Archive for May 2011

The Hangover Part II

May 28, 2011

What is there to say about The Hangover Part II, other than to suggest you look up my review of the first film and replace “Vegas” with “Bangkok”? I didn’t laugh a whole lot at this grimier, darker sequel, but I found it consistently more interesting, visually and thematically, than the first. As before, dentist Stu (Ed Helms), regular-dude Phil (Bradley Cooper), and man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up in a daze, with evidence of unspeakable bacchanalia strewn around them, and can’t remember what happened. As before, the movie is an act of memory retrieval, as the lads bounce around trying to piece everything together while searching for a lost member of their “wolf pack.” As before, the funniest part is the end credits, during which we view hilariously stark photos of the lost evening.

The first thing that interested me about The Hangover Part II is how much less sympathetic the leads are this time around, as if the filmmakers either presumed built-in audience fondness for the characters or wanted to punish the first film’s fans for that very fondness. Here, Alan isn’t just a mildly creepy case of arrested development — he’s a spoiled, entitled twit, and we may perceive, with a dab of compassion, how his rich family has basically kept him a child. But if the Hangover movies have a true hero, in terms of a character who actually has an arc, it’s Ed Helms’ Stu, who escaped his dreadful girlfriend in the first film and now anticipates his wedding to Thailand beauty Jamie Chung. Stu, though, late in the movie speaks of a “demon” inside him, and he’s not exactly wrong; or, rather, it’s a beast of willfulness usually kept in close check (not coincidentally, the post-debauch action kicks off with Johnny Cash intoning “The Beast in Me”).

Stu’s brother-in-law-to-be (Mason Lee, son of Ang Lee) goes missing, and Ken Jeong’s loopy Mr. Chow returns for more, both funnier and less threatening. Pre-release, there were mumbles about The Hangover Part II‘s potential racism, but aside from the mantra “Bangkok has him now,” suggesting a malign city swallowing up the unaware, the film doesn’t get into “yellow peril” stuff. (It does get into Thailand’s booming girls-with-something-extra trade, but that’s another can of worms, so to speak.) Jeong is the best thing in both movies; his Mr. Chow is so casually conversant with perversity the performance goes well beyond stereotype. Both films, actually, are well-acted, and the sequel finds the glory and the squalor in Thailand. It’s just that these films are limited by their R rating and their status as major motion pictures. Too much is riding on Hangover II for the filmmakers to try anything truly wild or disgusting.

In a few years, some enterprising film theorist will write a paper on the Hangover films and the Hostel films, both of which series transplant well-off Americans to dangerous ground. Both are essentially conservative at heart, as many comedies and horror films are. Both are bookends to each other, though there was never a Hostel Part III¹ and there will obviously be a Hangover III. I sort of prefer the Hostel films, which play for keeps; there’s really no outrageous mistake in either of the Hangover films that can’t be fixed. The guys spend the movie worrying about what they might’ve done, but it’s never anything genuinely shocking. Perhaps Hangover III will give this series, and the recent crop of “daring” comedies in general, a Viking funeral, pushing its characters and, by implication, its audience into true transgression. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

¹There is now. In my defense, I didn’t know about it when writing this.

“Geese, villain?”

May 24, 2011

I love the geese thing in Macbeth. I’m a big fan of the geese thing. What the hell am I talking about? Well, near the end of the play, Macbeth is all cocky and shit, swinging his big dick around the castle, because he knows nobody “of woman born” can hurt him. He’s basically being a TV wrestler, or Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day — “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!,” that sort of thing. Of course, we know two things about Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day: (1) King Kong does indeed have shit on him and (b) shit doesn’t end well for ol’ Denzel. Same with Macbeth, really. Dude is going insane — well, he’s already insane, but he’s going more insane trying to keep his mens from shitting their pants. Because even if the English can’t produce any test-tube-baby warriors in their ranks, that doesn’t keep everyone else from taking the pipe all around Macbeth.

In any event, either Macbeth believes all the shit he’s spouting, which is one kind of bad brain chemistry, or he’s just spouting it to make everyone feel better about their inevitable deaths, which is another kind. So Macbeth finishes up his tirade about how all y’all muthafuckas ain’t shit, and then a servant enters.

MACBETH
The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!
Where got’st thou that goose look?

SERVANT
There is ten thousand–

MACBETH
Geese, villain?

SERVANT
Soldiers, sir.

This cracked my shit up in high school. This was Shakespeare being Monty Python centuries before there was a Monty Python. At the time, I figured Macbeth was so far gone he actually thought the poor little scared dude had seen an army of ten thousand geese approaching.

But an actor could play this any number of ways. He could play up Macbeth’s rage at the servant for bringing fear into the mix just when Macbeth is trying to psych up his team. Or he could play it as a contemptuous joke, trying to make light of the servant’s fear. Or he could play it as if Macbeth actually believed the dude was about to say “ten thousand geese.”

So then Macbeth keeps verbally smacking the servant:

MACBETH
Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,
Thou lily-liver’d boy. What soldiers, patch?
Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine
Are counsellors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

SERVANT
The English force, so please you.

MACBETH
Take thy face hence.

Macbeth keeps making fun of the poor dude’s face — the face of fear. Probably the only honest face around. Within an hour the servant will most likely be dead, and he knows it. Which puts him one up on Macbeth, at least.

But anyway, the geese thing. It still makes me laugh, even with all the added possible interpretations.

How homeboy ends up.

What I’ve Been Reading

May 21, 2011

Some off-the-cuff ramblings on recent text that has entered my eyeballs.

Mutant Message Down Under – The familiar narrative of the white person receiving wisdom among the people of the earth. Usually the white person is female, as in this and also Lynn Andrews. It’s probably because males can be, to put it nicely, skeptical, or to put it plainly, closed-minded (not, please, the non-word “close-minded”). Women are seen in these narratives as caretakers of knowledge that would otherwise be lost (or remain within the circle of the elders). Essentially Marlo Morgan wanders about with Aborigines and learns all the ways in which modern Western thinking is fucked. I find it hard to argue. The question is, how many of the white Western people who read this when it was new and popular ever did anything with the insights they may have gained? I tend to think, not many. You dwell on how fucked we are and then you feel powerless to do much about it. Or I do, anyway. I often feel unworthy of such narratives — not that I don’t get something out of them. Maybe just the comforting awareness that not everyone gets riled up over First World problems or gives a shit about The Real Housewives of Reno or whatever the hell it is. The idea of losing yourself for a year among a people completely cut off from pop culture and the debased political dialogue and the new Pirates of the Caribbean flick has a tempting pull. Ultimately though it’s just a pipe dream. Anyway, this was a good read, if probably not a 100% accurate account of life among the Aborigines.

Losing Mum and Pup – Christopher Buckley’s memoir about becoming an orphan in his mid-fifties — first his mother, Patricia Buckley, then his father, William F. Buckley Jr. — is really more like Losing Pup (and Mum), since most of the book deals with Christopher dealing with WFB in decline. The elder’s detractors may find some schadenfreude in the depiction of WFB addled, wanting to invite long-dead friends to his party, pissing heedlessly out of a moving car. But anyone who’s watched a parent slowly fail should find themselves sobered. Christopher, a wickedly funny writer (who lost a lot of Republican goodwill in ’08 when he endorsed Obama; as with Dennis Hopper, Palin was the last straw), makes it sound both fun and somehow isolating to grow up the only son of William and Patricia. WFB comes off as an overgrown Richie Rich accustomed to getting his own way. He was filthy rich, of course, and inherited his fortune from his oil-magnate father. My empathy with WFB’s end-of-life suffering (and Christopher’s front-row seat for it) can therefore only go so far. Many thousands of people go through the same thing each year without the cushion of a family fortune. I consoled myself with the thought that WFB would not have approved of the book’s portrait of him near the end, enfeebled, finally dying alone in his garage office. The book did lead me to WFB’s amusing collection Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, which I’ve been nibbling on at work during bathroom breaks.

Django Unchained – Following up Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino seems to have anointed himself America’s grindhouse historian. Both stories are wish-fulfillment revengesploitation in which the insulted and the injured rise triumphant against their oppressors. Contrary to early belief, this script doesn’t have much at all to do with the ’60s Django film. It’s essentially a rambling buddy movie in which a German bounty hunter frees a slave and takes him under his wing. Along the way, much racist blood is spilled and the N-word is said so many times in so many contexts the film will likely be protested by one group or another, but as has been said elsewhere, the script is crudely honest about race in a way that a more polite film never could be.  In any event, a cracking good yarn, as QT’s scripts always are; can’t wait for the movie, which should be worthy of shelving alongside John Singleton’s vastly overlooked Rosewood.

Why I’m not in the Terrence Malick fan club

May 17, 2011

So the early word is out on The Tree of Life, the new gift from the firmament — uh, I mean the new Terrence Malick film. It has now played at Cannes, and the buzz is decidedly mixed. People who obviously wanted the film to be great are choking out admissions that it isn’t. Typing through a wretched prism of tears, they report that the movie is unfocused, that it is way too far up itself, that it expends vast ambition and gorgeous imagery on an utterly banal story.

To these people I must say the apparently unsayable: What, then, makes The Tree of Life so different from Malick’s previous films?

I say “apparently unsayable” because Terrence Malick, on the strength of five films he has directed over a period of 38 years, has ascended to the status of Film God in many quarters. He is a Poet, an Artist, a Sage. His Vision is Beyond Question. (Capitalization seems to suit the sort of hype that wreathes Malick.) Many people salivate over a new Malick the way they used to over a new Kubrick, Kurosawa, Bergman. I don’t mean to caricature those genuinely moved by Malickian cinema. They’re welcome to it, as I am welcome to my own David-Lynch-can-do-no-wrong thing. Anyone who cares about films has at least one director they consider flawless. It’s not that they’re in denial about the director’s turkeys. It’s that they are honestly tuned in to the director’s style and way of seeing. I’m sure there are John Landis acolytes who’ll give you 500 words on the unrecognized brilliance of The Stupids. In fact, I know there are.

So I’m not attacking the weeping masses of Malick supporters so much as the hype. I am given to wonder anew what so many perfectly credible people see in Malick. Partly it must be that we’re fast running out of American directors of true epics. (These days, of course, the closest thing we usually get to an epic is Harry Potter and the Whatever of Foo-Foo.) We do, I think, need more mad visionaries who throw caution, logic and narrative to the winds and obey nothing but whatever angel/demon resides in their hearts/minds/souls, driving them to make unclassifiable graffiti on the walls of good taste, sanity and propriety. For many people, Malick is that person, a man who cares little for monetary return, who wants only to paint his pictures about how mankind is a giant squalid bug farting flames all over resplendent, innocent nature, and also dads suck except when they don’t. In theory I should be completely in this guy’s pocket, but I have been steadfastly unengaged by the three Malick films I’ve seen (I opted out of The New World, still nauseous from the inchoate chowder that was The Thin Red Line).

In an era when Kenneth Branagh is making Thor and any film arrogant enough to tell a story about actual people is relegated to cable, Malick looks like a giant. I understand that. He is the anti-Michael Bay. That alone is almost enough to recommend him. I enjoy the idea of Malick. What I don’t understand, for starters, is the golden reputation he has among actors, especially now. An almost-literal army of actors — the green and the esteemed alike — clamored to appear in The Thin Red Line. Many of them saw their scenes whittled to shreds or thrown out entirely. After that, one would think an actor might look askance at the (slim) chance of seeing himself in a Malick flick. As it is, one hears that Sean Penn (a veteran of Malick’s World War II) is barely in The Tree of Life. Humans are but a part of the grand design in a Malick film; they don’t talk like real people and their iconicism verges on simplistic, cartoonish. Much the same, incidentally, could be said of George Lucas.

Malick’s movies are beautiful. Of course they are. Consider the list of world-class cinematographers who serve as his paintbrush: Tak Fujimoto on Badlands, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler on Days of Heaven, John Toll on Thin Red Line, Emmanuel Lubezki on The New World and The Tree of Life. These are not Joe Shmoes pointing and shooting. You or I could make dazzling films with men such as these in our corner. Ah, yes, the Malick apologist will say, but you could not duplicate the vision that animates those delicious pictures. To the apologist I must shrug and say, What vision? Malick may have a keen pictorial eye but so do many anonymous photographers who compose well and/or luck into evocative shots. The eye is only one of the organs a movie must engage. The brain is another, and from where I sit, there is not much in Malick for that organ to, so to speak, chew on.

The key Malick moment is the luscious quietude of natural Earth disturbed by the ignorant violence of its dominant life form. There are dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, Malick only knows why — I mean, God only knows why, though the other way works too. Even in early Malick, we see the problems of the central humans reduced by the grandeur of their backdrop to mere scuttling insects. I have no problem with this emphasis; it could as well describe Kubrick, or late Kurosawa. But Malick gives us nothing to hold onto aside from the hippy-dippy-trippy visuals and the motif of the innocent seeking enlightenment in the flawed false father rather than in the Mother (Earth, of course). There’s no edge to his work, no vitality.

A while ago, we could rationalize the hoopla over “the new Malick” because he emerged from his cave so seldom — The Thin Red Line was his first in twenty years. Since then he has released two films, with another reportedly in the can, a blistering pace for him. So the novelty of A New Malick isn’t quite as exciting these days. Yet the hype persists. Even allowing for welcome-back elation, I can’t imagine anyone looking at The Thin Red Line and seeing anything but a broken, incomplete film. Malick famously shoots miles of footage and then takes a year or more making sense of it in the editing bay. The waggish Erik Childress, who delights in skewering blurb whores in his Criticwatch, dared to suggest on Twitter that if Jonah Hex (a famously troubled production, similarly Frankensteined together in the editing room) were revealed to have been directed by Terrence Malick, it would magically, retroactively become a masterpiece.

Aggrieved Malickians hissed Childress for his impertinence, but the point stands. The point especially stands because Childress was hissed. What other director commands such knee-jerk loyalty? And why him? And why, for Malickians, does a distaste for or disinterest in Malick’s work speak poorly of a critic? Roger Ebert dumped on David Lynch for years; it didn’t make me stop reading Ebert. Pauline Kael savaged Kubrick for most of his and her careers; didn’t dim my admiration of Kael. Erik Childress gets mildly snarky about The Master and the weepers shriek “STOP IT! UR STOOPID!”

I dig my Tarkovsky and my Barry Lyndon and so on. Long-winded, contemplative films aren’t my Kryptonite. But I need to perceive some inner life, some drive and purpose. I don’t get that from Malick. Perhaps you do. Bon appetit. If Malick’s meandering daddy-issue tone poems are what ring your bell, The Tree of Life is said, for better or worse, to be the Malickiest Malick of them all. Dive right in. Just don’t expect me to join you, or to relish the immersion if I do jump in. We Malick skeptics are not necessarily belching vulgarians whose idea of cinematic transcendence is Transformers. Isn’t the point of art that it isn’t for everyone?

All that said, I am glad that Malick exists and that he unaccountably continues to get money to make his films (though, as my friend Kenneth Souza rightly points out, Orson Welles did not benefit from such largesse; and other filmmakers today have to scrape and bow for pennies to finance movies far less opaque and interiorized than Malick’s). In an industry dominated by mercenary crap, Malick, as I said, looks like a giant and possibly is one. But this giant seems to have fallen with The Tree of Life, which according to many reports is a spindly sapling that can’t support the weight of its ambition or its audience’s expectations. Finally, the Malickians gaze upon the Master’s canvas and see something of what I’ve seen all along.

Bridesmaids

May 15, 2011

There hasn’t been much competition so far — nor, I would guess, will there be — so calling Bridesmaids the great American mainstream comedy of the year may not sound like much. But here is a film that stars and is written by women; that offers, amid some degree of raunch, the sound of adults talking honestly to each other; that is about something. And the something it’s about is rarely the stuff of multiplex humor. It’s about watching old friends grow apart from you, by marriage or, more interestingly, by class ascension. When Kristen Wiig stands in a bridal shop and watches her fellow bridesmaids coo over an $800 dress, while she quietly tries to draw attention to a less obnoxiously expensive one that she probably still can’t readily afford, the film is tapping into something: The only people who deny there are class divides in this country are those rich enough not to have to think about it.

Wiig plays Annie Walker, a loser — a good person, but self-sabotaging, sliding too easily into self-pity. We can empathize with her while still diagnosing her issues: Nobody in the film is as cruel to her as she is to herself. Wiig, who cowrote Bridesmaids with Annie Mumolo (who appears as a scared airplane passenger seated next to Wiig), makes this woman funny without sanding her edges off or stooping to caricature. Annie is flailing, and the impending marriage of her childhood friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) just magnifies all of Annie’s demons. Presented with Lillian’s new best friend Helen (Rose Byrne), who’s loaded and can afford the best things for Lillian’s wedding, Annie pretty much loses it. The wedding itself is almost inconsequential: it’s Helen and everything she represents that make Annie crazy.

And yet Wiig and Mumolo, with director Paul Feig, refuse to turn Helen into a hissable rich bitch. Farcical, awkward things happen in Bridesmaids, but they happen to recognizable people. Helen isn’t aware of how much she’s hurting Annie, because Annie is the one hurting herself; Annie can’t let go of the past, because her present sucks and her future doesn’t look great either. She doesn’t feel worthy of a true relationship, wasting herself in a fuck-buddy role with a caddish Jon Hamm and distancing herself from a cop (Chris O’Dowd) who’s smitten with her. Annie’s bakery died in the recession, and the cop wants her to go back to baking; he doesn’t get that she might not want to, or that she might not know what she wants.

Bridesmaids is full of flawed but fleshed-out people, which is why I can get this far into the review without mentioning the show-stopping slapstick gross-out pieces, which, honestly, just seem thrown in to go for the big gut laughs. I laughed harder at an early bit between Annie and Helen trying to one-up each other’s expressions of love for Lillian; the scene is the whole movie in microcosm. A later scene aboard an airplane bound for Vegas is an addled comic triumph for Wiig and for Mitch Silva as the flight attendant trying to deal with her. The film also has mordant things to say about how little esteem kids have for their parents, who perhaps have raised them to have too much self-esteem. And there’s the late Jill Clayburgh in a nice swan song as Annie’s mom, and the comedy powerhouse Melissa McCarthy as a woman whose high-school torments pushed her to greatness — she’s so comfortable with herself she puts everyone else to shame; she wants what she wants and sees no reason not to go after it. If Bridesmaids has a hero, it is McCarthy’s Megan, who knows where the nukes are and finds interesting things to do with a federal air marshal and a sandwich.

Thor

May 8, 2011

Those who find themselves as tired of comic-book movies as I am might also find themselves attending Thor for the same reason I did: it’s directed by Kenneth Branagh. The man knows battle scenes (Henry V), he knows pomp and circumstance (Hamlet), he knows romance (Much Ado About Nothing). Give Branagh a Shakespeare play and he’s a god. But Thor, based on one of Marvel Comics’ second-tier heroes, is a long, sad distance from the Bard. Still, I dared to hope. Branagh can be an earthy, robust director, and who better to oversee the power clashes of Asgard than the man who turned Hamlet into a glorious four-hour nonstop orgy of eye candy?

Branagh does not appear in Thor, and it could’ve used him. What we do get isn’t shabby. Sick of brooding superheroes, I enjoyed Chris Hemsworth’s interpretation of Thor as basically a jock too big for his britches, a powerful pup who’d rather set his land at war with the Frost Giants (the Frost Giants?) than suffer any insult to Asgard. Thor also likes to eat and drink to excess; he’s a hearty Norse god who lets out a full-lunged laugh when he’s up against a foe who might actually beat him. Hemsworth is immensely likable, as are most of his castmates; Natalie Portman, as Thor’s mortal love interest, doesn’t have much of a character to play but seems to be having fun (while her assistant, Kat Dennings, snarks around in the backgrounds of shots); Anthony Hopkins, as Thor’s father Odin, gets his voice up impressively. A lot of the Asgard scenes are a matter of lavishly armored men belching fustian at each other, but Hopkins brings some wit and surprise to his intonations.

Thor has been banished to Earth for his aforementioned hubris, and his legendarily nefarious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) gets busy in Asgard with murky plans involving the Frost Giants. (The Frost Giants? Really?) Eventually, Loki sends a big fire-shooting metal monster called the Destroyer to incinerate Thor in the New Mexico town where he ended up, and the spectacle has a deep-bass crunchy physicality. On Asgard, though, the action scenes are too obviously fully wrought in a computer, and the editor (Paul Rubell, who helped cut the equally unscannable Transformers films) turns everything into whirling, smash-and-grab gibberish. It’s no use complaining about this, I suppose; this is how action films have looked for about a decade and will look for many years to come. They’re edited for an almost elliptical impression of action, not for pace or clarity.

This is the fourth superhero flick actually to be produced independently by Marvel Studios, after the two Iron Man movies and The Incredible Hulk. All of them share the same universe, all point towards next year’s Avengers movie wherein all the characters fight side by side, and all are pretty much affable and competent and nothing more. There’s not a whisper of art in any of them, though I had hoped for some from Kenneth Branagh. I think I understand why he signed on for Thor, aside from the Asgardian paycheck: he must have relished the opportunity to make a mammoth blockbuster that would open in almost 4,000 theaters in the U.S. alone. (It’s already his biggest hit, not even counting the overseas grosses.) Fine, but in the end this isn’t a Kenneth Branagh film; it’s a Marvel Studios film. About all Branagh brings to it is a certain hairy-chested bravado and a lot of Dutch angles. I guess if you wanted to hurt your head you could try to fit it in thematically with his Shakespeare films, but the Bard, alas, did not think to include Frost Giants. Aside from the odd faerie or sprite, he wrote people. None of those here, really.


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