard to think of a protagonist this unlikable before.

However, as this is the summer and families love Will Smith, he's not as bad as if this would've stayed true to its R-rated core. As past summers have taught us: a PG-13 doesn't guarantee the big bucks, nor does an R guarantee a failure, which makes it all the more surprising (and disappointing) that this group has decided to play it somewhat safe.

But enough about the film's shortcomings. There's still plenty to be entertained by here, particularly Will Smith. As one of the last true movie stars, he can pretty much open a film at #1 without even trying (with this, he's broken the record with eight top openings along with eight consecutive $100 million-plus grossers), but what sets him apart is that no matter how much he gets paid, as an audience member, you never feel he's just cashing a check. There's always something he'll bring to the role.

It's great to see Smith, always the noble hero, here playing against type as a real "asshole" (as characters frequently call him). His boozy tirades have caused millions in damage and earned his reputation as the aforementioned body part. Enter Ray (the ever-brilliant deadpan Jason Bateman), a PR guy with a conscience (now there's a shocker). Hancock saved his life from an oncoming train and now Ray wants repay him with some "image consulting." The reluctant Hancock caves after some meditating during one of those great Explosions in the Sky-scored montages that Berg is so great at.

Ray's plan includes jail time, anger management classes, and an ill-fitting leather uniform. As with most addicts, he's completely stubborn, but once Hancock starts to let down his guard, he becomes a better-loved hero, but he's just not quite as interesting. At this point, it's almost as if the writers knew they couldn't keep the film going like this, so they throw in an unexpected twist that completely convolutes the story up to this point. (I won't reveal it here, but let's just say it complicates things.)

After the twist is revealed, the movie completely switches tones to a dark tragedy and the transfer is pretty jarring. And it's like forcing a piece into a puzzle: it just doesn't fit. That being said, the film is still highly entertaining and the gusto Smith brings to the role sells the picture even when it stops selling itself.