Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
When crafting a follow-up to the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time it’s understandable that one might be reticent to mess with a winning formula. But director Todd Phillips and writers Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong seem to have confused revisiting with recycling: The Hangover Part II so closely mirrors its blockbuster predecessor in every vital aspect that it can scarcely claim the right to call itself a sequel.
The only significant new wrinkle introduced in Part II is its setting: Bangkok Thailand a location that at least theoretically augurs well for a second helping of inspired lunacy. The story structure of the first film has been copied wholesale a game of Mad Libs played with its script. The action is again set around a bachelor party this time in honor of buttoned-down dentist Stu (Ed Helms). Again the boys (Stu Bradley Cooper’s boorish frat boy Phil and Zach Galifianakis’ moronic man-child Alan) awaken the next day in a hideously debauched hotel room with little memory of the previous night’s revelry. And again there is a missing companion: Teddy (Mason Lee son of Ang) the brother-in-law to be. (Poor Justin Bartha is once again relegated to the sidelines popping up now and then to push the plot forward via cell phone.)
The amnesiac/investigative angle of the first Hangover made for a refreshing twist on the contemporary men-behaving-badly comedy. Repeated here its effect is arguably the opposite: Too often the action feels rote and formulaic. Gone is any hint of surprise an aspect so crucial to good comedy and a huge part of the first film’s appeal. Key comic set pieces – a tussle with monks at a Buddhist temple a visit to a transsexual brothel a car chase involving a drug-dealing monkey – reveal themselves to be merely variations of memorable bits from the first film.
Tonally Part II is darker cruder and a bit nastier than its predecessor. Female characters never a priority in the first film are further marginalized in the sequel. (The only woman with significant dialogue a Bangkok prostitute also happens to have a penis. I’ll let you ponder the implications of that one.) The three leads Helms Cooper and Galifianakis still work well together and despite the inferior material enough of their chemistry remains to make the proceedings bearable – and occasionally funny. But their characters feel somehow degraded reduced to coarse caricatures of their former selves. Speaking of caricature Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) the fey faux-gangsta villain of the first film returns in an expanded capacity in the sequel his garbled hip-hop slang more gratuitous – and more grating – than before.
I can’t help but wonder what might have been if a planned cameo by Mel Gibson playing a tattoo artist hadn’t been scrapped reportedly due to objections by Galifianakis. Liam Neeson Gibson’s replacement apparently proved ineffectual in his first go-round and when he wasn't available for re-shoots his scene was eventually shot with Nick Cassavetes in the role. In its existing incarnation the scene is purely functional a chunk of forgettable exposition. The presence of Gibson an actor of not inconsiderable comic talent would have at least added an air of unpredictability something the scene – and indeed the movie – sorely lacks.
Even before The Hangover scored its surprising (to some, at least) victory over Land of the Lost at the box office, the suits at Warner Bros. were so confident with their raucous Vegas comedy that they’d already started work on a sequel. Now that The Hangover is a certified hit, a follow-up is a virtual certainty.
Where might a Hangover sequel take the film’s hapless quartet of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha and Zach Galifianakis? In our exclusive interview with Galifianakis, he told us that director Todd Phillips, who is co-writing the sequel’s script with his Old School partner Scot Armstrong, plans on taking the boys abroad. “I think it’s going to be in a foreign country, and I think it has to be in an exotic place,” Galifianakis told us, adding that we can expect “more of the same” from his character, the eccentric oddball Alan.
Click here to read the rest of our R-rated chat with Galifianakis.
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Set in 1976 an arrogant doofus--who loves booze partying and women--buys an underdog professional basketball team and basically runs it into the ground until he is inspired to take his rag-tag team all the way to the NBA. Sound familiar? Semi-Pro is pretty much a mixture of every other Will Ferrell movie. He plays Jackie Moon a one-hit wonder who buys the Flint Michigan Tropics off the proceeds of his hit song “Love Me Sexy.” and tries to coach them even playing on the team. But he ends up dragging them down to last place with his promotional antics. And when the wild and crazy ABA basketball league--known for its slam dunk contests--is about to merge with the all-powerful NBA the Tropics only have one shot to make the cut. Can they pull themselves together in time? This is an underdog sports movie after all. It’s really the same old Will Ferrell shtick in Semi-Pro. Sometimes it’s hilarious but unfortunately after Anchorman Kicking & Screaming Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory much of it is rehash. Tiresome rehash. Nevertheless Ferrell has surrounded himself with another eclectic crew mixing some old favorites with new faces: old Ferrell cronies include David Koechner as the ABA commissioner and Will Arnett as a Tropics sports announcer while the newbies include Andre Benjamin as Clarence “Coffee” Black the Tropics star player and Woody Harrelson as Ed Monix a veteran player Moon brings in to help the team. Think of Monix as Bull Durham’s Crash Davis who once played in the show but has been demoted to the B leagues. Oddly enough Harrelson actually brings some dignity to the otherwise silly proceedings. Veteran executive producer Kent Alterman who has overseen such diverse films as Balls of Fury and Little Children helms his first feature film with Semi-Pro--and that’s basically how the film comes off: semi-professional. Alterman probably figured he only had to point and shoot which is mostly the case and doesn’t do anything above and beyond. The real effort comes from the script written by comedy veteran Scot Armstrong (Old School Starsky & Hutch). The first half of the film is pure Will Ferrell non sequitur fodder--beginning with Moon singing his hit “Love Me Sexy” (lyrics also included is “Lick Me Sexy” and “Hump Me Sexy”) and the obligatory scene of Moon sitting around with his buddies saying “nutty things because they’re not true.” Then there’s the bear wrestling scene. Ferrell must have a thing for the big furry animals (remember the bear pit in Anchorman?) Unfortunately the outrageousness lessens in the second half of the film becoming your straight forward underdog movie. If Semi-Pro is a huge hit Ferrell won't stop making these movies; but if it falls flat maybe he'll think of ways to reinvent himself. One can only hope.
Don’t get me wrong. The Heartbreak Kid does have its moments. As a loose remake of the 1972 Neil Simon classic starring Charles Grodin this story centers on 40-year-old Eddie Cantrow (Stiller) a commitment-shy fellow who can’t seem to settle down. After years of his lusty father (Jerry Stiller) and henpecked married best friend (Rob Corddry) berating him for his pickiness when it comes to women Eddie finally meets Lila (Malin Akerman) a seemingly perfect antidote to bachelorhood. Eddie impulsively proposes—and thus embarks on the longest journey of his life. As the couple head to Mexico on their honeymoon Lila goes from being cute and quirky to being cute and crazy. From Lila’s need for aggressively scary sex to her deviated septum from a cocaine problem Eddie begins to realize he’s made a terrible TERRIBLE mistake. Then at the exotic Mexican hideaway Eddie falls for the down-to-earth Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) who has no clue he’s on his honeymoon. Things get kind of complicated after that. Stiller doing the stuff he does best really never gets old. He manages to instill in the not-so-likeable Eddie his own unique manic charm like he has done countless times before. But now slightly grayer and more distinguished looking the comic actor may have finally outgrown balls-out antics. At times Stiller almost seems uncomfortable going wild and crazy in The Heartbreak Kid. He can do it no problem but he’s actually more effective as the romantic lead. As the object of Eddie’s affection Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III) continues her streak of playing genuinely adorable if slightly off-kiltered ingénues. Akerman (Brothers Solomon) naturally doesn’t come off nearly as well since she’s the nutcase in this scenario. But while comparisons to her look-alike and former Farrelly favorite Cameron Diaz should be obvious Akerman tries to make the klutzy wacko her own. And in a fun turn veteran comedian Jerry Stiller gets to shine his irascible light on his real-life son. You have to wonder if maybe some of their er conversations in the movie ever happened for real. Here’s the thing: Peter and Bobby Farrelly are respected veterans in film comedies hands down. Dumb & Dumber and There's Something About Mary are hilarious classics full of all the toilet humor one can handle. Who hasn’t played a good drinking game watching one of those films? But as the Farrelly bros have gotten older it seems they have also gotten softer in the middle hence films such as Fever Pitch--and now I’m afraid The Heartbreak Kid. First of all it must have been difficult raunchin’ up an established Neil Simon gem (not too mention why they'd want to mess with the original in the first place). Secondly maybe the Farrelly brothers have also finally grown up a little. There are definitely some outrageous moments in The Heartbreak Kid--most of which are in the trailer--but the underlying theme of the movie is more sweet than sticky. And that’s OK just so long as you don’t expect the old Farrelly magic.
Meet Roger (Jon Heder) a beleaguered New York City meter maid who can’t even get a kid to like him in the Big Brother program he’s that much of a loser. In a desperate attempt to change Roger joins a top-secret confidence-building class taught by the suavely underhanded Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton). The doc guarantees that if you employ his unorthodox and often dangerous techniques you WILL unleash your inner lion. The class turns out to be just the incentive Roger needs and he takes to it like a duck to water. He even finally gets up the courage to ask out his pretty neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). But here’s the catch: Because Roger is such a star student it catapults Dr. P. into ultra-competitive mode and he makes it his mission to infiltrate and destroy Roger's life including going after Amanda. Well that’s not very fair. Can Roger use his newfound king of the jungle-ness to beat the master at his own game? Hmmm. It’s mostly because of the two leads that Scoundrels feels like you’ve been there and done that. First of all Heder best known as THE Napoleon Dynamite is playing a nerd...again. And although he’s far more lovable this time around—with the full lips and shaggy hair—and you instantly cheer him on the actor doesn’t really evolve by movie’s end. With his limited comic abilities he may not be the right choice to carry an entire film. Thornton who has been known to carry a film is just doing his same Bad Santa shtick he’s done in about the last four films he’s made. Wonder if he’ll ever go out on a limb again like he did with Sling Blade. As for the other band of misfit classmates—Walsh (Old School’s Matt Walsh) who's dying to move out of mother's basement; Diego (SNL’s Horatio Sanz) a punching bag for his hen-pecker of a wife; and Eli (Jerry Maguire’s Todd Louiso) a shy guy just looking for female companionship—they are hilarious. Barrett (The Last Kiss) too works fine as the ingénue. And there is a well-placed cameo by Ben Stiller as a former student of Dr. P who also got in his way. Based on the 1960 British film of the same title Scoundrels reunites director/writer Todd Phillips with his writing partner Scot Armstrong—the guys who brought us Old School Starsky and Hutch and Road Trip. It’s obvious these guys know comedy and they turn an uppity British laffer into a cross between Anger Management and Rushmore. Not a bad combination actually. They set up the big comedic payoffs such as the class’ painful attempt at engaging in a paint ball fight in the woods or the one-upmanship competition between Roger and Dr. P and let the chortles roll in. But overall Scoundrels seems almost too paint by the numbers and tad superficial. It could have definitely benefited from either a little more star power (as with Anger Management’s Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson) or more off-beat humor (as between Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray). Oh well better luck next time.
The premise to Old School sounds a bit cringe-worthy when you first hear it--visions of sexist frat house humor wild parties buxom babes and beer bongs dance through your head. OK maybe there's a little of that going on in Old School but the heart of the film is surprisingly more centered than your average balls-out comedy. A trio of twentysomething friends have found themselves at a crossroads in their lives. Mitch (Luke Wilson) a promising real estate lawyer unfortunately catches his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis) in a compromising position. Frank (Will Ferrell) a lovable doof marries the sweet Marissa (Perrey Reeves) before realizing he made a big mistake and Beanie (Vince Vaughn) the owner of a successful chain of stereo stores refuses to believe he is the only true family man of the three. When Mitch rents a house near their old alma mater Beanie sees it as a chance to recapture some of that fun-filled college exuberance and turns the house into a fraternity which accepts not just students but any guys out there who want to escape adulthood's travails. The film's antagonist comes in the form of an uptight university dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven) who bears an old grudge against our intrepid trio and does everything he can to shut the house down. But true brotherhood prevails.
Old School works far better than it should thanks to the chemistry of the three leads. Each has his own particular brand of comedy and the combination keeps you rolling in the aisles. Providing physical comedy Ferrell's Frank a goofy college wild man tamed by matrimony is wonderfully outrageous (but someone should tell him to keep his clothes on). Ferrell also shows a dramatic flair especially when dealing with his troubled marriage. Who would have thought this Saturday Night Live alum could act? Vaughn shows his infinite skill at zingin' out quick-witted one-liners (as he does so well in Swingers). Yet his smarmy Beanie also hints that he loves his life as a stable dad more than he cares to admit. Then there's the likable straight man Mitch a character the easygoing Wilson has perfected to a tee ever since his debut in Bottle Rocket opposite wacky brother Owen. Piven who usually plays wild men in films such as PCU and Very Bad Things gets to try on a different hat as Pritchard the nerd who grew up to be the dean of the school--and it looks like he had fun.
Writer/director Todd Phillips obviously enjoyed his college years. His first studio-released film the 2000 Road Trip offered a raucous yet refreshing look at college life that didn't necessarily go for the gross-out humor at every turn (although some turns were certainly made especially given star Tom Green). With Old School Phillips has matured--a little. Thankfully the film doesn't go for the joke for the joke's sake but remains rooted in how these three men are dealing with the pressures of adult responsibilities coming up with their somewhat misguided remedy to those pressures. But it's still a comedy about aging frat boys. You know going in there's going to be a wild party or two some contemptible drunken behavior perhaps even a hazing scene where new recruits have cinder blocks tied to their nether regions. It happens. Phillips also feels the need to incorporate a clichéd romantic twist around Mitch and a girl he had a crush on in high school. A sweet gesture but not nearly as entertaining as watching three grown men slosh around in K-Y jelly in a female wrestling match.