Movie Reviews: June 2013
THIS IS THE END
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated R/107 mins/Comedy
Director: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogan
Writers: Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg
Growing up in a fairly religious household, I saw my share of Biblical epics as a kid--The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and (of course), The Bible, among others. A little later in life, as I found out more about "Hollywood Babylon" and the scandalous lifestyles of the stars who were playing these pious Biblical figures, I sometimes wondered how they would have reacted if the Lord had smote them down right on the sets of their films, for the sins of hedonism and hypocrisy. (Such thoughts were courtesy of the concomitant Apocalyptic conditioning I received.) I've come a long way from those self-righteous days, but I've still never lost my sense of ironic amusement at the disparity between what was portrayed and the lives of the portrayers. But with THIS IS THE END, despite its mocking tone, I finally get my childhood wish-fulfillment.
These days, of course, anything of a religious or spiritual nature is openly regarded as suspect by Hollywood, and if it does appear as anything but a convenient plot device, it's portrayed as either a debilitating character flaw, or an object of ridicule, or both. Here, though, all is not quite what it seems.
The premise is simple: Hollywood. Today. June 2013. Right Now. Actor James Franco is having a party at his new mansion/compound. Among those invited are fellow actors Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson, Craig Robinson, Jason Segall, Paul Rudd, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, along with pop star Rihanna, and the mensch of the Apatow generation, Seth Rogan. Pointedly not invited is mullet-headed good ol' boy, Danny McBride.
A reluctant guest is Rogan's childhood friend and fellow actor, Jay Baruchel. An east coast hipster who professes to hate Hollywood, largely because it's driven a wedge between him and Rogan. Jay looks and feels pasty and out of place. Going into town to buy smokes, he tries to explain all this to Rogan--and that's when the fit hits the shan.
Columns of blue light draw some people, seemingly at random, up into the heavens, leaving others behind. Driverless cars crash into telephone poles. Fires erupt. Sinkholes appear everywhere, including right outside of the Franco place, claiming B-list victims right and left, such as Mindy Kaling and David Krumholtz. And the oft-maligned, Michael Cera, gets a gruesome onscreen demise that will doubtless please his many haters.
Steeling themselves into the compound, survivors Jay, Rogan, Hill, Robinson and Franco struggle to make sense of it all. But over the next hour, as they contend with surviving a post-apocalyptic world, which includes an attack from an axe-wielding, F-bomb-dropping Emma Watson, Ghostbuster-esque demon dogs, a possessed Hill and a cannibalistic turn from McBride, they come to the inevitable conclusion: The Book of Revelations wasn't bullshit. Judgment Day is at hand. And those raptured into the sky were the pure souls who'd earned their way to Heaven by being good people. So it's hardly surprising that none of the famous Hollywood actors, with their decadent lifestyles, were deemed worthy. But is it too late for those--ahem--"left behind"?
The difference between THIS IS THE END and that eponymously titled story is that THIS IS THE END is intentionally comedic.
Making this film was a brave move by Rogan, the current king of the slacker/stoner generation. By basically playing caricatures of themselves, he and his fellow actors, most of whom have as many detractors as fans, are all playing to their respective public images--for better and worse. Cera is widely viewed as a narcissistic walking hormone. Hill's niceness comes across as too good to be real. Franco is regarded as a pretentious, effete dandy. And McBride is the white trash cousin/neighbor you DON'T want to invite to your housewarming party. A generation earlier, this role would have belonged to Randy Quaid. The actors could have tried to use the movie to counteract their negative publicity. Instead, they feed the fire, to comedic effect--and it works. In spades. I'm speaking as one of the converted. I'm not a huge fan of many of those involved, including Rogan, Hill and Cera; but after this movie, I think I'm cool with all of them. Well, maybe not Cera.
On the spiritual side, the film makes an interesting companion and counterpoint to, say, Kevin Smith's DOGMA. But that film was made by a believer who was tackling the hypocrisies he saw in his own faith, without questioning the nature of the faith itself. In this case, the apocalyptic setting is a device, used somewhat cynically, to make wry comments and sly observations about a number of topics--the Prepper mentality, the softness of self-centered actors, and the nature of what it means to be a good person. But above all, at its core, it's a story about the value of friendship and loyalty.
Regardless of whether the filmmakers actually believe in the secular salvation they espouse, it's to the film's credit that it manages to be utterly profane, yet relatively pure of heart. Its final messages--don't be a douchebag, beautifully illustrated by Franco's final scene, and value your true friendships--are ones I hope everyone who sees this movie take to heart, especially the Frat Bros.
Oh, and Channing Tatum's cameo is his Best. Role. Ever.
The Hangover: Part III
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated R/100 mins/Comedy
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips & Craig Mazin, based on characters created by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
In 2009, THE HANGOVER came out of nowhere and went on to become the top-grossing R-Rated comedy in history (at least until it was dethroned by 2012's TED). It made stars out of Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms, and allegedly made everyone who saw it laugh until they were sick. At least, that's what I've heard. Me, I saw it, I laughed a few times, I was entertained (especially by the great Ken Jeong's, psychotic Mr. Chow), but my ultimate takeaway was--"Meh". My true comedy love of that summer came a couple months later, in the form of the little-seen and unfairly maligned, THE GOODS: LIVE HARD, SELL HARD--which was trailered with THE HANGOVER, featured many of the same cast members, but spectacularly failed at the box office--though I personally still consider it the funniest movie I've ever seen, and if you haven't seen it, I recommend you find and watch it. NOW.
This 2011's Thailand-set sequel, imaginatively titled,THE HANGOVER PART II, was, literally, more of the same-with extra emphasis on the MORE part. The *exact* same plot, the *exact* same formula, just dialed up to 11. The same guys, on a bachelor party bender in a strange city, retrace their steps to find out how the hell they got wherever they woke up with blotto memories (in both cases due to a narcotic mickey slipped by Galifianakis' entitled, eternal man-child, Alan). The trail leads them through any number of "shocking" and "outrageous" twists, mostly sexual and scatological, as well as a few would-be touching romantic moments. None of which bothers me. If I considered low or blue humor a problem, I wouldn't be writing this review while wearing a Beavis & Butt-Head T-shirt.
If anything, what bothered me about both movies was the artificial juxtaposition of moments that were supposed to be tender and/or profound mixed with the locker room humor. For my money, the first movie, especially, oversold it. It might play well to the frat boys, but despite the talented and appealing cast, I just didn't buy it. And PART II was nothing less than an endurance test.
So when this inevitable PART III was announced, I took some solace in director, Todd Phillips' pledge that it wouldn't be a mere retread, that it would cover new ground, and that, most importantly, it would "end" the trilogy once and for all.
So does it?
First things first. It's vastly better than PART II. That said...
PART III may cover a little new ground geographically (namely Mexico), but it revisits every setting from the first two films, and the final action is again set in and around Las Vegas. The gross-out factor is taken down a notch from the second installment (though an early scene involving a giraffe and a freeway overpass is genuinely unsettling), and the "YOLO" aspect has a real tinge of desperation to it: these characters are literally fighting for their lives.
And that's the main difference here: Tone. For a comedy, it's extremely dark--darker than either of its predecessors. At times it approached maudlin--and occasionally grisly. Despite my issues with the first two films, I suppose that I'd taken for granted that when all was said and done, for all the Wolf Pack's wacky shenanigans, there are no serious-to-permanent consequences to their actions. That's no longer the case. For the first time, there's an actual body count; and it's not necessarily to the film's betterment. The scenes where characters die are not funny, or even played comedically (something that, say, Tarantino is a Master at); they are gratuitous and definitely leave a bad taste.
Focusing on the positive: Cooper, Helms, odd-man-out, Justin Bartha, really do seem to invest in their characters more than might be expected; they don't just phone it in. In particular their staging of an intervention for Alan, coping with his father's untimely death, trying to finally push him into the adult world, is almost touching. John Goodman DOES phone in his performance as a ruthless crime enforcer, but hey--it's John Goodman, so it's OK. A welcome reappearance from the first film's, Jade (played by my future wife, Heather Graham) lightens things up a bit in the middle and helps create a possible bridge to the 2029 reboot, HANGOVER: THE NEXT GENERATION. And Ken Jeong, as the perpetually psychotic, Mr. Chow, never puts a foot wrong--despite his playing a genuinely reprehensible character.
But the buzzworthy cameo is none other than Melissa McCarthy as the pawn shop clerk who captures Alan's heart (apparently, in Hollywood movies, chubby people can only be matched with other chubby people, especially if they're FUNNY chubby people). Her character was a bit of a misfire for me. The character engages in pretty rampant elder abuse, something that will always hit my buttons wrong--call me crazy. Though a mid-credits tag featuring her and the Wolfpack waking up in a Vegas hotel room after yet another psychotic adventure (a hint of what PART IV might have been?) is predictably amusing.
In any case, if this truly IS the last we'll see of these characters (Dear gods, please yes), it's certainly a relief--to me, to audiences, and, presumably, to the actors and filmmakers. Besides, where else could they go? Another planet? (Dear gods, please no.) Let the Wolfpack ride into the sunset. I'll howl for them.
STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS
Reviewed by Michael Bradley
Recently it was pointed out to me by a fellow columnist that I am a movie critic while they are a movie reviewer. Having given some thought to the distinction I would have to agree. In an era where the focus is on advertising and trailers, I believe movie studios should be held to a higher standard when spending tens or hundreds of millions to produce a roughly ninety minute entertainment. That is why I am glad for once to be able to wholly endorse a film - Star Trek: Into Darkness.
Canon is important to me, even in a movie line which has been "reset" into an alternative timeline. What made the original Star Trek TV series such a phenomenon was not big budgets or special effects. It was the great characters, interaction and vision of humans with the same foibles and attributes as now, cast into the future. The characters are well known - Captain Kirk, the brash, egotistical womanizer, whether with human or alien women, always ready to fire phasers but fiercely loyal to friends and stupidly brave. Spock, the stoic, emotionless logical being, struggling with his human half. Bones, the wry, cynical doctor. Uhura, the modern successful woman officer. Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu along with all the other characters overly defined by national accents and quirky personalities.
The new Star Trek movies capture those characters and that spirit of human interaction under futuristic alien conditions better than I had ever hoped possible as a long time fan. The casting is simply perfection. Chris Pine nails Captain Kirk as the lucky but arrogant leader that you cheer for even though you know they deserve to get in trouble. Zachary Quinto was born to play Spock. Zoe Saldana recreates Uhura with an appropriately strong modern take on the role. Karl Urban plays Dr. McCoy so well I swear I see DeForest Kelley on the screen. Simon Pegg brings the perfect humor to scenes without being campy or foolish. No offense intended, but I actually prefer Pegg's portrayal to Doohan's original. The interaction among them all brings pure pleasure to my fanboy senses.
You might wonder why I am at paragraph four and have not mentioned the plot. That is the beauty of a well written and directed Star Trek feature. You don't even care what the plot is, you just enjoy watching it happen. The plot is great though as well. For die-hard fans you will recall that Captain Christopher Pike was the original USS Enterprise Captain in the series pilot, and later was returned to the scene of that episode. In this time line, things happen differently. Pike is the father figure for Kirk who lost his father at the beginning of the last film. The search for family, friends and belonging while growing into responsibility are foremost to the new Kirk. This is the theme shared by other crew members as well as they chafe on each other while clinging together for friendship and belonging.
Benedict Cumberpatch of Sherlock fame plays the villain. His updated portrayal of Khan loses all the 1970s campiness of the earlier version played so over-the-top by Ricardo Montalban. The movie is modern, edgy and has great visual effects. However, it is the personal drama that makes it so enjoyable.
The film has geo-political overtones about what people are willing to do to get an edge on their potential enemies and where lines should be drawn, including a "drone strike-like assassination" versus "arrest and trial" decision for a terrorist. It was good that unlike other recent fare that have come off as preachy or even as propaganda for particular partisan beliefs, this one leaves the questions more to the viewer without giving definitive answers. Kirk makes calls which are illegal, but you are not always sure they are right or wrong.
As a Star Trek fan, I grew weary of the long line of mediocre films that preceded the last two. It is great to see that the new reboots were able to capture that original sense of wonder, fascinating characters, sense of family with all the squabbles, and a great plot with little unnecessary diversion. The very end was not as I would have made it, with the final confrontation with an Admiral seemingly too willing to be fully evil. That character sticks out all the more because all the others are so complex.
Alice Eve joins the cast as Dr. Carol Marcus, a new romantic interest for Kirk. In the original timeline Kirk and Marcus produce a child during a tryst unknown to Kirk. The grown child meets Kirk and is then slain. Who knows what will happen in this timeline? The good news is that Alice Eve was able to be strong and feisty enough to hold her own in screen time with Chris Pine, though the relationship between Spock and Uhura is by far more interesting, as you will see when you enjoy this outstanding film.
NOW YOU SEE ME
Reviewed by Matthew Yenkala
Rated PG-13/115 mins/Crime Thriller
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writers: Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt
Everyone's heard the old line--"There are only [X] number of basic stories". This is something that writers, in particular, have to contend with regularly. Though the good ones know the secret: it doesn't matter how "basic" or even "derivative" a story may be; what matters is how the story is told, what fresh twists or amalgamations the writer can bring to it, and above all, how it can be filtered through his or her own personal filter to make it fresh, and more importantly, to make it their own.
Hollywood, of course, has its own spin: If something worked once, it'll work again. Audiences? They're so deadened, they'll never know we're feeding them the same dreck over and over in new packages.
This accounts, at least partly, for the plethora of sequels, prequels, remakes & reboots that have increasingly inundated movie (and TV) screens in the last couple decades (though nostalgia is also a factor there). But let's face it--studio filmmaking is an assembly line, and the parts (and manufacturers) are largely interchangeable. Which isn't to say that there's no value in the results--like with auto manufacturing, professionals are capable of making quality product to order, even if it's safe and predictable.
But in the filmmaking world, this does have the effect of making anything even remotely fresh or original stand out like a pulsar. And on that score, NOW YOU SEE ME stands tall.
Boiled down to its most basic component, it's a heist thriller. But the spin here IS quite fresh, at least to this reviewer. The heist(s) in question are undertaken by a group of stage magicians, working to the instructions of a powerful but unseen and unknown (even to them) puppet master. The foursome--played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco--are plucked from varying levels of street-magician obscurity to fulfill the grand designs of The Eye, an ancient order of "true magicians", whose origins stretch back thousands of years to ancient Egypt, and whose goals are appropriately mysterious.
The first job (the robbing of a Paris bank vault, remotely, from a Las Vegas stage) goes off swimmingly--to the disbelieving eyes of thousands of spectators, among them billionaire, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), and magician-turned-debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Bradley is soon enlisted by FBI Agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), a man with a haunted past and a mission to keep after "The Four Horseman" through their second and third heists (New Orleans and New York, respectively). Rhodes is unwillingly saddled with the assistance of a green Interpol agent from Paris (Melanie Laurent), who continually encourages him to think outside the box.
Director, Louis Leterrier keeps the pace and the tension tight. There isn't a lot of room for extraneous characterization. The archetypes are clear, and for the most part, so are their motivations. The performances are uniformly strong and the chemistry is believable (no doubt a welcome by-product of the fact that several of them have worked together in other projects). Some of the after-the-fact explanations of the magic seem a bit implausible (even given the setup); other aspects of the storyline seem downright perfunctory; but all work well enough within the confines of the story, and none detracts from the movie's watchability or enjoyment factors.
I certainly won't divulge the film's final trick. Doubtless, some will have guessed it long beforehand, but it struck me as a nice left-field twist. I'll just say that the performer on whom it rests does such an excellent job throughout the film of deflecting speculation away from themselves, it really does pack a punch--and yet, in retrospect, it's brilliantly, blindingly obvious. And it passes one of my personal tests of ANY story: on the second viewing, it's a different film entirely. And that's real magic.
Now let's see if they'll be able to resist titling the sequel Now You Don't....