The Hangover: Part II

The Hangover: Part II (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Todd Phillips
viewed: 05/27/11 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The inevitable sequel to the crass comedy hit The Hangover (2009), The Hangover: Part II brings back “the wolfpack”, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, the bachelor party trio from hell.  Throw back in the shameless Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow the international criminal, drop them off in Thailand, add booze, painkillers, and other unprescribed meds and the trio wake up in a godforsaken Bangkok hotel room with a new series of mysteries to solve about just what happened the night before.

I still think it’s a pretty good set-up for a story.  Director/co-writer Todd Phillips sticks with the basic concepts from the prior film.  This time it’s not the missing groom (it’s Helm’s character’s wedding) but the 16 year old younger brother of his beautiful Thai bride to be who is not with them when they wake up, only the boy’s finger in a bowl of water.  Helms has a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face, Galifianakis is bald, and there is capuchin monkey in their midst.

One of the best gags comes when Mr. Chow prepares to tell them what happened and then suddenly OD’s.   The movie does have laughs and does have moments, but for the most part, it’s just not clicking this time around. At points when Phillips is trying to ratchet up the outrageousness and insanity, I didn’t find myself laughing, just watching.

The monkey is pretty funny.

The characters are all a little more unlikeable in this film.  Cooper’s character tries to steal Helms’ prescription pad from his dental office.  Gallifianakis’ weird, demanding anti-social behavior is supposed to be bad and tasteless, but it ranges much more toward a misanthropic edge.  Maybe it was just because I wasn’t laughing as much that I had pause to consider the the tenor of the characters and the film.

At one point, the Galifianakis sticks something under the robe of a wheelchair-bound Buddhist monk to make it look like he has an erection.  The monkey then starts chewing or licking the end of this and everyone, including the monk and all the other people on the little bus share a laugh at this.  Galifianakis’s character observes, “A monkey licking on a penis is funny in any language.”  Or something to that effect.

And you know, that is about the mentality of much of this film.

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Paul Feig
viewed: 05/27/11 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Written by Annie Mumolo and star Kristen Wiig and produced by Judd Apatow, Bridesmaids is a comedy about women that is aimed to appeal to members of all genders.  The whole concept of the “chick flick” and the recent rise of the raunchy male-oriented comedies (of which Apatow is a major producer) has given rise to a dichotomy between “what women want” and “what men want” (at least in the realms of marketing and production in Hollywood.)  And given those parameters, it’s safe to say that they succeeded largely in those goals.

Bridesmaids is quite funny.  But most significantly, it’s a break-out film for writer/star Kristen Wiig, who has been earning a following on Saturday Night Live for several years and has shown up in a number of smaller supporting roles in movies, but without making much impact.  Wiig is excellent in Bridesmaids, showing a vast range of physical and situational humor and utterly demonstrates her talents.

She plays Annie, who is asked to be the maid of honor at her best friend Lilian (Maya Rudolph)’s wedding.  At the meeting of the other bridesmaids, Annie finds a rival for her best friend’s affection in Helen (Rose Byrne), a rich, catty, beautiful new friend in whom she develops a raging dislike and a tit-for-tat brutal competition.  What ensues is a series of developing disasters, in which everything Annie tries turns to muck…and hilarity.

Lilian’s wedding and its build-up wind up highlighting that which is lacking in Annie’s life: a career, a relationship, a place of her own, all of which take a greater and greater degrees of destruction as the story wears on.

Some of the film’s funniest moments are in tense “should be friendly” conversations in which Wiig and Byrne talk in false politeness, striving to be nice, but unable to agree on things.  I’m still marveling at how Wiig manages to display so much conflict of smiles and agitation, disappointment, frustration, cheer across her face, condensing the waves of emotions she goes through in situations of pain and embarrassment.  In some ways, her performance is something you’d hope they’ll remember at Oscar time.

The film is populated with a number of other good comic roles for other actresses, Melissa McCarthy in particular.  She plays the chubby, butch sister of the groom, who seems to have little taste or decorum.  Her character, though, has room to develop and isn’t just passed off for cheap gags.  Though she gets a number of those too.

Ultimately, Bridesmaids is a good film with a lot of laughs.  And Wiig is fantastic.  It’s not a perfect film.  Some of its more tender-hearted moments feel clunky, but ultimately there is more heart and depth to the characters, which does give it more weight.

It would be an interesting film to view in the genre of the “women’s picture” and the modern “chick flick”.  These films that are made for a female audience, whether 1950’s melodramas or the contemporary “romcom”.  In a lot of ways this is much more about not necessarily what men or women want but what the film-makers know how to create, market and sell.  It’s not that this film is for women, by women, starring women, about women (though it is as well), but rather that it’s a funny movie and Kristen Wiig is very talented.

Down to the Bone

Down to the Bone (2005) movie poster

(2005) director Debra Granik
viewed: 05/23/11

After watching Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) last year, I decided to follow up by watching her first feature film, Down to the Bone, which I had recalled hearing good things about.  I don’t know why “Bone” is in the title of each one, so don’t ask me.

Down to the Bone stars Vera Farmiga as a drug-addicted mom who is struggling toward sobriety.  Shot on digital video, the film comes off as having a weird style.  The digital video gives a feel of documentary, maybe simply because that is where one sees this quality of digital video.  But Granik shoots the film in a more traditional narrative way, framing shots and editing the story as if it was shot on film.  Granik doesn’t try to embrace any Cinéma vérité style that might have worked with the digital video.  I suppose that digital video was used for cost-effectiveness, but I would say that rather than enhancing the story or style of the film, it seems to highlight its own non-cinematic shortcomings.  That’s my opinion anyway.

It’s not as strong a a film as Winter’s Bone, but it’s a good film.  Farmiga is good in the lead role and it’s well-done.  And I’m not finding a lot else to say about it, so I’ll leave it at that.

The Town

The Town (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Ben Affleck
viewed: 05/14/11

Actor, Direct Thyself.

And lo did the mighty Ben Affleck do so in his second feature directorial effort, The Town.  And lo the critics raved, as did many surprised critics of his first feature effort, Gone Baby Gone (2007).

But Ben Affleck, unlike his brother Casey who he directed in the 2007 film, is not a terribly talented actor.  Even at his best, which he may be here, he’s pretty bad.  Not Keanu Reeves bad, not sublime bad, just not very good.  As a director, his focus on crime stories of the working class neighborhoods of his native Boston worked well in Gone Baby Gone.  Yet despite his keen eye on the Boston setting, perhaps his most successful character in the film, and despite what many a critic has said, Affleck the director is not a master craftsman either.

The story focuses on a Charlestown, a neighborhood that the film suggests the highest concentration of bank robbers in the United States.  And the story is about a small gang of bank robbers, led by Affleck and Jeremy Renner, who rob a bank but wind up having to take a beautiful bank manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage briefly before releasing her unharmed.  When the gang realizes that she is a local, living nearby, who might be able to finger them (despite their masks), Affleck begins to tail her…then fall in love with her.

Frankly, The Town is a truly middling affair.  I wasn’t so jazzed on seeing it when I saw the trailers.  I felt like I could see the whole film in the trailer anyways.  But having liked Gone Baby Gone, and hearing the praise for it, I thought it would be worth the effort.

It’s over-praised in my opinion.  Hardly a disaster or a bomb, but a fairly predictable affair.  Outside of the Boston set locations which offer some real flavor, there is nothing about the film that rises above expectation, stories that have been told thousands of times before, characters who have stocked many films and televisions shows, books, stories many times before.  It’s highly average.  And pretty forgettable.

The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) movie poster

(1940) directors Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan
viewed: 05/13/11

A couple of years back, we watched the 1924 Raoul Walsh-directed, Douglas Fairbanks-starring The Thief of Bagdad, which the children, then 7 and 5 respectively, met with great enthusiasm.  I’d long held this 1940 re-make in my film queue, planning to show it to them.  When asked recently if they recalled the earlier film, the older children, now 9 and 10, vividly remembered it with great enthusiasm, reiterating the success that the impression had made upon them.  I’d never seen this 1940 British production, though I knew it was considered a classic itself, presented on DVD by the Criterion Collection (a gold-standard if there is one) as it is, and co-directed by Britain’s greatest film-maker, Michael Powell.  What’s not to like?

The film riffs on the 1924 story, breaking the character of the thief into two roles.  The hunky hero is played by John Justin, who starts as a prince who is out of touch with his brutally-treated kingdom of Bagdad, led astray by his villainous Grand Vizier, Jaffar, played with great aplomb by Conrad Veidt.  Jaffar tricks the prince into pretending to be a pauper, to mingle with the regular people, but then imprisons him as a madman who claims to be the prince.  This is where he meets the “thief” of Bagdad, played by Sabu, an Indian child actor, the other half of the Fairbanks role, the low caste hero from the slums.

Shot in rich Technicolor, this Thief of Bagdad is awash throughout in lush design and some amazingly rendered special effects (though there are also some less potent effects as well).  The film’s greatest moments include a flying mechanical horse, a flying carpet, and most impressively the massive djinn.  The scenes with Rex Ingram as the Djinn are far and away my favorite; he’s a wonderfully crafty and bombastic character.  There is great adventure and fantasy, rich wondrous story-telling, and pure awesome cinema.

Felix and Clara both liked it a lot.   So did I.

From a more “meta” perspective, it’s easy to see how much the 1992 Disney Aladdin borrowed directly from this film for design and characterization.  It’s fascinating that so many great films arose from the same source material, The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights, including another silent masterpiece, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) which is an entirely amazing animated film done entirely with silhouetted puppets.  I highly recommend the 1924 Walsh-Fairbanks film as well as this lush 1940 Technicolor spectacle, but more than any, Reiniger’s gorgeous, sublime film.

It’s also easy to imagine what an inspiration this film must have been to Ray Harryhausen.  His Sinbad films, for all their glorious stop-motion animated creatures, overall still pale in comparison to this lovely masterpiece.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Alex Gibney
viewed: 05/08/11

Eliot Spitzer, the man who fought Wall Street, the man who would be king (or our “first Jewish president”), former New York State DA ass-kicker, former New York State Governor, high-end “escort” consort.  Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)) turns his camera on the shamed world-beater, the great liberal hope, Eliot Spitzer, in a story that does have all the elements of the classics, a rise and fall, yet a story for our time.

Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (2010) opened a dumb-founding glimpse into the global financial melt-down, pointing a very accurate finger at the banks and government institutions that conspired to create the “bubble” whose certain burst reaped global damage.  In watching Inside Job, it seemed clear to me that Spitzer was one of the few voices of reason in the build-up to the crisis, one of the few who aimed to expose the frauds before the shit hit the fan.  And I became interested in knowing more about the fallen New York governor.

Spitzer, it seems, was his own worst enemy.  His bulldog style that made him the effective state district attorney that he was, gunning for the fat cats and looking to police Wall St. in a way never policed before, was also an alienating style that created enemies big and small.  When he parlayed his rising star career into the Empire state governorship, many believed that the White House would be his ultimate end.  Few thought that the rider of such a moral high horse would come to such a devastating fall.

But Spitzer was probably at his best as a DA.  Maybe he should have been made Attorney General (if he’d kept from falling from grace before a Democratic regime took the White House).  But as a politician, he flopped.  Not playing politics with the experienced, entrenched (even if they were corrupt) elite, he made more and more powerful enemies.  And when his moral superiority was exposed for the hypocrisy it was, with him utilizing a supremely high-end prostitution ring, he had a lot of folks gunning for his demise and not many sticking up for his merits.

And it’s really, really too bad.

Spitzer, as an attorney for the state of New York, achieved a lot in a short time.  He was a bulldog, and he was in his rights, going after a completely corrupt system that was bound for gruesome failure.  He had great potential.  And his style as well as his misdeeds undid him completely.  And all of America is perhaps the worse off for it.

The film focuses on his rise and fall, indeed, but also on the conspiracies that probably fed into his ultimate downfall.  Enemies who played dirty politics ultimately probably helped uncover his wrongdoings.  But like president Bill Clinton before him, his misdeeds were those of adultery (a heinous crime socially in the US, but perhaps less criminalized in Europe)  while the crimes of his enemies were more exploitative (actually illegal, not merely immoral).  There is a brutal double standard and greater hypocrisy suggested in his opposition than in himself.

But Spitzer, if he’d been more canny and less philandering, could have been a great man.  And truly, he can still.  His challenge is his own demeanor, a charming but combatitive style that works for a high-moral straight-laced lawman, but not really for a politician.  It’s frustrating.  But it’s also hopeful.

There is no reason that Spitzer cannot find a way to parlay his intelligence and commitment to righting the wrongs of the corporate elite into a significant and important role in the present and the future.  His stance on moral high-ground has been eroded and thus his position and style would have to adapt to it, but he potentially could have fought the good fight and the good fight still needs fighting.  One can only hope for some redemption for someone who has so much to offer a troubled world.  And really, an admittedly flawed human being is perhaps a more compelling voice than one who has the pretense of morality yet hides the hypocrisy of his stance.

Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies

Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (1994) movie poster

(1994) director Todd Phillips
viewed: 05/06/11

Most musicians are known for their music.   GG Allin was known more for his performances than for his music, though by all accounts he produced a great deal of material in his short life.  Allin’s performances, with his band or in “spoken word” poetry readings, involved nudity, violence, self-mutilation, excrement, and a significant dose of danger.  That is what he believed in, bringing the danger back to rock and roll.  That is if he believed in anything.

Nihilistic and misanthropic to a fault, Allin used music and performance as confrontations, attacking the audience literally (with his fists and anything he could get his hands on) and figuratively (through his outlandish, gross-out antics).  His style and tactics had antecedents in Iggy Pop, and other early punk, as well as in avant-garde groups like Throbbing Gristle.  But in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, when Allin’s notoriety was at its peak, it’s arguable that the punk scene from which his band emanated, aggressive as the music could be, had become increasingly more predictable, and performances like his were outrageous and transgressive.  His whole style was about being offensive, not simply politically incorrect but baiting and taunting.

This film was shot in the early 1990’s by Todd Phillips, who at the time was a student at NYU.  The film presents Allin and his brother Merle (the bass player for The Murder Junkies), and their drummer, in interviews and in performance, and an interesting portrait starts to come together.  Merle and Allin had a bizarre childhood with a religious recluse abusive father (who named GG Jesus Christ Allin at his birth.  The “GG” came from his older brother’s inability to pronounce the younger sibling’s name.)  And it seems clear that there is really an fascinating story behind Allin’s life.

Phillips, who has gone on to fame as the director of The Hangover (2009), really managed to capture something in his student project, because only days after a screening of this film, which Allin attended, Allin wound up dying of a heroin overdose at the age of 36.  He had often threatened (or promised) to commit suicide on stage, but obviously never followed through on that.  He was often jailed for his abuses and transgressions.

I found the film quite interesting.  But I have to tell you that there is a lot of pretty nasty stuff in his performances. From shoving a banana up his rectum to pounding his face bloody with microphones, defacating on the floor and then rolling around and eating the feces, getting his mouth urinated into and then puking… It’s not at all for everyone.

Nor was Allin.  Back in the day, he was a topic of conversation, but not a personal interest.  I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have gone to one of his gigs, and having seen this film, I think it’s safe to say that was the right idea.  His shows were good opportunities to get injured or covered in scat.

But I guess I’m feeling a little of, well, perhaps not respect, but understanding of what he was and what he did, at least in the way that the film portrays it.  He was a crazy, fucked-up person, who found an outlet for his pain and anger, which he even suggests probably kept him from murdering anyone.  But there isn’t a touchy-feely positive sensibility in his world, and I found it remarkable how his brother lived alongside him and recognized his being for what it was.  He can’t have been an easy person to know.  And while his music remains somewhat of an unproven thing to me, I think his performances were dangerous, offensive, and at the same time not exactly riveting.  Not riveting the way that most musical performances strive to be.  It was ugliness exemplified.  And I think that was the intent.

Dogville

Dogville (2003) movie poster

(2003) director Lars von Trier
viewed: 05/04/11

Though it’s not a was never a theatrical play, Lars von Trier’s Dogtville was shot on a minimalist set that has more the feel of a stage than of a “place”.   The set of Dogville, the entire setting of the entire film, is a flat space, with most of the buildings merely represented by drawn lines and names on the ground.  An initial overhead shot shows the entire layout.  Some buildings have a wall or two and some rooms have pieces of furniture.

The film is also segmented into chapters, which have title cards and descriptions.  And there is a narrative voice-over, by John Hurt, telling the tale of the town, its people, and the woman (Nicole Kidman) who shows up in town seeking asylum from criminal pursuers.  The whole thing foregrounds the artifice of the production, which is no doubt a part of the intent.  But the story that is told, while dark and cynical, is relatively straight-forward.  Actually, I think that if the film had been shot in a more normal format, a period film with actors in period clothes and in a real location, it might have carried a fairly traditional tone.

But this is Lars von Trier, who is anything but conventional.  The film was the first in a planned series of three (2005’s Manderlay was part two, also shot in with the same technique), but the third film has not yet been made, if it ever will.  The series was called “USA – Land of Opportunities”, and knowing von Trier’s jaded perspective on the USA, there is doubtlessly a critique not just of the human psyche, but particular to that of the American psyche.

Kidman’s character is taken in by the town, posed as a test of morality and goodness in the town.  They know that she is wanted by gangsters and that they could cash in by turning her in.  Her moral test is to prove her worth, though she’s never worked a day in her life, offering assistance to the reluctant townspeople.  The test of the morals of the townspeople is that in accepting her in, they wind up abusing her, eventually using her for sex and chaining her to a bed.  The town fails their moral test, and they pay for it in blood.

The cast is quite stellar, including Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård, Patricia Clarkson, Paul Bettany, and Ben Gazzara to name a few.   And the film is quite good.  As I noted before, if it had been shot with this cast in a more traditional setting, it would probably have had more commercial appeal.  It got solid reviews, and a friend of mine recommended strongly.

The anti-American aspect comes in most pointedly at the end, when David Bowie’s “Young Americans” blasts from the soundtrack, accompanied by a series of black-and-while images of poverty in America.  This sudden juxtaposition of images of reality, played against a yearning song about Americans is jarring.  What exactly does von Trier mean by this?  His story, which has a figurative nature, played out in a highly artificial landscape, seems cohesive at least in its idea, but then these images of poverty which are drawn from reality, it’s a very clear juncture, but at what end?

I mean, I get it, that there is and has long been great poverty in the United States despite having so much wealth in the country as a whole.  I get it that in this story about the crass immorality of this small town of pretended niceness and “aw gosh” charms is critical.  But anyways, the two things didn’t match up for me.  And having not seen Manderlay, or the unfinished final film, I’d just be guessing anyways.

It’s an interesting film, Dogville, among Quentin Tarantino’s top 20 films of the past 20 years.  But it wasn’t a “wow” for me.  For my money, Antichrist (2009), while quite coarse and trying, was a more successful Lars von Trier than Dogville, but who knows?

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985) movie poster

(1985) director Tim Burton
viewed: 04/29/11

I had watched Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) with Felix some years ago.  On re-examination, it was five years ago, which would have made him four or five and my daughter about two, so it’s little wonder they don’t recall it.  But after watching Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice, the idea came to me that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure might be worth another go.  And as circumstances had it, we had a couple other friends in tow for it as well.

For me, my reactions to the film were remarkably similar to what they were five years ago.  I still think parts of it are quite funny, a couple of gags funnier still than others, though it’s a fairly thin film.  The movie does play extensively with genre, being a road movie of sorts and winding up on the movie lot, bursting through a variety of films in production, and playfully tweaking the whole notion of film-making in the Drive-In movie exhibition of the “Hollywood” version of Pee-Wee’s story.

What was most funny about watching it with these four kids, ages 7, 8, 9, and 10 was how weirded-out they were by Pee-Wee’s persona.  Clara summed up that he is “a grown-up who acts like a baby”, referring to his cadre of toys and his penchant for play.  We’ve watched any number of old films together: Buster Keaton, Ray Harryhausen, Godzilla movies, and so on.  Victoria noted that this was an old film (Fair enough.  It is 26 years old), but it wasn’t as old as some.  They had very perplexed and concerned looks on their faces through much of the film and there weren’t nearly as many laughs out of them as I’d anticipated.

I do think that Felix and Clara liked it a bit more than their friends.  Felix liked the part where Pee-Wee rides his bike into the Godzilla movie being filmed and the long chase scene drops Godzilla with Santa Claus, among the cops and chaos that pays homage to the slap-stick comedy genre.

I still say that the dance scene is the best.