Friday, July 29, 2011



I know that the geekier corners of the internet have been singing the praises of ATTACK THE BLOCK for what seems like forever now, but I am here to tell you to believe the hype. It's not often that a wholly original, wholly awesome genre movie comes along, and so when it does, it's cause to celebrate. And yes, Attack the Block is a movie worth celebrating, worth geeking out about. Because it's one of those movies that just smacks you in the face with its badassery, and one that makes the most of its modest budget - instead of relying on expensive CGI, it instead uses good, old-fashioned creativity to stand out from the pack. And you know what? Having seen a couple of other alien invasion movies this summer alone, Attack the Block's got the grooviest, scariest aliens of 'em all. And the best, most memorable characters. The funniest moments. The dialogue that will be quoted and requoted until the end of time. The scenes that will make you cheer and laugh and get you giddy. No, I don't think this is a perfect movie or anything like that ... but I do think it's such a breath of fresh air that yeah, all of the hype is, I think, more than justified.

The premise of Attack the Block is simple - aliens have invaded a poor slum of London, and it's up to a ragtag group of teen gangsters to protect their home and fend off the E.T.'s. But what's great about the film is how it gives so much depth to such a basic premise. On one level, the movie works as a comedy in the vein of Shawn of The Dead or Hot Fuzz. Though it isn't parodying a specific genre per se, the movie is definitely a pastiche of indluences from 80's John Carpenter movies to sci-fi and horror-comedies like Gremlins and The Goonies. There's a definite, 80's feel to the film, with a Carpenter-esque synth score and the same type of moody lighting and atmosphere that Carpenter was known for. There's also that mix of drama, violence, and black comedy that was in movies like They Live and Escape From New York. It's a great combo, and even as the movie has you cracking up with laughter, it'll have you on the edge of your seat.

But, aside from the comedy and the action, Attack the Block rather brilliantly works as a character study, in that it slowly but surely shifts our sympathies towards the delinquent kids at the center of its story. Director Joe Cornish takes a big chance with this movie, in that he starts out by making his lead kids out to be unsympathetic thugs. In fact, our first encounter with them is seeing the gang mug a helpless woman. But man, what a cast of kid and teen actors. It's not long before their humor and charm starts to win us over. At the same time, give huge credit to actor John Boyega as Moses, the sullen leader of the gang. This is a star-making turn for him, because without speaking a ton, we see in his face the transition from leader of a gang to a leader of men. Once he realizes that he can use his powers of badassery for good, so to speak, well, it's one of those hero-making turns that you've gotta love and cheer for. The cast of kids as a whole though is, like I said, superb - and totally hilarious. The banter between them, though at times a little hard to understand (they've all got thick London gangsta accents - think Ali G), is oftentimes funny as hell - and it pulls no punches in terms of being vulgar, obscene, and just plain wrong. And by the way, the one real recgnizable face in this one is Nick Frost from Shawn of the Dead, Paul, etc. - and he's great as always, as an oblivious drug dealer who gets caught up in all the alien invasion madness.

Aside from Boyega and the other kids though, the star of the movie is director Joe Cornish. Cornish is a friend / protege of Edgar Wright (who served as exec producer on the film), and it shows. Cornish shares Wright's knack for kinetic action, inventive visuals, and high drama even in the midst of absurdist comedy. Cornish ensures that Attack is a nonstop thrillride from start to finish, rarely letting up for a moment - but he also squeezes in a ton of character in between all the action and horror and hijinks. The fact that each of the kids in the gang is so memorable and distinct and full of personality is a testament to the actors, sure, but also to the script and to Cornish's ability to infuse the movie with character and wit. Where Cornish also excels is in the sci-fi aspect of the movie. Clearly, this is a low-budget flick. But Cornish makes that an asset, because man, the aliens in this movie look BADASS. I mean, how many movies lately feature aliens that are utterly generic and unmemorable? Many. So little premium these days is placed on creative creature design - everyone just wants their aliens to look like they got ripped out of the latest hot first person shooter game or something. But no, not Attack the Block. Here, the aliens are these insane-looking balls of blackhole-like blackness with these devilish blue, glowing, neon eyes. And they jump and fly around like Kirby's cousins from hell. And they are awesome. This is a throwback to the days of Carpenter and Spielberg and Gremlins - when it wasn't about who had the slickest CGI, but who had the coolest, weirdest creatures.

Attack the Block is one of those movies that you should run out and see and support, and then probably see again and buy on DVD or blu-ray. This is going to be one of those geek-cred movies that if you haven't seen, well, clearly you're not in the loop and you haven't been hanging with the cool kids. But the movie isn't necessarilly niche - in fact, it's got a little something for everyone - action, comedy, cool creatures and hilarious kids. It's got madcap British humor, but it's also got some real meat on them bones - it works as a crazy comedy, but also as a coming-of-age tale about kids who go from zeros to heroes, from boys to men - who learn that there's more purpose to life than just being a thug and being bad. But most of all, this is quite simply an insanely fun, scrappy sci-fi action/comedy that puts most of its bigger-budget, bigger-hyped summer competition to shame. Allow it! Go see Attack the Block and support kickass genre filmmaking at its finest.

My Grade: A-



- The big trend in superhero movies these last several years has been to make them gritty, sleek, modern, realistic. That can result in great movies, like Dark Knight, but it can also make some superhero movies feel unnecessarilly reigned-in, small, boring. For those of us who love the imagination, the boldness, the bright colors, the unlimited storytelling possibilities of superhero comic books, this trend can leave us feeling a bit cold. Look, I get what guys like Bryan Singer and Jon Favreau tried with X-Men and Iron Man, but sometimes ... sometimes I just want a superhero movie that's unabashedly fun, big, bright, over-the-top, and full of good, old-fashioned, two-fisted action and rip-roaring adventure. Good vs. Evil. Heroes vs. Villains. And that, True Believers, is what CAPTAIN AMERICA is all about. Unapologetic comic book heroism. Colorful heroes and villains. And a simple, yet, to me, still-powerful message that's at the core of the superhero myth, but that's been lost all too often in recent times: be a good person, fight the good fight, and never give up.

I'll just say this right off the bat - my biggest worry going into this movie was Chris Evans in the lead role. I like Evans as an actor, but let's face it, he's best known for more comedic, smart-alecky roles. The guy has a surfer-dude persona that just didn't seem to gel with Cap, who is, of course an All-American guy from Brooklyn who has to muster the gravitas to lead the US Army into battle against the Nazis, and later, to lead The Avengers against the forces of evil. But - wow - Chris Evans shocked me in this film. He 100% pulled off the role of Steve Rogers, and didn't just pull it off, but went above and beyond. His transformation from skinny, undersized geek to Super-Soldier-Serum-infused hero is really pretty remarkable - comparable, I think, to the gold standard which is Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent / Superman. There's a scene when Steve first gets his new physique and abilities that seriously sold me. Having just been released from his containment tube, Steve realizes that there's a German spy amidst the scientists and soldiers gathered to witness his transformation. Once outed, the spy begins firing bullets and attempting to make an escape, and immediately, Steve springs into action and gives chase. The ensuing chase scene through the streets of New York is absolutely awesome. Not just because it's exhilerating and well-staged, but because of Evans' demeanor. Without saying anything, we can see Steve's mindset - he's nervous, scared as hell, usure of the limits of his new abilities ... but at the same time, he is absolutely determined to bring this guy down. The big stand up and cheer moment comes when the spy throws a seemingly helpless kid into the river, and Steve has to make the classic superhero choice - save the kid or pursue the badguy. But, in a great little moment, the kid swims above water, looks at Rogers, and yells "it's okay, I can swim - go get 'em!" as Steve smiles, waves, and runs away. Cheesy? Maybe. But dammit all, at that moment I was 100% sold on this movie - it just got it. It got what heroes like Captain America are all about. No irony, no modernist spin - just one man who wants to help those who need helping. And Evans pulls it off - the earnestness, the heroism, the determinaiton of Cap - better than I could have imagined.

I also give a lot of credit to director Joe Johnston. He directs Captain America in a classic, straightforward manner that is like a lesson in action movie-making for the Michael Bays of the world. This one is very much in the spirit of a Raiders of the Lost Ark and Johnston's own The Rocketeer - that same spirit of all-American adventure is present in this one. That said, there is some great stylization here as well, with Johnston introducing a lot of the art deco-like touches that he included in The Rocketeer. This isn't necessarilly World War II as it happened, but it's WWII as it appeared in movies, TV, in comic books, in pop-culture at large. This is the bold, weird, stylized world of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby come to life, and man, that, to me, is awesome. There's well-staged, slam-bang action and some great set-pieces. And yes, there is humor, and even the occasional wink at the audience (and some nice homages to the comics as well). But mostly, Johnston finds nothing inherently funny or silly about Captain America, and I really respect that. And by the way, there's a great, symphonic score to the movie as well that really adds to the action.

That same enthusiasm for the characters and the period carries over to the villain of the piece - Hugo Weaving as THE RED SKULL. How many superhero movies have we seen lately where the villain is a conflicted antihero, a corrupt businessman, or a nebulous entity of some sort? Not here. Here, The Red Skull is a classic villain ripped straight from the comics - gleefully over-the-top, scheming, plotting ... he's just an evil bastard with a freaking red skull for a face. Now, his origin does nicely mirror Cap's, and there are some interesting interactions between the Skull and his not-so-chummy Nazi collaborators ... but at the end of the day, I just loved watching Weaving go full-on EVIL. In short, The Red Skull is one of the best, most fun-to-watch comic book villains we've ever seen on screen.

The rest of Cap's supporting cast is, amazingly, damn good. Stanley Tucci hams it up in the best way possible as German doctor Erksine, the inventor of the Super Soldier Serum. Tucci's character is another example of hoe the tone of the movie is just right - a little over-the-top, a little hammy ... but just heartfelt enough that man, we really come to like and care about about this kooky guy. Same goes for Tommy Lee Jones as tough-as-nails Colonel Phillips. Jones could probably have played this role in his sleep, but he seems to having a great time here - just acting the hell out of the role and delivering his lines with gusto. Same goes for Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark - yep, *that* Stark. It could have been a one-note role, but Cooper brings so much charisma to the part that he steals a scene or two with just a raise of an eyebrow or a nod of his head. Sebastian Stan is similarly good as "Bucky" Barnes, Cap's loyal friend and ally. You really buy into him as a great friend of Cap, and I'd love to see Stan come back and do the Winter Soldier storyline if a sequel is greenlit. Toby Jones is also really funny and easy-to-root-against as the diminuitive henchman of the Skull, Dr. Zola. Finally, how great are the HOWLING COMMANDOS in this movie? God, just seeing Neil McDonough with bowler hat and handlebar mustache as Timothy "Dum Dum" Dugan ... I mean, if that doesn't bring an ear-to-ear smile to your face, then by all means, turn in your geek card now. Like I said, I love that Captain America embraces all the great silliness and fun of the comics without any shame or embarrasment. I mean, this is why I love superhero comics - because you get a group of ragtag misfits called The Howling Commandos kicking Nazi ass while being led by a guy named "Dum Dum." And that's all here in this movie. Yes, awesome.

Finally, let me bestow infinite praises on Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. Take note, Hollywood - THIS is what a leading lady is supposed to be. Atwell kicks ass as much as any of her male counterparts, but is also a total bombshell that, completely understandably makes even Cap - the ultimate boyscout - want to toss his good guy persona out the window. Atwell seriously just owns it in this movie. I knew she was good when I saw her on the recent PRISONER remake on AMC, but if she doesn't become a huge star after this, there's no justice in Hollywood. But hey, Joe Johnston has quite the track record with leading ladies - remember, he cast a young Jennifer Connelly as the Bettie Page-esque star of The Rocketeer. And I think Atwell's performance here is comparable, except she gets to kick a lot more ass and bust a lot more balls.

If there's one thing that keeps Captain America from being 100% pure awesome, it's the ending. Without spoiling anything, the very end of the movie just left me a little cold, and after so much fun buildup to get to that point, I was disappointed to see what amounted to a somewhat tacked-on-feeling ending that came off more like an obligatory bridge to The Avengers than anything else. Don't get me wrong, I think there might have been a way to do this sort of ending in a more impactful manner, but as is, it just feels like the main story we've been following for two hours ends very abruptly, all in the name of having a quickie prologue to next summer's big Marvel blockbuster. It just could have been handled better, and it's a shame, because the movie builds and builds so well that the right ending could have been the final exclamation point on what was, to that point, an incredible ride. As is, the energy deflates a little bit as the credits roll.

Overall though, I really loved Captain America, and it might just be my personal favorite Marvel superhero movie of all time. At the least, it's right up there with X2, Spiderman 2, and the first Iron Man. But this one really feels like a different beast, because while those other characters are products of the 60's and of Stan Lee's reign as the head of the House of Ideas, Cap represents an earlier, simpler time - when America was at war and needed heroes, icons, to bear our flag and rally the nation. To me, there's something magical about the characters and stories of World War II-era America, and perhaps that's why I've always been a DC guy moreso than a Marvel one. I love the big icons, the larger than life heroes, the simple-yet-powerful concept of fighting for good and for what's right. And that's what Cap is - an idea, a modern myth, a kid from Brooklyn who becomes America's greatest hero, simply because he is a good man and will never stop fighting. The movie proudly restates that credo - when Dr. Erksine points at Steve Rogers and tells him he was chosen not because he was a good soldier, but because he was a good man. It's there when Steve Rogers jumps on what he thinks is a live grenade, because he's ready to sacrifice himself to save others. It's there when that kid tells him to quit worrying about him - he can swim! - and tells him to go catch the badguy. To me, this is just a fun, positive, fist-pumping sort of action movie - an adventure that gets back to the basics of superheroes, a movie that more than proves why Cap isn't just the first Avenger, but the best.

My Grade: A-

HARRY POTTER Ends, And Danny Weighs In


- The latest and final Harry Potter flick is certainly among the best of the movie adaptations of the top-selling book series. After a somewhat plodding Part 1., Part 2. finally gets around to the good stuff - giant battles, big stakes, and an overall feeling of epic finality. This, finally, is it for Harry Potter and friends, and with that notion firmly established, the movie takes on a weight and level of gravitas that we'd only occasionally seen from these movies before.

All in all, this final Potter gets closer than a lot of its predecessors towards feeling like a great adventure movie in and of itself. This film series has always been a little frustrating for me, because while I've enjoyed most of the Potter films, and have immensely enjoyed one or two of them in particular, I've always been a bit baffled by the superlative reactions to them from the rabid Potter fanbase. The fact is: for those who have a huge affinity for the books, there is a subset of those fans - a large one - that enjoys these movies on a whole other level than everyone else. They thrill to see their favorite characters and scenes from the books up on screen, and are happy to fill in all of the missing story bits in the movies with what they already know from the books. For these fans, seeing a new Potter movie is simply a way to revisit a universe and characters that they love - and they are more than content when the movies end up being a sort of "greatest hits" version of the source material. I get that, to a point. But I also feel like the Potter movies have rarely 100% worked as standalone films. There is too much key information that's left out or ultra-condensed, too many characters that are given short shrift, and too many key plot points that are glossed over in the name of sprinting to The End.

The final Potter, to its credit, has enough moments of pure coolness that it's hard to dwell too much on the details. Sure, I couldn't quite wrap my head around Voldemoort or what he was trying to accomplish, or why Harry and Ginnie Weasley are still an item, or how Harry (spoiler alert) ends up dying and then coming back to life to save the day. But it was mostly okay, because there were cool speeches given by great actors, lots of whiz-bang action, and some epic set pieces with giant trolls, massive armies, and all sorts of cool magic stuff going on.

And I've said it before, but I'll say it again. It really is remarkable how great the former child-actors cast in the lead Potter roles have become. Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson, and Rupert Gint have all evolved into damn good actors - and great action-movie actors to boot. They can each give an inspirational speech, toss off a well-timed one-liner, and crack a quip with the best of 'em. And it really is with the best of 'em, because as always, the lineup of awesome, veteran thespians really shines in this series, and in this film in particular. Alan Rickman, for one, is basically always great, but he's long been a standout in this series as Severus Snape. He gets to have some big moments in this final film, and his sheer charisma and badassery threatens to overshadow even Ralph Fiennes' villainous turn as Lord Voldemort. Fiennes does a great job though as well, hissing and cackling his way towards being a classic ubervillain. Even Maggie Smith, who has only occasionally had moments to shine in this series, gets some great little bits where she gets to kick some ass, stiff upper lip mostly intact. Helena Bonham Carter is another actress who's basically always fantastic, and really, is there anyone alive better equipped to play gothy scream-queen Bellatrix? I also really enjoyed seeing Kelly MacDonald, who's been so great on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, pop up as a ghost who gives Harry a key piece of information. And of course, Michael Gambon is always good as everyone' favorite gay wizard, Dumbledore.

What this movie really does well is that everyone gets their little moment. Harry of course is the star, but Ron and Hermione have their big romantic beat, Luna Lovegood does her thing, Draco Malfoy has a couple final moments of evilness, and Neville Longbottom emerges as an underdog scene-stealer. I only wish that some of these characters had had a better build-up earlier in the series. Matthew Lewis does such a good job making Neville likable that you can't help but cheer for him, but, um, where was this guy in the last couple of movies? I know, I know, readers of the books know and love Neville already, but in the movies, it felt like this potentially great character came out of nowhere, and because of that, his big moments, while fun, could have been even better with the right build-up. Same goes for the aforementioned Harry / Ginny romance - which actually becomes a big deal at the end of the film, because it's key to the story's flashforward epilogue. I mean, from these movies alone, it's hard for me to grasp why Harry, at this point, isn't insanely jealous of Ron and Hermione. Why would he ever choose the bland Ginny over kickass Hermione? Given that the epilogue shows Harry and Ginny as being fated to be together, you wish there was a bit more to that particular relationship.

Speaking of which, I don't know if I'm alone with this, but to me the biggest single story gap in these films is the rivalry between Harry and Voldemoort. I know - it's been built up for eight movies - their final showdown has been a longtime coming. But I just rarely got a true sense from these movies that Harry vs. Voldemoort was an EPIC, HUGE, WORLD-SHAKING battle-in-the-making. I never quite got why exactly the guy hated Harry so damn much, or really, what his deal was anyways. Voldemoort isn't supposed to be an all-encompassing evil entity like Sauron in LOTR, his beef with Harry is much more personal. And yet I never really got that sheer hatred from the character. And the fact that the final battle in this film ends with some Scooby Doo-esque trickery on Harry's part didn't help things any. One of the weakest scenes in the film, to me, was the post-battle talk between Harry and friends, in which Harry offers up a convoluted and, let's face it, pretty lame explanation of how he managed to take down the dark one. Overall, the pacing of the film felt a little off at times. The movie gets off to a rather slow start, with Harry and co. having a somewhat confusing conversation with the not-previously-seen brother of Dumbledore. But later on, when the big battle at Hogwarts begins, the whole thing feels a bit rushed, with a lot going on but not a ton of time given to us to absorb it all and take in the sheer size and scope of the conflict.

Still, I did really enjoy the movie overall, and I couldn't help but admire this whole world that's onscreen - clearly but a taste of JK Rowling's universe from the books. I really do like the characters, the settings, the mythology - but I always come away a bit frustrated that so much is lost in translation. I always feel like I'm getting a cliffnotes version when watching the movies, and I think that really keeps these films from being on par with truly *great* fantasy-adventure franchises like Lord of the Rings. Everthing just feels *adapted,* and as I watched this movie I couldn't help but feel like I was watching something that was derived from something else, and not something that completely stands up on its own merits. It's a subtle but important distinction, I think, between something like Star Wars, that hints at this whole universe that exists around the movies, and the Harry Potter films, where it often feels like key explanations, key plot points, are missing from the scripts, where there is that tangible void.

Nonetheless, for sheer spectacle, and as a last hurrah for some great characters played by some fantastic actors, this final Potter definitely works as a crowd-pleaser. You do have to give a lot of credit to this film series for persisting at such a relatively high quality level, all while keeping an internal continuity, in terms of story, cast, and production. It's interesting though - to see how the collective conciousness of the pop-culture universe functions. There is some sort of validation in seeing characters from books, comics, etc. up on the big screen - and no matter how great the source material is, people love seeing those same stories adapted into movies, even knowing that films can't always do them justice. Personally, I want movies that work as movies. This series worked well, but let's not confuse a love for the source material with a love for the movies in and of themselves. That said, this is a very solid closer to the series. The Harry Potter faithful will love it. The rest will appreciate it as solid filmmaking with great casting and fun action that is pretty damn good, but no, not quite as awesome as it could have been.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, July 28, 2011



- The Tree of Life is one of the more interesting, ambitious movies you're likely to see in theaters this year. From legendary director Terence Malick, it's a sweeping, ambitious film that really shoots for the moon in terms of scope and thematic depth. It's a gorgeous-looking movie - a thought-provoking, contemplative piece that mixes a simple story of family and human tragedy with a cosmic perspective - cutting between slice-of-life moments and moments that take us to the Big Bang, to prehistoric times, to the end of the world. It's a fascinating, odd, at times perplexing collage of sights and sounds. And for anyone who considers themselves a film buff, it's a must-see. At the same time, however, I can't say that Tree of Life 100% clicked for me. I appreciated its ambition, but I also left feeling a bit unsure of what I was supposed to take away from the experience. Personally, I felt like Malick never quite managed to tie together his various, divergent thematics in a way that felt truly meaningful.

Tree of Life focuses on the story of a slowly-breaking-apart family in the 1960's. The story is told in a nonlinear fashion, so we see snippets from a certain period of time, but not necessarily in chronological order. That said, throughout the corse of the movie, we piece together a lot of information on these characters. We know that the father, played by Bradd Pitt, is a would-be musician stuck in a thankless day job. Money, job status, keeping up with the Joneses - all of these pressures have hardened Pitt's character and filled him with a sort of repressed rage. It's usually a quiet anger, but it does come out in violent bursts in which he tends to be verbally or occasionally even physically abusive towards his wife and sons. Pitt does an outstanding job with this character. He's never completely likable or completely unlikable - he's multidimensional - a man with good and bad inclinations - who can be a good father and husband but also can be erratic and temperamental.

Jessica Chastain plays Pitt's wife, and she too does an excellent job in the role. Like Pitt, she plays a character who has been hardened and beaten down by life to some extent. But, she also retains more of her old self - and being with her kids can still inspire her more playful side to come out.

Meanwhile, the true focus of the film are the kids of the family, chief among them Jack, played by Hunter McKracken. The young actor does an excellent job, perfectly portraying a kid in his early adolescence who is beginning to question the nature of things, and beginning to see his parents as flawed and imperfect.

To me, Tree of Life is strongest during its segments focusing in on the family. There are some terrific scenes with Pitt, Chastain, and McKracken that paint an extraordinary picture of a seemingly-idyllic family living in suburbia and the darker, more hidden cracks in the foundation that holds them together. It's strange, because it felt to me like Malick could have made one hell of a movie that just focused in on these characters and this particular moment in time. This could have been a simpler, yet potentially more effective film, if it stuck to being a story of the breakdown of a family in the aftermath of tragedy.

But Malick isn't content to keep things simple. Instead, he begins and ends the film with a framing sequence, in which we spend some brief time with a middle-aged version of Jack, set in the present day. This version of Jack, played by Sean Penn, is a bit of an enigma. What little we know about him is that he's well-to-do, some sort of high-powered, well-paid businessman - living in a fancy, modern house and married to a model-esque wife. But, the man also seems haunted, sullen - still affected by the tragedies that hit him and his family when he was a boy. I was a little taken aback, to be honest, at just how little time we spend with Penn's older Jack. He has only a few minutes of screentime, and that makes it very difficult to ge a read on him, or to draw parallels with the younger version of the character. While there are hints as to this Jack's station in life, they are vague. And that means that this key segment of the film - like so much of the movie - leaves a lot that is open to interpretation.

And that's the way Tree of Life works. In a way, it's a nice change of pace, in that the movie gives it - and you - plenty of time to breathe. My experience watching the film was that I would take in the imagery even as I was lost in my own thoughts - thinking about how the idyllic scenes on-screen reminded me of my own childhood or of people I knew. Not many films work in this way, presenting you only with the big, key ideas of the story and leaving it up to you to fill in the margins. For that reason, I think that Tree of Life is a movie that lends itself to vastly different, and very personal, interpretations. If you relate to the movie's themes of family and spirituality and loss of faith in a direct and meaningful way - if you're able to transplant your own experiences into the framework of the film - then you just might walk away from this one thinking you've seen a masterpiece. For me, I actually appreciated the more traditional segements of the movie - the fine acting from Pitt and the child actors - but I struggled to find meaning in the more abstract segments. Scenes of the cosmos, of dinosaurs roaming through a primordial earth - these were amazing visuals, to be sure. But I was just never able to connect the dots - what did dinosaurs have to do with anything else?

Don't get me wrong - I sort of get what Malick is going for here. He's showing us characters who have been struck by tragedy, and having them question God and faith. In turn, he's showing us all of the giant, epic, unimaginable things that God has done - created life, created the universe. It's a response to these characters' personal pleas and questions to God - the truth is, they are small, insignificant parts of a much larger, unimaginably complex universe, and they must accept that, well, God moves in mysterious ways and it is not up to us to know his plan.

At least, that's one interpretation. But, to me, the movie never really comes together in an impactful way. The tangents just feel too sudden, too random, too all-over-the-place, such that the movie feels lacking in connective tissue. Just when you're invested in Pitt and co., along come dinosaurs. Just when you're ready to learn more about Sean Penn and the man he's become, here we are in a Lost-style pseudo-heaven where everyone reunites and hugs and all seems to be well. The movie asks the big question of "what does it all mean?" - but the same question could be asked of this movie.

That said, this is one of the most gorgeous-looking, immersive movies out there. The small-town suburbia scenes are incredibly well-shot, and the more cosmic moments, while narratively puzzling, have a visual sense of awe and wonder that made me feel like I was a kid in a planetarium. I would love to see Malick direct a 2001-esque space odyssey, because man, he could probably create something that was visually mind-blowing.

And you know what? I also can't help but admire the sheer ambition of this movie. It reached for the stars, literally, and the end result is something wholly unique and singular - one man's vision translated directly from brain to screen. There is a messiness, a randomness to the film - a sense that Malick himself never quite knew the point he was trying to make. And at times, there is a sense of the film being too-arty-for-its-own-good. The heavy-handed, whispered narration, the repeating of certain key images over and over - it all gets to be a bit much at times. And you can't help but think of movies like A History of Violence that cover these same sorts of big ideas, but manage to do so without diverging so wildly from their core characters and framework. But Tree of Lfe is, undoubtedly, a conversation starter. It goes BIG. It strives for greatness. It doesn't quite get there, but I will say this: it's one hell of an experiment.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Danny's COMIC-CON 2011 Preview Post! 50 Questions For This Year's Show!

Man, it's been a crazy, well, month and a half. As you've probably noticed, my blog postings of late have been far fewer and farther apart than usual. Things have been hectic - new apartment, lots of shakeups at work, etc. That said, after several weeks of insanity ... it is time for my annual trek to San Diego for COMIC-CON, the mecca of all things pop-culture, the center of the universe for fans of movie, TV, comics, and all things geeky-cool each July. This will, incredibly, be my FIFTH consecutive Comic-Con - hard to believe. And I'm in the midst of packing and prepping as I type this. But -- I do want to get down a few pre-show thoughts before heading out. So, without further ado, here are ...


50. THE WALKING DEAD proved that zombies can come alive on TV. Will the AMC hit maintain momentum as it begins building the hype for Season 2? Will we see any new, fan-favorite characters from the comics introduced on the show?

49. Can the new SPIDERMAN film successfully revive and reboot the franchise, or is it, depsite a great cast, simply too soon to get audiences re-hyped for Spidey?

48. GAME OF THRONES may well be the new king of Comic-Con - will this be the biggest, craziest panel of the show?

47. One of the best comic book writers of the last decade, BRIAN K. VAUGHAN, is supposedly announcing a new project at the show after a lengthy absence from the world of comics. What's BKV been up to? And will he unveil a new title to continue the legacy of books like Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina?

46. Will Ridley Scott show footage from PROMETHEUS, his quasi-Alien prequel, in Hall H? Will it rule?

45. Rumor has it that CONAN O'BRIEN will make an appearance to promote some animated superhero shorts ("The Flaming C"). Will Comic-Con embrace Team Coco, and vice versa?

44. Holy reunions, Batman! Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar will be appearing together to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the 60's BATMAN TV show. What shenanigans will ensue?

43. Fans of FRINGE have been desperately waiting to hear word of what's in store for next season, following this past season's head-turning cliffhanger ending. Will there be clues as to what's next?

42. Speaking of which, will fans rally around JOHN NOBLE, who was once against robbed of an Emmy nomination despite kicking huge amounts of ass on Fringe?

41. Which of the new FALL TV shows will hit hardest? Will fanboys come away from the Con buzzing about Terra Nova, Grimm, The River, Awake, Alcatraz? None of the above?

40. Will the war between the true-blue geeks and the TWIHARDS die down this year?

39. Will the war of words over the place of geek-girls in geek culture reach a fever pitch? Female fandom seems to be one of, if not THE hot topic at this year's show.

38. What will the reaction be to TIN-TIN? Will Steven Spielberg's first-ever Comic-Con appearance be a legendary moment or a "meh" moment?

37. What mystery movie will ROBERT RODRIGUEZ reveal at his panel. Everything from Red Sonjia to Sin City 2 is rumored.

36. How will DC Comics deal with negative reaction to the reemergence of once-crippled Barbara Gordon as Batgirl? With Babs back in tights and Oracle no more, what becomes of fan-fave Stephanie Brown in the DCnU?

35. What will CHUCK have in store as it goes to its final Comic-Con? Will the geek-friendly show reassure fans that it will go out with a bang?

34. Even though Warner Bros.' film division is not holding court this year in Hall H, will we get any new info on Dark Knight Rises or Superman Man of Steel? Could any surprise reveals be in the works, or will WB keep mum?

33. What does Grant Morrison have in store for the reboot of Superman and Action Comics #1? Will lawsuits force DC to radically reinvent the Man of Steel?

32. Speaking of which ... Superman and Lois Lane: divorced? Say it ain't so! How will DC explain the planned separation of comicdom's most famous couple in their relaunched universe?

31. In fact, DC will have many questions to answer. For example, in their new universe, how will they explain the fact that books like Batman and Green Lantern will keep decades' worth of continuity intact, whereas Superman and Justice League will essentially start from scratch?

30. ATTACK THE BLOCK - is this the new Shaun of the Dead?

29. CAPTAIN AMERICA premieres this weekend - will fanboy buzz have Comic-Con attendees running to nearby theaters to see Cap in action, or is this one summer superhero film too many?

28. COWBOYS AND ALIENS is another soon-to-be-premiering genre film. With Comic-Con serving as the location of the movie's premiere, will all signs point to this being a sleeper hit of the summer?

27. CONAN THE BARBARIAN is also looking to make a last-minute push at the show. By Crom, will this movie see the box office competition driven before it, or will it cause lamentations from de men and de women?

26. Digital distribution will be a big buzzword at the show as far as comics go. Will DC's decision to go day-and-date digital also be adopted by Marvel and others?

25. What will be the go-to cosplay costume of the show? Past years have seen The Joker, Ramona Flowers, and Hitgirl claim Most Popular Costume of the show. This year - will be interesting to see what's hot. Personally, I say you can never go wrong with Harley Quinn.

24. The Twilight Saga is winding down, so what other female-friendly franchises will attract the attention of the con's resident fangirl population? True Blood, Dr. Who, Vampire Diaries, and Snow White And The Huntsmen will all be vying for geek-girl cred (though I have to say, I love me some True Blood).

23. What videogames will rule the show? Hot hits from E3 will be playable on the show floor - from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim to Uncharted 3 to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom -- what games will be must-haves for the fanboy set?

22. What do Geoff Johns and Jim Lee have planned for the crown jewel of the DCnU - the rebooted JUSTICE LEAGUE? If nothing else, the new launch means super-sweet Jim Lee renderings of all the iconic DC heroes.

21. Will THE AVENGERS assemble? No Marvel panel in Hall H this year, but will the House of Ideas emply other viral marketing techniques to hype up its uber-epic?

20. Is SWEET TOOTH the best comic book on the stands today? With his own spotlight panel, writer/artist Jeff Lemire has a chance to up his status to stand side by side with the likes of Morrison, Johns, and others as one of today's biggest creative forces.

19. Will anyone be stabbed in Hall H this year? Let's hope not!

18. What effect will DISNEY's absence have on the show? Is Disney saving all of its big announcements for its own D23 Expo in Anaheim, set for August? Or will the House of Mouse have some surprises in store for San Diego?

17. Speaking of which, GUILLERMO DEL TORO is everywhere at the show. Might we get any first looks at his upcoming Haunted Mansion? What info will he have on the mysterious project PACIFIC RIM?

18. What's next for GREEN LANTERN? WB committed to a sequel despite lukewarm reception at the box-office for the recent comics-to-film adaptation. Will there be any word on the potentially epic Part 2? And what do Geoff Johns and co. have in store for the GL comic book, following the recent reveal that the rebooted comic will now star the villainous Sinestro?

17. Do TV comedies still have a place at Comic-Con? Fans of Community, The Big Bang Theory, Children's Hospital, Eagleheart, and more would argue "yes!" What hilarious moments will occur during these shows' sure-to-be-memorable panels?

16. Will the Q&A sessions at the panels feature some semblance of intelligent questions and non-annoying question-askers? Odds are ... nope, it'll be more of the same lamebrained mouthbreathers at the front of the lines.

15. BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD are due for an animated comeback over on MTV. Has their time passed, or will a whole new generation know the glory of Cornholio?

14. BATMAN YEAR ONE - a new animated movie, will be premiering at the show. Will this be the definitive adaptation of Frank Miller's classic tale?

13. Where the party at?

12. What will be the must-have T at this year's show? We've seen shirts bearing the logos of Blackest Night, Flynn's Arcade, and others be the attire of choice for attendees in the past. This year, what will it be? Flashpoint? Avengers? The Flaming C?

11. Can JJ Abrams recapture the magic of Lost? JJ's got two new shows he's producing that will be at the 'con - Persons of Interest and Alcatraz. Both feature Lost alumni in the cast. Will either get the kind of buzz that Lost generated at Comic-Con back in the day?

10. Is this the end of an era for Comic-Con? With WB and Disney sitting things out this year, has Comic-Con lost some of its importance to the studios? Does this signal a more back-to-basics approach for the years ahead?

9. Will comics once again take center stage at Comic-Con? The biggest buzz this year from fanboys is not a movie or TV show, but the relaunch of DC's entire line starting in September. Will the typically-tame comics panels in fact be this year's hottest ticket?

8. Where do superhero movies go from here? With all of the A-list characters already-exploited, what B-listers might get a shot at the big time? Have we hit superhero overload?

7. Will 2012 be the biggest geek year ever? With The Avengers, Spiderman, Dark Knight, Man of Steel, The Hobbit, and many more huge films set for next year, is this year's Con a Calm before the Storm?

6. What's next from Warner / DC? We've got Batman and Superman ... and then ...? Will Wonder Woman ever make it to the bigscreen? The Flash? Green Arrow? Booster Gold? Or will the relatively disappointing reception to Green Lantern make WB less aggressive in exploiting the DC library?

5. Who's a real geek? With geek culture now more mainstream than ever, are we all just one nation of geeks? Even Ms. USA says she's a geek. So yes, there's an identity crisis of sorts going on at Comic-Con. And the question is - has Comic-Con become too cool for its own good?

4. What beloved geek property will finally get its due in movies or TV? We've seen Game of Thrones a huge success on HBO, but we also just saw Universal put the kibosh on its ambitious Dark Tower plans. So what's next? Will there ever be a Preacher movie or TV show? Fables? Y: The Last Man? The Sandman?

3. On that note - are TV shows the new movies? Typically, Hall H has been the home of big movies. But the hottest tickest at Comic-Con this year are things like True Blood, Game of Thrones, Fringe, and The Walking Dead. TV seems to increasingly be the star of Comic-Con, and the #1 source of high-quality geeky goodness. So ... when might more TV series migrate to the primetime real estate that is Hall H?

2. How is the new generation going to consume media, and what does that mean for Comic-Con? Will DC's reboot and digital distribution efforts legitimately allow kids to enjoy comics again? Will the old icons of Comic-Con stay relevant to a videogame and anime obsessed gen of kids and teens? Or is Comic-Con doomed to increasingly become geezerville? Last year I was encouraged to see a new gen of fanboys and fangirls going gaga for movies like Scott Pilgrim -- but sometimes, in an industry that constantly banks on nostalgia, you have to wonder what if anything is new under the sun?

1. What will be "the" big moment of Comic-Con 2011? Last year we saw the Avengers assemble in Hall H, heard Ryan Reynolds recite the Green Lantern oath, and saw Harrison Ford make his Comic-Con debut. What will be this year's big surprise - the thing that will get everyone buzzing? I have no idea -- and that, my friends, is the reason why this weekend is going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

Monday, July 18, 2011

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON - Wake Up and Smell the Mediocrity!


- The third TRANSFORMERS movie is yet another piece of braindead, lowest-common-denominator garbage from the team that brought you the first two movies in the franchise. And yet, here we are, and the movie is a HUGE performer at the box-office, an unstoppable juggernaut of Summer 2011. And part of me, well, I get it. The TRANSFORMERS films promise spectacle, mayhem, and action on an epic scale - giant robot vs. robot battles, mass destruction, cosmic warfare the likes of which few other movie series can deliver. But that's what kills me about these movies. The promise of epic robotic action is near-irresistible to anyone still in touch with their inner twelve-year-old. And yet, as simple a task as these movies have before them, they repeatedly fail to deliver anything resembling a cohesive, entertaining action-adventure. They are dumb-as-#$%&, with plotlines that seriously make those of the 80's cartoons feel like Shakespeare in comparison. The action is incomprehensible - awesome in ten-second bursts, but failing to add up to anything of substance, even in the most basic sense. The characters - I could care less about. Rarely has there been a more useless, unlikable action-hero than Shia LeBeouf's Sam Witwicky. I think the first film got a pass if only because the spectacle of it was so great. The second film upped the pyrotechnics but somehow made the story and characters even more gag-worthy than the first movie. The third movie is probably somewhere between the first and third on the craptasticometer, but at this point, the spectacle and he novelty has 90% worn off. We've seen Avatar, District 9, Inception, Dark Knight, Thor, X:Men First Class, Tron Legacy, and many other big action blockbusters that have some intelligence, some imagination, some artistic merit at their core. These movies and countless others make Transformers: Dark of the Moon look like $#&% in comparison. Oh, let me count the ways ...

The Action Editing Is Once Again Awful. Like I said, the action is cool-as-hell in ten second bursts. Cool - paratroopers! Cool - Optimus Prime! Wait - what the hell just happened?! There's no flow, no storytelling to the action. And that's sad in a movie produced (why, Steven, why?) by Steven Spielberg, who is the master of great action set-pieces in movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. In those movies, every action scene masterfully tells a story. In TF3, there's once again the feeling of - okay, what the hell is happening? I will say, there is a pretty good scene of Shia and co. trying to escape a collapsing building. This scene might be one of the best in any of the Transformers flicks for sheer scale and bombasity. But here's the thing - director Michael Bay can never just focus on ONE thing. Every action set piece involves two or more likely three different sequences intercut. So every action scene feels like it takes FOREVER to advance, because we see the action unfold for a few seconds, then CUT to somewhere / someone else, then to a third person or place, then BACK. It's MTV-style editing on crack, but it completely zaps even the most ambitious action sequences of all forward momentum and immersiveness. And yes, there are the usual random scenes of jets taking off, military guys in bunkers, etc. that are now in EVERY Michael Bay movie.

The Cool Robot Stuff Is Overshadowed By Other Crap. Why do we like Transformers? It's because of the giant robots! Seriously, the single best thing about this movie is Peter Cullen's Optimus Prime voice - as always, it freaking rules. But Optimus Prime is never given time to be a real character. Neither is Megatron or, in this movie, new character Sentinel Prime, given any time to really make an impact. Why? Because this series insists on constantly cutting away from the robots to give us Shia's sitcom-within-the-movie. And this isn't GOOD sitcom. It's bad. Very bad. Okay, the CW-ish stuff here isn't quite as nauseating as in Part II, but man, it's close. Not only do we have to deal again with Sam's super-annoying parents, but we have to endure his epic-fail "romance" with supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. There is no chemistry between these two, and you'll spend most of the movie wondering what pact Sam Witwicky made with the devil that he goes from Megan Fox to this girl. And look, I get that she's there to be eye-candy, but the character is TOTALLY useless. A non-character. But even though she is a black hole of suck, the movie still wants to give her big moments with Sam that come off as totally unearned. I mean, how hard is it in a movie like this to create a decent female character who is spunky and likable and has some personality? Whiteley's inclusion just makes Sam seem like even more of an unlikable douche. She's hot, sure, but is this really the girl that Sam will go to the ends of the earth for? Okay, on a certain level it makes sense, but on another level, you really wouldn't mind seeing either Sam or his girlfriend caught in some Decepticon crossfire.

The Movie Has No Idea Who It's For. And you know, this does kind of annoy me. I mean, this is a Transformers movie. It should be appropriate for kids. And yet it has gross-out humor courtesy of an annoying-as-hell and totally useless Ken Jeong. It has characters calling each other "gaylord" as if that's supposed to be funny. It has Whitely shot like she's in a Maxim shoot. And it has Sam's mom hand him a book on relationships called "She Comes First." And it's supposed to be cute and funny. This is also a movie that has a yellow car named Bumblebee that transforms into a robot. WTF. I get that the movie is trying to appeal to teens and twenty-somethings first and kids second, but the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Again, if Spielberg wasn't attached as a producer I'd say he'd be rolling in his grave at the sort of stuff that passes for "humor" in these movies. This is the guy that made E.T. - and though this two is the story of a boy and hsi weird alien friends, this is no E.T. - that's for sure.

Terrible Characters and Worse Characterization. I've talked about how unlikable Shia is. How much of a blackhole Whiteley is. But even the characters in the film that had a decent shot of being cool pretty much suck. Those who saw the last movie know the pain of watching the great John Turturro stumble through awful dialogue as he tries to maintain some shred of dignity. Now, he is joined by the similarly great Frances McDormand, playing a hard-assed military officer. Add the Coen Bros. to the list of those rolling in their graves after seeing this movie, and particularly the bare-bones, non-character played by McDormand. And by the way, I was talking above about how the movie dilutes the main story with al sorts of useless crap. Well, there is a WHOLE subplot - one that goes nowhere, mind you - with John Malkovich as Sam's new, slightly-crazy (it's Malkovich, what do you expect), OCD boss.There is a war of robots going on, but according to Michael Bay we must spend half an hour learning how Malkovich has an eccentric management style in his office. The list of actors (and in turn, their characters) who are totally useless in this movie is nearly endless. Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Alan Tudyk, Patrick Dempsey, Andy Daly, the guy who played Aaron by-god Pierce on 24 - all wasted, all useless. Oy. And ... worst of all ... even the robot characters are pretty blah. Isn't Megatron supposed to be the huge, Big Bad of this series? This movie mostly leaves him off to the side, but then suddenly puts him into play towards the end of the film. Problem is ... I honestly have no idea what his deal is. Is he just super-evil? A conquerer? I know, he's just an evil robot leader, but give me SOMETHING. Give any of these characters an arc, a story, a personality. Peter Cullen's awesome Optimus voice can only do so much. Hugo Weaving is Megatron LEONARD NIMOY is Sentinel Prime. Do either have a single memorable line of dialogue, a single snappy one-liner? Nope, nada. At one point, a good-guy robot kicks some ass and then, randomly, says "class dismissed!" WHAT? That is emblematic of the level that this movie operates on. Class dismissed - no setup, no context, not a punchline to a joke, nothing. That's the snappiest thing the script could come up with. Kill me now.

Here is what is good about Transformers: Dark of the Moon ...

a.) Peter Cullen's voice as Optimus Prime.

b.) Leonard Nimoy!

c.) The 3D is actually really well done - it makes a HUGE difference that the movie was shot in 3D, and there is a great, immersive sense of depth to the visuals that is legitimately cool.

d.) There is a cameo from Buzz Aldrin that is pretty badass.

e.) The opening five-to-ten minutes of the film, that focuses on the backstory of Sentinel Prime, is admittedly pretty damn sweet.

f.) That sequence where Shia and a bunch of soldiers are trapped in a collapsing skyscraper is pretty epic.

g.) and ... that's about it.

- It's funny, because as I was typing this, I overheard someone talking about how they enjoyed this movie and that people "expected too much" of it. I disagree. Whatever the genre of movie, there are ways to do that genre well, and ways to screw it up. A great action movie doesn't need the kind of story that a great period drama needs to work, but it needs the *right* story to serve the story and drive the action. And the action, well, it needs to be well-shot, well-edited, and it needs to get the audence invested in its outcome. Even as someone who has a degree of nostalgia for the old Transformers cartoons and action figures, I watched this movie and barely cared about any of its characters, wasn't invested in the story, and only became immersed in the action for about ten seconds at a time. Maybe the world has gotten so ADD that this has now become acceptable. Maybe people are so happy to, literally, shut off their brains, that they are content to be eased into a near-comatose stupor by a constant barrage of audio-visual attack. Maybe being stimulated is all that matters - as long as things are happening, and happening fast, then that, for many, is fine, is fun, is entertainment. But I'm sorry, I demand some sort of aesthetic merit. Earlier this year, I argues that Sucker Punch was an unfairly dismissed movie. It was less about story and more about image, but its action and imagery was artful, imaginative, and evocative. Transformers is just static, just noise. It's Idiocracy come true. And look - I enjoy moments of the movie. I love big action in general. I love giant robots. I love the basic concepts and the imagination that brought this concept to life way back in a magical time known as the 80's. But that spark of imagination has been left to die on the altar of lowest-common-denominator, where movies aren't stories, aren't art, but simply an opiate-of-the-masses. Sit back, watch, shut down. Don't ponder this story, just inject it like a drug and get your geek-fix. I'm sorry, but there has to be a better way. Let's stop making excuses for crap. I know, I know, it's only Transformers. But this isn't an Ed Wood B-movie, this is a mass-market product, this is what kids love, this is the gold-standard in blockbuster movie making -- and in my opinion, a movie that makes this much money shouldn't be this mediocre. Some won't care, but I demand better from my pop-culture.

My Grade: D+



- Horrible Bosses is one of those movies that must have sounded great in one-sentance pitch-form. "A group of average guys bands together to kill their awful bosses." A great premise for a movie - and a perfect idea to sell to the studios. Afterall, everyone can relate to having to deal with a terrible boss. This is comedy gold. But as with all movies, the devil's in the details. To make a premise like this work, you need great characters, a story that's funny but makes some strange sort of sense, and a number of outrageous moments to keep the laughs coming. But Horrible Bosses is way too all-over-the-place to ever really gel as an effective, memorable comedy. It has some killer moments (no pun intended), but it pretty quickly derails from the elegant simplicity of its premise and loses steam as it goes.

When I think about a movie like Horrible Bosses, I think of the challenge of making the script work in a way that makes things amusingly, darkly funny but also works under a certain sort of logic. I mean, we're dealing with average, otherwise well-behaved guys whose bosses are so horrible, so awful, that they would drive their employees to not just contemplate - but actually go through with - cold-blooded murder. Horrible Bosses, however, never really makes the case for such extreme measures. The closest it comes with its three protagonists is with Jason Bateman and his convincingly horrible boss, played by the always-good-at-being-a-bastard Kevin Spacey. Spacey is just terrible enough that you can see how he might drive an ordinary man to find his inner stone-cold-killah. And maybe, just maybe, the movie would have worked better if it was solely focused on Bateman and his quest to off his boss. But for whatever reason, Horrible Bosses tries to do a somewhat half-assed riff on Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, with three characters who each agree to kill *each others'* bosses. But at some point, they try to hire a hitman to do it instead. Later, it looks like the plan shifts to somehow manipulate the bosses into killing each other. And ultimately, none of that ever really happens and the whole movie ends up feeling sort of pointless.

Again, the whole fun of a movie like this should be the average guy or guys trying to hatch the perfect murder, and then executing it through to the bloody end - with perhaps a good twist or two along the way to spice things up. But it felt like this movie started off with a simple idea of that sort, and then, somewhere along the way, really lost track and got too complicated for its own good.

One reason I say that is that, other than the really well-done Bateman-Spacey relationship, the other two employee-boss rivalries just aren't that strong. Jason Sudeikis plays a guy who really loves his boss - a fatherly, good-natured mentor type played by Donald Sutherland. But when Sutherland's character passes away, his idiot, drug-addicted son takes over. Colin Farell plays against-type as the bald, pot-bellied loose cannon of a new boss, and he seems to be having fun with the part. But, the character just seems like a random collection of undesirable traits rather than an actual person. Plus, so little time is spent on the dynamic between him and Sudekis that, again, the idea of murdering him seems a little out-of-nowhere. Meanwhile, Jennifer Aniston plays the boss of squeeky-voiced Charlie Day - she is a dentist and he is her hygenist. The problem? Aniston sexually harrasses her assistant - making repeated passes at him and throwing herself on him in a way that most guys would probably welcome, but Day - happily married and a fan of personal space - can't stand. So the question is - how do you make a hot boss trying to seduce her employee someone who is in fact so scary, so disturbed, that her employee actually wants to kill her? Well, let's be honest - I don't know that you can. Day gives it his all to play his squirmy character as a guy bottling up some serious, repressed rage towards his walking-sexual-harrassment-suit of a boss. But still - in the movie, Sudeikis and Bateman laugh at Day's "predicament," and we sort of have to side with them. Okay, so Aniston does a good job of being not so much seductive as creepy and weird, but surely, murder ain't the answer here? All I'm trying to say is -- this movie needs to sell us on its premise, and I don't know that it ever really does.

Aside from the amusingly snake-like Spacey, and a couple of so-gross-they're-hilarious moments from Aniston, the real scene stealer here is clearly Jamie Foxx. Foxx plays a seemingly-badass hitman-for-hire, and he is hilarious. The role brought to mind the old days of Foxx doing crazy characters on In Living Color. And hey, even if he dabbles in more dramatic roles these days, the guy's still one funny dude when he wants to be. I won't spoil some of the surprises around his character here, but suffice it to say - he has a high percentage of the movie's biggest laugh-out-loud moments, even with relatively short sceen time.

Otherwise, most of the movie's funniest bits come from the random little moments between its three leads. The movie has a habit of letting Bateman, Sudekis, and Day drift into these little improv-y conversations, and the movie just feels smarter and funnier the more it seems to go off-script. There are some great little bits in the margins of the movie. But too often, the meat of the script seems way too "brotacular" for its own good. It's something that annoyed me in The Hangover and The Hangover 2, and similarly annoyed me here - the scenes of the guys sitting around and just chillin' feel forced and just, well, off. There's also a mean-spiritedness in the dialogue that I found off-putting. We're supposed to be rooting for these guys - and to root for someone to get away with murder, they have to be pretty darn likable. Honestly, all three of the main characters in Horrible Bosses felt pretty douchey to me.

There are definitely moments where the movie shines, and there are some individual scenes that inspire big laughs. But overall, I felt like this movie took what could have been a simple, novel premise and failed to execute on it (again, no pun intended). The flow of the movie seems jumpy and the pacing uneven (Jennifer Aniston's character inexplicably disappears for the third act, before popping up in a hasty end-tag). The humor is hit or miss. And the characters never feel very justified in their actions. Is Horrible Bosses horrible? No, it's a decent comedy. But it could have been much more.

My Grade: C+

CARS 2: Can Lightning Strike Twice?

CARS 2 Review:

- It's funny, talk to some people, and they'll tell you that the first CARS movie was one of the weaker Pixar movies - a decent, well-animated movie, but not on par with the best of the best Pixar flicks - the likes of Wall-E, Toy Story, and The Incredibles. But for me, CARS still stands among my favorite Pixar films. I loved the animation and the characters, but I also really liked the movie for its evocation of a certain flavor of Americana - that Walt Disney-esque version of the American Dream. The anthropomorphic cars in the film lived in this mythical version of 1950's America - a land of great hope and dreams, of shiny chrome and new frontiers. I loved the world and the themes of Cars, and so personally, I was excited to revisit it again with a sequel. Now, as hard as some Pixar fans have been on CARS, some fans and critics have been even harder on CARS 2. To some extent, I get it. Pixar doesn't typically do sequels, and when they do, it's usually only in special cases - telling the sprawling, surprisingly epic Toy Story saga, for instance. On the surface, Cars 2 felt a little like one of those old direct-to-video Disney cash-in sequels - it felt like it might have a little less purpose, a little less depth than the first film. The trailers made it seem lighter, less essential.

And to some extent, that's true. Cars 2 is a much lighter, bouncier affair than Cars 1. Where the first film covered BIG themes and ideas, the second one is, essentially, a Cars-ified version of a 60's spy movie - a James Bond take-off with cars. So no, there's not as much meat here as with other Pixar flicks, but that doesn't mean that the movie isn't still super entertaining. There's still a lot to like in Cars 2.

For one thing, the animation is as good as anything Pixar has yet produced, and some of the scenes just bleed off the screen, popping with color and vibrancy. The plot of the movie takes our old pal Lightning McQueen on an international adventure, so the movie really gets to show off with a variety of exotic settings and locales. Where the first movie was all about the American west - Americana - this one is all about the rest of the world. So Radiator Springs makes a brief appearance, but we also visit places like Japan and Italy. The Japan scenes in particular are pretty stunning, with gleaming neon cityscapes and a hyper-cute, anime aesthetic that is awesome to behold. I am also just continually amazed at the amount of expression and emotion that Pixar's animators get from characters who take the shape of cars. I know some critics can't help but fixate on the "why" of how this world of all cars and no people came to be, but to me, the world is so fully-realized and brought to life with such gorgeous detail that you just accept it as is. Okay, so one reference in the movie to dinosaurs is certainly a headscratcher (whaaaat?!), but 99% of the time, you just accept this strange, stylized world and soak in the exquisitely-rendered characters and scenery.

The voicework in the series also continues to be top-notch. There's no one standout performance like the late, great Paul Newman's in the original Cars, but there are, nonetheless, a number of excellent voice-actors in this one. Owen Wilson is back in top-form as Lightning, and he's joined by a top-notch supporting cast. Michael Caine as a veteran secret agent? Yes please. Emily Mortimer is also really good as his enterprising assistant. Eddie Izzard is great as the villain. And you've even got greats like John Turturro and Joe Mantegna in the mix as well.

However, all this leads to the Larry the Cable Guy issue, aka the elephant in the room. Look, I think Larry did a great job in the first Cars, and he continues to do a nice job here as the redneck tow-truck of average-intelligence, 'Mater. But Mater was great in Cars 1 as a supporting character, and the fact is there's only so much Mater, and so much of Larry the Cable Guy, that one can take before he gets a tad bit annoying. Cars 2 makes the mistake of putting Mater front and center, and it's a classic case of giving the sidekick too much to do and this disrupting the delicate balance of character dynamics in the series. Because Mater is so heavily-featured, Lightning gets the short shrift, and some of the better-loved supporting characters from the first film all but disappear into the background. In any case, I think there's just a fundamental structural problem here in that the movie shouldn't have kept Lightning so separate from Mater while the latter gets up to his ears in international espionage. It would have been nice to see the old friends team up in the movie's third act. Instead, it's the Mater show, and like I said, there's only so many of Larry the Cable Guy's shenanigans you can take without rolling your eyes a bit.

All that said ... man, those Pixar guys are clever. Somehow, in the midst of Lightning competing in an international racing competition, and Mater getting unwittingly caught up in a whole, big-action espionage thing, the movie sneaks in a.) a well-done, mostly heartwarming message about friendship, and b.) a surprisingly biting commentary on how big oil is holding back the proliferatin of alternative fuels. The first plot element is pretty expected - as Lightning travels the world and becomes a bigger deal, he becomes increasingly embarassed by Mater and his uncultured ways. Eventually though, Lightning has to learn how to accept his friend for who he is - big hugs all around, aww shucks moments by the bucketful, etc. etc. That part of the story can be a bit obvious at times, sure, but mostly, Pixar does this sort of thing with a subtlety, sophistication, and wit far beyond most kid-friendly flicks. The second plot element snuck up on me a bit, and I think that was the intention. I was ultimately sort of shocked that a movie this light and bouncy on the surface had such a cutting message about green energy and big business. It's an element of the movie that's more in the background until the end, but still ... ballsy by Pixar - I like it. And, at the end of the day, you realize that Cars 2 has a bit more depth than initially meets the eye.

Overall, I do agree with the critical consensus that Cars 2 is a shade below the best Pixar efforts. It just feels a little too goofy, a little too "cartoony" (as odd as that is to say about an animated movie) - and less substantial and meaty as compared to other Pixar films, in particular Cars 1. But, I also think that many critics overreacted - hugely - in calling this one a failure or by grading it uncessarilly harshly (though I will say, Dreamworks still remains the animation kind of 2011 thanks to the awesome Kung Fu Panda 2). But CARS 2 is still a supremely entertaining movie - filled with eye-meltingly awesome animation, great action, and functioning as a fun riff on 60's spy-movies. Not a classic, but still a really well done movie that continues Pixar's track record of quality.

My Grade: B+