Monday, May 27, 2013

The Hangover Part III

When director Todd Phillips unleashed The Hangover, he really let the dogs out in one of the funniest movies of the last five years.  The sequel wasn’t an entire dud, keeping enough of what worked while choosing to recycle most of the plot of the first movie without much vigor.  For Part III, we’re promised an end to the trilogy, an end that’s more Godfather III than Dark Knight Rises.

There’s no wedding, no bachelor party, not even a morning-after hangover – just an intervention for man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) after an unfortunate incident involving a giraffe.  En route to rehab, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan are abducted by mad mafioso Marshall (John Goodman), who’s got a beef with Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong).  Tasked with finding Chow, the Wolfpack goes on the hunt.

The Hangover Part III is not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s far from the resounding success of the first film.  Mercifully, Phillips doesn’t retread over the what-just-happened plot of the first two, and it’s to his credit that he attempts something new.  But in his verve for a creative closer, he left a handful of laughs somewhere along the trail, and Part III just isn’t as funny as its predecessors.  There are a few great moments, mostly due to some stellar line readings, and a moment or two of physical comedy, but overall Part III doesn’t hit the high bar on humor.  It’s not that it’s subtler; it’s just more restrained and perhaps even a bit more contemplative as the franchise winds down. 

The good news is that everyone still turns in consistently good work.  Galifianakis, the undisputed breakout star of the first film, is suitably kooky and not suited for the real world, an awkward bundle of issues that should have been worked out in kindergarten.  Cooper and Helms are still able straight men, though Helms gets more to do with his deft dry heaves, hilarious as ever.  And newcomers Goodman and Melissa McCarthy (as a pawn shop proprietor and amour pour Alan) fit in perfectly, exuberantly over the top with their collaborators; it’s a shame that they’re practically cameos, since their reliably solid work comprises much of the real treats the film has to offer.

Then we get to the bad news.  Aside from missing the consistent roaring-in-the-aisles laughter of the first film, The Hangover Part III makes the unpardonable mistake of giving us way too damn much Leslie Chow.  I don’t know who decided Ken Jeong has ever been funny, but I wasn’t invited to that meeting and indeed would have voted against it.  Chow was unquestionably the worst bit about the first Hangover, but there his presence was minimized; his expanded role in Part II was one of that film’s worst excesses.  Here, it’s worse; it’s everywhere.  It’s uninspired, hammy, amateurishly caricatured, and a little bit offensive – but the worst problem about Mr. Chow is that he’s just not funny.  And in a comedy movie, that’s a deadly sin.

But if Part III is like The Godfather Part III, Chow is unquestionably the Sofia Coppola of the flick.  But like Godfather III, Hangover III is as good a note as any to end the trilogy – not overstaying its welcome, conscious of its own finality, and without the need to suggest further installments.  The Hangover franchise has, I believe, fully run its course, and it’s better to end on a passable note than by overstaying its welcome. 

The Hangover Part III is rated R for “pervasive language including sexual references, some violence and drug content, and brief graphic nudity.”  The dialogue is pretty crude, unapologetically talking about orifices and objects of entry; there are a few firearm casualties and several discussions of drugging people.  As for the nudity, it’s prosthetic and restricted to the mid-credits scene (which maybe you don’t want to miss).

Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

J.J. Abrams’s 2009 preboot Star Trek (which prequelized while simultaneously rebooting the Shatner era) was fresh and original, tons of fun even to a casual filmgoer like myself, who still doesn’t fully know the difference between a Trekkie and a Tribble.  Four years later, with Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams retains that vivacious sense of fun, even if the originality quotient is a little lower this time around.

After some back-and-forth about command, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) takes the helm of the starship Enterprise with his trusted but emotionless first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), who’s in a bit of a lover’s quarrel with communications lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana).  The Enterprise crew is called into active duty after Starfleet Commander John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) declares a one-man war against the Federation.  Pursuing Harrison into Klingon space, Kirk and the crew confront dark secrets, the threat of their own mortality, and a full consideration of what it means to be a family.

Gut reaction?  This movie is an absolute blast.  It’s as exuberantly entertaining as a summer movie ought to be, delivering laughs and action in rapid succession without much filler.  From the opening scene, which seems to channel the temple run from Raiders of the Lost Ark, through deep-space combat and shifting gravity sprints, Star Trek Into Darkness is more a mad dash than a mere trek.

It’s engaging beyond expectation, in large part because of how stunning the visuals are.  Yes, those trademark Abrams lens flares are still omnipresent (and there’s at least one scene where they actually obstruct what we’re supposed to look at), but the stark illuminated interiors of the Enterprise have never looked better.  I’m not usually that guy, but:  the 3D IMAX on Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the best visual experiences in recent history, so I’d strongly recommend the upgrade.  This movie just looks good.

The other really great thing about Star Trek Into Darkness is the cast, ensemble at its best but with compelling centers.  Pine and Quinto redouble their efforts from the first film, especially Quinto, who does a deft job balancing cool Vulcan logic with half-human gestures toward emotion.  New faces Peter Weller and Alice Eve fit in well, though one suspects Eve was cast more for her lingerie physique than anything else (which is a shame, since her Carol Marcus is a fine foil for the womanizing Kirk).  And it’s a real treat to see Simon Pegg own the role of Scotty, very nearly stealing the show were it not for Benedict Cumberbatch, the face that launched a thousand Tumblrs.  As Harrison, Cumberbatch joins a long line of talented actors who play villains who soliloquize while in captivity amid hidden plans (see also Heath Ledger, Tom Hiddleston, Javier Bardem); as a complex villain with a semi-sympathetic backstory, Cumberbatch knows when to play the pathos card and when to nosh the scenery like it’s going out of style.

Without spoiling too much, though – and perhaps true believers want to skip this paragraph just in case – where the first film quite deliberately distanced itself from the original franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness wears its affiliation on its sleeve so transparently that even someone who’s never seen the earlier films (namely, me) can see the references a mile away.  For my money, the end result is an entertaining success – and a movie only has to be entertaining to get a good review from me – but the retreads only call attention to themselves, thereby pulling the audience out of the film, however briefly.  A cameo by Leonard Nimoy, though invited by the first film, is the first misstep in a train of callbacks that, again, are too unsubtle not to be cited here.  Longtime fans may relish these references; others may find them tedious and repetitive.  Again, it ends up working, but I can’t help but wonder what the writers might have devised had they fully unfettered themselves from their forebearers.

All told, Star Trek Into Darkness is a smash success of a summer movie, well worth those two hours and fistfuls of popcorn you won’t begrudge.  And in 3D IMAX, all the merrier.  Even if we have to wait through a five-year mission where no man et cetera et cetera, Star Trek 3 ought to be a real hoot.

Star Trek Into Darkness is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence.”  Spaceships and lasers and fistfights, oh my.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

Whenever a movie includes a superlative in its title, it always sets up the inevitable puns for reviewers (both casual and formal) to shout, and after a while it gets rather tedious.  But when it comes to the subject of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to you, sir, I say, “Not so great, old sport.”

A relatively close adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby follows Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he recounts his life as a bond salesman in the New York of the Roaring Twenties.  After procuring an invitation to the most lavish party in town – which just happens to be right next door – Nick meets the owner of the house, the ever-optimistic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).  As Nick and Gatsby become friends, Gatsby makes an unusual request – he wants to meet with Nick’s married cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).

The great American novel, a story of enduring love, required reading for high schoolers the world over – all accurate descriptors for The Great Gatsby.  And it’s not that Luhrmann’s adaptation is absolute rubbish.  It’s just far from great, much less than such a work of literature deserves.  Luhrmann’s Gatsby is not without its virtues, but its weak points outshine the good ones such that I suspect that even Luhrmann devotees might be disappointed.

First, the good news.  DiCaprio and Mulligan are exemplary as Gatsby and Daisy, first-rate approximations of the characters they embody.  It’s difficult to imagine an actor whose own star power better personifies that of Jay Gatsby, the never-say-die millionaire whose optimism is matched only by his opulence.  (Sidebar:  when is DiCaprio getting that Oscar?  He consistently turns in solid work, and while I don’t think he’ll land one here I do think he’s long overdue.)  And Mulligan is solid as the emotionally vapid Daisy, languid in all the right places but without rendering Gatsby’s affection inexplicable.  We too might love Daisy if we’d known her that long ago.  Finally, there’s Maguire, who does exactly what the novel asked of Nick – he observes, he mediates, he explicates.

And therein lies the problem.  The film is too faithful an adaptation in this regard, situating Nick as the main character through whom the entire movie is filtered.  But that technique doesn’t work for a film, because we don’t need a character to explain what we’re meant to see; we can just see it.  Worse, there are moments where Nick narrates what he sees while the camera focuses only on him; in a cinematic medium, this is the equivalent of someone telling you about their summer vacation.  Because Luhrmann is known for such a highly stylized approach to visuals, it’s quite a surprise that he does this so frequently; we know he knows better, but why won’t he let us see what’s going on?  (This is all to say nothing of the odd framing device placed over the film that seems to conflate Nick with Fitzgerald, to varying degrees of confusion.)

As for the visuals, Luhrmann does a decent job with the big parties, lavish set pieces that show off the decadence of the Jazz Age.  It’s classic Luhrmann, velvet vomit to excess and glittery garland as far as the eye can see (and it looks grand in 3D, to boot).  I had initial apprehensions about the use of contemporary music, but I didn’t mind it in the feature film itself; the effect seems to be simulate the shocking avant-garde nature of the music that must have been played at Gatsby’s parties, and it seems comparable to Deadwood’s use of modern profanity in lieu of historically accurate vulgarities. 

But all told, I came away more than just a bit disappointed, surprised at how restrained the movie was in some points (especially for a director like Luhrmann), pleasantly satisfied with the performances, but more-than-mildly irritated with the decision to foreground such a passive observer like Nick.  Build me a movie not around his tepid narration but around the dynamic between Gatsby and Daisy, and I’ll be ready to call that Gatsby “great.”

The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13 for “for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language.”  So you know someone gets hit by a car, and someone else gets shot, and Daisy and Jay are seen in bed canoodling, while Tom has a mistress.  Then there’s all that party stuff that... well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s not appropriate.  But it is weird that they rate movies for “partying.”

Monday, May 13, 2013

300th Post! (Review Delayed)

Whoa.  That Gatsby throws a mean party.  Sorry, folks, we're still recovering from those lavish West Egg shindigs.  We'll be back tomorrow, same Gat-time, same Gat-channel, with a full review of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby.  See you then!

By the way, for those of you playing the home game, this is my 300th post here at The Cinema King!  Sorry it couldn't be something more interesting than a "see you tomorrow," but I assure you that I'm looking forward to the next 300 just as much!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

You Only Live Twice (1967)

You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery’s fifth outing as James Bond, falls under the category of “I love you, but you’re strange.”  Embracing the franchise’s potential for high-octane camp, You Only Live Twice is extremely implausible but entirely entertaining.

After faking his own death (yes, another pre-credits teaser with a presumed-dead 007), Bond hops over to Japan to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an American spaceship.  With the clock ticking amid brewing tensions between the Americans and the Soviets, Bond joins Tiger Tanaka’s secret ninja police in order to infiltrate the secret volcano base where SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) is hatching a plot for – you guessed it – world domination.

Let’s get the obligatory stuff out of the way – Connery is still the ultimate Bond here, having more fun than he’s ever had in the shoes of the world’s top superspy.  His bemused detachment from the oddity of the plot helps his own credulity as the star, and the droll rapidity with which he fires off those one-liners is captivating.  His opposite number, finally revealed on-screen after five years of teases, is the quintessential iconic Bond villain; Donald Pleasance is a perfect fit for Blofeld, the shadowy supercriminal who’s revealed to be diminutive, weak-voiced, and scarred over his right eye.  In fact, watching You Only Live Twice really gives you a sense of this film’s significance, if only because you recognize all the pieces that have been imitated and parodied:  the volcano base, the hulking blond henchman, and the bald supervillain with a Mao suit, a scar, and a pet cat (see also, Dr. Evil, Dr. Claw).

This movie also has some really great action sequences, including Bond’s some-assembly-required helicopter and the ninja raid on the volcano base.  Even in a smaller piece, when Bond wrestles with a security guard, there’s a callback to Oddjob in Goldfinger that gives the devout fan a comforting sense of familiarity; smaller still, Bond’s pursuit of a mysterious Japanese woman through the side streets of Tokyo is made exciting by the capable direction of Lewis Gilbert.

Before we get to the elephant in the room – the downright ludic weirdness of this movie – there are a few things that don’t work.  For one, the two female leads (Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki and Mie Hama as Kissy) are virtually indistinguishable in that there’s really very little reason to switch characters halfway through the film; indeed, the complex Aki is much more interesting than Kissy, and it’s a loss for the film when she’s replaced by the vapid Kissy.  Worse, the film flirts with “yellowface” when, in a strange and ultimately unnecessary plot point, Bond is obligated to “become” Japanese, change his appearance, and take a Japanese wife.  The Japanese makeup on Connery is entirely unconvincing, rendering him a sort of sunburned Burt Reynolds.

Accentuating the strangeness of You Only Live Twice, the script is written by Roald Dahl – yes, that Roald Dahl, famed for his dark children’s stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Dahl dispenses with much of Ian Fleming’s original (itself more a revenge story than anything else) and opts for what he called a “formula” approach to Bond.  The idea that the series can be reduced to a series of key points and essential beats ought to be discouraging, but the result is something quite smashing – and unexpected from the pen of the man who brought you Matilda.

In fact, that’s a good way to think of You Only Live Twice – full of things that don’t really make much sense but end up working when they’re put together.  It’s not a great Bond film by any stretch, but it’s a successful one in that it never fails to be engaging.  Whether successfully created or absurdly awkward, either way you won’t want to look away from what’s going on.  While some might say this turn toward the irreverent heralds the beginning of the end (remember, the worst excesses of the Roger Moore era are before us), I say enjoy it while it lasts because... well, you know.  You Only Live Twice, Mr. Bond.”

You Only Live Twice is rated PG.  Bond is involved in some bloodless shootouts with fantastic explosions as well as mild snogging (with bare shoulders and backs visible).  A disconcerting poisoning scene ends with abrupt suffocation, which may trouble some viewers, as may the presence of a tank of man-eating piranhas.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) on June 7, 2013!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Iron Man 3 (2013)

It’s a brave new world, folks.  We’re post-Avengers and entering solidly into what’s been called “Phase 2” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  And with a new director at the helm of the centerpiece franchise, how does Iron Man fare against cinema’s greatest enemy – the dreaded threequel?

Come on, it’s Robert Downey, Jr.  Of course it’s fantastic.

Iron Man 3 picks up after The Avengers, with a PTSD Tony Stark (RDJ) tinkering with his metal men in lieu of sleeping.  The suits are all quite fantastic, but Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is worried, especially after a few close encounters with empty suits.  Speaking of empty suits, blast from the past Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) arrives at Stark Enterprises with an offer that’s too dangerous to be good – hacking into the human brain to augment natural genetics.  And when Tony Stark calls out top terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), the Invincible Iron Man finds himself vulnerable and pondering the viability of his very existence.

It’s heavy stuff, vaguely reminiscent of the rock-bottom approach of The Dark Knight Rises.  But make no mistake – RDJ and new writer/director Shane Black maintain all the fun that ought to be the governing spirit of an Iron Man film.  Even the panic attack sequences aren’t deadly serious, deflated by RDJ’s speedy comedic delivery and the script’s wise refusal to submit to cliché; case in point, Tony Stark’s second-act encounter with a young child who helps him out.  It’s an initial eye-roll, but our incredulity is assuaged once we realize that Stark refuses to “learn a lesson” from the kid and indeed willfully disregards the boy’s guilt-trip backstory in favor of a sandwich.

It’s a credit to Black that the film doesn’t feel tonally different from its two Jon Favreau-helmed predecessors.  In fact, Iron Man 3 is equally consistent with the last Black/RDJ team-up, 2005’s brilliant Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  It’s not just the Christmas setting or the narration (which pays off beautifully in the incredible post-credits sequence), but it’s a consistency of tone, of snappy dialogue, of confident fun that runs through both films.

I can’t emphasize enough how much of this is thanks to another fabulous central performance by RDJ; in fact, most of the other roles are essentially cameos, though no one drops the ball in their smaller parts.  (It’s a shame, though, that we don’t get more Pepper, since her scene in The Avengers was among the best.)  Our two big villains here, Pearce and Kingsley, are right at home in the trappings of a comic book film, though comics fans may wrinkle their nose at liberties taken with each character (Pearce’s role is bigger than Killian’s ever was, while the Mandarin’s presence is reduced).  As Killian, Pearce is reminiscent of Sam Rockwell’s turn as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, but without the schlock and quirkiness; Aldrich Killian is deadly menacing, a near-perfect match for Tony Stark (though I still think Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane was the best nemesis).  As for Kingsley, his Mandarin isn’t your granddaddy’s Oriental wizard; updated for the film as the new face of terrorism, Kingsley brings in his trademark any-ethnicity-goes approach and drawls out threats that downright drip doom.

And as War Machine/Iron Patriot, Don Cheadle gets more action sequences than last time, both in and out of the suit.  The case of Iron Patriot raises a key point about the film; where The Dark Knight Rises spent so much time working toward the symbolic significance of the costume, Iron Man 3 revisits the first film’s closing line – “I am Iron Man” – in search of some greater truth about its protagonists.  It almost seems like an effective metaphor for changing creative teams:  you can paint the suit any color you like, you can strap on any number of accoutrements, and you can even blow up as much of the trappings as you like.  Because what really matters is the person inside the suit.  You need to get the character right for any of the rest of it to work.

And in that respect, Iron Man 3 succeeds.  It evolves the character of Tony Stark in a number of intriguing ways, and the promise that “Tony Stark will return” (shades of James Bond?) was never more fascinating.  See you in Avengers 2, Tony.

Iron Man 3 is rated PG-13 “for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief suggestive content.”  There’s a modest amount of blood in scenes that involve iron-suited fisticuffs, as well as an unsettling heat signature around most of the enemies in the movie; as for suggestive content, Tony Stark meets women, some of them in bikinis.  You can imagine how that conversation goes.

Don’t forget tomorrow is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month, and you know what that means...