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Screen Shots: ‘The Hangover’, ‘Land of the Lost’

It will probably make tons of money, and be highly popular in today’s tasteless culture, which is steeped in South Park, The Simpsons and professional TV cynics who ramble and rant—Stewart, Colbert, Conan, O’Reilly-n-Olbermann—but The Hangover is pure trash. The heavily marketed crude comedy is bound to tickle at some point and that does not mean it is good humor.

The story of four uncivilized males going to Las Vegas for a bachelor party is the same old thing: like the subversively anti-abortion themed Knocked Up, the jaunt is a thinly disguised excuse to trot out traditionalism as man’s highest potential. Find a woman—and this movie is as anti-female as it is anti-male—for birthing babies, conform to society, and fit in with others while suppressing one’s baser instincts. In the meantime, since we’re all louses deep down, go ahead and make jokes about Nazi extermination of Jews, and the physical and sexual abuse of infants and children. Only Justin Bartha (National Treasure) fares well while an unkempt Seth Rogen/Jack Black type deadpans throughout the disgusting affair, which is so repulsive it’s sure to be praised as ingenious. Bradley Cooper plays the same lecherous guttersnipe character he did in He’s Just Not That Into You.

The Hangover is, as its title suggests, a snapshot of man at his lowest—urging us to believe this is the best a man can get. At one point, someone rationalizes the vulgarities with the line that “that’s what guys do.” Maybe, but it is not what men do. This is Beavis and Butthead with a bigger budget—strictly for the glazed over types that do not want to think. Also in that camp, and opening this Friday, Will Ferrell in Land of the Lost, an adaptation of an asinine Saturday morning TV show of the same name (it aired in the 1970s). As with everything Ferrell does, it is anti-conceptual. The absurdist comedy may appear harmlessly goofy on the surface, and the funniest bit is a joke on Cher, but Land of the Lost merely amounts to yet another example of human self-degradation. This weekend, stay away from the movies, and Tivo or Netflix real comedy—anything with Cary Grant, Doris Day, the Marx Brothers, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Mae West. At their worst, they put today’s crass cutups to shame.

Screen Shot: Disney/Pixar’s ‘Up’

Up might have been called Down. It’s like that, really, more in line with Pixar’s post-apocalyptic Wall-E than with its delightful Ratatouille. Though I arrived late to a recent screening, the protagonist is Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), an old widower who ties balloons to his house and lifts off—with a stowaway on board. The trailer looked fine, but what Disney did not show is that the old coot’s up for assault and battery and he’s in for a grim future. There is adventure, as the pair head for an exotic locale, but much is missing from this movie, starting with a sense of wonder.

Aside from being predictable, ordinary and modern (in the worst sense), Up lacks the chemistry to pull off its theme that letting go beats lifting off as a means of acting in accordance with reality. The obese kid, who lacks personality, and crusty Carl are as lovable as a pair of dirty, old shoelaces—and about as involving. They’re not bad, and they have their moments. But the script is cynical, jokey and it borders on absurdism—balloons are gussied up offscreen overnight, one thunderstorm and they’re instantly in South America, an aviator villain trains flying ace dogs—all of which chokes character development and undercuts the man/boy relationship. To top it off, the poor old man’s future is pretty bleak. His big moment centers upon saving a bird, which as a climax is as exciting as it sounds, and Up suffers from these tired platitudes throughout. Instead of being a lone man who stands against, say, seizure of his property, he simply seems to stand in the way of progress because he doesn’t know any better and Up‘s idea of uplifting is saving an endangered animal or mentoring a child. Fine, but more appropriate for a Sierra Club film or a piece of National Service propaganda than for a studio that used to punch out clever, touching little animated gems. Incidentally, its ultimate point that material possessions do not matter is, I think, an absolute and total lie. Losing a loved one often means treasuring a cherished piece of private property for its meaning and memory.

An interesting postscript came across my desk: an Up publicity stunt went awry up in Seattle, Washington. The whole incident is a sort of real-life demonstration of why the otherwise innocuous movie does not fly.

Screen Shots: ‘Terminator Salvation’

Stripping the science fiction series to its essentials and returning humanistic characters to its core, the latest Hollywood rehash—Terminator Salvation—succeeds on every level. Directed by McG (that’s his name), who directed the powerful sports drama, We Are Marshall, this movie’s an action-packed thriller about a band of rogue individualists uniting against a mechanical stand-in for a slave state.

They do it with brains, not brawn, with an emphasis on life—as against the nihilism underlying most movies in this horror-driven sci-fi genre. Humanity’s legendary savior, John Connor, is played by grim-faced Christian Bale, who is fine, though upstaged by Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright, a man with a criminal past and a questionable future. In plot layer after layer, Terminator Salvation is his story.

As in We Are Marshall, McG is impeccable in using small, subtle details to show that man masters the machine and gives it meaning, featuring antiquated cassette tapes, keypads, and helicopters in post-apocalyptic 2018, when the faceless bureaucracy Skynet has destroyed civilization by misusing machines as a weapon against man. One by one, man, woman and child unite against mighty machines that imprison humans in mechanized camps intended for mass extermination.

Past Terminator pictures expressed an anti-technology theme. McG uses the fourth movie as a springboard for warning against tyranny, not against technology as such. In isolated moments of human connection—an old woman’s generosity; a man’s helping hand, contrasted with an independent woman’s soft landing; a radio broadcast urging listeners to fight that which targets the individual—with each representing the human spirit, McG sets the parts in motion. His Terminator never lets up.

This is predictable, and therefore somewhat anti-climactic, and Bryce Dallas Howard as Mrs. John Connor is woefully miscast, but there’s masterful filmmaking here in strong, fiercely American archetypes. When the humans first bond, Connor’s teen-aged father in tow, and escape the indestructibly motorized killing machines, the action moves breathtakingly toward a half-demolished bridge. In scene after scene, the thuds and creaks all but scoop you out of the seat into a sense of awe—not at the horror, for a change, but at the men and women who come at the bastards again and again and again.

They have simple names like Blair, Star, and Kyle and they bring passion to the cause of man. Testing and applying John Connor’s theory about disconnecting the enemy weak spot, the resistance infiltrates the enemy compound at San Francisco—teeming with enslaved humans and militarized to the hilt—until the movie sort of peters out with a return to series form in a factory with the usual one on one contest between man and machine—and a thoroughly foreseeable ending.

But with an excellent cast, especially Worthington and Eight Below’s Moon Bloodgood once again as a pilot, and McG’s lighting, overhead shots and juxtapositions—desert silence, the sound of a lone, buzzing rotor and a series of screams, no jerky cameras or indistinguishable action—Terminator Salvation posits an Iron Giant-like theme that, in times of desperation, when some people will believe anything they are told, man can be saved—all one has to do, to paraphrase Leonard Peikoff, is think.

Slapstick Silent Films to Screen in New York

An interesting silent film series is being screened at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) on West 53rd Street. The Machine Age: Mack Sennett vs. Henry Ford, presented at 4 p.m. on Monday, June 1, includes Lizzies of the Field (1924, directed by Del Lord, with Billy Bevan), His Bread and Butter (1916, directed by Edward Cline, with Hank Mann and Slim Summerville), Get Out and Get Under (1920, directed by Hal Roach, with Harold Lloyd), Squeaks and Squawks (1920, directed by Noel M. Smith, with Jimmy Aubrey and Oliver Hardy), and Neck and Neck (1924, directed by Fred Hibbard, with Lige Conley). Each movie is approximately 18 minutes and MOMA will provide piano accompaniment by film historian and pianist Ben Model.

Screen Shots: ‘Angels and Demons’

After seeing director Ron Howard’s sharp Frost/Nixon—and his Cinderella Man (a movie for these times)—I admit I had higher expectations for his new picture, Angels and Demons. I have not read the religious mystery novels by Dan Brown, and I do not plan to read them, upon which this sequel to Mr. Howard’s The Da Vinci Code is based.

Both pictures star Tom Hanks as Professor Robert Langdon, who apparently hasn’t learned much since he took on the Pope in tracing Jesus Christ’s ancestry in the first movie, a middling whodunit that made a mint. The plot here is more focused, notched to a time-sensitive conspiracy to destroy the Catholic city-state known as the Vatican. But Angels and Demons sounds more exciting than it is.

Adopting the same agnostic theme that essentially sanctions faith over reason in a Catholic-themed crime thriller, the Sony picture—opposed by the Vatican like the first movie—is another slog.

After the Pope dies, Dr. Langdon, an instantly forgettable female Italian scientist, and various Roman and Vatican policemen race against time to solve the puzzle—never mind why the perpetrator leaves a trail—save the most likely men to become Pope, and stop the supposedly secular villains from blowing up the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Square and everything nearby. The powers that be call upon the professor to help amid shifty, cigarette-smoking cops and cardinals (this is Rome after all, where it seems like everyone smokes). By the time it’s over, the plot has had it every which way—going back and forth between condemning and condoning the Catholic Church, which has denounced and persecuted men of reason for centuries.

The Hanks character is reduced to spotting symbols without providing intelligible context and observing the obvious, such as a statue pointing east as the clue to head east. That he risks his own life without so much as a nickel—let alone access to the Vatican archives to finish his latest work—strains credulity and undermines his status. Without much of a protagonist, despite a thrilling church shootout, an exciting climax and good turns by Stellan Skarsgard, Ewan McGregor, and Pierfranceso Favino, Angels and Demons is in dire need of action and a reason to exist. Watching people, including the prof, preach that faith is a gift amid a string of interesting but unrelated facts—such as the secular origins of Christmas and English as the language of “radicals”—is ultimately neither angelic nor demonic enough to engage the imagination.