Monday, May 30, 2011

Movie Review: The Hangover 2

The Hangover 2 (2011)
Directed By: Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha and Ken Jeong

Have you seen 2009's The Hangover? If so, than I can assure you that you can go through the rest of your film-loving life without having seen The Hangover 2 without missing a thing. Both films are so identical that the only real differences are the location (moving from Las Vegas to Thailand) and the groom-to-be (now it's Ed Helms' nice-guy dentist, Stu).

The "Wolf Pack" is reunited for the upcoming nuptials of Stu (Ed Helms) and his bride, Lauren (Jamie Chung). Originally from Thailand, where most of her family still resides, Lauren prefers the wedding to be located in her home country, so Stu gathers together his closest friends and relatives to make the trek overseas. After the Las Vegas debacle two years ago, Stu prefers a Bachelor Brunch -- no alcohol, just coffee and eggs. But, when a campfire get-together with his pals Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and the bride's 16-year-old brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), takes a turn for the worse the gang finds themselves lost in Bangkok with a drugged up Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong, reprising his role from the first film) and a cigarette-smoking monkey as their only companions.

There's not much to say about this film, a literal rehash of the 2009 surprise blockbuster hit. Clearly nothing more than a summer cash-grab by studio executives, The Hangover 2 has few laughs and, more than anything else, leaves the viewer with a severe case of deja-vu.

Although the film has a couple of funny moments, for the most part the script contains only a barrage of swearing and a couple of cringe-worthy racist and homophobic remarks. The first half of the film moves forward at a rapid-fire pace; however, by the second hour the plot drags and you just want the guys to get Stu to his wedding on time so everyone can move on. Although the film isn't quite as atrocious as some critics have claimed (Peter Howell of the Toronto Star, for example, gave it only one star in his review), it's definitely no match for its much funnier and much more original predecessor. More than anything else, it's a disappointment.

Sometimes it's best to leave well enough alone, especially when considering the fact that The Hangover was embraced by critics and audiences alike -- a rarity for comedy films, especially ones with a premise involving drunk, immature men in their 30s. Alas, that's not Hollywood's style. Instead, they must beat a joke to a messy pulp, making all the money they can in the process, before leaving it alone and moving on. And that's a shame. With the monstrously popular opening for The Hangover 2 this past weekend (the film pulled in nearly $85 million in only its first four days of release), the inevitable third chapter is likely already in the works. It's safe to predict that it will be set in another yet another exotic location, featuring a new groom (Alan, perhaps?) and identical antics will ensue.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Five Reasons Why I Love: Vertigo (1958)

I recently re-watched the Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo for the first time in a couple of years. I'd forgotten how much I absolutely love this film! I decided to look up some comments by various reviewers from over the years and, while the majority reacted positively to the film, others blasted it as overrated and self-indulgent, which I felt to be a little harsh.

There always seems to be a great debate among movie fans: Which film was Hitchcock's masterpiece? Was it really Vertigo or was it Psycho, Rear Window or North By Northwest? Although I've always been partial to Shadow of a Doubt myself (I think it's his most underrated and overlooked film), but I believe that, after this recent re-watch, Vertigo was truly his masterpiece. All of his films are excellent in their own way, but I always end up coming back to this 1958 classic.

Five Reasons Why I Love Vertigo

1) The Film Noir Elements: Sure, it may not technically be classified as a film noir (although some have argued it can fit into the genre), but it plays out like a colourful homage to one. It has a whole lot of psychosis rolled into just one film. Mumbling, bumbling Detective John Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is an absolute mess and has this strong, overriding desire to "save" a seemingly unattainable woman (Kim Novak in the role of the femme fatale).

2) The Style: The aesthetically pleasing colour scheme is rich and vibrant -- and the focus on the bright greens and reds work really well in contrast to the dark, moody atmosphere of the film. Despite the sunny and cheerful colours, something sinister is always lurking beneath the surface.

3) The Supernatural Subplot: Before the second half of the film does a complete about-face in terms of plot, the first half plays like a creepy little supernatural thriller, complete with the ghostly possibility of the spiritual possession of Novak's character.

4) The Far-Fetched Plot: Some naysayers have criticized Vertigo by saying it has a meandering plot that ultimately serves no purpose. But, what some refer to as "slow-paced", I call a meticulous build-up of tension and suspense -- something that was Hitchcock's specialty. Yes, the plot may be improbable and far-fetched but, really, when was a film noir ever based in reality and gritty authenticity?

5) Jimmy Stewart & Alfred Hitchcock Together Again: The Master of Suspense and nice-guy Jimmy Stewart paired up a few times over the years, but never more successfully than in Vertigo. This is arguably Hitchcock's most nerve-wracking film. With its supernatural atmosphere and slow-burning tension, he envelopes you in the mystery. Stewart plays against the grain, as the neurotic, needy former detective suffering from an acute case of acrophobia. When the woman he desires turns out to be unattainable, he reveals his mental instability by moulding and shaping Novak's character to resemble the other. Stewart arguably did most of his finest work under the tutelage of Hitchcock.

Some Reviews I Read
-Penelope Houston's review from Sight & Sound, 1959.
-Mark Acherman's review from PopMatters, 2006.
-Roger Ebert's review from, 1996.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Movie Review: Bridesmaids

Annie (Kristin Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph).
Bridesmaids (2011)
Starring: Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Chris O'Dowd and Jon Hamm
Screenplay By: Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo
Directed By: Paul Feig

This movie is being sold as "the female version of The Hangover." However, it's not as crass and vulgar as the 2009 buddies comedy and places more emphasis on the relationships between the characters involved -- and I think most people will consider that a good thing. Bridesmaids is a good enough film to stand on its own without the help of comparisons to The Hangover. 

Bridesmaids is a fresh and funny take on your average female-bonding flick, which is a welcome change. It's a genuine comedy, not a romantic comedy (although there are elements of romance in the background). There is no sad, 30-something "spinster" woman who spends the entire two hour running time mourning her lack of a boyfriend while forgetting/ignoring all the other great things she has going on in her life (because, apparently, all women do is dream about their wedding day). Kristin Wiig (who co-wrote the script) set out to make a character-driven film about female friendship without falling into tired stereotype traps. Her character may be a little sad -- but sad in a completely charming, likeable and relatable way. 

Annie (Wiig) has a lot of loose ends in her life -- a series of failed commitments have prevented her from ever finding success. Her attempt at running her own bakery backfired, leaving her strapped for cash and having to resort to a job as a sales girl at a jewellery store. On top of all that, Annie's strange British roommates, Brynn and Gil (Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas), want her out of the house and she's in a dead-end, "no strings attached" relationship with Ted (an uncomfortably creepy, albeit awesome, Jon Hamm). The only respite Annie has from her unhappy situation is her lifelong friendship with Lillian (Maya Rudolph). However, when Lillian reveals that she's getting married and asks Annie to be her maid-of-honour, it forces her to come out of her shell and relate to the "other" women in Lillian's life. The engagement of her closest friend upsets the constancy of Annie's life and she must learn to come to terms with all the changes that come with it. While planning the wedding, Annie must learn to cope with the eclectic group of Lillian's bridesmaids -- the voracious sexual appetite of the groom's sister, Megan (Melissa McCarthy), the timidity of Becca (Ellie Kemper), the brashness of busy working mom, Rita (Wendy McLendon-Covey) and the overbearingly irritating, rich and beautiful "new friend", Helen (Rose Byrne).

The script doesn't give Annie a clear goal -- there are a variety of issues she must combat and, ultimately, her end goal is to simply survive everything involving her personal life and Lillian's wedding. The antics that ensue, which range from the gross to the charming, allow Wiig to show off her comedic chops which, up until now, has only been used in secondary-character roles. A wonderful comedic actress, Wiig plays Annie in such a refreshingly honest (and awkward) way that it's impossible not to root for her. However, she doesn't completely steal the show, letting her co-stars share in the glory, especially the hilarious McCarthy, who plays Megan with such egoless abandon that she almost completely steals the spotlight. Despite all those loose threads in Annie's life, the script throws in one more situation for her to tackle -- her growing affection for a nice-guy Irish cop named Rhodes (Chris O'Dowd). Although some may consider his role unnecessary to the outcome of the film, Rhodes allows Annie to show a softer side to her personality and the chemistry between Wiig and O'Dowd make the whole Annie-Rhodes subplot a welcome addition to an already bloated plot.

Bridesmaids is an incredibly entertaining film that proves that women can be just as funny as men. Despite it's multiple plot threads, it manages to always come back to its main focus -- Annie and her hilarious awkwardness. It's an interesting hybrid of a film, part female-bonding flick, part quirky romance and part gross-out comedy. But, in the end, it's thoroughly enjoyable.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Movie Review: Kiss of the Spider Woman

Molina (William Hurt) and Valentin (Raul Julia).
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Directed By: Hector Babenco
Screenplay By: Leonard Schrader
Based on the Novel By: Manuel Puig
Starring: William Hurt, Raul Julia and Sonia Braga

"The nicest thing about feeling happy is that you think you'll never be unhappy again."
~Luis Molina (William Hurt)

A few months back, I read Kiss of the Spider Woman on the recommendation of a friend who is obsessed with both Manuel Puig's novel and the 1985 film adaptation. If she hadn't suggested I pick up the book I would have remained unaware of this powerful ode to friendship, heroism and love -- it's all as intriguing as its title.

The movie grips you right from the opening frame -- a woman, sitting in a bathtub, covered in bubbles -- while a man's voice softly narrates her actions. And so begins the film adaptation of Argentine author Puig's famous 1976 novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Screenwriter Leonard Schrader and director Hector Babenco were allowed a lot of open interpretation when it came to the style and visuals for the film. Puig's novel is sparse, in every sense of the word -- there are no descriptions of the prison cell or even the physical appearances of the two central characters. The novel is structured much like a play, devoid of a traditional narrative voice or any unspoken thoughts -- we only know what the characters are actually saying out loud and they tend to say things in short, concise sentences. This allows for more open interpretation than your average novel or film as to the true meanings and motivations behind the characters' actions.

Set sometime during the 1970s in Argentina, Kiss of the Spider Woman focuses on the blossoming friendship between two cellmates -- the openly homosexual window-dresser, Luis Molina (William Hurt), and a Marxist journalist named Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia) who is willing to risk his life and endure torture for a political cause. To keep Valentin's mind distracted from his concerns for his fellow political prisoners, Molina describes films he'd seen prior to his arrest; most of which are pulp movies that Molina doesn't recognize as blatant Nazi propaganda. While the majority of the film is set in the prison, there are scenes of the pulp movies Molina narrates to Valentin interspersed throughout, as well as flashbacks into both of the mens lives -- where we meet Valentin's girlfriend, Marta (Sonia Braga, who plays three roles in the film, including Leni Lamaison, the character in the Nazi propaganda film, and the titular Spider Woman) and we witness Molina's unrequited love for Gabriel (Nuno Leal Maia), a waiter he meets at his favourite restaurant.

The simplicity of the prison setting is overshadowed by the complexity of its two central characters. It's a study in relationships, specifically the gradually growing affection between Molina and Valentin. Despite their obvious differences in both personality and opinion, (and the hint of treachery that surrounds them) the film slowly brings the two men closer and closer together as more of their past and personal beliefs are revealed to one another.

When, near the start of the film, Valentin belittles Molina's constant desire to talk about frivolous films ("Your life is as trivial as your movies!"), Molina calmly points out that people sometimes deal with tough situations differently ("Unless you have the keys to that [prison] door, I will escape in my own way, thank you"). The realization that the two men must depend on one another for survival is what, ultimately, brings them together.

As Molina, Hurt gives one of his finest performances (he earned an Oscar that year for Best Actor). One of the remarkable things about his performance was his ability to make the audience view Molina the same way Valentin does as the film progresses. At first Molina does appear to be nothing more than a flamboyant man who relies on pulp movies as a desperate means of escapism. By the middle of the film, after the revelation of his biggest secret, Hurt portrays Molina as a man slowly being torn apart by both his decisions and his growing affection for Valentin, thus gaining audience support and sympathy. By the end of the film the viewer realizes, along with Valentin, that Molina is anything but frivolous as was initially thought. A deeply conflicted man, Molina is in over his head. One scene, in particular, stands out -- Molina talking on a pay phone to an unknown person. The audience can't hear the voice on the other line, but we know the news is bad because Molina's face slowly drops in devastation. It's Hurt's finest (and most emotionally powerful) moment in the entire film and it was expressed with very little dialogue. Playing the sometimes harsh and brutal Valentin, Julia gives a wonderful, subtle and restrained performance. His chemistry with Hurt is palpable and, as the film progresses, we witness Julia instil Valentin with a controlled, yet passionate, fire for both politics and Marta, the love of his life.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a remarkable achievement -- it's not an easy task to adapt Puig's novel into a film. This complex character study was, thankfully, put into the hands of a director like Babenco who knew how to interpret the story on the big screen. And, luckily, actors like Hurt and Julia were brought in to convey the characters' motivations perfectly.

You know it's the sign of a powerful film when, days after viewing it, you find yourself still thinking about it.


Valentin (Raul Julia) "meets" the Spider Woman (Sonia Braga).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Thor

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth).
THOR (2011)
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Colm Feore and Anthony Hopkins

Thor is the god of thunder and, for those uninitiated (like myself) in the adventures of this lesser-known Marvel comics hero, this Norse deity apparently has a huge cult following. Wielding a powerful hammer called Mjlonir (which, oddly enough, resembles a giant meat tenderizer), Thor, as a character, is a balanced mix of hot-headed temper, arrogance and brooding charm, which are all "must have" qualities when it comes to Marvel action heroes.

Thor takes the age-old tale of sibling rivalry and ups the ante. Thor (Aussie newcomer, Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) live in a kingdom in the sky called Asgard, where they have been raised by their father, King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and mother, Frigga (Rene Russo, who has apparently returned to acting after a long absence). The relationship between the seemingly close brothers begins to fray when Odin proclaims Thor as his heir. When the coronation ceremony is interrupted by the Frost Giants, led by the red-eyed Laufey (Colm Feore, buried beneath layers of make-up), Thor goes against his father's wishes and leads his band of loyal friends in avenging the attack. Odin is outraged at Thor's rash actions and banishes his son from Asgard. Thor is ultimately reduced to nothing -- his power gone, his beloved hammer, Mjlonir, missing -- and is left to fend for himself on Earth, a planet he is unfamiliar with. He accidentally meets up with a group of skywatching scientists: cosmologist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Swedish scientist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and their student intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings). They struggle to come to terms with what Thor is, while trying to help him return to Asgard and prevent Loki from taking over the throne.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane (Natalie Portman).
Despite the fact that there are six screenwriters credited (usually a bad sign), Thor is, surprisingly, a structured, cohesive narrative -- a rarity for films of this genre. With a running time of less than two hours, it manages to give you all the background information you need on Thor and his supernatural family, while spending just the right amount of time on Earth as he gets to know his new human companions. If there is one complaint, it'd be the lack of more interaction between Thor and his brother, Loki, before the former is banished to Earth. It would have made their eventual fall-out all the more poignant.

Under the steady and assured direction of Shakespearean vet Kenneth Branagh, Thor has a great international cast to rely on -- from Australia, England, United States, Sweden and Canada.

As Thor, Hemsworth has the same roguish charm as Harrison Ford or, more recently, Chris Pine in Star Trek (2009). With great comic timing and the ability to cry on cue, Hemsworth proves he's more than just a pretty face. Thor has given him a promising start to a career in Hollywood. The rest of the cast rallies around him, each giving a performance that is more than a comic book adaptation usually deserves. As the trio of scientists, Portman, Skarsgard and Dennings are all talented actors who make the most of their supporting (and underwritten) roles. Their camaraderie and chemistry with one another makes up for their odd little trio. Hopkins is perfect as King Odin -- a measured mix of menace and fatherly affection. Hiddleston is excellent as the scheming and mischievous Loki, a reluctant villain made to turn to the dark side by unfortunate life circumstances and devastating revelations about his past.

Thor is that rare summer blockbuster that is genuinely enjoyable both for its entertaining story and solid cast -- it brings to mind the recent Star Trek reboot. If Thor is any indication, this years crop of summer films are off to a promising start.


Friday, May 6, 2011

So Bad It's Good?: Manos! The Hands of Fate

I had a good laugh the other day when I happened to come across this gem of a movie title -- Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966). How could you not at least crack a smile at a movie that has the same word appear twice in the title two different languages?! I mean, really, it just wants to show off its versatility and bilingualism, right?

I started doing that 30 Day Movie Challenge that has been circulating around Facebook. I was struggling to come up with my pick for Least Favourite Film when a friend decided to help me out by sending me the list of the 100 Worst Films from

I'm happy (proud?) to say that I haven't seen a single one of the films on the list. Although, some of them sound like absolutely fabulous examples of B-movie schlock and cheese. So, while none of the films on the list will make my Least Favourite Film pick for that Facebook challenge, I now have some crummy, low-grade movies to look up! Starting with Manos: The Hands of Fate.

Question: What is your favourite so-bad-its-good movie? I'm looking for some good recommendations!