“Bridesmaids” review.

In movies, it’s no small secret that women often get the short end of the deal. I mean, think about it. They’re mostly relegated to mom or girlfriend roles, with only the occasional meaty part that men seem to get in the industry so frequently. If they do in fact get their own starring vehicle, it’s rarely much beyond the odd romantic comedy. So the recent Judd Apatow-produced comedy “Bridesmaids”, actually carries a good deal more cultural significance than was probably intended. It’s something of a tester, to gauge if all audiences can respond to a female-driven comedy the way they can to a male one. And I can appreciate that.

The pieces were certainly in place to make a great, memorable comedy; and if critical consensus and box-office are any indicators, the majority of America believes the pieces clicked together. As for me,  I feel like “Bridesmaids” doesn’t quite know what its shooting for. It tries to balance the arc of a woman (Kristen Wiig) trying to piece her life back together with rauncy, crude, “Hangover”-esque humor. But I feel like it doesn’t properly emphasize either, so in other hands, neither aspects really work.

The film’s about Annie, played by Wiig, who is selected to be the maid of honor for her best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding. Annie’s at something of a low-point in her life, after the failure of her newly-opened-cakery and moving in with an erratic brother-sister duo. (the bizarre incestual undertones of which are uncomfortable yet brilliant comedy)Annie is given the task of coordinating all the various pre-marital events: Dress fittings, parties, wedding dinners, et cetera. But for this, she faces competition in Helen, Lillian’s gorgeous other best friend who will do whatever it takes to derail Annie’s relationship with Lillian.

Now, there are a few moments in “Bridesmaids” where the film’s potential is fully developed and realized. Ditto the brutal dress-fitting sequence, in which all six bridesmaids fall prey to food poisoning. (Note: If you don’t want to be subconsciously turned off of Brazilian cuisine, don’t see this film.) There’s also a scene aboard a plane, a 15-minute marvel where motivations and tensions slowly simmer and eventually blow up in everyone’s face.

What these two sequences have in common is a slow, workmanlike pace. It takes time to develop an elaborate scenario with various forces playing against each other, both culminating in gut-busting hysteria. And what they have in common is that they’re head-and-shoulders above everything else in the movie.

Most of the jokes in the film come from the characters’ various idiosyncrasies and personalities. But in order for them to work, the characters themselves have to feel fully fleshed and developed. Save for Kristen Wiig, I don’t believe I felt fully convinced by any of the actors’ work here. They play the characters to a certain degree of ridiculousness, yet in the third act try and turn it around to bring a most realistic take on it. I didn’t entirely buy it.

“Bridesmaids” did have to walk a tight-rope, and I can admire and respect that. But the film’s problem is that it isn’t funny, or heartfelt. It’s just not funny or heartfelt enough. C

“The Hangover: Part II” review.

There’s a scene in “The Hangover: Part II” where the three protagonists are looking for clues. See, the same three guys as in the first installment, Stu, Alan and Phil, have awoken from a drunken night on the eve of an important wedding, and need to re-piece their night and find a friend they lost. Phil gets the idea to open up their pockets to check for traces of where they were the following night, but drops a line that quietly devastated me: “Alright guys, you know the drill.” It almost felt like writer-director Todd Phillips was speaking from behind the screen, ‘Alright, guys. I’m not REALLY gonna try here, but Warner Bros. is gonna drop me a fat paycheck so I’m in.’

Now, before I get too deep into my feelings about this film, I’ll shed some light on the positives. The major “twist” with this installment is that it’s set in Bangkok. And truthfully, its the hallucinatory, hellish way cinematographer Lawrence Sher shoots Bangkok, that was the major highlight of the film. Watching it, soaking in the sights, makes you feel like you’re melting in your seat, sinking into a sweaty, dirty hole. And there’s one particular chase scene in the latter third of the film involving a pig, a monkey and a group of Russian mobsters that is actually a superbly directed, well-realized sequence.

“The Hangover: Part II” is about as routine and rote a sequel as they come. It’s a movie that doesn’t feel like it had much creative or passionate energy behind it. Hell, it copy-and-pastes almost everything from the first one — the plot structure, the wacky events, hell, even some of the jokes. But what made the first “Hangover” such a bizarrely inspired stroke of comedic genius, is sadly, largely gone. It was the sense of surprise that we had as an audience. Make no mistake, that film was just as genuinely compelling a mystery as it was an uproarious comedy. Here, that’s gone. The sense of discovery and curiosity is gone. Instead, we get a mechanical retread; one that captures all the surface of the original at the expense of its soul.

Now, note that I said, it “captures the surface” of the original. This is true. There remains the offbeat chemistry between the leads. There remains the awkward dentist Stu, there remains the good-looking straight-man Phil, there remains the whiny, psychopathic, potentially pedophiliac man-child Alan. There’s still the quirky, crude one-liners, there’s still the constant penis jokes, there’s still the Mike Tyson cameo. Hell, there’s still the ending-credits montage, in which cell-phone-pictures of their wild night are displayed, so that we can piece together the mystery as an audience.

This may sound like the same uproarious fun of the first, but its truly not. On the contrary, it was probably one of the duller cinematic experiences this year. Not just because I’ve seen it all before, but because its delivered from a group of wildly talented individuals who all know they could do better. D+

“Hobo With A Shotgun” review.

Imagine a world where every movie title described its subject matter perfectly. Interesting, no?

Where instead of “Fast Five” it’d be “Muscular Men Driving Fast Cars For The Fifth Time”; where instead of “Your Highness” it’d be “Medieval Stoner Comedy”. An endearing concept, but one that would wear thin after a while. Used sparingly, though, it’s awesome. Enter “Hobo With A Shotgun”, where the premise is succinctly summarized in the four words of its title. It is, in fact, a hobo wielding a shotgun, on a one-man quest against a web of corrupt cops, psychopathic mobsters and their army of robots. It is, in fact, as ludicrous, bombastic and stupid as it sounds. And it is, in fact, very close to a masterpiece. Call me insane, but this is seriously inspired cinema.

Director Jason Eisener pulls off something very tricky. See, on the exterior, “Hobo with a Shotgun” is out-of-control; a manic, chaotic, bloody romp of a film. But Eisener actually has a tight, taut vision; one that he executes perfectly. He’s making a film not in the style of, but actually of vintage exploitation cinema. He plays everything totally straight, relying on the audience to pick up the tone that he’s trying to convey. Basically, the movie is one great big inside-joke.

Hauer is pretty fantastic as the titular hobo. He plays it entirely straight-forward; making a character that could have easily slipped into caricature but instead gives a somewhat nuanced performance as someone who clearly isn’t entirely in his right mind. Brian Downey steals every scene he’s in, however, as The Drake, who, as the head mobster in the town, is the chief villain of the film. Memorable (and publication-appropriate) lines of his include, “When life gives you razor blades, make a baseball bat full of razor blades!”. He knows just how much ham to bring to each individual line, as do his psychopathic sons cum henchmen, whose almost impossible level of ego and bravado remind me of “Risky Business”-era Tom Cruise, million-dollar-smile and all.

Eisener’s originality shines through in truly bizarre ways here. The structure and concept of the movie are nothing new, but it’s little nuances that truly are (i.e., the staging of the action sequences, the kills, etc.). Nothing is off-limits here….not even a school-bus full of children.

“Hobo With A Shotgun”, though gruesome and repelling; loud and brutal; stupid and silly, is fantastic. It’s a film made with the utmost care and passion, with some of the most original action in a while and a truly great performance from a long-respected veteran actor, Rutger Hauer. It’s definitely fringe cinema. You won’t find this at your local cineplex. [As it stands right now, “Hobo With A Shotgun” can be seen at art-house cinemas and on iTunes] But it’s a film that touched me in a weird way, one that struck emotional chords in me, both brutal and poignant. B+

“Scream 4” review

When you re-invent something by both satirizing and embodying it, how do you follow up on that? That’s been Wes Craven’s dilemma in the wake of his 1996 smash “Scream”. Being pretty much the undisputed master of American horror up to that point (See: “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise, “Hills Have Eyes”), Craven saw fit to both comment on and embrace all of the various clichés, characterizations and quirks of horror. Inevitably, it was a success; inevitably there were sequels and inevitably they were vastly inferior.

But the horror landscape has changed since Craven gave the franchise up in 2000. Reboots, remakes, re-imaginings…whatever you wish to call them, have permeated the genre. Horror’s never been more popular. It’s also never been more creatively and artistically barren. Either way, a new “Scream” feels appropriate, almost necessary. Enter “Scream 4”.

It maintains the same core trio from the original trilogy, the eternal survivor Sidney Prescott, the bumbling cop Dewey, and his wife, reporter Gale. It’s been ten years since their last attack from the (now-iconic) Ghostface Killer. Throughout the “Scream” franchise, the basic concept is that these three have to avoid a killer whose identity changes every movie, and who kills according to the basic guidelines of horror-movie-cliché. (For example, Ghostface won’t kill a virgin, as virgins tend not to die in horror movies. Et cetera.)

In “Scream 4”, the Ghostface Killer is after them again, but is also focusing on a new generation of prey: High-schoolers, one of which happens to be Sidney’s niece.  However, the rules by which these characters can survive the Ghostface have completely changed. In fact, probably  my favorite aspect of the entire film are the ways in which it sends up modern horror conventions. But this brings me back to ultimately the biggest issue that this movie has; the fact that it dumbs itself down for the audience so that, ironically enough, it can be understood on the same level of what it’s parodying.

Over the course of the franchise, the comedy has always been better executed than the horror. This is no exception. The whole cast is well-accustomed to the snappy, sassy dialogue; Hayden Panettiere particularly standing out as one of the teens in Ghostface’s sights. The horror aspect, however, is compromised a bit by the zippy pace the film carries. Moments that could have been horrifying are played without the proper execution to make it stick in one’s mind. Kind of like the rest of the film. C+

“Fast Five” review.

Looking through the archives on my website (insert shameless plug for RyanTheMovieCritic.com here), I saw in my review of the 2009 actioner “Fast and Furious”, that I essentially surrendered. Surrendered any kind of critical pretensions when approaching the franchise, a long-running cash-cow revolving around Vin Diesel engaging in high-octane street races; at the expense of both the law and endless public property. The tradition, both on the filmmakers’ part and on mine, continues with the newest installment, “Fast Five”.

I’ll be straightforward about this: The summer movie season is here. “Fast Five” announces that in a blaze of burnt rubber and flying vehicles, and I don’t know that there will be a movie this film-going season that will top the total blast I got out of it. It’s been a while since I sat in a theater (front row, mind you) and giggled with such exuberance. I chomped up every frame of this movie at the bit; acknowledging its total lack of substance yet being too distracted by the film’s (endless) flashiness to really mind. If it’s any indication of my enjoyment of “Fast Five”, I literally looked over at my film-going companions and said in a childish, mono-syllabic tone, “Big car go boom!”.

Story? Oh, yeah….that. There’s cars and thieves and cops that want to stop the thieves from getting in the cars. Do you care? I don’t. They’re cliched, shallow vessels of characters, portrayed by mostly mediocre actors (don’t even try to defend the acting talents of Ludacris). They’re also indispensable. Who else would drive the cars?

The action. Oh boy, the action. “Fast Five” is bookended by two 20-minute chase sequences, both of which are as ridiculous and over-the-top as they are technically proficient. The first involves a heist of several sports cars from a high-speed train; the other a chase in which the two main characters speed through the streets of Rio, with literally an entire bank vault attached to the backs of their vehicles, local gangsters and police officers in pursuit. This particular sequence may be one of the zippiest, coolest action scenes in years. I’m going back for seconds on the strength of this alone.

“Fast Five”, for 130 minutes, gave me a giddy-action high; oft recalling when I as a doe-eyed eight-year old, popped in a video cassette of “Die Hard” and for the next two hours was totally blown away by excitement. I can’t rationalize it, or explain it. But when you see a bank vault attached to two high-moving sports cars, I’m pretty sure that high will speak for itself. A-