You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Thursday, 30 May 2013


I'd like to kick this review off with a question: can anyone name a film trilogy in which the third installment was not the weakest? The Matrix Revolutions. The Dark Knight Rises. The Godfather Part 3. Even Return of the Jedi has garnered the most criticism of the original Star Wars trilogy (the Ewoks can probably be considered the start of George Lucas' descent into Jar Jar Binks territory). There are even fewer comedy trilogies to speak of, but of those that do come to mind - Back to the Future, Austin Powers, The Naked Gun - the pattern seems to just about hold.

Maybe it's because endings a hard. The first film introduces us to a world and a set of characters, the second film introduces greater conflict and deepens our understanding, and it's up to the third film to provide some sort of closure and draw it all together in a satisfying way. The better the preceding films, the more difficult the task. It may also have something to do with the studios: if the franchise's engine is still running by the time the third installment comes around, it's easy enough to pump more money into it, see how far it'll run, even if it's been idling for over a decade (see: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Live Free or Die Hard.) 

Somehow you have to find a way to keep it fresh while sticking to the formula. It should, in theory, be easy: Indy goes after the treasure, John McClane takes on the "terrorists". But, In the case of The Hangover series, the premise is fairly simple: an eclectic group of friends comprised of the laid-back Phil (Bradley Cooper), nebbish dentist Stu (Ed Helms), unremarkable Doug (Justin Bartha), and beardy man-child Alan (Zach Galfianakis) go on a stag do and somehow succeed in a) waking up in a bizarre situation, i.e. with a tiger or monkey in their hotel suite, and with no memory of the night before and b) with Doug nowhere to be found. The rest of the film inevitably follows their attempts to uncover what happened the night before and locate their missing friend.

If plausibility is a key part of your cinema-going experience - after all, as John McClane said, "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?" -then The Hangover Part III may not be "your type of film". While the third installment changes up somewhat on the premise of the first two films, it loses nothing of the sense of weirdness; if anything, it's got bigger and darker. The film's opening sequence involves a Shawshank-inspired jailbreak from a Bangkok prison during a riot with the 'Hang in there' cat standing in for Rita Hayworth. Director Todd Phillips has described the trilogy as a "three-part opera of mayhem and bad decisions" and, for my money, that sounds spot-on.

The film opens an unspecified period of time after the events of The Hangover Part II, but long enough that Phil, Stu and Doug have all settled into their roles as married men. Alan, however, is not doing so well. He's off his medication and, as an incident involving a giraffe and a low bridge has throws into harsh relief, has lost whatever self control he once had. Galfianakis had made a career over the past few years of playing oblivious but ultimately loveable dolts, but by now Alan has become gratingly abrasive. He treats those around him so badly - knocking over a drink and forcing his housemaid to clean it up during her well-intentioned speech at his intervention, casually mentioning during his father's eulogy that he wishes his mother had died instead - and displays so little self-awareness, it feels uncomfortable to laugh at a guy who is so clearly mentally ill.

Anyway, the Wolfpack, as they are known, band, albeit reluctantly, together to take Alan to rehab in Arizona. En route, they are run off the road and captured by a crime boss, Marshall (a largely wasted John Goodman), who wants the gold their former partner-in-crime Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong) stole from him. Given that Alan is the only one to have been in touch with Chow since he was imprisoned in Thailand, Marshall gives them three days to track down the psychotic Chinaman and recover his property. He also takes Doug hostage as collateral. Poor Doug. As such, Phil, Stu and Alan set off on a journey that will take them to Tijuana, Las Vegas, and finally back out into the desert.

The Hangover series has always been peculiarly character driven, drawing its comedy not only from absurd set pieces but it's protagonists horrified and hysterical reaction to them. To this extent, the property feels played out. Phil and Stu are now well balanced, contented individuals - their arcs over -; as such, this final installment is all about Alan's long-overdue maturation. On the set piece front, we have, to name one memorable instance, a limousine-driving Stu racing along the Sunset Strip to intercept a parachuting Chow (who spends his flight singing 'I Believe I Can Fly' and gleefully exclaiming "I love cocaine!"). On the character development front, we get pawnshop owner Cassie (a basically cameo-ing Melissa McCarthy) whose vulnerable obnoxiousness is a perfect match to Alan's, even if their displays of affection are pretty grotesque.

The movie also goes out of it's way to showcase Jeong's Chow, who started off as a bit part in The Hangover, graduated to become a major supporting character in Part II, and now, by Part III, has basically become The Devil. He, more than Marshall, feels like the series' antagonist. If you've ever seen the TV show Community, Chow is basically a supercharged version of Jeong's character from that show. With his no-holds-barred debauchery and the sadistic pleasure he takes in screwing with everyone's lives, Chow is a great comedic character, but he overwhelms everything else. It's difficult to focus on the jeopardy of the situation when Chow takes a time-out to perform a terrifying rendition of Johnny Cash/NIN's 'Hurt' or smother a fighting cock with a pillow.

Despite it's cruder aspects, much like Alan, The Hangover Part III has a lot of heart to it. Alan's reunion with the baby from the first film is actually sorta touching as he tries to take up what he sees, however wrongheadedly, as his parental responsibilities. In fact, not to get too portentous, Alan could be seen as an embodiment of the instant gratification, ADHD culture in which we live. A scene in which Alan grandly invites Cassie on a date also sees him drop trow with the scientific pronouncement "I saw it in a porno-graphy". If Alan is a hierophant of the age, in a series that has become increasingly apocalyptic, it's comforting that we leave him here.

In that The Hangover is not a series that necessarily has a natural progression but is more akin to iterations on a them, I'm glad Phillips and Co. have chosen to leave it here before the entertainment value plummets. The Wolfpack have come about as far as they can come as characters and the gags have got about as outlandish as they can get. Unlike, for instance, Ghostbusters (which, against my better judgment, I long for a threequel to), there's not endless potential for further adventures - the formula has been stretch far enough -, but if you liked the previous two, chances are you'll like this.

Verdict: The Hangover Part III is an off-kilter merry-go-round of a movie and a generally funny if overly twisted addition to the franchise. It's got a great soundtrack and a mid-credit sequence that features some unexpected (probably unwanted) nudity, taking the characters full circle, and leaving us in an appropriately "WTF?!" place. It's not, say, Toy Story 3, but it's no Spiderman 3. If you like your humor like a bad trip, you should probably give it a look.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013



Great literary adaptations can occur in the most unexpected of places. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of fiction ever written and it's 1962 adaptation starring Gregory Peck comes in at #25 on the AFI's list of greatest American movies. The second film on that list, however - Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather -, derived from Mario Puzo's 1969 novel, a brilliant piece of mass-market pulp but hardly a work of unbridled genius.

Of course, there are different criteria that go into making a great novel and a great film; the literariness of the former can often prove detrimental to the latter. To this extent, James Joyce's wordily thicketed Ulysses, for instance, is basically unadaptable. Sometimes what's on the page simply can't be translated onto the screen, at least not in a faithful or coherent fashion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, arguably the great American novel, has been previously adapted to the screen four times: as a silent film in 1926 (now lost), with Alan Ladd and Betty Field in 1949, with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and with Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino in 2000. None of them are classics; in fact, none of the final three are even particularly good.

There is, however, one worthwhile film that bears a notable resemblance to Fitzgerald's seminal work, none other than Citizen Kane, which appears in pole position on AFI's list. Both Kane and Gatsby are self-made men who, in different ways, confuse love with ownership and are ultimately destroyed by unfulfillable passions. While Kane is a loosely veiled attack on famed "yellow" newspaperman  William Randolph Hearst, Gatsby is a critique of a much wider topic, the American dream itself.

Superficially a tale of romance and excess, the novel would seem to be a unique fit for Baz Luhrmann, who, with his jump cuts and crane shots, is to period drama what Michael Bay is to teenage actioners. The story, in a gilded nutshell, is that of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a Yale graduate and war veteran turns bondsman, who finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Leonard DiCaprio), a notorious and obscenely wealthy socialite.

Presented by Nick as a biographical novel he is writing during his recovery in a sanatorium years later, The Great Gatsby is desperate to stress its literary roots. Occasionally Carraway's narration spills out onto the screen in great cursive letters, but the sheer hallucinatory sumptuousness of the film simply overwhelms attempt at recapturing Fitzgerald's prose.

If Apocalypse Now was, as Coppola claimed, more than simply a film about Vietnam but Vietnam itself, then The Great Gatsby is not merely a film about New York in the Roaring Twenties, it is the embodiment of the time and place. From Times Square with its grand billboard of the Ziegfried Follies to Gatsby's art deco palace, you are fully immersed in that world, and the modern soundtrack, as opposed to creating distance, makes the mise en scene seem pressing and urgent.

The film, however, lives and dies by its performances and they are, bar one, uniformly excellent. Maguire's Nick is a wide-eyed everyman swept away on the tide of the age; he is, in Fitzgerald's own words, part of it all yet always an observer, within and without, yet never too, too passive as to lose your interest. Joel Edgerton's Tom Buchanan, meanwhile, one of those doing the sweeping, is a self-righteous brute, a self-made man who dominates through sheer physical presence.

Leonard DiCaprio's Gatsby is, for all it's glitz and glam, the film's greatest creation. One of the best and most consistent actors now at work, DiCaprio captures the character's hollow "old sport" charm beneath which lies an all-consuming desire. Gatsby is a man defined by his wants - he has assembled the lavish world around him as a means to an end - and all he wants is Daisy (Carey Mulligan).

Daisy is Nick's cousin, Tom's wife, and Gatsby's one true desire, and it is here unfortunately that The Great Gatsby is at its weakest. Daisy is the object of many men's desire and, being so constantly acted upon, requires a great sense of interiority to prevent from seeming like just, well, contested property. Mulligan, for all her beauty, simply doesn't provide this. Loathe though I am to say it, she feels miscast.

Overall, the film is by no means a disaster but feels like something of a misfire. In this way, The Great Gatsby is perhaps less like the book than the man himself, a grand edifice with a single purpose, striving towards that distant light which remains forever out of reach. In trying to emulate Fitzgerald's novel, the film sets itself an impossible standard: prose is equipped to deal with shallowness as a theme while The Great Gatsby becomes mired in it.

Verdict: For its ambition alone, however flawed, The Great Gatsby deserves three stars. DiCaprio and Maguire have great chemistry in their interactions (the two have, as is easy to imagine, been lifelong friends) and it's certainly a stylish beast if never quite more than that. It's no Citizen Kane, but it's probably the most worthwhile adaptation of the novel thus far.

Friday, 10 May 2013


We are living in the New Hollywood of pop culture. Just as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick grew up on a diet of Welles, Kazan and Hitchcock, the new generation of filmmakers - Abrams, Whedon, Nolan - were weaned on TV, sci-fi, fantasy and comic books: Star Wars was their Rashomon. As a result of this, we've been the beneficiaries of a spate of fairly tremendous updates/adaptations.

Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde, which served as the cinematic touchstone for the whole 70s movement, has been supplanted by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, another movie sui generis. Every major franchise film since, from Skyfall to The Avengers, owes a debt to it. Star Trek Into Darkness is the first of the new breed to truly emerge from its shadow.

The hype surrounding the film's release has been phenomenal. Following the enjoyable but mixed bag that was the 2009 reboot, expectations have been incredibly high for Star Trek Into Darkness, the new series' Wrath of Khan. However, with a whole new timeline come new challenges for the crew of the Enterprise as well as some familiar elements.

Star Trek Into Darkness opens with a dangerous away mission on the Class M planet of Nibiru. A simple case of observing the natives becomes a last-minute gambit to prevent the eruption of a volcano that threatens all life on the planet. As Kirk and Bones provide a low-tech distraction, Spock descends into the caldera with a cold fusion bomb.

Needless to say, the mission does not go according to plan. It ends with Kirk violating the Prime Directive and returning to Earth in disgrace. His relationship with Spock is strained and his position as Captain of the Enterprise put in jeopardy. Then the mysterious John Harrison brings his wrath down upon Starfleet and everything changes.

Star Trek Into Darkness is one of those rarest of beasts: a big-budget blockbuster with a huge and devoted fandom, but one in which the character arcs take precedence. Kirk, willing to alter the destiny of an entire species, has to learn humility; Spock, willing to coolly sacrifice himself for the needs of the many, needs to learn humanity.

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do great work as the cocky Starship Captain and his supremely logical First Officer, both of whom must come to terms with their own limitations. Kirk must become Spock and Spock Kirk in order to defeat John Harrison, who is many ways, the perfect fusion of both with his scientific mind and warrior's passions. He. Is. Better.

The speculation surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch's Harrison has reached fever pitch in recent weeks with huge bodies of evidence being assembled in favor of and in contradiction to him playing the rebooted Khan Noonien Singh. I won't spoil it for you one way or another; Cumberbatch's performance is nevertheless tremendous.

The measure by which all modern-day villains are now compared is, of course, Heath Ledger's Joker. Harrison's understated menace bears little resemblance to the theatrics of that self-professed agent of chaos, but the gravitas Cumberbatch displays in the role may be the closest an actor's yet come to recapturing Ledger's critical mass of charisma.

He may be a terrorist, but Harrison is not an entirely unsympathetic character: the atrocities he has committed, though unjustifiable, is fully understandable. Revenge is a major theme in 'Star Trek Into Darkness', but while Kirk and Co. fall, however reluctantly on the side of justice, Harrison is out for blood and makes for a formidable opponent.

The rest of the cast are well served to different extents by the Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof script. Karl Urban's gruff, disapproving Bones and Simon Pegg's exasperated Scotty both play crucial roles, but John Cho's Sulu and Anton Yelchin's Chekov are very much relegated to support. Our favorite speech-impaired ensign even dons a red shirt at one point with understandable alarm.

Star Trek Into Darkness never takes the easy route, however. Kirk's relationship with Alice Eve's not-quite-love-interest Carol Marcus, whom fans of the Original Series will know well, never becomes rote, though nor is it developed to full satisfaction. In line with a recent Patton Oswalt joke, she and Zoe Saldana's Uhura are ultimately given the least to do.

What is most satisfying about Star Trek Into Darkness is how it transcends the fandom, how it manages to balance the iconic and iconoclastic. As Spock might say, it expresses multiple attitudes simultaneously. It's a fast-paced Disneyland ride of a movie, but it's full of heart and, upon occasion, capable of generating real pathos.

There's no time travel shenanigans, ala the first film, or knowing deconstruction, such as Shane Black displayed in his take on The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, but Star Trek Into Darkness has an emotional complexity that both of those films lack. Tribble-related cameo aside, it feels like Star Trek has really grown up as a franchise.

Diehard Trekkies may break out their bat'leths at that previous statement, but Star Trek Into Darkness seemed, to me, to be the full Star Trek experience, more so, perhaps, than any other single piece of media relating to the franchise. It also seems to reflect a new trend in pop culture, one where thematic depth trumps the need for cool; Zack Snyder's upcoming 'Man of Steel', for instance, seems to be promising us a more morally ambiguous Zod.

Despite its title, Star Trek Into Darkness is a perfect blend of light and dark, of hope and despair. It manages to be both comfortably predictable and genuinely revelatory. Long-time fans of the series should love what the film does with a classic formula, it's subtle subversion of preconceptions, while, as a casual cinema-goer, it's my favorite movie of the year thus far.

Having been lucky enough to witness its space battles in eye-popping IMAX, I believe - and I'm sure I'm not alone in this - that Star Trek Into Darkness is everything the Star Wars prequels should have been. Though I haven't previously been the hugest fan of J.J. Abrams as a director, Star Trek Into Darkness has convinced me that the Star Wars sequels are in safe hands.

These classic shows and films have been part of the pattern and background of our lives for, in some cases, almost fifty years, and the relationships at the heart of them, in the case of the Star Trek franchise, far from growing stale or boring, show signs of becoming deeper and richer than ever. The current trend may not be sustainable, but we can enjoy the bubble while it lasts.

Let the mission begin.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013


Genre can be a double-edged sword for even the most talented and versatile filmmaker: hew too close to convention and you risk falling into cliche, stray too far and you risk alienating your core audience. I think it's revealing that two of my favorite genre films of recent years - Shane Black's vaguely satirical crime thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Drew Goddard's postmodern slasher horror The Cabin in the Woods - both deconstruct their respective genres.

Apart from the work of specific directors, like Martin Scorsese, who has succeeded in making four uniquely special gangster films over the course of a forty year career, I find it difficult to get overly excited about the straightforward crime thriller. The world's first full-length feature was The Story of the Kelly Gang back in 1906; how many stories can there be left to tell.

Despite this, I chose to watch Dead Man Down primarily because of its cast, which includes Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, and Terrance Howard with the added incentive of its being directed by Niels Arden Oplev, who previously worked with Noomi on the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and written by J.H. Wyman, who was co-showrunner on Fringe. A Rotten Tomatoes rating of 38%, however, did not seem particularly promising.

Dead Man Down tells the story of Victor (Farrell), a lieutenant of New York kingpin Alphonse Hoyt (Howard). The opening sequence, in which Hoyt lays waste to an English rival's drug den, presents Victor as just another lackey, but the truth is that Victor has infiltrated Hoyt's mob in order to bring him down. Though his accent may be Lower East Side, Victor is, in fact, a Hungarian emigre whose family was killed in one of Hoyt's real estate schemes.

As such, "Victor" has reinvented himself as a stone-cold mobster and set out to destroy Hoyt; first, driving him into paranoia through the strategic execution of his inner council then setting him against the Russian gang to whom he outsourced the hit. So far, it sounds like fairly standard revenge flick fare: a man's family is murdered leading him to go on a rampage against those responsible.

However, the situation changes for Victor when he encounters Beatrice (Rapace), a scarred but beautiful neighbor from the apartment block across from his. Their initial contact - eyes meet from an opposing balcony, a window; a halfhearted wave - shows that, even in close quarters, they are both isolated human beings. There's an almost Rear Window, or perhaps West Side Story, feel to this interaction, but it soon becomes clear, despite all their reservation, how exposed they are.

Beatrice lives with her mother and holds within an all-consuming hate. After a cautious but promising first date, she reveals her intent: having witnessed Victor murder one of Hoyt's men, she plans to blackmail him into killing the man responsible for her disfigurement, a drunk driver.

After an impressive performance in Joel Schumacher's supremely underrated Tigerland, Colin Farrell built up a reputation as a charming but slightly wooden pretty boy leading man. It wasn't till 2008's In Bruges rehabilitated his image as a serious actor that Farrell truly found his niche: he might not stand out overly in the action stakes, but as a small-time hoodlum there's none better.

There's something about Farrell's baleful stare that speaks of hidden vulnerability and allows him to elicit sympathy even when playing, for instance, a child-killing hitman. Rapace, meanwhile, is best known for playing darkly mysterious, gypsy-like characters, such as in Ridley Scott's Prometheus and the Swedish Millennium series. Dead Man Down gives her the chance to try something new.

The clothes her character Beatrice wears - tied-off shirts and high heels - speak of a breezy, confident young woman whose way of life was taken away from her by a cruel twist of fate. Though her scars merely mar rather than take away her loveliness, it's understandable how a trauma such as she underwent might force her to turn inwards and drive her on the path towards vengeance.

Farrell's Victor spends his nights watching projected family videos of his wife and infant daughter play across the blueprints and automatic weapons that line his room: his whole existence is now focused on bringing Hoyt down and he is willing to die to achieve his end.

For Beatrice, Victor provides an opportunity to level the score; for Victor, Beatrice is the chance of another fate. His longing, not lustful expression as she changes in another room suggests a different, domestic outcome and reinforces the sense of tragedy to which the film is inexorably building.

Their awkward, painful negotiation towards a new and better kind of living was, to me, the most compelling element of Dead Man Down. Victor's skilled manipulation of those around him towards his ultimate ends is fairly generic, but certain touches of J.H. Wyman's script - such as Beatrice's busybody mother who encourages her relationship with Victor, but who, due to her deafness, can't hear the murder they're planning - provide an enjoyable irony to proceedings.

Terrence Howard's mob boss, Hoyt, is too slick and lacks menace, though Dominic Cooper gives nicely layered turn as Victor's best and only friend Darcy, the one member of the crew whom he does not want to kill but whose amateur detective work threatens to endanger his plan. Luckily, though the film telegraphs it's developments, it neatly averts more than one obvious outcome.

Ultimately, Dead Man Down is a redemption story of two characters, neither of whom are seeking redemption, that save each other. It starts with Cooper's Darcy, baby in arms, musing on the need for the human heart to mend, to make connections, and ends with a shootout, an unfortunate necessity of the genre. Oplev's direction, with its wandering camera, loosely recalls Scorsese's, but, feels more like an inversion of Rowan Joffe's Brighton Rock than a new Mean Streets.

Verdict: Dead Man Down is a crime thriller with a strong thematic arc, but one which is held back by the demands of the genre. The romance and gangster components of the story weave together nicely and the film even manages a few convincing twists along the way yet by the end it all feels somewhat small beer. It also wastes an extended cameo by F. Murray Abraham - for shame! Even so, given what little is on at the cinema - Tom Cruise starring sci-fi composite Oblivion, White-House-under-siege actioner Olympus Has Fallen (one of two such films due out this year), new director Fede Alvarez's surprisingly good horror reboot Evil Dead -, it might be worth a look.*

*Unless you haven't seen Iron Man 3 yet, in which case go see Iron Man 3. Shane Black rocks!