September 10, 2009 | Narrative
Views from the Movie Box
the peaks and pits of summer cinema
article by Matt Hill
In this follow-up to Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen once again turns his critical eye to the American South, which at this point should be putting up “Wanted” signs of the British comedian if it wishes to be spared further embarrassment. Many of the film’s gags, particularly those involving Brüno’s attempts to “convert” himself to heterosexuality, hit home, opening a window into some of the darker corners of our still imperfect union. But others just seem to be shocking for shocking’s sake, which makes the satire here less effective than it was in the 2006 film.
One of the best Hollywood blockbusters that Hollywood never made. The movie isn’t flawless—it abandons its intriguing faux-documentary format about a third of the way through, and loses a lot of its subtext in the process—but it’s thrilling and even moving in ways that Transformers wishes it could be. Sharlto Copley, playing the lead, turns in an unexpectedly electrifying performance, and “Christopher,” one of the aliens relegated to the film’s titular slum, is the best CGI creation since Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
(500) Days of Summer
Director Marc Webb’s feature debut tries hard to be the Pulp Fiction of romantic comedies: it fractures its narrative, deliberately attempts to upend expectations, and lifts some of its best moments from other great movies. (Check out the split-screen nod to Annie Hall.) But it’s not quite good enough to earn that title: the ending is too cute by half, and some of it feels thrown together. Still, it’s worth it to see a movie that has ideas and energy to spare—and that, of course, features the swoon-worthy Zooey Deschanel.
The central conceit of this summer’s breakout hit—a group of men waking up in a Vegas hotel room with no recollection of the night before—is what gives it most of its considerable appeal. (After all, who hasn’t woken up one morning wondering what happened only hours earlier? Right?) But that doesn’t mean The Hangover’s execution should be underestimated: its three (formerly) relatively unknown stars, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, all have enough natural charm to carry the movie to its finish. A note about the film’s ending credits: This is how you keep butts in seats while the names of grips and production assistants roll by.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Another solid entry into what is now the biggest domestic movie series in history. As per usual, the film’s cast, essentially a British all-star team, is superb. But the real star here is director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, whose stunningly atmospheric work surely deserves an Oscar nomination. The only disappointment this time around? In comparison to the book, the ending here feels somewhat inert. But perhaps this is because having read the book—or the SparkNotes (really?)—we all knew it was coming.
Quentin Tarantino’s new movie is a “glourious” return to form for the hit-or-miss director. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.) Christoph Waltz creates one of the greatest screen villains in years in a Nazi interrogator nicknamed the “Jew Hunter,” and Mélanie Laurent delivers a star-making performance at a time when woefully few great roles are being written for women. Tarantino’s influences this time around are manifold — The Dirty Dozen, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and, uh, Inglorious Bastards — but miraculously, he manages to meld them together into a one-of-a-kind alternate-history tragicomedy, one that positions itself as both a great war movie and a movie that questions why we like war movies in the first place.
Hayao Miyazaki has often been called the “Japanese Walt Disney,” but really, that’s selling him short. The surrealist dream logic of Spirited Away and the Casablanca-inspired wistfulness of Porco Rosso are unlike anything the Mouse House has churned out, and Ponyo, Miyazaki’s latest, is similarly unique. Some may be thrown off by the film’s mythology, which does unnecessarily convolute the film a bit toward the end, but the sheer exuberance of its imagery and sounds will likely win over even the hardest of hearts.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Loud, obnoxious, uneven—and fitfully entertaining. Yeah, you saw it, too; you know what I mean. In many ways, Michael Bay’s sequel to his 2007 megahit is more of the same: silly dialogue, overdone pyrotechnics, a complete dearth of chemistry between its two leads. But somehow, amid all its sound and fury, Transformers 2 seems to signify something. No, it’s not good. It’s quite bad, actually. But why is it still fun even to watch the trailer for this thing? I don’t know.
Pixar’s latest film is, predictably, a triumph—bringing the studio’s overall tally to an incredible 10/10. (That is, if you count Cars, which was, you know, only good.) Perhaps more than any Pixar movie before it, the film wears its influences on its sleeve: The imagery is inspired by Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and the story is indebted to The Wizard of Oz. But Up does wonders on its own terms as well, creating endearing, memorable characters and taking them on a journey that floats along as effortlessly as a summer breeze. A note to sentimental viewers: Pack your pockets with tissues for those first 10 minutes. Sheesh.
The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern says it best: “Whatever Works doesn’t.” Working from a script he wrote back in the 1970s, Woody Allen regresses from the sexy and amusing Vicky Cristina Barcelona into some of his most frustrating obsessions here—among them, groan-inducing, fourth wall-breaking monologues about the meaninglessness of life, and bubbly, beautiful young women inexplicably falling in love with exasperating old men. The movie’s second half is a lot better than its first—thanks mostly to the entrance of Patricia Clarkson—but, as in the case of the protagonist, it ultimately can’t turn itself around.
The summer’s most “meh” movie. Not ambitious enough to be bad, not funny enough to be good, Year One is just kind of there. The intention here appears to have been to make a cross between Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Forrest Gump, but instead what you get is School of Rock’s Dewey Finn and Arrested Development’s George Michael Bluth wandering across the desert in search of a funny script. Spoiler alert: They don’t end up finding it.
Note: Apologies to Moon, The Hurt Locker, Funny People, and all the other omissions on this list! You can’t always see ’em all.