Thursday, July 28, 2011

Horrible Bosses

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Minor spoilers ahead. Nothing to worry about. 

Note: This review (like the movie) has been rated

Have you ever hated a boss so much you wanted to kill him or her? Did you watch Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (or DeVito’s Throw Mamma From the Train) and think, Yep, that’s for me? Then you’re probably in prison, where you may still have the chance to watch Horrible Bosses streaming on your cellmate’s laptop. You’ll see other hapless dopes scrambling to figure out a way to make their work lives better, or at least tolerable, by killing their respective bosses.

There’s Nick (Jason Bateman), who’s condescending asshole of a boss (Kevin Spacey, dialing it down just a scoche) has been making him work crazy hours for years by dangling the carrot of a promotion to VP of Sales.

Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) has a boss at a distribution warehouse who’s a clueless asshole (played with gleeful abandon by an unleashed Colin Farrell) who is in line to inherit the company business from his nice guy dad (Donald Sutherland). When Dad Sutherland kicks from a heart attack, Kurt’s fate as Colin’s whipping boy is sealed.

Dale (Charlie Day) is a dental hygienist whose boss, an oversexed cougar dentist (Jennifer Aniston), sexually harasses him. That last one, you’re thinking: Oh, that’s not so bad, to be harassed by Ms. Aniston. And that’s what Dale’s friends say. But all Dale wants out of life is to be a husband. He’s engaged to a super nice girl, and this cougar dentist is threatening his dream. Oh, and he’s a registered sex offender (arrested for public urination in a park – at night. Can that happen?), so he’s afraid if he loses this job he won’t find another.

Well, yes, finding another job for anyone can be tough. But not impossible. Why these average dudes don’t even consider such an option is never broached. Okay, suspend your disbelief starting…now! What do you do when you want to kill your collective bosses? Hire a hit man. The hapless boys set their GPS to the bad part of town (Can you do that?) and they end up in a shady bar where they meet one Motherfucker Jones.

Jamie Foxx plays Motherfucker. He charges the boys five grand. Instead of agreeing to kill the bosses, he acts as their murder consultant and suggests that they trade murders. Each kills the other’s boss. Switcheroo. Strangers on a Train. Not a bad idea, the boys think. So much for their five large. It’s fun to see little Charlie Day say things like, “I thought we were hiring you to kill our bosses, Motherfucker.”

From here the movie takes off, as much as this middle of the road comedy can. The boys stake out their bosses' houses to find out information they can use in their dastardly plans. For example, in Colin Farrell’s house they find a stash of cocaine. They discover that Kevin Spacey is allergic to peanuts when Dale resuscitates him after he succumbs to an allergic reaction – saving a life was just more fun then letting him die. And for Ms. Aniston – well, what you see is what you get. She’s nothing more than a sexpot who likes to seduce apparently any random male who happens by her apartment, including Kurt.

These scenes take on a manic energy that carries us through to the ending. Much of the humor comes from seeing these heretofore normal guys thrust into one totally absurd situation after another. Part of the entertainment value is watching how this action plays out. Do they really kill the bosses? And if not, how do they resolve these conflicts? So I won’t divulge too much more here. Except to say that I was pleasantly surprised to see how it all went down.

Like I say, each character confronts his situation a little differently. Nick is the straightest of the bunch, and while he finds himself doing things he probably never imagined (snooping around his boss’s house, witnessing a murder, inadvertently snorting cocaine) he keeps a cool if dumbfounded head. Jason Bateman is often the more low-key cog in any movie he’s in. He perfected this style early on during his stint on the career resuscitator, Arrested Development. Here I would like to have seen him cut loose a bit more. But maybe he was saving his energy for Change Up, his second movie of the summer, which looks equally manic, or more so.

Jason Sudeikis plays a nice, genial guy who gets along with all his co-workers and actually enjoys his job (aside from his boss). Unfortunately he does nothing with this set up and ends up playing Kurt as a single doofus on the make (he’s a ladies man. Go figure. I don’t see it myself.) and much of the last part of the movie he plays it like an extended SNL skit. 

Charlie Day is the one to watch. His voice mixes a high and low register at once, meeting in the middle with a gravelly scrape. Like he just finished a pack of filterless Camels or he’s been shouting most his life. He’s the most low-key of the bunch, just a nice guy who wants things to stay status quo. He turns up the energy throughout, and while exhausting to watch, he keeps things rolling. If it weren’t for his Dale, these guys would probably still be working for the same bosses by the end of the movie. That they don’t is a testament to good old-fashioned American doofusity and avarice.

Horrible Bosses is served best in a crowded theater. Yes, I was carried away watching it as a diverting piece of entertainment. It was a hot night in Lowell, and the Showcase was packed. The audience enjoyed it. The actors also seem like they’re enjoying it. There’s probably a great blooper reel, if the outtakes shown over the credits are any indication. Overall, if I knew what I was in for I might have waited for the DVD/Streaming/On Demand/Blu Ray release.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday, July 19th, 7:50 pm. Price: 6.00. Viewed solo. Snack: apple, chopped and bagged.

Coming Attractions:

30 Minutes or Less. A hapless kid and his stupid buddy are forced to hold up a bank for the real bank robbers, who are even more stupid and hapless. It's a comedy! With Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, and Fred Ward. From the director of Zombieland.

Final Destination 5 (Or, Can I have just one more destination?). Sorry producers of Final Destination 5, I will never see your movie. You can stop sending me free passes (doesn't happen) or invitations to your Hollywood mansions to see a special screening (would never happen). Seeing a movie about a group of kids who cheat death, only to find out that they have to die systematically anyway unless they murder some random person first is just not my idea of a fun night at the movies. Unless it's in 3-D! It's not, is it?

Footloose. Remake. No improvement over the original here.

Fright Night. Remake. Has potential.

Change Up. Ryan Reynolds is a single guy popular with the ladies, but tired of his lifestyle. Jason Bateman is a married guy with a couple kids, also tired of his lifestyle. After pissing in a magic fountain (seriously!) the two switch lives. It's an R-rated Freaky Friday rip off. But, this one has potential.

Crazy Stupid Love. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Moore. A young couple and an older couple going through dramedy romantic escapades, while Ryan, a player, shows Steve, a shy, awkward dude, the ropes to picking up women. At least that's what I think happens. Along with some other stuff.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Larry Crowne

"I forgot my helmet." "It's only a movie."
Spoiler alert-o-meter: Some spoilers ahead, including many important plot points and an allusion to the ending. If you've seen the trailer you should be able to guess how it ends. But don't let that stop you from reading my amazing review!

What’s in a name? Larry Crowne, the movie starring and directed by Tom Hanks, could have been called Tom Hanks is Larry Crowne. Because at this point, Hanks, and his co-star Julia Roberts, are so well known as movie stars that there can be no way to separate what we know of them as actors from any role they play.

"Take a left on Sunset and there you'll see it, In and Out Burger."
So, you go see a crowd-pleasing movie like Larry Crowne with a certain level of expectation, even if it’s only subliminal. Here, Hanks casts himself as the titular character, a man in his fifties who, after graduating high school, went into the Navy where he was a cook for twenty years. Now he works as one of the most devoted employees you will ever find at a Walmart/Target/KMart-type big box department store called UMart (I had to remind myself it’s not the name of a real chain, so worthy is it of brand name status).

Larry, called to a meeting by some of his managers, discovers to his amazement that he is not employee of the month for the ninth time, but out of a job due to some bogus store policy about not moving anyone up the ladder who doesn’t have a college degree. Out of a job, and with a crushing mortgage over his head, Larry hits bottom.

Hitting the bottom for Mr. Tom Hanks means staring into the mirror with moist, wistful eyes. There’s no time to introduce any trauma or real heartache. It’s mentioned in passing that Larry bought out his ex-wife’s portion of their house, but we never learn anything about her. Larry doesn’t have any kids; in fact this is one summer movie that is gloriously sans tykes. His neighbor, Lamar, played by Cedric the Entertainer, encourages Larry to go to college. For his part, Lamar doesn’t have to worry about his mortgage: he won the lottery and he now spends his day running a perpetual yard sale in his front yard (strange mixed message here—why doesn’t Lamar just talk Larry into buying lottery tickets?).

"And then Cedric, you say, I'll take fifteen for the TV."
Boom, there Larry goes, registering for classes at the nearest college. While initially awkward in a new social milieu, Larry takes to school like he probably took to his menial tasks at UMart: with a spark of seriousness for the work at hand. He signs up for two classes, one that teaches how to speak in front of an audience and an introduction to economics. One can’t help wonder, why didn’t he go back to school earlier?

It’s not like Larry Crowne’s simple. In fact, the movie takes pains to make sure we never think this. Larry’s a special guy, maybe a man out of time, but he ain’t stupid. Larry Crowne, the character, is cute and cuddly and completely non-threatening—tailor made for Hanks, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame.

Teaching his speech class is Julia Roberts, as Mercedes Tainot. Mercedes is smart and bitter, and doesn’t enjoy teaching. She goes home after work and concocts lovely frozen drinks and gets quietly blotto. She’s married to a writer (Bryan Cranston), who, after publishing a couple of what look like fantasy/sci-fi novels, stays at home and surfs the web, ogling busty ladies. He claims to be doing some kind of important blog writing. But he only leaves comments on other blogs. Yep, the spark is out of this marriage, although they live in a great house so that must help.

Larry’s economics class is taught by Dr. Matsutani, a professor who shows his class slides from his book on economics which each student in his class must buy and read. Dr. Matsutani is played with bravado and strangeness by George Takei. Takei’s a funny guy, and the movie benefits from his manic laugh and steely eyes.

Larry, riding his scooter to his first day of school (he sidelined his SUV because he couldn’t afford the gas), meets hyper cute Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also a scooter rider. Turns out she’s in the same economics class. She befriends him and overpowers him with cute, forcing him to join her scooter gang.

"You look like Tom Hanks." "I am Tom Hanks. Wanna be in my movie?"
Yes, scooter gang. The movie strains credulity at this point, as Talia and her hot boyfriend, Dell (!!!!), played by Wilmer Valderrama, take Larry under their wings. Talia is a free spirit, the kind only born and bred in L.A. She and her merry band see Larry as some kind of charity case. They cute their way into his dour, messy house and straighten up while one of them gives Larry a cute hair cut. “It’s like Clueless,” Liz whispered to me. Yes, indeed here we have a makeover scene like so many others.

Erstwhile Sit-Com Star Stare Down
From here it’s business as usual for the story. Can you guess what happens? Larry thaws Mercedes’ irascible heart around the time she kicks her stupid husband out of the house (but, what a house!). You can’t not have Julia Roberts smile her wide Julia Roberts’ Smile™, and during a scene of prolonged (albeit drunken, on Mercedes part) courtship, she finally breaks out that bad boy.

"Julia, in this scene I want you to smile." "That'll be an extra 5 Mil." "Done."
What happens to Larry? Don’t worry, he’ll be fine. You know why? Because Larry is never in any real danger. Turns out he’s the best student in both his classes. What about a job? Larry takes a temporary job as a cook at his buddy’s diner. What about Larry’s house? Larry figures out (he’s taking economics, after all) the best way is to declare insolvency and walk away from his mortgage. And hey, maybe his humungous record collection will bring some money on eBay. And hey, maybe one of the cute scooter kids will help him with that. 
"I liked it better without the helmets."
Why does everybody want to help Larry Crowne? It’s impossible to know. There is never a moment of peril. Larry has no real internal struggle or conflict. Nothing really bothers Larry. He’s one of those guys who always lands on his feet. If anything, Larry Crowne is one of those guys everybody secretly hates. Why do these kids, who could be his own kids (ah ha! – but no, this isn’t brought out in the least), give a shit about Larry? Why does Talia, the cutest girl in all of Los Angeles (and perhaps all the world), even give Larry a second glance? The character growth aspect of the story is handed over to Roberts’ Mercedes, as she (Spoiler Alert!) sheds her hard-drinking ways and her no-good, big boob-loving husband, and learns to appreciate teaching again. 

"Tom Hanks, can I be in your movie?" "Me too!"
Sure it’s rote, but it’s also a movie that exudes heart and gentleness. One aspect I really enjoyed was the setting. The movie takes place in a real, if somewhat polished, Los Angeles. Not some nameless American every town, but contemporary L.A. It’s nice to see L.A. used for good for once. As Larry and his merry band of scooter enthusiasts cruise the San Fernando Valley, L.A. looks pretty good for once. The palm trees aren’t wilted or dying. The traffic isn’t too oppressive. The ubiquitous plazas aren’t too annoying. Also, Larry is a willing participant in his makeover after which he comes away with the haircut and stylish wardrobe of a twenty-something. But, the movie never makes him look stupid: Larry knows he is not dressing age appropriate, but he’s open to new ideas especially from his new, much younger friends. He knows he’s been due for a makeover for quite some time.

"I throw in all smirks. This is a smirk."
Larry Crowne is an entertainment, starring very good looking actors playing versions of regular people living normal lives. The movie is fun, and there are moments, like that scooter cruise around the Valley, that help it transcend mundane Hollywood boilerplate to become a rousing underdog story. Rousing may be too strong a word. How about gently moving?



Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday, July 12th, 6:50 pm. Price: 6.00. Viewed with Liz! Snack: apple, chopped and bagged.

Coming Attractions:

Please release these movies so I don't have to watch the trailers again!

Change Up. Ryan Reynolds is a single guy popular with the ladies, but tired of his lifestyle. Jason Bateman is a married guy with a couple kids, also tired of his lifestyle. After pissing in a magic fountain (seriously!) the two switch lives. It's an R-rated Freaky Friday rip off. But, this one has potential.

Crazy Stupid Love. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Moore. A young couple and an older couple going through dramady romantic escapades, while Ryan, a player, shows Steve, a shy, awkward dude, the ropes to picking up women. At least that's what I think happens. Along with some other stuff.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Oh please.

I did not buy the Hasbro action figures. I did not watch the cartoon. I did not see the first two Transformers movies. But it’s summer, right? What better popcorn movie than one about giant action figure robot aliens duking it out in the middle of Chicago? Yes, moments of this movie gloriously tap into my adolescent love of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, et al smashing through Tokyo. All those Japanese Toho productions had an inherent cheese factor of men dressed like monsters stomping around a brightly lit papier-mâché set knocking over pressboard buildings and stomping model trains.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third in the series (T3), doesn’t need cardboard and plaster. Director Michael Bay has 200 million plus in our money (money we paid to see the first two movies) and he’s going to spackle the 3-D of our dreams with robot metal that shreds everything in sight.

The visuals are as overblown as the movie’s silly, stuffed-to-the-gills storyline, which makes no sense from scene to scene and, considering it’s based on a set of action figures (says so right in the credits) seems a staggering achievement. It takes about an hour, maybe longer (it’s a long movie) to get to the point where one robot says something like, “These humans have no idea what’s coming to them. Kill them all!” He might as well have said, “Cry havoc and let fly the robots of war.”

Michael Bay never met a shot he couldn’t move, a scene he couldn’t chop into bits, a musical score he couldn’t hit repeat on and let revolve all the way through his movies, cheesy metal and/or pop ballads that hammer you with his message (“Dude, war is, like, totally bad.”), a lovely young model/actress he couldn’t humiliate, history he couldn’t scramble (here, the first moon landing, see also Pearl Harbor), dialogue he couldn’t streamline into boilerplate for an international audience, and heretofore decent actors (John Malcovich, Ken Jeong, John Tuturro, Francis McDormand, Leonard Nimoy's voice) he couldn’t reduce to hammy bit parts.

The story goes a little something like this: Autobots, nice robots from another planet (in essence, aliens) came to Earth seeking, um, a respite? Decepticons, bad robots (obviously—I mean, who named these guys? So much for the element of surprise. “Look, it’s a Decepticon, I wonder if he comes in peace?”) who are warring with the Autobots and have come to Earth to, um, kill some of us and use the rest as slaves to run their maquiladoras. What are the Decepticons’ major industries? Who knows?

The plot hinges on America’s initial moon landing being motivated by a mission to check out what turns out to be an Autobot craft crashed onto the moon’s surface. Astronauts (poor Buzz Aldren, dusted off for a cameo—nice face lift by the way) bring back some metal cylinders that turn out to be important to the 'bots decades later.

Then there’s little Shia LaBeouf, back after the first two Transformer flicks, as Sam Witwicky who apparently is buddies with one of the Autobots who is, during its downtime, a cool yellow sports car. Sam has a hot girlfriend, Carly, who pays the rent on the huge, old apartment they share in D.C. Carly is played by supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who is British. The accent goes a long way to mitigating her acting, which actually isn’t bad. Megan Fox was famously not brought back for T3, apparently after she publicly called Michael Bay a Nazi, drawing the ire of T3 producer Steven Spielberg. Anyway, one pretty face replaced with another. This is Michael Bay’s world; we only pay money to see it.

Did I mention what Transformers are? They are robots who are generally about five to ten stories tall and they scan an object of transportation—car, bus, semi truck, garbage truck—and literally transform into the object. These transformations are fast but not immediate, and they usually happen during times of strife—during a chase, say.

These are wonderful moments of flailing, scraping, crunching metal. A great scene involves a high speed chase, Decepticons against Autobots, all sports cars that transform at various moments into fighting robots. Also, call it “Transformertime” when these shots go into slow motion to give a heightened sense of time, action, and sound, and then things speed back up.

In the middle of an average Hollywood product, these little moments of strange transformations are like flashes of anarchy, of suspense and surprise—there really is no sense of reason to these hulking masses of metal. Often these guys roam around (they look like rock ‘em sock ‘em robots, so they can mostly walk, although you also get your blurry spheres that roll along like Tasmanian devils and ones that look like dogs caught in a mad scientist lab) their various parts spinning, whirring, and in some cases, slicing. Stuff that makes my inner twelve-year-old go Yeah Baby!

So, where were we? Patrick Dempsey plays Carly’s evil boss (nothing but good vs. evil in this movie), who, it turns out, is one of many humans who are helping the Decepticons take over the world and hoping that they won’t get killed or be used as slaves in Earth’s new future. He takes Carly to his evil lair on the top floor of Trump Hotel and Tower, Chicago, close to where the Decepticons are firing up their evil cylinders of death to transport a planetful of Decepticons to Earth, not to mention their entire planet (really!).

The movie is stuffed, as I say, so characters come and go. Some have been in the previous movies. John Turturro plays Simmons, a smarmy expert who is helping Frances McDormand’s military boss figure out the Decepticon’s next move.

John Malcovich has fun as a goofy corporate boss who hires Sam for a minute and a half. Josh Duhamel  plays it straight as a stalwart Captain Lennox who leads his men into battle through downtown Chicago after the Decepticons have attacked and destroyed half the city. Tyrese Gibson plays Sergeant Epps, another sidekick role (he’s so good at it), and helps Sam navigate a downtown patrolled by Decepticons of every stripe, hovering mother ships, and flying robots. These scenes after the takeover are very reminiscent of Battle: Los Angeles from earlier this year, where alien spacecraft hovered on the skyline, trailing tendrils and releasing deadly patrols.

Sam miraculously always knows where to go and what to do before everybody else, including the Army. He leads a band of Tyrese Gibson’s tough mercenaries into a building which, it turns out, starts collapsing underneath them. It’s a neat special effect as the floor keeps moving from under them and they slip and slide through the inside (and outside!) of the building like a dozen Harold Lloyds on steroids. Or a Looney Tunes short. The building, meanwhile, gets gutted and sliced by the most impressive Decepticon (they all have names, but I can’t remember them all) that looks like a cross between a moving drill bit and a deadly sandworm.

Yes, buildings collapse, metal swings through each shot like wielded ice. The screen is saturated with images. 3-D doesn’t add much to the movie. It’s mostly about bringing the foreground out from the background. (I paid $15 for this?). Also, when you put those glasses on you are looking at a dimmer, darker version of what’s projected. That gives the movie a murky look, where all scenes look like they were shot at dusk. Also, and I can’t ever remember watching a big budget Hollywood special effects spectacle and thinking this, the sound design truly seems like an afterthought. To me, this is a misstep and hurts the impact of the movie.

What’s sound design got to do with it?

Sound design “most commonly involves the manipulation of previously composed or recorded audio, such as music and sound effects.” The sound design for T3 seemed lacking. Too often the sound effects accompanying a particular action was sparse, stripped down. It was as if the sound designer chose to concentrate on one type or layer of sound, forgoing the entire possible sound experience. It was distracting when an explosion, car crash, or some ‘bot destruction didn’t yield expected sound results. The action could have been fuller, more potent, if they had taken more time putting together the soundtrack. The transformers all talk, and sometimes when they transform and fight, they utter clichéd aphorisms. Maybe the sound designer didn’t want to drown out the sparkling transformer dialogue of writer Ehren Kruger.

It could also be a logistics problem for the post production team. Sound is the very last piece of the movie puzzle to be worked on. Before you lock the sound, the picture must be finished. For these huge special effects movies I have a feeling that the sound editors don't have much time with the final picture. And so you get a rushed, incomplete movie as a result. But I’m probably the only sound design geek in the audience to notice or care.

See Transformers: Dark of the Moon if you must. I recommend you skip the 3-D version and head right to 2-D. Your wallet (if not Michael Bay) will commend you.



Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Thursday, June 30th, 6:40 pm. Price: 15.00! Viewed solo. Snack: Twizzlers, almonds.

Coming Attractions:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Effective and disturbing, this new origins POTA cuts right into our collective primal fears. At least, one of them: apes becoming sentient and taking over. And not in a cuddly way from the look of this mesmerizing trailer. In a way that has them attacking a highway of cars and expertly throwing axes. With James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and Brian Cox.

Cowboys & Aliens. The more I watch this trailer, the more likely I am not to see it. It just doesn't look like much fun. Harrison Ford hasn't looked like he's enjoyed himself making a movie since the early '80s. And Daniel Craig sucks any humor or lightness out of all he surveys. But hey, maybe I'm wrong and it's great. As a father said to his son in the row behind me after this trailer ended: "They've run out of stuff to make movies about." Amen brother.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Wow, this doesn't look like kid's stuff. It looks intense. It looks like they took all the money made from the previous movies and dumped it into this final installment. And it's in 3-D.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Tom Cruise still looks good running fast. This installment actually looks like it could kickstart this franchise, in a good way. This time Cruise has surrounded himself with a good cast, including Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Josh Holloway, and Tom Wilkinson.

Real Steel. Oh man, this looks bad. Hugh Jackman plays a father (?) who disappoints some kid (his son?) and makes it up to him by training his dilapidated robot to fight in the ring. Yes, robots. Fighting in the ring. I really thought this was a movie based on Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots. But I guess they couldn't get the rights. The acting looks poor, the film grainy and grimy.

Captain America: The First Avenger. This seems to strike the right balance of action and humor and awe. Which is what comic books are all about. And something last month's Green Lantern lacked. Chris Evans plays the titular Captain. He starts out as a short, 90 pound weakling transformed into Cap America through an experiment. Nice hook. Then he goes and fights Nazis during WWII. Co-starring Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones, and Derek Luke.