I sat down with “American: The Bill Hicks Story” holding only a slight awareness of the comedian, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32. I never found the man funny, but retained a curiosity about the “bad boy” comedian who commands such reverence in stand-up comedy circles, anticipating an extraordinary education from this documentary. Unfortunately, “American” doesn’t impart much in the way of hard facts about Hicks, preferring an affectionate route of celebration, blindly fawning over this mystery man in a way that would likely make Hicks himself retch.
Here’s a motion picture that completely unravels in its second half, but that initial rush of sinful obsession and frayed communication makes an immense impression. “Monogamy” approaches the delicate subject of fidelity, yet turns a common discussion of intimacy into a bizarre psychological study, losing its grip on potent topics to play with indie film clichés. I walked away from the film disappointed, but there are some powerful ideas and performances buried somewhere in here, underneath the performance art itches.
“The Company Men” is not a comfortable film to sit through. It is most certainly not escapism. Dealing with the disturbing subject matter of unemployment, the picture summarizes a national reality in a blunt matter, carrying the woe and aggravation to a dramatic stage for a more fulfilling consideration, using the extraordinarily gifted ensemble to explore a shared fear. Finding catharsis in bleak matters, the picture satisfies with its sincerity, allowing viewers to sympathize and reflect on the nature of job loss through this efficiently directed eulogy for American industry.
“The Unloved” endeavors to tell a very important story, but often does so with its shoelaces tied together. It’s a searing film at times, exposing raw truths about the children’s home care system in the U.K., but as an overall representation of horrors, neglect, and personal solace, it’s frustratingly static, often preferring the cool waters of esoteric cinema to something more charged and insightful.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. With “I Am Number Four,” Hollywood attempts to branch out to other genres to find a new “Twilight” -- something with heavy romantic and superhuman overtones that could be massaged into a brand new franchise to take over the hearts and wallets of teens when the sparkly vampires take a bow in 2012. Though dealing with intergalactic invasion, corporeal powers, and laser guns, “I Am Number Four” is a relatively tame creation, lacking a thunderous, textured cinematic quality that would separate it from the average ABC Family movie.
2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” was such an unexpected delight, merging furious martial art action and a traditional hero’s journey narrative to create a quirky, spirited comedy, making ideal use of star Jack Black’s verbal idiosyncrasies and playful heft. The development of a sequel wasn’t the most welcome news, threatening to sink a sublime feeling of creativity through cash-happy repetition. It’s a relief to report that “Kung Fu Panda 2” isn’t only superb, but matches the original picture in terms of scope and sentiment, once again following Po as he seeks to attain peace in his special bumbling manner.
“The Hangover: Part II” isn’t a sequel, it’s a victory lap. Instead of escalating the troubles of our three blackout kings, co-writer/director Todd Phillips merely hits restart on the machine, essentially remaking the blockbuster comedy hit of 2009. The lack of pure sequel ingenuity is extremely disappointing, though this awkward photocopy does manage to seize a few laughs as it stumbles down a familiar path.
Recalling the more sickening edges of “Seven,” the Korean horror film, “I Saw the Devil,” is not an easy sit. Overflowing with rage and acts of torture and ultraviolence, the picture is a vicious concoction, making it a specialized viewing experience, not just a brisk serial killer thriller where good battles evil within a diseased world. Here, good is evil in a certain light, conjuring a disquieting tone of heroism and vigilante justice to brew along with the movie’s substantial hostility.
Even by animated filmmaking standards, “Gnomeo & Juliet” is a strange picture. Imagine William Shakespeare’s immortal classic of love and death acted out by a society of garden gnomes, scored to the music of Elton John. And the voice cast includes Hulk Hogan, Dolly Parton, Ozzy Osbourne, and Maggie Smith. Feeling a bit dizzy? While thoroughly bizarre, “Gnomeo” is a vibrant bit of cheeky entertainment, a beautifully animated romp that plays better cute than clever, offering miniature merriment and cheerful blasts of classic rock while pantsing the Bard.
Creating suspense from the creep of shadows takes a special filmmaker, and director Brad Anderson is certainly capable of pulling out chills from nothingness. While flawed and perhaps a bit too elusive, “Vanishing on 7th Street” is an interesting little sci-fi/horror hybrid that urges the viewer to fear the dark, skillfully executed with a healthy amount of scares and inviting confusion.
Either Mitch Glazer is a filmmaker of extraordinary depth and emotional perception, or the man’s a lunatic who should never be allowed to direct again. “Passion Play” makes a strong case for the end of Glazer’s moviemaking career, submitting an overwrought, sublimely goofy story about angels, jazz musicians, and gangsters, treating unbearably silly material with a furrowed brow concentration one might expect from a Shakespeare adaptation. There’s undeniable entertainment value in accidental absurdity, but “Passion Play” strikes a note of delirium that’s downright painful to process.
“Hard Breakers” isn’t a very robust motion picture, but the idea of a female director guiding a T&A stoner comedy is intriguing, especially with a pair of actresses in the lead roles. Giving the genre a refreshing gender curl, the picture still falls short in the laugh department, with a distinctly stale sitcom air penetrating the relatively vulgar mood.
“Deep Gold” is a throwback of sorts to the lesser works of cheesecake filmmaker Andy Sidaris, utilizing exotic locales and beautiful actresses to backdrop a pedestrian tale of villainy. It’s not a very good movie, but it’s entertaining in spurts, especially when director Michael Gleissner drops his concentration on the flimsy story to raise some hell, tearing around the Philippines with a cast of wet actresses on big boats doing their damndest to make this foolishness credible.
In the months leading up to the release of “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” certain members of the production have attempted to distance themselves from the wreckage of the last two sequels, “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End.” While box office was bountiful, fan reaction to the follow-ups was as harsh as an empty jug of rum, with the matinee joys of 2003’s “Curse of the Black Pearl” officially scrubbed away by overwritten screenplays, convoluted mythologies, and halfhearted performances. While it’s obvious why some would claim a rebirth in “Caribbean” mojo with this latest installment, the sad truth is “On Stranger Tides” simply resumes the mirthless antics of a franchise that’s completely lost its course.