A riotous comedy without a hint of sentimentality, Todd Phillips´ The Hangover is a near-classic old-school comedy that recalls Animal House or Caddyshack or, going back even further, the days when W.C. Fields had creative control over his work and produced films like Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis star as three men who wake up in a Las Vegas suite with absolutely no memory of what happened to them the previous night. It was apparently quite a bachelor party: blow-up doll in the Jacuzzi, chair on fire, live chicken roaming around. Phil (Cooper) is wearing a hospital bracelet; Stu (Helms) is missing a tooth. Alan (Galifianakis) goes to use the toilet, only to discover a Bengal tiger in the bathroom. And there´s a baby in the closet. And what´s worse, their friend Doug (Justin Bartha) is missing, and he´s supposed to get married tomorrow.
So Phil, Stu, and Alan must reconstruct the events of the previous night to find their friend. This leads them to a stolen police cruiser, a wedding chapel, some Asian gangsters, a stripper/escort played by Heather Graham, the effeminate Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), and Mike Tyson, playing himself with an unusual degree of charm and goofiness.
The plot is nothing extraordinary, but it´s remarkable to which degree Philips shirks the long-standing rom-com formula reinforced by the recent wave of Judd Apatow comedies and lets this thing play itself out. The director´s previous films – Road Trip and Old School – were modestly successful in their own right, but still stuck to the usual conventions. In The Hangover, we have absolutely no emotional involvement in the marriage at the heart of the film, and couldn´t care less about how things are resolved. Instead, we´re more than content to watch these three stooges bumble their way through retracing the steps of an eventful night.
And what stooges we get: Cooper (more or less a straight man in films like He´s Just Not That Into You), Helms (a former Daily Show correspondent), and Galifianakis (a stand-up comic who made an impression with some viral videos like this interview with Natalie Portman) aren´t stars yet, but soon they will be. Most of the film´s humor lies in these three characters, their tics, and how they interact with each other, and the actors play off one another brilliantly. Some of the biggest laughs here are hidden in throwaway (and likely improvised) dialogue quips.
Not that I found everything funny. There´s a extended scene involving police tasers that features the same kind of narcissistic humor that should have gone out of style with the Farrelly Bros. (and, in the light of these guerilla police brutality stun gun videos, just feels awkward here.) And while The Hangover isn´t nearly as gross-out a comedy as we´ve become accustomed to, it does feature its share of unnecessary gross out moments (usually involving male nudity).
Otherwise – for madcap fun without any forced emotional investment, in the style of some of the most celebrated comedians – The Hangover can´t be beat.
After three big-budget (and highly successful) Spider-Man films, director Sam Raimi returns (sort of) to his Evil Dead roots in the horror comedy Drag Me To Hell. It doesn´t quite succeed as horror or comedy (and honestly, the Evil Dead films only got so far, too) but it´s a pretty entertaining piece of work from a director all too willing to please.
The plot of Drag Me to Hell is vaguely similar to Stephen King´s Thinner, except here our lead character is a (mostly) sweet young girl. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) works as a loan officer at a bank; her boss (David Paymer) is about to pass her over and give a promotion to the new guy, because he can “make the tough decisions.” So when a tough decision falls into Christine´s lap – an old gypsy woman who has defaulted on her loan a number of times comes asking for another extension before her house is taken away – Christine does what we would expect a loan officer to do. As does the old gypsy woman (at least, in Hollywood terms) – she places a demonic curse upon Christine, summoning a goat devil that will terrorize the poor girl for the remainder of the film. Justin Long plays Christine´s confused boyfriend, Dileep Rao is a benevolent fortune teller.
Drag Me to Hell moves along just fine, though the plot – in and of itself – never really works as horror or comedy. This is PG-13 horror territory, about as bloodless as it can be, but that doesn´t hold Raimi back from throwing all the gross-out gags he can at us: oozing pus and slime, old lady dentures, rotting corpses, bleeding pastries and more. We laugh and we´re disgusted at the same time, and the film holds this queasy balance for the duration, always keeping us off guard.
But when it tries to be tense and scary, well, Drag Me to Hell doesn´t really make it (one big exception in the following paragraph). The demon doesn´t play by any rules or follow any logic, and no guidelines are ever really set into place: anything can and will happen, and we´re never quite sure what is going on only in Christine´s head, and what is actually happening.
One thing that absolutely works here is the sound. Raimi seems to have brought a top-of-the-line sound effects editing crew along with him from the Spider-Man pictures, and the result is electrifying: the stingers – you know, those shrieking boo! effects on the soundtrack that cap scenes of high tension – are guaranteed to jolt you out of your seat even (and especially) if you haven´t been paying attention. Drag Me to Hell features some of the best sound work I´ve heard in a horror film, on at least a par with the US remake of The Ring; be sure to see it in a cinema with a good sound system.
Biggest gripe: the “twist” ending, which is set up four or five times during the course of the movie, and which every viewer will see coming the moment it is set into motion. It´s not a bad ending by any means, and certainly where the movie should have gone – but Raimi should have handled it more subtly, or not presented it as a twist at all.
And that poor kitty…
Kevin Smith tries to recapture some of that Chasing Amy magic in the salaciously titled Zack and Miri Make a Porno, though he only gets about two-thirds of way there. For its first two acts, Zack and Miri is a delightfully raunchy comedy that´s right up there with Smith´s best work. That´s all but lost when the film slips into routine rom-com formula for a predictable climax; sure, many decent films devolve into formula, but when it comes from a director who has set some high standards, it stings even more.
Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen star as Zack Brown and Miriam Linky, two working-class roommates and platonic friends living in a small Pittsburgh apartment and struggling to pay the bills. When two Bean-N-Gone Coffee Shop customers film Zack´s bare ass and turn him into an internet meme, an idea is born: to capitalize on the temporary fame and make some quick cash, Zack and Miri will do the title of this film justice.
Miri seems to take to the idea unreasonably quickly, and the pair is off to shoot “Star Whores” – complete with elaborate dildo lightsaber props – in an abandoned warehouse. Along for the ride are “producer” (the only guy Zack knew who could front the cash) Delaney (The Office´s Craig Robinson), cameraman Deacon (Jeff Anderson), and stars including Lester (Jason Mewes) and Bubbles (Traci Lords).
You know where this is going, of course: in the midst of all the raunchy sex, Zack and Miri will discover they have feelings for each other. There´s nothing wrong with that, but Smith handles the final act with a jarring Jersey Girl thud as the comedy comes to a standstill.
Banks and Rogen are quite good, and have a great rapport, but we never really buy the budding romance between them. Nothing against Rogen, but I wasn´t buying it between him and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up either. Justin Long has a great scene as a porn star, and Anderson (of Clerks fame) is terrific as the cameraman – he´s still playing Clerks´ Randal Graves, but he´s damn good at it – why haven´t we seen him in more features?
Location Pennsylvania shooting creates a vivid atmosphere (though it isn´t all that different from Smith´s usual New Jersey universe). Great little bonus: numerous references to George Romero´s epic Dawn of the Dead (which shot at some of the same locations), including a cameo by Tom Savini.
Despite the mixed review, there´s plenty to like in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. If you can forgive Smith the one transgression, this ranks up there with some of his better work. And despite the title and plotline, Zack and Miri isn´t as explicit as one might expect (Smith´s dialogue, however, is predictably…colorful).