Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Campaign - 3 stars

Will Ferrell plays Cam Brady, a Democratic Congressman from North Carolina.  He doesn't know much about being a congressman, nor does he care.  But he loves being a politician.  He cheats on his wife any chance he gets, and he knows that people love to hear certain buzz words, like 'Jesus' and 'freedom'.

When the corrupt Motch brothers (obviously based on the Koch brothers) decide Brady needs to be voted out, they convince Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis) to run against him.  Marty is no match for Brady at first, but with the help of his campaign manager (Dylan McDermott), hired by the Motch brothers, he starts to lead in the poles.

This movie is pretty funny.  Some of the jokes are obvious, and while the movie is a good satire of the political process, it doesn't tell us anything we don't know about politics (business has too much influence in politics, ect).  Ferrell sounds like he's doing his George W. Bush impression, but without the squinty eyes and not quite as dumb.  Galifianakis is doing a different character than we have seen before, and he is so innocent and well meaning that he has a real arc as he becomes more interested in winning than his family. 

The best scenes in the movie involve the attack ads.  Marty is accused of being an Al Qaeda terrorist (because he has a moustache), and Marty attacks Cam by revealing a "communist manifesto" that Cam wrote in 2nd grade.  Marty gets Cam's son to reveal on camera that his dad is a horrible father, and Cam gets revenge on Marty by seducing Marty's wife. 

I'm trying to remember the last thing Will Ferrell did that made me laugh as much as this movie.  It would probably be his cameo in Wedding Crashers.  And this is the best movie Galifianakis has done since The Hangover.  It won't make my top 10 list for the year, but it's a very satisfying comedy.

Hope Springs - 3 stars

Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) are an older married couple.  Their kids have married and left home, and now it's just the two of them.  Arnold is perfecly happy with their routine.  Kay serves him the same breakfast every morning (she puts the plate down right as he's sitting at the table), he reads the paper, then goes to work.  She doesn't eat with him, and they don't talk.  At night, he falls asleep watching golf, she turns off the TV, and they go up to their separate bedrooms.

Kay is very unhappy with this arrangement, but she doesn't know how to tell Arnold.  Eventually she pays for a week of intense marriage counseling sessions with Dr. Bernie Feld (Steve Carell).  Arnold hates this idea, since their marriage is fine as far as he can tell.  But he reluctantly agrees to go with Kay.

The sessions start out very uncomfortable.  It doesn't take much time for Dr. Feld to ask them about their sex life, which is the last thing Arnold wants to talk about.  Obviously they haven't had sex in a long time, and Kay is desperately hoping they can bring the spark back into their marriage.

Meryl Streep is great as usual, but the real standout performance is Tommy Lee Jones.  He seems to play similar characters so often that it's nice to see him show some real emotion.  As the therapy progresses we learn that he is hurting as much as Kay, but he puts the blame on her and has learned to live with the way things are.  There are some real good moments where we see just how much Arnold is hurting.

It's also a nice change of pace for Steve Carell.  He usually plays in comedies, and it's nice to see he can handle a dramatic role just as easily. 

The therapy sessions seem authentic.  There are times where Kay or Arnold get upset and storm out of the office, and anyone who has been in a long term relationship will probably find something to relate to here.  It's interesting how people who love each other so much can misinterpret something the other person does and hold a grudge for many years.  If Kay and Arnold had been able to talk these things through years ago, they could have saved themselves years of pain.

This movie is probably not for young people.  I'm sure there are some young moviegoers who can't even imagine couples of that age being sexual.  And there is some frank and honest sexual dialogue that may make some people uncomfortable.  It's not a movie to watch with your kids, parents, or grandparents.  Just something to keep in mind before you take mom to see that new Meryl Streep movie.

Total Recall (2012) - 2 stars

This is a remake of the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Both movies were based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, and like with so many of his adaptations, both movies were very different from the original story. 

Now I admit, I haven't read any of his books or short stories, so I don't know how well a faithful adaptation would work.  But I think if you're going to remake a movie that was changed so much from its source material, you should adapt the book rather than remake the previous movie.  That's what the Cohen brothers did with True Grit.

This time, Colin Farrell plays Douglas Quaid, an ordinary guy who goes to Rekall to have the memory of a vacation implanted into his brain.  But something goes terribly wrong, and soon everyone is trying to kill him.  His wife (played by Sharon Stone in the original), is played by Kate Beckinsale.  She also takes over the role of the agent who is trying to capture Quaid.  In the original, this role was played wonderfully by Michael Ironside.

The world they live in is run by the corrupt Chancellor Cohaagen played by Bryan Cranston (Ronny Cox in the original), and Quaid worked for him before he had his mind erased. 

The biggest problem with this movie is that the original was so great, and this is so mediocre.  I know some people will argue that the Schwarzenegger movie was not so great, and I'm just remembering it fondly because I was younger when it came out.  Well, that may be true to some extent, but I would argue that the original was a great movie.  It was a lot of fun.  The effects while dated by today's standards still hold up.  The hologram watch he wore was cool, and I loved the x-ray security scanners that sounded an alarm if anyone went thru with a gun. 

Schwarzenegger gave a great performance as a guy who is confused.  People often overlook what a good actor he could be, and in this movie I had real empathy for his character.  Plus Michael Ironside was such a great villain, and Kate Beckinsale is no Michael Ironside.

This movie is just not much fun.  There is no humor, and I didn't enjoy one second of it.  There was some cool action, but after a few minutes it just turned into white noise.  I don't care how cool the flying cars are, at some point I want the action to stop and the characters have a conversation with each other that doesn't just further the plot.

Since there is no way I can review this without comparing it to the original, I will point out a few more things.  For one, the 3 breasted hooker is in this movie, but she doesn't belong.  In the original, there were mutants.  It came from living on Mars and breathing dirty air (or something like that).  In this movie, there are no mutants.  So when a girl opens her shirt to reveal 3 breasts, it makes no sense.  It's only there because the filmmakers know fans of the original want to see it.

Also, there is a great scene in the original when the head of Rekall shows up on Mars to talk Quaid out of his delusion.  He tells Quaid that he is still strapped to the chair in Rekall, and they can't bring him out of it.  If he will just take this pill as a sign of his desire to return to reality, they can bring him out.  When Quaid sees a drop of sweat rolling down the guy's cheek, he shoots him in the head.

This scene is kind of revisited in this new movie, but it doesn't work at all.  It has none of the suspense, and Jessica Biel is in the scene with him.

Oh, I forgot to mention Jessica Biel.  She plays the role of Molina, the girl of his dreams who is a member of the resistance.

Anyway, when Quaid's friend says he is still in the chair at Rekall, Molina is standing there with a gun.  All she has to do is shoot the guy, but she waits to see if Quaid will kill her or not.  This scene doesn't really make sense.  It ruins the effect to have Molina there.  She could act instead of just standing there saying "Don't believe him." 

This movie isn't horrible, but it isn't necessary.  If you choose to see it, you need to watch the original Schwarzenegger version after to compare the two.  And I think you will see that I'm right.

The Watch - 2 stars

Ben Stiller stars as the manager of a Costco.  When his security guard is murdered and the police aren't doing enough to solve the crime, he puts together a neighborhood watch.  He only gets a few guys, including Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, and Richard Ayoade.  Together they don't do much.  Their idea of investigating is to stake out the Costco in case the killer shows up again.

Halfway through the movie, they discover that aliens are invading.  At this point the movie changes from a bad comedy to a bad sci-fi movie.  I think the studio really wanted this movie to be Ghostbusters, combining comedy with good science fiction and action.  They failed completely. 

I didn't laugh much.  Vince Vaughn's routine seems tired in this movie.  He didn't make me laugh once, and he really seemed to be trying.  There is a great extra on the DVD for The Break-Up.  It shows Vaughn and Jon Favreau improvising a scene, and we see how much of their improv doesn't work before they get to the funny stuff.  I have to wonder if the director of The Watch just used the bad stuff, or if he didn't give Vaughn enough time to find the funny.

The alien stuff doesn't work any better than the comedy does.  There isn't enough time spent on it to make me care, and the final battle with the aliens bored me.  I just wanted the movie to end at that point. 

Don't waste your time seeing The Watch.

The Dark Knight Rises - 3 1/2 stars

I loved this movie, but not quite as much as The Dark Knight.  Maybe it's not fair to compare the two movies.  TDK was so great there was almost no way this movie could live up to the previous installment.  No villain can be as much fun as Heath Ledger's Joker was. 

Luckily, the Nolan brothers (Christopher and Jonathan) and David S. Goyer chose to go in a completely different direction with this movie's villain.  Instead of recasting the Joker, or going for another similar villain like the Riddler, they went with Bane.  The Joker was a ruthless killer, but he also had a sense of humor.  He was always trying to amuse himself.  With Bane, he is all business.  He will kill anyone in his way but he doesn't seem to be having much fun doing it.

It's been 8 years since the events of TDK.  Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent's crimes, and everyone in Gotham believes Dent was wonderful.  After his death, The Dent Act was passed which helped end organized crime in Gotham.  Bruce Wayne has been holed up in his mansion for 8 years with no real contact with the outside world.  He has grown a beard, walks with a cane, and everyone thinks he is living like Howard Hughes (the crazy years, anyway).

Wayne reemerges into society after a cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into his safe and steals his late mother's pearls.  He tracks her down, and also learns that a mercenary named Bane is in Gotham.  This leads to the return of Batman, although things might have been better if Batman had stayed away. 

One thing I liked about the movie is how Batman sometimes does more harm than good.  When Batman makes his first appearance, it's to go after Bane and his men after they have just broken into the stock exchange.  Batman doesn't catch Bane, and it looks as though the police would have caught him if they hadn't been distracted by Batman.  I would think there are enough cop cars to go after both, but Commissioner Foley (Matthew Modine) is so eager to catch Batman he chooses to let Bane go.  If Batman hadn't shown up, they probably would have caught him and the rest of the movie wouldn't have happened.

Or not.  Maybe Bane had a plan to break out of jail and it wouldn't matter.  But either way, Alfred (Michael Caine) points this out to Wayne, and this leads to one of several arguments between them.  In one of the more heartbreaking scenes in recent memory, Alfred and Wayne end their relationship and Alfred leaves Wayne manor.  It's hard to imagine Batman without Alfred at home to back him up.

Bane is a great villain.  Not as much fun as the Joker was, although he does have some good lines.  But he is just brutal.  One hit from Bane can kill a guy.  The opening sequence for the movie has Bane taken into custody by the CIA, then being rescued by his army.  This is spectacular.  It reminded me a little of the opening to License to Kill where Bond and Felix capture a drug kingpin by hooking a cable to his plane in mid-air, and towing it by a bigger plane.  However, that sequence was child's play compared to this.  See this movie in IMAX.  It's worth the extra charge for this scene alone.

I also enjoyed Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle.  They never refer to her as Catwoman, which was much appreciated.  She had a lot to do, and while I had a hard time believing that Bruce Wayne would fall for her as much as he does, or forgive her crimes so easily, she was a refreshing addition to the cast.

The best character in the movie is John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young cop who never stopped believing in Batman.  There is a stretch of time where Christian Bale is offscreen, and Gordon-Levitt becomes the star of the movie.  And I didn't miss Bale at all because John Blake was such a good character. 

When Batman Begins first came out, I remarked how much I loved that Gary Oldman was cast as Commissioner Gordon.  So often he either plays sinister villains or crazy people.  It was nice to see him get to play not only a nice guy but the moral center of Gotham.  Go back and re-watch Batman Begins, and notice how noble Oldman is without being corny or obnoxious. 

Oldman is back as Gordon, but this time I didn't like his performance as much.  I don't think he raised his voice nearly this much in the first two movies, and it doesn't seem like he is playing quite the same character.  I guess is makes sense that the guilt he feels for lying the last 8 years have changed him a little, but I wanted the same Gordon from the first two movies.  But that is a minor quibble.  Any Gary Oldman is better than no Gary Oldman.  This applies to any movie, by the way.

Some parts of the story were hard to follow, especially in the first half hour.  There is a lot to set up, including the fusion reactor that Wayne Enterprises funded, then shut down because they discovered that it could be used as a nuclear weapon.  I wasn't totally clear on Miranda Tate's role either.  Early in the movie it seems like scenes are missing, or cut short.  We get a line of dialogue or two, and then it's suddenly the next day.  This happened in TDK as well, but it seemed worse in this movie.  It's like they had to cut a half hour or more out of the movie, so they left in just enough to move the plot but cut out the rest of the scenes.

Once we get into the movie, things settle down.  And this is really an epic story.  It's amazing how big it is.  Bane manages to cut Gotham off from the rest of the world, and Gotham turns into some kind of anarchist state.  There may be some kind of message there about class warfare and the poor people getting revenge on the rich people, but I didn't see it as anything political.  Bane is just using people to carry out his mission, and he plays on their pettiness and fear to get them to act the way he wants.

The first time I saw it, I had some concerns about the end of the movie.  Without spoiling anything, it does seem like he is trying to leave things open for another movie.  I felt a little cheated by the way some of the details were wrapped up.  I thought Nolan should have had more confidence in ending the series the way he wanted without giving in to studio demands.

But now that I have seen the movie a couple more times, I like the ending.  It doesn't guarantee that there will be another movie.  It just ends the series with a certain amount of hope.  I like the way we leave these characters, and it's easy to imagine their lives going on.  We should be grateful that we got 3 Batman movies that stayed true to their writer's vision, and there were no nipples on the batsuit.

Safety Not Guaranteed - 3 1/2 stars

How's this for a classified ad:  Wanted:  Somebody to go back in time with me.  This is not a joke.  You'll get paid after we get back.  Must bring your own weapons.  I have only done this once before.  Safety not guaranteed."

Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) is an intern at a Seattle magazine.  Along with Jeff (a writer) and Arnau (an intern), Darius goes to the seaside community of Ocean View, Washington to investigate the person behind this add.  Is it a joke?  Is the guy crazy?  Is it Doc Brown?  Who would post an ad like that?

The man behind the ad is Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), a grocery clerk who is extremely paranoid.  He's the kind of guy who has newspaper clippings all over the walls of his house, which is located deep in the woods.  He is very much a loner.

Darius tells Kenneth she wants to go back in time with him, and once she earns his trust, he starts putting her through various training exercises.  As you would expect, they start to develop feelings for each other. 

I really enjoyed this movie.  One reason is that Aubrey Plaza is adorable.  I first noticed her in Funny People, when she played the object of Seth Rogen's affection.  She is also very funny in Parks and Recreation.  She has a disaffected, cynical attitude that makes her very fun to watch, and it makes her a perfect match for Kenneth. 

This movie moves along nicely.  I was never bored, and there were a lot of funny moments that made me laugh out loud.  And these were not simple gags - they were momens of humor that came from the characters.  This one is highly recommended.