14 August 2009

The July Review Round-up

Keeping my blog as updated as possible has become increasingly difficult as school approaches, so here is my effort to make amends for my absence, with a giant round-up of reviews of July's releases. It's been a good month.

Starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup
Written by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman
Directed by Mann
One of my favorite types of movies is what I call the "grand showdown" movie, where two (usually) great actors go head-to-head in a battle of wills and words (and sometimes use actual weapons). Some examples: Doubt, The Prestige, Frost/Nixon. I also love everything Michael Mann has ever done, with the exceptions of the truly terrible Miami Vice (hey, every director gets to make one bad movie), so when the two combined in this project, I couldn't contain my excitement. And while Public Enemies is not a flawless movie, it's certainly one of the very few Best Picture contenders so far this year. Johnny Depp shows impressive range, giving a restrained performance as outlaw John Dillinger, a simple man who loves "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you." The you in question is hat check girl Billie Frechette, his steadfast girlfriend, who endures abuse, loneliness, and deep uncertainty yet remains unwaveringly faithful. Her name is at the top of the list for Best Supporting Actress this year. The other part of this triangle is FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale, who may just need to cool it for a little while. After spending the better half of this decade proving he's the best actor in the world not named Daniel Day-Lewis (in demanding roles like American Psycho, The Machinist, and Rescue Dawn, not to mention anchoring two wildly successful Batman sequels), his performance is a bit underwhelming, especially considering the just-OK Terminator: Salvation. It's only a minor quibble in a movie that gets everything else right.

Brüno (B+)
Starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ron Paul, Richard Bey, Paula Abdul
Story by Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer
Screenplay by Cohen & Hines & Mazer & Jeff Schaffer
Directed by Larry Charles
"Vassup!" After staving off dozens of lawsuits, the world's most fearless comedian returned to the big screen in his first comedy since Borat. But while that mockumentary earned its laughs and social digs in equal measure, Brüno has none of the freshness and seems more concerned with broad sight gags than sharp satire. Here, the ones who look the most foolish aren't gay-bashers or pastors looking to turn folks from that lifestyle, it's the fame-hungry throngs he encounters, those willing to submit their toddlers to liposuction and donning Nazi attire or talk show audience members who long for the camera to focus on them so they can overpower the guests. It's harder to distinguish the truth from the fiction in Brüno, and it's also much more hit-and miss than its predecessor. However, its disappointing box office take ($60 million at last count, compared with Borat's $128.5 million) may have proved how profoundly messed-up the movie-going populace really is. Consider this: at the midnight showing I attended, several folks got up and walked out. After I went home, Twitter and Facebook were a-flurry with comments about the movie's sheer grossness, which you think would have helped the movie, but it led to a sharp drop-off from Friday to Saturday box office. I imagine many of the folks who saw Brüno (mostly under the age of 25) also go back year after year for another needlessly gory Saw outing. I ask: Is seeing countless victims dismembered in the most gruesome ways imaginable that much LESS appalling than a swinging male member? Maybe Cohen really did get the last laugh.

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon
Written by Steve Kloves
Directed by David Yates
I think it's a bit unfair to call the latest Potter outing a "letdown." After all, it's only a set-up for the big showdown coming in the Deathly Hallows (slated to be a two-parter, which I'm sure pleases fans who clamor for longer, more detailed adaptations, but angers me because I want to see how this thing ends already--I haven't read any of the books--and reeks of shameless money-grabbing by Warner Bros.). Still, the ending of the latest dark adventure starring the bespectacled boy wizard is a bit unsatisfying, even after the death of a major character and the revelation of the traitor in the midst. This time, the focus lies more on the characters' relationships, both mentor-pupil (or manipulator-pawn) and boyfriend-girlfriend (or "snogging" partners) which I appreciate in a Michael Bay era ("Character development? We need more explosions!") but many times it slows the pace, making for a bit of predictable experience. Don't get me wrong, the filmmaking here is on par with some of the better films recently, and the visual effects are spectacular, but this is in the middle tier of Potter adaptations (better than the first two, not as good as 3 and 5). But the most praiseworthy element of the supernatural series remains the acting. Here, Alan Rickman (perhaps the greatest living actor to never be nominated for an Oscar) chews up and spits out the scenery as the slithery Snape and Michael Gambon acts with more than just words. You can see the pain on his face as he puts Harry and himself in harm's way. And the best of the trio of teenagers (slowly creeping toward adulthood) remains Emma Watson as Hermione, the strong-willed enchantress who proves hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Clark Gregg
Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by Marc Webb
"You should know up front this is not a love story. This is a story about love." And it's not just any story. After years of romantic comedies suffocating under the limits of their predictability, here's a fresh, funny, hip entry perfect for the iPod age. Forget your traditional story arc (meet cute-fun times-big fight-dramatic public make up). 500 Days of Summer stars with the devastating break-up and then shuffles its way through the rest of their relationship. The real magic (aside from its stellar performances, killer soundtrack, and honest writing) lies in the utter uncertainty about how events will unfold. Obviously, it can only go one of two ways, but the film captivates us from the very beginning, and unlike a couple of schmucks played by Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson, we actually care for these characters.

Starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman
Written and directed by Judd Apatow
To say everyone involved in Funny People is at the top his game would be an understatement. This is a film that's remarkable in every way: it's remarkably hilarious, endearing, honest, and captivating. For a movie that stretches on for nearly two-and-a-half hours, it never drags, which marks a definite improvement over Apatow's last two efforts. It also possesses an alarming maturity. Well, as mature as a movie with jokes about "distinguished balls" can be. Those expecting another Sandler low-brow laugh-fest will be disappointed because, while the first half is filled with hard R-rated stand-up comedy, the second half is filled with just as evocative (if not provocative) words. The kind that cut deep and leave a lasting impression. Rogen and Mann give the best performances of their careers and Sandler, playing a darker version of himself brings back memories of Punch-Drunk Love, the apex of his career. I think it's safe to say Apatow has become our generation's James L. Brooks. Does this mean an Oscar could be on the way? Stay tuned.


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