Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) ****

I never got around to seeing this a few years ago when it was a big sensation and won an Oscar. Lately, though, I’ve been working on my Spanish, so I have put some Spanish language films on the list. “Pan’s Labyrinth” turned out to be a great choice, because the actors speak Spanish more clearly than in some of the other films I have watched. This won’t be an important point for most viewers, but after re-watching “Nine Queens” recently and having a hard time telling for sure that the Argentinean actors were even speaking Spanish, it meant something to me. More important, of course, is that it is a crackin’ good movie.

Guillermo del Toro wrote and directed this dark adult fairy tale in which a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) attempts to escape from her miserable circumstances during the Spanish civil war. Ofelia’s widowed mother (Maribel Verdu) has married a captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), of Franco’s fascist army. Vidal turns out to be a ruthless, viscious leader, intent on rooting out the local resistance fighters by any means necessary. He is dutifully attentive to the needs of Ofelia and her mother, but his only real interest seems to be to have Ofelia’s mother bear him a son, which seems to be necessary for his macho self-image.

Thrust into this physically comfortable but emotionally hostile situation, Ofelia is distracted by a fairy, who leads her into a wooded labyrinth and ultimately to the bottom of a well, where she meets a faun. The faun explains that Ofelia is not the helpless, fatherless girl that she thinks she is. She is actually the re-incarnated daughter of the King of the underworld. If she can complete three dangerous, magical tasks, she can claim her birthright and join her real father. Meanwhile, Ofelia is surrounded by the violence and intrigue of the Spanish Civil War, as her stepfather tightens the clamps on the resistance. Her mother is distracted by a difficult pregnancy, so Ofelia is left to her fairies and her quests.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is, quite simply, an example of what good filmmaking looks like. Ofelia’s magical world is as visually spectacular as it is creepy. The story is good, and the acting is excellent. Sergi Lopez is particularly chilling as the brutal Captain Vidal. I did find the darker elements of the movie disturbing, and no one should mistake this for a movie for kids. For adults, though, it’s an excellent film, and it will even help you brush up on your Spanish.

4 stars

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cedar Rapids (2011) ***½

When I hear the name Cedar Rapids, Iowa, I tend to think of some backwater, middling, mid-western city. (In fairness, I know nothing about the place.) For Tim Lippe though, Cedar Rapids is very much the big city. A grown man, probably in his forties, Tim has never left the small, farming town where he grew up and has worked his whole adult life as an insurance agent. Beloved by his clients for his honesty and earnestness, he is mostly ignored by his co-workers, and we get the impression that the only sexual experience he has is a current fling with his old junior high school teacher.

When the star salesman at Tim’s agency dies, Tim (Ed Helms) is handed the job of going to Cedar Rapids for a small insurance convention where he will pitch has agency for a prestigious award. Every aspect of this trip, including flying and staying in a hotel for the first time, terrifies Tim. Rube that he is, though, he is generally likeable, so he winds up getting befriended by a wacky trio played by John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. Over a couple of days, these new friends help Tim come out of his shell, even as he learns some ugly truths about the insurance industry.

I didn’t hear a thing about this film during its theatrical release. It was a review of the DVD in “Entertainment Weekly,” suggesting that it was an overlooked gem, that caught my eye. They were right; the movie is charming. It’s pretty silly and over-the-top, but not in an obnoxious, Will Ferrell way. Ed Helms (Andy, from “The Office”) is a comedic genius, and John C. Reilly just knocks it out of the park. Even Anne Heche is funny and surprisingly sexy in this. Fans of the movie “Office Space” may recognize Stephen Root, who played Milton in that film, in a small role. It was also a treat to see Alia Shawkat, who played Maeby on “Arrested Development”. Here she plays a hooker with a heart of gold.

“Cedar Rapids” isn’t going to set a new standard for comedies or engender world peace or anything, but it’s a fun little movie and well worth checking out.

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

24 Hour Party People (2002) ***

I’ve recently become a fan of a couple of geniuses of British comedy, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. If the names aren’t familiar, the faces might be. The two have done a ton of work in England, and have both done small roles in a number of U. S. productions. I know Brydon best from his role as Uncle Bryn, in “Gavin and Stacey.” I was less familiar with Coogan until recently, but I recognize his face from movies like “The Other Guys” and “Tropic Thunder.” He actually looks a bit like Eric Idle (Monty Python), but Coogan’s humor is more along the awkward lines of Ricky Gervais.

Now that I’ve talked about these actors’ comedy skills, I have to point out that while they are both in “24 Hour Party People,” it is not, strictly speaking, a comedy. The movie has plenty of humor, but what it is is a rather dizzy portrayal of the 1980’s Manchester music scene, which gave us brilliant bands like Joy Division, New Order, James, and The Happy Mondays. Steve Coogan stars as Tony Wilson, the TV personality who started Factory Records and introduced these bands to a grateful world. He discovered and promoted Joy Division, mourned the suicide of their lead singer, and nurtured the rest of the band as they re-emerged as New Order. He discovered the Happy Mondays, and struggled to get them to stay sober long enough to make some records. While promoting all this great music, he also started the first rave club, The Hacienda, kicking off a worldwide movement. As good as his ear for music was, Wilson was a terrible businessman (according to the film), and he managed not to really make any money out of the whole affair. Still, he made possible a tremendous amount of good music, and he put his hometown of Manchester on the music map.

Watching “24 Hour Party People” is a bit like being at one of Wilson’s raves. The handheld camera work and documentary style are disorienting even if you are familiar with the music. Coogan occasionally breaks character to speak directly to the camera, which takes some getting used to, and they sort of assume that you know these bands and their music. It’s a really fun ride, though. You just have to hold on and let it sweep you along. The one caveat is that this movie is really only for fans of the music. If you have never heard of the bands I mentioned here, then I don’t know that this story will hold any interest.

3 stars

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Other Guys (2010) **

The thing is, you either like Will Ferrell or you don’t. I find him tedious. I can’t say that he has never made me laugh, but his specialty seems to be to do something that is funny for one second, and stretch it out to one minute. His humor shifts tone in ways that I find ugly. If he finds himself doing something that is actually funny, he moves it into some dark place, just to see if the audience will keep laughing. That problem with tone pervades “The Other Guys,” a movie that has a hard time figuring out what kind of comedy it is going to be.

Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play a couple of cops. They aren’t cool, swaggering cops who catch and kill bad guys in big chase sequences. They are “the other guys,” the desk-jockeys who fill out the paperwork. Wahlberg’s character is chained to a desk because of a mistaken shooting. Ferrell’s character just likes to do paperwork. They finally get out on the street and chase some bad guys when the paperwork puts them on the trail of a Ponzi scheme. In between there’s a lot of ineptly done character development, including a running joke about how Ferrell’s character thinks his gorgeous wife (Eva Mendes) is plain-looking.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I even thought this movie would be worth watching, and the answer is Mark Wahlberg. There’s just something about the guy. I used to think he just played the same character in every movie, but over the years he has won me over. Unfortunately, Wahlberg’s charm is not enough to save this movie.

“The Other Guys” is not completely without laughs. There’s a funny bit where a couple of cops convince Ferrell’s character that in order to fit in he needs to “accidentally” fire his gun inside the station, which they call a “desk pop.” Ferrell screaming, “I need an MRI. I need an MRI.” after an explosion is pretty hilarious as well. Mostly, though, the movie features Ferrell on an entirely too-long leash, going all over the place with his shtick while the film lurches from one nonsensical scene to another. If you find it while flipping through channels in a hotel, it might be worth sitting through, but otherwise, give it a skip.

2 stars out of 5