Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Hangover Part II

Three characters call their friend's wife to say that they messed up after a night of drinking. Cue the opening credits as shots of the local landscape appear. Flashback to wedding planning. Then some drinking. Then those same three characters wake up in a hotel room with a member of their party missing and must piece together their previous night. Sound familiar? Not only is this the plot to The Hangover, but also the plot for its sequel. Then again, I'm surprisingly not complaining. I mean, when the word hangover is in the title, did one not expect the characters to get hung over? Yes, they learned their lesson the first time, they just have to learn it again. Thankfully, writer/director Todd Phillips makes up for there being similar plot elements in this sequel by having a clever plot-structure and frankly, still making the story very funny.

In this installment, Stu (Ed Helms) is getting married to Lauren (Jamie Chung) in Thailand and invites Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha) and Allen (Zach Galifianakis). Instead of a bachelor party, Stu decides to relax on the beach and drink a few beers with Lauren's younger brother, Teddy (Mason Lee). Well, something goes wrong and the members of the Wolf Pack wake up in a Bangkok hotel room. Stu has a Mike Tyson tattoo, Allen shaved his head, Teddy is missing, and there is a monkey in a Rolling Stones jacket prancing around. In a sense, the moments perhaps feel funnier than they should because we are so comfortable with these characters as they don't have to win us over. We welcome them as we would another TV episode of The Three Stooges.

Phillips excels at making raunchy movies and does proud the likes of Judd Apatow, John Landis, Kevin Smith, Ivan Reitman, and the Farrelly Brothers. He knows exactly what to have his characters say and do at the right time to get a laugh. Now before I go on I should say that if you aren't a fan of the kinds of comedies that have been coming out since around 2005 (or just raunchiness in general) than you might want to skip this even if you thought The Hangover was just okay. This actually makes the first film look tame. That being said, I'm happy this comedy continues in the vein of the likes of the filmmakers I just mentioned above.

Some random points... Lawrence Sher does a phenomenal job with his cinematography. He somehow enhances the comedy by making everything look great just like he did with the first installment (as a side note, his credits include Kissing Jessica Stein, Garden State, I Love You Man, and Due Date). Bangkok looks as sleazy and as it is attractive, like a stereotypical Asian Las Vegas. As for the cast- Ken Jeong and Paul Giamatti are memorable (and throw in the usual Tyson-cameo as well), but Zach Galifianakis once again steals the show. As an actor he has mastered being passively clueless and one never knows what he is going to say or do next (see the dinner toast for hilarious proof of that).

If you are shaking your head at this review, then stop reading before I say this- the film even has heart. Perhaps it is more thinly veiled than Judd Apatow's comedies, but there is a message to be found. We've heard the message before with these same characters, yet that doesn't make hearing it another time any less enjoyable.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Jack Sparrow is a truly great character that was first brought to life by Johnny Depp in 2003s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl which was directed by Gore Verbinski (The Ring). Depp really demonstrated how talented he was by taking what wasn't all that hyped about in the script and creating one of the most loved and talked about original characters. Something that was very memorable. He showed promise of doing something so awe-inspiring with his earlier performances in Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A year after Pirates, he gave what I consider to be his career defining performance in Finding Neverland as J.M. Barrie. The film is one of my all-time top favorites and along with Black Pearl, I finally came to appreciate Johnny Depp as more than just the guy who all the girls wanted on the cover of their magazines (see Sweeney Todd for another great post-Pirates performance).

As many know, Pirates was plagued by two subpar sequels in 2006 and 2007 and now in 2011, the fourth installment has arrived. Now directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), this film was promised to be a Jack Sparrow-focused adventure. It wasn't going to include Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley's characters as they were no longer needed. They worked as characters to introduce us to the charming Captain Jack, but in the sequels they just led to unnecessary side-plots. The sad news is that anyone who was hoping this "just-Jack-Sparrow" adventure would be a decent movie, should be ready for disappointment in my opinion.

With the pirates now searching for the Fountain of Youth, series screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio really haven't done anything all that different with this film when compared to the others. Yes, this is better than the second and third films where their fault was over-playing everything that made the first work, but this fourth film just feels very forced. It's quite typical. The action sequences are repetitive where everything is edited nicely together and all we see are swords clinking without the swordplay. The supporting performances are quite laughable whether it is the King, the priest, the mermaid, or even Penelope Cruz (who I really normally like a lot, see her in Volver for a phenomenal performance). Sparrow himself feels like he is conflicting with the story. The characters and the plot don't move together hand-in-hand. Jack worked better when he was driving the story and not commenting on it from the sidelines.

Just like the second and third films, a lot goes on, but not much happens with the characters. The new ones feel like a replacement for Bloom and Knightley and the only thing that feels remotely fresh about this is that some time has passed since the last film. Johnny Depp is still fun to watch in the role and returning players Geoffrey Rush and Kevin McNally as well as the new villain played by Ian McShane all give watchable performances. I still wish Hollywood would have left this franchise stay dead. Instead we have dead zombie pirates. Not even kidding about that one.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Early European Cinema

This past semester, I took a class on early European cinema with an emphasis on France, Italy, and Russia. Here are the films I've seen due to the class that I enjoyed...

Port of Shadows (1938, Marcel Carne)- France
Daybreak (1939, Marcel Carne)- France
The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)- France
Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne)- France
Rome, Open City (1945, Roberto Rossellini)- Italy
Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)- Italy
Umberto D. (1952, Vittorio De Sica)- Italy
The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)- France
Breathless (1959, Jean-Luc Godard)- France
The Sweet Life (1960, Federico Fellini)- Italy
8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini)- Italy
Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)- Russia
The Last Metro (1980, Francois Truffaut)- France
Station for Two (1982, Eldar Ryazanov)- Russia

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Rankings- A Follow-Up Post to 25 Favorite Working Directors

Something that I had initially meant to do was to rank the films (that I've seen) of each of my 25 Favorite Working Directors. So here's that-

25. Kathryn Bigelow
1. The Hurt Locker (2009)
2. Near Dark (1987)
3. The Loveless (1982)
4. Strange Days (1995)
5. Point Break (1991)
6. The Weight of Water (2000)
7. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

24. J.J. Abrams
1. Super 8 (2011)
2. Star Trek (2009)
3. Mission Impossible III (2006)

23. Edgar Wright
1. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
2. Hot Fuzz (2007)
3. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

22. Brad Bird
1. The Incredibles (2004)
2. Ratatouille (2007)
3. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
4. The Iron Giant (1999)

21. Guillermo Del Toro
1. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
2. The Devil's Backbone (2001)
3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
4. Cronos (1993)
5. Hellboy (2004)
6. Blade II (2002)
7. Mimic (1997)

20. James Cameron
1. The Abyss (1989)
2. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
3. Aliens (1986)
4. Terminator (1984)
5. Avatar (2009)
6. True Lies (1994)
7. Titanic (1997)

19. David O. Russell
1. Three Kings (1999)
2. The Fighter (2010)
3. I Heart Huckabees (2004)
4. Flirting with Disaster (1996)
5. Spanking the Monkey (1994)

18. Wes Anderson
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2000)
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
3. Rushmore (1996)
4. Bottle Rocket (1998)
5. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

17. Darren Aronofsky
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
2. Black Swan (2010)
3. The Wrestler (2008)
4. The Fountain (2006)
5. Pi (1998)

16. Mike Leigh
1. Naked (1993)
2. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
3. Another Year (2010)
4. Topsy-Turvey (1999)
5. Vera Drake (2004)
6. Secrets and Lies (1996)

15. Pedro Almodovar
1. Talk to Her (2002)
2. All About My Mother (1999)
3. Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
4. To Return (2006)
5. The Skin I Live In (2011)
6. Broken Embraces (2009)
7. Bad Education (2004)

14. Danny Boyle
1. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
2. 127 Hours (2010)
3. Trainspotting (1996)
4. 28 Days Later (2002)
5. Sunshine (2007)
6. Millions (2004)
7. Shallow Grave (1994)
8. A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
9. The Beach (2000)

13. Christopher Nolan
1. Memento (2000)
2. The Prestige (2006)
3. The Dark Knight (2008)
4. Batman Begins (2005)
5. Following (1998)
6. Inception (2010)
7. Insomnia (2002)

12. Peter Jackson
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
4. Heavenly Creatures (1994)
5. King Kong (2005)
6. The Lovely Bones (2009)

11. David Fincher
1. The Social Network (2010)
2. Fight Club (1999)
3. Zodiac (2007)
4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
5. Se7en (1995)
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
7. Panic Room (2002)
8. The Game (1997)
9. Alien 3 (1992)

10. Quentin Tarantino
1. Pulp Fiction (1994)
2. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
4. Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003)
5. Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004)
6. Death Proof (2007)
7. Jackie Brown (1997)

9. Terrence Malick
1. Days of Heaven (1978)
2. The Tree of Life (2011)
3. The Thin Red Line (1998)
4. Badlands (1973)
5. The New World (2005)

8. Clint Eastwood
1. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
2. Unforgiven (1992)
3. Mystic River (2003)
4. Hereafter (2010)
5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
6. Gran Torino (2008)
7. Changeling (2008)
8. Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
9. Invictus (2009)
10. J. Edgar (2011)

7. David Lynch
1. Blue Velvet (1986)
2. The Elephant Man (1980)
3. Mulholland Drive (2001)
4. The Straight Story (1999)
5. Lost Highway (1997)
6. Wild at Heart (1990)
7. Inland Empire (2006)
8. Eraserhead (1977)
9. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
10. Dune (1984)

6. Paul Thomas Anderson
1. Magnolia (1999)
2. There Will Be Blood (2007)
3. Boogie Nights (1997)
4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
5. Hard Eight (1996)

5. Spike Lee
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
2. 25th Hour (2002)
3. Malcolm X (1992)
4. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
5. Clockers (1995)
6. Jungle Fever (1991)
7. Inside Man (2006)
8. Get on the Bus (1996)
9. He Got Game (1998)
10. Summer of Sam (1999)
11. Crooklyn (1994)

4. Roman Polanski
1. Chinatown (1974)
2. The Pianist (2002)
3. Rosemary's Baby (1968)
4. The Ghost Writer (2010)
5. Tess (1979)
6. Repulsion (1965)
7. The Tenant (1976)
8. Death and the Maiden (1994)
9. Frantic (1986)
10. Carnage (2011)
11. Macbeth (1971)
12. Cul-de-sac (1966)
13. Oliver Twist (2005)

3. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
1. No Country for Old Men (2007)
2. Fargo (1996)
3. A Serious Man (2009)
4. True Grit (2010)
5. Barton Fink (1991)
6. The Big Lebowski (1998)
7. Miller's Crossing (1990)
8. O' Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
9. The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
10. Blood Simple (1984)
11. Burn After Reading (2008)
12. Raising Arizona (1987)
13. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
14. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
15. The Ladykillers (2004)

2. Steven Spielberg
1. Schindler's List (1993)
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
4. Empire of the Sun (1987)
5. Munich (2005)
6. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
8. War Horse (2011)
9. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
10. Jaws (1975)
11. Jurassic Park (1993)
12. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
13. Amistad (1997)
14. Minority Report (2002)
15. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
16. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
17. War of the Worlds (2005)
18. The Color Purple (1985)
19. The Sugarland Express (1974)
20. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
21 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
22. Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997)
23. Hook (1991)
24. Always (1989)
25. The Terminal (2004)
26. 1941 (1979)

1. Martin Scorsese
1. Raging Bull (1980)
2. Taxi Driver (1976)
3. Goodfellas (1990)
4. The Departed (2006)
5. The Aviator (2004)
6. Mean Streets (1973)
7. Gangs of New York (2002)
8. The King of Comedy (1983)
9. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
10. Shutter Island (2010)
11. Hugo (2011)
12. The Color of Money (1986)
13. After Hours (1985)
14. Cape Fear (1991)
15. The Age of Innocence (1993)
16. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
17. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
18. Casino (1995)
19. Kundun (1997)
20. New York, New York (1977)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

East Asian Directors Marathon #13- Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000, Taiwan, Ang Lee)

"A faithful heart makes wishes come true."

To recap- I've found myself doing an about face on most of the films I've undertaken in my marathon. Mainly thanks to a modern Asian film class I took at my college, I've allowed myself to sort of come to an understanding of the small differences in national cinemas that initially turned me off.

After watching Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, I've come to really respect Park Chan-wook and the risks he takes. After watching Not One Less and Raise the Red Lantern, I've learned to just sit back and enjoy the beauty in the work of Zhang Yimou. I was completely off-base on my impression of Wong Kar-wai as I just didn't really "get" his art-house sensibilities, but I've come to love and re-watch his work (In the Mood for Love) after enjoying Chungking Express and Happy Together. John Woo... well, I've always been a fan of his bloody operas.

With Ang Lee, I had only seen and liked Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, Ride with the Devil, and Taking Woodstock (it was okay, in retrospect). I really respect his body of work and I hope to enjoy his earlier Taiwanese films should I ever decide to watch them. The Ice Storm was a phenomenal experience and I hoped it would be repeated with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I was hoping for Lee to take what I had come to dig in Hero and House of Flying Daggers (the only other wuxia films I had seen, both from Zhang Yimou) and add that level of psychological and emotional depth that one can find in practically all of his work (even in his failed attempt with Hulk). Actually, I find CTHD to be a tad overrated. Or perhaps I'm just not "getting it" like I didn't at first with Zhang, Wong, or Park.

That energy that Lee puts into his films is definitely present. The cinematography and the choreography would place the film high up on a list of the most beautifully constructed films I've seen. From the scene where Michelle Yeoh runs up a wall to where Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun-fat balance on tree branches, everything looks fantastic. I feel kind of spoiled since Zhang created these fantastic color palettes for sections of his wuxia films, but Lee's feel less artful and just more real and perhaps even gritty would be the word I'm looking for.

Now, I understand that plots for wuxia films aren't always the most down-to-Earth with gravity and physics often being defied, but this plot was just too far fetched for me. I was hoping that a majority of the film would be a protagonist facing off against an antagonist like in most martial arts-related films I've seen, but that takes a back seat. Instead Lee has us look at the personalities of these characters. A commendable effort, but after a while I grew tired of the looking around inside their heads. The film didn't need that long flashback in the middle and it absolutely didn't need half of the supporting characters that wandered about aimlessly. There was some human elements present during such a spectacular story, but I just felt it wasn't strong enough. I was more intrigued by the fighting than I was about whether Jen would finally side with the other characters. The film almost felt typical once you remove all of the stunt-work.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Even the thought of a Thor movie had me caring very little. I just kept thinking to myself how unadaptable for the screen the Marvel Comics character was. I became a little excited when Kenneth Branagh was announced as the director (Branagh is the British director of some excellent films- Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, As You Like It... some okay ones- Love Labour's Lost... and some horrible ones- Frankenstein and Sleuth). Then the trailer looked campy as all hell. I pretty much went into this movie with no expectations. Well, I walked out with the same sense of surprise as I did three years ago when Jon Favreau's Iron Man came out.

Don't get me wrong, this was still your typical summer blockbuster (crappy 3D included), but my fanboy side came out and enjoyed the film for what is was worth. Branagh and co. managed to make something that should be so difficult to translate from page-to-screen and have it be relatable. This should be no surprise. I'm not an avid reader, but I consider Branagh's adaptations of Shakespeare's work (especially his Hamlet) to be fantastic films that I can relate to on some level. With Thor, the cast and crew find an emotional core to these characters and give it a healthy amount of humor and action.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an Asgardian god, who after igniting a war between Asgard and the King of the Frost Giants (Colm Feore), he is banished by his father (Anthony Hopkins as Odin) to Earth. On Earth, Thor meets a beautiful scientist (Natalie Portman as Jane Foster) and must figure out how to get back to his homeland all while his nefarious brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) plots to overthrow his own royal family.

It is ultimately a story about finding oneself and much like the comic book character, Thor can be a very stubborn guy. He lives for the battle and because of that quality, he hasn't really matured as perhaps Odin would have wanted him to. It takes him getting in touch with his humanity (of course with the help of actual humans) to finally mature into his position as a future leader of his people. The cast (also including Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Jaimie Alexander, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Joshua Dallas, Rene Russo, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jeremy Renner) are all very committed to their characters (and as a fan of the comic book, I felt like everyone understood where those characters came from both historically and emotionally speaking).

Sadly, my opinion of this film stems more from that as a fan of the source material than as a moviegoer. I'm not much of a fan of action blockbusters, so don't get me wrong, things are dumbed down so this movie can be marketed to the common denominator of a summer movie audience member. Not that I'm bashing big budget science-fiction epics, I just want the emotional dimensions of these stories to be more complex. Yes, it isn't as artful as Branagh's other films (but that was to be expected as I just mentioned above) so in the end, the film is not as artful as it is fun, but what a lot of fun it is.