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Hamlet 2

Rough around the edges, it gets points for freshness and originality. Besides, the humor scores big.

reviewed by Mark Burns

A strange thespian scrambles to save his drama program through a most un-Disney high school musical in this amusing comedy.

Dana (Steve Coogan, the miniature Octavius from Night at the Museum) is a hack actor who has washed up as a drama teacher in Tucson. The town where, says the narrator, dreams go to die.

His class of two is content with putting on stage adaptations of such hit movies as Erin Brockovich until a sudden infusion of street smart kids introduces a new direction. The theater man is just warming up to his new role of breaking through to the ethnic kids when he finds out drama will be cancelled. So he hatches a scheme to stage his original musical — a wrong-minded sequel to Hamlet featuring Jesus — as a last-ditch fundraiser.

Goofiness ensues.

Essentially, Hamlet 2 is a skewering of the inspirational teacher tale. Dangerous Minds, for one, meets with lampoon early and often as Dana makes a misguided effort to connect with the wrongly perceived young urban Latinos in his class. Most evident, however, is the central, cynical riff on Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Dana’s one flaky dude in a caftan whose passion for the performing arts is frustrated by his raving ineptitude for creativity and expression. This contrarianism yields a great comedic role, a distillation of all the quirkiest and least talented arts (or philosophy) teachers anyone has ever had.

The film mostly manages to keep both its brain and a balanced and moderate comic tone. Plus, it’s refreshingly empty of cameos by Daily Show alums. And Dana’s opus, of course, is worth the wait. Any summation would be a cheat. Suffice it to say, some of the boldest laughs pile up in the last fifth of the film in a spate of inspired, overproduced insanity. And yes, the Jesus bits are funny; irreverent but not rude — depending on how good you believe God’s sense of humor is.

Story is a bit underdeveloped. The narrator crops up occasionally to impart some sense of urgency to the tale, but it’s a mismatch to the casual amble of scenes.

Progression and storytelling are disjointed and jumpy through much of the movie thanks to neglected transitions.

None of the supporting cast has very much depth, though they do reveal enough personality to keep interest.

Hamlet 2 is rough around the edges, but it gets points for freshness and originality. Besides, the humor scores big. And that’s ultimately what matters.

Good comedy • R • 92 mins.


Superhero fans will find it packs a decent punch.

reviewed by Mark Burns

A boozing uber-bruiser shambles up to his heroic calling in this fun spin on the superhero tale.

Hancock (Will Smith: I Am Legend) is an amoral do-gooder, a temperamental lush whose reckless heroics have the tendency to demolish Los Angeles’ cityscape. Consequently, Angelinos are spitting venom at their so-called protector. He seems doomed to remain the city’s lesser evil. That is, until Hancock’s path crosses with goody-two-shoes publicist Ray (Jason Bateman: Juno). Ever the optimist, Ray hatches a scheme to awaken the hero’s nobler spirit and polish his image. Hancock grudgingly plays along, discovering his forgotten past in the process of realizing his true potential.

This hero is unique amid this summer’s bumper crop of superhero cinema, his character and myth being the only fresh invention among them. A pluot amid the conventional fruits, you might say. It can be risky, nudging an unestablished, comedic superhero concept over the ledge. My Super Ex-Girlfriend fell flat, right beside The Mystery Men. But Hancock manages to fly pretty well.

Even the best superhero flicks tend to the formulaic, with smirking fanboy tributes, cheesy one-liners, clichéd characters and story hemmed by often-corny pulp lore. At its best, Hancock is refreshing for its independence. Screenwriter Vincent Ngo tinkers with a few what-ifs and emerges with a pretty original take on the genre.

Hints of other sources can be discovered: Hancock reminds a little of Superman after he was exposed to Richard Pryor’s kryptonite-lite; the context of disastrous civic consequence smacks of amusing reality check via The Incredibles; emerging lore is shaded with a darkening twist, dramatic smudging perhaps inspired by M. Night Shyamalan’s moody gem Unbreakable. Yet borrowing is light, never approaching the pratfall of rip-off.

Story is steady enough as Ray tries to shepherd the unloved hero unto adoration and higher purpose. Comedy, action and drama interplay nicely. But redemption comes suddenly, and complexities born of a fairly predictable plot twist don’t get sorted out cleanly. New and interesting dramatic angles are raised but not explored. The shift in tone is stark; the climax lacks for brighter counterpoints to float it out of the brutal. Still, the plot manages to hold center just enough to carry interest through to the end.

Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) may let his attention wander from the story, but the action and special effects are first-rate. All the requisite feats of super-strength are present, tweaked with creative twists and comic touches.

Laughs succeed especially well in the first half. The interplay of cool heroics and their presumed real-world consequences provide sharp comedic tension between Hancock and the city of Los Angeles. His devil-may-care attitude and antipathy toward the very prattling public he serves makes for an amusing break from superhero tradition. A couple scenes lack snap and one running gag cramps up, but for the most part the humor is good fun.

Hancock isn’t spectacular, but it’s good, original fun. Superhero flick fans will find it packs a decent punch.

Good Action-Comedy • PG-13 • 92 mins.

The Hangover

© Warner Bros. Pictures

The day after a raucus bachelor party, Phil, Alan and Stu find themselves handcuffed together at the police station.

Sure to tickle the funny bones of those who appreciate raucous comedy.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Four male friends go on a bachelor party trip that they’ll never forget and wake up the next morning wondering what happened in this bawdy and quite funny movie. Although far from being for everyone, Director Todd Phillips’ (Old School; Road Trip) surprise-filled buddy movie is sure to tickle the funny bones of those who appreciate raucous comedy.

Groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha) is taken to Las Vegas by his three pals for a bachelor party two nights before his wedding day. His friends include fat and odd brother-in-law-to-be Alan (Zach Galifianakis), spineless dentist Stu (Ed Helms) and charming wolf Phil (Bradley Cooper). But it’s not the bachelor party on which this movie focuses. It’s the next day, i.e. the hangover. Indeed, when our mates wake up, not only have they trashed their room beyond recognition, they have lost the groom-to-be. So begins a backtracking trail of trying to find Doug while discovering the out-of–control things they did the night before.

Working its way backwards is the film’s best trick, and quite an ingenious one at that. In the beginning, it’s hard not to be disappointed in what feels like a clichéd traditional set-up. The crazy bachelor party is turf that has been trod by countless TV shows and movies. But everything changes when we refreshingly skip right to the next day. Through this device, we see the truly crazy surprises as they’re revealed to the main characters.

Plus, these characters are better than most. The usual buddy comedy would have the actors predictably play out the very different kooky personalities of four seemingly unique individuals. Here, the characters are more real than that; only Galifianakis, as the way-out-there fat friend, comes off as totally fictional — though still funny. The sympathetic interaction among the three wayward friends gives the wackiness an odd sort of pathos. These guys aren’t just jerks blowing their way through Vegas. They actually care for each other and are concerned for their missing friend. As a result they act in believably funny ways.

Despite this intelligence, don’t be fooled. If you are not one for raunchy male buddy comedy (including full-frontal male nudity), then you should not see this to sample the genre. This one is for connoisseurs only — a whole lot of them.

Good comedy • R • 98 mins.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The real story is Harry Potter and the Emerging Hormones.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Harry Potter and chums continue to grow up and continue to ward off evil in the intriguing if not somewhat confusing sixth installment of the wildly popular series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Director David Yates’ (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) movie is more interesting when it focuses on the young wizards behaving like the teens they are, rather than on the dark plot of Harry’s destiny. Indeed, this could have been called Harry Potter and the Emerging Hormones.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and best friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are finally acting their age. They are becoming attracted to their fellow students (some familiar, some new), and they are acting on these instincts. Plus, they start ingesting some potent potables (some magical, some not). Turns out they are typical teens after all. Meanwhile, Harry and master wizard Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) pursue evil Lord Voldemort and his horrific minions … to mixed results.

Let me confess that although I’ve seen all of the Harry Potter movies, I have read none of the books. That said, as I watched this movie, I forgot why the heck we are supposed to care about Harry’s travails. If Voldemort is such all-consuming evil (we get to meet him as a young wizard here) and Potter is “the chosen one,” then shouldn’t everything in the good wizards’ powers be devoted to stopping this potentially world-ending thing? It seems a lonely and overwhelming job for one bespectacled young fellow and his bearded headmaster. For that matter, for one little school. This is big: like Star Wars big or Lord of the Rings big. Where are the armies? Yet it’s all up to Potter, who seems to focus on it only half the time. I mean if they care only so much, why should I?

Nonetheless, we are invested in these likeable characters. When Ron is kissing a girl or Harry is acting like a drunken teen, we take a tickled joy. And it’s fun to try to figure out which of the teachers is good, which is bad and what’s their angle. Plus, give the Potter series bonus points for hiring top actors in the roles of the teachers: Jim Broadbent as Professor Slughorn here.

If you’re a Potter fan, this is an above-average offering. If you’re not, this one will probably just confuse you further. And a warning: despite the PG rating, this has some awfully scary stuff for young kids.

Good adventure • PG • 153 mins.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Grab your nearest portkey for this one. The wizarding wunderkind enters his blue period in this capable adaptation.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) skulks through summer break following a rough fourth year at Hogwarts. Cut off from the magical world, he’s left in the dark about evil wizard Voldemort’s uprising until an attack thrusts him back into the thick of things. The magical world proves not so welcome a place anymore, as Harry is rejected as an agitator, avoided by his mentor and addled by troubling dreams. Even Hogwarts is a tainted haven, as the Ministry of Magic foists itself upon the school through prissy menace Ms. Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, Freedom Writers), the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. So does the fifth year become a quest to loose the ministry’s girdle and follow troubling visions in a personal quest to check Voldemort’s rise.

Book five brought adolescent moodiness to bear on Harry’s character, and the film follows suit in its approach. The ambience is decidedly glum, keeping with the darkening story, and Harry broods the loner’s path for a time as Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) try to crack his shell and restore the team dynamic. There is less attitudinal rage than in the book, however, blunting J. K. Rowling’s thrust of angst.

Blunted angst cheats the film a bit. At its heart, this story is a classic British schoolboy rebellion tale. Or else it wants to be. The Ministry, in the role of villainous big-brother government, evidences its omnipresent eye and tries to take over the school so it may program Hogwarts’ youth for public order. Bristling youth take umbrage and rebel in underground gatherings and open defiance.

It’s an angle rich with potential, and director David Yates seems tempted to play with this core. One or two dystopian touches hint at where his own imagination is leading, and he crafts fine scenes in the vein of fighting the power while staying true to the lighter tone of the children’s book series. But he isn’t quite bold enough to assume Rowling’s authorial intent and give the theme full rein, and the film seems oddly constricted by its effort.

As is usual for the Potter films, filmmakers have had to chip at the story with liberal abridgement to contain it to feature length. This time it’s the tabloid retaliation against skewed news that is nixed. Umbridge’s takeover and Harry’s underground dark arts classes remain. For the most part the cuts work, but in places missing bridges in the plot leave obvious voids in the storytelling, making for some choppy progression. Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire was more successful at smoothing its condensed story. Cuts in this film are most unfortunate at the climax in the Department of Mysteries, where some of the book’s most creative scenes are dropped for the sake of a simpler finish. (Those hoping to see a baby’s head on a death eater’s body will be saddened.)

Visually, the film is very similar to Newell’s Goblet. Alfonso Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban still stands out as the series’ best. It was crafted with that vintage pulp aesthetic that mirrored the story so well and created a film thick with mood. This one continues the return to clean-cut blockbuster cinematics, relying on characters, effects and artful setwork for mood and ambience. The film does not disappoint in this, as deft art direction and colorful acting continues to bring the magical to life while offering plenty of fresh ambience that is uniquely appropriate to this darker story.

Yates does succeed in ushering Harry Potter into a darker phase while keeping the tale light and friendly enough for the book series’ young fans to enjoy the ride. The action is well executed, and touches of wit make welcome, effective relief from the story’s overcast mood.

In the end, this is still primarily a series for the kids. As such it is fine work, and plenty entertaining for adult fans as well. Grab your nearest portkey for this one.

Good fantasy • PG-13 • 138 mins.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

This movie is less a breath of fresh air and more a stench of hackneyed comic book genre convention.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A dark hero takes on a creepy pale-faced killer of a villain. Long-haired and bug-eyed eccentrics sing a cheesy song of love. No, it’s not The Dark Knight nor is it Mamma Mia, it’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the creature-filled and action-packed but ultimately disappointing sequel in writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s (Pan’s Labyrinth) irreverent comic book-inspired series.

Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a demon from the underworld who is quite literally the son of Satan. He now works for the U.S. government with other odd creatures including girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who ignites herself with fire, and brainy Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), who is mostly fish. They fight against all supernatural threats to America. The latest threat involves a vengeful elfin prince (Luke Goss), who seeks the pieces of a crown, which when pieced together summon a golden army of giant warriors. This prince wants to wipe out the human race and reclaim the earth for non-humankind. He’ll have to get through Hellboy and friends first, who are also fighting the pangs of love. (Hellboy and Sapien sing a Barry Manilow song drunk at one point.)

Del Toro uses this movie as a showcase for his latest wacky and creepy creatures. Indeed, we are inundated by the things: there is a giant beanstalk that fights; there is a Chewbacca-styled best buddy of the prince with a cannonball on a chain for a right hand; there is a creature that is ectoplasmatic smoke consuming an old-timey aquamarine-like suit. Then there is the “troll market,” an overpopulated world of disgruntled freaks the likes of which we haven’t seen since the bar in which Han Solo shot Greedo. Indeed, if inventively thought-up creatures are your thing, than this is for you.

Unfortunately, we need some movie with these creatures, and this is where Hellboy II fails. The story is mostly Lord of the Rings-inspired cliché. Our hero’s abrasive and irreverent attitude grows weary with far too many smart-alecky catch phrases. The action is enticing, but seems to be given to us in large doses as a way to distract us from the fact that there isn’t much going on here.

Unlike the first Hellboy film, this movie is less a breath of fresh air and more a stench of hackneyed comic book genre convention. Del Toro can seem the genius when he blends his creative creature creepiness with some inventive storytelling. In Hellboy II there’s plenty of the former but not much of the latter.

Fair action fantasy • PG-13 • 120 mins.

He’s Just Not That Into You

This filmic version of a best-selling relationship guide is moderate, cute and unremarkable.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Twenty-somethings and elder-somethings wend their ways through the myths of relationships in this best-selling relationship guide gone filmic.

Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin: Big Love) is a fool for love, or at least the possibility of love. By accepting the words of men at face value and misinterpreting the strange flappings of masculine signals, she has seen her dreams of romantic fulfillment trampled time and again. But one remarkably candid man, Alex (Justin Long: Zack and Miri Make a Porno), has pulled her aside from the latest cold shoulder to enlighten her with hitherto classified masculine insights. By way of friendly but direct instruction, he peels back Gigi’s naiveté and awakens her to the games men play, kindling empowerment and … perhaps something more.

Ooo-OOO-ooo ...

So plays the central strand of this ladies’ night out, an ensemble piece about the foolish misconceptions and bad decisions people make in relationships and dating. For thoroughness’ sake there is also a married couple, a frustrated Internet dater, an unmarried committed couple, a frustrated suitor and a would-be other woman — all interconnected in the narrative weave. Add a gaggle of pithy/playful gay men, and you have yourself a rollick.

Director Ken Kwapis (License to Wed) keeps the intertwining angles neatly ordered and evenly paced as the three stories unfold cleanly, broken up by surprise intersections, smaller side story interludes and real world interviews à la When Harry Met Sally.

Indeed, the filmmakers seem after a 21st century version of the Harry/Sally dynamic, offering a play on the revised rules of engagement. Their attempt is nifty enough, but by dissipating the rules across ensemble and eliminating character acting they’ve softened punchline, bringing the film nowhere near Harry’s & Sally’s heights.

He’s Just Not That Into You is moderate, cute, airy and just empowering enough to qualify for children’s programming on the We network. It’s breezy, fun and, oh, maybe a little misty. But it’s also unremarkable. Not to mention emasculating.

Good romance • PG-13 • 129 mins.

Horton Hears a Who!

We learn a lesson and we feel an overwhelming sense of hope at the same time.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

No one believes a humble and loveable elephant hears a tiny voice coming from a small speck on a flower in the enjoyable animated comedy Horton Hears a Who! This Dr. Seuss classic is spread thinly over 90 minutes but wins us over thanks to its warm heart and joyous climax.

Horton (voice of Jim Carrey) is a playful goof of an elephant who lives in a land with numerous creatures of all animal and Seussian sorts. Horton’s world perspective is thrown for a loop the day he hears and then starts talking to a voice coming from a little speck.

On the other end is the mayor of the happy-go-lucky land of Whoville (voice of Steve Carell). Horton realizes that he needs to get that land — the speck — to safety, while the mayor realizes he needs to warn his fellow citizens that they are in danger. No one believes Horton, and no one believes the mayor. Yet both know what they have to do.

There is always a danger in turning a Dr. Seuss story into a feature film. First, you are messing with a classic. Second, you are trying to stretch a very short poetic story into 90 minutes of entertainment. The latter is this film’s biggest shortfall. There is just not a lot going on here. As a result, simple plot lines are turned into 15-minute vignettes (though not songs, mercifully).

Carrey and Carell are asked to riff through much of their characters’ dialogue, and it grows quite strained quite quickly.

Frankly, the recent Hollywood practice of using bankable stars to insert their own personalities into the main cartoon characters doesn’t work all that well. More talented and interesting though less famous voices really do the job better (exhibit A: the Disney classics). In this film, the most interesting character is a buzzard with a deep Russian accent portrayed by TV supporting actor Will Arnett. The buzzard gets more laughs and has more personality than the big celebrity characters.

In the end, the Dr. Seuss-ness of the film carries the day. The animation is modern, but wonderfully stays true to the cartoonish Dr. Seuss look. More importantly, no one knows how to deliver a climactic scene quite like Dr. Seuss. We learn a lesson and we feel an overwhelming sense of hope at the same time. Who can ask for anything more?

Good animated comedy • G • 105 mins.

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