Monday, May 30, 2011


Okay, there are no vistas THAT nice near where I am, but I'm still going to take this week off from the reviews and recharge my batteries, which have been run dry by a number of factors over the past few weeks. Look for Hello, Mr. Anderson to return Monday June 6, when I'll be back with reviews of The Hangover Part 2, X-Men First Class and more. See you then!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bang Your Head

San Diego's Comic-Con International is naturally a big deal for fans of comic books. Heck, the whole thing began because comic fans wanted to get together and meet big names in the industry. That's what fandom is, and few conventions have expanded as much as Comic-Con since it's inception in 1970. For years, new television shows have also had an impact, as many potential fans learn of shows like Heroes and The Walking Dead first through the previews and panels at Comic-Con. It was only natural progression for the film industry to get in on the act, and many major releases over the years have appeared there. At 2010's Comic-Con ALONE, there were announcements for forthcoming films Captain America, Green Lantern and 2012's The Avengers, and preview trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Tron: Legacy and Machete, among others. One that might have flown under a few radars (but not under mine) was the recently-released Hesher, produced by Natalie Portman and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Though it's heavy-metal influence wouldn't seem to fit with the comic book crowd (and to be fair, it really didn't), the transformation of Gordon-Levitt into a chain-smoking, crude malcontent seemed too off the wall to discredit, and the strength of the scene previewed for attendees was surprisingly good thanks to his stellar acting. A year later, Hesher finally made its way into theaters. Though it came out nearly two weeks ago, I had pushed it down my list of must-sees, behind more popular fare Bridesmaids, Priest and Everything Must Go. With very few visitors to see this film however, I knew I had to make room for it in my schedule before it was booted from theaters, and so I caught a recent showing (with a larger than expected audience; no theater will ever be as empty as my showing of The Warrior's Way) with no expectations other than a great performance from the leading man. I just didn't know if that would be enough.

Seriously, that's the kid from 3'rd Rock from the Sun. Fear him.
After his mother dies in a car accident, T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) is deeply depressed and plain sick of the world. He and his father Paul (RainnWilson) now live with Paul's mother Madeline (Piper Laurie) and go to grief counseling, but don't seem to be making any progress. T.J. develops a crush on a supermarket checkout clerk named Nicole (Portman) after she rescues him from a bully, but isn't sure how to approach her. That changes when T.J. meets Hesher (Gordon-Levitt), a homeless, troubled and mean-spirited youth who ends up living in the family's garage, with T.J. and his father so depressed they are unwilling to remove him. Hesher soon becomes an integral part of their lives, helping (in his own way) with their various issues and putting them down the road to recovery.

Hesher manages to keep his shirt on a total of about ten minutes
This film basically lives and breathes on the basis of Gordon-Levitt's performance. Having made a name for himself playing non-violent, almost nerdy characters, his performance here is nothing short of miraculous, only cementing his incredible talents as an actor. Hesher is rude, crude and foul-mouthed, and everything that he says is comical carnage, laying out an entire theater with laughter. Even in the film's later stages, when the script forces him to be more sensitive and honest, he's still a comic hoot, and I never expected to laugh so much during this film. Gordon-Levitt simply becomes so entrenched in the character that he completely melts into the role. Hesher is the number one reason to see this film, bar none. Since the story is told from T.J.'s perspective, Brochu needed to be a solid talent to handle the film's narrative, and he vaults this low bar easily enough. Having to play against Hesher's mouth, T.J. is a much more silent character, having to express much of his dialogue through unspoken emotions. Though there are a few obvious crocodile tears involved, he manages that part of the job okay. It's the few chances he gets to speak where Brochu really shines through, especially in arguments with Gordon-Levitt or Wilson. Wilson at first doesn't do a lot as Paul, T.J.'s father, but sit around on the couch and look depressed; he does such a good job doing it that you really connect when he starts to snap out of it in the film's later acts. Wilson is like many actors who are best suited to these types of secondary roles, and a strong post-Office career seems secure in that vein. Portman plays the only "normal" character in the film, her role a good bounce-off for T.J.'s silent depression and Hesher's insanity. Sadly, that's all the purpose Nicole has, as she doesn't have much to do with the film's long-term implications. Finally, Piper Laurie is second only to Hesher in laughs department as T.J.'s senile grandmother who adapts best to Hesher's appearance in her home. Some of the best scenes feature both Hesher and Madeline, especially at the family dinners.

Yes, Natalie Portman is in YET another 2011 film... not that I'm complaining
The script is hilarious, but it does run into some problems. Written by director Spencer Susser, the film spends far too much time not doing anything while reveling in its silliness. The film's first half almost seems to be a Hesher tutorial to get you acclimated with the few details you NEED to know while supplying laughs to the audience in abundance. The second half ramps up the purpose, but also ramps up the cheese and melodramatics to a point that is almost painful to take in. Everybody reconciles with everybody else and Hesher unsurprisingly is the reason for all of that, but I would have liked a less traditional storytelling formula used for such unique characters. Also, Hesher's character often goes bat-shit crazy, almost scaring of the fans that he'd cultivated to that point. Thankfully the humor never lets up; the dialogue and Hesher's ability to appear seemingly from thin air drive the film to be so much more than the sum of its parts.

This is pretty much the mentality we should all have
I really didn't know what to expect from Hesher, which is why I put it off seeing it for so long. I'm glad I did finally see it, however, as the insane humor, great characters and good if not great story were more than I could have ever imagined from a novice director and a metal soundtrack that might not be my preferred musical genre. Hesher comes in at #9 for 2011; it's not P.C., its not polite and your parents might look at you funny for liking it, but it's still a lot of fun if you just sit back and allow the talents present to take you to places you didn't think you'd ever appreciate.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Theme Ride Retread

2011 might be remembered as the year of the Hollywood sequel. In January, it was announced that 27 film sequels were scheduled for release during this year, and many of them not the first continuations of their franchises. While nine titles were the first attempts to continue series such as Pixar's Cars 2 and the live-action The Hangover Part II, many more are even further along film-wise, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 being the eighth addition to the series. As for fourth-film sequels, 2011 will have featured the greatest number of franchises that have lasted until the fourth release, including additions to the Mission: Impossible, Scream and Spy Kids sagas. For most of these releases, it is a sign from the powers that be that they can't (or won't) take chances when it comes to business as usual, so the sequel seems the way to go for guaranteed positive business. Most notable in that vein may be Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the latest offering from the series based on the Disney park theme ride of the same name. When the original Pirates was released back in 2003, it made a legitimate blockbuster star out of Johnny Depp and his legendary character of Captain Jack Sparrow, and the film's financial success guaranteed that there would be much more to come. The first two sequels, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, were disappointing to many critics and fans, but still sold out theaters and made gobs of dough for their efforts. Hence this attempt to rejuvenate the franchise with new characters, a new director (Rob Marshall), and otherwise the same old crew of miscreants, scallywags and swashbucklers appearing for your hard-earned dollar. For the last few months, I was convinced that this newest addition (supposedly the first of a new trilogy) would be either the best or the worst the series had to offer. By the time the final credits rolled, I was somewhat surprised by the results.

And THAT'S where the rum has gone!
Some time after the events of At World's End, Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) finds himself in London. There, he searches for an impostor who is hiring a crew under his own name, supposedly on the hunt for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Discovering the impostors, Sparrow finds himself an important cog in a race to the location of the fountain, as three major forces move in for the prey: the powerful Spanish Armada, a British privateer ship captained by none other than Sparrow's rival Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and a pirate ship captained by one of the most prolific legends of all time, Blackbeard himself (Ian McShane) and his daughter and Jack's former lover Angelica (Penelope Cruz).

"Carriage Surfing" was all the rage in London back then. Go ahead, put that in your term paper.
For one, I was quite happy for the change of characters in On Stranger Tides. While Sparrow and Barbossa are back, I was relieved when I learned that Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom would not be returning as fated lovers Elizabeth and William, since their characters had run the course (and yes, I'm aware that the actors opted out for that same reason, you don't need to tell me). Instead, Marshall's plan implemented a more original route than his predecessor Gore Verbinski, who became so engrossed in the universe he had created he forgot that he was supposed to be making entertainment. Marshall's fresh eyes (as well as inspiration from Tim Powers' classic pirate novel On Stranger Tides) help to almost reboot the series while still remaining faithful to the original material. Intact is Jack's atypical sense of wit and logic, Jerry Bruckheimer's action-oriented strand of narrative, and the twisted bits of pirate lore and history that engulf the series's background. Sure, you could see a much more historically-accurate portrayal of life at sea in 2003's underrated Master and Commander, but that's never really been what Pirates was about. While it might pick and jab at historical iconography, the original trilogy reveled in silliness and good humor, while never backing away from the real and imaginary dangers of the world at that time. It reminds me so much of another swashbuckling adventure series, the Monkey Island games for the PC, of which the films have often been implied or accused of having copied.

Iam McShane warns Depp of the dangers of typecasting.
It's really a shame then that a film with so many things I love felt so disjointed. On Stranger Tides feels almost like a second cousin to its grandiose forebears, as even the effects-heavy bits don't stand up in scale to even those of the lesser Pirates sequels. Of course, that is no moon; one of the original trilogy's problems was Bruckheimer's overly-leaden special effects were merely cover for inane plots and plain silliness that didn't benefit the film at all. By scaling down the SFX here (even while incorporating the unnecessary 3D), the story is forced out into the open, allowing the screenwriters to flesh it out a bit more to modern standards. It isn't enough; the plot is very linear and uncompromising, with promising sub-stories either jarringly off the track or ignored altogether. While some genius exists (for instance seeing Jack's brain working out an escape plan in an early scene) the vast majority of the film is merely okay, generic pirate stories masquerading as an equal to The Iliad or The Odyssey.

In other news, Geoffrey Rush tries on a new hat!
Jack Sparrow himself is also dangerously overexposed as a character; while Depp never makes any obvious miscues, Sparrow doesn't have nearly as much of the strong support needed to thrive as a leading star. While I don't miss Will and Elizabeth, I do miss the way their normalized manners grounded Sparrow as a character, not allowing himself to get too carried away; here, he's a free bird, and this bird you cannot change. Depp still does an amazing job delving into the role of Jack Sparrow, I just wish he could have had someone to play off him better. That job COULD have belonged to Penelope Cruz, but despite the amazing chemistry that develops between Depp's deranged charmer and Cruz's sharp-tongued schemer, they simply don't spend enough time together to make it fulfilling. Worse, Angelica transforms from bad-ass femme fatale  to devoted daddy's girl to vengeful psychotic, much to the chagrin of The Opinioness, I'm sure. Ian McShane is the best, no surprise to any who have witnessed his starring turn on HBO's Deadwood. The veteran actor perfectly takes over from previous villains Rush and Bill Nighy emulating one of history's most notorious pirate lords. Edward "Blackbeard" Teach has a reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty (which history may dispute but hey, it makes a good story) and McShane brings it out brilliantly. His voice also emulates that of Monkey Island's Ghost Pirate LeChuck, so he's got that going for him too (okay, no more M.I. asides, I assure you). Geoffrey Rush returns once more, but despite his not-inconsiderable talent, the character of the pirate Barbossa has pretty much run its course, and should have been retired after At World's End. Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey have little to do, and their story is sadly off-kilter with the rest of the film. Claflin plays a missionary who Angelica obtains to try and save her father's soul, while Berges-Frisbey is a mermaid who the crew needs to find the Fountain of Youth. Like Will and Elizabeth, the two have a romance that defies expectations, but because the characters aren't very well developed and the side-plot all but ignored by the script until it matters, both are relegated to the largely-silent background.

"And just like that... the rum was gone again."
I suppose expecting that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides could top Curse of the Black Pearl for top Pirates movie might have been a little ambitious. Curse was a wonderful fantasy story in a setting that hadn't seen any film popularity in years, and what it succeeded in was more than could be hoped for in ANY sequel. Still, On Stranger Tides does what only a Pirates movie can do best: disarm you with witty humor before the epic sword fight or sea battle keeps you on the edge of your seat. As a franchise film, it's better than either of Verbinski's attempts, and as a sequel it's better than Scream 4 but not as good as Fast Five. Far from masterful but still a lot of fun, On Stranger Tides is one good director and one great screenplay away from rekindling the magic that was the franchise's origins.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Yard Retail Therapy

Anyone who has seen 2003's Lost in Translation remembers the sheer power of Bill Murray's performance. Rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of aging actor Bob Harris (and arguably more deserving than Mystic River's Sean Penn, who took home the prize), Murray's work was remarkable not only for its total brilliance but by the audacity of the man who played it for laughs in Ghostbusters and Caddyshack to take on such a serious role. Such seems completely out of place in that regard, but Murray is far from the first comedian to tackle such a part. Robin Williams, for instance, received acclaim for Good Will Hunting and One Hour Photo, while Dan Ackroyd received praise and an Academy Award nom for his role in Driving Miss Daisy. Murray might be the best of the bunch however, and recent years have seen a good number of copycat comedians in fiery dramatic roles, from Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love) to Steve Carrell (Little Miss Sunshine) to Ben Stiller (Greenberg) to Maya Rudolph (Away We Go) to Murray again (Broken Flowers), all trying to capture that same level of drama to be taken seriously in the big leagues, and not just dismissed as "comedic" performers. At first glance, that seems to be the impetus behind Everything Must Go, the rated R drama written and directed by newcomer Dan Rush based on the story story Why Don't You Dance by Raymond Carver and starring funny man Will Ferrell as a depressed alcoholic. Let the Oscar talk begin? Let's see.

Don't everybody rush in or anything...
Arizona resident Nick Halsey (Ferrell) is having a bad day. In fact, calling it a "bad day" is selling it short by a few magnitudes. After several months sober, the recovering alcoholic suffered a relapse while on a Denver business trip. This relapse, of which Nick has no significant memory, resulted in not only his job termination but, upon arriving at his home, finding that his wife has left, changed the locks and dumped all of his possessions on the front lawn. Unable to even enter his own house, Nick lives on the lawn among his prized belongings, but when he finally decides for a change, he sells off everything he has for a fresh start, helped by a young boy (Christopher Jordan Wallace) and the new neighbor Samantha (Rebecca Hall), who is waiting for her own spouse to arrive from New York for his new job.

Indie film requirement "cute kid": met

A far cry from the usual Farrell vehicle, Everything Must Go doesn't feature any outlandish hijinks, crazy characters, or stupid jokes that have made modern classics of films Anchorman, The Other Guys and Old School. The recipient of a generous dose of heart and sincerity, this film remains at all time in a state of realism, especially in its portrayal of the modern Scottsdale suburb and the people who live there. There is a bit of dark humor present, but there are no wooden pistols or "Sex Panther" to draw cheap laughs or otherwise marginalize the seriousness of the story. It would be difficult to find too much humor in unemployment, narcotic dependency and divorce, and while I don't doubt Farrell would give it a shot were he offered a chance, the film we have instead is sweet and smart, its emotional struggles the film's most obvious storytelling strength.

Trying to find a polite way to get out of this particular review
It may feel odd to imagine Ferrell in this kind of role; the former Saturday Night Live star an unusual inclusion in so subtly told a film. However, Ferrell outdoes many of his contemporaries and proves that he can actually ACT, as opposed to merely playing convincing caricatures. Farrell's schlubby looks have often been used in the past as a self-deprecating measure, but here they allow him to actually melt into his damaged persona. That's not to say I think that Ferrell looks like a long-time alcoholic, just that he resembles one more than Brad Pitt. That's only half the story, however; Ferrell manages to tell so much of the film's story through his expressions and mannerisms that you have to ask yourself: "Where did THAT come from??" We all love his impressions of former President George Bush or Alex Trebek, but never did we think he had it in him to so convincingly play Nick, a REAL person going through REAL shit. He's simply a treat to watch, and easily the best part of the film. Secondary characters do all right as well, especially Christopher Jordan Wallace as a young boy who looks up to Nick as a pseudo father figure. Rebecca Hall is okay (though not as good as she had been in 2010's The Town) as Nick's new pregnant neighbor who ends up being his biggest ally. Stephen Root, Michael Pena and Laura Dern play relatively big parts, but don't end up doing too much and are mostly forgettable fillers despite their generally higher talent levels.

No, we pretty much just see the suburbs... I KNOW
That's the problem with Everything Must Go as a whole. There's a lot presented to consider, but the film gets a little too inside itself to really let the audience in. This can mostly be heaped on Rush, as the writer/director obviously doesn't have the experience to know when enough is enough. I'll compare it to the 2009 Hollywood darling Precious, which was a tumultuous, emotional and sobering film... until the story just got so ridiculous that it completely jumped the shark and lost my investment as a viewer. Everything Must Go might not be that extreme, but so much of the film is seeing Nick sink deeper and deeper until he finally hits rock bottom, by which point we've been waiting since forever for the film's final act to rear its head. To tell the truth, the story's formula might have worked better as a made-for-TV film or miniseries, as there simply isn't enough to pad into a complete full-length film. The ideas are there; they just couldn't be pulled off by this particular helmsman in Rush.

The first step is to admit that you have a problem...
When all is said and done, Everything Must Go is a mediocre film with a few interesting ideas and an unexpectedly outstanding performance by its leading man. Is Ferrell's performance on par with that of Murray? No, it's not even close, but that's a fairly high bar to reach in any rate. Ferrell does outpace many of his predecessors, and I wouldn't be surprised to see his name bandied about come award season, though he's unlikely to bring anything home (also, watch in disdain as the Golden Globes plug him in the comedy/musical category). I don't recommend that you see this film in the theaters, but you might reward yourself in a few months when the rental comes out. Will Ferrell will keep.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Overdue for Confession

Last year, in Hello Mr. Anderson's (at the time still called The Latest Issue) first annual Worst Films competition, the ultimate winner was a small sci-fi horror film many won't remember since it was overshadowed by juggernaut Avatar. Legion came in second at the box office on its opening weekend in January, but was nowhere close to the quality of the film it failed to out-gross. Marred by a flimsy plot, lousy storytelling, poor camerawork and a complete mismanagement of a legitimate big-name cast, the film was a disaster in the making, and hardly a strong start to the directorial career of Scott Charles Stewart, a jack of all film trades who specialized in visual effects before creating this particular trash. Normally, when a film is this bad, no studio is clamoring for a director with this particular lack of talent to rush to make more movies, let along give him a little more rope with which to perhaps hang himself. But with a positive audience draw (who actually paid money to see this in the theater?), the film made enough money to confuse someone into paying him to adapt the relatively unknown Korean graphic novel Priest into a full-blown film. Endowed with an even bigger budget, Stewart proceeded to make a film that sure looked pretty in the trailers (and in ho-hum 3D, no less), but with the lingering taste of Legion on my tongue, I could hardly state that I was excited in the least when it came out this past weekend.

Bettany got tired of those "pull my finger" vampire jokes quickly
For untold centuries, there has been war between normal humans and the animalistic vampires, who are ruthless killing machines but thankfully are kept in check by the sun. That is, there WAS a war, until the human side somehow developed Priests, holy warriors, out of seemingly nowhere. Gifted with supernatural strength and skills, Priests turned the tide of the war and ended the vampire threat, supposedly once and for all. Years later, the vampires seem to have returned, and one unnamed Priest (Paul Bettany) has a personal vendetta when they attack his brother's farm and kidnap his niece Lucy (Lily Collins). Despite the ruling of the Church (who govern the few human cities left) that there is no real vampire menace, Priest gathers what few allies he has and gives chase to stop a new human/vampire war before it can begin anew.

That's a big gun; compensating for something, are we?
Of course, we see precious little of the actual war. What we do see, besides an early half-remembered dream of one Priest vs. Vamp mash-up, is displayed using terrible animation as a precursor history to the film's story. I can't help but wish they had come up with a better way, as the imagery is brutish and ugly; while that might have been what Stewart was going for, it doesn't paint a good first impression for those who paid for their tickets. Actually, none of the special effects are particularly effective; while some of the visuals are undeniably pretty, very little else looks remotely realistic. The supposedly-dangerous vampires LOOK like CGI entities instead of flesh-and-blood monsters, and many of the slow-motion camerawork meant to make the fight scenes more comprehensible instead draw the eyes to the film's faults. These are even more exacerbated by the producers' apparent insistence on converting the film to 3D, technology which had already become stale by the end of 2010. The worst thing about the 3D that I can think to say is that you don't even NOTICE it by the halfway mark, and there doesn't seem to be anything so special that it ever benefits from the "enhancement."

Attack of the one-legged she-wolves, anyone?
Of course, that half-assed approach to the visuals permeates into the rest of the filmmaking process as well. You'd never think Stewart knew what he was doing with all the storytelling foibles that are packed into a film that runs only an hour and a half. Scenes feel half-finished and don't blend into the next; it's almost as if the entire film was chopped down from an unbelievably longer cut; nothing seems to gel, and too much is in fact too little, with silly little things like "character development" and "plot" swept under a rug, never to be seen again. What results is film that instead of transporting us to a new universe does us the disservice of stranding us in the desert with only a broken compass and a thumbtack to survive.

The newest Disney ride has a few kinks to work out...
Paul Bettany returns as Stewart's leading man (he also headlined Legion), and while it's good to see him treated as the star he should be, I wish he could be cast as such in a good film. Rightfully praised for his support work in films like A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander, Bettany definitely has the talent to be a star. But, Paul, I'm begging you: step away from the edge, man! It's fine if you want to do more action-oriented sci-fi films; I'm actually of the opinion that there aren't nearly enough of that genre made these days. But Stewart is simply mishandling Bettany's talents, wasting horrid dialogue on Bettany's voice, who had a deeper role as the artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. in the Iron Man films. The supporting cast is maligned as well, mostly talented performers delivering rote lines and grim humorless expressions. Probably the best is Collins, whose small role as Priest's niece has the broadest range of all the characters involved. Karl Urban is another underloved talent, like so many from the Earth's Oceanic region. It's a shame when your best-known role was made famous by another actor, and Urban's Dr. Bones McCoy will probably be long overshadowed by DeForest Kelley, even if his performance was well and truly spot-on. As the film's vampiric villain Urban does his best but is hamstrung by his character being one-dimensional and uninteresting. Cam Gigandet is okay as a small-town sheriff who joins Priest, but like everybody else plays a cliched role. I don't even know if I'm supposed to be impressed by Maggie Q; the closest thing the US has to a modern action starlet outside of Angelina Jolie does action okay but is again struck by a complete inability to show emotion. Stephen Moyer, Christopher Plummer and Brad Dourif are similarly unmotivated, playing typical roles meant for unknowns in need of a paycheck, not established actors. That's the problem with Priest, however, as one can't imagine what was presented to the actors to make them take these roles in the first place. You never get the impression that anyone is having FUN on the set, and that's a sobering experience.

Cheery fellow, isn't he?
And that's really what Priest is; a film that didn't need to be made. While Dylan Dog suffered through a lousy opening weekend, at least that could be blamed on lack of a push from the studios, as the similarly-supernatural title failed to make an impact because nobody heard about it. Priest got all kinds of attention, not to mention a shiny 3D conversion to drive up ticket sales, and will probably be remembered as a bust when it finally exits theaters. So why is this? The easy answer is that it's simply a bad movie, but to be fair, the sci-fi genre doesn't often get a big show of support from even die-hard fans, and the big hits are often descended from popular comics or books that developed followings from decades past. That still doesn't excuse Stewart from making yet another contender for the year's Worst Film list, and one has to wonder why he's being given another chance, adapting Cassandra Clare's popular Mortal Instruments book series into a scheduled 2012 release. He's already shown that he doesn't have what it takes, and if he continues to eek a career out of this level of shoddiness, I'm sure I can expect to hate his upcoming work for years to come.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bridesmaids of Frankenstein

Of all the movies released this summer, perhaps the one from which I knew the least of what to expect was Bridesmaids. Produced by Judd Apatow, Bridesmaids on the surface appears to differ from his usual brand of comedy. With a story focusing on women and marriage that would seem more at home in a traditional romantic setting, it's a huge leap from the usual guy-centered gross-out humor of Superbad and The 40-Year Old Virgin that we usually associate with the Apatow name. Director Paul Feig was another unknown, as his career to this point has been mostly in television, with episodes of The Office, Arrested Development and Nurse Jackie bearing his name. Tack on a cast of unproven talents, and Bridesmaids had every chance to be an underachieving Sex and the City knockoff, with less charm than the HBO show's best moments. Still, word of mouth and and humorous trailers paved the way for a my most anticipated May release, which reunited two former SNL cast-mates, current star Kristen Wiig and alumni Maya Rudolph as the maid of honor of her best friend, the bride.

Sketchy part of town? Perfect place for six white women
When her best friend is engaged to be married, Annie Walker (Wiig) is happy to accept the duties as maid of honor for her childhood friend Lillian (Rudolph). Having known each other since just about forever, Annie wants to be there for her best friend's big moment. However, Annie is going through a rough patch in her life; stuck in a dead-end job she hates, sharing an apartment with a weird British brother/sister combination, and in a loveless relationship with raging asshat Ted (Jon Hamm), the wedding (and all the celebratory events associated with it) is a scary change for someone who's near rock-bottom in their life, but one she's looking forward to. Things begin to spiral out of control, however, especially with the interference of bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), who has it in her head that she's really Lillian's best friend and tries to take over the planning. Annie's low self-esteem due to all this threatens not only to ruin Lillian's wedding, but also their lifelong friendship in the process.

Shhhh... I'm trying to murder you with my heat vision...
The plot itself seems reliably mundane, which really lowers your guard to the laughs and amusement that accompany it. The gross humor you can expect in an Apatow production does make itself known, especially in a scene where the bridesmaids get food poisoning from a restaurant Annie chooses. But while that brand of scatalogical humor is expected in a film like this, it thankfully doesn't overpower the "other" funny bits that pop up throughout. Sure, the female anatomy jokes could be seen as a little uncomfortable and a lot of the dialogue can be vulgar, but the "vagina jokes" (as opposed to "dick jokes") feel authentic and foul language is also represented in a realistic fashion. It's all funny anyways, and you'll find something to laugh at no matter your gender, whether it be snickering at wry wit or howling at the raw physical humor..

Wiig re-negotiating her SNL contract
That level of funny is in part thanks to the stars and especially Wiig, who co-wrote the screenplay and provides many of the film's best-acted scenes. An every-woman, Annie has to show several sides, from the loving side around Lillian and general snarkiness to her wounded vulnerabilities and rock-bottom depression. Bridesmaids represents Wiig's best on-screen performance, and it does so partially because she doesn't try to play one of her usual eccentric-yet-entertaining personas. Annie's charm is in her likeness to the everyday single woman, and she comes off as honest and sympathetic to any viewers. Rudolph plays well off of Wiig's energies, and the two come off believably as best friends. Rudolph, who is a better actress than most people give credit, flows between the wedding jubilation and nervousness flawlessly. Byrne completes the Big Three with a great performance as the underhanded Helen, especially rewarding as the character doesn't play like a typical catty housewife. Despite being lauded as the film's "villain", Helen is no such thing, and the complexity of the character does so much to let the film go forward. Byrne has had a string of luck with roles this year, as she'll be aiming to be in her third major 2011 film when X-Men First Class comes out later this summer.

No, I didn't eat your Ring Pop; why do you ask?
It's a shame the secondary characters don't get quite as much love as the main trio of stars. Reno 911's Wendy McLendon-Covey and The Office's Ellie Kemper play other bridesmaids but despite getting some quality dialogue and depth, nothing is really done with them. I wouldn't think it was so bad if they hadn't started to go down some interesting roads with these two parts, only to fizzle out about halfway through. The guys of the film also don't get much attention, though that is done intentionally and in a positive way that focuses on the women's characters. Though the roles of Hamm as Annie's dickhead lover and Chris O'Dowd as her speculative beau are relatively small, both put on good shows with what they have. O'Dowd is an underrated performer who may garner more attention from this film, but I'm especially impressed with Hamm, who continually chooses varying roles to increase his range as an actor. Who knows how long Mad Men will remain on television, and it's obvious that he's getting ready to make it on his own. Jill Clayburgh is another underutilized actress, as I thought her role as Annie's mom also had potential but didn't do much overall. The best of the secondary characters however is played by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy plays Megan, sister of the groom and the most hilarious of the bridesmaids, and brings with her the best and raunchiest dialogue and laughs. She also shows herself to be remarkably sensitive, and in this way her character doesn't overpower the film, as she is never overused to the point of boredom.

If not Fab Four... Significant Six? Doesn't quite feel the same...
I was a little annoyed that several scenes presented in the trailer never made their way into the movie's finished product, a sin every major film commits to some degree but one that in this case left me mercifully unprepared for the jokes when they hit. Bridesmaids manages to feel like it left a lot out while still coming in at over two hours, but for not one moment during the runtime was I bored or unamused while sitting in the theater. A truly wonderful film about friendship that takes a more blue-collar approach to the same ideas put forth by SatC, Bridesmaids places at #5 for 2011. I really, really, REALLY liked this film, and while some might be surprised that I'd even be interested in seeing it, I would recommend it to any choosing to abstain from the big-budget visual porn that comes to theaters this summer, but don't want the rampant stupidity of the Something Borrowed set.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Games You Should Try: Atom Zombie Smasher

Typically I talk about movies, but sometimes I need to get away from that medium and turn my attention to my OTHER favorite brand of entertainment. Everyone knows video games exist. Even if you've never picked up a controller or booted up a gaming program, you're fundamentally aware of them, even if it's the most popular titles that get all that attention. In South Korea, you aren't breathing if you don't know what Starcraft is. And here in the States, we constantly see ads for popular titles such as Madden NFL Football, Call of Duty, or worldwide phenomena World of Warcraft. All these games come from major game publishers and are so well recognized because of the media blitz these companies can afford to throw in your face. But where does that leave the smaller developers who aren't sponsored by a major publisher? Like indie films and self-published books, these games and their creators have an uphill battle for recognition, and many may never make back what was spent in time and dollars to make them. That's what makes the recent digital explosion so great for gamers; with sites dedicated to the online purchase and digital download of games - Steam and are good examples - more and more indie developers can distribute their games to a worldwide audience with little fuss. Imagine what the guys at iD Software (creators of legendary games Doom and Quake) could have accomplished had they access to these spoils. Granted, not all these small-time games are worth your dollar, but when you find the gems that manage to creep their way to the surface, you can often be surprised by the depth that exists in simple gameplay. Such is the case with Atomic Zombie Smasher, the latest strategy title by Blendo Games and creator Brendan Chung.

Your mother lied: the zombies ARE coming to get you
Taking place in the fictional nation of Nuevos Aires and beginning in the year 1960, AZS takes the act of killing zombies and puts it in a new perspective. As the leader of the limited military forces at your disposal, your mission is to evacuate civilians from the cities as quickly as possible, before the zombie hordes run amok and turn your loving citizens into brainless, snarling beasts. To this end, you are given an aerial view of the cities you're trying to defend, as you direct rescue choppers, snipers, artillery strikes and other units to hold off the advancing menace long enough to get your people to safety. As you win battles and secure territory, you earn points and credits towards scientific research, units "rank up" and gain new abilities, and you eventually get to launch cool weapons like the Llama Bomb against your enemy. Lose these battles, however, and you can look forward to an ever-growing zombie apocalypse and the extermination of humans from the face of Nuevos Aires.

The abundance of purple on the board indicates that the zeds are in FULL control
Like most indie games, AZS doesn't feature overly-complicated graphics or realistic textures that you see nowadays on $50-$60 retail releases. Crysis it ain't, and the simple graphics and interface isn't going to win any marks for visual artistry. There is beauty in simplicity, however, and what does appear on your computer screen is very easy to follow with a minimum of practice. Select a unit, click on a square, and your selected piece will move to that spot or blast anything unfortunate to be in that area. The streets of a given city are winding and the movement of zombies and civilians alike are fluid and unpredictable. Meant as a game you can play quickly, it doesn't burden your computer with anything unnecessary to slow your access to the action. While you are treated to occasional vignettes featuring the game's random back-story, they are silly and cartoon-y and amusing but can be easily ignored. Since a single mission typically takes less than two minutes (if you're regularly going longer you're either very good or very lucky) the player can easily sit down for a quick game while waiting for water to boil.

Vignettes really don't do anything to explain why there are so many zombies afoot
Of course, sticking to one battle at a time is harder than it sounds. You get so into fighting off the undead invasion that once you've secured a city, you want to move onto the next immediately. The gameplay is extremely addictive, especially later on when you are given control of more advanced weaponry and your basic units have more destructive capabilities at their disposal. Of course, the zombies don't make it easy for you. Your enemy is constantly invading territories faster than you can repel them, and they also get stronger the longer a game progresses. In this way, the goal ends up being more about holding off the invasion than actually securing anything akin to "victory." That won't stop any casual gamers from enjoying what's on display here, however. We're talking about compelling gameplay that is different from most of what we see in general but is so simple you can pick it up and go.

Military units range from snipers and dynamite to guys who put up barricades, and each is useful
Though the game is insanely fun, it does have a few faults. The overview of Nuevos Aires is mostly useless, as different areas simply hold yet another city to defend and have only cosmetic differences between them. This makes the overview screen unnecessary, as it lacks details that even basic strategy games usually cover. You also cannot choose which military units you have available at any given time, as all but a few are designated on "away missions" that apparently have no bearing on the game itself. I don't mind being handicapped in this way since it pays to level up all the units and not just a select few, but I would have liked a better explanation from the game. These faults however are made up by the ability to restart any mission that has gone south (just press F9) and the ability in the beginning to custom-make your game to make it easier (or harder, if you prefer). Factor in that it's available for cheap ($10 on Steam) and a download time of about a minute over a cable modem, and you've never gotten into gaming so quickly and easily. A perfect example of indie games surpassing their limited standards, Atom Zombie Smasher is quick bite of gaming goodness to whet your appetite while waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Something Dreadful

Yes, I actually watched Something Borrowed.

Okay, okay, get it all out. Back with us? Good for you. I often catch flak for seeing movies that everyone just assumes are bad, and this title is no exception. Yes, I've seen real travesties like Sucker Punch and Red Riding Hood. The former is a good example of a film I had high hopes for, even with seemingly obvious warning signs that should have tipped me off to the war crimes that waited me. In the latter's case, I often know exactly what I'm getting into, and that must confound people to no end, because they won't stop talking about how I reviewed a bad film. The perceived quality is never really in consideration when I decide to see a specific film, however. What I want to discover by watching most movies is to gain an understanding of what the thought process is behind their beginnings. Every film you've seen - and a good many you haven't - was created with the simple idea that SOMEONE would want to sit down and watch it. In 2010 I saw the hokey and profoundly bad The Warrior's Way, which at one point was making less money than the limited-release Black Swan despite being shown in about fifty times as many theaters. Even bombs like that were initially meant to appeal to viewers, and some corporate exec in Hollywood greenlit the concept, never once thinking that he or she was eventually going to cost his production company millions of dollars on a bad deal. So when I pay to see a film (at half price matinees, mind you; I'm a fan of the arts, not STUPID) I am completely okay with the idea that it might be horrid because that means I can understand the thoughts and flaws of the people who make the movies we all make time to enjoy once in a while. I don't see films because they are good or bad; I see them because they ARE, and with my friend The Opinioness (who wrote her own review of the film) I sat through a bad movie and don't at all regret it.

Blonde or brunette? So difficult to choose...
In this latest adaptation of the bestselling novel of the same name, Something Borrowed introduces us to Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin), a lawyer celebrating her thirtieth birthday with her best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson) and a room full of people who we don't know and never see again. After a night full of celebratory cocktails, Rachel has one last drink with Dex (Colin Egglesfield), Darcy's fiance and the man Rachel has had a crush on since meeting him in law school. One drunken confession leads to the two waking up next to one another in bed. Now Rachel must decide whether to pursue this romantic entanglement at the expense of her friendship with Darcy. Hilarity ensues.

Aaand... BAM! Now she looks 50.
If it wasn't for the fact that the story was based on a book generally considered mindless even by the standards of its fans, I would make sure Jenny Snyder never wrote another screenplay. As it stands, the woman who wrote for such female-centric shows as Gilmore Girls, Lipstick Jungle, and Hope & Faith was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real villain here is book author Emily Giffin, who for some reason tells a story of infidelity and betrayal and tries to get us the root for the bad guys. Okay, to be fair, there are really no "bad" people in this story. As much as you think you would hate Rachel for wanting to steal Dex away from Darcy, she at least makes a show of not WANTING to want to steal him away. That doesn't really make up for Giffin's idea that its okay to cheat and steal when Soul Mates are involved. You may have heard of this typical guy code: "Bros before hos." Crass, yes, but the idea of guys sticking to their friendships instead of screwing their buddies over and breaking promises for any woman is as honest an endeavor as I can imagine. You would imagine women to have a similar philosophy, but this film would have you believe that everything Sex and the City told you was a lie. Almost from the beginning, Rachel's meekness and questioning personality is pitted against Darcy's flamboyance and exuberance (yes, it really is that cliche), and neither really gets that revelation that perhaps their lifelong friendship is worth more than the affections of some guy.

Yes, John Krasinski is here. He is wonderful
If there was one place that had to succeed in order to make up for the magnitude of mire that sinks this film, it would be the acting and character interaction. Character depth is sadly lacking, as the two leads are one-dimensional and of course take up the majority of the film's screen time. Goodwin is cheery and just good enough to pull off the lead role, but you have to imagine any complexity to he part would have gone right over her head. There's simply not enough for her to do to showcase her talents, as Rachel mainly just repeats the word "Stop" to people (who promptly don't) and vacillates between happiness with Dex and guilt over what she's doing to Darcy. Speaking of Darcy, I can't decide if Kate Hudson is putting on a great performance or a terrible one. After breaking out in her award-winning Almost Famous, she basically does the same things (being loud, daring and foul-mouthed) that she does in every romantic comedy she's in, and acting drunk on screen doesn't seem to be too difficult to her. Darcy's apparent alcoholism is unexplored in the film (as is everything else about her), and Hudson doesn't do the character any favors by playing it safe.

Goodwin and Krasinski argue as to who will have the worse film career
In a film geared towards women, why are the most compelling characters the men? Egglesfield gets a nice, meaty role that more than makes up for getting kicked off the set of Melrose Place back in '99. Once known as the most successful abortion on daytime television's All My Children, Egglesfield actually gets some depth to his role as Dex, or at least much more than the two leads can combine. Dex actually has issues! Dex has a mother suffering from depression! Dex has huge expectations from his father that he struggles to meet! Frankly, Dex is almost as much the center of the film as he is to Rachel, and that is to Egglesfield's benefit more any anybody else. Really, he's a character you feel bad for one moment, and roundly hate the next, while liking him again not too far in the future. He still isn't explored enough as a character, but at least he gets the most of this bunch. If Egglesfield is the center, however, then that must make John Krasinski the heart, as he plays the friend of both ladies while mentoring Rachel about what she needs to do. Krasinski simply MAKES the movie, and it would be a sad place indeed if Something Borrowed were to exist without him. Every line is perfectly delivered, every joke expertly told, and every reason to want to like this film exist solely in Krasinski's portrayal of Ethan, Rachel's gay best friend who's not actually gay. As the film's main shot at redemption, Ethan as a character could probably headline his own film, and I'd hope anyone who missed his best theatrical release Away We Go would sit through that.

Not quite as much plastic as mom, but working on it!
Don't expect a Top 10 rating from this film; Something Borrowed simply doesn't have enough to make for even an interesting diversion. It does do a few things right, most notably the casting of Krasinski and at least a semblance of honest dilemma among the dramatics. There is also a very competitive badminton game that livens things up leading to the film's final act. Those items prevent the film from being completely unwatchable, but the shallow story and characters have no growth to them, and we never really learn why the hell Rachel and Darcy ever lasted as best friends for so long in the first place. Meant as a mindless vehicle for people who don't want to think so much, Something Borrowed is an insult to any woman whose life doesn't revolve around marriage and finding "Mr. Right." See it at your brain cells' detriment.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Oh Ye Olde Gods

Okay, enough of that; back to actually SEEING movies, and not just talking about them. Summer officially kicked off this past weekend with the arrival of expected cinema superstar Thor as it hit the big screen. Though the expectations were obviously high for the blockbuster leading off the year's hottest season, there were a few obstacles standing between Thor and automatic box office dominance. First of all, the obvious: a comic book movie is being directed by Kenneth Branagh. That's right, the film's helmsman is the guy best known for his film adaptations of Shakespeare plays Henry V and Hamlet. Say all you want about comic books being art (and I'd agree) but the difference between colored paper and the written word of the Bard is a big one, no matter what your feelings on the matter. Secondly, who in the hell heard of Chris Hemsworth before he was cast in the film's lead role? Sure, the Australian actor has the proper physique to portray the God of Thunder, but who knew anything about him before he played Jim Kirk's ill-fated father in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot? Unknown actors don't carry the same weight as known quantities like Will Smith or Matt Damon. Finally, the character of Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby back in the 60's is not exactly a known quantity to fans outside of comics. Based on Norse stories and popular in Marvel Comics' heyday, Thor was a result of Stan's obsession with mythology, which resulted in several myth-based superheroes, including Thor, Hercules, and The Forgotten One/Gilgamesh. Unlike more grounded heroes like Spiderman or the X-Men, the character of Thor was never one meant to connect with the similarities of his audience. Instead he was supposed as an icon, an unreachable pedestal for other heroes to look up to. This hardly lays the groundwork for a film franchise, but Thor was one of the few untapped Marvel Comics properties, and introducing him to theater audiences was crucial if he was to star alongside Iron Man and Captain America in 2012's Avengers film. Being a mid-level comic fan myself, I still had high hopes despite these lingering concerns, which helped me to check out Thor in its opening weekend.

Apparently, Thor's working on the railroad... all the live-long day
After his hubris results in war between the noble city of Asgard and their ancient enemies the Frost Giants, Thor (Hemsworth) is exiled by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to Earth and stripped of his godly powers as punishment, to learn humility. Once on our planet, Thor meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist theorizing of gateways and bridges connecting intergalactic destinations. Now she has her biggest piece of evidence, but before things can move forward her work is confiscated by the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and its operative Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Meanwhile, things are not all well in Asgard, as the ailing king Odin falls into a coma, leaving his wicked son and Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as the sole heir to the throne. Soon, Thor's allies are attempting to get him back to Asgard as Thor himself attempts to prove worthy of harnessing his godly powers while becoming smitten with Jane in the process.

Hey, it's "what's-his-name"!
I needn't have worried about Thor disappointing. In the same vein of similar recent Marvel adaptations, it manages to be a complex mix of action, drama, character and comedy, a delicate tightrope that is managed thanks to respect for the source material and assistance from comic creators like J. Michael Straczynski who have been a huge part of Thor's presence in pop culture. While Branagh might have been expected to play up the seriousness of the story, he does a masterful job of actually making the experience a lot of fun, especially involving a liberal dose of humor that catches the audience off guard while never feeling out of place. This should have been expected, since the original comics did much the same thing, but it manages to be a pleasant surprise, especially when the comic timing of film is impeccable. The interaction between characters never feels forced, with the perfect casting done to make these characters feel real whether they live on Earth or in a different dimension.

Twenty years later, the fallout of the father-son three-legged race still rages on
That cast is what really makes the film fall in place. Hemsworth proves himself as the next generation of action star with not only raw physicality and force of presence, but a lot of legitimate acting talent to boot. Stepping lightly between action hero, hilarious comic and romantic lead, Hemsworth is asked to wear a lot of hats in what might be his largest ever role, and he manages to juggle these different bits into a strong character that will hopefully translate into a real franchise and not a one-hit wonder. Portman seems to be everywhere this year, as Thor is her third film released so far in 2011. The actress may never again reach the critical acclaim that netted her an Oscar nomination for last year's Black Swan, but she's never less than amazing in any film she chooses to be seen in, and her role here shouldn't be construed as simple love interest. Jane Foster is a genius, a strong woman in her own right who keeps herself going despite lack of support or notoriety. Tom Hiddleston got the role of trickster Loki from having worked with Branagh in the past, and it's a good thing, too; I can't think of anybody who could match his delivery and look that perfectly captures Thor's enemy and yet loved brother. Probably the best role in the film, Hiddleston will most likely get a good, long look from major studios after this.

Hiddleston got the part by being seven years late for a Severus Snape audition
For the secondary characters, there is a lot of talent boasted between both Asgard and Midgard (that's Earth, for you mortals out there). Stellan Skarsgard plays Jane's scientific advisor and friend of her father's, bringing a sense of professionalism to the cast. His near-humorlessness is perfectly foiled by Kat Dennings, who plays Darcy, Jane's intern and gofer. Dennings has some of the funniest dialogue in the script, but her humor is not just confined to the spoken, as her actions often illicit the same amount of chuckles. Gregg is no star, but his character, introduced in Iron Man and something of a connecting piece between the films, is interesting enough to compensate for his lack of actually doing anything. As the leader of the evil Frost Giants, Colm Fiore adds to a list of compelling antagonists under his resume. Though not his best role, his convincing work does wonders for the film's tale as a whole. Perfectly cast are Thor's friends, Sif and the Warriors Three. Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano and Joshua Dallas are all excellent and perfectly capture the essence of these characters from the comics, though I honestly wish more had been done with them, especially their backgrounds, which are largely absent. Alexander in particular demands interest, since in the comics Sif is romantically interested in Thor, though that is ignored here. Racists might have had issue with Idris Elba playing the Asgardian Heimdall, but I had no problem with such a talented actor taking the role. As the all-seeing guardian of the realm, Elba has an unexpectedly strong part, and it was nice to see the Wire veteran getting a meaty role in a successful film. The only real disappointments are Thor's parents as Hopkins overacts his way through a stunted role, and Rene Russo does nothing of interest as Frigga, Thor's mother.

Elba shows the Council of Conservative Citizens where to suck
Speaking of disappointments, beware how you watch Thor in theaters. I saw this film on an IMAX screen and in 3D, and I can't honestly recommend it for most viewers. While most scenes and special effects look great in these conditions, it is ironically the film's few action scenes that suffer from the 3D conversion. Fights are disjointed and blurry, with so much mashed together that you find yourself squinting to try and see what exactly is going on. I've heard that he 2D showings clean up nicely, and I'd have to suggest that you don't pay the extra dough to see it in 3D, since it's just not polished enough to be pretty. Most theaters should have that option open to you, so if you can, avoid the crowds and go low-tech.

Seriously, where did this guy come from???
Thor might not be everyone's cup of tea, but at #5 for 2011 I honestly can't understand why not. Like most of Marvel's recent comic book adaptations, Thor is easy for non-fans to appreciate and enjoy but truly rewards the comic fan, a trend that keeps geeks waiting for the inevitable Stan Lee cameo, secret scenes of famous characters and nods to the superhero universe around the film, making it feel like a part of a whole instead of a stand-alone clunker. I had a lot of fun at the theater, and I think if you give Thor a chance, you'll be happy with the results no matter your disposition to the genre.

Friday, May 6, 2011

But Where Has the Rum Gone: A Hello, Mr. Anderson Summer Movie Preview

And so it begins. As you are reading this, film producers are quivering in anticipation as the Summer film season officially begins. With the midnight releases of Thor and Something Borrowed, Hollywood hopes to kick-start an industry that has so far in 2011 failed at just about every turn. It doesn't help that in the first quarter of 2010, ticket sales were helped immensely by the releases of mega-draws Avatar and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland; even by more mundane standards it has been a weak year for the cinema, with most films underwhelming in their opening weekends en route to unsatisfying theatrical runs. Expected juggernauts fell far short, as big-budget films The Green Hornet, Sucker Punch, and Battle: Los Angeles failed to find audiences. Even one of my favorite first quarter films, the Matt Damon/Emily Blunt vehicle The Adjustment Bureau, barely made a profit. Animated films were among the few success stories, as Rango, Hop and Rio have brought in big money, but with generally large budgets and inflated 3D ticket prices, even those numbers are somewhat deceptive. Basically, the only way you could make money from January through April was to have low enough expenses to counteract the disappointing opening weekend, best evidenced by the ability of low-budget Insidious to make a little bit go a long way. The tide seemed to turn last weekend with the explosion of theater patrons to see Fast Five, the latest in the Fast & Furious franchise. That change is a good sign for the upcoming Summer season, as many of the films due for release will need much more than I Am Number Four's piddly $54 million domestic dollars to break even. The foreign markets can cover a multitude of sins, but relying on audiences outside the United States just to break even can't be good for morale at the production studios. And so we look ahead to the coming months, with the surefire mix of hits, flops, and everywhere in between.

Okay, I realize that May technically begins almost two months prior to the actual Summer Solstice but hey, I don't make the decisions for the film companies. They want to say summer starts in May to create an artificial starting point for their moneymaking releases? Fine by me. May sees several big releases right off the bat, as some of my most awaited 2011 films come out this month. Thor of course continues the road towards 2012's Josh Whedon-directed Avengers movie, and you can practically hear Marvel Comics murmuring in anticipation as this film goes to release. It wasn't too long ago that comic book movies were automatic suck, and it was thanks to Marvel's recent crop of Spider-Man and Iron Man films that changed that trend. Does that guarantee Thor will do well, or be good? Of course not. The trailers look amazing, but Thor is hardly a universally-loved character, even by comic fans, and who knows how many people will actually go out to see this film? I'm hoping for the best, but that's probably since I'll be seeing it sometime this weekend and don't want to have to justify paying 3D ticked prices for admission to a lousy film.

Also on tap for May is the Judd Apatow comedy Bridesmaids, starring SNL stalwart Kristen Wiig along with former co-star Maya Rudolph. Wiig may not have many big-screen successes to her name (Paul disappointed at the box office and 2010's MacGruber was a legitimate flop), but she is funny as hell and will hopefully become a bigger SNL star than Mike Myers was in his heyday. Bridesmaids looks like the perfect vehicle to a post-SNL career, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is the fourth addition to the Disney ride-inspired franchise, and from the previews I've seen will either be the best or worst in the series depending on how everything strings together. Johnny Depp of course looks amazing and hilarious, but it's how the story and new characters come together that will determine how the film ultimately turns out. I couldn't sit through The Hangover, but the sequel The Hangover Part II looks to take everything the first film did and turn it on its head, and the trailers look both hilarious and insane. Hesher and Hobo With a Shotgun are low-budget flicks featuring the last people you would expect (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rutger Hauer, respectively) as ass-kickers. Both look worth the time at any rate.

And that's more than can be said for some of the other films coming out. Something Borrowed comes out at the same time as Thor, but while I like the talents involved (including Ginnifer Goodwin, Colin Egglesfield and Massachusetts native John Krasinski), I can't get over the fact that it seems to be a film championing stealing your best friend's fiancee. That seems completely unnecessary, even if it is based on a bestselling novel. Of a similar nature is Jumping the Broom, which doesn't look too bad, but doesn't appeal to the 18-49 white male demographic, of which I am a proud card-carrying member. Priest is yet another 3D film that ought not to have been produced. It stars the underrated Paul Bettany and Karl Urban but is directed by Scott Stewart (he of the atrocious Legion) and is based on a graphic novel that nobody really knows about. It sure looks pretty, but I'm betting on empty seats come opening night. The Beaver might catch a lot of flak for the controversy surrounding star Mel Gibson, but otherwise the film could actually be pretty good. It does seem to take a good idea too far however, and I simply feel apathetic about spending my money on this when others are more deserving. Kung Fu Panda 2 will be yet another 3D animated film and will make a lot of money, but don't look for another Oscar nomination, as even the first one was barely interesting. The Tree of Life features the return of director Terrence Malick but the trailers just don't look all that interesting to me, with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt doing anything other than making sense of what is going on. Finally, Passion Play commits the cardinal sin of hiring Megan Fox as the love interest of yet another horribly deformed man (in this case Mickey Rourke) in a film that seems like a mix of Black Swan and an acid drop. 


Surprisingly, after a robust May comes a very modest June. Probably the biggest attraction for this month is the sci-fi drama by director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg, Super 8. While I usually cringe at anything bearing Spielberg's name these days (for an extreme example, watch the last Indiana Jones flick), Super 8 seems to hearken back to one of his earlier extraterrestrial films, E.T., and while I feel that particular film is overrated it does have quite a bit of magic to it. Combined with Abrams's ability to weave science fiction to his will, Super 8 might just be one of the more memorable films at year's end. Whether that is a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

June is also host to two more superhero movies from both major comic book publishers, X-Men First Class and Green Lantern. X-Men, an attempt to reboot the franchise and featuring an all-star cast (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones and Kevin Bacon), looks like fun but may suffer from X-Men syndrome, which has seen each successive film suffer in quality. Sure Wolverine was a fun movie, but that was more of a spin-off than an actual sequel. And this new film won't feature Hugh Jackman in the slightest, so that's one more thing for X-Fans to discredit. Green Lantern does look better, starring Ryan Reynolds as fighter pilot Hal Jordan, who by chance becomes the Earth's newest superhero when he inherits the powers to become a member of an intergalactic police force known as the Green Lanterns. Good previews showcasing action and Reynolds's wry wit make the film look like a lot of fun, even if Hal Jordan isn't the most popular hero on DC's roster. As a side note, the most heartfelt trailer I've seen this year is for a film coming out in June, A Better Life. Focusing on an illegal immigrant working as a gardener in Los Angeles while keeping his son away from the street gangs, the film is considered an early contender for the 2011 award season. Check out the trailer and you'll see why.

This month also has one of the worst trailers I've seen this year, for Bad Teacher. Starring Cameron Diaz as an educator who only bothers with her students when it positively affects her, this film looks more like a traditional Apatow film than Bridesmaids, but doesn't seem to contain any of Apatow's inherent charm. This is especially a shame for co-stars Justin Timberlake, Eric Stonestreet and Jason Segel, who deserve better than this crap shoot. Cars 2 is another animated sequel banking on a successful franchise and 3D technology, but appealing to the NASCAR crowd will only get you so far. Besides, actively hiring Larry the Cable Guy is tantamount to having Sasha Grey perform Shakespeare. Jim Carrey returns to family-friendly fare with Mr. Popper's Penguins. Jim Carry, yeah. Okay, fine, I'll give him credit for a good job in I Love You Phillip Morris but that's all he's getting from me.

For as little June brings to the table, July carts it all back with action sequels, hilarious comedies, more superheroes, and animated films from the intellectual properties of yesteryear. There's little doubt that the biggest release this month will be Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the last in the Michael Bay trilogy based on the 1980's toy catalog. I've never seen the first two films, but the trailers for Bay's latest manage to make me salivate, and perhaps I'll go back and watch those films before taking this one in. Dark of the Moon thankfully ditches Megan Fox, though the woman they hired to replace her as Shia LeBeouf's love interest looks to be even less interesting. Still, there seems to be even more insane robot-on-robot action than in any film prior, and that will probably be more than enough to bring in the audiences in record numbers.

By this time, Hollywood is hoping the superhero films aren't entirely played out, as two more comic book films hit the screen. The first, Captain America: The First Avenger, takes place in World War II and features Chris Evans as a genetically-modified super soldier who eventually goes on to found the modern-day superhero team The Avengers. Also starring Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci, this is easily my most anticipated film for the Summer, as I've always had a healthy respect for Captain America the character, despite his somewhat conservative leanings. You know Marvel Comics is hoping that this franchise does much better than films like Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider, titles that failed to make much of an impact outside of comic book fans. Cowboys and Aliens is also based on a comic series, this pairing of aliens and the Old West in a way that looks good in theory and has legitimate stars in Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde. Directed by Jon Favreau, if it even comes close to the charm of the first Iron Man film, it will deserve to be a hit. The final Harry Potter novel couldn't be contained to one film, and so Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2 puts the finishing touches on a franchise that has touched millions of readers worldwide. The world of young adult reading will never be the same post-Harry, and the same is true for the films no matter their quality. Larry Crowne and Friends with Benefits are two completely different romantic comedies; the former is a more traditional charmer with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the other a sex romp a la No Strings Attached with Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis, and great supporting roles in Woody Harrelson and Patricia Clarkson. Both look good enough to try opening weekend. Crazy Stupid Love is an ensemble comedy with Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore that looks like it has a lot of heart where similar films would feature coal. And Winnie the Pooh returns a favorite franchise to the big screen, with Disney's old-school animation and voice acting sure to appeal to viewers of all ages.

From an animated film everyone will love to one nobody will, Smurfs takes the old Hanna Barbera series and turns it into a live-action 3D-animated monstrosity, for whose benefit I'm not sure. Parents will probably be tired of paying extra ticket costs to see 3D films with their kids by this point, so at least it probably won't be as popular outside of circles of animation fan boys. For the love of all that is good, will someone please explain to me the appeal of Kevin James? The oft-delayed Zookeeper comes out in July, but with the exception of Rosario Dawson I can't imagine going out to see yet another talking animals film. And Monte Carlo is just another contrived adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper, with teen star Selena Gomez playing both roles in yet another fantasy built specifically for rich white tween girls.

If I'm getting a little punchy at this point, it's because there's simply so much happening this Summer that it's getting difficult to keep everything straight. The month of August is perhaps the toughest month to figure out, as it looks like the two biggest releases are from two franchises that haven't had much in the way of interaction with film audiences in a long time. Rise of the Planet of the Apes came as a surprise in that the last addition to the series was the poor 2001 Tim Burton remake. To actually create an origin story for a beloved series is a risky move (and hiring James Franco to star as someone with many more brain cells than the real deal doesn't scream of strong casting), but the early looks are good enough and will probably result in yet another successful outing for the Apes. The other new film, Conan the Barbarian, stars Baywatch hottie Jason Momoa, and promises sword-and-sorcery action similar to the old-school Arnold Schwarzenegger films of the eighties. However, retconning a popular series after such a long period of time might backfire, and Momoa isn't exactly a proven commodity. Whether the film is successful will depend on how well critics respond to the new setting, and perhaps even an endorsement from the former "Governator" himself.

Among the rest of the month's releases, most notice will probably be held for The Help, the latest adaptation of a bestselling novel, in this case by author Kathryn Stockett about a Mississippi town's inherent racism when it comes to the hired help during the 1960's and a young white woman who dares to defy it. With a constantly-improving Emma Stone out in front, the film looks extremely promising, and while I cringe at an untried director (Stockett's childhood friend Tate Taylor) talking the helm, I can't help but feel optimistic. Forget The Hangover, the funniest comedy of 2011 might be 30 Minutes or Less, with Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg as a pizza delivery man kidnapped and forced to rob a bank with his friend (Parks and Recreations's Aziz Ansari) or the bomb on his chest will explode. The trailer I caught for this left me chuckling for hours afterwards, and if it comes close to its potential it will be amazing. Don't be Afraid of the Dark is a Guillermo del Toro remake of a 1972 horror film that might upset Insidious as the year's scariest film. Fright Night is another remake, this one starring Colin Farrell as a vampire tormenting Star Trek's Anton Yelchin. The talent is there; the question is whether that will be enough. On the final day of August comes The Debt, a suspense film that tells of a team spies who hunt down a war criminal in Cold War-era Soviet territory. With Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington, it's probably worth seeing on the strength of the acting alone.

I'm not sure if My Idiot Brother is supposed to be The Kids are All Right for hippies instead of lesbians, but at least it has a talented cast including Paul Rudd and Zoey Deschanel. It's hardly the most enticing film I'm expecting, but to be fair that's mainly because I know nothing about the actual plot involved. Final Destination 5 is almost certainly one too many, as a whole new generation of young actors will be killed off in gruesome ways for our amusement. Maybe this will finally be the one to put the last nail in the coffin. Spy Kids 4 hardly makes any sense when the kids from the first three are completely grown up, and probably have kids of their own... OOOOHHHH. The Whisteblower is a classic Rachel Weisz film; important, truthful, and will mainly appeal to The Opinioness. The Change-Up is like Freaky Friday for adults, with Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds playing a weathered family man and swinging bachelor respectively, who through a strange twist of fate switch bodies. It could be good, but R-rated comedies are so hit and miss, especially where sex is involved.And as much as a missing tape found of terrifying moon landing footage seems interesting, I'm reminded that when most franchises go into space it's more often than not a bad thing. Such is the case with the repeatedly-delayed Apollo 18, which takes the documentary-style horror film to the big rock orbiting our planet.

There it is! Summer 2011 in a nutshell. Agree? Disagree? Tell me what films you're looking forward to during this blockbuster season!