Category Archives: Reviews

The Hunger Games (Review)

The film version of the popular book series is better than it could have been, delivering  a powerful film with strong talents across the board.

Score: * * * *

Rated: PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images–all involving teens.

The popular young adult novel pie grows larger with The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins’ vision of a dark dystopia where children must fight to the death for sport. I can’t remember exactly how many copies the series has sold, but it’s a lot, and Collins recently became the best-selling Kindle author of all time. Of course, no popular book series can go long without a film adaptation. This time, studio Lionsgate is handling the adaptation, and it’s their most ambitious and expensive project yet. Luckily, the studio has assembled the right combination of actors, director, and crew to craft a very solid adaptation of the series.

The story follows the futuristic region of Panem, rising from the ashes of a fallen North America and consisting of twelve poor, underdeveloped districts with a rich Capitol at the center. At one point, the districts rose up in rebellion against the Capitol and lost. As retaliation, the Capitol holds a yearly competition called the Hunger Games, in which a boy and a girl from each district are chosen to participate in a battle to the death in the wilderness. The event is televised across the region and serves as entertainment for the Capitol. In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) silently defies the Capitol by hunting for food in the wilderness with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). When the time comes for the tributes to be selected for the Games, Katniss is appalled when her timid younger sister Primrose is chosen and takes her place by volunteering as a tribute. A boy whom Katniss only ever met once in passing, Peeta Mellark, is also chosen, and they are whisked away to the Capitol to train in the Games.

Katniss is given the assistance of former District 12 champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who will train her and Peeta before the Games. Surviving the elements is a bit part of the Games, and since the contestants must enter the arena empty-handed, they must rely on what they can find in the arena, and what is delivered to them by Sponsors, which are won by making a positive impression in the weeks before the Games. It is in her costume designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) that Katniss makes her only true friend in the lush Capitol, and his care for Katniss gives her the strength to push forward toward the Games.

Part of what secured Gary Ross his position as director, and the main thing that makes the story work, is the character focus. These are not action films in the purest sense of the word. Yes, there is action and violence, but the character moments are what define the saga. Much time is spent on conveying the fear of some of the tributes at being chosen. The relationship between Peeta and Katniss is well-written, and even better acted. Josh Hutcherson gives Peeta a nice emotional depth that instantly sold me, and Jennifer Lawrence as the fiercely independent Katniss knocked it out of the park. The rest of the performances are also great–Stanley Tucci shines as the greasy, grinning TV host Caesar Flickerman, Woody Harrelson’s role as Games champion Haymitch Abernathy is pretty much perfect, and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow as though the part was created specifically for him.

Ross has chosen an interesting style for his film: the earlier bits that take place in and around the districts are filmed in a sort of naturalistic, documentary-esque style. The districts themselves evoke an eerie concentration camp feel. When the setting moves to the wealthy Capitol, the camera pulls back a bit and gets a little more smooth in its movements. Finally, for the actual fight scenes themselves, Ross employs the standard action movie shaky camera that gives the fights and extremely desperate, erratic feel. It works, even though the camera sometimes gets too shaky and the scenes too confusing.  Of course, Ross had to keep the movie at a PG-13 rating, no small feat considering the subject matter. The shaky camera ensures that there is rarely more than a flash of a blade and a spurt of blood amongst a tangle of blurred bodies.

It does certainly feel like a film made for fans of the book, or, at the very least, someone who is rather familiar with the basic plot. Several things in the film occur with no explanation, and someone who has not read the book will have to make assumptions as to their meaning. The sequence of plot threads are not incoherent, but they occur somewhat episodically. Having read the books, I was able to connect the dots in my head. It’s certainly not a hack job but some bits may have to be explained to a newcomer.

And what of the love story? The Hunger Games has been referred to as the “anti-Twilight” for its refusal to dabble in petty flings and melodramatic brooding over boys. There is something of a love story here–Peeta confesses his love for Katniss over live television, creating a love triangle with them and Gale and providing a hook to their roles in the Games. In the book, things rarely got more complicated than Katniss avoiding genuine feelings on the account that eventually she may have to kill Peeta. In the film, the romance angle is laid on a little more thickly, but save for a kiss that seemed a bit forced, the rest of it feels fairly real. Best of all, the entire romance angle is completely secondary to the Games and the oppression of the Capitol. This is a dystopian drama first, and a love story second.

There is one thing I particularly liked about the film in relation to the book. The novel is written in a first person perspective, and therefore relies heavily on internal monologue to drive the story and explain things to the reader. Gary Ross cleverly finds ways to circumvent the lack of internal monologue in the film by having secondary characters, such as the commentators for the Games, describe things that Katniss would have done through her inner voice in the book. It worked quite well.

As with any adaptation, there are things that didn’t work out as well as I would have hoped. In the grander scheme of things, these were fairly inconsequential and minor things, but their inclusion would have further benefited the characters with little additional effort. Some of these, I am sure, have to do with that PG-13 rating, but some pieces of the adaptation did not grab me like they did in the book. And of course, the movie does not quite succeed at mimicking the raw psychological tension of the the novel’s breathless second half (that led me to race through it in under a day). Again, minor things, considering how well-adapted everything else was.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t exciting: the final showdown of the Games was very tense, and many of the confrontations are appropriately thrilling when they arrive. But it’s not about the action: the triumph of this film is to make a dark, upsetting dystopian tale that doesn’t try to play fair or sugar coat its themes to be more appealing to a younger audience. Ross’s vision of the cruelty of the rich Capitol and the brutality of the games hits home effectively. He sells the character moments magnificently as well–the way he handles the death of one specific character (fans will know who I’m talking about) was perfect. Most people who have not read the book will not notice the small detractions I did. Either way, it’s a very well-done movie with an exceptionally well-realized world and a dark, emotional core.

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21 Jump Street (Review)

21 Jump Street successfully shows that even the most ridiculous ideas can be turned into something completely fun. 

Score: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, drug material, teen drinking and some violence

It’s a common ridicule of Hollywood that the film industry is so out of ideas, or so cautious to try new ones, that studio executives will reach as far as they can into the proverbial barrel to get licenses–licenses that are sometimes so old that people may barely remember them. Sometimes, there is a total reinvention of the franchise, which is usually met with an incredibly venomous response from the original’s fanbase. Films such as the moderately enjoyable Starsky & Hutch comedy reimagining and the crude, dreadful Dukes of Hazzard are two examples. Since those two films are generally fairly disliked, a comedic spin on an 80’s Johnny Depp drama seems like the worst of ideas. Surprisingly, however, it seems that having a strong team both in front of and behind the camera can work wonders for even the most insane concepts.

The film opens in high school, 2005–nerdy, bleached-hair, braces-equipped Schmidt (Jonah Hill) can’t even ask a girl to the prom without choking and stuttering, while idiotic, burly jock Jenko (Channing Tatum) watches with glee. Fast forward to them enrolling in police academy together by coincidence. Realizing that Schmidt is good at the written exams but severely out of shape, while Jenko is physically fit but a miserable failure at the exams, they decide to become friends and help each other out. Upon graduating successfully, however, their dreams of being badass cops for life are dashed when they are assigned duty at the park on bicycles. When their first accidental bust goes completely awry due to their own misguided machismo and poor common sense, they are reassigned to an old revived protocol called “21 Jump Street”, in which they must pose as high school students to infiltrate a drug ring.

Upon arriving at the church that serves as the secret headquarters for the organization, they are immediately met, and berated, by the foulmouthed “Captain Sassy” Dickson (Ice Cube), who gives them their assignments. Of course, upon arriving at school, they forget who is supposed to have which identity, culminating in Jenko getting put into AP Chemistry and Schmidt attending Drama. Both of them are remarkably out of their element, and Jenko is appalled to find that everyone that he used to bully when he was in high school is now what is considered “cool”.

21 Jump Street has a little something for everyone, really–it’s a high school comedy that dabbles fairly generously in physical & screwball comedy, action comedy, and vulgarity. Best of all, it’s also a satisfying slice of meta-comedy, poking fun not only at the common expectation for things to explode during action movie chases (during one of the film’s standout scenes), but the fact that the the 80s television show is even being remade at all, with the police captain saying in reference to the revival of the undercover program, “They’re out of ideas; they’re just recycling the same shit over and over and hoping we don’t notice.” It was an extremely amusing little bit of referential humor to how Hollywood is strongly against fresh concepts. It also plays around a lot with audience expectations, although the way in which it does this is simply too much fun to give away. Suffice it to say, it is this kind of humor that makes the movie so much fun and rewarding to watch.

It helps that the film, though being set in high school, doesn’t ever really feel particularly mean-spirited. Yes, it’s extremely vulgar, but the movie never feels like it’s going out if its way just to push buttons and cross lines. The only openly gay character is not a flamboyant stereotype, and the smart students are portrayed as clever hackers rather than nerdy punching bags. Although it is a hard R with plenty of swearing and nasty humor (including ample references to a certain male reproductive organ), the bulk of the film’s comedy is built around silly dialogue and an overall goofy vibe.

That goofy vibe is owed almost entirely to Tatum and Hill, who have some of the best chemistry I’ve seen probably since The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Much as Wahlberg did in that film, Tatum proves that he’s really great at comedy. His timing here, particularly when squaring off with Hill, is impeccable, moving the film along at a breezy pace with just enough time to laugh and catch one’s breath before the next line gets fired off. This is a buddy comedy through and through, and one of the best ones to come along in quite a while, to boot. There’s a genuine sense of brotherly love between the two, and neither truly inhabits a particular static stereotype, making for fluid character dynamics that feel natural. They are assisted by a strong supporting cast that includes Rob Riggle, Chris Parnell, and Ellie Kemper as some of the high school’s very unusual teachers.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who most recently directed the flashy and funny animated film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, display once again an eye for comedy and a talent for flashy, creative direction. When describing the different stages of the drug, there’s a cutaway of a super eye-popping, neon-colored intertitle displaying the stage. It was a fun little flourish that made the movie a little more exciting visually.  One of the best scenes in the movie, which put me in tears of laughter, makes creative use of editing, sound, and costuming to give us a perspective on what the pair are experiencing while on the drug. Again, Lord and Miller skillfully navigate many different styles of comedy, sneaking in subtle or unexpected jokes whenever they can, extending scenes beyond what one would have expected, and even finding time for a handful of great cameos that I won’t dare spoil here.

In short, it’s an enormously creative two hours of fun. It blasts apart all expectations of being terrible and delivers a clever, self-aware reinvention of the classic series while also not hesitating to poke fun at not only the tendency of Hollywood to continuously remake movies and shows (and, by association, its own existence), but also the action genre’s own ridiculous tropes. The team of talented writers and producers (which included Jonah Hill), as well as the Lord/Miller creative team, make a distinctly strange, yet undeniably energetic and hilarious comedy with enough enthusiastic affection to give it a heart as well.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Review)

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is what many would classify as “bad”, but it’s so shamelessly, intentionally ridiculous that it ends up being extremely entertaining in the process: bad on purpose, and a blast as a result.

Score: * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language.

I love bad movies. Not just movies that are no good, but abysmal, trashy, terrible films that probably should not see the light of day. It is this type of movie from which I derive a strange pleasure, if only because being able to point and laugh, shake my head in shock, or rip apart in a review can be so much fun. Sometimes, however, the filmmakers are in on the joke. If they could, they could sit right next to me and laugh along with me. That’s when the bad movie truly becomes something special, and that’s exactly what the directors of the Crank films, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (known professionally as Neveldine/Taylor), have done.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is not really a sequel, and not really a reboot. It’s more of just another chapter in the saga of the character, although it completely ignores the original film. In this one, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) has retreated to Europe as a recluse in an attempt to keep the demon Ghost Rider living inside him from breaking out. He must call on the Rider again to assist a woman named Nadya (Violante Placido), whose son is sought after by the Devil (Ciaran Hinds), who seeks a new host body. Blaze is aided by Moreau (Idris Elba), a gunslinging, wine-chugging priest.

So, honestly, this movie is kind of bad. The plot is thin, the characters shallow, and the dialogue is some of the corniest I’ve heard in a theatrical action flick in a long time. But it’s all on purpose. Neveldine/Taylor know they’re delivering some utterly ridiculous nonsense, and they do so with a palpable sense of glee. It’s not a slapstick comedy, but it knows how to have fun, with ludicrous one-liners, crazy action, and cutaway gags involving fiery urination. The mentality that seems to drive these two filmmakers is that if they have an idea that sounds fun, they throw it into the movie because why the hell not. In this case, it works enormously well to the film’s benefit.

At the center of it all is Nicolas Cage, completely unhinged in an utterly demented performance that calls back to his most insane roles from his early years of acting. For those (like myself) that are fans of Cage, we love him mainly for what is known as “the Nic Cage freakout”, a special segment in the movie when Cage completely loses his shit, screaming, laughing, or generally just acting in a manner that would attract unfavorable attention.  It’s extremely easy to imagine that the directors let Cage do whatever he wanted with the performance, with the condition that he not act normal at all except for the maybe minute and a half of combined dramatic moments Cage has in the entire film. As Johnny Blaze, Cage has little ticks and weird touches to his performance. His line delivery is nothing short of sublime, placing weird emphasis on certain words and giving whole lines in ways that you wouldn’t imagine a normal performance having. It’s difficult to describe, but suffice it to say that this is the weirdest and most entertaining performance Cage has given in many years. As the Rider, Cage is a revelation; he moves oddly, occasionally stands in place while moving his head slowly back and forth, and strikes weird poses after defeating an enemy. Seeing this for the first time was a little jarring, but once I started going along with it it turned into a bizarrely delightful spectacle.

As campy as the move is, however, it’s far from being poorly made. Neveldine/Taylor have a very unique style of filmmaking that involves rapid editing, unique and creative camera angles, and completely frenetic cinematography. It turns out this style really works for a trashy, absurd superhero movie. Nearly everything that doesn’t involve a piece of dialogue in this movie is focused on one thing: delivering complete and utter sensory overload. The rapid-fire parade of wild cinematography is almost too much to handle, but it never ceases to be entertaining, in the same way that the pair’s Crank movies were such stupid fun. The action sequences are particular are really great; Ghost Rider possesses vehicles and lays waste to expendable bad guys with his fiery chain, and the car chase finale was legitimately awesome and very memorable.

The CGI on display here is pretty great. The character of Ghost Rider has been redesigned for the better, nixing the clean white skull and spotless leather jacket in favor of a charred skull and melting clothing. This re-imagining of the character is genuinely creepy and extremely menacing, a far cry from the likeable protagonist that the first movie turned Ghost Rider into. This character is a demon without a conscience that eats souls, and this film makes him into the terror that he should be. He even throws out a couple of truly, hilariously horrible one-liners that completely sold him as a campy, hellish antihero.

The 3D barely needs mentioning at all; there were some parts where it looked really neat but for the most part was not very noticeable. Some wide angle shots looked neat for the depth of the image, but these were not terribly common and you won’t be missing much by seeing the movie in 2D. On the other hand, the 3D was not offensively bad or headache-inducing, so seeing it in the format still works if it’s your only option.

The movie is already doing poorly in theaters, which is very sad. Movies like these are a lot of fun and are passed off as being simply “bad” with no entertainment value at all. That said, this movie will be a special treat for those looking for a trashy, noisy action flick. It’s loud, violent, and extremely funny. Cage fans, you hero has returned.

The Adventures of Tintin (Review)

Tintin’s American theatrical debut is a visually stunning and extremely thrilling adventure.

Score: * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking.

Intrepid young reporter Tintin, star of an early 1900s Belgian comic book series by a man known as Herge, has had minimal exposure in the United States beyond the translated comic books and a brief cartoon television show. My own knowledge of the series is limited to the very small handful of the comics I’ve been able to find and read. I was fairly young when I first read a Tintin comic, but I liked it. It was fun, fairly exciting, and filled with some terrific characters.  Steven Spielberg agreed, and now, partnering with Peter Jackson, he has worked to finally bring the reporter to the masses with a big screen adventure. And what an adventure it is.

Based on the Tintin installment The Secret of the Unicorn, this debut follows Tintin (Jamie Bell) as, true to form, he gets thrown headfirst into danger immediately after purchasing an ancient model ship, when he is greeted by a sharply dressed man who introduces himself only as Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who asks politely to purchase the ship from Tintin. Tintin’s refusal does not go over well, and Tintin is eventually kidnapped and taken onto a boat, where he learns Sakharine’s true intentions: to recover the contents of the model ship, one of three scrolls that reveal the location of an old sunken ship. After Tintin’s small white dog, Snowy (who is awesome, by the way), rescues Tintin from his bonds, Tintin runs into Captain Archibald Haddock (Andy Serkis), from whom the ship has been taken. Escaping from the ship, Tintin and Haddock find themselves racing Sakharine to find all of the clues and uncover the secret of an old rivalry between the Sakharine and Haddock bloodlines.

As you could guess, the voice cast here is pretty great. Jamie Bell seems to be a perfect fit for Tintin. Andy Serkis, who has essentially become a chameleon of thespians (having done Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and Casear from Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is also hard to distinguish yet completely perfect as Haddock. It was a treat to see Simon Pegg and Nick Frost reunited as two bumbling, idiotic, identical-looking police officers named Thomson & Thompson. They’re one of the best comedic duos working today and they play off each other with delightful precision as always. Daniel Craig was the most easily identifiable as the villain, and he positively oozes menace as Sahkarine. This is, I believe, his first villain role in a major film, and he does it so well that I am very excited to see what other evil characters he gets to play in the future. Everyone in the cast clicked together excellently, without falling into the trap of other celebrity-voiced movies in which the star’s persona takes precedence over the actual character (I’m looking at you, Kung Fu Panda).

For a family film, The Adventures of Tintin is one hell of an exciting action flick. Nearly every action scene ends up escalating to levels of utter insanity, with massive setpieces filled with implausible and completely crazy elements stacking on top of each other.  To give away some of the more ridiculous pieces would  be to spoil the fun in how far they go, but suffice it to say that the complete disregard for plausibility in favor of outrageous, epic mayhem and wanton destruction is worth the price of admission alone. A massive pirate ship battle that puts everything in Disney’s franchise to shame, a totally bananas chase through a Moroccan port town, and a final battle that completely abandons all reason are only the tip of the iceberg.

Steven Spielberg has stated in interviews that he enjoyed using the motion capture/computer animation format because of the way it allows him to do things he would not normally be able to do in real life. Indeed, he lets his imagination run wild here, not only with those action sequences, but also with some very creative camera movements, through buildings and transitioning creatively through scenes that would be either completely impossible or far too expensive or complex for an actual camera.

The film has a very interesting style, framing cartoonish characters against a more realistic background. Tintin and Thomson & Thompson have very round heads and softer angles, in contrast to the harshly angular dimensions of Sakharine. These characters, ripped straight from the comic (and directly referenced in an amusing nod to the original animations) inhabit a world that is as detailed and realistic as the technology will allow and makes for a rather pleasing aesthetic. Speaking of the animation, this is possibly the most impressive looking motion-capture animated film I’ve yet seem. It deftly avoids the uncanny valley (a plague that makes animated characters look distinctly unrealistic) and the horrible dead eyes that so many other computer animated films cannot get right. It’s bursting with life and color. The most impressive aspect is undoubtedly Snowy. Tintin’s canine sidekick is a triumph in animation, appearing so real in his animations that it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re not watching the real thing.

The movie is not perfect, however. After a very entertaining first half, the movie bogs down a bit with the mystery, and the mystery is significantly less interesting than the characters surrounding it. This might have something to do with the action, which is so fast-paced that the movie pretty much screeches to a halt when the action sequences end. I cared less about what the characters were chasing, and more about why they were doing it, which is little more than a thirst for adventure. The revelation about Sakharine wanting to amend the death of his ancestor was a great turning point, at least. I can only hope that with the sequel, which is already in the works as The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun, will have a more interesting story. As it stands, Spielberg almost backed himself into a corner, creating action scenes that are so intense that the story falters in comparison. Hopefully Jackson, Spielberg, and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz will be able to deliver a better balance with the sequel, without skimping on the action.

Despite that, the story was decent enough to be engaging, and the action and colorful characters carried it the rest of the way. It slows down every now and then, but always picks right back up with some more large-scale action. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have assembled a film that by turns a pseudo-history lesson, treasure hunting adventure, engaging mystery, and breakneck action picture. It stumbles occasionally, but not enough to dampen the experience. This is a gorgeously animated, very exciting film and a great time at the movies.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Review)

Energetic direction, dry humor, and terrific action make the fourth Mission: Impossible movie not only the best film in the series, but also the coolest and most relentlessly exciting action flick of the entire year. 

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence

2011 has sadly been mostly devoid of truly great, solid action flicks. There have been a number of cool comic book adaptations, but apart from Fast Five and Hanna, there have been hardly any truly decent pure action movies all year. There has, however, been the promise of a good one, what with the very promising early trailers for the latest adventure in the Mission: Impossible series, which has been rocky at best. Four films have seen a new director each time, and after a decent first, dreadful second, and thrilling third, the fourth film truly delivers on its promise with the absolute best action picture of the year.

At the beginning of Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is in a Russian prison for crimes that are not immediately specified. Luckily, his techie buddy Benji (Simon Pegg) is working hard with series newcomer Jane (Paula Patton) to break him out. After causing an almost illogical amount of mayhem, Ethan escapes from the prison, and receives his IMF mission: he is to infiltrate the Kremlin and recover files identifying a dangerous potential terrorist known only as Cobalt. However, the mission goes horribly awry when Ethan finds that the files, and nuclear launch codes, have already been taken by Cobalt–a physicist named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Dragon Tattoo movies), and the Kremlin is rigged to be bombed. Barely escaping the bombing, Ethan, Benji, and Jane are told by their superior, the IMF Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) that the IMF has been blamed for the bombing and disavowed. Moments later, they are attacked and the Secretary is killed. The trio, now joined by an analyst named Brandt (Jeremy Renner), realize that they are alone. The IMF literally no longer exists and the four of them have the gear in their immediate possession to stop Hendricks from initiating nuclear war on what he sees as an impure world that is falling apart.

Once the movie gets going, starting with the infiltration of the Kremlin, it grabs on and never lets go. It’s the movie’s main strength, and its crowning achievement: it is blisteringly exciting and undeniably awesome from start to finish. The centerpiece is an extended sequence in which Ethan must use adhesive gloves to scale the glass Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The action and tension that occurs both inside and outside the building during this sequence is literally breathtaking and is the single most exciting sequence of anything else I’ve seen this year. It starts with Ethan scaling the side of the building, moves to a tense exchange between imposters, and  culminates in a magnificent breathless chase through a sandstorm. The positive buzz about the movie’s climax was not unfounded: the final battle inside an automated multilevel garage is excellently filmed and extremely pulse-pounding.

The movie’s tension and sense of danger is maximized by the fact that Ethan and his crew are completely alone. There are no safehouses, no airlifted gadgets, and no one to help them. They are faced with countless snags, malfunctioning equipment, and a couple of villains who are cunning enough to know exactly who Ethan Hunt is and how to combat him. It’s somehow significantly more exciting to know that when something  breaks, they’re not going to be able to call for help from IMF: they’ll just have to figure out a different avenue toward completing this leg of the mission.

That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t know how to have fun (what do you expect from a movie called Mission: Impossible?). The script ingeniously keeps things from getting too dark, surgically inserting liberal bits of bone-dry humor into the script whenever it needs it. It’s never corny, but it does have a sharp wit and a nice cynical edge. Many one-liners elicited loud chuckles from my moderately populated auditorium.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this whole project is that this is director Brad Bird’s (The Incredibles and The Iron Giant)  first live action film. He handles it better than many directors do after tons of practice. His direction here is so effortlessly creative and fun, it’s astonishing.  He’s got a style that is difficult to articulate in words, but is unmistakably crisp visually exciting onscreen.  Even better, he directs his action sequences with a refreshing coherence, pulling the camera back to show some truly painful-looking hits and avoiding the poisonous “shaky-cam” technique that countless other action films employ nowadays. Such a wonderful debut is hopefully only an indicator of Bird’s future as an action movie director.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol is more than just an action film; it is a spectacle. It’s a busy, muscular adventure that rarely fails to hit its mark and entertain. Tom Cruise has more charisma than he’s had in a film in years, and he plays Ethan Hunt with a great intensity that gels well with the rest of the crew. It’s all held together by the creative and confident direction of Brad Bird, who juggles all of the pieces of the film like a seasoned pro. A total blast from start to finish, this newest Mission cannot be missed.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Review)

David Fincher’s American adaptation of the popular Swedish novels crawls under the skin and stays there–but for those that will be able to stomach it, it is an accomplished piece of filmmaking.

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: R for brutal violent content including rape and torture, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.

Human nature can be an ugly thing. The dark motives behind the most horrible things people can do to each other are not fun to look at, or think about. The cinematic examination of human nature is something of a forbidden curiosity; it’s not pleasant, but it’s fascinating. Such a taboo is the specialty of David Fincher, who honed his craft of portraying the dark heart with his crime film Seven. Fincher’s films are not fun to watch, but on a psychological level, they are horrifically fascinating. Now, Fincher is bringing his unique unnerving skill to his adaptation of the Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of books, with the first installment, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The results, as expected, are very upsetting yet brilliantly crafted.

Having been successfully sued for libel by a shady and connected businessman, journalist and researcher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) retreats to save whatever dignity and assets he has left. Not a couple of days pass before Blomkvist is contacted by wealthy business owner Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). Vanger intends to hire Blomkvist to do research into the disappearance of his beloved 16-year-old niece, Harriet, who disappeared over 40 years prior and had never been found. The mystery tortures Vanger and he desperately desires closure before he dies. He suspects someone within his own family, which itself is a perfect storm of the most deeply unpleasant people, of the abduction or murder. Blomkvist cannot resist Vanger’s tantalizing offer of double salary and all of the available information on Blomkvist’s original prey, the shady businessman.

As the mystery gets more convoluted, Blomkvist decides to hire an assistant. Setting his sights on a mysterious hacker named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), an unstable and severely asocial goth-clad young woman, Blomkvist manages to convince Salander to assist him in his investigation. Lisbeth Salander is extremely cold and all business, resisting any and all attempts at Blomkvist’s friendliness, having been severely sexually abused throughout her life and being made a ward of the state as a result of being labeled as mentally incompetent. Nonetheless, Salander’s fragile yet startlingly brilliant mind proves to be a major asset to Blomkvist. Small details of the event begin to work their way to the surface, and as Lisbeth starts to lower her barriers as she gets closer to Blomkvist, they start to find themselves under attack from whoever they are hunting.

Lisbeth Salander is one of the most well-developed characters of modern literature. Deeply antisocial and scarred yet incredibly sharp and gifted as a researcher, Salander is more interesting than any fictional character I’ve seen grace the page or screen in recent memory. Rooney Mara slips into the skin of Lisbeth with stunning thoroughness, delivering a truly impressive performance. As good as Daniel Craig is, Mara commanded every second of screen time that she appeared in, dominating the scene with a quiet mix of terror and menace. She’s a broken girl, but she tries not to appear so. Mara’s tiny little tweaks to her performance–inability to make eye contact if she’s not in control, shrinking away when Blomkvist gets near her, and eventual warming up to him to accept him as a close friend–really complete her as a character.

It’s not to draw attention away from the rest of the cast, which is extremely impressive. Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, and so many more round out a large cast of power players and such a titanic blend of acting talent to portray a collection of clashing personalities does many favors to the film overall, and the tension from these fractured ties hangs thickly in the air.

That tension is increased a hundredfold by the Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross-composed soundtrack. The pair won an Oscar last year for their soundtrack to The Social Network, and this soundtrack is unmistakably better. It feels more like an actual component of the film, and some of the tracks in the movie’s soundtrack are so relentlessly tense, it causes intense unease and discomfort. The way the music blends seamlessly with the film makes it less of something you listen to, and more something that simply absorbs into the mind, crawling under the skin with the movie’s subject matter. It’s an achievement in film scoring that should not be ignored.

Little of this would be possible without David Fincher behind the camera. As the director of such crime landmarks as Seven and Zodiac, Fincher knows darkness. He drenches his film in a cold blue and grey hue for a relentless sense of dread permeated only occasionally by a hints of macabre humor. This is one of his slicker-looking productions to date; from the opening Bond-esque titles (set to a Trent Reznor and Karen O cover of Led Zepellin’s “Immigrant Song”) to some really great editing and camera movements, Fincher is elevating his dark style to an art form. Some of the ways he handles scenes are by turns enthralling and upsetting, and it’s impossible to look away from Fincher’s confident and brilliant direction.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not a remake, technically. Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zaillian referred to Stieg Larsson’s original novel instead, opting for a slightly more meticulous adherence to the source. However, as with any property for which there exists more than one adaptation, comparisons are inevitable. So, the big question weighing on the entire production: is it better than the Swedish movie? No, it’s not. Nor is it worse. It’s different. The script is more coherent and more neatly arranged, and Craig’s Blomkvist seems more confident than the weary character from the Swedish films. With a larger budget comes a nicer-looking film, and this one simply has a more expensive-looking sheen that differs from the grittier foreign version. I refuse to even compare the performances of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth here and Noomi Rapace in the Swedish film. They were both outstanding, and as Mara was not setting out to outdo her counterpart, putting her above or below another performance of the character is unfair. Both actresses perfectly convey the intense darkness and mental torture that this brilliant woman endures, and the violent reaction to the world around her as a result.

As you might be able to guess, this film is not happy. It plunges straight into the darkest depths of the human heart and almost never looks back. It’s unafraid to closely examine how utterly depraved some people can be. As such, I cannot readily recommend the movie to just anyone. The rape scene that occurs a ways into the film is one of the most upsetting things I’ve seen in a mainstream film. It’s graphic, shocking (though not exploitative or pornographic), and it left me numb afterward with my palms sweaty. (Even the actor who plays the rapist, Yorick van Wageningen, has said in interviews that he was so upset after filming the scene that he spent an entire day in his trailer crying). Later on, Lisbeth gets her revenge on her aggressor in a scene which is almost more horrific that what had been done to her. The central theme of this series (originally titled Men Who Hate Women) is violence against females. If there is anything good to be said about these scenes, it is that they are finished by the halfway point. But unless you have a steel will and a remarkably strong stomach, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will unsettle you deeply, from the startling content to the very uneasy tension that permeates the entire film.

As a character study, however, the movie is outstanding. Every little element of the production is, in fact, outstanding. David Fincher has assembled a desperately tense mystery thriller that is at times almost unfairly enthralling. It commands every second of attention, and it does not pull a single punch with content. It’s a dark and unflinching look into the most depraved parts of human nature, a forbidden slice of dark cinema. Many times during The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I wanted to crawl into my own skin and hide from the evil on the screen. It’s not an easy movie to watch, and it’s certainly not fun. But as I said with my favorite revenge thriller, I Saw the Devil, a movie that gets to you so profoundly is a feat of filmmaking unto itself, and there is no denying that Fincher’s vision of the popular novel is a fine piece of craftsmanship, no matter how much you might want to look away. I feel that Stieg Larsson himself would be very proud.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Review)

Director Guy Ritchie’s trademark impressive style clashes with a poorly-written, convoluted, and hollow script. 

Score: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material

2009’s Sherlock Holmes brought a jarring and divisive reinterpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective. Removing much of the slavish attention to personal hygiene and proper demeanor, the brief allusions to Holmes being capable in hand-to-hand combat was brought to the forefront, turning the detective into a highly intelligent, unstable action hero. It was a formula that largely worked and the film went on to be a fairly entertaining action flick, provided one could look past the liberal rearranging of the detective’s character traits. Two years later, one of literature’s greatest villains has joined the fight, but the adventure is not nearly as lively this time around.

Anarchy is on the rise in London at the outset of A Game of Shadows, as terrorist attacks via bombing have reached concerning highs. Irene Fisher (Rachel McAdams), the femme fatale from the first film, is intercepted by Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) as she delivers to a man what turns out to be a bomb.  Holmes correctly proclaims Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) as the mastermind.  After Irene is killed by Moriarty for her failure, Holmes retreats back into his house redoubling his efforts to find Moriarty. Watson (Jude Law), having recently been estranged from Holmes, visits him in his room to find the man in a state of disarray, living on a diet of tobacco, cacao beans and embalming fluid. Watson is getting married, and wants Holmes to be his best man.

Agreeing to a gentleman’s meeting, Holmes goes to see Moriarty at his office. There, Moriarty invites Holmes to a literal and metaphorical game of chess, and tells Holmes that his strong respect for him is the only reason he has left him alive thus far. Holmes requests that Watson and his wife be left alone in their game, but Moriarty tells him that every battle has collateral. As the story continues, he pair find themselves under almost constant assault from Moriarty’s army of mercenaries as they try to uncover the next bomb sites and figure out what Moriarty’s master plan is with the help of a gypsy (Noomi Rapace).

The biggest offense on display here is the script, which is a mess. The scattershot direction of the screenplay is reflected first and foremost in the treatment of Holmes, which simultaneously tries to increase the emphasis on both his multifaceted interests and intelligence, and continue to paint the detective as completely insane, which only makes him more of a caricature. He even drinks embalming fluid, for some reason.  Most disappointing, however, was Moriarty. Jared Harris does what he can with the script, but he never really feels like the Napoleon of Crime that he is meant to be. One of literature’s finest villains just isn’t given the treatment he deserves, and the tension is weakened further by stupid gags such as Holmes dressing up in drag as an effective disguise for getting onto the train.

The broad attempts at humor only hurt a story in which we are also expected to believe the stakes have been significantly raised, to the point where the story switches tones every few minutes and no one knows what to think. In an attempt to pay homage to the literature, the script also borrows elements from one of the last stories in the series, The Final Problem. However, the script’s liberal use of elements from the other stories makes it feel piecemeal. The jarring tonal changes and liberal borrowing from various sources are like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t all fit together, or are forced together in such a way that it looks unpleasant.

The film does not even really get entertaining until after the halfway point, beginning with Moriarty’s detention and torture of Holmes and leading to a stunningly well-shot slow-motion escape sequence in a forest, which was legitimately jaw-dropping as the camera slows down almost to a complete stop to show bullets and cannon shells ripping through the trees and exploding on the ground. It was a terrific action sequence that handily rivals the vault heist from Fast Five as one of the most memorable action sequences of the year. The climax finally delivers the mental sparring between Holmes and Moriarty that the film had been hinting at for a long while, in a sequence that gives Moriarty his due treatment as a mastermind worthy to go against Holmes. I won’t spoil their final showdown, but it was, for me, the most satisfying part of the movie.

I read a remark where someone referred to this film as Sherlock Holmes 2: Holmes Harder, which is of course a reference to the similarly-titled second Die Hard film, which delivered everything of the first film but on a much grander scale. The second Die Hard was not nearly as well-received as the original, which makes the allusion significantly more resonant than might have been the intention: if anything, the lifeless, stumbling Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows shows that bigger does not necessarily mean better.

Hugo (Review)

A beautiful and deeply touching study of art, love, and imagination, Hugo is a rare treasure.

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking

Movies are special. They take you to different places and times and provide, for a couple of hours, an escape from reality. Such a powerful medium is not always recognized, and it seems that very few directors recognize this power, and take it seriously. Martin Scorsese is one director who does, however. More than almost any director working today, Scorsese has labeled himself as a massive fan of film, and his diverse filmography, that ranges from dramas, to biopics, to documentaries, to thrillers, shows that. Now, Scorsese can add a family film to that list.  Adapting Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese applies his profound love for cinema into a celebration of art, and one of the best films he has yet done.

The titular character (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the walls of a Paris station, maintaining the clocks and watching the ongoing lives of the people who spend their time working at the station. Watching these smaller stories fit together is a joy that is shard by Hugo as he will frequently move between the clocks in the station to watch romances develop and friendships flourish. The inhabitants of the station are themselves a part of some giant metaphorical clock. Hugo reminisces about his father (Jude Law), who worked at a museum before his untimely death. One day, his father brings home an automaton, a mechanical man designed to perform complex actions such as walking, with minimal human input, through an intricate clock-style mechanism. When his father is killed in a fire at the museum, Hugo’s uncle (Ray Winstone) takes Hugo to the train station so that he can work as a clock mechanic. Even after the disappearance of his uncle, Hugo continues to work on the clocks in the station, stealing food to feed himself and little cogs and pieces to repair the automaton as his father promised they would do, all the while dodging the meticulous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen).

One day, Hugo is caught trying to steal from a toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley), who in retaliation takes Hugo’s notebook that holds the blueprints for the automaton. In his aggressive attempts to convince the man to return his notebook (which holds some profound significance to the toymaker), Hugo meets the toymaker’s godchild, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who spends her time buried in literature and longs for a true adventure. Jumping at the chance to have one, she agrees to help Hugo. Hugo shows Isabelle the world of cinema for the first time, something she had never been allowed to do.  After they have spent time getting closer, Hugo notices that Isabelle wears a heart-shaped key around her neck–a shape that matches the keyhole on Hugo’s automaton and the very last piece needed for it to operate properly. As they discover the secret of the automaton, they also start to unravel pieces of why Isabelle’s godfather is so depressed and secretive himself.

Chloe Moretz, who has already proven herself as a young actress of remarkable depth and range in films such as Kick-Ass and Let Me In, once again knocks it out of the park with a sweet, innocently curious performance as the adventure-hungry Isabella. Her chemistry with Asa Butterfield is quite good, and they have less of a romance than an affectionate friendship. For his turn, Butterfield brings a great deal of intensity and emotion to the character of Hugo. He’s got a lot to do with his character, and he takes it and runs with it for a really terrific, nuanced performance. As expected, the rest of the seasoned thespians in the film also put on fine performances, from Christopher Lee as a fatherly librarian, Sacha Baron Cohen (delivering a slightly slapstick adversary with hints of light tragedy), and especially Ben Kingsley as a broken man past his prime. Scorsese, as always, proves himself as a director who is enormously capable of getting fantastic performances out of each of his actors.

Hugo marks the second time this year that I must mention the necessity of seeing a film in 3D. I’m usually fairly opposed to the format given that it rarely brings anything significant or worthwhile to the film. Like last month’s Harold & Kumar installment, 3D is used well here, although not to the idiotically goofy degree of that film. Here, Scorsese makes very careful use of the foreground. In scenes that take place inside of the clock, cogs and other clock parts can be seen in in the foreground and corners of the screen, giving a distinct feeling of actually being inside of the clock.  He also uses sparks and smoke to float around in the foreground as well, making for one of the most visually stimulating films of the year.  The “something popping out of the screen” gimmick is rarely used, but when it is, it is done to excellent effect: one of my favorite shots in the entire film involves the Inspector menacing the children, leaning closer and closer to them.  As he does, his face starts to come out of the screen, and the effect is delightful. It’s almost funny that after several other directors and films attempting and failing to use 3D effectively, Scorsese effortlessly trumps all of them with such a fine treatment of the format: so good, in fact, that James Cameron, the pioneer of the new wave of 3D himself, reportedly said that Hugo had the best 3D he had ever seen, better even than his own films. It is a lofty claim, but one that certainly is justifiable.

At its heart, Hugo is a magnificent treat for fans of classic cinema. I originally thought it would be a spoiler, but since it arrives around the halfway point of the film, I don’t have any issue revealing it. Many reviews have already done so and clever viewers will figure it out very quickly, but if you don’t want to know then skip this paragraph: it is revealed that Isabelle’s guardian, known to her as “Papa Georges”, is actually  none other than filmmaker Georges Melies, director of some of the earliest silent films such as “A Trip to the Moon”. In a flashback sequence, the production of this film is recreated in loving detail by Scorsese. Here, Melies is a nearly forgotten entity, and feels that his life is wasted. Again, this is a major plot point but not the kicker of the story: the way everything comes together is how the plot truly shines, as well as the fact that this movie is literally about the love of cinema and the passion that so many people have for it.

It goes beyond that as well. Eagle-eyed lovers of old silent films will notice ample references to older films, one of the most obvious being a heavily foreshadowed (but no less thrilling) reference to the the Harold Lloyd classic Safety Last, in which he hangs from the face of a clock. The Inspector is a shining tribute to classic silent cinema police officer villains, which gives the tremendously talented Sacha Baron Cohen a chance at more physical comedy. Even more impressive is how well these more slapstick moments blend with everything else. Scorsese has weaved sincerity, emotion, comedy, and childlike wonder together so expertly it makes other similar films appear downright primitive by comparison.

Though it is being touted as a PG-rated family film, it’s not necessarily something kids would love. Emotionally and thematically heavy, many of the elements, including the back half of the film, will probably be lost on the average child unless they’ve been schooled from a very early age on the dawn of cinema. Even so, the comic relief sprinkled through the film, the terrific visual style, and the beautiful, lively music should hold their attention while the adults get sucked into the history lesson. It does bog down just a bit in the middle as the movie gets a little more plot heavy, but the rest of the film is so well-constructed it’s barely a detraction.

Hugo is a beautiful love letter to art and childhood, done by one of the greatest directors of our time. Scorsese’s self-professed love for cinema shines prominently throughout the film, in the way he lovingly recreates old movies and painstakingly films the train station, which itself seems like a character. His sure-handed and confident direction has rarely been so clearly noticeable as it is now, and it makes Hugo more than just a simple family film, as the trailers might have you believe. It’s a masterpiece by an artist who has a passion that burns brighter than that of nearly anyone else in the industry.

The Muppets (Review)

The Muppets’ return to film ages with its original fans, pumping nostalgia to its maximum level and delivering everything a fan could want, and so much more. 

Score: * * * * * (out of 5)

Rated: PG for some mild rude humor

There never was a show quite like The Muppets Show, nor was there a series of films quite like that which the Muppets had. That very special brand of humor, iconic characters, and enthusiastic celebrity cameos and hosts was a formula that won over a legion of fans, until the show ended and production of the movies stopped. Living for years only in the memories of the characters’ aging fans, the Muppets were in need of a revival. One such pair of rabid fans, Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (of Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame) had the same idea, and began working on a script, and here we are with a return to form that is just about perfect.

The world of this new film has sadly forgotten about the Muppets for the most part, and all of them have separated and gone on to do other things while the original Muppets theater and theme park have closed down.  Young Walter, who himself is a Muppet (although not by name, his physical status as a puppet is, like the rest of them, something that is never noted or apparently even realized), falls in love with the Muppets as a child and when he and his older brother Gary (Jason Segel) are adults, they travel to Hollywood to visit the Muppets Theater and for Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to celebrate their anniversary. When they get there, Walter overhears oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) discussing his plans to bulldoze the place and drill for oil. As per the contract the Muppets signed at the beginning of the career, if they can raise $10 million within the next few days, they will be able to reclaim their theater. It’s up to Walter and Gary to get Kermit and the Muppets back together for one last show so they can save their theater from Richman and his gang of Moopets, scumbag Muppet knock-offs (including Foozie the gangster bear and the gender-unspecific Miss Poogy).

One of the defining features of the Muppets anthology of entertainment has been a razor-sharp sense of self-consciousness as a piece of media. As always, the characters seem keenly aware that they exist in a musical film, from recommending that they “travel by map” (which is faster, they say), to one character upset that his story was not part of the reunion montage,  to another character referencing a song he just sang. It’s the best kind of humor for this type of movie, made even better with the way they’re placed in the script, paced at an almost perfect rate. Some of the gags here are just brilliant; I won’t spoil all of them, but I was laughing frequently and loudly throughout the film. Many of them might go straight over the heads of youngsters, however, which might make this better for adults who used to love the Muppets as a child (and I certainly feel that that was the intended audience for the film anyway).

A Muppet film would be nothing without some musical numbers, and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords does the music-writing numbers here. While some of the songs feel like they could have come from that show, nearly all of them are as catchy and wonderful as ever, particularly the opening song and one toward the end of the second act. As always, basically anyone that walks into the frame during the first and last song gets into it, and there’s an infectious energy running through the film as a result of all of the great music.

Chris Cooper as Tex Richman deserves a special mention here. As if having the absolute best name imaginable for an evil oil tycoon was not enough already, Cooper plays his character relentlessly straight, but completely in on the joke: that is to say, while he’ll do things such as physically say, “Maniacal laugh!” instead of actually laughing, his character never partakes in the same sort of self-conscious joking that the rest of the characters do. It’s a careful balancing act that Cooper pulls of with ingenuity, and you can tell he’s having the time of his life doing this role. He does do something rather surprising a way into the film–which I will not spoil–but it is hysterical. The rest of the cast is perfect as well: Segel and Adams crank up the earnestness to delightful levels, and the celebrity cameos, which are numerous, were all great. One of my favorites was Selena Gomez, who claimed that she was only at the show “because my agent told me to”.

Though it is not actually part of the movie, it is absolutely worth noting the Toy Story short that precedes the film. I admit that I was fairly against another Toy Story film given that last year’s fantastic third installment bookended the series so well, but the material here, which involves Buzz getting accidentally left at a fast food restaurant and joining a support group of discarded fast food toys, is so fresh and creative, I’m on board for another. It was also extremely funny. From Beef Stewardess (a flotation device-equipped cow in a flight uniform) to Super Pirate (exactly what is sounds like), the characters and dialogue written for this short had me in stitches. Don’t be late for the movie or you’ll miss a quality prologue.

Just about anything a longtime fan of the Muppets could ever want is in this new film. It hits just the right notes of nostalgia, has most of not all of the legion of characters in varying degrees, is legitimately hysterical, and has doses of humor and emotion in perfect amounts in just the right places. As with this year’s other nostalgia trip, Winnie the Pooh, it is a joyful celebration of childhood and a rekindling of a shining memory. The Muppets is a must-see for anyone that enjoyed the characters so many years ago. It’ll put a smile on your face that lasts for two solid hours and will probably continue for a long time afterward.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Review)

While it may be mostly directed at fans of the series, Harold & Kumar’s latest misadventure proves that the duo can still deliver a solidly entertaining comedy with a fantastic riff on the 3D gimmick.

Score: **** (out of 5)

Rated:  R for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence

A six-year-later threequel moving into the third dimension sounds like a trifecta for disaster. The “third movie curse”, a eerily common concept in which the third movie in a trilogy is far below the quality of the first two, has shot several series in the foot (Lethal Weapon, Spider-Man, X-Men, and Beverly Hills Cop, just to name a few).  Making the third film years later, probably after many fans no longer care, is also cause for concern.  However, the 3D movement, which has exhausted and frustrated the majority of moviegoers (and the numbers show it), is the anchor for this film’s comedy, a gloriously overused gimmick used to show everyone that that’s exactly what 3D is.  It also helps that the movie is still as funny as the series has ever been.

Harold & Kumar Christmas picks up several years after the ending of Escape from Guantanamo Bay, finding the two former best friends estranged without contact.  Harold (John Cho) is happily married and in a large, expensive looking house.  Kumar (Kal Penn) is still living in his apartment, doing little more than smoking weed all day.  Harold is tasked by his terrifying father-in-law (Danny Trejo, in a stroke of casting genius) with decorating the family’s traditional Christmas tree.  The tree, for his father-in-law, is kind of a big deal (explained in a ridiculous flashback about some nonsense involving him always wishing for a Christmas tree when he was a child and his mother getting stabbed to death by Korean gangsters).  When a package arrives at Kumar’s apartment addressed to Harold, Kumar decides to take it to his old friend, inadvertently leading to the prized Christmas tree burning down.  Harold has the rest of the evening to find a new tree and get it decorated before his in-laws get back.  Their journey takes them across the paths of Russian gangsters, a multitude of drugs, Neil Patrick Harris (again), and an affectionate and murderous sentient toy called WaffleBot.

The chemistry between the pair has always been what drives the film forward.  Cho and Penn interact so well together it’s easy to buy the idea of them being best friends.  Watching them move from uncomfortable acquaintances back into best friend territory feels very natural. This time around, they are joined by two more supporting cast members in the neurotic family man Todd (Thomas Lennon) and the obnoxious tagalong Adrian (Amir Blumenfeld).  They play their respective archetypes well and fit in completely naturally with the rest of the class.  And, of course, Neil Patrick Harris.  It has become a running joke of the series for NPH to cameo as himself in the films as a sex-obsessed sociopath.  Even though he came out as homosexual in between the second and third movies, this one actually incorporates his sexuality into the film by way of making it a simple ruse just to get even more women. It’s a natural progression for this version of the actor and ironically funny considering that NPH is one of the most prominent gay celebrities working today.  Even better, his “partner” in this movie is NPH’s real life fiance David Burtka (who is actually just NPH’s angry cocaine dealer in the film), and their entire scene together was completely improvised.  Strong ensembles are always a plus, and they really shine here.

The series’s signature filthy humor is back as well.  It’s better, too, consisting of fewer gross-out sight gags and more plain silliness, usually involving some drug.  One of the movie’s main running gags is Todd’s baby constantly getting exposed to drugs, all by accident.  Poor Todd sees his child inhale marijuana smoke, get hit in the face by a cloud of cocaine, and eat a handful of ecstasy (which even Todd himself mistakes for mints). This being a Christmas movie, they also have to subvert many cinematic classics as well, with perhaps the main target being A Christmas Story. There’s a relatively long-winded gag that puts a…different spin on the frozen pole scene from that movie. One of the movie’s best gags is Wafflebot, a pastry-cooking, creepily sentient robot who harbors powerful affection for its owners.  When it shows up in the second half of the film, there is a significant uptick in the number of laugh-out-loud moments.  If there’s another sequel, I will be the first to rally for Wafflebot’s return.

And of course, there is the 3D.  Large amounts of the film are devoted to subverting the format in every way possible.  James Cameron’s vision of 3D is immersion and depth.  Harold & Kumar use it to make teeth, balls, eggs, phallic objects, shards of glass, and literally everything else they can thing of blast out of the screen usually in ultra-slow motion.  It’s idiotic, self-indulgent gimmickry at it’s finest, and the best part is that the film is fully aware of how stupid the format is.  There’s even a scene, featured in the trailer, when a character is pitching a 3D television, and happily proclaims how amazing it is by double thumbs-up point at the screen (of course with his fingers popping out at the audience), to which Harold asks, “Who are you looking at?” This awareness of the stupidity of the format, as it gleefully uses it at every available opportunity, makes the film not only a good idea to see in 3D, but absolutely necessary to do so.  It helps that the 3D is actually really competently done: the picture looks crisp and bright, and there’s a legitimately impressive sequence in the middle involving slow-motion gunplay and exploding packages of cocaine, set to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” (because of course it is).

Harold & Kumar Christmas is not for everyone.  The film is generally directed toward people who saw and enjoyed the first two films, and there are several direct references to the prequels that will go over the head of anyone who has not seen a Harold & Kumar film before. Additionally, anyone who is easily offended should avoid at all costs.  There’s nothing outright, horrifically offensive, but there are enough pokes at a multitude of sensibilities that there may be one or two instances of uncomfortable laughter.  The movie does take a short while to get going, as well.  While there are funny bits in the first half, it doesn’t really get the laughs until the second half, at which point it continues forward at a breakneck comedic pace until the very end. It pays off to stick with the movie.

I ended up having a lot of fun in A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.  It delivers exactly what the series has always been known for: wild misadventures, bizarre drug fueled antics, and, at the end of the day, a healthy dose of buddy comedy.  This third movie, late as it is, still has each of those elements in spades, and has not missed a single beat in the stars’ and characters’ graduation to adulthood. Any fan of the series should not be afraid of the curse of the threequel, because this movie beats it down with a giant 3D bong. Celebrate commercialized Christmas early and check this one out.  See it, and see it in 3D.