Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Hormones are on the loose at Hogwarts. Oh, and so is the Dark Lord. Those two concepts pretty well summarize the latest Harry Potter endeavor. Now as with the others, I haven't read the book, so can't compare the movie to the text, but given its two and a half hour run time, I'm sure they kept as much in the movie as they could. David Yates returns to helm his second movie in the franchise, and The Half Blood Prince continues the dark path set out in the previous installment.

Voldemort is back (even though he's actually been back for two movies now) and everything effectively has hit the fan. His army, known as Death Eaters has been striking those that would oppose them in what I suppose could be described as guerrilla warfare. With each attempt they are getting closer and closer to Hogwarts. And of course, once again, it's up to Harry Potter to step up. Professor Dumbledore continues to predict an ever more dire situation, and gets Harry ever more in over his head. Even more than in the past, it's become imperative to question who they can trust, and that number is dwindling.

But there's a major distraction getting in the way of him from saving the world- girls. Love triangles abound as our student wizards are blossoming into adults (or something like that). I understand this is an important part of character development, but it brought this fantasy romp dangerously close to teenage drama. The New Moon trailer that preceded the movie gave me enough of that. This resulted in no few awkward scenes of students quarreling with uncomfortable professors looking on. I'm sure they were thinking the same thing I was.

The Half Blood Prince did deliver what I expect from a Harry Potter movie. The visuals not only looked gorgeous, but were very unique. This franchise has adopted abstract literacy in the form of beautiful transitions creating a look of the uncanny. Actual liquid extract of memory, mixing like ink water to reveal those flashbacks was a creative and stunning approach to a simple scene transition. But in an even more conventional sense, everything about this movie looks great.

Like I said before, this installment has continued the series down a dark direction. You can tell just from the trailers featuring the horror movie-esque creatures swarming out an underground lake. I've had this rant before (probably with the previous Harry Potter movie even) that movies seeming to have a very young target audience are getting more and more intense. These movies suffer from this, Transformers suffered from it, and others do as well. The Half Blood Prince is the first movie since the 3rd one to get a PG rating, which I think was given out a little easily. There are some genuinely unsettling moments in this movie. And there are multiple scenes when the characters act drunk or even stoned (seriously).

Half Blood Prince was fun. It was a visual feast, and despite being dark in nature, had probably more funny moments than any of the other ones. There were multiple times when the audience laughed uproariously (including myself). It just suffers a little from bringing too much of that teenage drama to play. A little bit is fine and even necessary, but c'mon, the world is at stake, who cares who Ron is going out with.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009


I was not a big fan of Borat, but I was able to at least see the comedic mastery at work. Sacha Baron Cohen pulled off such a pervasive blurring the line between reality and illusion that he seemed to be channeling Andy Kauffman. Borat was a little outrageous for me at parts, but I was able to understand how funny the uncomfortable moments could be. This time out, Cohen continues his quest of bringing out the worst in everyone he sees be embodying his third major alternate ego- Bruno- a flamboyantly homosexual Austrian.

Essentially the movie loosely follows Bruno's attempts to become a star after being disgraced as a fashion reporter at Milan. He travels to Hollywood to try acting (including one very funny scene featuring him as an extra), to try pushing his own pilot, to try charity, and just about any celebrity stunt he can come up with.

There are some moments in the movie (a few) that are uproariously funny. The funniest moments, however, are not because of his persona, but the parts when he has to do as little as possible to drag responses from his interviewees. The highlight was a slightly disturbing casting call for babies, in which the stage parents said they would agree to put their babies through virtually anything. This had nothing to do with the Bruno character, but instead was strictly about the audacity these people had. That's where the movie shone.

Unfortunately, most of the movie consisted of Cohen acting ever more outrageous to elicit reactions from people. Unlike Borat, which is comparably tame, Bruno had to go far and beyond what almost any individual could put up with- then paint the naïfs he interviews as homophobes. I'd venture to say they're more phobic of his annoying antics.

He continues to blur the lines between genuine reactions and stage. There was one hilarious scene in which he brings his adopted African baby featured prominently in the trailers on to a talk show. I appreciated this as it lampooned the talk show culture and used the absurdities normally found on these shows against it. Unfortunately the credibility begins to unravel as the particular show he was on was canceled 13 years ago. Whether it was wholly staged with the audience being in on it or not, i don't know. But the simple fact that two different actors played his adopted baby, makes this movie feel like it's trying a whole lot harder than Borat.

I'm not sure what Cohen is trying to say with this movie. The antisemitism that defined Borat had a comedic irony considering Cohen's orthodox Jewish upbringing. Bruno's character, is a further departure from Cohen himself. His flamboyant actions almost pale in comparison to the obnoxiously phony Austrian accent. If he's trying to point out the rottenness in all of us, I found myself feeling for those he came into contact with- including a pitiable Ron Paul who was suckered into an interview that would have made anyone walk out.

Borat had that sort of effortless comedic timing. He was awfully offensive, but you were able to (sort of) dismiss it as ignorant innocence. The "He's not from around here- their customs are different" mentality really went a long way in that movie. And despite his detestable behavior, he was endearing in a way. Bruno, on the other hand, is simply annoying. I feel that it's not his flamboyant persona that actually gets to people, but it's his abrasive aggressiveness. This visible effort to get a reaction turned off not only his interviewees, but it turned me off as well.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Year One

So I go from one of the funniest movies of the year to one of the worst. Unlike The Hangover which looked awful from the trailers and turned out to be hilarious, Year One looked awful from the trailers and turned out to be awful. The ingredients sound like they would make a great movie. A Harold Ramis parody starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, with Hank Azaria, Oliver Platt, and David Cross in smaller roles. A comedic mastermind leading a cast of fantastic stars. Somehow, it just never added up.

The movie essentially follows Zed (Black) and Oh (Cera) after Zed is banished from their tribe. They go off on their own and come across a slew of biblical characters. David Cross plays an underwhelming annoying Cain, and Hank Azaria lends his normally talented performance to Abraham. They also find two women from their tribe- conveniently the same two that had been the objects of Zed and Oh's affections (June Diane Raphael, and Juno Temple). The problem is that they are slaves. The rest of the movie revolves around Zed and Oh trying to free them.

There's nearly nothing redeeming about this movie. A movie must contain at least one compelling feature- good plot, good characters, be funny, or like Transformers just look really good. Unfortunately Year One has none of these. It's filled with warmed over references to circumcision, and sodomy. The one funny part was Eema (Temple) talking to Oh about being a slave. No coincidence that this scene was featured in every trailer.

I think the disappointment falls squarely on Ramis' shoulders. These are all very capable actors. Cera is one of my favorite rising stars, and honestly, he brought his awkward teenage years into the prehistoric setting with moderate comedic success. That alone, however, cannot carry a movie. No matter how good an actor is, he's can only do much with an awful script. In this case, however, it's not just the script that's bad. Scenes cut awkwardly from one to the next with little or no resolution. In a well constructed story, each scene should essentially contain a condensed version of the three act structure. In Year One, it's as if half the scenes are missing that third act.

Year One was awful, but I won't hold this against any of them- too much. Everyone is entitled to a bomb occasionally. There's no way this will affect the actors, and as for Ramis, I still have high hopes about the upcoming Ghostbusters movie. Maybe he'll redeem himself in that.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Hangover

This is quite possibly the funniest movie of the year. It features a rather mundane premise, 4 friends go to Vegas for a bachelor party. I know, I've never heard of anything like it either. What sets The Hangover apart, though, is that it is excruciatingly funny, and our four main characters work incredibly well together.

There really was no star of this movie, though Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms elicited the most laughs. That wouldn't have worked, however, without Bradley Cooper and Justin Bartha playing the straight men (kind of). The movie begins straight away around the climax- with Phil (Cooper) on the phone telling Doug's (Bartha) soon to be wife that Doug is missing. Like the characters themselves, we have to spend the entire movie learning what led up to this point. This is an interesting narrative idea to put us in the same shoes as the characters. It's certainly not original, but it does succeed in making ordinary events funny.

The movie follows Phil, Alan (Galifianakis)- Doug's soon-to-be brother-in-law, and Stu (Helms) as they travel around Vegas trying following clues to recount the night before. Each turn leads to a more outrageous escapade, of which they remember nothing. Mike Tyson, a tiger, a marriage, a baby, and the Asian mafia all somehow played a role in their night out. These run-ins range from being uproariously funny, to kind of flat. Without exception, however, the funniest moments where when it was just the three of them arguing.

Galifianakis essentially played himself- bringing his self-deprecating outsider humor to a role that is equal parts puppy-dog endearing and "what the hell?" randomness. Imagine a more soft-spoken Jack Black, with an actual dynamic range. Ed Helms, the other highlight, is a completely housebroken boyfriend, who more than any other makes a series of very unfortunate decisions over the course of their night of debauchery. During all of this he just means well.

The movie hearkens back to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in that we are put in the same exact position of blind hindsight as the characters. Instead of being a drug induced pursuit enlightenment, The Hangover is simply a drug induced pursuit of a good time. The Hangover promises to be one of the funniest movies of 2009.