Mule, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Mule” attempts to deliver a moving family drama and a suspenseful dance between a ninety-year-old drug courier (Clint Eastwood who also directs the picture) and a hotshot Drug Enforcement Agency agent (Bradley Cooper), but it succeeds at neither. The reason is because the material lacks the necessary subtlety so that lessons about family and personal responsibilities seep through both strands in a way that surprises us. As a result, although the film offers strong performances, especially by Eastwood and Dianne Wiest, the latter portraying the former’s ex-wife who has had it with decades of the man’s absence as a husband, a father, and a grandfather, the work offers neither excitement nor freshness.
Nearly every point about Earl Stone, a Korean War veteran, is handled with a hammer, from the way he treats his family—and the manner in which they treat him—to the rapport he builds with various members of the cartel. Initially, it is entertaining because the man lacks a filter. For instance, he makes pointed racial jokes so often that we wonder whether eventually a person might take it the wrong way and decide to put a gun on his face. But there are jokes about him, too. His age is a source of humor but so is his obstinacy. Pardon the pun but the usual tricks grow old eventually.
Halfway through, one cannot help but realize that the screenplay by Nick Schenk has gone on autopilot. While I enjoyed that the film actually takes the time to establish the subject’s usual patterns of drug transport, it grows repetitive by the fourth or fifth run. It gets interesting only when wrinkles are introduced such as Earl getting handler (Ignacio Serrichio) because the boss (Andy Garcia) is so impressed that the old man is able to deliver over a hundred kilos of cocaine every run without arousing suspicion. (The man has never gotten a speeding ticket—impressive especially given the fact he has driven across forty-one states.) The relationship between Earl and the handler is interesting at times, but it never gets a chance to take off since the plot is too busy juggling Earl’s family problems and the DEA closing in.
Regarding the investigation, there is not much of it—lukewarm at best. Cooper’s character is shown taking pictures from afar, putting pressure on a metrosexual informant, and keeping his cool when mistakes or misinformation lead to relatively small arrests. But we never see the man pushed to his absolute limit. I was not convinced of his formidability as a person without the badge. So when Agent Bates and Earl finally meet, there is only minimal tension. Performance-wise, Eastwood steamrolls over Cooper not because the latter is incapable of holding his own but because he does not have much to play with. As Earl must remain interesting whether he is on the job or with his family, the man hunting him must be equally absorbing as well.
We all know the importance of family and so when a mature drama comes along, especially one based on an incredible true story, it is expected that the lesson be explored in meaningful ways rather than simply resting on platitudes. While not short on personality, “The Mule” lacks specific details that help to turn the work into something memorable and special.
★★ / ★★★★
Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a military contractor who currently works for a billionaire (Bill Murray), visits Hawaii for five days in order to make an important deal with the locals and to supervise a gate blessing at an airport. A member of the Air Force, the very enthusiastic Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), is assigned to be his escort. The two soon hit it off despite Brian’s initial reluctance because his former flame (Rachel MacAdams), currently unhappy with her marriage, also lives on the island.
“Aloha,” written and directed by Cameron Crowe is a fine movie—which is not a compliment. It is too vanilla—divorced from people’s outrage regarding the casting of Stone playing a character who is supposed to be a quarter Asian—meaning there is not much flavor in the story, script, and style of direction. There are, however, highly watchable performances, particularly by Stone who is radiant in just about every scene. Cooper has a strong, likable presence, sort of like an uncle you want to hug and share a beer with, but it is Stone who steals the movie.
There is some believable chemistry shared between the central potential couple. The two eventually realizing that they feel attracted to one another does not take half of the running time which is a nice surprise because this decision makes room for other, more interesting avenues. I particularly enjoyed the strained relationship between Brian and Tracy, his ex-girlfriend with whom he had not seen for over a decade. Because Cooper and McAdams are seasoned performers, comfortable with projecting emotions under multiple wavelengths, I believed that they have history and that is hard for them even being in the same room, let alone excavating a bit of the past.
One might argue that the story does not truly come into focus. Another might claim that it is really about nothing new or deep, just a series of scenes where we follow the main character and events unfold. Neither would be wrong. What I liked, though, was the feeling of being involved in the light comedy-drama despite not having a classic story arc. For example, there is no expected villain here—which is surprising because the ex-girlfriend could have been an easy target. Another potential source of conflict could have been Tracy’s husband (John Krasinski). Instead, these two are actually likable even though there are some problems with their partnerships.
Less effective are scenes involving the military and the billionaire which comprises about a third of the picture. Those in position of power are written and played like caricatures. While it is apparent that none of them are supposed to be taken seriously, I found them rather dull and boring. Casting big names to play these men is a waste.
Although Alec Baldwin and Bill Murray have at least one scene where they are allowed to shine, neither character says nor does anything that impacts the story significantly. I argue that if these scenes were removed altogether or only mentioned, the final product would have been stronger because the material would have turned out leaner. Emphasis would likely have been on human relationships rather than a thinly plotted redemption/patriotism subplot that comes across as highly tacked on.
“Aloha” is predictable and strange tonally—the latter being a compliment. I was curious, never frustrated, with where it is going and as far as light fares go, it could be worse. Still, aside from pretty good performances from actors with whom we know we can rely on to deliver, there is nothing much to recommend here.
Place Beyond the Pines, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Though Romina (Eva Mendes) wishes to hide the fact that she and Luke (Ryan Gosling) conceived a child from their one night stand a year ago, the truth has a way of being discovered eventually. Luke wants to be a good father to his son and so he decides to quit his job as a traveling state fair stuntman. However, since his current source of income is not enough for him to live on as well as to give lavishly to his son, he and a friend (Ben Mendelsohn) decide to rob banks.
“The Place Beyond the Pines,” directed by Derek Cianfrance, is a mood piece, placing emphasis on delayed responses and meaningful looks, and it is entertaining to a degree because it is able to focus on the importance of fatherhood. The story is divided into three arcs, beginning with the stuntman’s storyline, and it is not short on ambition. Having said that, the middle section, especially important because it is the connective tissue between past and present, is consistently problematic and underwhelming.
The middle portion focuses on the guilt experienced by Avery (Bradley Cooper), a cop on his first year on the job, as well as the corruption within the police force. While the director is able to communicate the rookie cop’s anguish, there is not enough attention paid on Avery’s relationship with his father. The latter thinks that his son can and should be doing more with his life considering that Avery has a law degree and passed the bar. Having that relationship serve a side dish is a significant miscalculation. As a result, it diminishes the power of the first and third arcs, Luke’s love for his baby boy and Avery’s son befriending Luke’s, respectively, with both teenage boys (Emory Cohen, Dane DeHaan) not having constant father figures in their lives.
It is a shame because the film is well-acted. Though Gosling’s taciturn performance does not break new ground, he allows his character to be accessible to us by not always acting so glum. Appropriately, Gosling’s best scenes are of Luke interacting with his son. Cooper, like Gosling, radiates a charm but a darkness just underneath it. I believed his character to be someone so ambitious, he would be willing to throw anyone under the bus. Both men want to achieve a status: Luke being a good dad and Avery being in power. Luke may be the one robbing banks but Avery, arguably, is the hungrier animal.
The picture recoups some of its intrigue during the third arc. There is a good level of tension because we know the boys’ connection but they do not. It is only a matter of time until one or both of them uncovers what binds them.
Based on the screenplay by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder, “The Place Beyond the Pines” is disappointing not because it is incapable of being great. On the contrary, it so close to telling a dramatic yet entertaining story but it falls short because the bridge between the setup and the payoff is not fully defined.
American Sniper (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Officially credited with one hundred sixty kills over four tours in Iraq, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is known for being the deadliest sniper in American history. Director Clint Eastwood creates a beautiful-looking film and manages to extract a solid performance from his lead actor, but the movie is too long and leaves the audience with a certain level of detachment. By the end, we do not feel as though we know the subject as a complete person but merely a representation of a blindly patriotic man who claims that his actions are motivated by wanting to defend his country.
The setup is particularly strong, beginning with a memorable first scene in which the marksman must make a decision whether to shoot an Iraqi woman and her child who may be a danger to American soldiers standing a couple of feet away. We feel the weight of Kyle’s conundrum as Cooper highlights every blink, inhalation and exhalation, the angling of his arms as his character takes careful aim.
Right away we get the impression that doing what he does is not to be taken lightly—that just because he is far away from the fray does not mean he lacks courage. Having the ability to pull the trigger is one thing but carefully gathering evidence that a person is a threat within a span of a few seconds is something else entirely. At times he must rely on instinct. Instincts can be wrong.
The screenplay is written by Jason Hall and it is inexcusable not to have well-developed supporting characters, especially for a movie that runs above two hours. Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), is not given very much to do other than to look seductive in a bar, act pregnant, and sound worried over the phone. Later in the picture, Taya expresses to her husband that when he is home, although he is physically there, he is not mentally present in the company of her and their children. There are at least three scenes that are very similar to one another and when one considers Miller’s character as a whole, Taya comes across as the nagging wife. We do not see enough of her struggles in being a mother who must raise children on her own while her husband is overseas.
Another character that I thought is worth getting to know further is the Marine who trained becoming a priest (Luke Grimes) prior to enlisting. If the character had been developed, he would have been a great foil for Kyle. Although they ended up in the same place and fighting for the same thing, their starting points, one can argue, are worlds apart. Specifically, I was interested in how a man of faith was able to change the way he thinks and take another life when such an action goes against what he has come to know.
The picture is not short on suspense. When we see what Kyle sees before he takes a shot, there is almost always a moment of suspension—that doubt in the back of our minds, questioning whether he will be able to hit his target at a crucial moment. When the camera is patient but calculating, we are engaged and this sets the work apart from other films that offer junk, empty-calorie violence.
“American Sniper,” based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography, is handsomely made, offering consistent bursts of tension and tragedies, but it suffers from pacing issues and a lack of development of its supporting characters. Inaccuracies from the real story aside, the film is worth seeing and thinking about. Clearly the cost of war should not only be measured in numbers.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought plots that have something to do with the destruction of a world or a universe are beginning to taste disgustingly stale, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” directed by James Gunn, arrives at the party to offer a slightly stilted spin on what we have learned to expect from modern superhero movies. No, its place is not alongside the best of Marvel movies—the likes of Bryan Singer’s “X2: X-Men United,” Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” and Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers”—but the picture is goofy, energetic, and colorful fun from top to bottom.
Because its characters are so different from what the Marvel-verse has put forward thus far, they are instantly one of the more memorable of the bunch. Consider the diversity of their appearances: a wise-cracking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a multipurpose tree (voiced by Vin Diesel), a muscle head (Dave Bautista), an orphan with green pigmentation on her skin (Zoë Saldana), and a human abducted from Earth the night his mother passed (Chris Pratt—a perfect fit for the lead role). But the material does not simply rely on its characters looking different. Each is given a defined personality so when they clash it is interesting and when they get along there is emotional resonance.
Its strength is not the action sequences. They are relatively standard which makes the final third feel especially drawn out and boring at times. While the special and visual effects are beautiful, the final battle is almost weightless—which is odd because an endangered civilization is supposed to be at stake. Another reason why it does not work is because the residents of Xandar remain distant—we learn very little about their customs, culture, attitudes, or way of life. Thus, when the planet is threatened, we are not moved. We are aware that Xandarian lives would be lost but the level or significance of the loss remains up the air. At least with other works that involve Earth being destroyed, we are able to relate immediately.
Its strength is not in the representation of the villain either. Ronan (Lee Pace) is supposed to be this fearsome figure who has killed millions or even billions—including worlds. When intergalactic beings hear his name, they cower. But, to me, he is a big, bad bore. We learn one thing about him: Just like any typical growly villain, he craves power. But why is he interesting? The screenplay does not address this question and it is a most critical miscalculation. As a result, he is forgettable.
Why not write a villain like Loki, someone who we cannot help but wonder what he is thinking (or scheming) every time he is in front of the camera? The most powerful villains are not necessarily the best villains. The best villains are the most intelligent, most cunning, those who we love to hate but love nonetheless. In a way, the best villains tend to define our heroes. Take a look at Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” with respect to Batman and The Joker’s twisted symbiotic relationship.
So what is the picture’s strength? That would be the moments in-between. I loved it when a character would break into a dance in the middle of an event that is supposed to be dead serious. The bantering among the characters are wonderful to listen to not only because of the words in the script but because they capture the tone, mood, and pauses exactly right. And just when we think a romantic connection is going to happen between the green-skinned lady and our central protagonist with a penchant for ‘70s hits, it takes a left turn—and then another sudden left just when we are starting to get comfortable.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” works because it knows how to flirt with the audience. In some ways, it is a parody of Marvel movies that came before—but not so bloody obvious about it that we are taken out of the experience completely. Instead, it establishes a universe that is silly but serious enough that we can respect and look forward to more frolicking off-beat adventures.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
★★ / ★★★★
It is the last day of Camp Firewood which means that the camp director, Beth (Janeane Garofalo), and her camp counselors must endure one more day of trying to overcome their feelings for one another. Geeky Coop (Michael Showalter) is finally noticed by salacious Katie (Marguerite Moreau). The only problem is she’s still seeing scatter-brained Andy (Paul Rudd), currently eyeing blonde Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) like a hawk.
Meanwhile, Victor (Ken Marino), known as the stallion of the bunch, looks forward to having sex with sexually unrestrained Abby (Marisa Ryan). Incidentally, he is forced by Beth to take some of the kids to go water rafting, which is a couple of hours away from camp. Beth, too, is attracted to someone, an astrophysicist named Henry (David Hyde Pierce) who later volunteers to entertain the “indoor kids” to impress her.
Written by Michael Showalter and David Wain, “Wet Hot American Summer” is riotously funny when the jokes work but extremely frustrating and annoying when they do not. The characters are supposed to be stereotypes of camp counselors in the movies of the ‘80s so the comedy must be judged on how and if they are used wisely in order to pull off a biting satire. Like reaching into a bag marbles, some are shiny and some are quite dull.
Beth is wonderful as a leader who is required to be everywhere at once. Despite her share of awkward quirks, I believed that she is functional enough to successfully manage the place. But the characters who have only sex on the brain are consistently hit-and-miss.
For instance, the dizzying dance between Coop and Katie goes absolutely nowhere. Every time they share the same frame, I wanted to see more of Andy’s amusing negligence whenever he is around other women. One of the more entertaining scenes involves a kid almost drowning in the lake because Andy is too busy shoving his tongue down a girl’s throat. Coop and Katie do have one funny scene, however, which involves trading clothes while sitting in a barn. The cheesiness of the whole thing is supposed to make us groan because movies from the past try to convince us that wearing someone’s piece of clothing is romantic. It is not romantic when the other person has lice or crabs.
I wished that McKinley (Michael Ian Black) and Ben (Bradley Cooper), gay lovers, had more scenes together. I felt like a lot of the jokes that could have stemmed from the homosexual relationship are held back out of political correctness. The picture does not need to be sensitive especially when it is supposed to be a satire. On the contrary, it must be merciless. I had a similar reaction with the way the attraction between the crafts teacher (Molly Shannon) and one of her students (Gideon Jacobs) is handled
To my surprise, the student-teacher attraction ends up being my favorite “relationship” in the film. It is so wrong yet so hilarious. It is both a shame and a missed opportunity that the screenplay chooses to shy away from polemical topics in order to make room for comedy that is easier to digest.
“Wet Hot American Summer,” directed by David Wain, needs to recognize its strengths and play upon them. Extraneous scenes that are downright stupid and unfunny like characters running from one room to another, screaming, and knocking down breakable objects on purpose need to be excised. In scenes like that, what exactly is being satirized—the writers running out of ideas?
Hangover Part III, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has been off his meds for six months and is in dire need of an intervention. His family has found a treatment facility in Arizona and his friends—Stu (Ed Helms), Doug (Justin Bartha) and Phil (Bradley Cooper)—agree to take him there. While making their way through a desert, their car is run off the road by a truck. Inside are armed men wearing pig masks. They work for Marshall (John Goodman) who is very upset because Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) had stolen his gold. He thinks that the wolf pack know the man enough to be able to track him. If they fail to present Mr. Chow to Marshall within three days, Doug is as good as dead.
“The Hangover Part III,” written by Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin, has no reason to exist. Clearly, it received the green light because there is dinero to be made. Nobody cared about creativity, making the audience laugh, or creating a good movie. This is as depressing as it gets. It proves that sitting through over ninety minutes of mostly unfunny and forced gags is a draining and maddening experience.
Instead of focusing on how the movie is an endurance test one cannot win, I choose to mention bits that do work. Though evanescent and few, they are there—if one is forgiving enough to see through the boredom and lack of inspiration.
The shining star, not surprisingly, is Melissa McCarthy, playing a pawnshop clerk with whom Alan has fallen for. McCarthy makes the correct decision to play it small because the men’s personalities are larger-than-life. This way, by playing an ordinary character who can be vulnerable and tough, she stands out. The lollipop scene is outstanding. Since it is so effective, I wondered by McCarthy was not given a bigger role to play.
I have always found Alan’s creepy, homoerotic remarks toward Phil to be awkward and odd or somewhat amusing. Galifianakis’ line deliveries during these scenes are close to perfect and having Cooper’s character respond in a macho but secure way is icing on the cake. There is an element of comedy to it because, in real life, most or many straight men that do look like Cooper’s character tend to respond with a level or tone of animosity.
So why is the movie not good? It is a question worth asking because, in my opinion, the on-screen talent is there. Occasionally, they are able to rise above what is on paper because they allow their charm and energy to seep through. The writing lacks a special punch that made the first of the series so surprising and enjoyable. Here, there is nothing to discover about the characters or the wild situations they are thrusted into. In other words, it has nothing to go on and yet the film is made anyway.
Directed by Todd Phillips, “The Hangover Part III” is pessimism on a platter. Though I am optimistic and try to separate what works from what does not, one thing is certain: I do not respond well to mediocrity—a trait embedded in the marrow of this movie. One can only hope that the screenwriters will have enough insight to stop and create a project that is more fulfilling—to them and us—one that contributes something to the art form.
American Hustle (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
For all its twists and turns, “American Hustle,” based on the screenplay by Eric Singer and David O. Russell, can be digested as a straightforward story because of its overarching theme: desperate individuals who will do just about anything to procure better lives. It is irrelevant whether the word “better” is defined by money, celebrity, love, or improving the community. It is about a person who embodies a dominant motivation and how he or she clashes and struggles, forming partnerships—tenuous and durable—along the way if necessary, to get to an endpoint. The whole dance is ruckus fun.
Duplicitous characters—deliberate or otherwise—are front and center. It is made clear that not one of them is trustworthy. Part of the enjoyment is trying to figure out how they think and anticipating what they might do in order to dislodge themselves from sticky situations. The screenplay uses the ‘70s milieu—flamboyant suits and dresses, big hair, attention-grabbing soundtrack—to serve as a complement for moral ambiguity.
At one point, one character tells another, while looking at a painting, that the world is not exactly black and white—bad or good, dirty or clean—but is extremely gray. While the idea has been explored many times prior, it is a way of asking us whether we are we supposed to root for any of the characters. I found it interesting that I was on all of their sides eventually. But the picture highlights the dangers of wanting it all, that it is foolish to expect that everything will work out perfectly just because a plan is planned ever so carefully.
The four central performances are colorful and entertaining. Christian Bale plays a conman named Irving Rosenfeld whose so-called business involves luring unsuspecting people—desperate folks looking to make a lot of money by “investing” five thousand dollars. Irving meets Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party, shows her his laundromat, and the two begin an affair. Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) but they might as well be divorced. She insists they stay together because her mother and grandmother never divorced their husbands. Meanwhile, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent, has picked up the stench of Irving’s scam. It is such a joy how the actors are able to hit the right comedic and dramatic notes so consistently while managing to avoid making their characters so quirky that it distracts or takes away from the narrative momentum.
But the real magic is in the details. David O. Russell’s astute direction is most welcome and fitting when the camera lingers on a face for a couple of seconds longer than the standard close-up. This enables him as a storyteller to truly capture his characters’ quiet desperation. When they seem happy, perhaps they are really not. When things appear to be going right, whether it be a con or one’s love life, the eyes remain unconvinced—there is worry and anxiety that maybe everything is going too right. What is the Plan B? When doubt or uncertainty paces to and fro in the back of the mind, is that happiness?
Notice I mentioned the main players but I did not describe the con. The reason is I do not think the con is important the story. It drives the plot—to keep it going so that we can observe how the four characters will—or fail to—survive and acclimatize to new situations.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pat (Bradley Cooper), diagnosed with bipolar disorder accompanied by severe mood swings, has been institutionalized for eight months by the order of the court. His mother (Jacki Weaver) picks him up from the hospital and takes him home so that he can try to get into the groove of living his life again. But Pat is on a mission. He believes that if he works hard enough to get in shape, learns to be more knowledgeable about classic literature, and puts his life back together, his wife, whom he caught sexually involved with a much older man, would want him back. Meanwhile, everybody knows that the restraining order is there for a reason but no one dares to break him out of wishful thinking.
Dozens of movies about a man and a woman meeting and getting together romantically released throughout the course of a year consistently prove that romantic comedy is a tough sub-genre to get right, but “Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the novel by Matthew Quick, is a shining and welcome exception. Consistently going for the big laughs and the picture might be criticized for not having enough heart, unrealistic because life is not as simple as a series of sketches. Too much sad moments and the film might be denounced for being too dark and depressing, not at all fit for couples and hopeless romantics who wish to validate their beliefs.
Perhaps one of the toughest challenges the film faces is the question of when–or if–it is okay to laugh at a character with a mood disorder. I admired that the writing is very discerning between the man and his ailment even though at times it is very difficult to separate them. I liked that, in a way, it asks us what we consider to be politically correct. When some of Pat’s unstable behavior is played for laughs, it is never mean-spirited. There is always an ironic twist, a parallel joke, or insight that accompanies what some people may easily dismiss as offensive. For instance, Pat wearing a trash bag every time he goes running around the neighborhood may be considered as a behavior by “a crazy person.” Yes, it’s amusing that someone from a middle-class family would willingly wear trash bag in public. But the way we may choose to see it is it might be our protagonist’s way of acknowledging that it was wrong of him to almost beat a man to death after he has caught his wife having an affair. Trash is what is considered to be an unwanted thing. Deep down, knows he is unwanted by the community and he wishes to do better, despite his stubborn personality, and so we want to be on his side.
Embers of romance smolder when Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) meet over dinner hosted by Pat’s friend (John Ortiz) and Tiffany’s sister (Julia Stiles). With the help of a sharp script that allows Pat and Tiffany to say what is on their minds without filters, Cooper and Lawrence imbue their characters with a fresh vitality through their eyes. Even though they are, in a lot of ways, unhappy and damaged people, we want them to get to know each other and perhaps become a couple. Each time they interact, we can feel that they were once happy and are still willing to reach a new version of what they think makes up happiness. The screenplay amps up the ante by forcing Pat and Tiffany to be a part of a mostly one-sided, unglamorous romance. We may not have a bipolar disorder or depression but they remain relatable because we grow to understand their personalities and the way they think.
“Silver Linings Playbook,” based on the screenplay and directed by David O. Russell, is about people who need emotional healing with plenty of unexpected humor along the way. It is an atypical romantic comedy due to its reliance on utilizing silence, especially to build drama between father (Robert De Niro) who thinks he has not given enough to his younger son, to go for the big emotions that feel genuine thereby taking away elements that might be perceived as manipulative. Why use music to give us a hint on what to think or how to feel when we have the brains (and hopefully the empathy) to read between what is communicated and the unsaid? The music, however, is required for the dance competition. It is executed with such joy and creativity that if it fails to make you smile, you just might be taking life a bit too seriously.
Hangover Part II, The (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Two years after a bachelor’s party turned into horrendous but hilarious mess in Las Vegas, Phil, (Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and Doug (Justin Bartha) headed to Thailand to see Stu (Ed Helms) get married to Lauren (Jamie Chung), despite the father of the bride’s disapproval of the groom. Two nights before the big day, the four friends, along with Lauren’s sixteen-year-old brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), each quaffed a bottle of harmless beer at the beach. The next day, Phil and Alan woke up alongside Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), an international criminal, with Doug and Teddy missing. Like last time, the party had no choice but to retrace their steps, find the persons of interest, and get back to the wedding in time. The cardinal sin that “The Hangover Part II,” written by Craig Mazin, Scott Armstrong, and Todd Phillips, committed was underestimating their audiences’ capacity to appreciate a sequel that, in the least, tried to be original. I had no qualms about the characters making an utter fool of themselves by getting into the most ridiculous situations involving Russians and their pet monkey, prostitutes with something unexpected in their panties, and Paul Giamatti being devilishly magnetic as a crime boss, but giving us a facsimile of its predecessor was not only lazy on the filmmakers’ part, it was also quite pessimistic and insulting. Given that the first film was such a success nationally and internationally, one would expect that the writers would at least try to come up with something different so that, after watching the final product, we would be begging to see more. The characters weren’t allowed to move past their adventures in Vegas and I wondered, with great frustration, why not. Alan kept bringing up what had happened in Vegas two years ago in almost every other scene. It was counterproductive because instead of drawing us into this specific new adventure and slowly revealing why frolicking all over Thailand was special in its own right, referencing to its counterpart forced us to compare analogous scenes–this one overwhelmingly inferior. The jokes ranged from bad to completely absent. I didn’t see what was so funny about smoking monkeys and ten-year-old kids engaging in underaged drinking. Nor did I recognize why the characters eventually broke out in song instead of just engaging in silence. At times, scenes with a poverty of words can work given the right timing and direction. These guys embodied hedonism which, in reality, almost always comes with a price. Instead of being boisterous jerks all the time, stereotypically American in that they had no regard or respect toward other cultures, why not allow them to sit and consider the fact that perhaps their heedlessness led them exactly where they should be and deservingly so? “The Hangover Part II,” clumsily directed by Todd Phillips, was a comedy that was diffident in terms of dealing with real emotions. Sure, it was about having fun and getting into trouble afterwards. But the filmmakers had forgotten that their project was about friendship, too. From what I saw, these guys were not worthy of each other’s friendships. Then why should they be worthy of our time?
My Little Eye (2002)
★★ / ★★★★
Five strangers were picked to live in a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. If Matt (Sean Cw Johnson), Rex (Kris Lemche), Danny (Stephen O’Reilly), Emma (Laura Regan), and Charlie (Jennifer Sky) could stay together six months, they would receive a million dollars. It seemed like an easy task but living together became challenging when one of them ended up dead. If they stepped outside the premises or contacted the police, the game would be over. Directed by Marc Evans, “My Little Eye” was obviously inspired by reality shows like MTV’s “The Real World.” However, the film was more about the characters feeling isolated from society and the paranoia that resulted from cameras that surrounded the place instead of drinking, bar hopping, and engaging in all sorts of casual sex. The build-up from seemingly small pranks to a possible murder was executed nicely. Was there a killer among the five or was everything controlled by the company that chose them? The former was possible because there was no crew. Cameras were simply installed from a certain height and they moved according to someone’s motion. But the latter was also quite possible. Someone could just as easily sneak in the house as the five slept. They wouldn’t notice because the old mansion made all sorts of noises. Unfortunately, once the mystery was revealed, the picture lost the majority of its momentum. It became a routine running around the mansion until someone tripped or slipped. It wasn’t scary. Since it was so dark and the images from the cameras were blurry, I couldn’t help but adopt a passive stance. The editing was manic. Instead of lingering at one creepy shot, it would jump from one camera angle to another in attempt to show all the creepy shots. It’s better to have one very effective shot that goes for the jugular instead of having many less effective shots with questionable purpose. It wasn’t a good sign when I didn’t care who lived or died. We heard about Emma’s childhood story involving a friend who killed his family using a hammer but it didn’t reveal much about who she was. And as much as I appreciated the fact that the five strangers talked like regular people off the streets, I couldn’t help but snicker when a character would blurt out, “I’m scared!” or “I’m in it for the money!” Another unintentionally funny scene was when the remaining four decided to put the dead body outside, in the snow, right after one of them stated that they should leave the body where it was because it was a scene of the crime. For a bunch of mid- to late-twentysomethings, they lacked common sense. But then again, so are those who choose to appear on reality shows for the sake of fame that never lasts.