“Friends With Benefits” review.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS sports a completely original premise: Two good-looking white people fall in love. (Justin Timberlake & Mila Kunis pictured above)

If you’re gonna go skinny-dipping, don’t just dip a toe in the water. This nudity-centric aphorism is appropriate when discussing “Friends With Benefits”, but not because the leads Justin Timberlake & Mila Kunis are nude for the majority of the film’s running time.

No, it’s because director Will Gluck tries skinny-dipping — he opens “Friends With Benefits” as a cynical, jaded response to every cookie-cutter, common-place romantic comedy you’ve ever seen.

But in not following through with this tone and in fact becoming exactly what it condemned, Gluck ends up merely dipping a toe. Damn shame. But despite the disconnect between Will Gluck’s vision and what he eventually executed, there’s more than enough entertainment to be had here.

Most of it can be attributed to the interplay, both verbal and physical, between Timberlake and Kunis. Timberlake continues to prove himself as a truly gifted actor, with sharp comedic timing and, as displayed in last year’s “Social Network”, an impressive ability to handle heavy moments of emotional gravitas.

Kunis, whose comedic side most people watch every week on “Family Guy”, offers a capable performance in the realm of both drama and comedy. She plays a strong, capable woman, which may not seem like much, but considering the unrealistic, uptight way in which romantic comedies so frequently portray women, it’s certainly a step up.

But the dynamic between the two leads is all that it should be – vibrant, flirty, rapid-fire, and quite sensual. Timberlake and Kunis share a moment that all romantic comedies should sport yet almost none do – there’s a singular moment where you can see the two look at one another and truly click. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it makes the movie.

Given the predictability of the genre, it’s often the quality of the journey rather than the surprise of the destination that separates the good from the bad. And the ensemble cast “Friends With Benefits” sports ensures that the film never loses its comedic momentum.

The opening scene is no doubt the strongest – a rapid-cut montage in which Timberlake and Kunis break up with Emma Stone and Andy Samberg. In the space of about four, five minutes, the film establishes a biting tone, the characters’ personalities, and deploys some of the funniest lines I’ve heard so far this year. Emma Stone in particular gets the film’s best quip, at the expense of one John Mayer and his loyal fans.

Further supporting players of note include Woody Harrelson as Timberlake’s flamboyantly gay co-worker. As far as I’m concerned, Harrelson’s one of the most steadily engaging supporting actors in Hollywood, bringing the same zest and watchability no matter what he’s acting in. Another is Richard Jenkins, who, continuing in a streak of roles as leading-roles’-fathers (“Step Brothers”, “Dear John”), plays Timberlake’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. Jenkins, as he tends to, brings a truly warm, human quality to his part.

It’s both the versatility of the script and charm of the actors bringing it to the screen that gives “Friends With Benefits” its charm and momentum. But it’s the disturbing quickness with which writer-director Will Gluck abandons his original vision to make a more commercial, digestible product that prevents “Friends With Benefits” from ever being something truly special. B-

“Captain America: The First Avenger” review.

Chris Evans' title character storms into action in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.

Recent movies set in the Marvel comic-book universe have had something of an awkward balance to maintain. On one hand, they must serve as build-up for next year’s “Avengers” movie, in which the superheroes Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America all team up and kick ass as a team. But at the same time, they have to serve as individual films, complete with their own arcs and qualities of their own.

Not all the films have succeeded at this, and I’m not entirely sure the final “Avengers” precursor, “Captain America: The First Avenger”, does. Set during WWII, it follows the frail, meek Steve Rogers as the government chemically transforms him into the shield-toting super-soldier, Captain America. His enemy is the appropriately-named Red Skull, Hitler’s weaponry mastermind whose skin is literally ruby-colored-red. Red-Skull intends on doing what all superhero villains intend on doing — destroy the world, claim it all for himself, et cetera. Played by eternal villain Hugo Weaving, Red Skull is repulsive, despicable — in other words, great fun to watch.

“The First Avenger” is certainly serviceable entertainment, a rollicking 2-hour tribute to the pulpy, gritty likes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. But like most serviceable entertainment, it feels less driven by genuine inspiration than by a commercial decision. There’s some original, cool concepts at work here, but the general superhero origin story has been done many, many times before….in the wake of “Green Lantern”, “Thor” and “X-Men”, I believe this marks the fourth one this year?

I suppose some of this criticism stems from my fatigue at the genre at large, but that’s precisely my point — when it comes to the narrative, it just doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from all the rest. Even the title character, Captain America himself, isn’t particularly lively. But then again, I suppose that’s some of the point. He’s a classic, brave, selfless action hero. Not much else to it, although there’s a particular twist at the end that will definitely add an interesting element to his character in future follow-ups.

Chris Evans as Captain certainly gives his all — he beefed up considerably for the role, something I always admire. Though his character isn’t particularly interesting, that’s more a result of the script than Evans himself. He’s not at fault, and certainly looks pretty cool when in Nazi-killing action. Where Evans really wowed me were the scenes before his transformation into the Captain, where he’s a 90-pound weakling who just wants to do his part to serve his country. Via digital transformation, Evans really looks the part, making his muscular physique later in the film all the more impressive. He’s a solid actor who deserves all the success I imagine this movie will reap him.

“October Sky” director Joe Johnston plays up the period angle, with all kinds of ’40′s tropes being thrown on-screen — tommy gun battles, wartime patriotism, the tough yet beautiful love interest. But the production design particularly stood out — the lavish sets given an old-school glossy feel, the visual style employing shadow in a way recalling old German silent films, and the fluid camerawork all signal a really conscious effort on Johnston’s part to replicate a very old-school style. It works tremendously.

The merits of Johnston’s past filmography are debatable, (“Jurassic Park III” and last year’s “Wolfman” remake being examples) but he has always delivered on a visceral front. “Captain” is no exception — the action here is friggin’ awesome. Admirably, it takes its time to deliver it, but once a momentum builds up, it’s essentially Captain America doing his thing for the last 45 or so minutes.

One particular action sequence set aboard a train racing through mountains feels like a successful version of a failed “Sucker Punch” scene. Thrilling in duration and emotional in conclusion, it’s probably the centerpiece of the film.

The dialogue is as one would expect. You’ve got the standard exposition, the occasional one-liner, (supplied with zest by a lively Tommy Lee Jones) the moments of weakness or self-doubt. It’s done competently, certainly not poor enough to greatly hamper the film.

“Captain America” ends on an unexpectedly somber note, a cliffhanger whose impact can be quite devastating if mulled over long enough. It’s the best moment of the film. Ironically, perhaps even sadly enough, it was not directed by Johnston, rather, by “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon. This both deepens my disappointment that more wasn’t done with this character, and piques my hopes for a more emotionally driven follow-up. B-

“Horrible Bosses” review.

“Horrible Bosses” taps into a certain wish-fullfillment-fantasy that I’ve never had to experience — offing one’s boss to make one’s life better. For obvious reasons, my experience in a professional workplace is somewhat limited. But what I can appreciate, is encountering total ineptitude when trying to accomplish a goal. “Bosses” is really about both; dealing with three nice-enough guys whose various psycho bosses have pushed them a little too far, into the realm of plotting murders against them.

The guys are Charlie Day and two Jasons – Bateman and Sudeikis. Their respective bosses are Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey, and Colin Farrell. The various conflicts between the six of them drive “Horrible Bosses” – and this is precisely why it’s so damn funny. Because the humor stems from genuine chemistry between human beings, some crazier than others. It’s not wrought from a dog defecating into a stew or a guy hitting a wall — the humor here comes from the simplest of things, like facial expressions, even pauses.

Mind you, the dialogue in this film is absolutely on-point. The one-liners the characters are given in this film are killer — in particular, the “bosses” where the film gets its name. Jennifer Aniston’s sex-crazy dentist, Kevin Spacey’s calculating murderer, and Colin Farrell’s balding, coked-out maniac all chew their respective scenes to pieces, and when the “bosses” begin interacting amongst each other, some absolutely hilarious stuff goes down.

What makes “Horrible Bosses” work, and what prevents it from veering into totally ridiculous, implausible camp, is the fact that these three bosses are truly loathsome, mean-spirited people. Director Seth Gordon never does the disservice of trying to give them any sort of depth or characterization. Why should they need it? Their function is cruelty.

What’s remarkable is that even when the bosses aren’t on-screen, the film’s comedic momentum keeps going. The inter-play between the three lovable shmucks looking to take out their office superiors is part of it. You buy that they’re all average, genuine guys with lives, hopes, dreams. And twisted as their plots are, one truly wishes the best for them.

As far as studio comedies go, this is fairly edgy stuff. When’s the last time a movie killed off someone as respected as Donald Sutherland within 10 seconds of their entrance? It never gets into morally-questionable along the lines of, say, a “Hangover: Part II”, but its humor remains just as dark and twisted. Jamie Foxx as the guys’ shady “murder consultant” is hysterical. One particular gag involving why his character ended up in jail pays off brilliantly.

The best comedy often taps into a darker, shadier side. “Horrible Bosses” accomplishes precisely that with a quick pace, sharp script, and eye for actors and letting them all play off one another. Explain to me why this feels like a far better follow-up to “The Hangover” than that film’s own sequel ever did? B+

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II” review.

(Note: I am reviewing the final “Harry Potter” installment as a combined adaptation of the last book. Meaning, this is a critique of “Deathly Hallows”‘ whole run-time, parts one & two.)

I walked into the 2001 children’s-fantasy-film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” one way, and walked out another. Not just in the sense that I got my hands on everything Harry you can imagine — books, wands, Halloween costumes, “potion”-making kits, puzzles, et cetera. But also in the sense that it may have been the first film that truly showed me just how vast the potential of movies were; how completely one can be transported to a different world not just by way of special effects, but by an eclectic, memorable group of characters. The highest compliment I feel I can give it, is that it pulled off the miraculous feat of keeping me totally entertained for 152 minutes — as a five-year-old.

Years went by. The films progressively matured, though I argue that the artistic pinnacle of the series was Alfonso Cuaron’s eclectic third installment, “Prisoner of Azkaban”. A lot of my fondest elementary-school memories stem from “Potter” — like my sixth-birthday party revolving around “Chamber of Secrets”, my three consecutive trick-or-treat sessions as Harry (I’ve got the Polaroid to prove it), and the morning I got “Half-Blood Prince” and read it, cover-to-cover, in one day.

I only feel the need to share all this with you, because in order to tell the story of Harry Potter, it’s almost like I have to tell the story of me, and how much this particular franchise has meant to me over the course of my development, both as a film-buff and as a person.

And now that it’s all said and done, now that the thousands of pages are published and the thousands of minutes of film cut, we’re left with one of the greatest pop-culture phenomenons; one that raked in billions of dollars, yet never sacrificed artistic integrity or character development just for the sake of making money or pleasing the fans.

We’re left with an epic story with hundreds of different characters and subplots, each as memorable and fulfilling as the next.

But most simply, we’re left with a poignant, sweet coming-of-age story, where we watched three people mature over the course of a near-decade. The best moments in the series were often the subtler ones, the ones that dealt with the yearnings and heartbreak of teenage years  It just so happens that these three people are wizards whose responsibility it is to prevent the end of the world.

This final installment finds Harry pitted against his arch-nemesis, the evil lord Voldemort, at last. Some movies would have a set-up for this confrontation that lasts ten minutes. The set-up for this has lasted six movies. Expectations are high. Stakes are precarious. The pay-off is immense.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, taken as a grand, 276-minute epic, is an absolute masterpiece. It’s underpinned with a profound sense of loss and suffering, given the absolute chaos that the wizarding world has fallen into. The dead seriousness long suggested in past “Potter”s is fully realized here, making for a film bleak, mature, even adult.

Despite this, “Deathly Hallows” at times adapts an almost nostalgic feel for characters and events past. I submit as evidence the last 5 minutes, a sequence that brings us exactly where, 10 years ago, the journey began.

Given the $300 million budget for the two-part film, production values hit an all-time high for the series. “Potter” has always been unique in the sense that it blends superbly both physical, tangible sets and computer-generated action. “Hallows” sports the most impressive variety and craftsmanship out of all the series.

Just as the production craftsmanship hits its peak, so does that of the actors in the film. The three principal actors – Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, all hit their absolute peak in “Hallows”. They certainly have the most heavy-lifting to do that they’ve ever had, both emotionally and with regards to stunt-work and action.

As always, the endless supporting actors gobble up their scenery – the series is essentially a who’s who of British thespians, all competing to bring their most eclectic, watchable characters to the screen. It’s always been a delight to watch, never more so than here.

All this talk is truly befitting to such an epic, expansive conclusion. But the feeling one gets from the series finale can be summed up into a single word: Satisfaction.

After all these years, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” ties together all the loose ends in a stirring, rousing, emotional conclusion. Never before has Hollywood, on such a large scale with eight movies and billions invested, struck such a great balance between spectacle and character. A

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” review.

No single filmmaker better encapsulates the excesses of Hollywood filmmaking than Michael Benjamin Bay. With his quick edits, substantial explosions and minimal attention to the things many filmmakers slave over (character, theme, subtlety, cohesive plot). It gets him in trouble with critics and makes his audience-driven box-office returns massive. Being something of an awkward balance between the two, I myself am quite mixed on Bay’s techniques and overall filmography — I realize there’s a place for films such as his, that are very much spectacle over substance, yet the sheer lack of regard Bay has for the intelligence or integrity of his audience make them hard to enjoy sometimes.

My inner war regarding this fascinating figure continues with his allegedly (though not likely) last installment of the “Transformers” franchise, subtitled “Dark of the Moon”. Take all of the mistakes that were made in the second film; all of the elements that made it one of the most grinding, soulless films I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching. They’re all still here.

All of the racial stereotypes, cringe-inducing attempts at “comic relief”, inconclusive finale, Shia LaBeouf screaming his ass off, Michael Bay’s penchant for objectifying women, frenetic editing, nearly three-hour-length, and disjointed storytelling remain.

But when you buy a ticket to “Dark of the Moon”, you’re essentially watching a double-feature with one title. On the first hour, Bay does just about everything in the above paragraph, to a mind-numbing extreme. There’s so much unnecessary exposition; so much contrived emoting, and yes, endless shots subjecting the main female star, lingerie model Rosie Whiteley, to all sorts of ogling in the, shall we say, curved regions.

And then, something miraculous happens. When the drama shifts to Chicago for the last hour of this movie, it’s almost as if the director of the first half switched to a somewhat mature if not altogether sophisticated one. Bay certainly adapts to a more fluid, less jagged flow, as his camera-work is no longer jittery and his cuts actually forming a cohesive, structured scene, as opposed to the messy, distorted mishmash his films have been prone to.

Making out clear plot-lines and motivations has always been a challenge for the “Transformers” films, seeing as the screenwriters feel the need to pile on subplot upon subplot. But succinctly put, the robot-alien races of Autobots and Decepticons continue to duke it out in grand fashion on the planet Earth. Caught in the middle of this is, once again, Shia LaBeouf as the jittery Sam Witwicky, his model-girlfriend Carly, (whose role only exists for the sake of replacing the absent Megan Fox) a small military squad, and dozens of different characters of varying degrees of depth and self-humiliation.

The prolonged sequence in which Chicago is under siege by robots, occupying the last hour of the film, is in every imaginable way, what summer blockbusters are made for. Bay sets here a golden standard for masterfully coordinated, incredibly engaging chaos. Characters slide down windows of toppling buildings, then shoot the windows below their feet to prevent certain doom. Robots engage in sword-fights and Mexican-standoffs, heaving cars and decimating buildings. It’s complete nirvana for anyone searching for the kind of grandiose, large-scale action that this summer has oddly been lacking thus far.

The entirety of this movie is executed with, very simply, the finest technical finesse you can find in cinema today. The sound design for this movie is as intricate and, well, loud as you’d expect. Need I even bring up the fact that the visual effects in this movie are fantastic beyond the point of cohesive articulation? Filmed in 3D as opposed to converted in post-production, (there’s a difference and a massive one) “Transformers” tinkers with visual depth in a manner not seen since 2009′s “Avatar”. Bay literally pulls out all the tricks to wow us with the 3-D — buildings topple towards us, robot heads fly towards us. He even throws in a shot of thong-clad buttocks, a clear attempt at audience appeasement that earned rowdy applause at my screening. This is, without any fragment of a doubt, a film to be appreciated on an IMAX 3D screen.

For 75 minutes, “Dark of the Moon” left me cold; irritated at the utter lack of cohesion and endless back-story. For another 75 minutes, this movie had me ‘ooh’ing and ‘ahh’ing, giggling and gurgling in a manner normally expected of someone half my age.That’s what this movie did to me, a concept that both enraptures and mildly terrifies me. Everything that’s wrong with American filmmaking is in this movie. And yet there I sat, swallowing the popcorn and having a blast. (First half: D+ Second half: A. That’s an average of, what, C+? Never before has pure enjoyment been so frustrating.)