Monday, July 18, 2011
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
When I review a sequel, I usually open by talking about the proud history of the franchise. The history
of the “Transformers” franchise is nothing to be proud of. The 80s cartoon was a glorified
toy commercial, the original 2007 film was one of the worst films of that year and the second film in 2009 was one of the
worst films of all time. Yet even I have to admit that it’s hard not to throw money at movies about
giant fighting robots with a knack for explosions and shattering glass. The “Transformers”
franchise has enjoyed financial success, and while I’m not happy that we now have “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”,
I recognize that it’s good business.
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The film is once again in the hands of all-powerful hack director Michael
Bay. It’s easy to make jokes about him favoring action over storytelling, but that would require
him to be better at action. It would also require him to waste less time with his annoying storytelling.
Yet the movie about giant robots still wants us to spend a good deal of time with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf).
Now more than ever Sam is a source of unfunny human comedy, poor human decisions, and unbuyable human emotion.
But he still has his near-superhuman ability to avoid being crushed by debris.
There’s a plot with the robots where Optimus Prime and the Autobots
(good guys) resurrect a former leader but it turns out to be a trap by Megatron and the Decepticons (bad guys) to win their
war with each other and enslave Earth. The logistics are murky, just remember to hate the Decepticons.
On the human side, Sam is bitter that he can’t get a job. He has a new girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley)
and she has a rich boss (Patrick Dempsey). I wanted to punch the smug Dempsey character. Actually
I wanted to punch every character, but since Dempsey’s is the only human character you’re supposed to want to
punch, he technically turns in the best performance of the film. Other new characters include Frances McDormand
as a tight-knit government official and John Malkovich as Sam’s boss whose quirks we’re supposed to find hilarious.
Once the action picks up, Sam reconnects with his old friends Simmons (John Turturro), Lennox (Josh Duhamel), and Epps
Roughly the last hour of the movie is a long action sequence where Sam and the other good guys try to save Earth from
having another planet transported to an area nearby. The sequence is typical of the franchise; lots of
peril, lots of property damage, and lots and lots of noise. Thankfully the metallic whooshing has been
toned down from the last film, it is now slightly less than nauseating. Don’t worry, you’ll
still get inundated with crashes, clanks, bangs, and explosions. There’s also a lot of confusion
in the sequence, as it’s impossible to keep track of the various characters in all the action. I
also couldn’t tell where exactly the robots were being hit when they were fighting with each other. Therefore,
I had no idea whether or not their hits even hurt.
I’m bored with hating the “Transformers” movies, so I tried
to find something to like about “Dark of the Moon”. Military guys swoop into the final battle
on what can best be described as hang-glider suits. Those were neat. But more importantly
I liked the audience at the screening I attended. An expressive, rambunctious audience can really make
a bad movie bearable. So despite Michael Bay’s best efforts, I couldn’t get too mad at the
film. I therefore proclaim “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” to be the best film in the wholly
unpleasant “Transformers” franchise. See it with the craziest audience you can find.
Two stars out
Pixar Animation is synonymous with excellence. I myself regard the “Toy Story” series,
“Ratatouille”, and “Up” as some of the greatest films of all time. I have love
for their other films as well, and most people agree with me when I say that Pixar has never made a bad film.
Those who do disagree with me tend to point to 2006’s “Cars” as the lone black mark on an otherwise
spotless record. While I don’t rank it among my favorites, I feel “Cars” is worthy of
the Pixar branding. “Cars 2” deserves about the same acclaim. Relative to
Pixar’s other films, it is less than amazing. Relative to everything else playing this weekend, it’s
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The thing that impresses me most about the “Cars” movies is the world that the cars
live in. It is not a human world, but the world is human-like. The only living things
in this world are cars, yet their environment is basically the same as ours. It is no doubt a challenge
for the filmmakers to direct and write for characters with no arms (they have hooks and pulleys), no heads (they have eyes
on their windshields and mouths on their fenders), and no feet (wheels). The Pixar team rises to this challenge
with their trademark attention to detail, and the characters’ movements look perfectly natural. Speaking
of attention to detail, “Cars 2”s humor is as clever as can be. As with all the best animated
comedies, the film is filled with many of those wonderful little moments that require strict attention but add so much to
your enjoyment of the film. Be sure to pay attention when the characters arrive in Tokyo.
The film is a sequel, but the tone has changed drastically. The
original took things surprisingly slow, locating itself mainly in the small dusty town of Radiator Springs. This
one takes place all over the world and there’s much more action. Even the hierarchy of characters
has changed. The main character from the original, racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is not featured
as much this time around. His best friend, a tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is now front and
center. For the story, Mater tags along with Lightning as he travels to a three-country race to promote
an environmentally safe fuel. A team of British secret agents (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) have uncovered
an evil plot to sabotage the race. While Lightning is stuck competing against an arrogant Italian car (John
Turturro), Mater finds himself an unwitting participant in the spy game. Of course with Mater, everything
he does is unwitting.
The film does lack one feature that keeps it from achieving the status of greatness enjoyed by
its Pixar brethren and that is an emotional core. The cream of the Pixar crop really know how to do a number
on your heartstrings. Remember how sad it was to think that WALL-E might have lost his happiest memories
or when Andy gave away an important piece of his childhood in “Toy Story 3”? Not to mention
the tearjerking opening montage in “Up”? “Cars 2” doesn’t have that kind
of sensitivity. There are a few bummer moments when Lightning and Mater’s friendship is tested and
Mater struggles with being labeled an idiot, but I never felt the need to take them seriously. The film
is too upbeat to be considered an emotional journey.
“Cars 2” won’t have you reaching for a tissue, but it’s
a fine family film otherwise. Early reviews have suggested that it might not be seen that way.
If you see it for yourself I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film is a beam of sunshine
in a summer clouded by increasingly woeful action movies. It may not be an instant classic like some other
Pixar films, but it is by no means an embarrassment. Pixar can be proud of “Cars 2”.
Stars out of Five
“Green Lantern” struck me as a particularly useless blockbuster. It’s ugly, it’s
uncreative, and it’s opening in a season with no shortage of better comic book movies. I want everyone
to have a fun time at the movies, so try salvaging the experience by enjoying some Popcorn Games. Eat popcorn
according to what happens in the movie. You can come up with your own rules, but I have a few suggestions:
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-Much like “Thor”,
the film opens with a wordy, confusing narration. Eat a piece of popcorn every time the narrator mentions
a unique name or concept and you worry that there’s going to be a quiz later.
-The film’s main character is Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), an irresponsible
fighter pilot. Apparently the film thinks that this country allows irresponsible people to become fighter
pilots. The film likes to remind us that Hal may not be ready for the responsibility of being a superhero,
so eat a piece of popcorn every time he does something careless.
-Hal gets his superpowers when a mortally wounded alien crash-lands nearby
and tells him that he is destined to become the official Green Lantern of Earth. Hal wonders, “Why
me?” This isn’t just at first, he spends the better part of the film questioning the decision.
Eat a piece of popcorn every time he does so.
-Hal gets his Green Lantern powers from a ring, but the ring has to have
recently touched an actual lantern for it to work properly. I was expecting an eventual scene where Hal
needs to use his powers but the ring is uncharged. Such a scene never comes, but eat a piece of popcorn
in its absence.
-The exact power of the ring is that it allows the wearer to conjure up whatever he wills.
The ability to instantly materialize matter is a cool superpower, but Hal hardly ever uses it, which tells me the film
needed to save money on special effects. There should at least be a scene where he selfishly wills up a
cheeseburger or something. Eat two pieces of popcorn on the rare occasion that he actually uses his powers.
-The film’s villain is a disembodied fear-being called Parallax.
Parallax hides a bit of himself in the wound on the dying alien and then infects Dr. Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who
performs the autopsy. Dr. Hammond then gains evil superpowers and functions as the villain, although the
film is never really clear on whether he’s evil because he’s drunk on his newfound power or if Parallax is controlling
his mindset. Eat two pieces of popcorn whenever you get confused yourself.
-Hal’s girlfriend Carol (Blake Lively) is the daughter of plane-maker
Carl Ferris (Jay O. Sanders). Dr. Hammond is the son of the shady Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins).
Eat two pieces of popcorn whenever you forget exactly who’s related to who.
-Hal goes to train with other Green Lanterns on the distant planet of Oa.
He travels untold distances across time and space just to subject himself to the same tough-love training sequences
that we’ve seen too many times in movies set on Earth. Eat ten pieces of popcorn from the comfort
of your Earth seat.
-Hal wants to fight Parallax using his will powers, but a high-ranking Green Lantern named Sinestro
(Mark Strong) wants to harness the power of fear and beat Parallax at his own game. The decision rests
with the wise Guardians of Oa. Stuff a fistful of popcorn in your mouth to keep from questioning the wisdom
of the Guardians for allowing someone named Sinestro to have Green Lantern powers in the first place.
-Toward the end of the film, Hal offers a trade with Dr. Hammond. He
offers something that he couldn’t give away if he wanted to. Again, stuff your mouth full of popcorn
to keep from warning Dr. Hammond that Green Lantern’s powers don’t work that way.
One Star out of Five.
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By Bob Garver
Many early reviews have likened “Super 8” to “E.T.”,
Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic from 1982. I suppose the comparison is inevitable.
Both films star children, both films feature aliens, and Steven Spielberg is an executive producer of “Super
8”. I feel the film has more in common with “Battle: Los Angeles”, the alien invasion
bomb from earlier this year. Both films were marketed with cryptic teaser trailers, the aliens in both
films are devoid of any personality, and I’m not about to waste my time on either film again.
The story takes place in 1979 with a focus on 13-year-old Joe Lamb (Joel
Courtney). Like many children in these movies, Joe has recently lost one of his
parents, his mother. I certainly understand Joe’s misery in the early scenes, but Courtney plays
him with a coldness that I found inauthentic. His father (Kyle Chandler) has trouble connecting to his
son in this difficult time, and his demanding job as a small-town sheriff’s deputy puts even more distance between the
two. Joe isn’t that thrilled to be working on a zombie movie with his bossy friend Charles (Riley
Griffiths), but it’s something to do with his friends.
The kids go out for a late-night shoot (with Super 8 film of course) at the
local train depot. To their horror, they witness a train collide with a pickup truck and violently derail
and crash. The crash sequence goes on a long time and progressively gets more disastrous. It
is the only good thing about the film. It’s worth noting that Steven Spielberg’s early experiences
with filmmaking involved him crashing his toy trains on camera so he could go back and enjoy the crashes without further damaging
his toys. “Super 8” makes a number of in-jokes on the subject.
It doesn’t take long for the military to descend on the scene, for
apparently they have a great interest in the train’s cargo. The mean military men are actually the
film’s villains because they endanger lives for selfish reasons, but they’re too dumb and incompetent to take
seriously. They want to keep the population in the dark, but then they make it obvious that they’re
protecting a secret. Nothing arouses suspicion like telling people not to worry about the information you’re
Strange things start happening around the town. Metal goes missing, dogs go
missing, people go missing. The disappearances of the metal and dogs are not seen, but we do see scenes
where human victims get grabbed by something. Unfortunately this is the kind of bad monster movie where
the creature has nothing better to do than lurk around and startle unsuspecting prey. And of course, we
don’t get a good look at the creature as it does this.
Joe and his friends know something’s up. They were
there the night of the crash, they have footage, they listened to a warning from the driver of the pickup, they have a piece
of puzzling debris. With a little research (all done without permission, naturally), they discover that
all this bad business is the result of an alien conspiracy. They spend the rest of the movie trying to
solve the problem themselves, since they can’t trust any grown-ups to be truthful, humane, or successful.
from the train crash, “Super 8” is an embarrassingly generic monster movie. The film is sorely
lacking any unique perspective from writer/director J.J. Abrams. The decision to have kids as main characters
is a bad idea because they are clearly reciting dialogue written by an adult. “Super 8” is
desperate to be mentioned alongside “E.T.”, but it isn’t doing itself any favors inviting a comparison to
such a superior film. It is less of a companion piece and more of a knock-off.
Two Stars out
X-Men First Class
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By Bob Garver
“X-Men: First Class” is the fifth film (and second prequel) in
the “X-Men” franchise. At this point I would expect the series to be shedding quality in order
to be more efficient in pumping out by-the numbers installments. And yet “X-Men: First Class”
is a film that is anything but “pumped out”. It is not only a worthy entry in the series, it
is the worthiest. It is the best film in the entire “X-Men” universe.
Of course, it is not a film that will define the franchise. Too
many of the most popular characters (Cyclops, Storm, Rogue, and for the most part Wolverine) are nowhere to be found.
This film gives us the origins of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer
Lawrence), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult). They are supported by characters that I’m sure up until now
were considered third tier, but “First Class” makes them so interesting that I’d like to see more of them
before we get back to the “popular” ones.
That is to say nothing of the character that actually sets everything in
motion, the one who causes all the mutants to band together if only to stop him, the evil Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
Shaw is one of the better movie villains I’ve seen in a while. A mutant with the power to
absorb and expel energy, Shaw is the most effortlessly dangerous person on the planet and he knows it. Bacon
plays with such smugness that you want to slap him and yet you would never dare.
The story centers around Shaw’s plan to cripple the human race by pitting
the United States against the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Shaw wants to live in a world run
by mutants and figures it will be easier to take over if the nations destroy each other. CIA agent Moira
MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) learns that there may be some no-good mutants affecting the Cold War and decides that the U.S. could
use some mutants of their own.
Moira recruits Charles (Professor X), ever the defender of all things good. He brings on his childhood
friend Raven (Mystique), a shapeshifter confused in her feelings toward her mutant identity. He also brings
in his metal-manipulating ally Erik (Magneto), no doubt an enemy of Shaw (whose attempt to recruit him for the bad guys as
a child resulted in devastation), but with eerily similar opinions of mutant superiority. They put together
a mutant team that includes the multidexterous Beast, the winged Angel (Zoe Kravitz), super-screamer Banshee (Caleb Landry
Jones), instant bodily adapter Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and hotheaded destructor Havoc (Lucas Till). Shaw,
for his side, has weather spawner Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), demonic teleporter Azreal (Jason Flemyng), and the diamond-bodied
Emma Frost (January Jones).
The performances are first rate. People are actually complaining that particularly gifted actors like McAvoy,
Lawrence, and Fassbender shouldn’t have taken these roles because the roles are beneath them. I say
they handle the characters so well that they bring the roles up to their level. It’s not like they
do it alone; the script does the main characters justice as well. I wish there had been more room to develop
some of the minor characters, but they say that no good movie is long enough.
“X-Men: First Class” has everything you’d expect from a superhero movie – training montages, irresponsible
early uses of power, emotional hardships, morality debates, tested relationships. Director Matthew Vaughn
handles these basic elements better than just about anyone else and he gets the money scenes right too. The
action sequences are clean and clear instead of shadowy and shoddy. The film has laughs and tears and thrills
and poignancy in all the right places. It is not just an excuse to use the “X-Men” label to
sell tickets and merchandise. It is the best comic book film since “The Dark Knight”.
Stars out of Five
Hangover Part II
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By Bob Garver
“The Hangover Part II” has been unfairly criticized for repeating the same formula
as its 2009 predecessor. People have gone so far as to call it a glorified remake, a label I find ridiculous.
I have seen sequels that are glorified remakes, films that waste my time with inferior new characters having to learn
the rules of the same situations. “The Hangover Part II” continues the story of the franchise’s
characters. They now have a better idea of how to handle themselves in this situation, and they know to avoid some of the
mistakes they made the first time. It’s a new film and a whole new set of details.
To be sure, many elements of the first “Hangover” are repeated,
both narratively and stylistically. The film opens with Phil (Bradley Cooper) defeatedly making a phone
call where he admits the disappearance of a friend. Cut to unforgiving shots of the film’s locale
(originally Las Vegas, this time Bangkok). We go to a few days earlier where the main characters are getting
ready for a wedding. This time it’s tight-knit dentist Stu (Ed Helms) getting married to his new
love Lauren (Jamie Chung) in Thailand. Stu reluctantly invites unbalanced oddball Alan (Zach Galifianakis),
who causes trouble from minute one. Two nights before the wedding, the guys go out for Just One Drink joined
by Lauren’s younger brother Teddy (Mason Lee). Things get out of hand. The next
morning Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in a seedy Bangkok hotel room with evidence of a wild night. They have
no idea how they got there or what they did the night before, they just want to leave. But there’s
a problem: Teddy’s missing.
Fans of “The Hangover” know the drill at this point. Slowly but
surely the group begins to figure out just how much trouble they’ve found as they look for their missing friend.
Alan got his head shaved, Stu got a tattoo on his face. Alan’s buddy Chow (Ken Jeong) got
them on the wrong side of some gangsters. They did unspeakable things at a strip club. They
kidnapped not only a monkey, but a monk. And all they know about Teddy is that he’s minus a finger
and he’s not on the roof. Eventually they find out that the solution is simpler than they thought.
They make a frantic return just in time for the wedding. Over the credits, we see a set of shocking
photographs that tell the story of the forgotten night.
Though some of the originality is gone, I did enjoy the humor more this time
around. The dialogue is more polished and the monkey is a funnier sidekick than the baby. Also,
there’s a lot more nudity. Of course the sequel is going to be raunchier in an attempt to one-up
the original, the nastiest bits land with their intended effect. One thing I didn’t care for was
that the film practically announces when one of the characters is about to say something funny. This is
especially true when it comes to Alan, who frankly isn’t as funny as the film thinks he is. The film
wants us to laugh when he has a platform to speak as opposed to laughing at anything he actually says.
I wasn’t crazy about the original “Hangover”, but “Part
II” is a worthy follow-up if not a superior comedy. I have no problem with it following basically
the same formula as the original, director Todd Phillips has identified what works and he’s sticking with it while adding
enough to avoid repetitiveness. The same characters having a second Hangover under a new set of circumstances is a fine idea
for a sequel. If you hate crude humor you should of course stay away from both “Hangovers”,
but fans of the original will feel at home in “Part II”.
Three Stars out of Five
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
“Pirates of the
Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”
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By Bob Garver
It has been eight years since Disney first turned their popular amusement park attraction into
a feature film with 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”. The
film had little to do with the ride and a lot to do with Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Now it’s
three sequels later, the franchise has lost any connection to the ride (we don’t even get a cameo by that adorable dog
with key ring in his mouth), the characters played by Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley have been cast away, and Disney still
thinks we want to see more pirate mischief.
Actually, “mischief” is a good word for what’s right about
these movies. People love Jack and his con artist antics. Jack delivers plenty of these
early on when he impersonates a judge to save a friend from a death sentence and then escapes an overconfident king.
There’s also an element of mischief in the films’ early fight sequences, the glorified sparring sessions
where we know none of the main characters are going to get killed so we can sit back and appreciate the inventiveness of the
action. We get that early on in this film as well, as Jack finds out the true identity of a Jack Sparrow
impersonator. “Early on” is a good time for “On Stranger Tides”, but the film becomes
dull once the plot kicks into gear.
The story revolves around a race to the storied Fountain of Youth.
Jack finds himself stuck aboard a ship captained by the evil Blackbeard (Ian McShane) who needs him because he believes
Jack knows the location of his fountain. The ship’s first mate is Angelika (Penelope Cruz), an ex-lover
of Jack’s who may or may not be Blackbeard’s daughter. Others in search of the fountain include
a determined but boring Spanish fleet and a team of British privateers led by Jack’s old rival Barbossa (Geoffery Rush,
his dialogue garbled by his pirate voice). Everyone stumbles through the expected set of plot contrivances,
the only one worth mentioning being the need for mermaid tears.
It bothers me that the film doesn’t really know how to navigate its
own plot. Jack and Angelika keep referencing a murky past. There are inconsistencies
regarding the powers of the fountain. A subplot involving a clergyman (Sam Claflin) and a mermaid (Astrid
Berges-Frisbey) goes nowhere and should have been cut entirely. What I found most infuriating was the film’s
poor handling of its own awesome villains. Blackbeard has the neat-o ability to control ropes with his
mind, making them slither around like snakes and tie people up with just a glance. It’s inexplicable
how he has this power, but even more inexplicable that he never uses it at an appropriate time like the climactic action sequence.
I honestly think that the film wants us to forget that he has a nearly automatic victory at his command.
The same can be said for Blackbeard’s unkillable zombie crew, the film doesn’t know what to do with them,
so it ignores them and hopes we forget that there are zombies in this movie.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” had the potential
to be more than just another Jack Sparrow adventure. Jack is as clever a scamp as ever, Blackbeard is one
of the franchise’s better villains, and Penelope Cruz instantly raises the stock of any movie she’s in.
For about the first half hour, the film looks like it’s on track to be just as good as the original.
Then it slowly but surely turns into a generic sequel. There will no doubt be a fifth “Pirates
of the Caribbean” and probably even more after that. There’s still life left in the franchise
financially, but creatively someone needs to find a Fountain of Youth.
Two stars out
All the actors in “Bridesmaids” have excellent chemistry with each other, but I feel there may have been a lack
of chemistry offscreen. There are two writers credited with the screenplay (Kristen Wiig and Amy Mumolo)
and the film seems like a combination of two different scripts that have been joined clumsily. At times
the film is what it claims to be: an ensemble comedy about a collection of women preparing for a wedding. The
film is best at these points. At most points, however, the film is a bland romantic comedy that focuses
on a bland romantic comedy character thankfully not played so blandly.
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Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, a woman whose personal and professional life
is holding up by a thread. She opened her dream bakery only to have it fail miserably. Now
she works a dead-end job, she has an awful set of roommates, her boyfriend is a jerk, and the tail lights on her car are broken.
She still carries herself with positivity, and it comes as great news when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces
she’s getting married. Annie hurriedly accepts the role of maid of honor.
We meet the other members of the bridal party. There’s
disillusioned wife and mother Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), adorable sweetheart Becca (Ellie Kemper), and crass troublemaker
Megan (Melissa McCarthy). There’s also rich trophy wife Helen (Rose Byrne), who Annie immediately
sees as a problem. Lillian claims that Helen is just a friend from work, but Helen treats Lillian like
a best friend. Annie is worried that Lillian is going to become a better friend to the rich snob who gets
to cruise through life with a perpetual smile.
Annie tries to make Lillian and the other bridesmaids happy, but her low
income and increasing frustration keep getting in the way. These elements curse her through a dress fitting,
a flight to Las Vegas for a bachelorette party, and Lillian’s bridal shower. Not that the other bridesmaids
don’t do plenty to turn these events inside out. Annie plays a role in these scenes,
but their hilariousness is a team effort. No matter how funny the scene is at a given point, any of the
characters can be counted on to do something to make it even funnier. These are scenes that earn several
straight minutes of laughs; the one on the plane is particularly memorable.
The ads for “Bridesmaids” make you think that the film is full
of these scenes, but their number is surprisingly limited. Most of the film focuses on Annie as her life
falls apart and she sabotages a potentially wonderful relationship with a friendly cop (Chris O’Dowd). The
good news is that Wiig as an actress makes these scenes count. There’s no question that she belongs
in the lead role of this film and deserves to play the lead in many comedies in the future. The bad news
is that the scenes are paced awkwardly. Some go on for twice the time they should, which explains why the
film is about half an hour too long. These scenes are especially frustrating because we know the film is
capable of being much, much funnier.
I can’t speak highly enough of the film’s best scenes.
All six actresses will make you laugh, although Melissa McCarthy turns out to be a particularly valuable player.
The film embraces crude humor while not relying on it too much for simple shock value. But the film
doesn’t do enough of what it does well. My theory is that the film started out comprised entirely
of Annie scenes that people didn’t like and so the ensemble scenes were tacked on and the film was somewhat redeemed.
I hope the people behind “Bridesmaids” recognize exactly what they did right this time and in a few years
give us a sequel that gets it all right all the time.
Two stars out of five.