‘The Hangover Part III’ is Infinitely Depressing When it Should Be Funny

The Hangover Part III movie poster

The Hangover Part III” is a serious disappointment. I am not even sure it is meant to be comedy considering how dark and depressing the material is. After the spirited debauchery of the previous two films, and I have no problem defending the second, director Todd Phillips and company try to do something different instead of giving us the same old thing which is commendable, but what we get is a far too serious action movie, and not a very good one at either. While the previous two films were a lot of fun, this one is dark and largely depressing, and the laughs are few and far in between. What the hell went wrong here?

The movie starts with Alan (Zach Galifianakis) on a downward spiral as he ends up buying a giraffe for no reason other than he can, and it ends up getting accidentally decapitated while he drives it home. The stress of this crazy incident ends up leading Alan’s father, Sid (Jeffrey Tambor), to have a fatal heart attack, and at the funeral it is revealed that Alan has been off of his medication for a long time. This brings the “Wolfpack” of Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) back together as they stage an intervention and encourage Alan to go to a rehab facility in Arizona to get help. Alan agrees to go, but only if the Wolfpack will go with him.

But while on their drive to Arizona, they are captured and kidnapped by Black Doug (Mike Epps, reprising his role from the first film) and his boss, drug kingpin Marshall (John Goodman). It turns out Alan’s old friend Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) has stolen $21 million in gold from Marshall, and he wants it back. Chow, at the movie’s start, has just escaped from prison and Alan, against his better judgment, has stayed in touch with him despite all the bad things he put him, Phil and Stu through. As a result, Marshall holds onto Doug and orders the three of them to find Chow and bring him back to him. If they fail to do so, he will kill Doug. Great setup for a comedy, huh?

The great thing about the two previous “Hangover” movies was how we were every bit as intrigued as the characters were in finding out what happened to them the night before, and we shared in their discoveries with a great, delirious glee. With this third movie, you get the sense none of them want to be dealing with anymore of these shenanigans and, as a result, neither do we. All the fun has gone out the window, and what we are left with is a dreary road movie which Phillips and his co-writer Craig Mazin were under the mistaken impression they could mine comedy out of.

One major mistake made in “The Hangover Part III” is the filmmakers give certain minor characters from the previous films get far too much screen time this time around. This is especially the case with Chow who we first see escaping a dark and grimy prison at the movie’s start. In small doses, Chow is a riot to watch and Jeong is a very gifted comedy actor, but this time the character overstays his welcome and quickly becomes an unlikable prick with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There is nothing more to Chow than him raising hell, getting high on cocaine and deceiving everyone around him whether they are friend or foe, and he comes across as a needless irritation in this sequel. Just try to laugh when Chow smothers a cocaine-fed rooster to death, I dare you.

Galifianakis also gets more screen time in this one as Alan, and this proves to be another major mistake. As funny as he can be when given the right material, his shtick as Alan has now worn out its welcome. Even when he has moments of genuine sweetness, they are wrecked by the character’s obliviousness to proper human etiquette. When “The Hangover” first came out, Galifianakis came across as one of the more original comedic actors we had seen in a long time. How sad it is to see his talents squandered in his tepid reprisal of his most famous characters thus far.

As for Cooper and Helms, they just seem to be going through the motions here as their characters have little in the way of growth or depth. Cooper hit a career high with his brilliant performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” and an even bigger one with his remake of “A Star is Born,” and Helms has been endlessly hilarious in “The Office” and various other projects. But “The Hangover Part III” proves to be a big waste of their time and talents, and you get the feeling after a while they really don’t want to be in this sequel at all.

Was there anything funny going on in “The Hangover Part III” at all? Yeah, there were a few chuckles here and there. Comedic powerhouse Melissa McCarthy shows up in a cameo as pawn shop owner Cassie, and her scenes with Galifianakis succeeded in putting a smile on my face during a movie I found myself mostly frowning at. It is also great to see Heather Graham back as Jade, Stu’s escort-wife, and it allows Alan to have a sweet reunion with the baby he befriended in the first film. There is also a post-credits sequence which has the Wolfpack up to no good again, and it makes you believe Phillips and company would have been better off recycling the same old story for another movie like they did with “The Hangover Part II.”

I saw “The Hangover Part III” at an early morning screening where there were about five or six other people in the audience. I think I heard them laugh only once or twice. I shudder to think of what a sold out audience would have sounded like during this movie. There was a lot of talent involved in the making of this eagerly awaited sequel, but what we ended up with instead is an epic fail of a comedy. Seriously, few things in this life are more infinitely depressing than a comedy which does not make you laugh much, if at all.

By the way, the next time you are thinking of having a character sing Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” at a karaoke bar for comedic effect, don’t.

* out of * * * *

 

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‘The Hangover’ is Still a Blast to Watch

The Hangover movie poster

The best way for me to describe “The Hangover” is that it is wicked funny. Not once are the filmmakers ever afraid to break any particular taboos, and its setup is ingenious. While part of me wishes that I got to see it before the hype machine exploded and went into overdrive, this movie proved to be one of the best times I had at a theater back in 2009.

“The Hangover” stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha as a group of guys who are on their way to spend a fun filled weekend in Las Vegas, Nevada. The groom, Doug Billings (Justin Bartha), is only a couple of days from becoming a married man, and his close friends and soon-to-be brother in law Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis) take him out on the town to show him the time of his life while he is still a free man. They celebrate this moment together on the top of Caesar’s Palace where they are staying for the night with a couple shots of Jägermeister, toasting to an evening they will never forget. But it is no surprise that they do, and they have to retrace their steps in order to escape the craziness of their sudden situation.

Todd Phillips, who previously directed Will Ferrell to the Streakers Hall of Fame in “Old School,” uses “The Hangover” to continue his exploration of the lives of men who just cannot seem to grow up. Phil Wenneck (Bradley Cooper) is a schoolteacher, a married man and a father, and yet he seems the most eager of the four guys to live life to the max, free of all obligations. Stu Price (Ed Helms) treats this as an opportunity to escape his girlfriend of several years, who can never stand to have him kiss her I might add, and trick her into believing he is actually going to wine country in Napa County. For Alan Garner (Zach Galifianakis), this is just another place where he can be his usual socially maladjusted self as he is the man child character who easily creeps people out regardless of whether or not he realizes it.

By putting us in the vantage point of Phil, Stu and Alan, “The Hangover” turns into an unpredictable comedy as we go along with these three men and discover what shenanigans they ended up getting themselves Looking back, I am not sure how much these events would stand up to logical scrutiny, but this movie is so much fun, WHO CARES?! It is not like we are watching a “Saw” movie for crying out loud! What I love about “The Hangover” is how it keeps building up from one utterly bizarre situation to another, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

I refuse to spend this review ruining the best parts of the movie for you, so let us just get to the talent involved. Bradley Cooper got a great opportunity to shed his bully image which he perfected in such movies as “Wedding Crashers.” Well actually, he did not permanently shed it here as his character gets people to do things they would not otherwise do under normal circumstances. But his role here in “The Hangover” succeeded in breaking him out of his typecasting dilemma of being the snobbish bully as he gives this movie its coolest character.

Ed Helms has appeared on the American version of “The Office” and was a correspondent “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. As Stu Price, he gives us this movie its resident wimpy nerd character, a common stereotype in comedies. Indeed, any actor in this role could just get away with simply playing the character as a pussy-whipped bitch with the shy and awkward smiles, letting the glasses define them on the surface to where they are easily identifiable, and wearing tidy clothes in the most inappropriate of venues. The fact Helms never stoops to playing all these behaviors and appearances makes his performance come off really well. We have a good idea from the start of where Stu will end up by the movie’s end, but Helms takes him from being a wimp to a stronger man in a very believable way, and he makes Stu ever so endearing as a result.

Hey wait a second… Let’s talk about the sexiest character in “The Hangover.” She is an escort and exotic dancer named Jade, and she is played by irresistible Heather Graham. It has now been a many years since she burned herself into our collective consciousness as Rollergirl in “Boogie Nights,” and I was thrilled to see her here. No one should forget what a great actress she is, and many projects she has appeared in over the years have squandered her talent. The Hangover” shows she has not lost an ounce of her talent and never will. After all these years, she is still an actress who deserves your attention.

As Alan Garner, Zach Galifianakis gives us someone whose sanity seems to be quite questionable, and what he says about himself hints at just how screwed up he really is. You can only guess at what kind of character he really is, and the rub there is what you say about him could end up saying more about you. Alan Garner turns out to be one of the more unpredictable characters in movies to where you almost live in fear of what he might do next, and this is even if he has you laughing your ass off throughout. The way he bonds with these guys is anything but healthy.

In addition, “The Hangover” features some great cameos throughout. Seeing Mike Tyson rock out to Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” is a comic highlight. I also loved Jeffrey Tambour who is always a deadpan delight in everything he does, and as Alan’s father, Sid Garner, he personifies the knowledge of how what goes on in Vegas really needs to stay there, seriously. And Ken Jeong, very memorable as a doctor in “Knocked Up,” is a gas as crime boss Mr. Chow.

“The Hangover” is not politically correct to put it mildly, but in the end, this is just a movie you should sit back and have fun watching. Years after its release, it is still a blast to take in.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘BlackkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s Best Joint in Years

BlackkKlansman movie poster

Those who read my reviews know how much I despise the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me. However, Hollywood has been looking for ways to provide variations on this phrase in recent years in an attempt to give it back the value it once had. One of my favorites was “Argo” which was advertised as being based on a “declassified” true story which made it worth seeing all the more. Still, every other movie these days is “based on a true story,” and pointing this out should make you wonder which ones were not. Besides, aren’t all movies based on or inspired by things we have experienced in real life?

BlackkKlansman,” a Spike Lee joint, is the latest movie to be “based on a true story,” but its poster has advertised as being “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” Personally, I prefer the phrase Lee uses in the movie itself which says it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” This description feels far more honest as it would have seemed unbelievable were this movie released a few years ago. What results is the best joint Lee has made in years, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman,” it stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth who, when we first meet him, is on his way to apply at the Colorado Springs police department and become its first ever black detective. This distinction, however, doesn’t do much for him in the beginning as his fellow officers, particularly the slimy Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) who does little to hide his racist attitudes, and he is eager to rise up in the ranks.

Following a boring stint in the records room, Stallworth gets transferred to intelligence where he comes across an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan which looks to find new members. It is great fun watching Washington talk on the phone with Ryan Eggold who plays Walter Breachway, President of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs, as he effortlessly convinces him he is as white as they come. This act quickly grabs the attention of Detective Flip Zimmerman who is played by Adam Driver, and it is a gas watching Driver slowly turn around in his chair once he realizes what Stallworth is up to.

Of course, Stallworth does make a critical mistake during this phone call; he uses his real name. As a result, he is forced to turn to Zimmerman who has to pretend to be Stallworth in person as they further infiltrate the KKK. This infiltration becomes a delicate balancing act as Stallworth continues to fool the racist organization over the phone while Zimmerman is forced to fool them in person. In the process, we come to discover how much easier it is for a black man to pretend to be white than it is for a white man to pretend to be black.

“BlackkKlansman” couldn’t be timelier as it digs deep into a past which has a frightening resemblance to America’s present. The KKK is shown here to be as violent and racist as they are today as they keep chanting “America first” and plot acts of violence designed to eliminate those in their way and instill fear in the general public. One of the most disturbing scenes comes as we watch them cheer unabashedly at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed the KKK as heroic and African-Americans as being unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Lee does nothing to hide the racist caricatures Griffith put onto the silver screen back in 1915, and they are as infuriating to take in today as they were a hundred years ago.

It’s very ironic how “BlackkKlansman” was released in theaters around the same time Dinesh D’Souza’s latest propaganda piece, “Death of a Nation,” came out. Both movies deal with “Birth of a Nation” in different ways and acknowledge how it was the first American motion picture ever to be shown inside the White House. D’Souza portrays President Woodrow Wilson as getting a liberal erection from watching Griffith’s movie, and he took this a step further in “Hillary’s America” by having a KKK member on horseback leap out of the screen to where Wilson is shown as being completely hypnotized by this image. D’Souza, however, leaves out “Birth of a Nation’s” more inflammatory segments which include deeply offensive depictions of blacks, something Lee does not shy away from showing here.

As is the case with movies “based on a true story,” “BlackkKlansman” does take numerous liberties with the source material. The events of this story took place in 1979, but Lee has moved the timeline back to 1972 which allows him to acknowledge certain Blaxploitation classics as well as the re-election efforts of President Richard Nixon. It is also said how David Duke never realized Stallworth was a black man until 2006, but the change here was worth it as leads to one of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. With movies like these, it is more important to be true to the spirit of the facts than anything else, and those who have a problem with that can always read Stallworth’s memoir instead.

There’s some additional irony here with “BlackkKlansman’s” release as it is coming out not long after the “Superfly” remake. One scene has Stallworth talking with his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), about which movie was cooler, “Super Fly” or “Shaft.” Patrice replies how “Super Fly” unfairly stereotypes black men as criminals, but it also showed a realistic grittiness to life in the city which was complemented by the brilliant soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield. It would be interesting to see how Patrice would have felt about this summer’s remake which threatened to glamorize gangster life more than ever before, and it made me wonder why anyone bothered remaking this blaxploitation classic in the first place.

Then there is former President Nixon whom D’Souza tried to convince us was a true progressive like any other Republican in “Death of a Nation.” We do not see much of Nixon in “BlackkKlansman,” but we do see his re-election posters displayed prominently in KKK hangouts as they were supposedly big supporters of his. Seeing this makes me think of the old Vulcan proverb Spock spoke of in “Star Trek VI” which said “only Nixon could go to China.”

“BlackkKlansman” is designed to make us mad at how history is repeating itself as white supremacist groups have flourished under the Donald Trump administration, but it is also insanely funny at times as it is almost impossible to believe anyone could have gotten away with what Stallworth and Zimmerman did here. Then again, in a time where John Melendez, a.k.a. Stuttering John of the Howard Stern Show, managed to trick Trump into believing he was Senator Bob Menedez in a phone conversation, perhaps it doesn’t seem unbelievable in the slightest

Honestly, it has been some time since I last saw a Spike Lee joint. His movies get overwhelmed at times by his camera tricks and flourishes and overly bombastic music scores which make me want to turn the volume. But with “BlackkKlansman,” Lee has crafted a film where everything feels perfect and spot on, and what results is highly entertaining and deeply visceral. Even as the “Do the Right Thing” director wants you to see how the past never left us, he invites us to revel in Stallworth’s successful infiltration even as those in power want to bury his victories.

There is not a single weak performance to be found here. Both Washington and Driver dig deep into their characters’ complexities as they try to remain professional in an increasingly volatile situation, but their own personal beliefs threaten to get in the way. Jasper Pääkkönen proves to be a fiery presence as Felix Kendrickson, the white supremacist who looks like a grenade primed to explode at any given moment. Corey Hawkins is magnetic as Kwame Ture when he rouses his followers at a civil rights rally. And Topher Grace proves to be an inspired choice to play a young David Duke who is shown to be aloof as to who Stallworth really is, and that’s even when Stallworth is assigned to be his security detail while in Colorado Springs.

It is no mistake Lee concludes “BlackkKlansman” with footage from the Unite the Right rally which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia as the movie is being released on its first anniversary. We see white supremacists marching the streets with tiki torches saying they will not be replaced, we see the real David Duke talk about how Trump is making “America great again,” we see Trump respond to the rally by saying how there were good people on both sides, and we see the car attack perpetrated by a white supremacist which injured many and killed Heather Heyer. While we look at the past as if it is barely visible in our rearview mirrors, it is real events like these which remind us how these same mirrors have the message of how things we see in them are much closer than they appear.

The image of an upside-down American flag which fades into black and white is the perfect image to end “BlackkKlansman” on as we are truly living in “The Twilight Zone” with everything that’s going on. It also reminds me of the final image of that same flag in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” which ended with the word “unlearn” being typed out over it. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and history continues to repeat itself again and again and again. The fight for justice has never ceased, and the progress we all thought Americans had made is not as great as it seemed. Lee has made an overtly political movie which could not have come out at a more appropriate time, and it is his best one in years.

* * * * out of * * * *

History Repeats Itself to a Depressing Extent in ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom movie poster

Remember the scene in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” where John Hammond told Ian Malcolm they were not going to make the same mistakes, and Malcolm quickly replied they were going to be making new ones? Well, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” doesn’t make new mistakes and instead repeats the old ones as the humans once again try to save the once extinct species in way we have all seen before. Yes, the visual effects are fantastic, but everything else feels astonishingly banal as nothing new is brought to the franchise. As for the storyline, it simply shows history repeating itself, something we see happen in the real world more often than not.

Three years have passed since the events of “Jurassic World,” and the theme park has been left in ruins. Now an active volcano threatens to destroy what’s left of the dinosaurs, and those in the government debate whether it is worth the trouble to save the species from becoming extinct again. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) argues it would be best for the volcano to destroy the dinosaurs as he sees this as nature’s way of correcting the mistake Hammond made in cloning them years ago. Meanwhile, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) has formed the Dinosaur Protection Group in an effort to save them. When the U.S. senators do not come through for her, she finds a savior in Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), Hammond’s partner in developing the technology to clone dinosaurs, who is intent on moving the dinosaurs to an island where they will have zero interaction with humans. Of course, this also means she will have to acquire the services of her ex-boyfriend, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), in the effort to rescue them.

Okay, the “Jurassic” movies have never been heavy on complex characters as the attention is focused mostly on the dinosaurs. The reasoning is understandable, but I have grown weary of letting the filmmakers get away with weak characterizations which are always upstaged by the special effects. Howard and Pratt are fun to watch in anything the appear in, but their talents are wasted as their characters are relegated to the romantic will-they-or-won’t-they scenario which will all know will end with them kissing passionately as they can only fight their intense feelings of love for so long.

The screenplay by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly proves to be “Fallen Kingdom’s” biggest stumbling block as it takes the story of “The Lost World” and follows it to the letter to where the twists and turns the story takes are not the least bit surprising. As I’m sure you have derived from the trailers, the plans to move the dinosaurs to another island are thwarted by a team of mercenaries led by Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and Lockwood’s slimy right-hand man Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) who looks to sell the dinosaurs to the highest bidders. You would think after all these movies humans would realize they can never fully control what they have created, but when dollar signs are involved, common sense and morality always take a backseat to greed.

Actually, some characters here had interesting potential which the filmmakers really could have built on. Eli Mills, thanks in large part to Rafe Spall, wins the audience over as he does Claire when he tells her of the plan to save the dinosaurs, but he is later revealed to be a slimy bastard as he looks to profit off them instead. Spall has described Eli as being a victim of high ambitions and of allowing himself to believe he is doing the right thing. He has been entrusted with securing the financial future of the Lockwood estate, and he feels this is the only way he can do it. Still, the character eventually becomes a one-dimensional baddie whom the audience is made to hate, and it got to where I kept waiting for him to say, “Hey look at me! I’m dino-meat!”

The same goes with Gunnar Eversol who is played by Toby Jones. Gunnar is the auctioneer who sells off the dinosaurs, and Jones has compared him to a rogue arms dealer who is morally neutral about the work he is doing. This could have made for an especially fascinating character, but alas, Jones is given only so much to do here as Gunnar is designed to be an appetizer for the “Jurassic” franchise’s newest dinosaur, the Indoraptor. Considering how morally neutral Gunnar is, it would have made more sense for him to take his fate as though he saw it coming instead of screaming like he doesn’t deserve it.

B.D. Wong returns again as Dr. Henry Wu, the chief geneticist of the Jurassic theme parks. Wong plays Henry as a man whose love for science is as big as his own ego, and he is a welcome presence in this deeply flawed sequel. But like the other characters, Henry is given short-shrift to where he just ends up acting like a one-dimensional jerk.

There are some new characters added to the mix such as Dr. Zia Rodriguez, a Marine veteran and a paleo veterinarian, played by Daniella Pineda. Pineda makes Zia into a quirky presence throughout, but the character feels half-realized never fully human. As for Justice Smith, his character of hacker and systems analyst Franklin Webb is this sequel’s most annoying as runs all over the place screaming as if we couldn’t already tell how unprepared he is to be around dinosaurs. I kept wanting to slap Franklin in the face and tell him to grow a pair as his whining made this sequel even more frustrating than it already was.

It is great to see Jeff Goldblum back as Ian Malcolm, one of the most popular and fascinating characters in the “Jurassic” franchise, but his appearance here is a mere cameo as he serves to bookend “Fallen Kingdom.” This is a real shame as the speeches he gives offers us a glimpse at what this sequel could have been: a look at humankind’s abuse of various powers, and at the possibility of if and how humanity and dinosaurs can co-exist. As he makes clear how Jurassic World is no longer the name of a theme park, but of the times humanity now lives in, we are reminded of the opportunities this sequel lost out on exploring.

And yes, there is the little child character named Maisie Lockwood played by Isabella Sermon who constantly sees through the deceptions of the adults and manages to outwit the dinosaurs chasing her. Of course, seeing her being smarter than the adults quickly becomes exasperating, and that’s even though this kind of character serves to remind adults of why they need to listen to children more often. Remember the child from Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” who told his parents “don’t touch it, it’s evil” and they did anyway? Well, you get the picture.

I couldn’t help but walk into “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” with high expectations as it was directed by J.A. Bayona, the Spanish film director who gave us “The Orphanage,” “The Impossible” and “A Monster Calls.” “The Impossible” had an especially profound impact on me as he depicted the devastation of 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in a way to where I felt I experienced and survived it along with the characters. I guess I was hoping he would bring that same cinematic power to this long-running franchise, but his efforts do little to improve this sequel’s poor story and screenplay.

For what it’s worth, Bayona does give us some memorable moments. The scene where the characters observe one of the vegan dinosaurs crying out to be rescued as the volcano lays waste to Isla Nublar is truly heartbreaking, and the moment where the Indoraptor stalks the helpless Maisie in a sequence which evokes “Nosferatu” as the dinosaur stretches his creepy claws out is wonderfully chilling. I also loved how Bayona started this movie off in near silence as it opens in an underwater environment. It is times like this where I am reminded of how silence is golden, and I was hoping he would use it to his advantage. But as many sequels go, this one is noisy as hell and is at times undone by Michael Giacchino’s overambitious score.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is not this franchise’s worst installment (“Jurassic Park III” still holds that honor), but it is pretty close. “Jurassic World” managed to do the impossible which was bring back much of the awe and wonder from Spielberg’s 1993 classic, but this one finds those things sorely missing to where I wondered if there was ever enough of a reason to make another sequel other than money. What we get here is the same old thing, and the results are depressing as its storyline points out how humans will keep making the same mistakes over and over again as they refuse to learn from history. It left me wondering who would be better off here, the humans or the dinosaurs. As I left the theater, I kept thinking about what Ellen Ripley said in “Aliens:”

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

Ripley had a really good point there, and this line was also proof of how James Cameron could come up with good dialogue when he put his mind to it.

* * out of * * * *

 

‘Jurassic World’ Resurrects a Decades-Old Franchise with Fresh Blood

Jurassic World movie poster

I still vividly remember when “Jurassic Park” came out in 1993. I was in high school back then, and many of my friends got to see it before I did. Their reactions always stayed with me as they described how thrilling a movie it was. One guy kept holding his arm intensely and kept saying, “It steamed the glass!” I would later find out what he meant when I saw the movie a few days later, and it was quite the thrill ride as well as groundbreaking in terms of special effects. Steven Spielberg delivered us the kind of blockbuster he had been delivering to us since he made “Jaws” all those years ago, one which is thrilling and fills you with wonder and awe.

It was later followed by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” which was more of the same but fun if you could get past the fact that Spielberg pretty much directed in on auto pilot. As for “Jurassic Park III,” a better title for it was “300 special effects in search of a screenplay.” Now we have “Jurassic World,” the latest sequel in this franchise which arrives over a decade after the previous installment. While there’s little chance in recapturing the wonder of the original, this sequel still proves to be a fun time at the movies.

Intended as a direct sequel to “Jurassic Park,” “Jurassic World “shows us how the island of Isla Nublar has long since become an infinitely popular theme park. John Hammond’s dream is now a reality, and guests are treated to a variety of shows and rides which depict these once extinct creatures in all their incredible glory. But now tourists have long since gotten used to dinosaurs being brought back from extinction, and now they want something more intense and scary. As a character notes, the park’s attendance level spikes when a new dinosaur is unveiled, and this makes the park operators create one which ends up scaring not just the children but their parents as well. And just as before, the results prove to be disastrous as the road to hell is always paved with good intentions and a misguided quest for profit.

What I liked most about “Jurassic World” is how its screenplay acknowledges how tired and worn out people are by watching dinosaurs in this day and age. This is exactly how I felt after watching “Jurassic Park III” as what was once thrilling and magic had since become depressingly routine. As a result, the script has a subversive feel as it ponders our need for the same level excitement we had in the past, and of how desperate we are to relive or top it. Now on one hand this sequel has a lot of things going for it as the filmmakers explore the desires of both the public and the corporate world which continues to be blinded by dollar signs at the expense of everything else. This wouldn’t be a theme park without a Starbucks or a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville Restaurant in it, and both are on display here. Heck, even Buffet makes a cameo carrying a couple of margaritas, but when the dinosaurs start wreaking havoc, it’s clear he won’t have time to look for his lost shaker of salt.

On the other hand, the movie has its characters making incredibly dumb decisions which will have audience members scratching their heads in disbelief. Then again, this wouldn’t be much of a movie if everyone used their common sense on a regular basis. Those of you who have watched “Jurassic Park” over a thousand times will be instantly reminded of famous dialogue like when Ian Malcolm talked about how scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could create dinosaurs to where they never stopped to think if they should. Then there’s Ellie Sattler who made it clear to Hammond he will never have control because that’s the illusion he was trying to avoid.

Then again, the one line which stands out most is when Hammond said how he “spared no expense.” When we get our first glimpse of what has become of Isla Nublar, we are reminded of what Hammond said as it has accommodations your local Motel 6 can only dream of offering guests. They may leave the light on for you, but they can’t give you amazing vistas or prehistoric creatures to look at.

Actually, one of the best moments in “Jurassic World” comes from B.D. Wong who reprises his role of Dr. Henry Wu from the first movie. When asked why he and the other scientists created the new dinosaur, Indominus Rex, Henry responds, “Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We’re just used to being the cat.”

In terms of the human element, “Jurassic World” does suffer a bit. Then again, these movies have never been about complex characters as much as they have been about dinosaurs. Still, one of the best things about this long-awaited sequel is Chris Pratt who lends his “Guardians of the Galaxy” charisma to his role as Owen Grady, a former military officer and velociraptor trainer. Pratt adds the heroic element this movie demands, and his comedic skills are put to good use.

Another terrific performance comes from Bryce Dallas Howard as the park’s operations manager, Claire Dearing. It’s great to watch Howard take Claire from being a work obsessed park employee to a badass heroine who ventures out into the danger zone to save her two nephews before they become the dinosaurs’ main course.

It’s also a kick to see Vincent D’Onofrio here as the antagonist Vic Hoskins, head of security operations for InGen. The actor manages to take what could have been a simple one-dimensional villain and makes him a lot more interesting. You can see in his eyes how he has a secret plan for the dinosaurs which has yet to be revealed to our heroes. Of course, we all know how D’Onofrio’s character is going to die, and it is not pretty.

Spielberg once again stayed in the executive producer’s chair for this sequel, and the director is Colin Trevorrow who is a very lucky filmmaker as he went from directing a movie with a budget of $750,000 (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) to this $150 million summer blockbuster. While he is not able to fully recapture the wonder of “Jurassic Park,” he makes “Jurassic World” a solid piece of summer entertainment which brings out the kid in you. Trevorrow also creates moments which will have the audience cheering loudly, showing he is more than capable of giving us the kind of crowd pleasing movie we expect in the summertime.

“Jurassic World,” like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” was stuck in development hell for years before it finally came to fruition. For the most part it was worth the wait as it comes with a stronger story and screenplay than the last two “Jurassic” movies could ever hope to have. There’s plenty of great dinosaur fights, tourists getting terrified, and there are characters here worth rooting for. All in all, it does what a summer movie should do which is entertain you from beginning to end.

Of course, when you look more closely at the story, it illustrates how history keeps repeating itself when dollar signs get in the way. Once again humans deluded themselves into thinking they could control dinosaurs, and nature finds a way to prove them wrong. With “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” about to be released, I imagine we will watch humans again trying to tame these prehistoric creatures, and their efforts will prove to be largely futile. Oh well, hopefully we’ll get another entertaining sequel in the process.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Man of Steel’ is Not Just a Bird or a Plane

Man of Steel movie poster

I grew up watching reruns of “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves playing the iconic character, and I loved how he stood still and never blinked an eye when the bad guys shot bullets at him. Then came the movies with Christopher Reeve playing the sole survivor of Krypton, and I reveled in watching him give us the definitive version of this heroic character. Since then, Superman has not been the same for me as his goody two shoes image makes him seem a little dull compared to Batman, and the character has gone through various interpretations on television and in comic books to where I’m not sure what to make of him, or his alter ego Clark Kent, anymore.

I liked “Superman Returns” more than most people because it reminded me of the effect this iconic character had on me when I was young, and Bryan Singer made it clear we needed a hero like Superman now more than ever. However, the more Singer paid homage to the first two “Superman” movies, the more it paled in comparison to them. The character is now more than 75 years old and in desperate need of a reboot to stay relevant to today’s increasingly cynical society.

Now we have “Man of Steel” which takes Superman back to his beginnings to where we have to go through all the origin stuff yet again. This threatens to make the movie a bit tedious as we all know Superman was born as Kal-El on the planet Krypton and how his parents sent him to Earth before Krypton exploded. But what’s interesting is how director Zack Snyder tells Superman’s story in a non-linear fashion to where we’re never quite sure which direction the movie is going to take. Snyder also shows us how, while it may seem cool to be Superman, being him can also be quite lonely and painful.

For the filmmakers, the real challenge was making Superman more down to earth than he has been in the past and, for the most part, they succeeded. We all have experienced loneliness and alienation in our childhood and the changes our bodies go through, be it puberty or something else, which can drive us to the brink of insanity. But what’s worse for Kal-El, who is now named Clark Kent by his human parents, is he can’t really ask anyone for advice on how to deal with x-ray vision or super hearing abilities. While this kid is capable of doing great things, you can understand why he yearns for the normal life constantly denied to him.

I liked the scenes dealing with Superman’s childhood because they rang true emotionally, and the wisdom his human father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) passes on to him makes sense. Yes, this young man has super powers, but he’s got to keep them under wraps until he can learn the truth about where he came from. It’s frustrating, but it helps to keep Superman from being subjected to crazy medical experiments by the government and from growing an oversized ego which will definitely get the best of him.

Since the first half of “Man of Steel” is told in a non-linear fashion, it doesn’t take long for us to meet Henry Cavill, the latest actor to play Superman. It also doesn’t take long for him to remove his shirt and show us how much time he has spent at the gym. Cavill’s road to playing this iconic character has been a tough one as he came so close to getting cast in “Superman Returns,” and for a while he was known as the unluckiest man in Hollywood as he barely missed out on playing Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and Edward Cullen in “Twilight.” How nice it is to see Cavill finally get his moment in the spotlight.

Cavill does solid work here as Superman, and he also gives us a Clark Kent who is unlike the four-eyed wimp we all remember him being. This is a Kent who wanders from job to job, haunted by an upbringing he has yet to learn more about, and it is a journey which has toughened him up quite a bit. Cavill also benefits from getting to play a more complex Superman in “Man of Steel” whereas the one we saw in “Superman Returns” was kind of neutered (no offense Brandon Routh). While he doesn’t quite have the same charisma Reeve brought to Superman, Cavill is a terrific choice for the role and he has more than earned the right to play him in this and future movies (and you know there will be more).

But as with “Superman: The Movie,” Warner Brothers put their nerves at ease by surrounding Cavill with a cast filled with stars and Oscar winners. I very much enjoyed Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, and he gives a wonderfully understated performance as Kal-El’s human father. However (SPOILER ALERT), I’m pretty certain I have not seen another actor other than him who looked so ridiculously serene as an enormous hurricane came barreling down on him (SPOLIERS END).

Diane Lane is also well cast as Kal-El’s human mother, Martha, and it’s a treat to see this actress in anything and everything she does. Plus, even as Martha heads into old age, Lane still looks irresistibly sexy as she refuses to betray her son’s whereabouts to General Zod. Some credit should go to Snyder for this as he doesn’t plaster Lane with the same hideous old-age makeup he used on Carla Gugino in “Watchmen.” I am so very glad he learned his lesson.

Speaking of General Zod, the great character actor Michael Shannon plays him in “Man of Steel.” Shannon does make him a compelling nemesis to Superman, and I liked how the actor portrays Zod as a man led by a corrupted sense of loyalty rather than just a power hungry villain. His work in “Man of Steel,” however, pales a bit in comparison to his galvanizing turn as serial killer Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman.” Perhaps I was expecting a bit too much from Shannon this time around as I was hoping he would give us a villain for the ages. But even though he doesn’t, he is still very good here.

In addition, Amy Adams gives us a strong Lois Lane who doesn’t falter in the face of supernatural discoveries, Laurence Fishburne makes for a good Perry White, Antje Traue makes Faora into a tremendously lethal villainess, and it’s hard to think of anyone other than Russell Crowe to play Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. Crowe gives the role a gravitas not easily earned, and you will be pleased to know that he doesn’t sing in this film. I am, however, willing to defend his performance and singing in “Les Misérables.”

The one major complaint I had with “Man of Steel” was the spectacle at times overwhelmed the story and characters. This is not to say the characters are neglected, but I’m not sure I have seen as many high-rise buildings come crashing down in one movie. Just when I think I have seen the loudest action movie ever made, another one comes along to remind me of the necessity of ear plugs. In the process of giving us one tremendous action scene after another, Snyder ends up topping himself a bit too much to where I was desperate for him to tone things down. Still, he respects Superman enough to keep the character’s ideals intact even while taking some liberties.

Part of me still yearns for the “Superman” of yesterday when Christopher Reeve made us believe a man can fly, and of how the first two movies lifted my spirits up high. I think part of how you enjoy “Man of Steel” depends on how willing you are to separate it from all the “Superman” films which preceded it, and for me this is tough. But in the end, there’s no way things can stay the same, and this iconic character was in need of a refresher. With “Man of Steel,” Snyder has given us an exciting piece of entertainment which holds our attention for over two hours, and I am eager to see where Superman will go from here.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Observe and Report’ is the Blackest of Black Comedies

Observe and Report movie poster

I read an article in the Los Angeles Times which had an interview with Jody Hill, the writer/director of “Observe and Report.” Reading it was the best preparation I got for watching the movie as the trailers made it look like the typical Judd Apatow produced, Seth Rogen starring comedy. However, director Hill didn’t really see it as a comedy, and he said the term “dark comedy” didn’t really apply to the film the way he envisioned it. Hell, even Rogen went out of his way to call the film a “dangerous comedy.” I never would have guessed from the trailers which made the film seem like the average formulaic comedy I was more or less interested in seeing. I should have seen it coming it was not going to be what I expected it to be when I realized that Apatow had nothing to do with this.

If you’re thinking “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” redux, you’re dead wrong. With “Observe and Report,” you need to go in expecting “Taxi Driver” or “One Hour Photo” as if they were comedies. This is a very black comedy. We’re talking Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours” black. It touches on several ever so touchy subjects such as drug abuse, date rape, alcoholism, delusional, and racial stereotypes among others. It is also proof of how comedy can be mined out of places and subjects you would never expect to find it in. Hill and Rogen prove to have a large pair of cojones on them as they take big risks with their subject matter and come out of it with many moments which are frickin’ hilarious. It says a lot about this movie how it can break taboos, many of which will easily offend people, and still have you laughing your ass off at the same time.

Rogen stars as Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of Forest Ridge mall security. From the start, we can see this is a guy with a few screws loose. Along with his fellow mall cops, he laments at the fact none of them are allowed guns on the job. Ronnie is a hero in his own mind, and no one takes the job of what is essentially a “rent a cop” position as seriously as him. Ronnie also longs to join the police force, but he is kept from being accepted due to his bi-polar illness which he treats with the typical medication Scientologists rally against. This is not your typical Rogen character where you wonder if and when he will get the girl. Instead, you wonder if this guy is going to have a psychotic break and end up killing someone before it is too late.

Ronnie’s mission in life, however, becomes crystal clear to him when a flasher exposes himself to the girl of his dreams, makeup counter employee Brandi (Anna Faris). So distraught she is after this attack, Ronnie makes it his mission to catch the flasher before he can attack her again. But then the local police department gets involved in the form of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta at his overplaying best), and Ronnie sees this as a threat to his mission. The way Ronnie sees it, this is his case and no one else’s. To let the local police take over would be the same as giving up control of the mall. Paul Blart may have taken his job as a mall cop seriously, but he has got nothing on Ronnie Barnhardt.

For Rogen, this movie represents a sharp change of pace. Through movies like “Knocked Up” and “Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” he has perfected the role of lovable loser to the point where you could not see him in any other role. This usually results in a career which starts big and then crashes in record time. I was hoping to see him play some other role because I found him to be one of the funniest actors in quite some time, and I was in no mood to see him crash and burn. With his role in “Observe and Report,” Rogen finally breaks out of his comfort zone to play someone who is anything but lovable. He also never plays the role just for laughs which is a major plus. As Ronnie Barnhardt, he manages to find the heart of this delusional character, and he keeps the audience up with him even as Ronnie’s mental state continues to get worse.

Among the supporting cast in “Observe and Report” is Michael Pena. As Dennis, Ronnie’s second in command and best friend, Pena also goes against type to play a role we have never see him in before. He has proven to be the most dependable of supporting actors in movies like “Crash,” “Shooter,” and “World Trade Center” to name a few. As Dennis, he steals scenes from Rogen as his character ends up taking directions you never expect him to take. This is an inspired performance by Pena, and he serves, however briefly, as Ronnie’s conscience when he sees Ronnie is taking himself WAY too seriously. Dennis’ methods of loosening up Ronnie, however, are anything but safe and legal.

Another inspired performance in “Observe and Report” is from Celia Weston who plays Ronnie’s alcoholic mother who still lets her son live under her roof even though he is well into his 30’s. There is no doubt of how much Weston’s character loves her son even when she is hopelessly drunk, and it leads to where she tells one of Ronnie’s fellow mall cops of how she slept with his friends while he was in high school. This could have been a cruel and clichéd character, but Weston makes it a lot more.

You also have to give a lot of credit to Anna Faris who proves here she is not afraid of going to extreme lengths to get laughs. Throughout the movie, she never tries to sweeten her character of Brandi up like many actresses would. Brandi will easily remind you of all those spoiled rotten bitches you had the misfortune of going to high school with. Many may hate the way her character is treated in the movie, but to a large extent, Brandi brings a lot of it on herself. Like Rogen and Hill, Faris does not shy away from the unpleasant extremes of her role.

Then there is Ray Liotta, who will always be best remembered for playing Henry Hill in “Goodfellas.” As Detective Harrison, Liotta is the perfect counterpoint to Rogen’s mentally unhinged mall cop. His strait-laced character has his shit together, but it doesn’t necessarily make him much better. One of the movie’s best moments has him taking Ronnie on a ride along which ends with him stranding Ronnie on a bad corner with a bunch of crack head drug dealers. How Ronnie ends up handling these dealers is something I would prefer not to spoil for you. Just when you think you know where the scene is going, Hill and Rogen pull the rug right out from under you.

Another really nice performance comes from Collette Wolfe who plays Nell, an employee at the mall’s coffee shop who is somewhat hindered by her leg being in a cast. While Brandi really wants nothing to do with Ronnie, Nell pines for him every time he comes to get his free cup of coffee. She also has to deal with an unsympathetic boss (Patton Oswalt) who picks on her whenever given the opportunity. She is a sweet presence in an otherwise nasty movie which seeks to make you uncomfortable and laugh at the same time. For a moment, I thought this would turn into another tale of unrequited love a la “Rules of Attraction,” but Collette’s character gives Ronnie the emotional grounding he DESPERATLEY needs.

Hill’s biggest success with “Observe and Report” doesn’t lie in just the laughs he gets, but more in the fact he and the actors never just play everything just for laughs. There is no winking at the camera in this film. The actors don’t play it completely straight in this movie, but they take their roles seriously and never appear as if they all know they are in on the joke. If they did, the movie would not be anywhere as effective.

Hill’s breakthrough directorial effort was the movie “The Foot Fist Way” which served as the breakthrough for Danny McBride who went on to appear in “Pineapple Express” and “Tropic Thunder.” It is clear Hill revels in the portrait of people who live in their own world and are oblivious to what the world thinks of them. What Hill does here is ballsy to say the least.

“Observe and Report” also serves as a biting satire of the mall culture which serves as the movie’s setting. It ends up being symbolic of the melting pot which is the United States of America. Cultures of all kinds rub up against each other in the mall, and it unsettles our main character at times. Ronnie ends up having a tense moment with a character he thoughtlessly nicknames Sadamn (played by Aziz Ansari) who has filed a restraining order against Ronnie for past transgresses. This leads to one of the movie’s most insanely funniest moments as they say a barrage of “fuck you’s” to each other. The F-bomb is uttered almost endlessly in this scene to where you think they are going to give “Scarface” a run for its money in terms of how much the word is uttered.

This movie also continues the trend started with movies like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” of showing the penis in all its tiny glory. The audience I saw it with seemed more shocked by the “throbbing python of love,” as Robin Williams once described it, than they were with Rogen’s character holding a gun in his hand. After all these years, American audiences still prove to be an unknowingly hypocritical bunch as they find themselves more comfortable with the sight of a gun than with the appearance of a sexual organ.

Suffice to say, not everything in the movie works perfectly. The ending where Ronnie defends his place in the mall falls a little flat despite the use of Queen’s music from “Flash Gordon.” And granted, the mix of comedy and action and violence is a tricky road, but it is a road bound to have some inescapable potholes.

Still, when all is said and done, “Observe and Report” is a comedy with big cojones which cannot be easily ignored. It is not a movie for all tastes, but for those who are willing to travel a darkly comic path, there is much to find in this crazy film which dares to imagine a Travis Bickle-like character as a funny person despite himself. Do not say you weren’t warned.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Gareth Edwards and Thomas Tull Talk About Making ‘Godzilla’

godzilla-2014-poster

I was invited to attend a special press screening of the 2014 “Godzilla” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (it’s now called TCL Chinese Theatres, but I prefer to call it Grauman’s), and it proved to be a huge improvement over Roland Emmerich’s 1998 debacle. Following the screening, we were treated to a Q&A with the movie’s director Gareth Edwards and the CEO of Legendary Pictures, Thomas Tull. The two of them discussed how they saw this version of the giant monster, the first time they became aware of who or what Godzilla was, and of how their film mirrors the current events of today.

There have been dozens and dozens of “Godzilla” movies made since 1954, most of them made in Japan by Toho Company Limited. There have been a couple of American movies made about this enormous monster as well, but they didn’t fare well to say the least. “Godzilla 1985” was universally panned by film critics and died a quick death at the box office. As for Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” which came out in 1998, I still cringe at the thought of its existence as it was amazingly awful. But when it came to making the 2014 version, Edwards made clear he was not about to let fans or critics down.

“We were trying to put more into it than just a simple monster movie because the original was definitely a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a very serious film. So we were inspired to try and reflect that,” Edwards said. “We police the world and go, ‘You can’t have nuclear power. You can’t have it. But we can have it, and we have nuclear weapons.’ And what if there were a creature that existed, creatures that were attracted to radiation? Suddenly the tables would be turned, and we’d be desperately trying to get rid of that stuff.”

From there, both Edwards and Tull described the first time they saw Godzilla. Hearing Tull talk about his first exposure to the Japanese monster came to illustrate just how big of an effect monster movies had on him when he was growing up. As for Edwards, he ended up describing his first exposure as being embarrassing.

“First time I saw it, it was the ’54 version,” Tull said. “I was probably around 7 years old. Where I grew up in upstate New York, what I looked forward to every year was the Friday after Thanksgiving when the local TV station would play ‘Godzilla’ marathons all day. That was my favorite thing of the year. I had the incredible fortune of making movies out of all the stuff I loved as a kid: ‘Batman,’ ‘Superman,’ Watchmen’ and now ‘Godzilla.’ Somehow the magic genie made it happen. This is really special to me.”

“In the U.K. when we were kids growing up, they had the Hanna Barbara cartoon. Not many people know that in America. I thought it was a worldwide thing,” Edwards said. “But it was basically Godzilla and I guess his son, Godzuki, and it would fly; it was all very cute. When you’re a kid it was great. I got offered this amazing opportunity. People in the U.K, they like to take the piss out of their friends, so just to mock me they would always refer to it as Godzuki. They’d be like, ‘How’s Godzuki going? Have you been to any Godzuki meetings?’ And I used to play along with it to the point where my phone learned how to spell Godzuki more than Godzilla. So when we used to have regular emails about the film, I’d type Godzilla and it would automatically change it to Godzuki. And for a while, I thought I might get fired.”

Edwards said while he and Tull were in the process of putting the movie together, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, also known as the Great East Japan Earthquake, occurred which decimated much of Fukushima and caused serious accidents at nuclear power plants. Now when horrific events like this occur, Hollywood is quick to distance itself from them for fear of appearing like they are profiting from them. But considering the genres “Godzilla” covers, there was enough of a reason not to ignore the serious events happening around the world.

“There was a point where it felt like, well, maybe we shouldn’t set it in Japan. Maybe we shouldn’t deal with radiation or anything like this,” Edwards said. “We had genuine conversations for quite a while and we talked to a lot of people, and knew a lot of people, who were Japanese obviously working with Toho. And after a while the general consensus was that the 1954 version, the whole point of that movie, and science fiction and fantasy in general I think, they have this opportunity to reflect the period that they’re made in, and so it was thought as long as we did it respectively and the city and the events in our film are not about anything that happened in Japan. So, we felt it kind of appropriate to acknowledge some of these issues as we were figuring out the storyline.”

“When I was a kid, my dad used to have an encyclopedia on the twentieth Century, and on the front cover was Hiroshima, JFK’s assassination, Hitler, all the major events of the twentieth century,” Edwards continued. “I used to look at it and think none of that happened in my lifetime. Nothing significant like that has happened in my lifetime. Maybe nothing like that ever will. And then in the last ten years with the obvious things, it’s nearly impossible to genuinely sit down and say, ‘OK, I want to do a monster movie. I want to try and treat this like it really happened. What would it look like? How would people react and not be infected by the imagery over the last ten years, whether it be the natural disasters or even some of the terrorism?’ So that kind of infected the film a little bit. But we tried to do it in a way that, first and foremost, it’s entertainment. You’re here to see a Godzilla. But I personally like a little meat on my bone, so within that there’s obviously this other imagery and meaning that you can pull from as much as you want or as little as you want.”

Before this, Edwards had only one directorial effort to his name, the 2010 film “Monsters.” It had a budget of only $500,000 and, in addition to directing it, he also worked as writer, cinematographer and the visual effects artist which may explain why it didn’t cost much to make. With “Godzilla,” he had the backing of a major studio and an estimated budget of $160 million. Talk about one heck of a promotion! This has got to put the fear of God into any filmmaker making this kind of transition, but Edwards sounded like he has handled big budget moviemaking very well.

“It’s a massive, massive deal,” Edwards said. “It’s not just a once in a lifetime opportunity; it’s a once in a million-lifetime opportunity to be able to get to do this. The way I dealt with it was to forget we were doing it and just convince ourselves, which was kind of very easy to do, that we’re just in this bubble; it’s just us, and we’re just making a movie that we want to sit and watch, something that will give us goose bumps. And it’s kind of this selfish passion project in the way you kind of approach every day. Because I’d get paralyzed if I really thought about the number of people who would end up seeing the film and all the publicity and press that would come from it.”

“But it’s such a great opportunity,” Edwards continued. “I grew up since I was a little kid desperate to be a film director, and the second they mentioned it I was just like, I could never live with myself if I ever turned this down. I mean, I love monster movies. My first film was a monster movie. This is the ultimate monster movie. So how could you live with yourself having not made ‘Godzilla’ when you had that opportunity?”

Even before its release, “Godzilla” had already sparked conversations about a sequel or a potential franchise. This is not a surprise as movie studios are always looking for the next big movie trilogy to thrust at movie fans eager to pay their hard-earned money for. Edwards, however, said it was his intention to make a stand-alone movie, something I was very pleased to hear. As for Tull, with Legendary Pictures having been purchased by Universal Pictures, he was asked if a sequel would be released by either Universal Pictures or Warner Brothers, the latter which is distributing this movie. In the end, Tull could only say the following:

“We have a little rule: we can’t talk about anything else until this comes out and works,” Tull said. “It’s a little superstition I have. All I can say is, we’re passionate fans of the universe and we love Godzilla and some of those other folks do too, so if this comes out and works we’ll figure it out.”

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Godzilla (2014)

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The stench which emanated from the sheer awfulness of Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has haunted me ever since I saw it on the big screen in 1998. For a time, it dampened my spirits in terms of where movies were headed as I was afraid many more of them would be dumbed down like Emmerich’s movie was. Had it been an even bigger hit, I feared more summer blockbusters would look exactly like it; filled with lame one-dimensional characters and special effects which look no different from the video games we play at home. But in the end, it was so critically reviled that even Toho, the company that owns Godzilla, looked at Emmerich’s version of the monster as a separate, stand-alone character whom they renamed Zilla. It was if they were saying, “Oh no, that was so not Godzilla. That was a cousin or a step child or maybe the product of a one-night stand.”

But now that stench has vanished as Gareth Edwards has given us his version of “Godzilla,” and it makes for one of the most entertaining movies of the 2014 summer movie season. Instead of having this enormous Japanese monster chase after characters who look like they were part of a rejected sitcom pilot, he stays true to the style of the Toho series of Godzilla films and manages to weave in some commentary about nuclear power. Just as the original “Godzilla” served as a metaphor for Hiroshima, this one doesn’t dare hide away from what happened in Fukushima where nuclear accidents occurred after the massive earthquake and tsunami which occurred there.

The movie starts off with the terrifying destruction of a nuclear power plant, one which ends up dividing a father and his son. We then move to several years later when Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US Navy, comes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son after a long tour of duty. Their reunion, however, is cut short as Ford gets word his father, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has once again been arrested in Japan for trespassing into areas blocked off to the general public as the area surrounding the power plant isn’t all that different from Chernobyl when it suffered a meltdown.

Joe is still convinced the power plant accident was really a cover up for something, and he and Ford come to discover what’s left of it has been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Scientists led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) reveal they have been housing a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and are trying to keep it contained by giving it doses of radiation. But, of course, all hell breaks loose when the MUTO breaks free of its captivity and heads out to sea, and it is then we learn another MUTO (this one a female) has been held in the United States and has also escaped and quickly laid waste to Las Vegas. Like Natasha Henstridge’s character in “Species,” she is looking to start a big family with offspring which will surely destroy all of humanity, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her MUTO mate. Clearly, safe sex is not on their agenda.

This is where the iconic Godzilla comes in. Now in the past, this gigantic creature has been portrayed as an enemy to all of humanity and as an antihero who looks to take down any other monster who foolishly thinks it can defeat him. But in Edwards’ movie, Godzilla is really the good guy who, as Dr. Serizawa puts it, is here to “restore balance” to the world, and he doesn’t even bother the battleships which sail alongside him as he swims from one country to the next. We all know Godzilla will end up destroying a lot of expensive real estate which will cause many insurance companies to go bankrupt, but we’re still on the monster’s side as we know the military won’t have enough firepower to bring down the MUTOs.

Edwards takes his sweet time in revealing Godzilla to the audience, and we don’t really get a good look at him until almost an hour into the movie. When he does finally appear onscreen and let out the biggest of roars anyone has ever heard, the audience I saw this movie with broke into a tremendous applause. This is the fiercest Godzilla has looked in many years, and the way he towers over the tallest of buildings had me in awe. This is the way Godzilla should look and feel.

One of the many problems I had with the 1998 “Godzilla” is it never felt like I was watching a real monster on the big screen. It felt more like I was watching a big special effect to where the creature didn’t even fill the least bit threatening. But in 2014’s “Godzilla,” the creature looks and feels real to where I kept praying the human characters would keep themselves from standing underneath its feet. The thought of being crushed by a creature that big is horrifying.

As for “Godzilla’s” human element, it’s not altogether strong, but I still liked how the characters came across as relatable even if they were at times clichéd. I also have to give the screenwriters credit as the movie starts as one thing but surprisingly turns into something else. Just when I thought I knew what kind of movie this “Godzilla” was going to be, it continued to surprise me as it went along. Yes, we all know how things will end, but getting there proved to be more fun than I expected.

It also helps there is a terrific cast of actors to keep us emotionally involved in the characters before and after Godzilla makes his grand entrance. You can never go wrong with Bryan Cranston whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or anything else, and he makes his character very empathetic when he could have been easily laughable. As for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I almost didn’t recognize him after getting so used to how he looked in those “Kick Ass” movies, and he does good work portraying the typical heroic military character we always see in “Godzilla” movies. Ken Watanabe remains a tremendously gifted actor, and even though I thought stared in horror one too many times in this movie, he is a very welcome addition to this cast. And then there’s David Strathairn who plays Admiral William Stenz, and he can always be counted on to give the military leader the gravitas and humanity a character like this deserves.

As for the female characters, their roles are a bit underwritten and I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. Still, you have actresses like Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins making them into memorable characters when they could have been ones who were easily forgettable.

This “Godzilla” does have its problems, and there are times I wished Edwards and company had injected just a little more humor into the proceedings. Also, the big fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs never seems to come soon enough. There’s a moment where it looks like the fight will begin, but then a door closes on the characters and on our view of the monsters, and that was really frustrating. The human characters may have wanted the door shut, but everyone in the audience was clamoring for it stay open so we could see one enormous mutated creature beat the crap out of another. And yes, there probably are some plot holes and gaps in logic in the story, but I really didn’t care. You don’t always go to these movies expecting a whole lot of logic anyway.

What makes this “Godzilla” work is how it is clearly made by filmmakers who have a great love of monster movies. Edwards, whose previous directorial effort was British science fiction film “Monsters,” has talked about just how much he loves those kinds of movies, and he does an excellent job of making Godzilla a truly terrifying force of nature. After being absent from the big screen for over a decade, it is great to see this iconic monster make such a tremendous comeback.

I also got to say watching “Godzilla” makes me really happy that I do not work for an insurance company. Seeing all those destroyed buildings and roads, I can see claim adjustors going nuts as they field one phone call after another regarding totaled Hondas, decimated condos and bridges which now really lead to nowhere because they’ve been destroyed. You can bet no one’s going to take any guff from someone who tells them their insurance policy doesn’t cover attacks from giant mutated monsters!

* * * out of * * * *

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