February 22, 2010

The Hangover

There's been much ado about The Hangover, my review of which is admittedly way late. It's about a Las Vegas bachelor party gone awry: the groom's three buddies awake the morning after to find their friend Doug (Justin Bartha) missing and their memories of the previous night as fuzzy as their knowledge of his whereabouts. They slowly piece together the events that led to their current dilemma, through a series of often chaotic comic vignettes.

The Hangover gives us easy laughs. Too easy, in fact, and yet this is being lauded as kind of a monumental comedic achievement by some. The characters are typically one-dimensional, utterly unlikeable ex-frat-boy types, who don't really even seem to like each other.

Bradley Cooper is especially pompous as Phil, the bronzed, athletic bachelor-type who happens to be a married science teacher. Unbelievable as his character is, he is alternately an irresponsible jerk and the determined leader of the group. Then there's Stu (Ed Helms), the dentist, perhaps the most successful--economically speaking--of the group. He's trapped in a dead-end relationship with a woman who's too much of a tyrannical nag to be sympathetic in her fear that her boyfriend will venture into a strip club during his Vegas exploits. (However, he's lied to her that they're going wine-tasting in Napa Valley instead.) Given the revelation (early in the movie) that she's cheated on him before, it's hard to buy the emasculating choke-hold she has over him, and much easier to accept his drunken Britney Spears-style marriage to a stripper (Heather Graham) with a heart of gold. Last is Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug's loopy, unpredictably weird brother-in-law-to-be, whose wacky personality allows for much of the plot--if one can call it plot--to advance.

There are too many plot-holes in The Hangover to forgive, even if the movie gives us a passably entertaining hour and thirty minutes. It's a pastiche of Swingers, Bachelor Party, and the lesser-known comedies Mystery Date and The Night Before. From these four movies we get the main themes of The Hangover: Las Vegas weekend out-of-control, bachelor party out-of-control, Chinese mafia villains complicating the storyline, and missing friend/memory failures. You may want to watch The Hangover to save time, but I think any of those four movies is equally watchable (although all of them are fairly flawed).

Also starring Jeffrey Tambor and Ken Jeong. Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Directed by Todd Phillips.

February 18, 2010

In The Loop

There's a scene fairly early on where James Gandolfini, playing a long-time U.S. general, and Mimi Kennedy, as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, retreat from a party to an upstairs bedroom of a D.C. house where they're discussing some top secret information about a possible war with the Middle East, using a child's calculator--with pink plastic lining and nursery rhyme sound effects emanating from it--to figure out the number of soldiers they're expecting to lose during the course of battle. That scene exemplifies the satirical current that flows through In the Loop, a movie where the children have taken over the park, and are playing in an enormous sandbox of global proportions and global consequences.

It's a wickedly funny British poli-satire directed by Armando Ianucci and written by Ianucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, and Ian Martin, that crosses borders between the UK and the US quite frequently. The political tidal wave is triggered in London, where a bumbling British politician named Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) makes a statement (that war with the Middle East is "unforeseeable") which provides him with enough political rope to hang himself and his career. The Prime Minister's raging, vein-popping, foul-mouthed Director of Communications, named Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi) steps in to try and clean up the mess, but Foster keeps putting one foot in his mouth in the effort to get the other one out. It's so hysterically funny that it's nothing but absolutely believable. Watching In the Loop, it's almost as though someone had snuck cameras into every behind-the-scenes meeting in Washington and London for the world to see what it's really like for the underlings trying to make sense of the inner-workings of foreign policy, diplomacy, and the domestic ranglings that go on in our political centers.

The cast also includes Gina McKee, Chris Addison, David Rasche, Anna Chlumsky, and Olivia Poulet. This may be the funniest film of the last year. It's certainly one of the most intelligent--and grim in its own disturbingly satiric accuracy. ½

February 13, 2010

A Single Man

In A Single Man, Colin Firth is George Falconer, a 50-something English professor living in L.A. (although he's a native of England) in 1962. Since the death of his lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), George wakes up, he gets dressed, he goes to work, he comes home, and everything in between is so painfully contrived that he operates more like a machine than a man. Still, there are glimmers of life amidst his cookie cutter existence. 

Living in a Leave it to Beaver-style neighborhood, George chafes against the provincialism of his surroundings and maintains a faux-sophisticated relationship with his old chum Charley (Julianne Moore), also English, the two of them isolated expatriates, unsure of their roots anymore. George is cynical, Charley pretends not to be, and the gin flows freely in their tumultuous meeting that night (this story unfolds in the course of one 24-hour-period, with flashbacks of George's former life with Jim). Charley is George's only friend, and yet there's a distance between them that George maintains. She was the one, however, that he went to the night he received word that Jim had died in Michigan in a car accident (and that he wasn't welcome at Jim's funeral).

George approaches this day with a new-found determination. He's going to kill himself.

Tom Ford, who started out his career as a production designer, makes his directing debut with A Single Man, which spends so much time in close-up that we practically become experts of the actors' pores. It's a glossy affair, one that seems at times like postcards extracted from the early 60s, and at other times recalls the sumptuous intensity of a 1950's soaper, not unlike an earlier film starring Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven). 

Christopher Isherwood's book, though very literate, is also inherently cinematic in the way it unfolds, and so the task of screenwriter David Scearce isn't one of selecting and arranging but of heightening the dramatic appeal. There hasn't been a movie this visually opulent for a long while, and I think we can attest to Ford's prowess as a production designer that the movie looks so good, and not just good, but seamlessly rich in detail; at times it appears pretentious, but there's such a thread of humor about the whole production that it takes the wind out of the deliberately high drama.

The performance by Colin Firth is top notch, somewhat reminiscent of Laurence Olivier, but then this is the kind of part that seems almost too obviously geared toward winning an award. And yet Firth does it justice, maintaining the clinched, formal composure that offsets the visual razzle-dazzle. There's a lot of Vertigo in this movie, particularly in the music score by Abel Korzeniowski, as well as the voyeuristic approach Ford and cinematographer Eduard Grau take to the movie. There are constant close-ups of lips and eyes and legs and backs and bodies floating in the water...it's very European without losing its Hollywood-ness.

A Single Man isn't for every taste, but it deserves much praise for what it does well and what it doesn't do. Its deadly serious subject matter could have been a lot heavier and therefore a lot grimmer if not for the humor and the visual largesse that constantly reminds us we're watching a movie.

February 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

“Going to war is a once in a lifetime experience. It could be fun.”

In The Hurt Locker, written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, we see a firsthand account of the Iraq War, perhaps as close as many of us will ever be. Whether or not it’s a completely accurate portrayal of the war matters less because it’s a portrayal of three individual American soldiers’ experience, and one in particular, played by Jeremy Renner, who seems to get off on the gamble his job as a bomb deactivator confronts him with on a daily basis. As Sergeant William James, Renner has a crazed look in his eyes as he approaches each mission. The Hurt Locker plays on some level like a video game, where each day is a new setting in which our players face new threats in unfamiliar locations.

[the following paragraph contains an early spoiler:]

Bigelow keeps it on a cinematic level though, and early on sets a tone of urgency and danger by killing off the first "bomb tech," Sergeant Thompson, played by Guy Pearce. Because Pearce is a recognizable actor, we don’t expect him to die so suddenly (although the build-up in the opening scene renders the outcome inevitable), and when this happens we know that the movie isn’t going to operate by many if any genre rules. As James and his fellow soldiers Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) approach each mission, we wonder if this is it for any and all of them.

Despite the uneasiness we experience, the movie lets us breathe at times too, and also lets us feel what the characters are feeling. We have time to catch a glimpse of the paranoia that sets in for the soldiers, who never know who they can trust. At certain moments it begins to feel like Bigelow is playing with us, but she’s playing with them too, and it really does feel like the Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, which is a movie that screams “I am an important film” where The Hurt Locker stays silent.

At the beginning of the movie we are greeted by the following quote by author Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For more effect, that last part is left lingering by itself before the black screen disappears and we are immersed into the world of our heroes. It’s sort of irritating when movies declare their message at the beginning, even more so when they feel the need to underline it further, but it sets a tone, and follows through on that message very much so. It is unlike the other war movies I have seen; there’s a lack of grandiosity that makes it all the more effective and resonant.

February 01, 2010

The Return of the Living Dead

In The Return of the Living Dead (1985), writer-director Dan O’Bannon treats us to a garishly funny and violent zombie spoof that seems like a strange mix of 1950’s science fiction and 1980’s punk. The production design often makes us feel like we're watching an expanded version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video. The exuberant comic-book-feel of the horror is in that kind of vein, and the humor is in-your-face, as it should be with this kind of material.

Referencing George Romero’s 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead early on (partly to dispel confusion that this was a sequel to that movie), Return purports to tell us the "true" story of the living dead, and how it was all the Army's fault.

The disheveled corpses, sleeping peacefully in a dilapidated cemetery, are inadvertently revived when a military-developed chemical leaks into the atmosphere and over their graves. To the horror of some unsuspecting punk teenagers (with nicknames like “Trash” and “Suicide”) who unwittingly picked the graveyard as a place to party the night away, these zombies are hungry for brains and can run—fast. They can also talk, a gimmick that allows for at least two good jokes involving police radios. Despite all the problems in store for the adolescent characters, the adults apparently have much more at stake than their safety. Clu Gulager, as the owner of a nearby medical supplies warehouse, recognizes his culpability in hiding the lost military canisters that unleashed the troublesome gas into the air (infecting two of his employees—James Karen and Thom Matthews—in the process).

Return of the Living Dead is as much a part of its time as Night of the Living Dead was a time capsule of the 1960s, and yet both films seem to be telling us something very disturbing about our culture, then and now. Instead of the Bomb coming from the Russians, it comes from within our own borders, a rather chilling concept that endures even now.

Better than most of the walking dead movies, Return of the Living Dead spews gore and humor in equal doses. Despite its deviations from Romero’s “form,” zombie fans have embraced this as a minor classic with an ending as ironic as that of Night. With Don Calfa, Beverly Randolph, Miguel Nunez, Linnea Quigley, Brian Peck, Jewel Shepard, John Philbin, and Mark Venturini. ½