Monday, July 30, 2007

"Hairspray" review

If I took a few steps toward manhood with Live Free or Die Hard last week, I took a step back today with Hairspray, but the movie so harmless and bright that I really don't care. Based on the Broadway musical (which itself was based on the non-musical 1988 John Waters film), Hairspray is a light, frothy little movie that will at the very least put a smile on your face.

The story centers on young Tracy Turnblad (played charmingly by newcomer Nikki Blonsky), a plus-sized teenage optimist living in a segregated 1960s Baltimore. When given the chance to dance on the American Bandstand-esque TV show, she becomes involved in a racially-charged battle for integration. Along the way, she involves her mother (played humorously by John Travolta in drag) and father (an always entertaining Christopher Walken) and the hunky dancer Link Larkin (played with surprising talent by High School Musical's Zac Efron). Although race is a central theme of the movie, it is never dealt with in a heavy-handed way. When coupled with the themes of image and weight, the movie becomes more a message of tolerance; a breezy reminder to embrace those that are different and too accept their unique contributions.

The actors seem to give the movie their all, and the performances as a whole are quite good (although I couldn't really understand much of Michelle Pfeiffer's sultry singing under the actress's heavy affectations...). The music itself is cheery and catchy, and complements perfectly the film's bubble-gum tone. And I'm happy to say that this is the first movie-musical I have seen in years where it didn't seem completely obvious that the actors were being dubbed--it really felt like they were there singing live, instead of lip-syncing ( one thing I hated about The Phantom of the Opera and Moulin Rouge...).

It's not a perfect movie, and not a very deep one either, but it is high energy, and sometimes that's all a good musical needs. And while the movie won't change anyone's life, it's a step in the right direction for the modern movie-musical revival. (*** out of four)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Babies and wizards

A couple of quick updates, intended to make up for some massively blaring omissions from my blog in recent weeks:
  • Wendy and I found out that we're having a baby girl! As you can see from the counter at the bottom of this page, only 157 days to go! Now if we could just decide on a name...
  • Only slightly less exciting is the fact that I finished the final Harry Potter book on Monday, and though I won't spoil it here, really enjoyed it overall. I have a few minor quibbles about some of the ends that seemed too neatly tied-up, as well as a few pacing issues (could the three main characters have been in hiding for less than 600 pages, please?). But again, a most satisfying conclusion to a fantastic seven-book fantasy. I can't wait to see what Rowling has up her sleeve next.

"Live Free or Die Hard" review

Having now watched Bruce Willis in his latest Die Hard sequel, I can officially declare two things: Bruce Willis is one bad 50-year old butt kicker, and Live Free or Die Hard is possibly the worst title for a movie I have ever heard. Luckily, the movie is much better than its title.

Since I have never seen any of the previous Die Hard movies (I haven't ever seen the original Rocky either, so either I'm only half-a-man or just really lazy), but my Die Hard ignorance didn't really detract from my enjoyment; here's basically all you need to know: Bruce Willis plays Detective John McClane, who is apparently really unlucky and also really capable of wielding a big gun. Or causing lots of thrilling explosions. Or crashing a lot of cars. Or scowling at a lot of dumb bad guys, usually before killing them. Mindless as it is, the movie is actually pretty fun.

There are few action sequences in particular that I was sorry to see end: a noisy helicopter vs. police car chase and a horribly destructive (and awesome) showdown between a semi-truck and a really sleek-looking F-something jet (do you see how uncomfortable I am with all this man-lingo?). Lots of booms and bangs and crashes and kills (mostly bloodless), and really just a lot of good clean "manly" fun (with a heaping dose of some manly PG-13 action-movie cussing). (*** out of four)

In response to my previous post about the sanitization of movie sequels and how the trend hasn't historically helped a franchise financially...the jury's still out on this one. While Live Free or Die Hard has been well-received by critics, it will probably end up grossing roughly the same amount of money as did the franchise's previous sequel (1995's Die Hard with a Vengeance, runner up for the worst movie title ever), not including the inflation of ticket prices. So while it will likely be a profitable movie, (and possibly a franchise-savior), there's no way to know if its mild success is due to the tamer PG-13 rating.

Entertainment Weekly recently ranked the original Die Hard as the best action movie ever. Now that I've been initiated into the Die Hard-fraternity, I think it's probably time for me to check it out. Not coincidentally, I've also picked up chewing tobacco and scratching myself in public. Thanks for my introduction to manhood, Bruce!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" review

I saw HP5 last night on the IMAX 3D screen in Sandy, and wasn't disappointed. The producers have once again managed to tell a visually-arresting story while still maintaining much of the book's emotion and spirit. Although these movies continue the long-running story from previous films, it never seems like we're repeating ourselves. The performances seem fresh, the tone varies from film to film, and we can actually see forward progress in the characters we've come to love. (And the 3D for the final 20 mins is pretty cool if you get to see it.)

There is much to love in this installment. As I mentioned before, the sets, costumes, and special effects are all top notch and contribute perfectly to the illusion of a wizard world that exists alongside ours. And while the performances across the board are first rate, I especially loved the actresses cast to play Dolores Umbridge and Luna Lovegood, who were both perfect for their very eclectic roles.

I had heard it said that this film lacked the whimsical spirit of the book, but if that was really the case, it didn't bother me. (Frankly, all I remembered from the book was Umbridge, which they interpreted very well.) The movie was also a little funnier and lighter than I had expected, which was pleasantly surprising. That's not to say that the story isn't dark, but the biggest challenge I saw to this movie was its very talky nature--it could have used an action scene about midway through the movie (such as Ron's quidditch debut, for example). Rather than being scared, I think some smaller children might just be bored. And the ending felt a little rushed--I wouldn't have minded another 10-15 mins of revelations or explanations.

As for where this movie stands against the rest of the films in the series, I'm still trying to decide. While it has some of the emotional depth of the third movie, it also lacks some of the action of the fourth. Though it isn't my favorite in the series, it also isn't my least favorite. I'd probably put it somewhere in the middle, between number 4 and number 2 (so for those of you keeping track, I'd probably rank the Potter movies like this: 3,1,4,5,2). It's a very good movie, and an admirably efficient adaptation of an 870-page book. I can't wait to see it again. (***1/2 out of four)

One note for the HP producers who undoubtedly frequent my blog: bring back composer John Williams for #6 and #7, pleeeeeeease!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Stack-ranking the "Harry Potter" films

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that I haven't yet seen Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but we've got our tickets to see it in IMAX 3D on Monday. So to keep me occupied in the meantime, I thought I'd rank the four previous Harry Potter movies from best to worst (although "worst" in the case of HP movies really is a relative term...). So if you'll keep in mind that I love all of these movies, here we go:
  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: At first viewing I was disappointed with this movie, mostly because it left out a lot of meaningful moments from the book and wasn't as faithful to its literary source as the first two movies in the series. However, upon repeat viewings, this movie has really grown on me. The visuals are moody and memorable, the acting is first-rate (Hermione has never been less-annoying), and the tone is the perfect balance of whimsy and malice. And this movie gets extra points for John Williams' perfect score, which has a prime spot in my Ipod rotation.
  2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: The first movie in the series had the uneviable task of welcoming the world to a cinematic Hogwarts and its associated magic. Happily, it pulled it off very well. Upon repeat viewings, the film is unnecessarily slow and overly loyal to its source, but it is also perfectly sentimental and appropriately innocent for an 11-year old Harry and his young audience. And could the casting have been more inspired?
  3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: This is definitely the most exciting of the first four movies, and remains a very entertaining and fast-paced adaptation of a 700-page novel. This movie's strengths include a streamlined and focused screenplay and some terrific performances (such as Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody). A couple of nit-picky complaints: I sorely missed John Williams score, and Michael Gambon's Dumbledore gets a little more feisty and cranky than I ever pictured him in the book. Altogether a very fun movie, and how great was that creepy graveyard scene?
  4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: This movie already had two things going against it: the associated book was my least favorite (too similar in structure to the first), and director Chris Columbus did little stylistically to distinguish this movie from the series' first film (though I complained about it at first, the producers' decision to shift directors from film to film--starting with #3--really helped breathe life into each film). Having said that, Chamber of Secrets does boast some very funny Ron-centric moments, introduces us to cute little Ginny Weasley, and gives us one last chance to enjoy the perfectly patriarchal Richard Harris as Dumbledore.
So there's my batting order: 3, 1, 4, 2. What do you think? How would you rank the first four movies? And for those of you who have seen #5, where would you rank it with relation to the other four movies?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

"Transformers," "Ratatouille" reviews

My movie-going habits seem to come in spurts, as I'll sometimes go weeks or months without seeing a new movie, and then suddenly I go see a bunch of them all at once. So in keeping with that spirit, here are a couple of quick reviews for movies I watched over the past few days:

  • Transformers: Say what you will about Michael Bay--whose movies are sometimes frustrating examples of excess--but when it's time for car chases and explosions and pure delightful cinematic chaos, he seems to be right at home. Since action is really the only thing anyone interested in Transformers wants to know about, I'll just cut to the chase. The action is fantastic, especially during the last 20-30 minutes of the movie. The Transformers themselves are a wonder to behold, and thanks to the wizards at ILM, fit seamlessly into this 13-year-old boy's fantasy--they really look amazing. (I also loved that they used the original voice of Optimus Prime.) The story, on the other hand, is messy and silly. Bay tries to make this an Independence Day-type ensemble, but the only character that really works in this movie is the one played by the charismatic Shia LeBeouf (the future son of Indiana Jones, reportedly). It's too intense and crass (Bay calls it "edgy") for most children, which is a shame, because most kids are justifiably dying to see this movie. But for the grown-up kids, it's really a great ride. (*** out of four)

  • Ratatouille: Pixar has done it again: I loved this movie. Mixing oodles of charm with a witty script and a decent little moral, Ratatouille is the type of movie that you wish we'd see more of. It's as close to perfect as a family movie gets: it's clever without being crude, funny without being silly, and uplifting without being heavy-handed. As I'm sure you know, it's the story of a food-loving rat who accidentally gets heavily (and secretly) involved in a the kitchen of a once-great Parisan restaurant. But what would happen if France's most notorious food critic gets wind of a rat in the kitchen? Of course we know that the movie will end happily even before it's begun, but it's really the journey that's so much fun. Visually, the movie is a treat to watch (as we've come to expect from Pixar), but the movie in general is a "delight to the senses" (a phrase coined by my bro-in-law, Peter), with a bubbly musical score and a theme that will make you hungry for fine food. It's a rare film that is truly appropriate for the whole family without being insulting or dull to any of the age groups. Pixar is now 8 for 8; I wonder if they're hiring... (**** out of four)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Will Harry Potter die?

Even before the book comes out, the biggest question surrounding Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is undoubtedly "Will Harry Potter live or die?" Of course I have my own opinions, which are admittedly based largely in what I want (rather than what would make sense), but I think our scarred hero will indeed survive the series, if nothing else but to give millions of readers worldwide the happy ending that they all signed up for when they picked up the first book 10 years ago. Read my lips: Harry Potter will not die. (I'm almost starting to believe myself!)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

"Wicked," "Mary Poppins" reviews

Wendy and I just got back from a fantastic weekend in NYC, and found much to love (mostly in the form of Roxy's cheesecake and Max Brenner's chocolate). But of course two of the highlights were the big musicals that we saw on Friday and Saturday nights: Wicked and Mary Poppins, respectively. Here are my thoughts:

  • Wicked: This is every bit as much fun as people said, and then some. Even Wendy, who at times scoffs at a good musical, found herself captivated by this whimsical alternate take on The Wizard of Oz. The music is catchy and bright, the sets are colorful and dynamic, and the story is told with energy and charm. Though I thought I knew about the story, there were still several surprises that put a smile on both of our faces. If I have one complaint about the show, it's that we never got to see the Wicked Witch flying around the audience like I fully expected to see...still, it was a lot of fun, and worth seeing if you are ever in NYC.

  • Mary Poppins: We were also really excited to see this one, since it is one of our favorite childhood movies. You've got to hand it to Disney--they spare no expense when it comes to creating a spectacle on-stage. The sets were incredible; they were detailed and creative and constantly changing (they reminded me of the old Sunset Boulevard sets in terms of their grandeur). As for the show and story itself...we sort of wish we had seen this one first, since Wicked seemed to be so much more lively and consistently entertaining. Don't get me wrong, Mary Poppins has a few high-energy numbers that brought down the house (especially "Step in Time"), and is never without something interesting to look at, but missed a bit of the magic of the movie. In talking about it with Wendy afterwards, we decided that the Broadway Mary and Burt didn't quite have the same charm and personality as did good old Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, which could have helped the show feel a little lighter. Additionally, the show varies from the movie's story a bit, adding several new songs and characters that didn't necessarily enhance the story. Having said that, there is probably nothing bigger on Broadway, and it was a very fun way to spend a Saturday night.