Hangover Part III

I must admit I completely skipped the second chapter in the Hangover trilogy. While I found the first one to be hysterical, nothing I read or glimpsed of the second one left me with any desire to see it. By all accounts, it was a pale retread of the first and I stayed away.

I am not sure what piqued my interest about the third one, perhaps it was the hook of this being the finale, but I really wish I had skipped this one as well. Hangover III has no idea what it wants to be, and so it doesn’t really amount to much of anything. It does not approach the laugh quotient of the first one at all, and its crime story hook is flat and uninteresting. Let’s face it, did anyone really come into Hangover 3 looking for a straight crime caper? No, we wanted to laugh at our loveable wolf pack and their hi-jinks. Instead we get a mostly maudlin final adventure for our gang, with only the occasional chuckle included.

I won’t bog you down with details of the so-called plot. In a nutshell the gang is off to take Alan to a rehab, and are sidelined by their old friend/nemesis Chow who is now mixed up with a new criminal played by John Goodman.  The gang must return Goodman’s gold that Chow stole to save Doug, who is being held hostage…Hilarity then fails to ensue.

Zach Galifanakis as Alan does get a couple of laughs, but you have already seen most of them in commercials or previews. Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow spends the film running around shouting his curses and catchphrases without any real novelty or humor. Melissa McCarthy also gets a few laughs as a love interest for Alan, but she is not in the film long enough to pull it out of the mire.

Overall  this is a dull, humorless mess that is at most times more depressing than funny. I always appreciate dark humor–but this is just dark minus the humor. Rewatch the first one–it’s time much better spent.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Let me start with a spoiler warning–it is too hard to discuss this film without plot specifics.

I loved Into Darkness for what it is, but at the same time sort of wish it wasn’t that thing. Does that make sense?

Into Darkness is still set in the alternate timeline created by the events of JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot, and we are just on the cusp of the crew beginning the 5 year mission that the original series covers. Kirk begins the film as captain of the Enterprise, but is soon stripped of that title when he violates the prime directive.  During an exploratory mission that reveals a planet whose civilization is in danger of being wiped out by a volcano, Kirk decides that saving Spock is worth revealing the presence of the enterprise to this un-technological civilization. This is a gesture that Spock has trouble understanding as he is not yet capable of valuing relationships over Starfleet mandates. The tone is now set for one of the major themes in the film–the meaning of friendship.

Shortly after these events Starfleet falls victim to a terrorist who then flees to the Klingon home world. Before you know it, Kirk is back in control of the enterprise and heading out on a seek and kill mission, armed with new weaponry that Starfleet is readying to combat the increasing hostile nature of the Klingons.

The theme of the greater militarization of Starfleet as a result of the first film’s events is timely, and Spock’s objection to the find and kill nature of the mission, as opposed to capturing and holding a trial, is relevant. So far we have an exciting premise, political allusions, and great characters–a pretty great set up.

This is where the divisive nature of the plot kicks into high gear–you see it turns out that the terrorist in question is actually Khan, who in this timeline has been defrosted a lot earlier as a super soldier to  combat the Klingons. Khan is not interested in being Starfleet’s pawn, and wants to save the other 72 members of his crew, who are housed in Starfleet’s new missiles. The strike on Khan will wipe out all trace of his colony, burying this military mistake.

From here on out the movie becomes an alternate version of the rightfully revered Wrath of Khan–the greatest of all Trek films. This begs the question, if Abrams work so hard to set up a new premise for Trek that allows them to move away from established Cannon, why go right back to such holy ground in the second film? I think they did a great job with this material, but I wish this wasn’t the material they chose to tackle. With so much endless possibility in the Trek world, why retell a film that nailed it the first time?

In an interesting twist Khan is not the true villain here…that role is really filled by Admiral Marcus…a military man determined to wipe of Khan and the others at all costs, and also to begin aggressions with the Klingons. He is manipulating Kirk, Khan, and everyone in between. Again this adds to the films theme of military aggressions over taking morality, exploration, and common sense. 

However, the heart of the film is the bond forming between Kirk and Spock. The film essentially puts them in the mirror positions of the events of Wrath of Khan. Spock is left to man the bridge (Phoning for help from Spock Prime on new Vulcan allowing for a Leonard Nimoy cameo) while Kirk has to make the great sacrifice to save the crew.  All of this works, although not as well as it did in Wrath of Khan because in this reality Kirk and Spock do not have nearly as much history behind them.

I am really torn on this one. I really did enjoy the film, and for the path they took I feel they hit a homerun. However my mind keeps turning to the untaken path. I can’t help but wonder at what could have been if these characters were shown tackling completely original adventures. Here’s hoping for next time.

The Great Gatsby

Over the top visual decadence-check, anachronistic music-check…ok we are clearly in the grip of a Baz Luhrmann film. This time it is his opulent take on The Great Gatsby, in 3D no less. I have to preface this review with an embarrassing admission: I don’t recall ever reading the book. While this is something I hope to rectify at some point, I will obviously not be commenting on how the film does or does not stray from the novel.

Luhrman’s exuberant style is almost a character in the film, and one that feels right at home with the style-over-substance obsessed folks populating Gatsby’s world. A condemnation of the pursuit of wealth as its own end, Gatsby shows the wealthy existence as listless, dull, and directionless. Carey Mulligan as Daisy wanders aimlessly in a world-weary manner through her life while husband Tom (Joel Edgerton) seeks solace in sports and the company of other women. Extremely wealthy Jay Gatsby has purposely purchased an enormous mansion across the water from them, throwing decadent parties in the hopes Daisy ( whom he had fallen in love with five years prior but whom he had lost while serving in the war, and for fear of not being wealthy enough for her) will come. Gatsby’s new neighbor is Nick, a struggling writer who has abandoned his writing to make a living in the bond market, and who also happens to be Daisy’s cousin. Jay soon befriends his struggling neighbor, wooing him with parties and plane rides before gaining the courage to ask Nick to invite Daisy to tea.

Gatsby is singular in his goal of winning back the lost love of Daisy. All the lengths he goes to in obtaining wealth and  material goods are all in an effort to bring Daisy back into his life. One of the film’s central mysteries is how Gatsby attained his wealth. The truth reveals much about Gatsby’s win at any cost nature.

However, in my view, it is not Daisy per se that he really wants, but rather the dream of the unattainable. Gatsby often spends time gazing at the green light across the water at the end of the dock at Daisy’s home. A siren beckoning him to that which he cannot have. And yet he seems at his best with the allure of the light in the distance. Once he has Daisy’s affection, and does not have an unattainable goal, he seems to lose something, and must again rekindle that light across the bay. He now wants Daisy to publicly rescind her love for Tom and announce her unending love for Jay. And with each step he moves closer to his goal, he needs to push that goal back further, so that the light is always there for him. Gatsby cannot live in the present, he is always longing for an unattainable future.

Nick is a constant voyeur, never fully engaging, perfectly happy to soak in others experiences at the expense of having any of his own. Pulled by Tom, manipulated by Jay, he is a puppet. Perhaps this speaks to the nature of his role as writer, a sponge for other’s experiences so he can write about them. Although he has seemingly abandoned this passion in the quest for the almighty dollar,  he film is bookended by Nick telling his tale to a therapist, and when he is unable to continue the therapist prompts him to write, forging Nick’s position as narrator.

The film itself is a visual marvel, the opulence oozing off the screen, quite literally with some choice use of 3D. The use of modern music, particularly modern rap, fits the themes with its glorification of wealth and material gain. Tobey McGuire’s Nick comes across as likable but in need of his own drive, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is amazingly aloof at times, incredibly charming others, and hopelessly lost throughout. In fact, with all its over the top parties and decadence, the film leaves a lingering feeling of melancholy after spending time with such damaged people. For truly there is not one character in the film that is not hopelessly damaged in some way.

Gatsby is not a perfect film, there are areas that could be tightened up, and Luhrman certainly indulges his fetish for over the top grandeur. But these flaws also work in the context of the themes at play here, and also make for a film that is an interesting mix of stylish bombast and thoughtful introspection. Between this and Iron Man 3, the summer of 2013 slate  is off to a good start.

MAMA

Mama had a lot of buzz on its theatrical release, with a push from producer Guillermo Del Toro and positive word of mouth. The theatrical run seemed short-lived though, and surprisingly failed to capitalize on a starring role for Jessica Chastain, who was in theaters at the same time in Zero Dark Thirty. The film started life as a short by filmmaker Andy Muschietti that Del Toro found impressive enough to  help turn it into a feature. I had really wanted to see Mama during its run, but scheduling just did not allow it so I recently caught up with the film via its new Blu-ray release.

Although a PG-13 film, Mama does not really pull any punches for a fright film with child protagonists. No this is not a bloodbath, nor does it need to be. Mama creates fear and scares out of atmosphere, suspense and one really important element–character development. Mama is the story of young Victoria and her baby sister Lilly, orphaned in an abandoned cabin in the woods after their father suffers some sort of financial breakdown, kills their mother, and eventually drives off a road with the girls in tow. Their Uncle Lucas never gives up on locating them , and five years later the girls are found. After living in the cabin alone for so long, they have grown into an animal-like state, and Lucas helps to re-integrate them into society with the help of his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) and Dr. Dreyfus, a psychiatrist who is extremely interested in this case as he wants to write a book on the girls’ experiences. He arranges for Luke and Annabel to gain custody of the girls, over their Aunt’s objections, if they agree to move into a house provided by his institute where he will have access to them whenever he wishes.

The girls constantly refer to their guardian figure, Mama, who only comes out when she cannot be seen. What is at first explained away as something the girls invented while alone in the cabin soon begins to make its presence  known, and soon we are in the midst of a supernatural battle for the souls of the girls as Mama’s supernatural origins become clear.

What really makes Mama work for me is the character of Annabel. At the start of the film, she is playing in a punk rock band, and is not really looking to take on a parental role. She agrees to give up the band and go with Luke to the research house to raise the girls, but she does not bond with them easily–and not just because they are not accustomed to society. She is almost as unready to bond with the girls as they are with her. Thrust into an unwanted situation, she is at first somewhat an unsympathetic character. However, early on Luke is injured nad  taken out of the pictur for a while, leaving Annabel alone to care for Victoria and Lilly. Annabel slowly begins to bond with the girls, and they bring each other out of their respective shells. It is the growth of Annabel’s character and her developing bond with the girls ( particularly the older Victoria who, due to her age,  is able to regain more of her pre-cabin vocabulary and socialization) that gives the film its emotional heft. The film has some good scares along the way, and their effectiveness is deepened because we care about the people in peril. 

In the end, Mama is not afraid to stay true to itself with a rather heartbreaking ending. I will not give away the details, but the film does not play it safe. Tonally, I found Mama to be a cross between Poltergeist and some of the Japanese ghost films like the Ring or Ju-On. An old-fashioned Ghost story at its core, Mama is a fine example of how a horror  film can be scary and poignant without the need for over the top violence.

The transfer and audio on the Blu-ray are top-notch, and included in the extras is the original short that was the film’s genesis. Worthwhile.

Iron Man 3

Taking a slightly different approach today, I wanted to add some quick thoughts on Iron Man 3. I will keep this relatively brief and spoiler free for those who have not seen the film.

I am amazed by what  Marvel has been able to accomplish in their cinematic world over the last few years. The masterful building of 4 separate film franchises, with each film standing on its own yet interconnecting, culminating in the colossal team up that was the Avengers. It was so skillfully handled that you cannot help but admire the level of foresight,  attention to detail, and overall quality of the individual pieces that build to an even greater whole.

Iron Man 3 is the first film in phase 2 of Marvel’s plans, essentially the first of the solo character films taking place after the Avengers. Tony Stark is now a damaged and shaken man, unable to wrap his brain around the cosmic events that have opened up before him during the events of the Avengers. He has essentially cut himself off from the world, as his armor becomes a literal and figurative shell between him and others. He spends all his time working on new iterations of his famous suit, hardly even stopping to sleep, much less shower the deserved attention oh his beloved Pepper Potts.

All that changes when the terrorist known as the Mandarin shakes his foundations to their core, leaving Tony desperate, alone, and angry. With one barely functional suit he must track down and stop the Mandarin. What follows is a series of political twists and turns and some incredible action. Iron Man 3 somehow manages to tackle contemporary themes of terrorism and political corporate entanglement with a retro adventure film feel.  Comic fans have balked at the liberties the film takes with the source material, particularly the portrayal of the Mandarin. However, in the context of the film itself it works great, and careful viewers will notice some questions about the character left open.

In the context of the other Iron Man films I would say I still prefer the first one, but found this one better than the second one. Filled with great humor, strong characterizations, and non stop action and intrigue it is a great time at the movies. One thing I noticed, and my eight year old son also brought up, is there is a lot of running time where Tony is not in the Iron Man suit. However, I found it worked for the story being told. Chalk another one in the win category for Marvel.

Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D

This is a hard review to write. It begs the question of what the goals of this blog, or reviews in general, are. Am I trying to pass on valuable information regarding whether or not you will enjoy the films I write about? Am I just hoping to share the passion I have for film, particularly some of the more obscure genre titles?  I had a blast watching Dracula 3D, but at the same time I can honestly see where many people would not.

So let’s take things back a few steps. Dracula is the latest film by Dario Argento, quite possibly my favorite director, and a figure who I have been obsessed with for quite some time. In the short time that I have been working on Living24FPS, there have already been several references to his work, Suspiria in particular. I have read many books and countless articles on him, written papers on him in college, and re-watched his films countless times. So truthfully I am no longer sure I am able to view his work in any sort of unbiased manner. I am, quite simply, an Argentophile. Meeting the man in person at a Fangoria convention and having him sign my Japanese Suspiria poster was a massive thrill for me, as was visiting his shop in Rome while on vacation in Italy. I could go on about him and his films endlessly, but for now I felt this background was necessary to understand where I am coming from in regards to this film.

This Dracula seems to gather many of the earlier takes on the vampire’s story, throw them in a blender, and then strain the results through Argento’s sensibilities. The major influence seems to be that of the Hammer Dracula films, but there are certainly influences from Nosferatu, Universal, and even the Coppola take on the Count. As I mentioned, these influences are then filtered through Argento, and the results are often off the wall. In this version Dracula can take the form of any animal, and the choice of giant  praying Mantis in one scene  is certainly a bizarre one. This also  leads us to an issue some have had with the film–very lackluster CGI effects. Argento was an early adopter of CGI back when he made the Stendhal Syndrome, and unfortunately it looks like the technology he has access to has not advanced much. Thankfully the notion of choosing to turn into a Mantis is so bizarre and surreal  that the concept overcomes the dodgy effect. Less lucky is a wolf transformation. Having seen many such transformations in films prior, often using wonderful practical effects, it is hard to give this wolf effect a pass. Thankfully it is a rather brief appearance.

If you come to this looking for the dark seriousness of his early giallos or the compelling twisted  fantasy of Suspiria or Inferno you will be disappointed. That does not seem to be the playground Dario is playing in anymore. There is a quirky, self referential quality to his more recent works, almost a wink and nod acknowledgement of his current place in the world of cinema. He often stages homages to his own earlier films, such as a suicide shot in this film that clearly harkens back to a similar CGI bullet scene from the Stendhal Syndrome. It is almost as though he is pointing out that the effect hasn’t been brought up to the modern standard. But perhaps that is the point? Argento has always made films that call attention themselves as being FILM. For example, the stabbing scene at the start of Suspiria shows the knife enter the beating heart, something that the viewer could not really see. The roving camerawork, over the top color scheme, it all shouts “LOOK AT HOW THIS FILM IS MADE!” Wouldn’t seemless CGI be simply another image on the screen, without calling attention to its artifice?

The film does feature wonderful use of 3D (although on the 3D Blu-ray I watched the title scene has the eye reversed from the rest of the film, requiring a quick adjustment while watching if you want to see the 3D effects properly) ,  great cinematography and color, and a wonderful German Expressionistic feel. While it does not touch the heady days of his earlier work in terms of baroque imagery, there are certainly touches present to harken back to those days, including a haunting dream sequence and some creative camera angles and movements. There are some creative bursts of violence, including Dracula’s revenge in a meeting of the townsfolk that is particularly effective. 

Plot wise, this does not stray too far from previous tellings of Dracula. Jonathan Harker here is attending to Dracula’s library, cataloguing his great collection, when he falls victim to the Count’s Vampiress bride and eventually the count himself. Lucy, played by Argento’s daughter and frequent co-worker, Asia Argento, is in this version romantically unattached, not interested in her current suitors. Mina, Harker’s wife, is soon the object of Dracula’s desire, as she seemingly represents the rebirth of the former love of the Count’s life (a notion added to many adaptations that is not found in Bram Stoker’s original novel). Dr. Seward comes across as less sympathetic here to the mad outburts of Renfield, who serves his master by acting as a living food bank for a Vampiress among other roles. Late in the game Rutger Hauer arrives as a steely Van Helsing to help Mina confront the Vampire

The well-worn plot does offer some twists and turns along the way, but primarily the joy here is soaking up the lavish 3d compositions, atmosphere, throwback score from frequent collaborator Claudio Simonetti (replete with old school 50’s sci-fi Theremin sounds), over the top gore, and other worldly feel that an Argento production supplies. This is a fast, fun film, with its own quirky appraoch that works for me. However, as an Argento and Euro Horror fan, I am prepared for some of the baggage that comes with this type of viewing. The odd dubbing choices are at this point expected to me, and in fact add to the surreal feel. Not  everyone would find that to be the case. The same can be said for the way the film wraps itself is an air of artifice, toying with the viewer. To me this was all a hoot, but I am sure most would not have the same reaction.

Berberian Sound Studio

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio really stuck with me, and truth be told I am not sure why. There is something about it that manages to crawl its way inside you and stick when, in actuality, very little occurs during the film’s running time.

Berberian begins as a fish out of water tale, as our protagonist, a shy British sound engineer arrives in Italy in the early 70’s to work on what he believes is a film about horses titled The Equestrian Vortex.  However  he soon learns he is doing sound design for a horror film that seems to be a mixture of Suspiria and Mark of the Devil.  Slowly Gilderoy is drawn into a world of strange characters both in the film he is working on and populating the studio he is working in. There is the overbearing and abusive producer, the somewhat removed from reality director, and the strange voice cast, not to mention his two sound assistants Massimo and…..Massimo.

Gilderoy does not mesh well into the early 70’s world of Italian film and attitude, and quickly becomes homesick. Day by day he works on the film, slicing into vegetables to create the sounds needed for the films murders and creating other soundscapes and night by night he becomes more lost, dwelling on letters from his mother at home or soundscapes recorded back in England. We never see the actually contents of the film itself, only descriptions of scenes, dialogue, and Gilderoy generating sound effects. Discarded vegetables begin to rot in the studio, becoming progressively more putrid as Gilderoy’s psyche becomes more and more damaged.

Slowly his hold on reality begins to slip as he begins to see parts of his life incorporated into the film he is working on and parts of the film interjected into his daily routine. There is an ominous feeling that something horrible is waiting around the bend at any moment in Berberian, but truthfully we are seeing the character study of a man losing himself. The film is really about image, sound and mood. It is a marvel to behold and hear, even when it is crawling along at a snail’s pace.

Much has been made of the film being an homage to the giallo films of the 70s, but in actuality I found the film to have more in common with the works of David Lynch. Clearly The Equestrian Vortex is an homage to the giallo genre, and the incredible use of soundscape in the film reflects the genre’s reliance  similar soundtracks. However the actual structure of the film was far more Lynchian; a character’s slow decent into madness revealed through progressively surreal imagery and sound.

Looking over the films I’ve reviewed so far on Living24fps and thinking about Berberian  actually helped me realize something about my own taste in film. I am clearly drawn to films where imagery and atmosphere take more prominence over plot. I like it when a film gets under your skin. Much like  The Equestrian Vortex gets under Gilderoy’s, Berberian Sound Studio gets under the viewer’s. A film that has that power is a winner in my book.