Paul Williams and Stephen Kessler Discuss ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’ at the Nuart

WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was originally written ten years ago.

On June 27, 2012, singer and songwriter Paul Williams along with filmmaker Stephen Kessler appeared at the Nuart Theatre in support of their documentary “Paul Williams Still Alive.” After its conclusion, both men were greeted by a packed audience that had been deeply moved by what they just witnessed. The documentary follows up with Williams years after his enormous success back in the 1970s, and it finds him experiencing happiness and fulfillment in life he didn’t have back then.

Kessler has described making this documentary as “a labor of love,” but Williams quickly pointed out that it didn’t start that way. Their relationship when filming began was an uncomfortable one, but Williams eventually warmed up to Kessler, and their strong friendship proved to be very authentic as they talked with the audience at the Nuart. Kessler even went out of his way to say the following:

“I’ve never said this in front of people before, but you (Williams) were brave to do this movie.”

No one in the audience disagreed with this assessment. Williams described this as a “warts and all documentary” that shows him at his best and worst. One particular sequence, when he was co-hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show while on drugs, was one he originally wanted to be cut out as he was terribly afraid of what his kids would think about him. His son Cole, however, was in the audience, and when asked about what he thought of the documentary, he said, “It’s great dad!”

Kessler made it clear he had no intention of putting himself in this documentary, and he even said he “can’t stand movies that do that;” directors becoming the subject of their own films. His increased participation in “Paul Williams Still Alive,” however, helped to illuminate the songwriter much more than it would have without him. While Kessler keeps going back to the past, Williams looks to the future instead.

When Williams was asked when he reached his bottom as an alcoholic, he responded it happened when he started looking out the window for what he called the “tree police.” He even joked and said, “You know you’re an alcoholic when you’ve misplaced an entire decade.” What made him say this was the embarrassing truth that he forgot for a time that Ronald Reagan was once President of the United States.

Since becoming sober, Williams says he now knows what it feels like to be around people he feels safe with. He has also entered into what he calls his “Paulie Lama” period of life as he goes out of his way to pull people off of bar stools, and that he would be thrilled to work at the Betty Ford Center if asked.

1992’s “A Muppet Christmas Carol” marked the first project Williams ever did sober, and he remembered going into it feeling very scared. But after he finished working on it, he found he was able to approach his work in a more productive way:

“Success for me has to be about authenticity and honesty. Today I have to trust that I am enough. Never again will I ever let tension and my ego keep me from writing songs.” The emcee of the Nuart told us not to ask either of the two how much “Paul Williams Still Alive” cost to make or when it will come out on DVD. This is because he wants to see it again with as a big an audience in the midst of all these summer blockbusters being thrust at us. It is certainly one of the sweetest documentaries you will ever see, and to see Williams today is to see a man very comfortable with who he is and who does not need another cup of fame to feel better about himself.

Underseen Movie: ‘Paul Williams Still Alive’

Going into this documentary, I thought it would be one of those great comeback stories of a fallen celebrity who gets their dormant career resurrected through the help of one die-hard fan. But while filmmaker Stephen Kessler seems intent on reminding the world of what this gifted songwriter has given us, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is not that kind of documentary. Instead, it’s a story of a man whose life was run into the ground by a strong addiction to fame and drugs, and of his journey back to a place of happiness and fulfillment he is ever so thankful for today. This is not an artist looking to make a comeback, but of one who appreciates what they have to where not much more is needed than that. As a result, this makes “Paul Williams Still Alive” one of the sweetest and most life affirming documentaries I have seen in some time.

Kessler is best known for having directed many popular television commercials and “Vegas Vacation,” a sequel which rated high in test screenings, but still turned out to be a dud. Kessler starts off this documentary recounting how he grew up being such a big fan of Williams and of how the songwriter seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s. Williams appeared on “The Muppet Show,” made numerous appearances on television shows such as “Beretta,” and he became an incredibly popular guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. On top of that, he composed the music for “The Muppet Movie,” the cult classic “Phantom of The Paradise,” and eventually won an Oscar along with Barbara Streisand for the song “Evergreen.”

Somewhere along the line, Kessler assumed Williams had passed away at far too young an age. But while ordering one of Williams’ albums on the internet one night, he discovers to his surprise that the singer and songwriter is still very much alive and continues to create and perform music throughout the world. From there, Kessler makes it his mission to make a movie about Williams in an effort to let the world today know how much of an impact his music has had on all of us and still does to this day. Remember, he was a featured artist on Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories.”

Kessler started filming Williams when the songwriter visited Winnipeg, Canada where a fan convention for “Phantom of The Paradise” was taking place. This collaboration gets off to a rocky start as Williams shows a sharp reluctance to being filmed. There’s even a moment where he is singing in a San Francisco nightclub and gets the house manager to dim the lights so Kessler can’t get a good view of him onstage. As for Kessler, his solution to this problem provides this documentary with one of its funniest moments.

In some ways William’s reluctance is refreshing because, in a time where we are constantly flooded with reality shows with people becoming famous just for the sake of being famous, he is not keen about being part of this. In fact, it doesn’t take long to see he is not the least bit interested in becoming famous again like he once was as he has described the pursuit of fame as being in his own words, “pathetic.” As this documentary goes on, the narrative focuses much more on the person he is today, a much healthier human being who is humble and thankful for what he has.

“Paul Williams Still Alive” does give us a brief biography of the songwriter and of how he grew up with an alcoholic father who made him sing “Danny Boy,” and that his being so short ended up ostracizing him from his classmates at school. He comes to blame his lack of height on hormones being injected into him early in life. This was done to make him taller, but it ended up having the exact opposite effect. After moving out to Los Angeles to become a film actor, he ended up finding success as a songwriter which eventually turned him into a huge celebrity. The attention it gave him was something he came to live for, and it would eventually become an even bigger addiction for him than drugs.

As time goes on, Williams eventually warms up to Kessler, and this becomes clear during a trip to the Philippines. Williams even encourages Kessler to join him in front of the camera instead of just staying behind it, and that is saying a lot. Now this might have proven disastrous as “Paul Williams Still Alive” could have ended up becoming more about the filmmaker than his subject, but Kessler’s increased involvement proves to be a major plus. The relationship between these two men helps to define Williams as he is today.

While Kessler constantly looks to the past, Williams only wants to look forward. The one scene which makes this clear is when Williams watches himself guest hosting Merv Griffin’s talk show. Clearly high on drugs and making an absolute fool of himself, the realization of what he was doing back then forces him to stop watching the rest of the footage. The person Williams was back then is so different from who he is today, and the pain which crosses his face over his embarrassing past deeds is impossible to hide.

Near the end, Williams gives Kessler a whole bunch of videotapes he has in storage, having no idea of what’s on them. One particularly disturbing video has Williams celebrating Christmas with his family, and then later going upstairs to film himself getting high. Watching this illustrates just how far down the songwriter’s drug addiction took him and, looking at him today, it’s almost like we’re looking at a completely different person.

It should be clear by now that Kessler is not out to embarrass Williams in the slightest. Instead, his intention is to bring the songwriter back to the world’s attention, and this is a noble intention indeed. Williams is the same man who wrote the song “Rainbow Connection” for Kermit the Frog, “We’ve Only Just Begun” for the Carpenters, and “An Old-Fashioned Song” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for himself. Heck, he even did the music for “Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” one of my favorite holiday specials ever.

Today, Williams continues to make beautiful music which deals with themes like love, loneliness and alienation, and he definitely deserves to be recognized for the countless music contributions he has given us. Maybe not everyone has forgotten who he is, but we do need to be reminded of what he has created.

Now some have accused “Paul Williams Still Alive” of not including more of his music, but this documentary is not intended to be a career retrospective. In actuality, it becomes more about how Williams is a better, not to mention a far more interesting, human being today compared to when he was an overindulgent celebrity. He has been clean and sober for over 20 years, and he is even a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Looking back, it seems as though he lives to be a counselor more than he wants to create new music, and that is saying a lot.

With “Paul Williams Still Alive,” Kessler has given us far more than the average showbiz documentary. He has given us an individual worth appreciating who, while having made some serious mistakes in life, has come out of it on the other side a proud and happy person. All of this is all accomplished without Kessler ever trying to be manipulative or play at our heartstrings unnecessarily. This is a warts-and-all documentary which doesn’t hide anything, and I came out of it with not just a deep respect for Williams, but also for his healthy perspective on life.

During a time which sees certain celebrities desperately grasping for whatever fame is available to them, here is one who has found the happiness we all mistakenly thought we would get when we became a super star in everyone’s eyes. In the end, “Paul Williams Still Alive” is more about what it means to be happy, and Williams has more than earned the happiness he has today. Like he says, he does not need “another cup of fame” to make him a satisfied man.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ – The Beginning of the McConaughey Renaissance

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2011, back when the McConaughey renaissance was just beginning. This almost marks the 1,000th post on The Ultimate Rabbit website!

Okay, now how many dramas and thrillers featuring a lawyer as the main character have we had these past few years? Heck, how many novels featuring lawyers have been thrust at us? After everything written by John Grisham and Scott Turow, you’d think the world would have had enough of legal thrillers whether or not they made it to the silver screen. It all reminds me of that joke we’ve all heard:

“What do you call a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!”

As a result, I was in no immediate hurry to check out the latest legal thriller adapted into a movie, “The Lincoln Lawyer.” This particular one is about a defense lawyer who has no scruples about what he does, but he ends up getting involved in a case which haunts his conscience like no other. Looking this plot line over, it sounds like “Primal Fear” all over again. How many times have we been down this road? Yes, I agree, far too many.

But alas, while “The Lincoln Lawyer” breaks no new ground in the legal thriller genre, it does contain many clever twists up its sleeve which distinguishes it from others of its ilk. It is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Connelly who is best known for writing detective novels and crime fiction. One of his previous books, “Blood Work,” was turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood, and it is one of the very few Eastwood directed movies which really sucked. It turns out, however, that “The Lincoln Lawyer” was actually Connelly’s first legal novel, and it introduced the world to one of his most popular literary creations, Mickey Haller.

Mickey Haller is a criminal defense attorney who spends his time defending the kind of people we would all rather see behind bars. Instead of a regular office, he works out of his Lincoln Town Car which he gets driven around in by Earl (Laurence Mason), a former client of his who is working off legal fees he owes. He has an ex-wife, Margaret McPherson (Marisa Tomei), whom he is still on good terms with even though she works on the opposite side of the court as a prosecutor, and they have a daughter whom they both dote on, and you at times wonder why these two ever bothered to divorce. If James Carville and Mary Matlin can maintain a marriage, why can’t these two?

Anyway, Mickey ends up defending Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), a Beverly Hills realtor who is accused of viciously assaulting a prostitute. The case, after some research, looks to be an open and shut deal for this ever so confident lawyer. However, more problems arise to where things are not what they appear to be.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. To say anymore would be to give away a good deal of what happens. What I will say is that it makes for a good story in how someone has to find a way to find justice without being forever disbarred from practicing law.

Much of the success of “The Lincoln Lawyer” belongs to the actor chosen to play Mickey, Matthew McConaughey. After seeing him in so many useless romantic comedies, he gets one of his best roles to date here. Believe me when I say he is perfectly cast in this role, and he nails Mickey’s sly confidence and cocky demeanor as he works his way through the courtroom to get what he wants and needs. Mickey is to an extent an amoral character, one who appears to care less about whether or not those he represents will commit crimes again after he gets them off. But McConaughey is so cool here that we find it impossible to hate Mickey, and we love his (if you’ll forgive the expression) “Rico Suave” ways which he utilizes around everyone he meets. Whether or not you agree with what he does, we all would love to have his coolness and persuasiveness when it comes to talking with and influencing others.

It also helps that McConaughey is surrounded by a great cast of actors who give him plenty to work with. Tomei remains as terrific and super sexy as ever in her portrayal of Margaret, and she shares strong chemistry with McConaughey throughout. We also get an entertaining turn from the always dependable William H. Macy as investigator Frank Levin, Haller’s right-hand man who succeeds in getting the facts whether he does it legally or illegally. We also get strong turns from John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, and Frances Fisher who all bring their best selves to this material.

But one performance I want to single out here is Ryan Phillippe’s. As a Beverly Hills playboy who has had everything handed to him on a silver platter throughout his life, Phillippe excels in convincing everyone around and the audience of Louis’ intentions. Still, there is that glimmer in Louis’ eyes which suggests not everything he says or implies is on the level. Phillippe has been better known these past few years as Mr. Reese Witherspoon, but however things went down in that relationship, he deserves to be noted for his acting here and in other movies he has been in. Watching him onscreen here is riveting because he always leaves you guessing as to what will happen next.

Directing “The Lincoln Lawyer” is Brad Furman, and the only movie he previously directed is “The Take.” I really liked how vividly he captured the urban environment of Los Angeles, and it never felt like he was filming on some ordinary Hollywood set. With a story like this, Furman could have easily gone in that direction, but he gives each scene a solid reality which doesn’t feel all that far from the one we inhabit. He also keeps the suspense up throughout and gives us some tension filled scenes which keep us at full attention as if someone is about to come from behind us and bash our brains in.

Like I said, “The Lincoln Lawyer” does not reinvent the legal thriller genre, but it reinvigorates the genre with a strong and enigmatic main character and a story with twists we haven’t seen in some time. In a way, this movie brings McConaughey around full circle as he made his big breakthrough in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill.” Soon or later, this man who keeps telling us to just “keep on livin’” had to play another lawyer. I hope for his sake he gets to do a follow up to this one as he has this character down flat. Maybe others could have done it better, but who comes to mind as quickly as McConaughey?

* * * out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: ‘The Rum Diary’ – A Ralph Report Video Vault Selection

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011, long before a certain Hollywood couple’s relationship became toxic and imploded in front of the whole world. Also, Ralph Garman recently featured this film as a Video Vault selection on “The Ralph Report,” and I applaud him for doing so.

Based on the book written by the late Hunter S. Thompson, “The Rum Diary” captures the Gonzo journalist at perhaps his earliest point in life which came to define his style of writing. Johnny Depp plays Jack Kemp, but as he did with his character of Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” he is essentially channeling Thompson here whom he had befriended years ago. It also marks Bruce Robinson’s first directorial effort in 19 years (the last being “Jennifer 8”), and he clearly has not lost his touch.

Kemp is a rootless journalist who has come to Puerto Rico to write for The San Juan Star. Having had his fill of New York and the Eisenhower administration, he longs to escape to a paradise that will not make him feel his age. But as beautiful as Puerto Rico is, there is an ugliness that cuts away at the façade which the other newspaper employees escape from through their use of drugs and alcohol, especially rum. Kemp also comes across American businessman Hal Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) who wants Kemp to write a favorable report on his latest greedy scheme, and that is to turn Puerto Rico into a paradise for the wealthy. Soon Kemp will have to decide if he wants to use his words to help Sanderson or expose him for the “bastard” he truly is.

No other actor can successfully emulate the brilliant craziness of Thompson like Depp can. Unlike in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” his Hunter-esque character of Kemp is a little more down to earth. Of course, this is only saying so much. Having been freed, albeit temporarily, from those “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, he gives one of his best performances in a while as he takes Kemp from the highs of his chemical dependency to showing his more vulnerable side as he falls for Sanderson’s fiancée, Chenault (the ever so beautiful Amber Heard).

“The Rum Diary” also features terrific performances from a perfectly chosen supporting cast. Michael Rispoli is great fun as photojournalist Bob Salas who is the first real friend Kemp makes in Puerto Rico. Richard Jenkins never lets that wig he’s wearing upstage him as newspaper editor Edward J. Lotterman. Aaron Eckhart finds just the right balance in playing Sanderson as he charms everyone around him and yet hints subtlety at the vicious businessman hiding beneath the surface. But it is Giovanni Ribisi who almost steals the show as Moberg, a hygienically challenged religion reporter always under the influence of some sort of narcotic.

Robinson also wrote the screenplay and revels in each of the character’s bizarre eccentricities. These are some of the more unusual characters I have seen in any 2011 movie, and they are the kind which has been missing from movies in general. Things do drag a bit towards the end, and I wish he would have brought more of the same manic energy Gilliam brought to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Still, he has managed to make a movie most Hollywood studios rarely, if ever, dare to greenlight these days.

“The Rum Diary” may be a story from the past, but it is a story of rich people displacing native citizens for their own wealthy benefit, something not lost on American audiences these days. The paranoia-filled philosophies of certain characters make the advancement of the Tea Party seem not as big a surprise in hindsight. But as pummeled as Kemp gets, you believe he will get the “bastards” with words, and that his words will bruise his most unforgiving enemies. We all yearn for someone to stick it to the man, and Depp gives us a character who can do just that. Seeing him back in Hunter S. Thompson’s realm is a real treat.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Scream 4’ – The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2011.

Honestly, we needed another “Scream” movie. Since the original was released back in 1996 (YIKES!), we have had dozens upon dozens of horror movies thrust upon us. Many of them had an endless number of clear-skinned teenagers and were given PG-13 ratings which, after a while, indicated the horror genre was being watered down too much. Of course, there is the “Saw” franchise which makes the MPAA go nuts with all the copious blood and guts on display, but those plot twists always give me a massive migraine. Horror went at times from being laughingly lame to hardcore bloody, but they could never top what Asian or Japanese movies achieved. However you look at it, we needed Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson more than ever to give us their take on the continually evolving rules of surviving a horror movie.

Each generation has its own ongoing horror franchise(s) along with the occasional “remake” or “reboot.” When I look at movies from decade to decade, I eventually come to see the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is definitely the case with “Scream 4” which, while having a strong level of suspense, also has a weariness about it. In the process of dealing with a new generation of horror fans, this sequel feels no different from ones which preceded it as the old rules still apply when new ones should be installed.

So, the whole gang is back along with Craven, Williamson (sorely missed on “Scream 3”) and composer Marco Beltrami. Neve Campbell returns as Sidney Prescott who arrives back in her hometown of Woodsboro to promote her new self-help book, and she is reunited with her friends Dewey (David Arquette) who is now the Sheriff in this town, and Gayle (Courtney Cox) who has long since gotten married to him and retired from tabloid journalism. Soon after Sidney arrives, the Ghostface killings start up again. You might think this killer would be more imaginative and use another mask instead, but horror sequels are not heavy on originality, are they?

This time though, the focus of the killer’s rage appears to be on Sidney’s cousin, Jill (Emma Roberts), and it also puts her best friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) in the crossfire. Ghostface’s priority targets are usually teenagers, but after a while he (or she) proves to be indiscriminate as adults become easy targets as well. Oh yeah, Jill has an ex-boyfriend named Trevor (Nico Tortorella) who still wants to be a part of her life regardless of the fact she wants nothing to do with him. Does any of this sound familiar?

With “Scream 4,” the chief thing to expect is to expect the unexpected, just like with any Peter Gabriel album. I do have to hand it to Craven and Williamson though because, even after a decade, they still leave us guessing throughout who the real culprit is (or if there is more than one) and of what will happen next. The movie moves along fairly swiftly to where you really have no time to examine the logistics of everything going on. I imagine you could punch a few holes in the plot, but only after you have watched this movie. I also got a huge kick out of the beginning which plays on the reality of what we are seeing on top of the monotony of a franchise which, like Michael Meyers, just won’t die.

But it’s also the inescapable problem with “Scream 4;” we have gotten so used to expecting the unexpected to where while there is tension, the whole thing is not as scary as it used to be. I kept waiting for this sequel to get seriously scary, but it never does. Even the moments designed to make us jump up out of our seats aren’t as effective as they once were. The first “Scream” was more than just a simple satire of the horror genre, but a movie going experience which was more intense than we expected, and it reinvigorated the horror genre at a time where it was not particularly popular. With each installment, the filmmakers gleefully deconstructed horror movies while scaring us out of our wits. But with this fourth film, the enthusiasm and inventiveness are at an all-time low.

It is nice to see Neve Campbell, David Arquette, and Courtney Cox back as their infamous characters. I could not help but expect Campbell to be this Ellen Ripley/Paul Kersey character by now, so used to seeing people and those closest to her get killed off in brutal fashion to where she now desires to bring her own brand of vigilante justice to whatever nemesis chooses to cross the Prescott path. Perhaps Sidney could have used a bit more of this attitude as Campbell looks a bit worn out from all those sharp pointed knives that always get pointed in her general direction. Let’s face it, running from a demented killer is nothing new for her.

Of all the veterans, Cox shines the most as we watch Gale Weathers emerge from being just another desperate housewife to someone who is desperate overcome an unwelcome writer’s block. Seeing Gale get back to her bitchy self is fun to watch. In the other movies you hated her for it, but knowing Gale for this long makes you long for her inevitable return to greedy selfishness. As a result, it gives this sequel much of its bite.

In regards to the newcomers, they are more or less designed to be types, and part of me wished they were given more dimension and depth. Emma Roberts is fun to watch as Jill Roberts, but she gets the show stolen from her by “Heroes” star Hayden Panettiere whose character of Kirby is part tease, part sharp retort, and part movie geek more than she would ever admit. She’s got a lot of sass about her which reminded me of the girls from my high school I couldn’t stand, and of the heart and soul they do have which I never took into account back then.

It’s also nice to see Rory Culkin here, having made a strong impression in “You Can Count on Me,” “Mean Creek” and “Signs.” As Charlie Walker, he represents the chief movie geek Randy Meeks was in the previous “Scream” movies. Charlie is not exactly a geek nor is he exactly one of the cool guys. In the end, he’s kind of in between those crowds like most people I know. Culkin is truly one of the perfect actors to play someone very knowledgeable about movies in general, and he gives this sequel some of its more satirical moments.

But when all is said and done though, I still came out of “Scream 4” feeling rather weary. I didn’t dislike it, and it did keep me interested throughout to where I wasn’t looking at my watch. But in the process of creating a new formula for satirizing horror movies, it ends up getting caught in the clichés of them all. Also, I felt it could have spent more time examining the endless films which came out in the past few years. This franchise was incredibly influential, and we continue to realize this with the passing years.

Still, I am open to seeing a “Scream 5.” Whatever problems this particular sequel has, I believe and hope they can be compensated for in the future. And like I said, we always need movies like “Scream” because the horror genre will constantly be its own worst enemy from one generation to the next. As it was described before, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘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 * * * *

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 on ‘The Ward’ and the State of Movies

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2011.

In July, America will finally get to see John Carpenter’s first feature length film in 10 years, “The Ward.” After the critical and commercial disappointment that was “Ghosts of Mars,” Carpenter seemed determined to retire from filmmaking as he felt it was no longer fun for him. But after working on a couple of “Masters of Horror” episodes, he seemed rejuvenated and ready to take on another film of his choosing. While appearing at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for a 25th anniversary screening of “Big Trouble in Little China,” Carpenter talked about the upcoming movie, and what he thinks about the state of movies today.

The famed director described “The Ward” as an “old school horror film” and a “psychological thriller.” It stars Amber Heard as Kristen, a young woman who is institutionalized in a psychiatric ward which turns out to be haunted by a ghost as mysterious as it is deadly. Carpenter said he was attracted to the project because it had a low budget which would give him creative control, limited locations, and a short schedule which he especially liked. With the schedule being short, Carpenter knew he could finish the film before any form of exhaustion did him in.

“The Ward” first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has since opened in the United Kingdom. Word of mouth indicates the movie has received mixed reviews thus far, but his fans are thrilled he went back behind the camera once again. Carpenter feels that “The Ward,” in his own estimation, is “pretty good” and found some fanboys liked it while others felt it was not “gruesome enough.”

Audience members asked Carpenter’s opinion on the state of movies today which is swamped with endless remakes and a frightening lack of originality. He openly described most films which are out now as being “still bad,” said some were fair, and others were “really good.” In his view, the movie industry has not changed. The present cycle of movies will pass, he said, and he is looking to a “more positive future” and encouraged the audience to do the same.

John Carpenter said his career as a filmmaker has really been the result of luck, and he’s done many of the things he always wanted to do. While he still gets caught up in video games (he was a creative consultant on “F.E.A.R. 3”) or contemplates perhaps doing a music score for another director’s movie, it is great to see him behind the camera once again. And, if we’re lucky, he and Kurt Russell will get another chance to work together in the future, and that’s even if it’s not a sequel to “Big Trouble in Little China.”

The Help Does Not Seek To Shamelessly Manipulate Our Emotions

The Help” was released with some controversy back in 2011 as it was based on a 2009 best seller by Kathryn Stockett, a white woman who wrote about African American maids’ experience working in the houses of white people. Many would have preferred to have had a black man or woman write this story, but it is important to note Stockett was herself raised by a black maid who instilled her with a strong confidence which proved to be unwavering, and this was all while her mother was absent from her life. Plus, Stockett, as represented by the character of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, captured the voices of these ill-treated black women with really piercing honesty, and she made herself a vessel for their voices to be heard. From the start, she made it clear to the world that this book was about them and not her.

The movie version comes to us wrapped in a bow of beautiful colors and a very appealing movie poster. I kept think of Rob Reiner’s “Ghosts of Mississippi” which blew the opportunity to make audiences aware of who Medgar Evers was at the expense of some truly bland while characters, and neither Alec Baldwin or James Woods could not save the movie from its inescapable banality. “The Help” looked like it would make the same mistakes, but thankfully it does not. Regardless of whatever flaws it has, it is still a deeply felt motion picture which revisits a painful part of American history people have either forgotten or are sick of revisiting.

At its center is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who gets a job writing a housekeeping column for the local paper in Jackson, Mississippi. After reuniting with good friends in her hometown, she finds herself perturbed by the senseless racism which has divided the blacks and whites in an almost unspoken way. Skeeter also becomes concerned as to the whereabouts of the maid who raised her, Constantine, as she has vanished without a trace. These events compel her to start writing a book of the travails black housekeepers go through, and she is determined to capture their pride, heartache and deep-seated anger resulting from their thoughtless mistreatment.

This could easily have been a manipulative motion picture filled with cloying emotions, but the filmmakers have given us a variety of characters, black and white that are complex and who never come across as simply caricatures. Each one has their own needs and desires which conflict with those of others, and after a while it becomes clear their problems do not always have to do with race.

The black maid Skeeter leans on the most is Aibileen Clark, played in a powerhouse of a performance by Viola Davis. Just as she did in “Doubt,” Davis inhabits her character with a pride which, while wounded, remains defiantly strong. While her voice projects a kindness and understanding on top of an obedience to her employers, Clark’s face and eyes betray a huge resentment which has long since reached its boiling point.

The next black maid who contributes to Skeeter’s book is Minny Jackson, played in another great performance by Octavia Spencer. She proves to be the most outspoken of the bunch which results in her getting fired quite often, and yet she is reluctant at first to talk with Skeeter about her experiences. We later see Jackson getting her revenge in a way which somehow feels inspired by episodes of MTV’s “Punk’d” or “Jackass.” Spencer gives “The Help” a great sense of humor it might have otherwise not had, and she is every bit Davis’ match.

Minny also develops a highly unusual relationship with the hopelessly naive Celia Foote. Unlike other working relationships, she gets the opportunity to be blunt with Celia and tells her what she needs to hear. I found the friendship between them to be one of “The Help’s” most welcome surprises. Jessica Chastain brilliantly portrays Celia Foote, and she has long since proven to be one of the best actresses working in movies today.

As for Emma Stone, she proved to be a revelation here, and she holds her own against a large number of acting stalwarts. Stone imbues Skeeter with a hard-won independence which never waivers. I love how even in Stone’s eyes you can see her determination in proving how strong a woman Skeeter is and of the sincere goodness in her heart. If she has not proven herself as a dramatic actress before this movie, she certainly did here, and now she has an Oscar to make this clearer to those foolish not to pay attention.

The majority of the white characters in “The Help” could have all been one-dimensional idiots, and while several of them make assumptions which are as ridiculous as they are racist, we see other sides of their personalities as well. One white character who can be seen as the movie’s chief villain is the snobby Hilly Holbrook, played in a truly gutsy performance by Bryce Dallas Howard. Her superiority against the black maids turns out to be driven more by fear than anything else, and realizing this at the film’s end gives Hilly a dimension we weren’t sure she had in the first place.

Howard has done phenomenal work over the years, and she was a good reason to actually see some of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies like “The Village.” She has also given us reasons to sit through “Jurassic World” and its sequel as well as “Spider-Man 3.” While those movies failed to reach the heights of greatness, she gave you a reason to watch them in the first place.

Other great performances in “The Help” come from Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, who goes from being a stubborn mother desperate for her daughter to get a man to someone who regrets the decisions she has made in her life. Sissy Spacek is a hoot throughout as Hilly’s mother, Mrs. Walters, who delights in her daughter’s misfortunes as her dad made the unforgivable mistake of spoiling her rotten. One underrated performance comes from Chris Lowell who plays Skeeter’s eventual boyfriend, Stuart. He starts off as an arrogant young man who thinks he has women all figured out, but he later comes to his senses thank goodness.

“The Help” is not perfect and does get a bit too cute at times, but its emotions ring true thanks to the acting and the direction by Tate Taylor who is a longtime friend of Stockett’s. It skirts the conventional narrative to give us something more authentic which is not, if you will excuse the expression, white-washed like so many other Hollywood movies. It covers a subject which we have no choice but to revisit as history repeats itself much too often, and it says a lot about the movie that it jumped from number two to number one at the box office in its second week of release.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Underseen Movie: The Interrupters – Trying to Stop Violence in America

“The Interrupters” is a truly brilliant documentary which explores violence in America, and of a group of people working desperately to stop it. It covers a period of a year in South Side Chicago, but the events we see could be happening in any other city where violence has long since engulfed its citizens. At its center is the non-profit group CeaseFire (now known today as Cure Violence) which treats violence like an infectious disease, and those employed by it work to stop the violence before it happens. While the description of this documentary sounds bleak, it is full of hope and redemption that most fiction movies can only dream of portraying honestly.

What makes CeaseFire an especially unique group is the workers have been on the wrong side of the law in the past. These are not just citizens wanting to live peacefully, but those who were once as bad as those gang members they are working with and trying to help. They are well-meaning and working to find redemption for their wicked pasts which could easily have destroyed their lives. Among them is Ameena Matthews, whose father, Jeff Fort, was a notorious gang leader. Through finding peace in her Muslim faith and having children, she turned her life around and started helping those who are travelling down the same path she once did.

The most compelling moments in “The Interrupters” involve the workers of CeaseFire themselves. We watch as Ameena struggles desperately to get through to a deeply troubled teenage girl who seems stuck in between going into a life of crime and seriously trying to find a way out of it. Seeing Ameena working with her is understandably exhausting emotionally; we all want the best for this person, but there is only so much that can be done.

Next there’s Cobe Williams who spent much of his years in and out of prison before joining CeaseFire. Cobe manages to get some footing with the toughest of people through his genuinely good nature and disarming sense of humor. Then we have Eddie Bocanegra, who served 14 years in prison for a murder which haunts him to this very day. His attempts in teaching art to children show how sincere he is in his efforts to help them avoid the mistakes he made, some of which can never be undone.

Directing “The Interrupters” is Steven James, the same filmmaker who is responsible for one of the greatest documentaries ever made, “Hoop Dreams.” Not once does Steven try to beat us over the head with statistics showing us how bad things are. We can tell the situation is bleaker than many of us could ever imagine. In capturing the memorials of those slain (most in their teens or early 20’s), we feel the innocence cruelly deprived just by looking at the names listed underneath them.

But perhaps the most powerful scene to be found here comes when a former gang member, now released from prison, visits the barbershop he robbed with friends to apologize for what he did. It is an amazing moment, and one I do not often expect to see (but certainly hope to). You can feel the raw emotions of the employees as they respond to this most unexpected of visits, and if this does not make you believe in the power of redemption, you have a heart made of stone.

“The Interrupters” is a must-see documentary which captures moments that cannot be found elsewhere, let alone in many Hollywood movies which boast about being “based on a true story.” This is real life being shown here, and it is the kind many of us do not see up close. The hope and redemption it captures is completely genuine, and it is a one of a kind cinematic experience in this or any other year. This is a must see!

* * * * out of * * * *