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Catching Up: How to Be Single (2016)

There will come a moment, soon I hope, that Dakota Johnson will find her path to greatness.  As a performer, there is something in her that her contemporaries seem to lack, an understated intelligence, a manner in which you can tell there’s a real person there.  When someone talks to her on screen you can see that she’s thinking.  Maybe that’s just something I’ve interpreted, but I think it’s special – she reminds me a lot of her grandmother, Tippi Hedren.  My problem is that it doesn’t really fit with the movie’s she seems to find herself in.  Fifty Shades of GreyNeed for SpeedCymbeline?  She has a screen presence that suggests that she should be in films like Spotlight.

That’s a nice way of saying that she is using her special qualities in movies that don’t deserve them.  Take the latest, How to Be Single, a disposable rom-com that does no favors for her or the genre.  There is nothing especially wrong with this movie, but there’s nothing especially noteworthy either.  Here is a movie that feels a lot like a Greatest Hits collection of the rom-coms you’ve been going to over the past 10 years.  It gathers all of the comic overtones and heartfelt moments and wraps them up into a tender-hearted burrito that you’ll enjoy while you’re watching it but probably cash out of your memory banks as soon as its over.  It chases The Hangover, “How I Met Your Mother” and steals borrows great heaping gobs of Bridesmaids. Yet it never finds an identity for itself.

Johnson is at the center here in a role that should have been a movie by itself.  She plays Alice, a twenty-something who “takes a break” from her relationship with her long-time boyfriend John (Nicholas Braun) and moves to New York to work as a paralegal.  The relationship is complicated when the “break” breeds new relationships on either side, especially for Alice who goes through a series of rotating suitors even though she tries to resist the temptation to find a man.

Hovering in her immediate hemisphere are her three BFFs; her sister Meg (Leslie Mann) an OB/GYN who rejects the notion of a husband and kids.  There’s Lucy (Alison Brie), a lonely-heart who is on an all-consuming mission to find “The One.”  And there’s Robin (Rebel Wilson), a cliche who is a free-spirited and apparently self-destructive party girl who is always either hung-over or in pursuit of the male sex organ.  She’s one of those movie-types that parties all the time but never has to face any consequences.  Where are the consequences?  Where is the sadness?  Where are the morning-after problems?  She’s a cliche and that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film.

The pieces and parts of other (and much better) rom-com standards are present here but they are stitched together into a movie that is really hard to care about, mainly because you already know where it is going.  Does it surprise you that workaholic Meg’s biological clock goes off the moment she looks into a baby’s eyes?  Does it surprise you that Lucy falls for the guy running the bar that she has an argument with?  Does it surprise you that Robin’s bacchanalian lifestyle comes buttoned with a tag of wisdom for the heartaching Alice?  Does it surprise you that, for the ump-teenth time, we get the “Sex and the City” vision of New York featuring stylish cloths and comfortable apartments?  Again, you’ve seen it all before and done way better.

 
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Posted by on 08/11/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Catching Up: CHiPs (2017)

I see a lot of movies, and at the same time a lot of movies come my way.  So, of course, I miss a movie now and then.  But over time I try and catch up.  Welcome to my regular series “Catching Up” in which I take a look at a movie that, for one reason or another, I just missed the first time around.


Early in CHiPs there is a long, lingering shot of a cat’s anus.  This is supposed to be funny.  That should seal the deal on whether or not you want to see it.  If it doesn’t, you need help.

For that reason, and many others, I don’t want to meet the people who would be entertained by a movie like CHiPs; furthermore, I don’t want to meet the people who would make a movie like CHiPs.  Here is yet another comedy at the lowest common denominator, shelling out the kinds of frat-boy sex jokes and bodily function gags suitable for those metal signs that say “Beer is the answer, but I can’t remember the question.”

It’s also a little heart-breaking.  “CHiPs” wasn’t an especially good show when it ran on NBC from 1977 to 1983 but it was good-hearted, featuring a friendship between two cops who loved their jobs and, in a lot of ways, each other.  The adventures were fun and over-the-top and it had a pretty cool theme song.  Those of us now in our mid-40 throw knowing smiles at each other when the show is brought up in conversation.

There is nothing loving or affectionate about this movie.  Written and directed by the otherwise very funny Dax Shepard – who should know better – the movie mines comedy for those who think that the words “kitty litter” are automatically funny.

The story is a lot of ‘who-cares’.  Former pro-motorcycle rider Jon Baker (Shepard) who has turned rookie highway patrol officer teams up with an undercover Miami fed working under the name Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (Michael Peña) who comes out to California on the trail of a group of dirty cops led by Vic Brown (played by a wasted Vincent D’Onofrio).  Upon being paired up, our common sense flags start to go up, particularly when we are introduced to Ponch’s sex addiction and Baker’s addiction to pain killers which is heaped upon his lingering obsession over his estranged wife (Kristen Bell).  Are you laughing yet?

So yeah, Ponch’s sex addiction means that we get long, lingering male-gaze shots of women’s breasts and derrieres and lots of jokes involving sexting and masturbation – naturally women fling themselves at him.  From Baker’s end we get a tasteless gag in which Ponch has to carry his naked body from the bathroom to the tub followed by a conversation about whether his face touched . . . oh you shouldn’t even care!  I didn’t see this much homophobia in seventh-grade gym class 30 years ago.

This is a movie that can’t get anything right, made by people who don’t seem to care.  It fails as a comedy because no one cares to set up a joke.  It fails as a police procedural because no one cares to set up a good story.  And it fails as an action picture because it can’t raise stunts that we care anything about.  I’m not a big fan of The Fast and the Furious movies but at least those people care to put some actual work into their stunts.  This movie is focused less one giving you a good time then padding its running time with jokes about homophobia.

Homophobia, by the way, is a massive part of this experience.  There’s a lot of time wasted on the horror that a man in your company might either be a homosexual or have homosexual tendencies.  It would seem to be an unreasoning fear but given the way that sex is thrown around in this movie, one might presume that if a homosexual appeared in the movie, it is likely to be followed by a voracious sexual attack.  It’s not a joke, it’s a blunt instrument established in jokes that fall flat before they even begin.

What’s worse is that this is crux of the whole movie.  Shepard (for he is to blame) takes a lot of crude, homophobia and mixes it with jokes that aren’t even set up right.  Example: Ponch is frequently sexting a buxom female officer.  and at one point he accidentally sends the text to his superior (Jane Krakowsky), but we can see her number on his phone before he sends it out.  So the joke is already knocked down before it gets set up.

I only isolate that moment because it’s the kind of misfire that happens over and over and over.  Jokes are set up , but we can see the payoff because the editing is mishandled.  Added to that, there isn’t a single character in this movie that isn’t utterly repulsive and the movie puts a button on its repulsiveness by ending on a scene in which a female officer begins a sexual adventure with Baker in the back of an ambulance while Ponch looks on with leering, orgasmic delight.

Personally, I checked out at the cat anus.

 
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Posted by on 08/04/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Catching Up: War Room (2015)

I see a lot of movies, and at the same time a lot of movies come my way.  So, of course, I miss a movie now and then.  But over time I try and catch up.  Welcome to my regular series “Catching Up” in which I take a look at a movie that, for one reason or another, I just missed the first time around.


Just the other day an elderly woman asked me if I had seen the Christian drama War Room.  “No, I haven’t,” I said.  The woman placed a motherly hand on my shoulder, looked me dead in the eye and said “You owe it to yourself.  This movie will change your life.”  What this woman didn’t know is that I had already heard a great deal about War Room – and none of it good.  I’ve heard from faithful Christians that it is changing lives, yes, but I also heard the same noise about God’s Not Dead and I declared that movie the worst of 2014.

Having now seen War Room, I can report that it hasn’t changed my life but I can freely admit that it exudes a message that seriously concerns me.  If I understood the film correctly, the filmmakers Alex and Steven Kenrick (the same team behind Fireproof and Courageous) want to use this story to sell us on the idea of absolute blind religious faith that omits of the luxury of common sense – whatever comes your way, take it to God and your problems will magically disappear.  If your marriage is in trouble, forget therapy and open lines of communication because God can fix everything.  He’s standing by waiting for your call.

That’s a wrong-headed message that War Room persists on shoving your way.  So too is the smaller message that if you are attacked by a mugger, the best course of action is to invoke the name of Jesus and the mugger will run away.  That’s a dangerous message.  Movies like this have a way of breeding a sheep mentality among the faithful who are likely to take every scene at face value.  Ideas like that are not only unhealthy, they’re irresponsible.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Let’s get to the story.  Our protagonist is Liz Jordan (Priscilla C. Shirer), a disturbingly milquetoast real estate agent who is apparently successful at her job only because her clients can walk into a house and say “We’ll take it” without looking the place over.  At home she has endured sixteen loveless years with Anthony (T.C. Stalling) a hateful, reprehensible monster who belittles her unmercifully and then goes to work where he flirts with other women and steals from the company.  This unholy alliance has produced a daughter named Danielle.

The trajectory of Liz’s path to righteousness comes from one of her clients, Mrs. Clara Williams (Karen Abercrombie) a hard-line dyed-in-the-wool Christian who can apparently spot domestic distress with no evidence at all.  Left alone after her first encounter with Liz, Miss Clara watches the young woman walk away and imparts a knowing “Mmm-hmm.”  She knows how it is, you see.  This, despite the fact that Miss Clara never once meets the husband or sets foot inside Liz’s house.

Over several days, Liz and Miss Clara build a friendship – the troubled young professional coupled with the wise old sage who’s been around.  Miss Clara, having blindly spotted the trouble in Liz’s marriage, offers life-changing advice to her in the form of seclusion and prayer.  She shows her the War Room, an empty closet wherein she tacks prayers on the wall and prays all of her earthly problems away.  She encourages Liz to do that same because this and only this will iron our the strife in her relationship.

Right there!  Right there!  That’s where the movie loses me.  The advice of Miss Clara seems to be for Liz to close herself off from all things and pray for God’s intervention.  Nowhere does she impart that Liz should talk to her husband, seek counseling or even ask God for guidance in helping her through her marital crisis.  NO!  Pray Pray Pray and it will magically work itself out.  The movie is asking Liz to be pathological doormat until God parts the seas and makes Anthony see the light.

Maybe I wouldn’t be so pressing on this issue if I felt that Liz had exhausted all other options.  That’s not the case here.  She has apparently done nothing to try and save this marriage.  Worse, there is never any indication that Liz’s marriage is worth saving.  There is never any indication that Anthony loves his wife or that she even loves him.  The two never have a conversation that isn’t a conflict and his approach to her is on the level of a dog that just pooped on the rug.  When he finally (SPOILERS) sees the light, it takes near-infidelity that is interrupted by food poisoning.

The message bred from this film is disturbing.  Liz and Anthony have problems but it never imparts that the wisdom of common sense or that the secrets to success in a marriage are worked through communication.  This movie sees marital strife through communication with God, the result of which will come solutions bred from magical realism.  Where are the questions?  Where are the challenges?  Where’s the approach to real life?  Where are the tactics for dealing with the hard knocks?  Communication with God is food for the soul but it can’t be a replacement for laziness.  That’s a message that the makers of the this movie would be happy to gloss over.

War Room is not as hateful as God’s Not Dead but I can say that it is just as hypocritical.  Both sell a message based on ignorance and intolerance wrapped up in a doctrine that preaches to the choir.  What non-Christians are going to watch this movie?  More than that, what non-Christians would be sold on its message that blind faith is the path to all things?  Movies like this have to step outside of the comforts of their target audience and speak on grounds that are challenging and far-reaching.

There is a sermonizing technique here that seems retroactive.  Miss Clara makes a rousing speech at the end of the movie, a call to arms to raise a generation who are not afraid to declare themselves Christians.  Fine.  But how about raising a generation that is understanding, patient and non-judgmental.  How about raising a generation that operates on common sense rather than on a pathological doctrine of ignorance?  These movies need to acknowledge that life is not as black and white as they portray it.  Look at and acknowledge the world you live in before you call out for the kind of world that you want.

 
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Posted by on 08/01/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Bowing Out: June Foray (1917-2017)

If the word ‘ubiquitous’ can be a person, it might as well have been June Foray.  For more than 85 years, she seemed to be everywhere; she seems to have done everything in nearly every show business medium imaginable.  She was a rare bird; a voice actor who became a legend in her own time who seems to have touched every part of the show business canvas.  Let’s put it this way, if animation was a global village than she surely traveled the globe: radio, television, movies, video games.  She worked with all titans of the animated form: Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, Walter Lantz, Walt Disney, Jay Ward, Hanna Barbara.  She was famous for the voices of characters you might know: Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Witch Hazel, Cindy Lou Who. Even when she wasn’t creating a character, she could be heard somewhere providing a cackle or a grunt or a meow.

Foray died Tuesday at the age of 99, just six weeks shy of her 100th birthday and for those of us who practically worship the animated form, she was a true legend.  She was born nearly a century ago on September 18, 1917 in Springfield, Massachusetts to Russian Jewish immigrants who, she said, filled her head and her time with an exposure to the theater and movies and the opera.  It caught on, and Foray made a habit of imitating everyone that she saw.  She said that it inspired her, at the age of 5, to pursue a career as either an actress or a fairy princess – given her roles, some might say she did both.

She started on radio in 1929 at the age of 12 working on a radio program on WBZA for one of her teachers.  At the age of 15, she convinced the owner of the radio station to let her be part of the WBZA players.  She portrayed dozens of characters on radio all through the 30s and 40s, and for the next sixty years her voice could be heard in everything from movies to television to albums to talking toys.

She would become known as the female counterpart to Mel Blanc, but Foray’s voice wasn’t quite as enmeshed.  If you had the right ear, you could always tell it was her.  That’s particularly true of the Warner Brothers shorts, in which for many years she was the only female voice artist.  She worked tirelessly creating voices in nearly 300 animated shorts often shifting from one dialect to another.

While not as well known as Mel Blanc to those outside of the animation tapestry, she was well-respected in the industry.  In 2012, at 94, she received her first Emmy Award nomination in the category of Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program for her role as Mrs. Cauldron on The Garfield Show (2008).  She was given the Governor’s Award, also the oldest performer so honored.

In 2000, she was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame after a campaign spurred by Chuck Jones.

But where do you know her from?  Well, the short answer is, almost anywhere.  Aside from Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Witch Hazel, Natasha and Cindy Lou Who, she was famous as Granny on the Looney Tunes cartoons.  She worked for Walt Disney as Lucifer the cat in Cinderella (1950) and a mermaid in Peter Pan (1953).  She was Lena Hyena in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). She provided the barks for Little Ricky’s dog on “I Love Lucy.”  She was Aunt May on “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” TV show from 1981 to 1982.  She was Marigold on Tom Slick.  She provided the voices of several  laughing beach children in “Jaws.”  She was on a legendary episode of “The Twilight Zone” as the voice of the Talky Tina doll who kills Telly Savalas (a role she got after Rod Serling heard her do the voice of the Chatty Cathy doll).  She was on “Bewitched” as the voice of baby versions Darrin and Gladys.  And she did voices for “The Brady Bunch”, “Green Acres”, “Get Smart’ and possibly twelve other famous shows.

She was on a memorable early episode of “The Simpsons” in which she played the receptionist of The Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper Babysitting Service.  When Marge calls to inquire about a babysitter for Bart and Lisa, the receptionist immediately retorts “Lady, you’ve gotta be KIDDING!

Foray worked most often with another legend, Chuck Jones in adaptations of Horton Hears a Who, A Cricket in Time Square, The Phantom Tollbooth, The White Seal, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Mowgli’s Brothers, Rikki Tiki Tavi and The Jungle Book (not the Disney one).  This, in addition to the hundreds of cartoon shorts for Warner Brothers under Jones’ direction.

Those who recognized her, loved her.  She was beloved by the industry for nearly a century.  Probably the only person who didn’t love her was Richard Nixon.  In 1973, when meat prices started to sky-rocket, she joined in a protest that led all the way to Washington.  She made Nixon’s infamous ‘Enemies List’ and led to an audit by the IRS at the same moment that Foray was trying to pay medical expenses for her aging mother.

That might very well be the only dark moment in Foray’s career.  The exposure didn’t hurt her career one bit nor did it stop her.  She worked tirelessly for the rest of her life.  Courted as The First Lady of Voice Acting she was one of the original members of animation organization ASIFA-Hollywood (the International Animated Film Association) and founder of the annual Annie Awards which recognized achievements in animation.  Short of stature, she was a women who could command, and did.  She chaired the short subject branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for many years, and fought tooth-and-nail to keep animated shorts a part of the annual Oscar broadcast.  And she was instrumental in the creation of the Oscars’ animated feature category, which has been handed out every year since 2001.

And yet, the one legacy that must be mentioned is that her death brings down the curtain on the legend of Termite Terrace, that bizarre annex animation house of Warner Brothers that, during the 40s and 50s brought life the characters of The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.  She is its last surviving legacy and with her passing, all the laughing denizens of Termite Terrace are now gone.

What she leaves behind is the work of a true voice artist.  There aren’t many left.  Those who work in the form are being nosed out by casting agents who want animated features to be headlined by big-named stars.  That puts professional voice artists – who know now to create a character with their voice – out of work.  Foray’s legacy brings hope to those who want to work using their voice.  She had a passion for it.

“I love everything I do with all of the parts that I do”, she once said. ”Because there’s a little bit of me in all of them.  We all have anger and jealousy and love and hope in our natures. We try to communicate that vocally with just sketches that you see on the screen and make it come alive and make it human. That’s what I enjoy doing.”

 
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Posted by on 07/30/2017 in Uncategorized

 

Movie of the Day: Jaws (1976)

Most of us have never known a summer without Jaws, and those of my generation can’t remember a time when the movies existed without Steven Spielberg. We grew up on a healthy diet of his films at a time when he was still a wide-eyed kid, bursting with ideas, filled with a passion for the medium and always keenly aware of how to entertain the heck out of his audience.

Whenever I see Jaws, I am always aware that I am witnessing some sort of miracle. This is a movie that by all measurable reason should not have worked as well as it did. It was based on a clunky, overwritten pulp novel; the plot was rail thin; it was directed by a 27 year-old film director best known for a TV movie; It starred a broken mechanical shark that had so much downtime that we saw it for less than 10 minutes on the screen. The entire production was the working definition of Murphy’s Law, and yet it all came together so well that even after 40 years we’re still talking about it.

In what must be the strangest bit of irony, the best parts of Jaws were the product of piecing together all the things that weren’t working. Steven Spielberg wanted the shark to be the star of Jaws. The way he story-boarded it, the shark would have appeared in half the movie. Remember the attack on Chrissie Watkins? That was to have featured the girl and the shark at the same time, but since the mechanics of the shark didn’t work right, he borrowed a note from Hitchcock by hiding the antagonist for most of the film. Fortunately for us, it was a tactic that he would use to great effect.

Jaws does best by what it does least. When we see the shark it is rarely in the cold light of day. Revisiting the film again – for the first time last week in a movie theater – I counted the number of scenes in which we actually see the shark, and I could only count three and they all take place in the film’s third act. Spielberg’s use of empty space was what made the movie work. We see point of view shots; long shots; cut-aways; a fin here, a tail there. At times we aren’t sure what we’re seeing and that absence of a clear view plays on our imagination.

The lack of visual reveal leaves our minds to fill in the blanks, and that creates an unexpected intimacy. Again, consider the death of Chrissie Watkins in the film’s opening, which many consider to be Spielberg’s equivalent of the  shower scene in Psycho. Chrissie goes in the water at night. As she swims around there is a point of view shot from under the water. She’s jostled by something that scares her, then for the next several minutes, she is thrashed about by a shark that we never see. The scene plays with our senses. At one point, she grabs a buoy nearby thinking that the attack is over, but she is then pulled away and disappears beneath the water. What makes the scene work is that we aren’t seeing these events from a distance. We’re in the water with her. There’s a startling intimacy to her death scene and for the rest of the movie, we have a template in our minds of the terror that our protagonists are up against.

The streamlining of the story is what works best here. Human characters are important but the plot needed to focus just on the shark. Screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley took out some of the book’s clunky narrative including the subplot involving Amity’s government being bankrolled by the mafia (which is why the mayor doesn’t want the beaches closed); and a bit of infidelity between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody. Plus, the ending, which is spectacular in the movie is kind of underwhelming in the book as the shark simply succumbs to a harpoon wound and drowns.

The absence of the mechanical shark also leaves us with a lot of time to get to know the characters, and that’s where the heart of the movie lies. It might have been easier to fill the roles with cardboard cut-outs, characters who are propped up as fodder for the mill, but Spielberg’s screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley streamlined the story and focused on the main characters, giving us a family man, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who suffers from a touch of aqua phobia; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) an ichthyologist who is in love with sharks; and a crusty old sea salt who isn’t a million miles removed from Captain Ahab.

All three of these characters are given dimensions. Brody’s familial bond is felt in a tender moment at the dinner table when he plays the “same game” with his youngest son. Hooper’s youth and experience could have been a tiresome joke, but there is a lot of weight to what he knows, he serves the audience with nuggets of information about the shark.

But the best role in the film goes to Quint, an old sea salt whose motivation for catching the shark are laid out in the film’s single best scene, a harrowing four minute monologue in which he recounts his experience on board The Indianapolis, the WWII naval vessel that was sunk by a Japanese sub leaving 3000 helpless sailors to be fish food for the sharks. Late in the film when Quint busts the radio with a bat to keep Brody from calling for help, his motivation is crystal clear.

Even the tinier roles are given dimensions. There’s the town’s mayor Larry Vaughn who could have been just a foil but reasons that the town needs tourism to survive despite the shark. There’s Brody’s wife Ellen, who naturally worries about her husband, but is also cool and laid back: “Wanna get drunk and fool around?” And there’s Mrs. Kitner, the mother of a boy who is killed by the shark, a reminder that in most monster movies, victims are dispatched with little fanfare, but she gets a moment when she is in mourning, reminding of the dire gravity of this situation.

Without human interaction Jaws would fall flat on its face. This is a very strange, very specific story that could be just a monster movie whose only destination might have been late night television. Shark attack stories are hard to tell. How many shark movies have been a success after Jaws? Even the sequels decline sharply in quality after this (all were sans Spielberg). Jaws 2 was entertaining but basically unnecessary. Jaws 3D was a silly excuse for 3D, and Jaws: The Revenge? . . . well, we all know how that turned out.

Seeing the film for the first time in a theater two years ago – my entire exposure up until then had been on television –was something special. First, the print. It was crisp and beautiful where most older films that have returned to theaters, especially those originally shot on film like Top Gun and Raiders of the Lost Ark, look grainy when transferred to digital. Not so with Jaws. The picture was beautiful, the colors popped and the immersive quality was something that I realize that I will never get in my living room.

Another advantage was the sound. Remember that great scene where the three men are in the hull of the boat drinking? That scene ends with the shark bumping its nose against the side of the boat. On television it makes a knocking sound. In a theater there’s a startling BOOM!  Also, John Williams now legendary score is enhanced. The music is in a slightly different pitch then the dialogue or the natural sounds. That makes the stinger cues, like the head that pops out of the side of Ben Gardner’s boat, arrive with a jolt.

Looking back over 40 years, it’s hard to believe how movies have changed in such a short time. When Jaws was released in June of 1975, there was no summer movie season. Film, at the time, was just emerging from the downfall of the production code and filmmakers were working with darker subject matter. This was the era of personal filmmaking from which emerged talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and of course, Steven Spielberg.

The most enduring legacy of Jaws was Spielberg. Here was a kid from the mid-west who had his heart firmly planted in the canvas of the movies, not simply as an artist, but as someone who wanted to entertain. If Jaws hadn’t worked, his career might have ended before it had even started. But it did work. Everything that went wrong with the movie bred something right with the final result. His career would redefine the movies, making them fun again, anticipating and in many ways creating the era of the blockbuster – both for better and for worse. His filmography is a tapestry of some of the greatest works of popular American culture from the last third of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Jaws helped redefined the art and the business of the movies. Spielberg gave the movies what it needed most, a bigger boat, a party boat, that we’ve happily been sailing on for more than forty years.

 
 

Movie of the Day: The Hangover Part III (2013)

As a comedy, The Hangover Part III is a colossal waste of time, a laugh-impaired detriment to the entire genre.  As a thriller, it actually works.  Let me put it this way, I was never bored by the movie when it was trying to take me on a thrill-ride.  Yet, I was nearly rendered comatose when it tried to set up a joke.  I actually mean that as praise.  Up to this point, critics have been mauling this film with razor sharp fingernails.  I’m not going to be one of them.  I come either to praise The Hangover Part III nor to bury it.  I liked the parts that I liked and I’ll defend it on those grounds.

Walking into the movie, I expected a washout meshed with a retread wrapped inside a movie that I was generally ready to write off as unwatchable.  Having seen it, no, I can’t say that.  For one thing, it is a true sequel in that tries to build on what has been established.  Todd Phillips takes the characters in a different direction by ditching the morning-after formula in favor of playing off that actions of the previous films and dealing with consequences that must be resolved.  The Wolfpack created chaos on two continents and now it has come back home.  I appreciated that.  Yet, my appreciation comes wrapped in a thick layer of unfunny comedy.

First, the bad news.  The focus of The Hangover Part III primarily settles on the problems of Alan, played again by Zach Galifianakis who was a bizarre third-wheel in the first two films, a character that I never really found all that funny. He’s such a bizarre doofus that I’m never sure if I’m supposed to be amused by him or afraid of him.  He says and does things that no human being on the face of the Earth would do or say without medication and time in a prison cell.  Galifianakis is a probably a nice guy but he has a comic persona that I find creepy and off-putting.  His character in the first two films was wisely third-string since a little of him goes a long way.  Here, he gets a much larger role and that’s a mistake.  His antics are more aggravating then funny.

As this movie opens, Alan has stopped taking his medication and has somehow acquired a very cute giraffe that is unceremoniously killed while in his possession.  It’s not funny, it’s just quizzical and sad.  Returning home, he’s given a talking-to by his very understanding dad (Jeffery Tambor) who immediately drops dead in a scene that I found heartless and cruel.  These two scenes really have nothing to do with the rest of the movie.  They are bizarre comic set pieces that could have easily been excised from the film.

The good news is that the larger plot is really kind of interesting.  It involves The Wolfpack’s re-association with Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), the mean-spirited Chinese gangster whom they met in the first film when he jumped naked out of the trunk of their car and, in the second film, watched as he was carted off to a Bankok prison as part of a sting operation.  As the movie opens, he’s broken out of prison in a scene that, I think, is supposed to be a reference to The Shawshank Redemption.  I dunno, as I say, the attempts at comedy don’t really work here.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, The Wolfpack – which again consists of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Jason Bartha) and Alan – is still dealing with Alan who soon becomes the focus of an intervention.  The guys want to put him in an institution for his own good, but while driving him there they are ambushed by an angry gangster Mr. Marshall (John Goodman) who was robbed by Mr. Chow of $42,000,000 from a gold heist.  Marshall assumes they know Chow’s location because he’s been in correspondence with Alan.  And just for insurance, they decide to hold on to Doug.  From there the adventure begins, to locate Chow, get the gold and return it to Mr. Marshall.

As an adventure, I’ll say it’s a good one.  Having run through the morning-after plot of the first two films, I was glad to see this second-sequel moves in a different direction.  I was interested in what was going on.  It took turns that I didn’t expect and it held my attention.  I was interested in the fact that the movie was bound to be a sequel rather than another boring repeat of the same formula.  It seems that I’m alone in that opinion.  Maybe that’s just me.  Maybe I’m just punch drunk from recent sequels that have no energy or aspirations; sequels to Men in Black, Taken, Paranormal Activity, The Bourne movies, Star Trek, Ice Age, Die Hard and Iron Man – sequels that have no ambition to work toward anything but processing a brand name.  While it isn’t successful on all counts, The Hangover Part III gives me the feeling that someone was trying.  I appreciate that, I really do

 
 

Movie of the Day: The Hangover Part II (2011)

The general critical consensus leading up to the release of The Hangover Part II is nearly identical to the mass reaction that met Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.  That being, it’s the exact same movie only in a different location.  Critics decry that the filmmakers had no idea how to twist or turn a once-clever inspiration so they made the collective choice to simply regurgitate the original and make a few more bucks off of a brand name.  I say, not so fast.  Yes, The Hangover Part II copies much of the original plot but I think it would be unkind to dismiss this movie as a banal retread.

First of all, it’s plausible.  I could believe that four guys would get stupid drunk to the point of total memory wipe more than once.  Think about it, it’s probably happening somewhere right now.  Plus, given the twist in location, there’s enough that could logically happen that it wouldn’t turn out to be the same movie.  That’s where the movie succeeds.

The plot moves from Vegas to Bangkok, and that’s probably for the best.  Vegas is a hotbed of sin and vice but it is so regulated and organized until much of the potential raunch is squeezed out.  Bankok doesn’t have that problem and that’s what gives The Hangover Part II much of its off-the-chain zeal.

Two years later The Wolfpack is headed to Thailand.  Stu (Ed Helms again), the dork-ish dentist has split from his trashy hate-spewing girlfriend and is about to marry a beautiful, good-hearted girl named Lauren (Jamie Chung).  Not wanting a repeat of the Vegas fiasco, Stu resists a bachelor party and instead opts for a bachelor brunch instead – it’s indoors and it’s less prone to unpredictable shenanigans.  He wants no part of the Wolfpack mentality and even resists the presence of Alan (Zach Galifianakis, again) just to be safe.  But, of course, there wouldn’t be a movie if things went as planned.

Unwisely, Stu agrees to a campfire toast on the beach with buddies Alan, Phil (Bradley Cooper, again), Doug (Justin Bartha, again), and Lauren’s studious teenage brother Teddy (Mason Lee) who is Lauren’s younger brother and the pride of the family.  The toast seems reasonable enough since the beer was sealed but by sunlight there’s another mind-erased puzzle to solve.  The guys wake up in a filthy hotel room fit for the killer in Saw.  Alan’s head is shaved; there’s a Capuchin monkey smoking cigarettes; There is a severed finger in a bowl; and Stu is sporting a Mike Tyson-style Maori tattoo over his left eye.  Oh yeah, and Teddy is missing.

The rest of the movie does follow the same pattern as The Hangover as the guys try and work backwards to figure out the events of the previous night so they can locate Teddy and get Stu to the wedding on time.  What makes this adventure different is that without the safer confines of Vegas, anything is possible and the movie becomes a more competent thriller than a successful comedy – that’s actually a good thing.  Even still, it is refreshing is that Todd Philips doesn’t engineer gags, but plays the laughs out according to the plotting – the movie doesn’t aim for laughs, it gets there through the progression of the story.

The switch in location is an asset.  Within the squalid backwater of the Bankok ghettos, the guys are completely out of their element.  They encounter ass-kicking monks; Russian mobsters; drug dealers; tranny-hookers; car chases; boat races; And a bigger role for Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong, again) who has all the information about the night before but is out of commission before he can give the guys some need to know information.

The characters this time seem a little more settled-in, but they’re no less clueless.  Their funnier because they’ve found themselves in a situation that should never have been repeated.  Bradley Cooper, the group’s apparent voice of sanity is a walking irony in that he’s the one who essentially got them into this mess in the second place.  Helms plays Stu with a great deal of vulnerability.  And Galifianakis?  I complained last time that his character’s personality seemed so off-kilter that you’re not sure if he’s suffering a mental disorder or maybe stepped in from a cartoon.  I’m still not sure.  He’s given less to do here and that may be to the film’s credit.  The situation in Bankok is so bizarre that his goofy shenanigans seem like insult to injury.

I think the word that follows The Hangover Part II is likely to be “underrated.”  This is not a carbon copy of the original save for the premise.  Philips has fun re-engineering some of the plot points but, unlike Home Alone 2, we don’t feel that we’re being manipulated into seeing the same movie.  Some may disagree.  I don’t think this is a better movie, but I think it’s a much different movie that shifts locations but allows the characters to play in that location according to its rules.  It’s a bigger and much more dangerous picture because of this.  It’s not a better movie, but it plays much less predictable than early reviews might indicate.  I dunno, maybe it’s me.  Maybe I was just up for a second go-around.  Maybe I’m intrigued by the mystery.  Maybe I’m just fascinated by whoever gave the monkey his own Rolling Stones jacket.

 
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Posted by on 07/02/2017 in Uncategorized