‘The Hangover Part II’ – Not Bad For a Remake

I think by now everyone has figured out that “The Hangover Part II” is essentially a remake of the first film. This creates a dilemma; do we dislike this sequel automatically because it brings nothing new to what came before or the characters we have come to love? Or, do we just accept it for what it is and have fun regardless? Most sequels are pale imitations of the movies which somehow justified their existence, and they usually have the actors and filmmakers just going through the motions for an easy paycheck. You can either bitch and moan about it, or just put up with what has ended up on the silver screen.

For myself, “The Hangover Part II” was actually pretty good for a remake, and it helps that the same director and actors are on board for this sequel. Granted, the law of diminishing returns does apply to this installment as the surprise is no longer there, but I did laugh hard at many scenes, and this was enough for me. It also threatens to be even raunchier than the original to where you laugh more in shock than anything else. Seeing what they got away with before, this time it looks like they got away with murder.

This time the Wolfpack are messing things up in Thailand, or Thighland as Alan (Zach Galifianakis) calls it (I have made this same mistake many times myself). The occasion is the wedding of Stu (Ed Helms) to the love of his life, someone other than Heather Graham (WHA??!!). Both Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are invited, and Alan comes along even though the guys are seriously uncomfortable in bringing him after what happened in Las Vegas. Before the wedding, they have a bonfire on the beach with some bottled Budweiser to celebrate.

Next thing they know, the three of them (Doug was smart enough this time to go back to his hotel room) find themselves waking up in some disgusting apartment in Bangkok. Alan finds his head shaved, Stu now has the same face tattoo Mike Tyson has, and Phil just wakes up all sweaty because he’s just too sexy to do anything reckless. There’s one big problem though; the younger brother of Stu’s fiancée who went along with them is now missing. Once again, they need to find the missing member of their party before the wedding commences.

The first thing going through my mind when they end up getting hung over again was this, how can Budweiser beer get our main characters this messed up? Once they come to see the things they did which they cannot remember, I seriously thought these guys were the cheapest drunks imaginable. They can’t bother to get any Thailand beer instead? They don’t even have to wait for this stuff to be imported to them! Of course, the real reason they got wasted does come to light later on, and it has nothing to do with Budweiser. Regardless, they are none the wiser than last time.

I really can’t talk too much about “The Hangover Part II” as I will simply be giving away the funniest parts of the film. Many of the events which befall our characters do have some resemblance to the original, and some of them come with a seriously eye-opening twist. Just when you thought movies could not be any more shocking or raunchy, this one shows how far the envelope can be pushed.

Zach Galifianakis once again steals the show as Alan Garner, the man child who means well but is seriously demented in the way he gets closer to people closest to him. His endlessly awkward ways guarantee this wedding will have serious problems, but his reaction to what goes on around him is constantly priceless. You know he’s gonna do something screwy, and the tension which builds up to those moments had me in hysterics.

Actually, the one actor who threatens to steal this sequel from Galifianakis is Ken Jeong who returns as gangster Leslie Chow. For some bizarre reason, Leslie and Alan became really good friends despite the stuff which went down between them in Vegas. Some may find Jeong’s character of Chow offensive, but he is so off the wall and hard to pin down to where labeling him as some sort of caricature feels impossible. Under the circumstances, Jeong’s bigger role in this sequel is very well deserved.

It is also fun to see Ed Helms back as Stu, and that’s even though he’s no longer with Heather Graham’s character of Jade. Having conquered and left his annoyingly snobby girlfriend from the first movie, he now has to face down his future father-in-law who compares him to rice porridge in front of the wedding guests. What the hell is it about being a dentist which makes one pummel on them like they have no reason to live? Do these characters even known how hard it is to become a dentist?

Bradley Cooper is fun to watch as well as Phil, but I still cannot understand how he gets out of these incidents relatively unscathed compared to Phil’s friends. I mean, nothing bad happens to him right away, but unlike Alan and Stu, all that happens is he wakes up with a headache and all sweaty, ruining a perfectly good white-collar shirt. Even when his character acts like a jerk, Cooper still has us along for the ride.

Director Todd Phillips knows what made the first “Hangover” work, and he keeps things snappy throughout. There is a bit of a lull in the middle when the laughs start to feel few and far in between, but things do pick up in the last half. Regardless of how well we know the formula, this sequel is still entertaining from start to finish.

To say “The Hangover Part II” is not original is beside the point. It’s a sequel, and it is coming out at a time when Hollywood does not seem to be all that interested in anything original. What matters is everyone involved still put on a good show, and many laughs will be had. I don’t know about you but I can’t really argue with that.

There was of course “The Hangover Part III,” and my reaction to it involves a whole other review. While I’m happy to give these guys a pass for doing the same thing this time around, even they knew they had to take things in a different direction if there was to be another installment.

Perhaps Phil, Stu and Alan could form a group helping those with hangovers they cannot come to grips with. These three could help others from making complete asses of themselves, and help them cover up their more embarrassing moments. I can see it now: “If someone’s hung over in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?  HANGOVER-BUSTERS!!!”

* * * out of * * * *

Steven Soderbergh Teams Up With Gina Carano For ‘Haywire’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2012, long before Gina Carano’s acting career went in a certain direction which she did not benefit from.

Watching Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire” brought back a lot of great memories I have of watching action heroes kicking serious ass in movies. I grew up watching Steven Seagal snap arms in half in “Hard to Kill” and “Marked for Death,”, and I always found in intensely satisfying to see him lay waste to those enemies who dared to cross him. There was also Chuck Norris who you could always count on to inflict serious pain on his adversaries and perform a pitch perfect roundhouse kick in “The Delta Force.” Those films came out in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Now we are in the year 2011, and it feels like it has been far too long since we have had an action star who can punch and kick in ways I can only dream of doing myself.

With “Haywire,” Soderbergh introduces us to Gina Carano, a now retired mixed martial arts fighter. As he did with Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” he throws Carano into her first mainstream acting role to see how she swims in the competitive world of Hollywood. But whereas Grey had unknown actors to work with, Carano is placed in a sea of top-notch actors which include Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas. Taking this into account, I cannot help but think Grey had it a lot easier than Carano.

“Haywire” is another one of those innocent people framed for a crime they didn’t commit movies with Carano playing Mallory Kane, a black ops agent who is assigned to covert operations. Kane is quick to discover she has been set up to take a fall, and she plots her revenge against those who foolishly underestimated her vicious talents. You know she will eventually get the upper hand on her betrayers, and seeing her take them on is terrific fun as she performs stunts which I don’t always see Stallone or Schwarzenegger doing as well.

Yes, Carano’s acting range only goes so far, but she does have a strong presence whenever she’s onscreen. Furthermore, she manages to hold her own against actors who could have easily run her over and embarrass her without remorse. Having said that, she really comes alive during the action sequences which are exhilarating as she doesn’t have some stunt person filling in for her. It should be no surprise that, being MMA fighter, she can really take a punch and dish one out which looks far more painful than the one she was forced to endure.

Actually, when you think about it, Carano gives all the actors opposite her a tough acting challenge as they have to appear as tough, if not tougher, than she is. Certain actors (you’ll know them when you see them) look inescapably sheepish around her, and they look even worse when they prepare to throw punches in her general direction. Even when she’s not strangling a guy with her legs, tackling another, or smothering an unluck bastard with a pillow, those eyes of her stare at you like shiny daggers to where you feel like you should have known better than to mess with her.

The one actor who gives Carano a run for her money is Fassbender with whom she shares a dynamo fight scene where they literally beat the crap out of each other. Fassbender never makes it easy for his co-stars as he challenges them to be better than they already are, and this takes on a new meaning when they tangle to where one character’s victory is truly earned and not easily predicted.

“Haywire” may never be ranked among Soderbergh’s greatest works, but it is diverting fun as it plays around with the action movie conventions set up by the Bourne trilogy and various spy movies released over the years. It also allows him to team up again with his “Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen” composer David Holmes for another groovy music score which always proves to be so much to play on my stereo system. It will be interesting to see where Carano’s acting career goes from here. Will she advance to action star status, or will she end up in straight to video realm where many stars past their prime end up? Whatever you may think of her acting skills, she did create a memorable presence here onscreen.

At the very least, Carano is bound to have more luck on the silver screen than Howie Long has had to date. He may have been a cool dude in “Broken Arrow,” but his lead role in “Firestorm” left little to be desired.

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘What If’ – A Romantic Comedy I Actually Enjoyed

Okay, this is getting scary. I’m starting to enjoy romantic comedies again, and that is so not like me. Recent years have given us a few actually worth watching like “Obvious Child” and “Trainwreck,” both which went far beyond my expectations. This all started to happen as the genre began finding itself suffering from burnout thanks to a lot of banal movies which have made me roll my eyes on a regular basis, many of them adaptations to Nicholas Sparks novels. Then there was “What If” (or “The F Word” as it is known in certain circles) which is by no means an original romantic comedy. It owes quite a bit to “When Harry Met Sally” among other classics, and it does follow a lot of the same conventions I have come to expect from this genre. But what keeps it from feeling ordinary is a terrific screenplay, smart direction and wonderful performances from its two undeniably adorable leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan.

Radcliffe plays Wallace, a medical school dropout who has been in one failed relationship too many, and this makes him take a long break from the game of love. But while at a friend’s party, he ends up bumping into Chantry (Kazan), an animator with a sparkly personality which more or less matches his own. After walking her home, Chantry informs Wallace she has a boyfriend named Ben (Rafe Spall) whom she has been with for a few years, and that she would love for her and Wallace to just be friends. Wallace agrees, but as time goes on, he wonders if they can be more than just friends. Lord, I have had many friendships with women where I wondered the same damn thing.

The questions of whether or not men and women can be friends still seems to come up from time to time, and that’s even though the answer should be a resounding yes. But there is always that one friend who belongs to someone else whom you endlessly pine for. “What If” really digs into this state of mind to where I could not help but feel Wallace’s passionate longings which he tries to cover up with a seemingly cynical take on love. We all have had crushes on others, and we are constantly aware of how painful crushes can be when they turn into shattering examples of unrequited love. It all reminds me of some dialogue from John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles:”

“It just hurts.”

“That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call ’em something else.”

I was reminded of this while watching “What If” because, unlike other romantic comedies, I really found myself desperately rooting for Wallace and Chantry to become a couple. A lot of it is thanks to the fantastic chemistry between Radcliffe and Kazan as they bring this movie to such vivid life. Both play off one another wonderfully, and once you see the two discussing the ingredients of a Fool’s Gold sandwich (Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich of all), you can tell they were made for each other.

Radcliffe may always have the shadow of Harry Potter hanging over him, but it’s really past the point where we have to recognize what a truly talented an actor he is. As he heads from one genre to the next, the young actor shows all the on-the-job training he got from playing J.K. Rowling’s unforgettable wizard has really paid off. While Wallace tries to put a solid front in an attempt to show how love has not gotten him down, Radcliffe shows what’s going on beneath the surface without ever having to spell it out for the audience.

Kazan has a uniquely adorable beauty about her, and she continues to do great work in every project she’s in. As Chantry, she gets the opportunity to take a character who appears to be comfortable with where she’s at in life, and we follow her through a journey of self-discovery which is honestly long overdue. She has a nice boyfriend and doing the work she loves to do, but throughout “What If” we watch her as she begins to discover what she really wants out of life. As she makes these subtle changes in her character, Kazan shows us just how wonderful an actress she can be.

There’s also a great scene-stealing performance from Adam Driver as Wallace’s best friend, Allan. Always giving bad advice on women and yet having a lot more success with them than Wallace, Driver has a wonderfully dry sense of humor here which is irresistible, and it’s a blast watching him stumble over his words on a regular basis.

I also have to give credit to Rafe Spall who plays Chantry’s boyfriend, Ben. This could have been the usual douchebag boyfriend who deserves to be dropped flat, but Spall makes him a good hearted man who just doesn’t have his priorities straight.

“What If” was directed by Michael Dowse whose other films include the two “FUBAR” movies, “Goon” and “Stuber.” While he doesn’t go out of his way to reinvent the romantic comedy wheel here, he does freshen up the formula and gives us something which does not feel like something you have seen a hundred times before. Along with screenwriter Elan Mastai, who based this screenplay on the play “Cigars and Toothpaste” by T. J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, he does a good job of keeping us emotionally involved in the plight of these should-be lovers all the way up to its end.

I still have issues with romantic comedies from time to time, but “What If” shows what good filmmakers can do with a formula that has been done to death. Even though I have seen this kind of film so many times before, this one proved to be a lot more emotionally involving than I ever could have expected it to be.

* * * out of * * * *

CHECK OUT THE VIDEO BELOW TO VIEW THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID WITH DANIEL RADCLIFFE ON “WHAT IF.”

Underseen Movie: ‘Music From The Big House’ – A Glorious Prison Musical

Music From The Big House” follows Rita Chiarelli, or “the goddess of Canadian blues” as she is known, as she visits what is considered to be the birthplace of blues music: Louisiana State Maximum Security Prison (a.k.a. Angola Prison). What she finds once there is a number of inmates who have long since found solace through their love of music, and this leads her to stage a concert at the prison with them. But unlike when Johnny Cash did his performance at Folsom Prison, Chiarelli performs with the inmates instead of just for them.

Cinematographer Steve Cosens originally filmed this documentary in color, but the decision was later made to show it in black and white which suits this documentary perfectly. McDonald goes over the history of this prison which was at one time known as the bloodiest in America. The descriptions given to us of how it operated years before gives you a picture of what hell on earth must seem like. The fact the filmmakers and Chiarelli were allowed access inside this prison is amazing to say the least, and it almost seems like a miracle they made it out of there as well.

We get a chance to meet the individual inmates who end up playing in the concert, and they are a fascinating bunch. It is not until the very end when we are told what crimes they have committed which got them sentenced to time behind bars, and this was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers. By not learning of their crimes right at the start, we are forced not to judge them ahead of their musical performances. Some of them do allude to their crimes without too many specifics, and one in particular hints at how he isn’t apologizing for what he did because he’s not sure he is yet.

Some might consider this project to be a self-serving one for Chiarelli so she can get good press and sell a lot of records, but that is not the case. Her love for blues music is never in doubt, and those who have seen her perform live can verify what a powerful musical presence she can be. Those not familiar with her work will be blown away by her performances, and there is no forgetting her once the lights go up. There are also moments where Chiarelli questions why she is doing this concert as she’s not blind to what these felons have done to earn long prison sentences. Still, none of it deters her from performing with them in what turns out to be a joyous occasion, and the kind many do not expect to see from hardened inmates.

Speaking of the concert, we do get to see a lot of it here. The musical numbers are utterly invigorating, and the audience I saw this documentary with couldn’t help but clap along with the music. They even applauded at the end of the songs and for good reason; the music is incredibly thrilling to take in even if you are not a fan of the blues. I haven’t been to many movies over the years where the audience really got into what was onscreen, so this is not a cinematic experience I am going to forget any time soon.

“Music From The Big House” is one of those small movies, let alone documentaries, which deserves a bigger audience than it has already received thus far. While you could just get away with buying the soundtrack (and please do buy it), this documentary invites more than one viewing, and it would make a wonderful double feature with the Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense.” You will not be able to keep your feet still while watching either film, nor should you.

* * * * out of * * * *

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ – A Bit Too Cerebral, But Still Very Entertaining

Tenet” is a film which should come with Cliff’s Notes or its equivalent as it is more challenging than the average Hollywood blockbuster. Thankfully, I was able to follow the gist of the story which has the good guys fighting the bad guys in an effort to prevent World War III, but I am at a loss for explaining how the characters learn to manipulate the flow of time. I imagine it all makes perfect sense to writer and director Christopher Nolan and his good friend, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, but I have already watched this film twice and I still cannot fully understand all of which happened. While “Inception” and “Interstellar” did make a good deal sense over the course of a few viewings, it will take a few more for me to completely decipher all of which “Tenet” has to offer.

Black Klansman’s” John David Washington stars as a CIA agent who is only known as the Protagonist, and “Tenet” opens with him taking part in an extraction mission which ends up going awry as he is captured and ends up sacrificing himself after an extended torture session. But instead of arriving in the afterlife, he finds himself in bed and informed by his boss, Fay (Martin Donovan), that he has been recruited by an organization called Tenet which, as a word, can open the right doors and some of the wrong ones too.

The Protagonist’s meeting with scientist named Barbara (Clémence Poésy) helps him to learn about technology with inverted entropy, meaning technology which moves backward in time. At this point, I found myself digging this premise as it is always fascinating to find characters wondering if they exist not in the present, but instead a past which has been far removed from what is considered to be the future. It also calls into the question the concept of free will as the Protagonist is made to wonder if we are part of a story with a pre-determined ending. I love it when free will is dealt with as I am always rooting for it to be shown as real even in a work of pure fiction.

The rest of “Tenet” acts as Nolan’s version of a spy movie as the Protagonist seeks to infiltrate the treacherous realm of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who communicates with the future and is planning to give Earth a fate worse than nuclear Armageddon. In the process, he comes to meet Andrei’s wife, Katherine (“Widows’” Elizabeth Debicki), as well as Neil (Robert Pattinson), his partner in all things inverted or otherwise.

It is tempting to label “Tenet” as a time travel film, but Nolan has made it clear it is not. While Marty and Doc Brown can travel from one point in time to another in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, the characters here do not have the same power of instantaneous travel. To get to a certain point, they have to travel backwards in the past to get to it, and it is never an easy trip as the challenges prove to be quite draining physically. Keep in mind, this is one of the few motion pictures you will see where a character is saved from certain death thanks to hypothermia.

Like I said, I have already seen “Tenet” twice and still cannot explain all that goes on in it. We watch as characters live through moments portrayed both forwards and backwards in time, and the concept of inversion remains the kind of puzzle I am not quick to put together. With this film, Nolan may have bitten off far more than he can chew as the concepts here prove to be more cerebral than the first “Star Trek” pilot known as “The Cage.” Having said this, the film proves not to be too heady for me as such films can drive me to complete insanity or make me fall asleep while watching them. In the end, I am glad I did not come out of “Tenet” in the same way the average filmgoer came out of Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” desperate to make a lick of sense out of the cinematic chaos they just witnessed.

Nolan employs many of his regular collaborators here such as cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley, and they provide us with visuals which would have been great to see on the big screen or in IMAX had any theater in Los Angeles been open a few months ago. This is the first film from “The Dark Knight” director which I have been forced to watch on my television due to the never-ending Coronavirus pandemic, and it feels like such a missed opportunity to not have viewed it on the silver screen. Once movie theaters open up again, hopefully I will get another chance.

One Nolan’s newest collaborators on “Tenet,” other than editor Jennifer Lame, is composer Ludwig Göransson who won an Oscar for scoring “Black Panther.” Hans Zimmer was unavailable due to his commitment on scoring Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” but Göransson comes up with something as propulsive and percussive as what Zimmer would have likely given us. In many ways, his music is as much a character as any other in “Tenet,” and this is one of those music scores which deserves a more in-depth study than it has already received. Like Nolan, Göransson presents his music to us both forward and backward motions, and the result is endlessly fascinating to take in.

Right now, “Tenet” may likely be seen as lesser Nolan as its plot is more complicated than he would ever care to admit, but even the least of his works prove to be more ambitious and original than much of what Hollywood puts out on a regular basis. Even though I was a bit frustrated in trying to understand everything which unfolded before me, I was still deeply enthralled in what Nolan had to offer this time around.

When it comes to making sense out of this particular film, please keep a few things in mind: the word tenet is a palindrome, and the term Sator Square gave this film its title and is a two-dimensional word square which contains a five-word Latin palindrome. If you want to learn more, go online and find out for yourself. As much as I would like to explain everything for you, it is best you discover certain definitions on your own. The actor Andre Braugher once said that “if your vocabulary is limited, then your thoughts are limited.” Be like Braugher and don’t be limited.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Let Me In’ – A Better Than Expected Remake

Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?

Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.

The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.

Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.

I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.

As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.

McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.

Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.

“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?

As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.

If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.

Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Lone Ranger’ – Hi-yo Silver, What the Heck?

Like so many, I grew up watching “The Lone Ranger” on television and listening to the old-time radio show as well. John Reid, whether he was wearing a mask or not, was a paragon of justice, and seeing him and his faithful sidekick Tonto defeat the bad guys was always deeply satisfying. I was reminded of how much I liked this character while watching Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” because I kept asking myself, who is this buffoon that has no business being around a horse during this movie?

Hollywood has had little luck in getting a respectful version of “The Lone Ranger” up on the silver screen, and this supposed 2013 summer blockbuster is the latest example. At two and a half hours, this film is a bloated mess which could have easily been shortened. It sticks its talented cast with a bland story, an uninteresting villain, and it can never seem to figure out if it wants to be a lighthearted adventure or a deadly serious film. Sadly, it is not until the last half hour when this “Lone Ranger” finally comes to life.

This “Lone Ranger” is yet another origin story about how this iconic character and Tonto first met and joined forces to bring justice to the American Old West. John Reid (Armie Hammer) is a lawyer and former Texas Ranger who joins up with his brother, Dan (James Badge Dale), to recapture the ruthless outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) who has just escaped. In the process of tracking Butch down, John and Dan are ambushed by him and his law-breaking friends, and he mercilessly takes Dan’s life as well as another part of his body from him. John is assumed to be dead, but Tonto (Johnny Depp) finds his body and nurses him back to health so they can avenge Dan’s life and defeat Butch before he does more harm.

Look, I try to enjoy movies for what they are as opposed to what I want them to be, but I found myself wanting to see a much different version of “The Lone Ranger” because the iconic character is not given the respect he deserves here. I came out of this film feeling sorry for Hammer who is a very good actor and was terrific as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” but he is forced to portray John Reid as a buffoon and wimp who has no business trying to bring any bad guys to justice. Hammer has some funny moments, but the screenplay by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio robs his character of many of the heroic qualities we love the Lone Ranger for having.

Come on, this is a movie about the Lone Ranger, so why not make it about the character we know him to be? Just like “The Green Hornet” which Seth Rogen and company really messed up, this is a film that blatantly forgets what makes its well-known characters so special. Regardless of the current controversies Hammer is currently enduring, his acting career has fared much better than Klinton Spilsbury’s did after he starred in ill-fated “The Legend of the Lone Ranger.”

As expected, Johnny Depp gets top billing even though he is playing the sidekick in this film because, well, he’s Johnny Depp. While he may be the best thing about “The Lone Ranger,” his performance is a bit problematic. Depp said he chose to play Tonto so he could right the wrongs of the past in terms of how Native Americans are portrayed in the media. While I really want to say he succeeded, I’m not sure he did. He is clearly having a lot of fun playing Tonto, but the character threatens to come off as a comical caricature than a believable Indian. I have no doubt that Depp has Native American blood in him, but it would have made much more sense to get a full-blooded Native American to play Tonto instead.

But in the midst of such comical mischief between the Lone Ranger and Tonto, we get to learn about Tonto’s backstory which involves tragedy and Native American genocide. It is at this point when the movie’s tone becomes completely erratic as it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be funny or serious. While I would never dare to gloss over the damage we did to Native Americans, this grim history belongs in another movie and not this.

“The Lone Ranger” also starts off with another side story which has a young boy named Will (Mason Cook) visiting a San Francisco county fair where he runs into an elderly Tonto who proceeds to tell him about his adventures. The movie keeps coming back to these two time and time again, and this ends up slowing its already sluggish pace down to a grinding halt. These scenes could easily been cut out of the film because they really serve no good purpose and only make us wish this was much shorter.

William Fichtner remains one of the most dependable character actors working today, but he is unfortunately saddled with portraying a bore of a villain in Butch Cavendish. The character’s makeup basically spells out how this is one very bad dude who never visits the dentist, and it’s almost like Fichtner is letting the makeup do all the work. There’s really not much to this character other than he’s just another evil outlaw, and this gives Fichtner no real opportunities to make him the least bit interesting.

As for the other actors, Ruth Wilson gets to play Dan Reid’s obligatory love interest, Rebecca, and she is given little to do other than be in constant danger. Tom Wilkinson is a welcome presence as railroad tycoon Latham Cole, but it’s no surprise to see what his character ends up becoming. And while it is cool to see Barry Pepper as U.S. Calvary Officer Jay Fuller, his character is just another one of those clichéd corrupt military characters who is just asking to get beaten up. As for Helena Bonham Carter, she is wasted in a bit part as brothel madam Red Harrington. While I love seeing Carter pop up in one role after another, this movie does not deserve her.

Verbinski runs into many of the same problems which undid “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” as it goes on for far too long, contains characters we never fully care about, and it doesn’t take long for us to give up on trying to understand the plot. While he is indeed a talented filmmaker, and the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie really was fantastic entertainment, I thought after “At World’s End” he would rein things in more than he tried previously. That he did not accomplish this makes this cinematic experience all the more frustrating.  

Regardless, I have to admit that I loved the movie’s last half hour where Verbinski executes a number of brilliantly staged action sequences. Once the “William Tell Overture” music started blasting through the speakers, I found myself being immensely entertained. This was “The Lone Ranger” movie I wanted to see, the one where I was genuinely thrilled by this masked man’s crime fighting ways. This proved to be so much fun, but while this spectacle went on, I could not help but ask myself why the rest of this motion picture could not be this entertaining.

“The Lone Ranger” was not the worst movie of 2013, but it was still pretty close to being the biggest stinker of all. While it was not as boring as “The Great Gatsby” nor as abysmally bad as “The Hangover Part III,” this should have delivered far more bang for the buck. Westerns have taken a big hit over the years with poorly received duds like “Wild Wild West” and “Jonah Hex,” and this film is not going to help matters any. This was the first Lone Ranger movie in over 30 years, and now it looks like we’ll have to wait twice than long for the next one to be made.

Hi-Yo, Silver! Away from Hollywood!

* * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘JCVD’ – The Muscles From Brussels Lays Himself Bare

I have never really been a fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme. He has the moves, but he has never been much of an actor. I still vividly remember watching “Cyborg” with my brother and a friend of his on the family VCR years ago. My dad even watched it with us, and he could not stop bagging on Van Damme throughout the whole monstrosity which was made by those creative geniuses from Cannon Pictures. This is some of what he said:

“This is the single worst actor I have ever seen in my life! His face is completely immobile! He’s like Stonehenge!”

Oh, the memories! You’d figure after us seeing “Cyborg” that none of us would ever bother watching a Van Damme movie ever again, but he was everywhere for much of the late 80’s and early 90’s. “Bloodsport” was nothing extraordinary, but those fight scenes were pretty awesome.

“Death Warrant” was one I only saw because my best friend from high school wanted to check it out. It was alright, but this is probably being generous. I got a little pissed when that nerdy kid with glasses wanted to watch “Star Trek,” but the hot lady played by Cynthia Gibb did not want to bother. She would rather be screwing Van Damme’s character while he was taking a break from working undercover in a prison to catch a killer. Seriously, not all “Star Trek” fans are this geeky!

But following the commercial failure of “Universal Soldier: The Return,” Van Damme went from being a Hollywood star to being thrown into the hard to escape realm of straight to video movies, and he also went through drug problems and several divorces. I always wondered how people like him or Steven Seagal deal with going from big Hollywood action movies to direct to video crap which continues to define their careers to this day. I imagine they are not happy being in this movie star limbo. On one hand, they are still making a living, but at the same time I keep thinking they must miss where they were before Hollywood abandoned them in the wake of several box office disappointments.

JCVD” is a fictionalized answer to this question, and is not your typical martial arts ass kicking epic. Van Damme plays himself, and we can what years of drugs, court battles, and many B movies, most of them lousy, have done to him and his face. As the movie opens, we see him arguing with the director of his latest movie, but the director is more interested in throwing darts at a postcard with the Hollywood sign on it then in listening to a man whose only distinction is getting John Woo to come to America and make “Hard Target.”

We see Van Damme at court fighting for custody of his daughter (played by Saskia Flanders), and his ex-wife’s attorney presents his movies as arguments against him as a person. They pile up so high to where he excuses himself to go to the bathroom while the titles are still being read off. His problems keep mounting as he can’t get cash out of the ATM, and his lawyer calls saying he still owes him money. Then his custody suit hits an impasse when his daughter says she doesn’t want to live with him because, whenever a movie of his is on television, she gets picked on by all the kids at school. Even worse, he just lost a film role to Seagal just because he offered to cut off his ponytail.

So, Van Damme heads back to Belgium to reconnect with his roots and where he came from (hence his nickname “The Muscles from Brussels”). He is still treated as a big star and a hero back home, and as a man who helped put the country and its people on the Hollywood map. But soon after, a hostage situation erupts at a nearby post office and, yes, all hell breaks loose. At first, it looks like he is robbing the post office, but events are seen from different perspectives, and it turns out he has arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he can’t rely on his martial arts moves to get him out of this situation. Van Damme is not seen as an action hero here, but as a regular man who is caught up in a situation not of his making.

“JCVD” is presented as a comedy/drama hybrid, and while the tone is a bit uneven, there are some very funny moments. We see one of the robbers buddy up with Van Damme and talk to him about his movies, and he even gets him to show off one of his classic moves. While the other robbers couldn’t care less, this one wants his autograph. In the meantime, the townspeople have come out in force to support the fallen celebrity for what he is doing. In many ways, the movie is a look at the crazy nature of fame and a celebrity is forever trapped in a prison because of it.

The big question I had when I went out to see “JCVD” was this; has he gotten any better as an actor. Even Los Angeles Times film critic Sam Adams in his review of this movie said that “most of the acting in Van Damme’s films takes place below the neck.” Surprisingly, the answer is yes, he has. In fact, in “JCVD” he is really good playing a fictionalized version of himself. My dad’s description of him as “Stonehenge” does not apply to him here, and while he will never be Laurence Olivier or Sean Penn, this movie is a big step up for him creatively speaking.

The movie has one tremendous moment of pure raw emotion from Van Damme when he suddenly rises above the film set and starts talking directly to the audience. His monologue lasts for several minutes, and he talks about how he always wanted to be a movie star. All these years later, he feels as though he is being punished for it. Granted, he admits to his mistakes like taking drugs, and I felt like he is still paying a price for his usage even while he is staying clean. The star never fakes a moment during this scene, and the scene is alone worth the price of admission. Van Damme has said doing this movie was like therapy for him, and I have no doubt about that.

The concept of “JCVD” is by no means original. We have seen many movie stars play themselves and have jokes played at their own expense to show they have a healthy sense of humor about their image. But while we have them take this route like John Malkovich did in “Being John Malkovich,” I can’t think of any others who have put themselves on the line like this. I can’t see Chuck Norris doing this as I am certain he would rather do an action movie where Mike Huckabee is President and he has to rescue him from being held hostage by pro-evolution terrorists.

If there was one big problem I had with “JCVD,” it’s that its subtitles were at times almost impossible to read. The movie, directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, is shot in a grungy style which is very close to black and white but not quite. As a result, the subtitles which are presented in white lettering almost blend completely into the background, and I had to keep leaning forward to better see what was being said. Considering how many of my friends hate subtitles and would rather watch movies dubbed in English, this certainly does not help.

You really have to give Van Damme a lot of credit here. Not many action stars would even risk being seen like he is shown in “JCVD.” Here, he lays himself bare to show us the man he has become through many mistakes and bad movies. I came out of it with a renewed respect for him, and it makes me want to see him get better. “JCVD” is not a great movie, but it is fun and kept me enthralled throughout its running time. Where he goes from here remains to be seen, but hopefully some good will come out of his performance here.

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘Killer Joe’ – The WTF Movie of 2011

WARNING: DO NOT EAT FRIED CHICKEN BEFORE OR WHILE WATCHING THIS MOVIE.

William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” got my vote for the WTF movie of 2012. It wallows in the sheer depravity of its deliberately idiotic characters without apology, and it is one of the most darkly hilarious movies I have seen in some time. Seriously, I would put this film on a par with “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “Observe and Report” as they are equally fearless in the places they dare to take us. “Killer Joe” also marks the second collaboration between Friedkin and playwright Tracy Letts whose play “Bug” Friedkin previously adapted into a motion picture. With this film, neither is out to show the audience any mercy as they challenge them in a way most filmmakers don’t bother to these days, and it wears its NC-17 rating with pride.

The movie takes place in Texas and features some of the dumbest or, to be polite, the most dimwitted characters on the face of the earth. Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is a drug dealer who is in debt to his suppliers by several thousand dollars, and his solution is to have someone murder his mother as she has a $50,000 insurance policy. His father, Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), shows only the slightest moral opposition to this plan as he divorced Chris’ mother a long time ago and has since gotten married to the conniving Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris already has one person in mind to carry out this cold-hearted assassination.

That person is Joe Copper (Matthew McConaughey), a police detective who works as a hired killer on the side. Now Joe demands an upfront payment of $25,000 for his services, but Chris and Ansel can only pay him after receiving the insurance payout. As a result, Joe ends up taking a retainer to make up for that: Ansel’s daughter and Chris’ sister, Dottie (Juno Temple). As with all crimes based on greed, all the careful preparation cannot keep these characters from falling into the nasty realm of disaster. But long before the movie’s end, you will agree they have all earned the fate they ever so thoughtlessly brought on themselves.

If this seems like an unusual movie for Oscar winning director Friedkin to make, it shouldn’t. Friedkin’s movies in general, with the exception of “The Exorcist,” have never contained characters easily deserving of redemption. “Killer Joe” will be seen by many as a bold motion picture of his, but his movies show he has never passed judgment on any of the characters inhabiting his movies. He is also a brilliant filmmaker as he surrounds himself with a cast of actors who don’t easily judge their characters either.

McConaughey has been on a roll ever since he gave up making those dopey romantic comedies for movies like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” With “Killer Joe,” he ends up giving one of the bravest and boldest performances of his career as Joe Copper is as immoral as characters can get. We never learn why he decided to get into this line of work while being employed as an officer of the law, but it doesn’t matter. McConaughey gives us a mesmerizing portrait of a character who is more than aware of how evil he is, and he is not about to apologize for it.

The other actors like Emile Hirsch and Thomas Haden Church deserve a lot of credit as they portray the dimwitted characters perfectly without ever just playing it for laughs. They play each character as being serious in what they say and do, and this makes us laugh uncontrollably at certain moments because we almost won’t believe how badly they screw things up. They also invest their characters with a history which shows on their faces and doesn’t need to be spelled out for the audience.

A special badge of courage, however, needs to go to Gina Gershon who plays Sharla as “Killer Joe” shows just how deep into a role she is willing to go. Her character thinks nothing of opening the front door without wearing anything from the waist down, and this is not to mention what McConaughey ends up making her do with a piece of fried chicken. Even as Sharla wears too much makeup to where her mascara runs down her face, making her look like the Joker from “The Dark Knight,” Gershon gives a truly fearless performance as someone who thinks she’s better than the people around her. But of course, Sharla finds out in the worst way possible that she is not.

The one person who really caught my eye though was Juno Temple who portrays the youngest child of the Smith family, Dottie. You may remember Temple as Selina Kyle’s street-smart friend from “The Dark Knight Rises,” and she makes Dottie a fascinating enigma. Her character is at times willfully innocent, seemingly naïve, but she actually becomes the only member of this trailer park family with anything resembling intelligence. Temple is utterly beguiling in “Killer Joe,” and I look forward to seeing more of her in the future.

“Killer Joe” was already earning infamy before its release with the MPAA giving it the dreaded NC-17. Did it earn this rating? Well, yes and no; this is certainly no movie to take your kids or impressionable teenagers to see. Then again, if “Killer Joe” were released by a major movie studio, it would have somehow gotten an R despite its content. Whatever you think this movie deserves the NC-17 rating or not, the hypocrisy of the MPAA remains maddening and never ending.

Friedkin has been leaving in the shadow of his most famous work for years as if no one would ever let him get past “The Exorcist,” “The French Connection” or even “Sorcerer” which is now being seen as the masterpiece it always was. The truth however is he has not lost his talent in setting up scenes which contain tremendous suspenseful impact. This is especially the case whenever McConaughey is onscreen because when he appears you know things are going to get really bad. Friedkin also is well served by his collaborators such as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel who finds a twisted beauty in such utter depravity, and composer Tyler Bates gives the most suspenseful and horrifying moments a strong atmospheric quality which makes the story all the more claustrophobic.

It’s hard to say where exactly “Killer Joe” ranks on William Friedkin’s long resume of work, but it is safe to say it is far more accomplished than his other works like “Deal of the Century,” “The Guardian” and “Jade.” With this film he gives willing audience members an experience they will not easily forget, and he directs Matthew McConaughey to one of the best and most explosive performances of his career. Those in the mood for the most disturbing of black comedies should not pass up “Killer Joe.” Just remember, it may be a while before you find yourself eating fried chicken again after you watch it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

John Carpenter’s ‘The Ward’ – His First Film in a Decade, and Maybe His Last

Master John Carpenter described “The Ward,” his first feature length movie in ten years, best through a video message at the Toronto International Film Festival:

“’The Ward’ is an old school horror movie made by an old school director.”

It’s good to know this going in as Carpenter is not trying to reinvent the wheel or outdo all other horror releases out now. The plot of “The Ward” is as old fashioned as they come, and it allows Mr. Carpenter to exercise the skills he has perfected for many years. It’s not on a par with “The Thing” or “Halloween,” but in the end I didn’t care. For me it was an absorbing movie which kept me entertained throughout its running time, and it was far more entertaining than those summer blockbusters duds “Green Lantern” or “Bad Teacher.”

“The Ward” stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young woman whom we first see her indulging in a little pyromania, and not the kind Def Leppard made an album about. The police pick Kristen up after she burns down an abandoned farmhouse, and she gets sent straight to the ward of the movie’s title. Her fellow patients are not necessarily the “Girl, Interrupted” type, and Angelina Jolie is nowhere to be found. The intentions of Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) appear ambiguous at best, and dealing with the chief orderly and Nurse Lundt, both who are deadly serious, is no picnic.

Actually, let me segue here for a moment; Nurse Lundt’s name seems to rhyme with a certain derogatory word. Which one you say? Well… You can just figure that out on your own. I wonder if this was intentional on the part of screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, or perhaps it is just the name of someone they knew from way back. Well, whatever the case, Lundt certainly gives Nurse Ratched a run for her money in the seriously mean category, but her voice is not as lovely as Louise Fletcher’s was.

Now this being a psychiatric ward, it is mandatory that a ghost is roaming the halls. Kristen first sees it while taking a shower and, of course, everyone says she’s a nut which is redundant considering she’s staying in a mental institution. Then again, the patients may know more about what’s going on than they initially admit. I hate to think they’ve spent all their time there without seeing at least one ghost, you know? Anyway, patients start to disappear one by one, and Kristen aims to find out what happened to them on top of escaping the ward before it claims her as its next victim.

Now whatever you think of Carpenter’s directorial skills these days, his efforts in generating suspense are still strong. Carpenter is smart to not reveal all the important plot details right away, and he holds you within his grasp throughout as he leaves you guessing or imagining what’s really going on. Even if you see the ending coming from a mile away, the journey to it was an entertaining one for me.

I was skimming through another review of “The Ward” online which said Heard was as believable a mental patient as Charlize Theron was a mine worker in “North Country.” Now what is that supposed to mean? That she’s too good looking to be in a psychiatric ward? Give me a break! Heard does good work here portraying a strong-willed protagonist you want to root for. She’s engaging and believable, and while others may see her as being miscast, I did not. By the way, I thought Theron was great in “North Country” and I utterly accepted her as a mine worker. And in case that one reviewer didn’t notice, both actresses were in “North Country” and played different versions of the same character.

Lyndsy Fonseca is very good as Iris, the first girl to befriend Kristen. She appears to be the most emotionally balanced of the patients, and Fonseca makes her character’s awareness all the more convincing. Mamie Gummer gives a good performance as Emily, and she gives Emily a complexity she might otherwise not have had. Danielle Panabaker makes her character Sarah the epitome of Carly Simon’s classic tune “You’re So Vain,” and she’s a kick to watch. And Laura Leigh rounds out this strong group of actresses by making Zoey a convincingly traumatized person whose escape from reality consists of her acting like a little girl.

In terms of horror, Carpenter still makes effective use of cheap scares. While they have been used to death by dozens of filmmakers, he always makes them count. This is especially the case with “The Ward’s” final scene which truly took me by surprise. I should warn you though that the movie has one of those pull out the rug from under you kind of endings which I am really sick of. However, Carpenter doesn’t telegraph the ending to us like others typically do, so I’m willing to let it pass this time.

If there’s anything missing from “The Ward,” it’s Carpenter’s music which I am a big fan of, and his unique sounds were missed. Not that I want to knock Mark Kilian’s work here as he gives the film an appropriately atmospheric score which works very well, and it does have a bit of that Carpenter sound to it. Still, I yearn for a new score from Carpenter or even his son Cody who did amazing work on “Masters of Horror.”

Am I being too forgiving to “The Ward?” Perhaps. I’ve always been a big admirer of Carpenter’s work, and I even have good things to say about “Ghosts of Mars.” Many have expressed their big disappointment with “The Ward” as they want it to be on a par with “Halloween” and “The Thing.” Others found it not gory enough, but then again Carpenter’s strongest films don’t always rely on it like the “Saw” movies do. Personally, I don’t want to spend time comparing “The Ward” to his best movies because to do so would just be asking us to hate it before the opening credits even begin. You can only let an artist remain in the shadow of their past work for so long until you realize your spoiling the experience for yourself.

With “The Ward,” Carpenter was looking for a movie with a tight schedule and a limited location which didn’t require him to stay for a long time or get completely exhausted after shooting only half of it. With the limited resources he had, he made “The Ward” worth watching, and I got very involved in the plights of the characters. There’s nothing original on display here, and it may very well remind you of a gazillion other movies like it, but I’m glad the master finally directed a feature film again after so long. I just hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for Carpenter’s next film. And if there’s anyway Kurt Russell can star in it, you can sure bet I will be watching it on opening day!

* * * out of * * * *