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May 30/13

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Hangover Part III (Movie); Kon-Tiki (Movie); The Dark Arts (Short Fiction)

The Hangover Part III (Movie) written by Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin; characters by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore; directed by Todd Phillips; starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, John Goodman, Melissa McCarthy, Jeffrey Tambor, Heather Graham, Mike Epps, Sasha Barrese

It’s hard to say whether this is a good movie or whether it only seems like one because I was expecting much worse.

Why was I expecting a disaster? And, if so, why go to it?

Well, it looked to me like the reviews weren’t exactly favourable. As I recall, Rick Groen from The Globe and Mail had given it zero stars and had dismissed it with utter contempt. But Norman Wilner, in NOW, wasn’t quite so negative. He gave it only three N’s, but he summed up his review with the comment: "I have no idea what audiences will make of this, but I think it’s a pretty ballsy movie."

And then there was my feeling of loyalty to the brand. The first movie in this series had been original, imaginative and very funny. The second movie wasn’t as clever or inventive but it was good enough to make me want to see what these guys could do third time around, inspite of the iffy critical response.

The setup this time – the reason for getting these guys back together – is very good. The Allan character (Zach Galifianakis) has just lost his father (as a result of rather gruesome bit of slapstick) and he’s gone off his meds. It’s decided that an intervention is called for. His three pals, i.e. the other members of "the Wolf pack," agree to drive him to a rehab place, knowing that he won’t go unless they take him. On the way, their car is forced off the road and a bunch of thugs pounce on them. Turns out John Goodman is some sort of crime boss who has a grudge against them. Something they did in one of the previous movies (don’t ask, it’s too complicated) enabled Mr. Chow, the Asian villain, to steal $21 million in gold bars from the Goodman character. He’s insisting that they get the gold back and he’s taking Doug (Justin Bartha), the natty group member who was the groom in the first episode, as hostage until the gold is returned.

It takes a lot of backstory and many references to the previous Hangover movies to get all this rolling. For the rest of the movie, the pace is never as frantic as in the first two outings. By contrast, there’s almost a leisurely quality to the mayhem. Alcohol and drugs aren’t involved in any major way, at least not as applied to our heroes. About half way into the movie, there’s a neat plot twist: what’s happening isn’t what we thought it was. There are some clever devices, such as the one involving dog collars, which leads to some gross-out humour. At another point, there’s even a nice musical joke: the score is building up to a triumphant climax that falls flat.

As a newcomer to the Hangover cast, John Goodman serves up a gangsterish threat that’s all the more intimidating because of his soft touch. Some characters from previous episodes make cameo appearances. That makes for an affectionate "the-gang’s-all-here" feel to the proceedings. Maybe that’s why the thing that strikes me most about this movie is a genuine sense of camaraderie among the guys. Their easy-going friendship makes us comfortable with them. We feel about them almost the way we might have felt once upon a time about a team like the Three Stooges. It doesn’t matter so very much what they’re up to. We just enjoy being with them.

And taking the opportunity to notice how good their acting is. I was particularly struck by Ed Holms in the role of Stu, the dentist. It’s not by any means a glamorous role (Bradley Cooper has the monopoly on that). Stu has always struck me as a rather bland, uninteresting type but, here, Mr. Holms impressed me with his authenticity, his sincerity; there are moments when he comes across as a genuine person rather than just a doofus in a comedy.

But the actor who impressed me most was Mr. Galifianakis. Since the original Hangover, I’ve been complaining that he has been vastly over-exposed, that producers were using him wherever they thought they could get some cheap laughs by means of a weird character. To me, the joke was stale. But this role is the perfect one for Mr. Galifianakis; it seems that this is the one he was born for. He shines here; there’s a gentleness and a sweetness to this man/child that I hadn’t appreciated before. Early on, he’s shown singing a fragment of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria in a beautiful countertenor voice (a big laugh for the teen audience to have this guy sounding like a soprano). I can’t find out whether or not it’s his own voice but the comment of one of his pals, that he sounds like "an angel," seems apt. There is something not quite of-this-planet about him. A scene where he falls into a reverie about fatherhood while contemplating a little kid could easily have turned mawkish but it doesn’t. Yes, he continues to put his foot in his mouth by saying inappropriate things but his nonsequiturs sometimes display fine comic writing.

It turns out that there’s a certain sexual ambiguity about Allan that’s played for some homoerotic laughs, particularly with reference to Mr. Chow. We discover that, while the latter was in prison in Thailand, he and Allan were fond pen pals. I can’t quite decide whether Ken Jeong is a bad actor or whether it’s just that the character is so flakey. Let’s just say that Mr. Jeong delivers the role with appropriate ridiculousness. The other side of Allan’s sexuality gets an outing vis a vis Melissa McCarthy, as the proprietor of a Las Vegas pawn shop. Ms McCarthy is another actor who, I feel, has been too much seen since her memorable appearance in Bridesmaids. She’s called into action whenever a loud, large female is needed for laughs. The coarse side of her comes out here, in a few barks and snaps, but the role allows Ms. McCarthy to show us a subtle, charming quality that’s fascinating to watch.

Capsule comment: surprisingly non-bad

 

Kon-Tiki (Movie) written by Petter Skavlan and Allan Scott; directed by Joachim Rnning and Espen Sandberg; starring Pl Sverre Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Gustaf Skarsgrd, Tobias Santelmann, Jakob Oftebro, Agnes Kittelsen

You may not think of us as very adventurous here at Dilettante’s Diary. But there was a time when Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition held us in its mezmerizing thrall. I’ll never forget being caught up in the suspense, the thrill, the danger and the tension of that daring 1947 expedition. That dashing Norwegian explorer could have had no more avid fan than I as he told of his 101-day voyage by balsa wood raft in his attempt to prove his thesis that people from the land now known as Peru could have migrated across the Pacific to Polynesia some fifteen hundred years ago.

So I was bound to see the movie, no matter how tepid the reviews. But they were right. The movie doesn’t do justice to the book. Which raises the question of whether any movie can live up to the book version of a great adventure. I’m thinking of Alive, Piers Paul Read’s account of the plight of the Uruguyan rugby players whose plane, in 1972, crashed in the Andes mountains where they survived for months by, in some cases, resorting to cannibalism. That was one of the best books I’d ever read but the movie, starring Ethan Hawke was a dud.

This one started off looking nearly as bad, flaunting a stagey style of film-making that looked as if it might have dated from the era of the Kon-Tiki expedition itself. We start with an overly demonstrative scene from Heyerdahl’s childhood, the purpose of which is to show us both that he’s something of a dare-devil and that he can’t swim. Then we get scenes with the adult Heyerdahl and his wife, posing for photos with some aboriginal people in some location that’s not clearly identified. But the scene gives an opportunity for the wife to make a throw-away comment that sparks the idea for Heyerdahl’s thesis about the migration across the Pacific. The setup is so obvious that the camera almost literally shows the light-bulb flashing in his head.

Things proceed along the pre-destined path. Heyerdahl’s opponents, such as the members of the National Geographic Society, who refuse to fund what they see as Heyerdahl’s "suicide mission," come across as nothing but pompous stuffed shirts. When Heyerdahl’s wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen) hangs up the phone after he’s called to tell her he’s heading out on the expedition rather than coming home, as she expected, we get about ten seconds of facial reaction from her – roughly eight seconds more than we need.

Things improve, however, once the raft is launched. Very short scenes give a good sense of life for the six men onboard. The physical process of the trip is faithfully conveyed. There’s lots of amazing underwater photography; the special effects are excellent (even if, after The Life of Pi, you think you’ve had enough of forlorn sea voyages). The stirring music, very much in the grand saga style, doesn’t quite swamp the proceedings with waves of banality.

But I didn’t feel much of the great sense of a quest or a noble enterprise. Maybe that’s because the movie can’t give you the voice of Heyerdahl in the same way his book did. (To make a fair comparison, one would have to look into the book again, but I don’t have it at hand.) In spite of all the movie’s attempts to make Heyerdahl look admirable, I kept wondering if he wasn’t pretty much of a stubborn egomaniac who was willing to risk the lives of his crew to prove his crazy idea (one that, I believe, few anthropologists today support). Part of the problem was the over-acting of Pl Sverre Hagen in the role. Somebody should have told him to stop with the glamorous smiles and the phoney chuckles. When he rejects one crew member’s plea for a certain safety measure, you can see exactly how Heyerdahl is gearing up for a grandstanding gesture and you can’t help thinking it might have been more interesting if he’d if he’d taken the opposite course of action.

The problem, I suppose, is that we’re stuck with a subject who is seen as a genuine hero. No serious diversion from that role is allowed. And this limitation is what cripples the script as a whole. There’s no real drama among the six men on the raft. Presumably, the scriptwriters (Petter Skavlan and Allan Scott) weren’t allowed to invent anything. The occasional theatrical-sounding line is allowed, as when Heyerdahl tells the raft’s navigator to have faith that they are on the right course and the navigator answers: "I have faith but the trouble is, I also have a sextant." You get a little friction about matters of discipline and leadership. Apart from that, all the conflict comes from things like sharks, storms and reefs.

That leaves us not knowing much about the characters or being very involved in their struggles. At the end of the movie, pictures of each of the men are given, along with brief explanations about what happened to them later in life. But it’s hard to care much because you barely knew them as individuals; the script didn’t do anything to make them stand out as such. They were just a bunch of tall, skinny, blonde, clean-cut guys who became tall, skinny, blonde, scruffy guys – except for the fat, blonde German refrigerator salesman who joined the expedition for no understandable reason. Near the end of the voyage, when the script had the crew members turn poetic while lying on deck looking up at a starry sky, it was too late to make me love them.

I just had one question about these guys: how the hell did they, being so fair-skinned, avoid serious sunburn? Apparently real 1940s men – those who were intrepid explorers, at any rate – never stooped to such sissy stuff as sunscreen. It was all very well for them to do their best to help prove their leader’s iffy theory. Maybe it would have done a greater service to humanity if somebody had done a follow-up study on them with regard to skin cancer.

Capsule comment: visually appealing, dramatically dull.

 

The Dark Arts (Short Fiction) by Ben Marcus; The New Yorker, May 20, 2013

The tone of voice in this short story is so striking that it seemed to me that this must be the most original new writer I've discovered since my first encounter, several years ago, with the work of Junot Daz. However, a little research turns up the information that, not only have I mentioned Ben Marcus previously on Dilettante's Diary ("What Have You Done?" on the page dated Aug 11/11), but he's a well-established author, editor and prize-winner. Maybe that makes the fresh voice and the unique young protagonist in this story all the more remarkable.

Julian Bledstein is a young American who's spending time in Dsseldorf in order to get exotic and innovative treatment for some sort of rare blood disease. He's living in a hostel where he sleeps in a room with fifty men and he's schlepping back and forth to the train station every day, hoping that his girlfriend will show up. They'd fought at a previous stop on this European trip but his understanding is that she's supposed to meet him here. He's not sure if the medical treatment's working; he even begins to doubt whether he's really sick. His anxious dad keeps phoning from New Jersey, insisting that it's no problem to send more money, but Julian knows that it is.

What's most amazing about the story is Julian's personality. He's not a very attractive person and he knows he isn't. He tends to take a mordant, pessimistic view of everything. But he can be very funny. German, he finds, is a cold, death-dealing language, suitable for end times. But he's stuck with "whiny, nasal English, in which every word was a spoiled complaint, a bit of pouting."

In English, no matter what you said, you sounded like a coddled human mascot with a giant head asking to have his wiener petted. Because you were lonely. Because you were scared. And your wiener would feel so much better if someone petted it.

The fractured English and the teutonic rectitude of the tight-assed medical types are conveyed with starling immediacy. In dealing with his thoughts about them all, and especially about the missing girlfriend, Julian comes to some conclusions about himself that are surprising to us -- even more so to him.

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