31 May 2013

The Road to a Blockbuster: Now You See Will Smith

The sun rises on another Summer Friday, so naturally, we have some movies clamouring to be the next big cultural iconic moment. Here at NMW we take the opportunity to dig into these potential blockbusters, to examine not only their potential for critical and commercial success, but what kind of impact they may have on our culture. So far this summer has lacked any standout features, not only because each week has given us a huge movie - from Iron Man 3 (2013) to Furious 6 (2013), so it's been sort of hard to concentrate on any one property for very long. There's also not a great amount of heterogeneity so far. Luckily, though, this weekend offers us two original features.
And James Dave Franco!

That's a good thing, right?

Let's start with the Magician Action Heist Caper (you read that right), Now You See Me (2013). This movie seems to have a crazy cast that includes Isla "Rebel" Fisher, Morgan "God" Freeman, Melanie "Shoshanna" Laurent, Mark "Hulked Out" Ruffalo, and even a mini-Zombieland (2009) reunion with Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. Still, remember that first bit you read. The Magician Action Heist Caper. This comes at a time when the magicians most recently on anyone's mind are Gob Bluth and Tony Wonder (Isla Fisher's presence doesn't do us any favors to help forget that fact). Arrested Development made Gob a modern magician for a reason - it's inherently very campy and goofy (although they demand to be taken seriously). In the same way, it's a little hard to take this pretty doofy looknig movie seriously.

It actually doesn't really help that director Louis Leterrier seems to be readily seeking to defend it, along with other turds he's made. Yes, there's an excuse for everything, Lou. This ultimately feels like it should be a March or April release instead of a big Summer flick. It hasn't gotten a ton of support, although the cast is well-liked and it seems flashy with just enough of a bit of mystery that it may do pretty decently. Are we going to drop everything to catch it on F/X in 2016? No. It ought to make decent background fodder, but there's no reason to invest anything in this movie. And that is because magicians are stupid.

Against this stiff competition we have the real deal - After Earth (2013). Is it actually an indoctrination into scientology? Was filming it so rough that Jaden Smith wanted to be emancipated from his pop as a result? Does Willow whip her hair all over the end credits? Will Smith is one of the few remaining movie stars that is still pretty reliable, although it's not all that clear how much he's even in this damn movie. The basic synopsis is that him and his son crash land on Earth in the future after it was abandoned and he's injured while his son goes and fights Diego from Ice Age (2002). It also seems like Will is sucked out of the ship during that trailer - so...is Will even really in this thing? I feel another backlash of expectations when this becomes the Jaden Show real fast.
I wouldn't mind if Hancock was in this

Anyway, this could serve as a vehicle to propel Jaden into his own level of superstardom. And maybe he made enough fans off of The Karate Kid (2010) to hold down an audience. Still, this is a Shyamalan movie...sure it's an original Will Smith idea, but this is a director who has been burning down his goodwill and auteur status for over a decade. Apparently he's just a journeyman now, about as good as a Brett Ratner or Rob Cohen. That makes be a little sad. I mean, the cat had talent. Who knows what happened to him, but now he's apparently churning out tailor-made shit like After Earth instead of his own work. Maybe no one is letting him write his own stuff anymore. That's probably a good idea.

Still, it's a bit intriguing that the two biggest stars left on the planet have both made original movies within a few months of each other that features themselves as the only humans left on the planet. Kind of. Tom Cruise's Oblivion (2013) was a fairly surprisingly competent movie, if not fairly derivative of you know, everything from Independence Day (1996) to Spaceballs (1987). It also at least had its visuals to fall back on, along with a pretty cool twisty story, and a hell of a dedication on the part of Tom. After Earth has none of these. Can it really break out this summer? At this point it seems like Summer 2013 is really falling between Furious 6 and Man of Steel (2013), and it's really tempting to take a break this weekend (or catch Furious 6 after sorrowfully seeing The Hangover: Part III [2013] last weekend...). I don't see any film from this weekend really going anywhere. And whenever I'm about to change my mind I see those awful CGI Baboons. I mean, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) did more with less, M., you can't throw up that shit anymore.

Will you see some magic this weekend? Or at least a big deserted earth filled with the Smith family? Or do you prefer to stay in the Matrix?

28 May 2013

First Impressions: The Hangover: Part III

Well, it's time to throw this away.

Nah, there's still a Hangover: Amsterdam Vacation (2015) in there somewhere. Right?

Ultimately The Hangover: Part III (2013) so far is a massive disappointment at virtually every level. It only ever stood a slim chance at critical success, namely because the hard-R partying genre it created to acclaim with The Hangover (2009) quickly wore out its welcome. We talked at length at its limited shot at cultural success here, ultimately deciding that its fate would be interwoven with the franchise rather than standing out on its own. Its commercial success, though, seemed all but guaranteed after The Hangover: Part II (2011) defied expectations and soared to almost accomplishing the fate of its predecessor, despite virtually containing the exact same plot.

Flabbey Road
At this point, however, Part III has grossed half of what Part II took in over the same time span and doesn't look to make up ground anytime soon. What happened? Furious 6 (2013), for one, which had glorious reviews, a real positive energy, and a predecessor that was almost universally judged as the best in a decade-old franchise. What hurt Part III the greatest, though, was the fact that it just wasn't that funny. It broke away from nearly every convention and conceit of the first two films, but neglected to replace any of it with any substance worthwhile. The plot still resembles the first two films, but it's trying so hard not to be. Also, with much of the marketing plugging this thing as some sort of ultimate finale akin to The Dark Knight Rises (2012) or something, it feels largely episodic rather than final. Needless to say, thar be SPOILERS from here on out, chaps.

There's a funny thing about expectations this summer. Nearly every major movie released so far has blatantly toyed and defied them, notably the double-punch of villain mishandling seen in Iron Man 3 (2013) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). Ironically or not, that's about the one thing that Part III gets right - John Goodman as the villain Marshall (spun off, somewhat naturally and brilliantly from a throwaway line spoken by Black Doug in The Hangover), is about the only one in the cast that really knocks things out of the park here. In doing so, he's about the best villain of Summer so far in a Summer where every film is built on them. I'm sure Bane or the Joker, by the way, have nothing to do with that current marketing ploy.

After Part II there was this huge critical backlash that it was unoriginal and derivative, despite the fact that its final domestic gross was on par with its predecessor, and it was much more successful worldwide. I will still contend that Part II was the better film, pushing its jokes to the logical extension into further darkness and insanity, as well as offering crisper pacing and a sleazier, more brutal setting that better explored the theme of having a catastrophic hangover. Yes, the plot was the same, but there was something special in doing a fantasy drinking tour of every party city in the world. Amsterdam, Tijuana, and Muncie, IN would surely follow, right?

Part III gets half in the bag. While touted as a completely new idea, it flirts with the well-worked premise of the first two entries before avoiding it entirely, but still clinging to the tropes. The thing is, the core idea of a gold heist in order to get their friend Doug (again) back, could have been done in any Hangover movie. So the fact that we get that same kind of searching plot without the fun glimpse at partying depravity feels like we've been cheated. A decapitated giraffe is not really on par with finding babies, tigers, and Tyson tatoos in your hotel room after a night full of bad decisions.

The film also goes into really strange tonal territories. The cold open in the Thai prison where we see Leslie Chow's escape is near perfect. It's got the grunge and grime to pair with a level of ridiculousness and even a reference to The Shawshank Redemption (1994) that would seem to actually balance the proper level of ominous and goofy that makes up this world. From there though, things trend more towards ominous rather than goofy and it never gets back on track to that masterpiece first scene.

I have no problem with comedies that aren't really comedies, as long as they work as actual movies. Funny People (2009) is the go to example. It wasn't a laugh riot, but it had interesting things to say about the throes of stardom, developing principles, and ultimately the strained psychology of hanging out with a lot of funny people who can't really handle the serious parts of their lives. Part III isn't like that. Much of it plays out more as a crime epic or gangster film, but it's not really saying anything unique about that, and it's not funny enough to make up for it like comedies need to be.

A Match made in Hell
As for the cast, this film revolves even more around Zach Galifianakis, but tiptoes around his dementia, ultimately giving him some direction through a pitch-perfect casted lovemate in Melissa McCarthy. Ken Jeong also takes center stage here, but when the main characters are the two craziest, there isn't a lot to go on. Ed Helms has always served as the straight man who the audience could identify with, with Bradley Cooper being the bridge between him and the darker side of Galifianakis. Both these guys tend to take a backseat, though, with much less focus on Helms than Part II. It's not really great writing to make the worst things happen to the characters who aren't fazed by it. That's why Helms always had to suffer - his reactions were the funniest. Instead, Galifianakis' non-reactions are played for laughs, which sort of fall flat.

As with the opening scene, though, the film shines again in its final, mid-credits scene, which gives us what we all came to see - tremendous debauchery and mayhem evidence of a wedding party gone horribly wrong. And Ed Helms with breasts. Will this leave room for a redeeming Part IV? It's unlikely. There were a lot of eggs in this basket, and that basket is pretty well blown at this point. It's tough enough getting these A-Listers together, and there is some sense that this production was a bit rushed. Like I said, I wouldn't at all mind a return to form with The Hangover: Part IV: Amsterdamnation (2016), but that's speaking as the only person in the world who not only tolerated a mimicking of convention, but praised it. Departing from the formula is not at all why Part III is a disappointing film, but there needs to be some reconciliation.

Other stray thoughts:

How often to films like this get the original baby actor to come back?

What happened to this promised level of destruction?

Is this film a victim of overhype or just a bad movie? Why not both.

Start your drinking - what did you think of The Hangover: Part III?
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