‘Hangover III’: the end to an era

Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Well, that was never the case in the “Hangover.” Or in “Hangover Part III.”

After “Hangover” sent Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) on a wild goose chase across Las Vegas in search of their missing friend, groom-to-be Doug (Justin Bartha), and “Hangover II” takes the gang through a similar scenario involving Stu’s wedding in Thailand, “Hangover III” takes the Wolfpack full circle: back to Vegas where their drunken, blacked-out misadventures began.

While “Hangover III” is less slightly formulaic than its predecessors (“Hangover II” was an almost frame-by-frame replicate of the first movie), it follows a similar pattern: Doug gets kidnapped and Phil, Stu and Alan have to get him back. Though this time, the Wolfpack have their memories in tact (perhaps writers Craig Mazin and Todd Phillips finally realized that there were only so many times the company could get drugged).

Advertised as Alan’s “happily ever after,” the movie begins with a funeral rather than a wedding. Alan’s dad (Jeffrey Tambor) died and Alan promises to ween off drugs if Phil, Stu and Doug join him in rehab. But on their drive from LA to Arizona, Doug gets kidnapped by Marshall (John Goodman), who has some beef with Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), the Asian criminal mastermind infamous for his catchphrase, “Too-da-loo, Motherfucker.”

Because Alan kept in contact with Mr. Chow before he escaped from prison, Marshall figures the Wolfpack could to retrieve Chow. So reluctantly, Phil, Stu and Alan return to Sin City where they reunite with cops, Stu’s stripper ex-wife, Caesar’s Palace and the baby Carlos/Tyler.

Although its chock full of recycled gags (which include drugging animals and body altercation), at least “Hangover III” tries to disguise itself as something different. The boys seemed to have grown up. For one, Stu doesn’t lose a tooth or get branded with a Mike Tyson tattoo. And we don’t see any pictures of it. The three  don’t wake up with a baby, tiger or small chimp in their room. And they don’t even suffer from any black-out inducing drugs. Or at least that isn’t part of the central plot of the film.

This film is about Alan, the eccentric man-child, who seems to finally possess social finesse, pulling Cassie (Melissa McCarthy), a female replica of himself. Galifiankis and McMarthy’s mating ritual ranges from strange to hilarious.

And there is a wedding. (After all, it wouldn’t be a comedy without one.) But the best parts of Todd Phillips’ third installment? We don’t see the bachelor party and we know there’s no more sequels.

“Hangover Part III” was directed by Todd Phillips and written by Phillips and Craig Mazin. 


‘This is the End’: saving the world with laughter

The Puritans believed theatre was evil — idle tools of the devil at play. And acting? That was like gambling or stealing for a living — dishonest and definitely immoral. That’s why Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan’s latest collaboration, “This is the End,” isn’t so far fetched. Hollywood is the pit of Hell? Well, that makes sense considering our Puritan roots.

So if, let’s say, Judgment Day comes tomorrow, the Puritans would be A-OK with celebrity A-listers burning away, right?

Maybe so, but their fans wouldn’t approve. We’re fascinated by our sinner culture, our false idols, our celebrities. And we love reality TV — which is why “This is the End” is intriguing at first.

For the first time, we can browse through James Franco’s basement (where he keeps the props for all his movies) and hear Seth Rogan’s laugh (and see if it’s real). We can see our celebrities in their natural habitats: you know, with Michael Cera as a foul-mouthed womanizer and Emma Watson as an ax-wielding badass.

“This is the End,” an extended version of Goldberg and Rogan’s 2007 short, “Jay and Seth vs. the Apocalypse,” is an end-of-the-world comedy where celebrities play caricatures of themselves.

Scripted and directed by Goldberg and Rogan, the writers of “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express,” “This is the End” follows Jay Baruchel’s arrival to LAX. Baruchel was looking forward to playing video games, smoking weed and bonding with his Canadian pal, Seth Rogan — not going to some elitist celebrity party at James Franco’s mansion.

But lo and behold, he did go and the world ended. Quite literally. Alien abductions, fiery sinkholes, zombies and cannibals, the whole shebang.

And while all the good people got beamed up into heaven, Baruchel, Rogan, Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride were stuck on Hell on Earth — where their survival depended on each other.

This proves difficult for the six self-centered celebs, who fight over every Milky Way and water jug. Franco is a pretentious art snob, Hill is two-faced, McBride is a schmuck. And while they may act (mostly) pleasant around each other, well, we know they’re accomplished comedic actors — who’ve won Golden Globes and People’s Choice Awards and have been nominated for Oscars and Emmys.

While “This is the End” attempts at emotional sincerity (Baruchel’s grand epiphany is that he feels that he lost his pal Rogan to Franco’s celebrity in-crowd), that earnestness is lost when faced with the on-screen personas of self-entitled celebs. Rogan and Baruchel’s bromance doesn’t seem as sincere as the acting of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in “Superbad,” Rogan and Goldberg’s loosely-autobiographical comedy about two hormonal high school BFFs. It feels cheap, engineered and well, Hollywood — complete with a feel-good deus ex machina ending.

While “This is the End” is an interesting experiment (the actors playing themselves part, not the end-of-the-world part), you can’t help but feel ripped off. Deep down, you know the actors are acting (even if they’re playing themselves). This is why they were  perceived as dishonest and immoral by Puritan standards. But by poking fun at themselves, you also know that they have given you one of life’s greatest gifts — the ability to laugh. And if this is the end, that might keep the darkness at bay just a little longer.

 “This is the End” was written and directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. 

‘Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist’ plays same old tune

The title of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” practically tells the whole story. It’s about boy falling for a girl over an endless indie soundtrack. We’ve heard this one before, right?

Michael Cera plays Nick, another awkward soft-spoken teenager who looks as harmless as Bambi and Kat Dennings is Norah, his spunky, dark-haired love-interest.

But what you might not expect from Peter Sollett’s film are the cameos from prominent “Saturday Night Live” cast members. Seth Meyers makes out with a chick in a Yugo while Andy Samberg plays a homeless dude camped outside St. Patrick Cathedral. The only thing “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” seems to be missing is Bill Hader, or rather, his alter-ego, Stefon.

Stefon will tell you that New York’s hottest club is “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” Director Peter Sollett and screenplay writer Lorene Scafaria have built a world between the puke-ridden streets of New York City’s indie nightlife. Based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s book and with lines like, “10 men a-streaking, 1980s dancing, eight trainers training, seven flies and zipping, six extra stitches, five tight gigs, four crunched hens, three French men, two turtle dreams and a darg in my panties,” this place has EVERYTHING: kidnappings, barfing, a yellow Yugo, super-bitches, douche bags, gaylords, uni-boobs, gum-filled kisses, a fistful of assholes, canaries in skinny jeans, an alter boy with no pants and — is that Jesus? No, it’s “Midnight X: Oh Horny Night,” an all-male Christmas drag show in the middle of May.

Although “Weekend Update” host Seth Meyers may have some reservations about this place, Stefon wouldn’t mind Nick’s company: Thom (Aaron Yoo) and Dev (Rafi Gavron), two gay boys who make up the other third of Nick’s band The Jerk Offs, who aid in Nick’s quest to get the girl.

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” isn’t special. We’ve heard this soundtrack before — quirkier in “Juno” and funnier on “Saturday Night Live.”

“Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” was directed by Peter Sollett and written by Lorene Scafaria. It’s based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel.

‘Mud’ worth more than his name

John Badcock — the Brit who compiled “Slang, the Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton, and the Varieties of Life” in 1823 — defined “mud” as “a stupid twaddling fellow,” as worthless as the brown-colored dirt. He was the doctor who patched up Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Boothe. And he’s the titular character in Jeff Nichols’ latest film, “Mud.”

Perhaps Mud (Matthew McConaughey), with his Southern drawl and mud-colored skin, is “a stupid twaddling fellow,” but don’t you dare call him a bum. That’s one of the first things 14-year-olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) learn when they find Mud on an island near the Mississippi River and the boating town of DeWitt, Arkansas.

“You can call me a hobo ‘cuz I’m homeless, but call me a bum again and I’m gonna teach you something about respect your daddy never did,” Mud says.

Perhaps Ellis and Neckbone listen to him because he’s built “lean and hungry” like Cassius from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” gobbling cans of beans like he’s starved. A .45 pistol is tucked behind his belt and a snake tattoo wraps around his tanned arm and neck.

“That guy’s crazy,” Neckbone says.

Or perhaps they listen to him because stupid is great, even admirable, in the eyes of pubescent boys looking for adventure. Mud is crazy, but isn’t that what love does to people? It injects venom into their veins like the snakebite that inspired Mud’s tattoo.

“You can’t trust love, Ellis,” warns Ellis’ father, Senior (Ray McKinnon). “You’re not careful, it’ll run out on you.”

Ellis’ mom (Sarah Paulson) and dad are going through a divorce and Ellis wants to believe in love. That’s why he and his pal, Neckbone, try to help Mud reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the girl Mud killed and stole for: the reason he’s a fugitive.

Nichols, who wrote and directed the film, is a master storyteller, crafting a poetic coming-of-age drama. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald did with “The Great Gatsby,” Nichols makes us voyeurs to a tale of hopeless romance.

But Nichols isn’t alone in making “Mud” great. Sheridan’s charismatic with boyish idealistic charm, smoothing the rough edges surrounding Lofland’s loyal and cynical character. Witherspoon’s kind motherly eyes is enough to keep men up at night. And McConaughey makes us care for Mud, whose dangerous and hard shell masks an undying belief in love. Like Ellis, or Nick Carraway, we’re hopeless romantics, fascinated by watching the boats against the current, wishing that beneath those murky waters, we’ll find more than mud.

“Mud” was written and directed by Jeff Nichols. 

Everything’s ‘Up in the Air’

Unlike their global neighbors, Americans define themselves by their careers. So if an American lose his jobs, he loses more than his livelihood; he loses his identity. And without an identity, what does he have left? Jason Reitman answers that question in his existential film, “Up in the Air.”

The film centers around Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), whose identity is defined by Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” tagline. In Bingham’s words, “I work for another company who lends me out to pussies like Steve’s boss who don’t have the courage to sack their own employees.”

To fulfill his work as a professional firer, he clocks in a lot of air time. That’s easy for Bingham, a man with no baggage — a real cowboy who can travel city to city laying people off.

But as you can expect, a girl changes things. Two girls, to be more precise. First, he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flyer with no strings attached — whose sexting and one-night-stands between layovers cause him to have second thoughts. Second, he meets Natalie (Anna Kendrick), an self-assured twenty-something college grad who wants to revolutionize his work, replacing Skype chats with in-person layoffs. Between the two, perhaps Bingham’s job won’t be “up in the air” (both figuratively and literally). Or at least Reitman and Sheldon Turner’s witty screenplay will keep you guessing.

“You never want to get married?” Natalie pries.

Bingham grins like the Cheshire cat.

Not only does Reitman’s use of triple ententres and wordplay rival Shakespearean wit, but he also manages to explore the philosophical nature of life. (This is done through a series of interviews with the newly unemployed and the incorporation of the Bingham’s family — because as John Donne argued, “No man is an island.”) Witty and philosophical? Now that’s a tall order, or at least a high one.

“Up in the Air” was directed by Jason Reitman, and written by Reitman and Sheldon Turner. It’s based on Walter Kirn’s novel, “Airworld.”

Jaden Smith follows father’s footsteps in ‘After Earth’

Seven years after Will and Jaden Smith’s played father-and-son in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” they co-star in another movie, “After Earth” — M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi action drama about the father-and-son duo in a post-apocalyptic future. In this timeline, Earth has become uninhabitable and Ranger soldiers police the worlds.

When Ranger General Cypher (Will Smith) goes on one last ranger mission before his retirement, he decides to take his teenaged son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), a w0uld-be ranger once he passed his exams. But the mission goes horribly wrong and the two are the only survivors when they crash land on Earth. Discovering that both his legs are broken, Cypher relies on his son to find the SOS beacon that’s their ticket home from the wreckage.

Kitai has a lot to live up to. His father is known for his lack of fear and his no-nonsense tone. After Cypher realizes the perilous nature of their situation, he wastes no time in saying, “Retrieve that beacon or we will die.”

Lucky for Kitai, the future holds high-tech gadgets which Cypher uses to track his son’s journey. This means Dad can accompany him with his “When I was your age” stories and criticize him on what he’s doing wrong. (What parent wouldn’t give for this kind of opportunity?)

But technology is a poor substitute for the real thing. And when Kitai screams, “Dad, please come help me,” Dad can only give voice commands from far away.

Like his character Kitai, fourteen-year-old Jaden Smith has a lot to live up to. His father is actor and rapper extraordinaire Will Smith, the winner of four Grammys and the “fresh prince of Bel-Air.” Since the two played father-and-son in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Will has be nominated for two Oscars and four Golden Globes. But Jaden doesn’t let his daddy’s credentials overshadow him.

He butts heads with his father at the dinner table before Will has to remind him of his manners. He screams at his dad for not being there when his sister dies and then jumps off a cliff. While some of his actions can be dismissed as teenaged rebellion, he certainly makes his presence known. Jaden’s as sincere, charismatic and emotive as his old man, proving that maybe there’s a new “fresh prince” in town.

“After Earth” is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta.

‘Admission’ isn’t worth the price

What’s the secret to getting into Princeton? Straight A’s? A laundry-list-long résumé? Exemplary extracurricular activities? High SAT scores? Writing a great personal essay? Not having an overbearing helicopter parent? Having a mom who works in admissions?

The answer is more or less all the above. At least in Paul Weitz’s comedy “Admission.”

Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton University. Her job is to drive up and down the Northeast, selling Princeton to eager prospective students. She reads personal essay after personal essay. And she’s been doing this for the past 16 years. When John Pressman (Paul Rudd), the founder of Quest, a high school with its first graduating class, calls Portia and petitions her to deliver her spiel, Portia adds this site to her routine.

But there’s nothing routine about Quest. Portia finds herself at a school in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cows. The students are encouraged to think, and most dismiss Princeton University as a corporate giant, sitting on the same level of evilness as perhaps Exxon or Halliburton.

But 17-year-old Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), an autodidactic whom Portia meets through John, wants to attend Princeton. When John tells suggests that Jeremiah could be the son Portia gave up for adoption on Valentine’s Day years ago, Portia settles on trying to connect with her son through the guise of her Princeton profession.

Fey, known for her role as Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” and her impersonation of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live,” plays her usual awkward on-screen self. She’s frienemies (a term from “Means Girls,” a movie Fey both wrote and starred in) with fellow admissions officer Corinne (Gloria Reuben). In one scene when Portia and Corinne pretend they actually like each other in front of their boss, Clarence (Wallace Shawn), it’s almost like a watered-down version of Fey and Amy Poehler’s 2008 “Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Skit” on sexism. The tension behind Fey and Reuben’s fake smiles and idle pleasantries is palpable as they consent to their boss’s appeal to work together, but the amiable discomfort between Fey and Poehler was much funnier on TV.

Perhaps the fault is not with the acting, but with the writing. Fey, a former writer on “Saturday Night Live” who plays a head comedy writer on her show “30 Rock,” is very funny. Her autobiographical comedy, “Bossypants,” sold one million copies in the U.S., and topped The New York Times Best Sellers’ Book List for five straight weeks after its release. On the contrary, Karen Croner, responsible for the screenplay to “Admission” — which is based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, is not as funny.

“Admission’s” mediocre screenplay seems to rely on schadenfreude; as painful and stressful as the application process is, it’s supposedly hilarious in retrospect because it’s not happening to you. Aren’t you glad you’re not Mrs. Lafont (Ann Harada) and her son in the film’s opening sequence when they get to Princeton’s college tour late? And you’re happy you’re not Portia, right, when she throws up at a college frat party, chasing after a boy who might be her son? While Gary Coleman and Nicky from “Avenue Q” claim “Schadenfreude makes the world a better place,” it’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable to watch — especially in a character you’re rooting for.

Through Portia’s sales pitch and Jeremiah’s application process, college admissions seem rife with clichés and ironies, offering the same sage and elusive advice: “be yourself.” For a lost high school senior who hasn’t figured his life, what does that even mean? Are you a pretentious do-gooder whose dreams of saving the world? Or perhaps you’re a legacy who relies on your parents’ money and name? If those are the two types of people who are guaranteed admission, does “being yourself” meaning you’re not granted a spot on the waiting list?

Despite the moral ambiguity, trite and unrealistic nature of the film, there are a few funny moments. Lily Tomlin’s lines and delivery shine as Portia’s blunt, gun-toting, feminist mother, Susannah. “If I had to do what I’m supposed to be doing, like you, I’d kill myself,” Susannah nonchalantly says to Portia in one scene.

“Did you just say that if you were me, you would kill yourself?”

“Portia, don’t exaggerate.”

Well, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that even that isn’t worth the price of admission.

“Admission” was directed by Paul Weitz. The screenplay was by Karen Croner, based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book.

‘Bastille’: sieging the charts by storm

“Oh I feel overjoyed,” Bastille’s 25-year-old frontman Dan Smith sings in the UK band’s first debut album, “Bad Blood.” Although Smith sounds a bit more melancholy than overjoyed while singing his tracks, he should be feeling overjoyed right now.

Not only has Bastille’s “Bad Blood” tour sold out within minutes of its UK release, but their single “Pompeii” has been no. 1 on the UK Official Streaming Charts for at least seven consecutive weeks.  According to the UK iTunes charts, their album, “Bad Blood,” (which was released only in the UK on March 4 by Virgin Records) is selling at no. 7. “Oh I feel overjoyed/when you listen to my words,” Smith sings in Bastille’s single “Overjoyed.” Well, Mr. Smith, your wish is fulfilled. More than 22 million people have watched the music video for “Pompeii” on YouTube, listening to your words.

Smith, who’s been writing songs since he was 15,  says his songs aren’t overly autobiographical. Instead, the singer/songwriter follows in the tradition of Regina Spektor and Josh Ritter, American alternative indie folk singers known for their narrative styles, drawing from fiction or history for inspiration. Smith — who named the band after Bastille Day, the English term for the French holiday celebrating the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution on July 14, 1789 — plays his part as a historian or singing bard.

His song “Daniel in the Den” chronicles the biblical story from the point-of-view of Daniel, who was trapped in the lion’s den. “Icarus” is based on the Greek myth where Icarus, the son of Daedalus, flew too close to the sun, melting his wax wings and falling to his death. “Pompeii” is about the fall of the Roman city from the point-of-view of its citizens. “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” Smith repeats.

Whereas other English singer/songwriters wrote autobiographical and emotional, passionate songs about heartbreak, Smith’s songs are cold and passive, sounding a little detached, but no less addictive. Adele had “Set Fire to the Rain.” Bastille has “Things We Lost In the Fire.”

Like Adele, Smith has a high vocal range and a knack for songwriting, but the man behind the words is a mystery. In fact, Smith kept his music a secret until his songs were discovered:  “None of my friends ever knew. My family knew because they overheard it coming out of my room – these weird warbling noises,” he told The Independent. The elusive Smith literally masks his face and his wild, spiky black hair — first with a shapeless brown sack and then with a grotesque mask — in Bastille’s music video “Laura Palmer,” inspired by David Lynch’s television series “Twin Peaks,” one of his favorite telly shows.

Smith’s lyrics are beautiful and haunting. “There’s a hole in my soul/ I can’t fill it/ I can’t fill it,” Smith sings in “Flaws.” In the Abbey Road recording of the song, violins cry in the background, harmonizing with Smith’s choruses.

“The Weight of Living, Pt. 1” sounds like something out of the “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack. “Your Albatross/ shoot it down/ shoot it down/ When you just can’t shake/ The heavy weight of living,” Smith sings. You can almost hear Maurice Sendak’s words wash over you: “There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Smith’s company consists of Chris “Woody” Wood on drums, Will Farquarson on bass-guitar and Kyle Simmons on keyboard. But they aren’t like the British boy bands of One Direction or The Wanted. Wood, Farquarson and Simmons are content echoing the “ey-ey-ey-oh, ey-ohs” in the background of “Pompeii” or harmonizing to the “ay-ay-ay, ay-ay-ay, ay, ay, ays” in “Get Home,” rather than take turns with solos.

The lead singer, on the other hand, has reservations about being in the spotlight. “Kyle [Simmons] who plays keys in the band always takes the piss out of the fact that most of the stuff I have to do is my idea of hell, like putting myself out there and being in photos,” Smith says.

Well, Mr. Smith, it looks like you better get used to hell because your Bastille has stormed the British charts and started a revolution across the Atlantic. And as you know from your world history, revolution’s contagious.

Bastille’s debut album “Bad Blood,” which contains 13 tracks including their singles “Overjoyed,” “Flaws,” “Bad Blood,” “Pompeii” and “Laura Palmer,” is currently only available in the UK. Their 4-song EP, “The Haunt,” was released in the United States on May 28.