How funny is The Hangover? Funny enough to get the two guys in the next row off their Crackberries for minutes at a time. I used to go to the movies in the early afternoon, when no one was there. Now, I go to the last show of the evening, which is often the same, except that the few who are at last call are sleepier. So it was gratifying to sit with a full, and mostly attentive, post-10pm audience for a change.

I watched The Hangover with ’80s flashbacks in mind. Its crassness isn’t a lot different than, say, that of 1984’s Bachelor Party, a credit in the “other work” section of Tom Hanks’ resume these days. The Hangover is Bachelor Party cross-bred with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985), with the Vegas section of the underrated Go (1999) thrown in. It’s a hybrid that runs on its own steam, and despite the lateness of the hour I would’ve texted “LOL!” to all my buddies if I had a device handy (no, I wouldn’t have). The only annoying thing about it is that I may have to check out the two other hit comedies written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, Four Christmases and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, to see how they got here. Someday.

They specialize in stories centered on visiting and revisiting, and their idea this time was clever: Take all the standard wild-night-in-Vegas business and turn it into a comic mystery. Laid out end-to-end, the movie wouldn’t be as amusing as it is. Removing 12 hours from the story, then retracing them, was inspired. Director Todd Phillips, who made the semi-classic Old School (2003), paired the concept with actors who come to mesh as a team. Bachelor Justin Bartha, who sits out most of the movie, gets the film in gear with his disappearance but doesn’t really count. The heavy lifting is done, and done well, by a slyly misogynistic Bradley Cooper (who I figured for a big push when he co-starred with Julia Roberts and the rising Paul Rudd in the headline-grabbing Broadway revival of Three Days of Rain a couple of seasons back), Ed Helms (purposefully aggravating on The Office, more appealing here as a strait-jacketed single) and the out-to-lunch Zach Galifianakis, referred to in the movie as “Fat Jesus,” and a natural for Hagar the Horrible if he ever makes it to the big screen.

The script tucks a joke around every corner. It’s funny, so to speak, what makes us laugh and what doesn’t. I can handle the bad-taste stuff involving used rubbers and various bodily functions, typical of the genre. (The risqué goings-on, flirting with NC-17 or worse, are left for the closing credits montage.) The sure-fire scenes with the baby, left with the guys the morning after their night on the town had gone seriously askew, had me wincing, which is a function of first-time parenting. No thought of getting a bottle of formula? No car seat when they leave the room and take to the road to try to find out what happened? There’s believable, there’s absurd, there’s believably absurd, then just not believable—clearly none of the above-the-line talent has kids, though I’d love to see the look on my wife’s face if I pulled into a parking space with our daughter in her Ergo Baby Carrier and nothing else for restraint, flaunting every rule.

I found my smile again when they found the baby’s stripper mom, played by Heather Graham. She made such an impression in Boogie Nights in 1997 that it’s hard to remember she’s been at this for as far back as Drugstore Cowboy in 1989. The millennium has been unkind yet she’s charming here, and the movie’s success is a bright spot for Mike Tyson after recent tragedy. He’s no actor, but he’s Mike Tyson, which is what he’s there for.

A movie like The Hangover relies on second bananas. The movie has a ripe one in Mr. Chow, the Chinese crime boss played by Ken Jeong. Jeong understands that the way to make the most of an intentionally stereotyped part is to take it over the top, and he invites us into his blissfully demented stratosphere. Every movie summer births a standout line or phrase, and I’m betting on his “Toodleloo motherfuckas” to be this year’s. I think the sequel should be called Hangover Twodleloo Motherfuckas.

I’m reviewing Killshot, an adaptation of one of Elmore Leonard’s stone cold (as opposed to quirky funny) crime stories, as a new movie. Which it is, but only on DVD, after a token five-theater release. By all rights it should have preceded, or followed, Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated turn in The Wrestler on the big screen. Instead it’s gotten the barebones treatment on DVD, thanks to the troubled Weinstein Company, whose trackmarks of post-production abuse are all over the finished product. From what I gather an entire character, a corrupt cop played by Johnny Knoxville, was cut out, and there are gaps in the action, including one murder that feels under-motivated. And Rourke’s Blackbird, a halfbreed hit man, is all about motivation, as an estranged couple (Diane Lane and Thomas Jane) wind up in his sights once circumstances force him to ally with a psychotic young bank robber (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the fire to Rourke’s ice).

The plot is probably more circuitous than need be, which may be the result of the nearly three years of meddling that followed the shoot. What did director John Madden do to earn such treatment, other than lead 1998’s Shakespeare in Love to its Best Picture Oscar for Miramax? Did Harvey Weinstein second-guess his temperament for the job? I don’t know why, as he and adaptor Hossein Amini get their hands dirty. It’s not a gratuitously violent picture, but Blackbird’s leave-no-witnesses practicality has a lot of corpses piled up at the end of a possibly too lean, but certainly mean, 95 minutes. The script is as taut and terse as can be under the circumstances. The cast brings different colors to the piece: Lane is affecting, Gordon-Levitt an unpredictable wild card, and a de-glammed Rosario Dawson pitiable as his Elvis-obsessed girlfriend. (Hal Holbrook gives his all, as he always does, to the small but crucial role of Blackbird’s first victim.) Rourke is excellent. Blackbird is a remorseless bastard, with a twinge of regret that’s the only wiggle room between him and his prey. If you’ve wanted to see more of him since The Wrestler, draw a bead on Killshot.

I watched I Bring What I Love, a musical documentary about Youssou N’Dour, on a DVD supplied by the publicist. (The film opens in select theaters today.) In tow was my nine-month-old daughter, who crawled around the floor during my home screening. She was transfixed by the colorful photography of storybook places throughout Africa and particularly by N’Dour’s performances; that tenor of his is the sound of rapture. You don’t listen to him; you commune with him. Among other citations—Africa’s greatest singer, tireless philanthropist, one of Time’s most influential people, etc.—he makes an excellent babysitter.

She got fussy during the in-between bits. I could relate: So often the documentary, where performers who are at their most articulate onstage are suddenly struck dumb when the rhythm fades and the audience has dispersed, lets down the music. At the risk of criticizing my own flesh-and-blood, however, I must say that she got it wrong this time. N’Dour was in our neighborhood last weekend, as part of a program on Muslim culture at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a screening of I Bring What I Love was on the program. The film details the conception, making of, and tour of Egypt (2004), a seminal album that pays tribute to the liturgical music of his Sufi Islam faith, which has so influenced his life.

N’Dour’s first exposure to the mainstream was as part of the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour in 1988, alongside the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed; there’s a brief segment from that in the film, plus a glimpse of he and Neneh Cherry performing the 1994 hit “7 Seconds.” N’Dour began work on Egypt in 1989, to show how as a recording artist he could reconcile his growing renown with his Muslim faith; the fallout from 9/11 on the community led him to complete the project. There were bumps in the road: the international tour coincided with the start of Ramadan, and the abstemious musicians were obliged to ask audiences to stop drinking during their performances. More disturbingly, Senegal’s religious leaders were skeptical of a world music spin on their sacred texts, and he was accused of profaning shrines with his performances. Ultimately N’Dour would win his (and Senegal’s) first Grammy for the album—we see the celebratory phone call and the subsequent parade in the streets—but the tension his well-intentioned gesture provoked give the movie dramatic as well as musical interest.

Making a movie about a sainted figure is a set of chains for any documentarian, but first-timer Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi avoids obvious flubs. Rolling Stone pronounced N’Dour “a singer with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seems locked inside it,” but she concentrates, wisely, on the man and not the myth. When his father asks him to sacrifice a goat for a ritual sacrifice we can see him squirm, perhaps hoping that a difficult scene for viewers will wind up on the cutting-room floor, but Vasarhelyi follows through. I wish she had dropped the use of 9/11 footage—the towers have fallen many times now on film, and are at risk of cliché. Particularly when she’s so discreet showing N’Dour’s bereavement at the passing of his grandmother, a beloved griot (storyteller). The event is so clearly etched on N’Dour’s face it doesn’t even have to be mentioned.

I Bring What I Love ends with a performance of Egypt at Carnegie Hall. Which reminds me of the old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Answer: Practice—and in N’Dour’s case a faith that can move mountains, a commitment vividly shown in this worthy document.

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About the Author

Bob Cashill

An Editorial Board Member of Cineaste magazine, Bob is also a member of the Drama Desk theatrical critics society in New York. See what he's watching on Letterboxd and read more from him at New York Theater News.

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