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Column Fri May 27 2011

The Hangover Part II, Kung Fu Panda 2, Midnight In Paris & 13 Assassins

The Hangover Part II

I was talking to (IM'ing, actually) Ain't It Cool's Harry Knowles shortly after we both saw press screenings of The Hangover Part II in our respective cities, and I told him I liked the current film about 50 percent less than the first, but upon reflection I realized that's not entirely true. Fifty percent, to me, is a failing grade, and this sequel doesn't outright fail. It still has its outrageous and funny moments, but I was surprised how much of the performances by the film's three leads (Bradley Cooper as Phil, Ed Helms as Stu, and the extra-giggly Zach Galifianakis as Alan) is reduced to pure reaction to other people and events who are typically far funnier than they are in this movie. The most common lines of dialogue include "Oh my god!" "Holy shit!" and the ever-reliable "Fuck!" That's not exactly ground-breaking comedy, folks.

I did like the set up of The Hangover Part II. Phil and Stu are still pals, and now the good dentist is getting married in Thailand to Lauren (Jamie Chung), a lovely lady whose parents think Helms is an idiot not nearly worthy of their daughter. But they love their genius son, Teddy (Mason Lee), who is studying to be a surgeon and has done nothing wrong in his entire life. Teddy seems like a good guy, gets along with Stu, and has never had a day of fun in his whole life. Alan is not initially invited to the wedding because Stu blames him for their misadventures in Las Vegas. But with some prompting from Doug (Justin Bartha), eventually Stu is convinced to bring him and all that entails. Alan resents Teddy's brother being there, and protests every chance he gets.

Once at the Thailand resort where the wedding will take place, the guys plan to have a couple of beers on the beach and relax and call that the bachelor party. Lauren insists the boys take Teddy along. Sounds good. But suddenly, the next morning, they wake up in the seedy heart of Bangkok in a scum-ridden hotel in various stages of hungover and undress. Plus, Stu has Mike Tyson's exact tattoo on his face. With a missing future brother-in-law, a severed finger in a bowl of water, a monkey dressed like a biker, a now-bald (still bearded) Alan, and no memory of the evening that to any of this, the adventure to piece together their missing hours begins.

I don't want to give away too many details, but as you've probably seen from the trailers, Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) is back (he's actually Alan's plus one to the wedding), and he actually remembers all the details of the night before, so case closed, right? Not exactly. But the tour through the ugly heart of Bangkok is sometimes fascinating, but not nearly as sleazy as these guys seem to think it is or try to convince us it is. Guys, simply acting shocked at something doesn't make it shocking, and so little of what actually goes on during their lost hours is all that awe-inspiring in its ick factor. Much like the first Hangover, the true shocking elements come at the very end during the repeat of the photo-montage closing credits. I laughed harder at those images than anything else in the movie.

Director and co-writer (along with Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong) Todd Phillips has essentially invented a formula that combines partying, a mystery and laughs, and then repeated it. Fair enough; he's entitled to do that, but the film is almost utterly lacking in originality. A couple of well-placed cameos don't make a film like this feel fresh, especially when those actors aren't given anything fun to do. I will admit that I was especially impressed with Helms' work in this film. He's kind of the centerpiece of the movie, and he made me laugh more than anyone else, in particular, with yet another new composition written about the events of the film. There's also a pretty exciting car chase through the narrow streets of Bangkok that I'd really like to see again because it's that good.

Beyond that, it's tough for me to imagine that fans of the first film (and there were plenty of you) won't feel let down on some level by this film, either because they've seen a lot of this material before or because The Hangover Part II just isn't as funny. And that might be it's greatest crime. These guys, and even Phillips, can be quite funny and have been prior to this. Something went wrong here, and it's either that they rushed to get this made and out, or Phillips never really wrapped his brain around a better idea than the one that worked so well for him two years ago.

That being said, the film has a couple of great moments and a couple of should-have-been great moments that flop with a loud "Splat!" A trip to the tattoo parlor where Stu's face was forever changed isn't nearly as interesting or funny as it should have been. And as much as I thought Galifianakis seemed slightly subdued in this film, he's still very funny when he blurts out his patented utterly inappropriate lines. And Alan's obsession with the Jonas Brothers borders on the freakishly creepy. And why does he have an enormous album cover blow-up of Billy Joel's "Glass Houses" in his bedroom? (Joel is a recurring force in this movie.)

Even something as good as The Hangover would have been perfectly acceptable and worthy of a half-hearted recommendation. But with the promise of an even sleazier location than Las Vegas, the filmmakers had an opportunity to up the ante, and they simply didn't. I just can't see people spreading the word about this film the same way they did with the first. This one has its moments, but they are too few and far between, so I can't quite recommend it.

Kung Fu Panda 2

After cutting the first Kung Fu Panda some slack because I was excited about the prospect of a mainstream animated film getting kids excited about kung fu and marital arts in general, I was strangely unmoved by its sequel, despite a surprisingly darker storyline and an upgrade in the quality of the animation. I think the problem lies in the classic sequel problem of too many characters crammed into the story because the filmmakers think that's what kids want. Why not let them find out more about the dozen or so characters that made the transition from the first film? Hell, there are members of The Furious Five I know nothing about beyond which famous actors do their voices.

Instead, we get a whole slew of new faces in Kung Fu Panda 2, some of which are quite interesting, especially the Gary Oldman-voiced crane Lord Shen, the story's villain whose modest ambitions include taking over all of China with his recently invented weapon: the cannon. Along with Oldman, we get new peripheral characters voiced by the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Haysbert, Victor Garber, and Michael Yeoh -- all fun actors that bring varying degrees of fun to their underwritten parts.

Then of course, we have our returning champs, including Jack Black as the titular panda, Po. What's a little disappointing about Po this time around is that he's a fully trained kung fu warrior now -- the dude can fight and beat just about anybody. I miss in-training Po who was battling his urges to eat and got winded a lot. Those elements are still in place, but they don't seem like as much of a hindrance as they once were.

His companions, The Furious Five (voiced by the likes of Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and Angelina Jolie) are still loyal and utterly without personality, other than that injected by the individual actors (sorry Jackie and Lucy). Also hanging around is Po's master, Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who really doesn't do much other than give Po his new assignment to stop Lord Shen; he also shows up at exactly the right moment that almost makes you wonder why he sent Po to a battle that he was going to help fight in the first place. Small detail.

There are some genuinely spectacular sections of Kung Fu Panda 2, including a great shadow-puppet-like opening credits sequence (I'm sure it was done digitally, but the illusion is terrific). More interesting still are a couple of hand-drawn animation flashback/dream sequences where Po sees images of his childhood (before being adopted by James Hong's Mr. Ping). The images are quite beautiful (made all the more so by some spot-on use of 3D), and the story of how Po became an orphan is kind of upsetting. Every little kid in the audience I saw this film with was crying hysterically. I'm going to go on a limb and guess that the presence of "executive producer" and "creative consultant" Guillermo del Toro had something to do with the darker corners of this movie, but it could be that first-time feature director Jennifer Yuh (a story artist on the first film and a veteran director of the "Spawn" animated series) and her team might have pulled it together under their own steam as well. Either way, bravo/brava.

I'll give Kung Fu Panda 2 points for a slam-bang final battle that pulls all the characters together in a battle of new- and old-world fighting that is visually dazzling and just the right amount of bad ass to keep adults as gripped as the kiddies; maybe more so. I can't emphasize enough how effective the flashback sequence is and how much it keeps the entire film from sinking into feather-light, disposable family fare. There's still some of that present, but there was just enough emotional pull and enjoyable action to keep me interested about where things were going. This isn't exactly a glowing recommendation, I know, and that's because I wasn't glowing when Kung Fu Panda 2 was done. But I was smiling a lot during this movie, and I'm guessing those of you with kids are going to have some happy little campers when all is said and done.

Midnight In Paris

Every few years, Woody Allen reminds us that he's not just prolific but also that he's a genius. He's not a genius because he can make us laugh or think; no, he's brilliant because he very often can do both in equal measure, and Midnight In Paris, which recently opened the Cannes Film Festival is easily Allen's finest film since Match Point and his funniest since 2004's Melinda and Melinda. Some reviewers may choose to reveal a major plot element of this film, but many aren't, and I won't either because to walk into this film knowing as little as possible is the best way to see it.

The basic overview involves engaged couple Gil and Inez (Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams) vacationing in Paris. Gil is a novelist who makes most of his money doing script doctoring, but what he'd really love to do is move to Paris and write his next novel. He longs for Paris circa the 1920s, when many of his literary and artistic heroes all gathered in the City of Lights to work, bounced ideas off of each other, drank, and jumped from bed to bed. And while his wife to be, her friends and her parents all shop, visit museums and try out the trendier places to eat, Gil is content to walk the Paris streets at night and get lost, all the while imagining how much better life would be.

One night Gil actually does get lost as the clocks strike midnight, and an unfamiliar car pulls up to meet him. Without giving away too much, during the course of his adventures that and subsequent nights, he meets the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who has many famous friends and lovers (played by the likes of Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, Thor's Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, and Corey Stoll) to whom she is happy to introduce Gil. These meetings inspire Gil to put the final touches on his novel in progress, but beyond that, his relationship with Adriana makes him all-too aware of the loss of connection he has with Inez, who is spending a great deal of time with a pompous former professor (a very funny Michael Sheen), also vacationing in Paris.

Further complicating things, Gil meets another Parisian, Gabriele (Lea Seydoux of Inglourious Basterds), who he seems to have even more in common with than his muse, Adriana. The French first lady (singer and former model), Carla Bruni, appears in Midnight In Paris as a tour guide, too. The film is about many things, but above all, it seems to drive home the point that nostalgia is a dangerous and sometimes silly thing, and that just because you have chosen to romanticize a particular era or place doesn't mean the people who lived there thought it was so swell at the time.

As great as Sheen, McAdams, Cotillard, and so many of the other actors are in Midnight In Paris, the real surprise for me was seeing how much Wilson's rhythms and mannerisms resembled Woody Allen's, and he manages to make this happen with very little adjustment to the type of performance he has given in any other movie. It's beyond refreshing to be reminded that there's a quality actor buried under the laid-back persona that Wilson has hidden behind for so many years. And his reactions to all of the remarkable things that happen to him on his late-night adventures are note perfect, and we're right there with him. Again, without ruining any of the special qualities of the plot, I did want to mention that my favorite moment in the film involves Gil pitching a movie idea to a young filmmaker. You'll know the scene when you see it. I also had a great deal of fun watching a bearded Michael Sheen play such a complete and total ass. Actors don't often get to sink their teeth in roles with this little srceen time, but he bites deep and the results are a scream.

Almost without fail, when you read the cast list of whatever the next Woody Allen movie is, you are stunned at the caliber of the talent and the potential these great actors have together (for example, his next work reunites him with Penelope Cruz and includes Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin, and Allen himself). Sometimes, what looks good on paper works; other times, it doesn't. I'm ecstatic to report that Midnight In Paris is one of the great modern Allen works, one that works on every level as both a romantic comedy and a metaphor for the dangers of living in the past. You may not get all of the jokes and references if you don't have a college degree, but there's still plenty here to laugh with and appreciate. Best release of the week, without a doubt. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

13 Assassins

I've kind of lost track of what the beyond-prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer, One Missed Call) has been up to in recent years. I used to see 2-4 films by him a year, but my avenues of seeing his latest works at reasonable prices have dried up in recent years to the point where the last new film of his I saw was 2007's genre-mashing Sukiyaki Western Django. But I'm happy to discover and report that Miike is back with one of the finest works of his career, 13 Assassins, a mixture of blood-and-guts samurai fare mixed with a thoughtful take on the end of a once-glorious era in Japanese history.

Set in 1844, the film establishes that well-connected Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) as a real bastard, who rapes, pillages and systematically murders seemingly because not to do so would be boring. He's a right and proper sociopath, and he's in line to become leader of a good portion of Japan. The era is also significant because it stood on the eve of the samurai warrior tradition. While there was a time when samurai protected their masters with their very lives, at this time samurais were scattered to the wind without leadership or even a reason to live. When once of the nation's last remaining uncorrupted government officials convinces samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Koji Yakusho) that he should protect Japan's future by assassinating Naritsugu, the aging warrior decides it will be possibly his last honorable act.

The film is a fairly faithful retelling of Eiichi Kudo's 1963 classic The Thirteen Assassins, but naturally Miike's take on things focuses on the Naritsugu's truly brutal actions and the rivers of blood that flow in the film's final 45 minutes. But there's a great sadness that runs through this work that feels like a mourning for a time of respect and honor. Shinzaemon travels the countryside recruiting other roaming samurai for his mission, which eventually leads them to a small village that they take over and turn into a bloody funhouse that resembles the nastiest game of Mousetrap that you've ever seen, pitting 13 men against an army of a couple hundred, all committed to keeping Naritsugu out of harm's way.

Miike is a master of chaos, but 13 Assassins proves he can also make certain that his elaborate battles are choreographed in such a way that they're relatively easy to follow. He spares us nothing in this bloody conflict as limbs go flying in every direction and blood saturates everything. I've been a big fan of Koji Yakusho in such works as Babel, The Eel, Tokyo Sonata, and the original Shall We Dance, but it's great to see him with rage in his eyes. These are not men that were dragged to this confrontation kicking and screaming; they are happy to be in the role as political assassins because it reminds them of a time when they felt useful, appreciated and powerful. I don't believe this could have been made 10 or 15 years ago; this is the work of a mature director that understands pacing, building tension and the importance of developing strong characters. And if you can handle the extreme violence, expect a magnificent film with extraordinary performances framed in a bloody, muddy spectacle. 13 Assassins opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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