(Video on Demand, October 2013) As someone who had a mixed reaction to The Hangover and an annoyed one to its nearly photocopied sequel, I’m almost unsurprised to find out that I don’t completely dislike the third installment in “The Wolfpack trilogy”. At the very least, it disposes with the narrative scheme of the first two films and attempts something new. It also brings back Ken Jeong’s unleashed character, a force of chaos that ends up driving much of the entire plot. The result certainly has its moments, as it zigzags from Los Angeles to Tijuana to (much to the characters’ dismay) Las Vegas once again. The comedy certainly is of the hit-and-miss type: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t and viewers just have to wait for the next gag if one isn’t to their liking. With this series, it doesn’t pay off to be offended, but it actually takes a while (arguably until after the credits) for this third Hangover to get overly graphic. Perhaps the film is mellowing along its characters; perhaps it’s a recognition that you can only go back to the same raunchy source so many times. Much of the film’s success has to go to the actors under Todd Phillips’ direction. Bradley Cooper is still as preposterously charming as ever, while Ed Helms continues to undermine his own straight-laced image. Zach Galifianakis remains annoying, but even that annoyance seems lessened here, largely because his character does get a bit of emotional growth along the way. The Hangover III benefits from a few good comic set-pieces (the best of which taking place atop Caesar’s Palace), and manages to re-use a lot of material from the previous two film, even if only in passing. The result may not be great cinema, but it’s decent comedy and it brings this would-be trilogy to a decent close. It could have been worse, or at least far more similar to the first two films.
(In theaters, June 2011) I never thought I’d be thankful for 3D reining in a director’s worst impulses, but looking at the dramatic increase in Transformers 3’s visual coherence over its predecessor, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Michael Bay has finally met a limiting factor he couldn’t blow up. Simply put, the visual salad of quick cuts and flashing color that undermined Transformers 2 simply doesn’t work in 3D, and Bay has adapted his style in consequence. Much like accessibility for disabled people ends up benefitting everyone, it turns out that Transformers 3D is a lot more accessible… even for 2D viewers. There are a few amazing long shots in the film (one of the best being a highway stunt in which a robot transforms around its human passenger), and everything feels far more controlled and enjoyable as a result. It helps that the plot is better than the preceding films, blending a healthy dose of conspiracy theory with multiple betrayals and catastrophic imagery. (There’s a particular chilling moment that makes no sense in the context of the series, but shows what the trilogy could have built toward had it been coherently conceived.) It’s easy to miss Megan Fox (her replacement is bland), to wish that Ken Jeong should have gotten a better role and to think that Shia LaBeouf is this close to developing a distinctive screen personality (albeit not a pleasant one), but various bit players such as John Turturro, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand do quite well with small roles. Transformers 3 is hardly perfect, mind you: The plot holes are still obnoxious, the robots still look like unconnected piles of hardware, the lack of attention to characters is still annoying and the dumb humour of the series is still intrusive, but the improvement is perceptible –even when it comes from the actors doing their best with the material they’ve got. At more than two and a half hours, Transformers 3 is overstuffed with barely relevant material: A good script re-write could have combined characters for greater impact, and cut 30-40 minutes without too much trouble. But part of the pleasure of the Transformers series is in finding out what kind of spectacular mayhem can be put on-screen with an ultra-big budget. (The remarkable pre-credit sequence alone is probably more expensive than most movies in the history of movies.) On this level, Transformers 3 certainly doesn’t disappoint, even for jaded action junkies. The last hour of the film pulls out all the stops in portraying inventive set-pieces in downtown Chicago, and some sequences (such as the glass skyscraper) are nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s lavish summer entertainment with terrific audio/video production values, and for once there’s just enough interesting material in the script to keep us interested while Bay’s direction benefits from some much-needed restraint. While I’m not saying that the film will end up anywhere near this year’s end Top-ten lists, it’s such an improvement over the first two in the series that it feels like a success.
(In theaters, June 2011) The platonic ideal of a sequel is to recreate the experience of the first film while bringing something new to it. So it’s not much of a surprise to find out that the screenwriters at work on The Hangover II felt completely justified in stealing the original’s structure almost plot beat per plot beat. It’s certainly familiar, and that may not be ideal: Part of The Hangover’s appeal was the delirious way in which it went left and right, bowing to traditional narrative expectations only late in the third act. Here, the element of surprise is gone, and viewers can feel themselves anticipating what should have been twists. It also lends an unfortunate feeling of laziness to a film that nonetheless went around the world in big-budget style. It could have been worse, mind you: The characters are recognizable without feeling reduced to catch-phrases (although Zach Galifianakis’s always-irritating “Alan” went from slightly-retarded to too-stupid-to-live in-between the two films), the Bangkok location provides plenty of good color, the rhythm of the film is fine, Bradley Cooper makes for a capable anchor, Ken Jeong is just as refreshing in his brief scenes (even though his presence is absurdly contrived) and up to a certain point, setting the film far away makes it feel a little bit less reprehensible that the quasi-local hijinks of frat-boys gone wild in Vegas. Still, the film as a whole doesn’t feel quite as joyful as the first one: the laughs seem to suffer in the face of increased danger and raunchiness. But it’s the feeling of familiarity that brings The Hangover II down, a sense that it’s quite literally going through the same motions as its predecessor.
(On DVD, June 2011) I’m just as surprised as anyone else that I lasted two years without seeing one of the cultural movie touchstones of 2009, the R-rated comedy that affirmed the dominance of the arrested-male-teenager as the comic archetype of the time. I have little patience with the form and didn’t expect to like The Hangover much, but as it happens there’s quite a bit to like in its cheerfully anarchic approach to plotting, as it uses flashbacks, comic detective work and wild characters in one big pile. Todd Phillips’ directing is assured and neatly guides viewers through a more complex narrative structure than is the norm for comedies. It helps a lot that the characters are interesting in their own right: Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma transforms a borderline-repellent role into something nearly cool, while Ed Helms proves a lot less annoying than I’d initially guessed and Ken Jeong supercharges every single scene he’s in. Small roles for Mike Tyson (not someone I’d hold as a role model) and Jeffrey Tambor also work well, although I still can’t think of Zach Galifianakis as anything but obnoxious (and discover retroactively that he played the same character in Due Date). For all of the icky what-happens-in-Vegas immaturity, there are a few chuckles here and there: it’s hard to begrudge a film as likable as it is foul-mouthed. Alas, I didn’t go completely crazy for the film: Fonder flashbacks to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (curiously unacknowledged) and the far funnier absurdist amnesia masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? held me back. But comedy’s notoriously subjective, and it’s not as if I actually disliked The Hangover: I just found it a bit underwhelming, most likely conceived from assumptions that I don’t share.