Thursday, May 26, 2011
"The Hangover Part II" (2011)
I don't mind that it suffers from sequelitis, that it's the exact same premise and a total retread. I do mind that it's not nearly as gut-busting and hilarious as it could and should be. Todd Phillips' "The Hangover Part II" is an obvious attempt to one-up the original but not in the necessary ways. Banking on the resounding popularity and box office success of its predecessor, Phillips and his team shoot for something bigger and badder in the sequel. I get it. More debauchery. You have to outdo the original. But while putting focus on pushing the limits of the MPAA R-rating, you also have to remember to bring the funny.
If you've seen the first one--which I'm sure you have--then you know the setup. And if you haven't seen it, then ask a friend. They've seen it. The sequel takes place a few years or so later, and now it's Stu's (Ed Helms) turn to get married. The wedding is to take place in Thailand because that's where the parents of his beautiful bride-to-be, Lauren (Jamie Chung), are from. Stu invites his buddies Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) to the wedding, but he refuses to invite Doug's socially unbearable and incompetent brother Alan (Zach Galifianakis). Can you blame him? The guy unwittingly roofied them in Vegas. After some convincing, the third member of the wolfpack is tacked on, and they fly to the other side of the world for another night they'll never remember.
The pre-hangover sequences are great, especially a fancy dinner party where Lauren's father (Nirut Sirichanya), who admittedly doesn't like Stu, compares him to tasteless and mushy rice that you feed to infants and old people. You see, he has high standards. His son, Teddy (Mason Lee), is a 16-year-old prodigy, a pre-med student at Stanford and a brilliant cello player. Then cue Alan's toast which is a heaping pile of clueless passive-aggression and bumbling idiocy, his trademark brand that we've come to know from the first go around. Here Zach Galifianakis elevates it to an art, and contrary to what you might expect, this schtick isn't old yet. He keeps it consistently humorous throughout and delivers some of the best bits.
But that's part of the problem. Alan was the seasoning to the already savory meat in "The Hangover," but now he's the only spice to an otherwise bland meal. Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms still have fine chemistry with Galifiankis, and in any other circumstances they'd be hilarious. But lacking creativity, Todd Phillips and his writers don't provide the actors with sufficient enough comic situations and material to work with leaving only Alan's stupid one-liners warranting chuckles.
They head to the beach with Teddy for just one beer--sealed bottles with no way of being tampered with--and, you know the drill, regain consciousness in a sleazy and dirty Bangkok hotel room oblivious as to how they got there. Stu has a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face, Alan's head is shaved, Teddy is missing except for his severed finger donning a Stanford class ring and a monkey falls from the rafters and hangs out with the group for, like, no reason. Cute animals are way better than babies, am I right? Talk about blatant one-upmanship of the original. Instead of needing to find Doug, they need to find Teddy. And, geez, they're in Bangkok, for goodness sake! The stakes sure are raised.
And when the backtracking through Bangkok begins, things immediately get more dangerous, violent and needlessly over-the-top. I understand kicking up the ante, but let's not overdo it. I laughed occasionally, but I was more often cringing, feeling uncomfortable and worrying about the safety of our hungover heroes. I became distracted by the comedy's unrelenting desire to make something wilder than its predecessor, which was pitch-perfect as is. Ken Jeong returns as the batshit crazy criminal Mr. Chow who essentially becomes an honorary member of the wolfpack thanks to Alan, and because of it he becomes generously overused. That is unlike Paul Giamatti who makes an appearance as a tough-talking crime boss and nearly steals the show. Hidden comic capability such as this is only fleetingly used.
In "The Hangover," the end credits really capped off what was 2009's summer comedy smash hit. Now in "The Hangover Part II," using the same photos gimmick, the end credits are as hilarious as they were a first time but also a moment of lament realizing it's what the rest of the movie had the potential to be.
My review of The Hangover
Sunday, May 22, 2011
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (2011)
"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is what you'd expect from a fourth installment of the swashbuckling franchise: unnecessary overindulgence. It's more of the same with funny accents and high seas exploration. Gone, however, are the convoluted and confusing storylines and twists of the first three "Pirates." Its one saving grace is the more streamlined nature of the journey, the goal being to find the Fountain of Youth. In searching for such a relic, it's as if the movie itself is crying out to audiences in hopes this cash cow enterprise can stay eternally youthful. But we cannot ignore the simple truth. The movie without a doubt was motivated as a summer blockbuster cash-grab. In that sense alone the production of this fourthquel, now helmed by director of Rob Marshall, never even should've set sail.
The movie being just fine as opposed to flat-out bad is almost worse. You can tell everyone is simply cashing in as opposed to putting in some effort to make something worthwhile because they know, no matter what they make and if it has "Pirates of the Caribbean" slapped on it, people are going to see it. Hence the box office returns we've already seen. There's no vivacity or energy here like there were in past sequels. At least those bloated and jumbled messes had that going for them; there certainly wasn't a lack of trying.
The dead weight of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom with their non-pirate characters have been removed leaving only Johnny Depp's still plucky Captain Jack Sparrow and the newly introduced Penélope Cruz as the sensual Angelica to keep things afloat. Luckily their personalities are big enough to manifest into their own supporting characters. Depp is still intermittently humorous, but he lacks the zaniness I remember. His jokes and wisecracks feel tired, and even when Keith Richards shows up as he did before in a brief cameo as Sparrow's dad, whatever coolness there was before just isn't anymore. Cruz is a welcome addition, however, as she brings her same fiery flair which she does to most of her roles. She's essentially a spiritual successor to the role Knightley previously filled.
Jack Sparrow and Angelica are a fair match for each other, and they team up for the expedition to the Fountain of Youth sometimes on the same side, sometimes not. Geoffrey Rush looking old and nasty--almost distractingly so--returns as Captain Barbossa sent by King George to find the fountain. Meanwhile, Blackbeard (Ian McShane) is also after the fountain commandeering a ship upon which Sparrow and Angelica both travel. Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush are two veteran actors, durable and reliable, and they both play up the pirate charades and make it work.
For having the subtitle of "On Stranger Tides," not much about their adventure is very strange. It's actually the least strange, supernatural and fantastical of the series. Sure, Blackbeard's ship has zombies--and zombies are so in right now--but the skeletons were actually a lot better. I'm surprised to be saying this, but I wish there were more CGI creations like the endless waterfall of "At World's End" or the crazy tentacles of "Dead Man's Chest." It's not all bad, though. There are man-eating mermaids that tantalize with seduction and then attack with ferocious gnashing teeth and hisses. The one mermaid we officially meet is named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and a weird romance forms between her and an actor who looks a little too much like a younger version of Orlando Bloom. The romance is of zero consequence to the rest of the story.
Beyond the mermaids, however, everything else is rather humdrum. Lots of talking, but nothing getting said, and lots of clashing swords but of no real end result. The whole affair has a been there, done that feel to it that's impossible to deny. Oh, and don't forget to stay until after the credits and then give yourself a big face palm when things are inevitably set up for a fifth entry.
My review of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Sunday, May 15, 2011
With "Bridesmaids," we're introduced to Kristen Wiig beyond her capabilities as just a comedian. We know her well from the characters she plays in "Saturday Night Live" sketches, and her mannerisms from those are all present--from her passive-aggressive casually tossed-out insults to her wild eyes and trying-to-please-everyone smile. This marks the first time she puts these mannerisms into something greater: a leading role for the big screen. Why has it taken this long?
She plays Annie, the distraught maid of honor who's attractive and well-meaning but whose life is a mess. She has flair and inner strength but in her current state, her best traits are covered with insecurity and self-loathing. She's someone we can relate to and believe in. By creating such an endearing three-dimensional character, we're introduced to Kristen Wiig, the full-fledged actress. The hilarious and bold new comedy directed by Paul Feig in which she stars also introduces us to Kristen Wiig the writer as she co-wrote the film with Annie Mumolo giving audiences an astonishing turning point in comedy.
This is not--as people have been suggesting--the female version of "The Hangover." It's something more profound than that. More in the vein of a Judd Apatow film, it makes sense he helped produce it. It's another revelation much like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up" but with the hybrid of raunchy R-rated comedy and chick flick evolved even further. "Bridesmaids" is not a comedy aimed at women. Instead, it is a comedy about women with gender-neutralizing and universal humor. In a movie that shows us women can be drunk, insecure, vulgar and pathetic not like men but like real women, it's a triumph in equality and something both sexes can embrace.
When Annie's lifelong best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph of "SNL") announces that she's engaged and signs Annie up to be her maid of honor, Annie starts believing her life is really that far behind. Her passion for baking landed her in the hole when she opened a cake shop that inevitably had to close because it was during the economic recession. Now she lives with two dumpy-looking oddball sibling British roommates (Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas), can barely come up with her rent for her small apartment, drives around a clunker of a car and works behind a jewelry counter scowling at happily married couples. Her only source of romance comes from a rich tool who she occasionally jumps into bed with only to consequently deplete her self-worth. He gets weirded out when she spends the night after having vigorous sex only he could've enjoyed.
It isn't until the upscale and fancy engagement party where Annie meets Lillian's new friend Helen (Rose Byrne who holds her own beside great female comedians) that she starts to lose it. Helen is an upper-class snobbish bitch whose only tone of voice is that of uppity condescension. Annie can't understand what her best friend sees in this artificial shell of a woman, and so begins the jealousy. A moment where Annie and Helen attempt to out-toast each other is one of hilarity but also humanity as Wiig never lets us forget the torment inside Annie, which gives scenes such as this a tinge of pain.
Beginning here, the movie delves into smart observations on the sometimes strenuous bonds in female relationships and tensions in class consciousness. In a trip to Vegas for a bachelorette party, the ladies don't even make it past the plane ride out there because--in a hysterical and spot-on sequence--Annie, in a drunken and drugged-up fit, lets free all the bottled up feelings of absurd isolation and masochism she'd been feeling.
And what about that gross-out gag of women puking and defecating? It's uproarious, disgusting and perfect. Annie takes the bride and her fellow bridesmaids to a Brazilian restaurant before the group heads to a chic bridal shop to try on dresses. Little did they know food poisoning was to follow. Whoops. Sweat begins to drip, rumbles are heard, a few burp-ups pop out and suddenly the women are scrambling for their lives wearing extravagantly expensive dresses. The image of Maya Rudolph in a luscious white wedding gown slumping down onto the street to relieve herself is one you won't soon forget.
All the supporting actresses are great including the sweet-natured newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper of "The Office"); Dana (Wendi McLendon-Covey of "Reno 911!") who begrudges about being a stay-at-home mom and about her two adolescent sons who leave semen all over everything in her house; and, the stand-out, Meghan (Melissa McCarthy of "Mike & Molly") who talks tough and is built like a linebacker.
While the sentimentality doesn't go anywhere near "Sex and the City" territory, the movie is technically a romantic comedy. Annie does meet a cute and friendly Irish cop named Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd) who she likes and must learn to be comfortable around. There's more empathy than sympathy here, though, and the finesse comes from--like most comedies today--getting pleasure out of characters' awkward behavior. This comes to a head during Annie's awful and embarrassing outburst during Lillian's bridal shower, the movie's very best scene.
This scene encapsulates what "Bridesmaids" is all about--and what makes it so funny--as Annie reaches complete reckless abandon exploding with unnecessary but understandable jealousy and fury. As with the rest of the moments in this comedy, they are honest and real as we laugh at and with Annie. She says what everyone's thinking, and even while she's creating her own path of destruction she's finding her own destiny with antic energy.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
It's almost impossible to watch "Thor" without taking into consideration its inevitable sequel as well as the inevitable Marvel collaboration that will soon be "The Avengers" movie next summer. It gives me a headache just thinking about the saturation of Marvel we've been experiencing because of it.
That being said, here we are at the next installment, "Thor," which is pretty good and self-aware enough where we can have some fun. Take for example the elusive government organization SHIELD led by actor Clark Gregg, the same organization from "Iron Man." When a hulking fire-shooting metal monster beams itself down to Earth, they even ask if this is the work of Tony Stark.
"Thor" doesn't have the "wow" factor the first "Iron Man" did, but director Kenneth Branagh does an admirable job of simply not screwing it up. It's clunky source material to work with anyway. Adapting from a character originally introduced in 1962, Thor is the hammer-wielding Norse god who lives in a realm called Asgard which resembles a gold-plated version of Viking living. The movie opens with a rather unfortunate prologue narrated by the King of Asgard (Anthony Hopkins) and is filled with mythology and special effects that'll have your eyes bugging out of your head. The gist is this: King Odin and his wife Queen Frigga (a haggard-looking Rene Russo) must choose an heir to the throne between their two sons, the hot-headed titular character Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother, the squirrelly Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
Thor's blood thirst for revenge takes him to a neighboring planet where the Frost Giants reside. After they breached security in Asgard, Thor goes with his posse against his father's orders to confront the Frost Giants and end the feud once and for all. Due to his reckless behavior, Thor gets banished by his father to the Earth realm where he lands in New Mexico in a swirling storm cloud. And from here the more engaging part of the movie unfolds.
The Norse god fish-out-of-water tale is the most engaging part because Branagh's sharpest tool is an apt sense of humor. Chris Hemsworth as Thor really hams it up speaking in formal King's English declaring he needs sustenance and shattering his cup on the ground when it's empty just for the sake of shattering his cup on the ground. Aussie actor Hemsworth--the blond hunk that he is with rippling muscles and a winning grin--is the perfect fit for Thor combining just the right amount of brawn and self-mockery to make his hero charismatic enough for us to care about.
Accompanying Hemsworth is Oscar winner Natalie Portman who's radiant and charming as an astrophysicist who comes across Thor--and actually hits him with her car...twice. She takes an interest in Thor because she's been studying natural phenomenon, and he was directly involved with one. If only she knew of Thor's true origins, but then comes the weird moment when all the characters on Earth go from flabbergasted and refusing to believe it into submissive acceptance. I guess what other choice did they have? The other members of her scientific team, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings, are great and funny. There isn't much of a plot on Earth aside from Thor reclaiming his mighty hammer, but I found these sequences to have the most energetic wit and rollicking fun. Back in Asgard, it's about family coming-of-age drama and numbing action sequences in a world that is hardly fully realized. We have swooshing panning shots of the glorious Asgard but never really interact with it.
Taking into consideration Branagh's use of silliness and Hemsworth's effective performance, "Thor" works for what it is; that is, another entertaining stepping stone toward Marvel's plan to completely dominate Hollywood. And looking at this summer's line-up of movies, it looks like they're just about there.