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The House Bunny

According to the Internet Movie Database, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has appeared as himself (or a variation thereof) in over 150 movies, TV shows and video productions, including episodes of Laverne & Shirley, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Sex and the City. Presumably, Hefner enjoys lengthier screen time in the new comedy The House Bunny, although personally I don’t think he’ll ever top his cameo in the Roman Empire segment of Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I, wherein he sports a toga while brandishing his trademark pipe and explaining to a bevy of beauties that “It’s a new concept; I call it the centerfold.” In The House Bunny, the 82-year-old Hef serves as a father figure of sorts to Shelley Darlingson (Anna Faris), a Playboy bunny who lives at his legendary mansion and dreams of becoming the magazine’s next centerfold. But right after her 27th birthday (59 in Bunny years, she’s told), she’s kicked out of the house, although it’s not long before she finds herself with a new gig: serving as a house mother to the socially awkward girls from the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority. Soon, she’s instructing them on how to attract boys and pledges while they’re teaching her how to depend on more than just her looks. The House Bunny was co-written by the same women (Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith) who penned Legally Blonde, and it’s safe to say that their roots are showing. This is basically an inferior version of that Reese Witherspoon hit, and it isn’t even up to the standards of last year’s similarly plotted Amanda Bynes comedy Sydney White. But Faris, a talented comedienne, strikes the proper airhead notes, and Lutz and Smith take care to feed her some funny lines now and then. Incidentally, Hefner was 27 -- the same age as Shelley in the movie -- when the first issue of Playboy (featuring Marilyn Monroe as the centerfold) hit the streets. Apparently, 27 is 59 in Bunny years, but, considering the man’s still-swinging ways, 82 is 27 in Hef years.

Mamma Mia!

Meryl Streep fans and ABBA fans can at least count on those two components firing on all cylinders in this adaptation of the Broadway smash. Everyone else, though, may be forced to rummage through the debris that constitutes the rest of the picture to find anything worth salvaging. Streep is aptly cast as Donna, a former singer raising her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) at her hotel on a Greek island. Sophie’s about to marry hunky Sky (dull Dominic Cooper), but first she’s determined to learn the identity of her father. The candidates are suave Sam (Pierce Brosnan), uptight Harry (Colin Firth) and rascally Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and as long as the actors essaying the roles stick to walking and talking, they’re fun to watch. But whenever one of them is called upon to sing, be prepared to duck and cover as their aural ineptitude bombards our eardrums (Brosnan especially looks physically pained choking out the lyrics, as if he’s being subjected to a prostate exam just outside of the camera’s eye). There’s no reason this couldn’t contain all the effulgence and expertise of other musical adaptations like Hairspray and Chicago, but stage director Phyllida Lloyd appears to be so blissfully ignorant of the dynamics of moviemaking that, aside from the songs themselves, there’s little joy to be found in the musical numbers. The clumsy camer awork, editing and staging all diminish rather than enhance the perceived showstoppers, and the choreography ranks among the most dreadful I’ve ever witnessed in a big-budget musical. All of this adds up to produce the biggest disappointment of the summer movie season.

Tropic Thunder

The opening salvo of Tropic Thunder is perhaps the funniest 10 minutes I’ve encountered in a movie theater this year -- that’s good news in that it kicks the picture off on a high note and bad news in that it instantly raises concerns that the remaining 95 minutes won’t come close to touching this raucous beginning. But the best news is that the movie manages to keep the laughs hurtling forward for its entire running time, no small feat in an era in which many comedies lose steam by the final reel (even the likable Pineapple Express dries up with plenty of time left on the scoreboard). Ben Stiller, whose fingers are all over this picture (as star, director, co-writer and co-producer), does himself proud by successfully orchestrating the diverse elements that make up this ambitious picture, from a roster of A-list actors (some in supporting roles) to a decidedly non-PC screenplay that touches upon clashing acting methods, venal movie moguls, and the correct way in which to play a mentally challenged character (tip: don’t go “full retard” if you want a shot at the Oscar). Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a macho action star whose one attempt at an awards-bait title, the resounding flop Simple Jack, has largely derailed his career. Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedian known for vulgar blockbusters (up next: The Fatties, Fart 2). And Robert Downey, Jr. essays the role of Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award-winning actor celebrated for his Method approach to acting. All three, plus rap star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and screen newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, best known -- depending on one’s age -- as the simple-minded boxer Danger in Million Dollar Baby and as a member of Seth Rogen’s posse in Knocked Up), are in Vietnam shooting the war movie to end all war movies. But on-set mishaps and temperamental actors immediately put the film behind schedule, and the grizzled technical advisor (Nick Nolte) suggests to the director (Steve Coogan) that the pampered stars should be taken to a rough spot of the jungle where, away from the rest of the cast and crew, they’ll buckle up and get the movie made. Unfortunately for the thespians, they find themselves the targets of vicious, heavily armed locals who don’t take kindly to what they mistakenly believe to be DEA agents searching for their heroin factory. Stiller is funnier here than he’s been in some time, and he’s especially blessed to have surrounded himself with such a knockout cast. Black has some riotous moments as a drug fiend struggling with his dependency, while Matthew McConaughey, freed from inane rom-coms opposite Kate Hudson, is appealing as Speedman’s lively agent (perhaps like fellow “guy’s guy” Vince Vaughn, McConaughey is more comfortable working with members of the same sex). The cast even includes Tom Cruise, who’s clearly having fun as a bald, bad-tempered studio boss with no morals whatsoever (it’s like rewatching Cruise’s Magnolia character, only this time outfitted with a laugh track). Yet the acting honors easily go to Downey. His Kirk Lazarus is so dedicated to his craft that he undergoes surgery to have his skin darkened so he can play an African-African character in the Vietnam War opus. Being a Method actor means that he talks “black” even when the cameras aren’t rolling, an affectation that really annoys Chino, the cast’s authentic African-American.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

A menage a trois between the luscious, Olympic-worthy team of Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz is one of the various expressions of intimacy found in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but viewers shouldn’t attend the movie expecting to see explicitness on the order of, say, Shortbus or Henry & June. After all, the film’s writer-director is Woody Allen, and he’s always been much more interested in exposing the intricacies of the heart than the pleasures of the flesh. Yet therein lies the major problem with the picture: Allen has basically told a tale that depends on carnal knowledge as much as anything else, and the soft-pedaling of the harsher aspects of the story make Vicky Cristina Barcelona feel, well, as if it were made by a 72-year-old filmmaker who’s tentatively stepped outside his comfort zone. The end result is an interesting misfire, and one whose overlapping themes might resonate more strongly on a second viewing. Rebecca Hall and Johansson, the female co-leads in The Prestige, here play pragmatic Vicky and impulsive Cristina, two Americans vacationing in the lovely Spanish city when they’re propositioned by the seductive, sensual artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) to join him for a weekend of food, wine and sex. Eventually, both women do succumb to his charms (albeit at different points), only to find matters growing more complicated once his fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz, stealing the show) re-enters his life.Allen can hardly be accused of phoning in this script: The movie stumbles over itself while bringing fresh life to a number of issues, among them our need for familial security versus our desire for hedonistic pleasure.

The Dark Knight

Given the fact that Christopher Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins ranks as one of the best superhero flicks ever made, then where does that put this sequel that manages to be even more phenomenal than its predecessor? It was 30 years ago that the Christopher Reeve version of Superman was released, and now we have its equal on the other side of the aisle, a superhero saga that’s as dark and deep as its forefather was cheery and colorful. In fact, this might be the first superhero movie that exudes a palpable sense of dread and menace that tugs at our nerves in a way that both disturbs and delights us. Even in superior entertainment like Spider-Man and Iron Man, there’s a feeling that it’s all make-believe, but The Dark Knight offers no such safety net -- it wears its danger on its sleeve. In this outing, Batman (Christian Bale) has done a fine job of tightening the reins around the mob bosses who have long controlled Gotham City, and he’s soon aided in his efforts by idealistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). But their combined attempts to corral the city’s crooks are hampered by the presence of a murderous psychopath known as The Joker (Heath Ledger). Eckhart stands out in what proves to be the picture’s most fully realized characterization, though we all know who’s the MVP of this particular show: The late Ledger is simply mesmerizing as this whirling dervish of cackling, lip-smacking, cheek-sucking sin. cs

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