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Thursday
May232013

The Hangover Part III

Years from now, when people discuss the best comedies of this generation, I fully expect 2009’s “The Hangover” to feature prominently in their conversation. Although it certainly had its detractors, it was widely found to be quite funny, a consensus made by both the movie going public and the critic community. Its sequel, which can more appropriately be called a remake, was less successful in terms of quality because comedy requires the element of surprise to work and surprises were few and far between due to recycled jokes and plot lines. This week’s “The Hangover Part III” abandons the narrative structure of the previous films and successfully sets itself apart. Unfortunately, it’s one of the only things it’s successful at doing.

This time, the boys don’t have anything crazy planned. They have moved past the events from the previous two movies and are content with their lives, that is except for Alan (Zach Galifianakis), who tries to fill his emptiness with things like the purchasing of a giraffe, which he promptly and accidentally decapitates soon after. His wild life has led Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) to stage an intervention. This convinces Alan to enter rehab to get his life under control, but on the way, a drug kingpin named Marshall (John Goodman) rams them off the road. It turns out Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen over $20 million in gold from him. Mr. Chow’s whereabouts are unknown since his escape from a prison near Bangkok, so he figures the Wolfpack may be able to find him. He takes Doug hostage and gives the trio three days to get his money back. Otherwise, Doug is dead.

The most common criticism that “The Hangover Part II” received was that it followed too closely to its predecessor. It’s a fair complaint, but it’s also understandable. Director Todd Phillips had something special with the first movie, a comedy that fired on all cylinders, provided plenty of laughs, had likable characters and a story with an intriguing mystery at its core. To want to recreate that magic a second time is perfectly reasonable, even if it did ultimately fail. But “The Hangover Part III” is another beast altogether. It does nothing but coast by on the franchise name and star power of its leads. It has no material to sustain a full length movie, only the thinnest of paper thin plots to move it along and jokes that oftentimes can hardly be considered such.

The jokes this time come at a far less frequent pace (and legitimate laughs even less so). Large chunks of the movie go by with nary a joke in sight, the only humorous moments coming from Galifianakis’ goofy demeanor and not from a witty script. This comes as no surprise since Galifianakis is the only one even trying, the others merely coasting by for the paycheck, clearly uninterested in what’s going on, but it’s a futile attempt. Galifianakis’ character was always written as the dimwitted one, the one that spoke before thinking, but his simplemindedness from the previous movies has now devolved into outright cruelty. Few would argue that the characters were walking examples of morality in the other movies, but much of their meanness came from name calling and harsh jokes among themselves, a normal occurrence between male friends. Here, the characters spill glasses on purpose for the house maid to clean up, verbally abuse old ladies in motorized wheelchairs and talk poorly to their mothers, to the point where Alan even wishes his mother dead.

Cruelty does not equate to comedy, a revelation made clear by recent debacles like “Bachelorette” and “Project X,” yet that’s nearly all “The Hangover Part III” has to offer. What little actual jokes it does have are unfunny or rehashes of other familiar jokes, like the model building joke from “Zoolander.” Its locations—prisons, funerals and interventions, just to name a few—simply aren’t ripe for comedy and very few movies with similar settings pull it off (the 2007 British film “Death at a Funeral” being a standout exception).

Although I’m sure many will prefer this narratively new film over the rehash that was “Part II,” this is nevertheless far worse. At least “Part II” tried. It was a lazy attempt, but it had a desire to be funny. This has no comedic flow or energy and laughs are scarce. What’s worse, the focus on Alan and Mr. Chow relegates both Stu and Phil to sidekicks who are given little to do. “The Hangover Part III” is a comedic abomination and, as a third entry to one of the funniest movies in recent memory, a colossal disappointment.

The Hangover Part III receives 1/5

Friday
Sep072012

The Words

The Words is a movie that gets by on its idea alone. It comes from Lee Sternthal and Brian Klugman, first time writers/directors, and therefore is a little rough around the edges—even its talented cast comes off like first time actors who have finally caught their big break and are unconvincingly trying way too hard, a problem which hearkens back to the amateur directors—but where it lacks polish, it more than makes up for with an engaging story and an interesting, if somewhat obvious, twist. A movie that seemed so simple at first suddenly becomes surprisingly poignant. It’s an Inception like narrative that is weaved together in a way that creates a character parallel that is difficult to explain, but is immediately apparent when watching. It may be a stylistically rough movie, but thematically, it’s quite beautiful.

The movie stars Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, an author who is reading his latest book to a crowd of fans who have gathered around to hear him. As he reads, we’re pulled into his story and meet his character, Rory (Bradley Cooper), an author himself who is struggling to get his first book published. He’s put three years of work into his novel and despite his admittedly excellent writing, he is turned down by every publisher he submits his book to. One day, while on vacation in London, he finds a worn down valise that contains a manuscript that is among one of the best he’s ever read. He begins to type it into his computer, not with intent to plagiarize, but, as Clay the narrator says, to feel the words flow through his fingers. However, his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), soon stumbles upon what he typed up and begs him to shop it around, not knowing every word of it is stolen. In order to not disappoint his wife, he does just that and the book is immediately bought. It quickly becomes a hit and Rory finds himself among the top authors in the world. A few years later, an old unnamed man played by Jeremy Irons appears and begins to tell his own story (which we also see onscreen) about a man who wrote a story back near the end of World War II, but then lost it. Rory quickly realizes that the old man is referring to the story he stole.

The Words, a story about an author reading a story about a struggling author stealing a story that another author wrote many years ago, may sound confusing, but it isn’t. It somehow manages to balance the accessibility of the narrative with complex themes and meanings. It never dumbs itself down for fear of isolating some audience members (aside from a few tiny narrations from Quaid as he reads from his book) and if nothing else, it should be commended for it. It doesn’t always succeed in what it sets out to do, but The Words is unique, taking a basic foundation made popular by 2010’s Inception and tweaking it to fit within the context of a dramatic story.

Nearly every aspect of the movie, from its performances to its looks to everything in between, is a give and take. For every one thing I would fix, there’s something else I wouldn’t touch. Some scenes work wonderfully while others fall flat on their face. The best example of the latter comes when Dora tells Clay that reading his novel was more honest, true and passionate than anything else he’d ever written. She tells him that the book contained all of him, even the parts she didn’t know existed. Of course, the book wasn’t written by him, so while she thinks she’s giving him a compliment, she’s really crushing him on the inside. The scene is a catalyst for all the events to come, but it’s more amusing than it is dramatic and more worthy of laughs than it is tears.

As far as visuals go, The Words is, like everything else, a mixed bag. For example, there is some awkward framing prevalent throughout the entire movie—sometimes it’s too uncomfortable to see these actors that close up, especially given their by-the-numbers performances—but once again, it’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Interestingly, the directors opt to shoot their movie using both the digital and film formats, the former for the current time settings and the latter for the World War II setting. This gives the movie some much needed style that is missing elsewhere and it creates a distinct feeling for each time period, keeping them separated before their thematic relation is finally revealed.

It’s a nice touch in an otherwise bland looking movie. In fact, the whole thing could essentially be summarized like that. The remnants of a bad movie are there, but there is enough thought and care put behind its creation that it comes out as much more. While I hesitate to hype it up more than it’s worth, The Words is nevertheless a surprising, underrated gem that is definitely worth a look this weekend.

The Words receives 3.5/5

Wednesday
Aug222012

Hit & Run

Dax Shepard has never been the most appealing actor in the world. He’s supposed to be a funnyman, but his antics never amount to more than the occasional chuckle—his most popular performances coming from Ashton Kutcher’s MTV show “Punk’d”—but he’s never quite unlikable either. He exists within that middle ground where he doesn’t do much to impress, but there’s something about him you enjoy anyway. The same can essentially be said for his fiancé Kristen Bell. Despite love from many adoring fans, she rarely stars in something worth watching. Combine the two in one movie and you have, predictably, something that is neither horrible nor very good. Similar to the stars themselves, Hit & Run fails in many regards, but somehow still retains a decent amount of charm, despite a weak script and amateurish direction from Shepard that falls into redundancy quickly.

The film stars Shepard and Bell as Charlie and Annie, a couple living somewhere in the Midwest United States who are happy with their own little existence. They love each other dearly and treat each other with respect, but one day, Annie is offered a job at a prestigious college in Los Angeles as the head of a new department, Non-violent Conflict Resolution. Unfortunately, heading to LA means putting Charlie’s life on the line—Charlie is in the Witness Protection Program and has been ever since he testified in court to put away Alex Dimitri (Bradley Cooper)—but this job is Annie’s dream job and Charlie loves her too much to keep her from achieving it. Reluctantly, he sets off to LA with her, but Alex is quickly alerted to their presence thanks to Annie’s jealous ex-lover Gil (Michael Rosenbaum), who for some reason thinks he’ll keep Annie safe by allowing the psychotic Alex to track down Charlie (besides, Charlie could be in the Witness Protection Program because he was an accomplice to any manner of evil deed).

The set-up to Hit & Run is as contrived as one could possibly get. Before they head out to LA, Annie needs her teaching license for the interview, which just so happens to be at Gil’s house and has been for the past year. This sparks Gil to contact Alex (through Facebook of all places) and tail Charlie as he innocently accompanies her to LA. If Annie simply had grabbed that teaching license when she moved out of Gil’s place, which any hopeful professor would do, this whole situation could have been avoided. But it’s not just the set-up that falls too comfortably into place. The numerous amount of coincidences in this cat and mouse tale become too much to handle. Somehow, Gil and/or Alex knows precisely where to find Charlie and Annie at seemingly all times. Even when Charlie manages to outmaneuver them, it’s only a matter of time before they stumble upon each other again. Constantly, the film asks you to go with moments like this, but it’s nigh impossible to do so.

When the characters do come into contact with each other, it inevitably leads to a car chase. Because of this, Hit & Run too often feels like a showcase for stunt driving rather than a movie with a story to tell, but none of these scenes offer up too much excitement. While it may be needless to say, this is not a Fast and the Furious movie. Those films may be light on story, but they inarguably had some incredible high velocity car chases. This movie has neither an interesting story nor fun chases. The little bit of excitement it does manage to gather dissipates with repetition. Car chase after car chase ensues in Hit & Run (to the point where I’m pretty sure if I looked at the script, whole pages would simply read in big bold font “CAR CHASE”) and it gets stale quickly.

Hit & Run has jokes that go nowhere, action scenes lacking in thrills, multiple stereotypes and characters whose actions and motivations are clumsy at best, including Randy (Tom Arnold in a horribly overacted performance), a United States Marshal who insists on protecting Charlie against his will and who only serves to complicate the situation, but the film never reaches flat out awfulness. There is a hint of sweetness to it, including the opening and closing lines of dialogue, the latter recalling the former, but the problem is that not enough time is spent building these characters and their relationship with one another for us to care. Instead, the film relies far too heavily on uninspired and overdone chase sequences and it just doesn’t work. Hit & Run isn’t the worst movie you’ll see this year, but it’s certainly one of the blandest.

Hit & Run receives 1.5/5

Tuesday
May242011

The Hangover Part II

There’s nothing wrong with a sequel sticking to its predecessor’s formula. Besides, if the first movie was popular, then it had to have done something correctly. Still, sequels should take the foundation of the original and build upon it, making it better. You have to be careful, though, because there’s a fine line between doing that and simply rehashing. To say a movie is “a rehash” is a movie critic cliché, but never has the word been more appropriate than with The Hangover Part II. Years from now, when critics are bashing a worthless sequel that does nothing but replay out the events of the original again, they’ll refer to this movie and justifiably so. So I guess the question is should you see it? You already have.

In the original film, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up with memory loss, unable to recall the night before. In the sequel, Phil, Stu and Alan wake up with memory loss, unable to recall the night before. Only this time, Stu is the one getting married, not Doug (Justin Bartha). Oh, and they’re in Thailand. Totally different.

The Hangover Part II, quite literally, is The Hangover repackaged in a different area and with a few new faces. It begins like the first movie, with Phil explaining that they won’t be able to make it back for the wedding, and then it proceeds forward with the guys trying to find clues as to the whereabouts of their lost friend, this time a guy named Teddy (Mason Lee). It follows the exact same path as the original film, straight down to the comedic situations the trio finds itself in, only with slight differences. When they wake up, they find a monkey in the room rather than a tiger. Stu now has a face tattoo rather a missing tooth. When they think they’ve found the missing person, it turns out to be someone else. It even goes so far as to recite at least half a dozen jokes from the original film verbatim. If it’s possible for a franchise sequel to inadvertently remake the original, The Hangover Part II has done it.

Considering that this movie has almost the exact same runtime as the first, I’m considering conducting an experiment to see if they match up. The two films are so similar I wouldn’t be surprised if they both hit the same narrative beats at the same time. Still, this beyond lazy approach to storytelling would be okay if the film produced constant laughs, but it doesn’t. That’s not to say it doesn’t have some good jokes; they were just funnier the first time I heard them two years ago. Because of its recurring, well, everything, The Hangover Part II comes off like a smug prank, one that is aiming to see just how much money it can steal from movie going patrons by showing the same thing.

There is nearly nothing in this vapid slapdash of a film worth noting. Its screenplay, when not a copy and paste job, fails even on the most basic levels. In their first adventure, the clues to Doug’s whereabouts came from clever writing that gave them just enough information to keep them moving forward. Here they come from arbitrary means. After arriving at a Buddhist monastery with nowhere left to go, I kid you not, Alan meditates, has a vision and discovers their next destination. It was like the writers couldn’t figure out how to credibly move the guys from place to place, so they deemed it unnecessary and simply forgot about it.

It’s rare to see such a large drop in quality from film to film in a franchise. While some are certainly better than others, a sequel that fails to live up to the excellent original is usually still pretty good, but that certainly isn’t the case this time. The Hangover made my best of the year list back in 2009, but its sequel is dangerously close to becoming one of this year’s worst.

The Hangover Part II receives 1.5/5

Friday
Mar182011

Limitless

Limitless is a film that merely exists. It doesn’t impress. It doesn’t offend. It’s just there. It spends an hour and 45 minutes moving neither forward nor backward. It creates a feeling of apathy among its viewers, disconnected from what’s happening onscreen and ready to depart from the theater and experience something more exciting. It’s a movie that has an interesting idea, but never does anything interesting with it. It’s not a waste of time, but it’s also not worth it. The strange crossroads Limitless finds itself in is one of equal mix hatred and admiration. If that’s the best it can do, despite some positive aspects, I’m going to have to advise you to skip it.

Bradley Cooper plays Eddie, a struggling writer who is in the middle of a block, unable to find anything in his mind that is worth putting on the page. After months of producing nothing, he runs into his ex brother-in-law, Vernon, played by Johnny Whitworth, who gives him a drug that allows him to use all of his brain rather than the small percentage humankind has been limited to. The drug is called NZT-48 and, rather than use it to further pursue a literary career, he makes a name for himself in the finance world, catching the eye of big business mogul, Carl Van Loon, played by Robert De Niro. Unfortunately, there are side effects that Vernon didn’t mention and Eddie quickly finds himself wondering if it was all worth it.

Limitless is a film that reminds one of The Social Network, only to a lesser degree. Its comparative dialogue, which is fast moving and quick witted, makes it seem like it’s aiming for something smart, but that aim seems to be in the wrong direction. It may use big words, but without proper implementation of them, they are nothing more than psychobabble. And its script relies on ridiculous scenarios and contrived happenstances to move the plot along, like an early scene when Eddie is looking for the drug in his now dead brother-in-law’s apartment. After an unsuccessful search, he says that without the drug, he’s “cooked,” which naturally leads him to finding a secret compartment inside the oven.

Essentially, Limitless is a story about a drug addict. Eddie takes the drug, becomes addicted to its intoxicating, feel good effects and then finds himself in dire straits as it begins to take his life. Given the subject matter and the path Eddie goes down after taking the drug, it would be easy to assume that there is some type of anti-drug message, but that’s not the case. In fact, the end result of the film, which will not be revealed, shows that prolonged drug usage can have a positive effect, as long as you can work through the initial negative side effects. It’s an ending of questionable morals and it comes off as more than a little irresponsible.

But when it all comes down to it, it’s not the contrivances or the problematic message that kills Limitless. It’s that it’s just kind of boring. While a technically solid film, it fails to capitalize on its intriguing premise. Surely if we could use our brains to their full extent, it would be more interesting than this. An idea ripe for the picking is wasted on a screenplay that has no idea what to do with it. It’s ironic really. The characters in Limitless are brilliant, but the story they are forced to trudge through is dumb as a rock.

Limitless receives 2/5