Friday, November 6, 2009

The Hangover: A Review (Review #25)


Try To Remember, The Night of Your Bender...

Las Vegas, Nevada has come to be seen as the center of total decadence, where one is freed from all restraints of morality and can indulge in whatever carnal desires one has without having to worry about the end result. There are no rules or boundaries. Whatever inhibitions you may have are gone in Vegas: you can do whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want, whoever you want.

In reality, this is not true, but people still flock to Sin City in the belief that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas". The Hangover is a chronicle of four men who test out that theory, and find themselves in the wildest, most outrageous, outlandish and funniest bender in film.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married in a few days. For his bachelor party, he, his two friends Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug's future brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis) go to Las Vegas for a night they won't forget.

At least, that's the original plan. 

The next morning, Stu, Phil, and Alan wake up in their suite to find not only the room beyond trashed, but a tiger in the bathroom, a chicken in the hallway, a baby in the closet, and both Stu's tooth and Doug missing. None of them has any idea what happened to get them in the situation. Trying to reconstruct the previous evening in order to find Doug and get him back to the wedding, they find the evening involved not only the above, but a stolen police car, a Vegas wedding to a stripper/escort (Heather Graham), fey Asian crime lord Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) and Mike Tyson.

The situations the self-named "Wolf-Pack" finds itself in are outrageous, but in a curious sense it all makes sense. It reminds me of a line from All About Eve. In the party scene, Marilyn Monroe is reprimanded for calling a waiter "butler". "Well I can't yell, 'Oh Butler', can I? Somebody's name could be Butler". "You have a point," George Sanders concedes. "An idiotic one, but a point". 

In the same way, The Hangover should be on the surface, completely unbelievable: the situations go beyond what could be even remotely plausible. However, there is a logic to everything albeit a very strained one, and one of the positives of the script is that it makes the circumstances these average guys get into at least acceptable enough to go along with it.

Yes, everything in The Hangover veers into almost insanity, but one should remember that the film is meant to be an outrageous, crude enterprise. As such, you roll with the logic presented to you even if it is an absurdist one.

Credit also has to go to the performances. Each of the male characters has their moments. Helms brings a loveable nebbishness to Stu, forever chafing under his girlfriend but who manages to come alive. Cooper gives a star-turning performance with his Phil, a guy looking for a good time but who leads his crew in their efforts to find Doug. He has the looks of a leader while using his teacher logic to find a way to conclusions. 

A clear standout is Galifianakis, who makes Alan both completely crazy and oddly endearing in his lunacy. Few people could ask about if the actual Caesar actually lived at Caesar's Palace and make it sound rational. 

Although Graham and Jeffrey Tambor as Doug's future father-in-law have small roles, they still bring out the laughs. Mike Tyson, playing himself, also adds not just a hint of menace but also a delightful sense of self-parody that makes him both more frightening and endearing.

The reason The Hangover works is because the story has a sense of logic, and the guys are relatable. The audience knows and identifies with them, and wants them to succeed. The laughs don't stop once the mysteries have been solved: both the reception and the closing credit montage of vacation photos are also some of the funniest moments in the film. Granted, I had to have the Candy Shop cover explained to me, but in the setting it makes it all the more hilarious even if you've never heard of 50 Cent. 

My only complaint is that we never got an explanation for the chicken. 

Still, that's a minor point. The Hangover is outlandish and outrageous but oddly rational; the film is just flat-out funny from beginning to end.  It does what it set out to do: make me laugh, hard, at its outrageousness and silliness, and what can one ask out of comedies other than that. 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Public Enemies: A Review


G-Man, This Movie's Dull...

Perhaps rather than give a full review for Public Enemies, it would be more instructive to write the thoughts that came to me while I was watching it.

"Here's John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), acting rather slowly while breaking people out...I wonder who the guy who fell out of the car was".

"Oh, I didn't know Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) died by Melvin Purvis' (Christian Bale) hands".

"These Sweet Tarts are good".

"Is that Edith Piaf as Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard)? I don't believe for one moment she has any Native American blood".

"Was that Diana Krall singing in the club? I only have one of her albums. When I Look Into Your Eyes I think it's called. It was OK".

"These Sweet Tarts are really good. I don't think I've had a bad one yet. Normally I can tell when I get a green one, but they are all good tonight".

Blank. Blank. Blank.

"I didn't know Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) worked with Dillinger. FINALLY, some action."

"Is Baby Face Nelson the same guy who was Dane Cook's obnoxious buddy in Good Luck Chuck? Either he's a great actor or I'm still in a state of semi-consciousness".

"I'm running out of Sweet Tarts. Better save one for when Dillinger goes to the Biograph Theater".

"I didn't know The Lady in Red really wore orange. No, I think I heard that on the History Channel, or A & E".

"Manhattan Melodrama...looks like a good movie. I wonder if it's on DVD. William Powell, that's what I call an actor. Pity he never won an Oscar. He & Myrna Loy. Both got robbed. Come to think of it, I haven't seen any of the Thin Man movies. I should check them out. I don't think I've seen them together in any film. How awful. ".

"Clark Gable--a STAR if ever there was one. Pity most people here have NO idea who William Powell or Myrna Loy are. Some haven't even heard of Gable. How can you not have heard of Clark Gable? People can't be THAT dumb, can they?"

"No, I tell a lie. I did see Powell and Loy in The Great Ziegfeld, and he did have a small role in How to Marry A Millionaire. Class all the way".

"Why are going back to this movie? Put Manhattan Melodrama back on".

"OK, Dillinger's been killed. Time to pop in the last Sweet Tart".

"There's MORE?! Fine, fine, fine. Let's find out what happened to the girl."

"Oh, it WAS Diana Krall! I KNEW I was right. I would have thought Channing Tatum would have gotten a bigger role as Pretty Boy Floyd. Yes, he is pretty, but the jury's still out as to his acting skills. I can't tell him apart from the guys on Gossip Girl. Saw only one episode, didn't think there was any actual acting".

"I believe these were the BEST Sweet Tarts I've ever had, bar none".

I was entirely flippant early on in my reviewing career, but in retrospect, I kinda liked how freewheeling I used to be. As I look at it, while Public Enemies tried to be in the style of early Warner Brothers' gangster films, it failed.

In short, Public Enemies is not a gangster movie in the style of a White Heat or The Public Enemy. It isn't even a good character study of Dillinger. He couldn't have been as boring as he's seen in the film. That's no reflection on Depp: he's one of the finest actor of his generation, period. It's the pacing. Public Enemies is so slow that it makes the movie drag. If people think it's a gangster film, forget it.

There are few action scenes to speak of. As for everyone else, I will give Cotillard credit for sounding somewhat like an American, same with Bale. However, Purvis doesn't come across as a diligent officer determined to bring Dillinger to justice. He, like Depp, are more like those animatronics at Disney World. In fact, the Cagney figure in Disney's Hollywood Studios' The Great Movie Ride is more lifelike than the actors on the screen.

Slow, slow, slow. It's unfortunate, since this could have been a great opportunity to remind modern audiences of the great genre gangster films were. Ultimately, by showing clips of Manhattan Melodrama during Public Enemies, we can compare & contrast just how good those movies were...and how bad this was is.

Slow, dull, with lifeless characters, Public Enemies will soon be forgotten, a blip in the careers of Depp, Cotillard, and Bale to where some of their fans won't even remember they were in this movie, let alone the movie itself.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Michael Jackson's This Is It: A Review (Review #23)


Farewell Performance...

You can remember Michael Jackson in many ways, depending on when you saw him first. Some remember him as the wildly talented youngster from the Jackson 5, singing and dancing like nobody's business. Others remember him as the man behind some of the most innovative music and videos of all time: lighting the ground with his feet in Billy Jean, a dancing zombie in Thriller, in the subway, telling the world who's Bad. For those who came after his heyday, he is known as "that crazy man who slept with boys and dangled a baby from a hotel balcony". 

Michael Jackson's This Is It, the documentary film about his never-to-be comeback concert series, doesn't answer questions about Jackson the man. It does remind us of the man's extraordinary and exceptional musical talent and the catalog he left behind. 

The film is a hybrid of documentary and concert film. The documentary part is supplemented by interviews with the dancers, band, and technical crew as they rehearse for the planned This Is It series of spectacular concerts. The concert part comes from Jackson's performances of his songs, where he excelled even when his audience consisted solely of no more than fifty.

It may sound wrong, but I think This Is It looks better here than it would have looked if Jackson had lived to perform the entire show as planned. The concert would have to me been ostentatious and extravagant, but here, we can concentrate on the music and dancing that Jackson could still perform at age 50. We soon forget that this is rehearsal footage, not because of the quality of the footage. Instead, we get a chance to essentially sit in on a dress rehearsal, and as such concentrated on both the intense work of the planned show but more importantly the music.

We can hear how brilliant Jackson's catalog is with few if any distractions. Seeing him perform songs such as The Way You Make Me Feel, I Just Can't Stop Loving You, and Beat It, reminds one of the sheer talent Jackson had. 

I was pleased to hear one of my personal favorites, Smooth Criminal. In this particular number he & director Kenny Ortega had planned, audiences would have had an amazing number that had Jackson be an audience member when Rita Hayworth performed Put the Blame on Mame in Gilda. Perhaps on a stage this would not have translated well. In This Is It, it works wonders.

To be fair, his Earth Song was to my mind both overblown and far too syrupy, but there it is. 

This Is It is probably not the way Michael Jackson would have wanted to be seen as this footage was not intended for public view. However, that ironically ends up being one of its benefits: here we have Jackson, the singer, the dancer, stripped from all the weirdness and lunacy and tragedy that were as much part of his life as his enormous talent. We can judge the man as artist, not his eccentricities, his musical legacy, not his tabloid legacy.

Is it exploitive? I don't think so. The people behind the camera were put in an extremely difficult position after Jackson's death, and they did the best they could under the circumstances. Director Ortega and company should be congratulated for being able to make a great musical experience out of behind-the-scenes footage, and the film is quite respectful of the man. The various interviews show that those working with Jackson thought exceptionally well of him.

This Is It does not dwell into the allegations of child abuse, and it is up to the individual if one wants to spend time watching a man accused of child molestation. Ultimately, This Is It won't change how people perceive Michael Jackson, the man. It might not even change how people perceive Michael Jackson, the artist. It never set out to be about Michael Jackson, person, but Michael Jackson, artist. 

Stripped of the allegations, the bizarre antics and imagery of this person, we can see just how much talent he had, and if we judge him on that, his legacy is secure.