The Good, the Bad, and the Weird: “Gangster Squad”

GANGSTER SQUAD

In the second installment of my GBW column, I look at a film that held great promise, but crashed and burned.

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird: Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad” (2013)

When I was about 11, my brother, who was six years older, did me a solid by renting the movie “Mobsters” at a long-forgotten video store called Movies Plus. (This was the place that really kicked off my cinematic education, unknowingly. They had a deal — five movies for five days for five bucks — that took me through several summers.) I recall being excited by the cast, which included Christian Slater and Richard Grieco (!), and also thinking the trailer, which I likely saw on E!’s “Coming Attractions,” looked fantastic.

Was the film fantastic? Noooo. Although at the time, I quite liked it.

I had not thought of “Mobsters” in a long time, until I read Jeff Shannon’s review of the flop “Gangster Squad” before finally catching up with it on DVD: “Here’’ a telling comparison: I recently happened upon a showing of ‘Mobsters,’ the Christian Slater vehicle that’s been a cable-TV staple since its release in 1991. Packed with B- and C-list costars like Richard Greico and Costas Mandylor, it’s still a marginally better film than ‘Gangster Squad,’ and that’s faint praise indeed.

I think Jeff Shannon is correct, sadly. On paper, it all looked so promising: A great cast, including Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, and Emma Stone. A flashy trailer. The gangster milieu.

But there was also reason to worry. The director, Ruben Fleischer, had a 50-50 track record — the fun “Zombieland” and the awful “30 Minutes or Less.” And the whole LA-fifties-gangster thing seemed a little played out. Then came Aurora, a re-edit, and a January release date shift. The result was a movie that barely qualifies for two stars out of four.

The Good:

  • The costumes were nice?
  • Okay, the costumes were nice, but there are a few other bright spots, mostly due to the casting. It’s nice to see Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, and the typically gruff Robert Patrick in support; Mackie, especially, makes the most of a small role.
  • Also related to casting: Josh Brolin deserves starring roles, and he got one, here. But there is far more to look forward to from him, including a starring role in Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day.

The Bad:

  • Everything else.
  • Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are ludicrously underused. Why did Gosling even take this part? It’s a nothing role, really, and he coasts through it. He’s become one of my favorite actors, truly, so seeing him look dull, and play dull, is, well, dull. Sean Penn, too, is utterly forgettable, playing Mickey Cohen as a noisy lump with an overdone, Big Boy Caprice-style accent (“Here comes Sant-y Claus!”)
  • It’s boring, and that is its most crucial sin. The gunfights are endless, the violence ugly, the look, flashy but drab. It is a waste of time, money, and talent.

The Weird

  • It felt odd to see Nick Nolte in the cast, since “Gangster” in some ways brings back memories of a meh, if better, film in which he starred, “Mulholland Falls.”
  • Emma Stone is a wonderful actress, but I’m not sure she’s right for the femme fatale. For she and Gosling, “Gangster Squad” will be a forgotten blip on the resume. In fact, writing this kind of makes me want to go watch them in the wonderful, completely enjoyable “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Coming soon: Thoughts on “Behind the Candelabra,” “Frances Ha,” and more

EMMA STONE as Grace Faraday and RYAN GOSLING as Sgt. Jerry Wooters in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “GANGSTER SQUAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Wilson Webb

Weekend Preview: Forget “Earth” — There’s “Something in the Air”

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Tomorrow is one of the oddest movie-opening Fridays of the summer, truly. It’s also one of the most boring.

There are few summer releases that look less alluring to me than the Will Smith-Jaden Smith vehicle “After Earth.” In fact, perhaps the only element to pique my interest is the invisibility of director M. Night Shyamalan in the film’s ad campaign. Considering “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender,” that’s probably wise, but I’m not sure what impact it will have at the box office. I’d expect this one to open in the low-thirties, probably ending up making a bit more than the similarly-themed “Oblivion” when all is said and done.

The real question is whether it will hit No. 1 this weekend. I would expect “Fast 6” to maintain its hold, and it is even possible (if unlikely — this is a Will Smith movie, after all) that “Earth” will come in behind “Epic” and “Star Trek.”

Coming in behind all those should be the magicians-robbing-banks thriller “Now You See Me.” The trailers are fun, but if this was directed by anyone other than Louis Leterrier (“Clash of the Titans”), I’d be a heckuva lot more excited. Look at that cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and one of my favorite actresses, the incandescent Mélanie Laurent. Good reviews could make this a modest success, and it is worth noting that Leterrier directed two of the enjoyable “Transporter” films.

In the world of indies: I saw “Something in the Air” at TIFF 2012, and my initial response, for Buffalo Spree, was muted, at best: “One notable miss was Olivier Assayas’s autobiographical film. This look at students in Paris continuing the struggles of post-May ’68 life is handsomely made but pretty vacant.” But I seemed to sense the tide could turn: “Of course, time often changes my opinions. Seeing Sarah Polley’s ‘Take This Waltz’ at TIFF 2011, I was horribly disappointed. Watching it again months later, outside the pomp and circumstance of the festival setting, I adored it. There’s hope for you yet, ‘Something.’”

This was indeed the case. The more I’ve pondered “Something in the Air,” the stronger it has seemed. Film fest fatigue played a role, I think, in my response; it was the last film, at 9 or 10 p.m., after a long day of walking and watching. And it directly followed the overwhelming emotional experience that is “Amour,” so it certainly seemed rather anonymous, in terms of character and emotion, by comparison. My earlier criticisms are valid, I think. It is hard to find a compelling character here — blah is the most intriguing, but she’s not really the star — yet the mood, the vibe, and the surroundings are so right that it works more often than not. I look forward to seeing it again.

It’s ironic that “Kon-Tiki” is opening today, since yesterday brought major news for its directors, Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg: The duo will helm the fifth installment of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, once more starring starring Johnny Depp. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature, the well-reviewed “Kon-Tiki” looks like a visual stunner, and, perhaps, a big-screen must-see.

Michael Shannon makes any film more interesting, and it will be especially fun to see him tackle the meaty villain role in “Man of Steel.” Hitman drama “The Iceman” has a heckuva cast — Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, James Franco (of course), David Schwimmer (?), Stephen Dorff — but carries the whiff of we’ve-seen-it-all-before. Still, it’s a nice alternative to “The Hangover,” and I’ll catch up with it at some point.

Local filmmaker alert: Cheers to Peter McGennis, the native son director of “Queen City,” which opens tomorrow at the North Park. Taking place and shot in Buffalo, it stars Vivica A. Fox and features a talented lineup including Susan Tedeschi, Allen Toussaint, Maria Muldaur, and Sharon Jones. I did not get a chance to attend its fall screening or see McGennis’s “Buffalo Bushido,” but it’s always nice to help promote an ambitious local filmmaker.

Incidentally, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is moving to the Movieland 8, and “Renoir” and “Mud” are still hanging around, too. Also note that “The Place Beyond the Pines” is showing at both the Movieland and McKinley Mall.

Last but not least, Joss Whedon fans in Western New York should note that “Serenity” is showing at the Screening Room tonight, part of a double-bill with sci-fi oldie “Rocketship X-M.”

Coming soon from me are some thoughts on this strange summer, which features a long lineup of dull blockbusters but some truly stunning smaller films. One of these, “Frances Ha,” opens next Friday. You’re going to love it.

Wednesday Round-Up: “Alfie,” Bradley, Kafka, and “Vice”

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A pretty diverse mix on this Wednesday, May 29. Incidentally, many of these have already been re-Tweeted by me at Twitter.com/FilmSwoon. If you’re not following me there yet, you should be.

  • For those in Buffalo: Hallwalls’ Jazz Noir series comes to a close tomorrow night with an iconic sixties classic: “Alfie.” Michael Caine is easy to imitate, but pretty hard to duplicate, as Jude Law discovered.
  • Grantland has posted an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary short on former Sabres goalie Clint Malarchuk. It’s titled “Cutthroat,” so you pretty much know where this is going.
  • Also on Grantland, Mark Harris calls Bradley Cooper “the smartest star in Hollywood” — even after the disaster that was “The Hangover Part III.”
  • Speaking of Bradley Cooper: I’m not sure David O’Russell’s upcoming “American Hustle” will have elements of comedy, but with this wardrobe and hair, I have to think it will.
  • I’ll be sharing thoughts on Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra” soon; here, the supposedly retiring director talks about a recut of his fascinating second film, “Kafka,” a notorious flop.
  • The cool U.K. music site Louder Than War looks at ex-Stone Roses manager Gareth Evans.
  • Mondo can always be counted on for killer posters. These, for “The Silence of the Lambs,” might be two of the creepiest they’ve conjured.
  • Lastly, I’m about to re-read Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” which Paul Thomas Anderson is currently shooting, and part of the reason I want to dive back into the tale of Doc Sportello is to try to trace who is playing who. Check out the cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Josh Brolin, and possibly Sean Penn. The best site for keeping track of the additions is the phenomenal “definitive Paul Thomas Anderson Resource, Cigarettes & Red Vines. Every day seems to bring a cool new cast addition.

 

The Great Bernardo Bertolucci is in the News, But Still No U.S. Release for “Me and You”

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Indiewire has a quote (from a Reuters article) from filmmaking legend Bernardo Bertolucci today on his current preference for TV over movies: “[T]he American films I like now do not come from Hollywood studios but from television series, like ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘The Americans.’ I like when they last 13 episodes but then there is a new series coming with another 13 episodes.”

Despite the fact that I’m watching more movies than television series right now, it’s hard to disagree. And surely, hearing that opinion from the director “The Conformist” and “Last Tango in Paris” is pretty meaningful.

The piece reminded me of Bertolucci’s most recent film, “Me and You” (“Io e Te”), which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Whether to see the film or not had been a tough choice — looking back at my notes, I see it was playing at the same time as “Frances Ha” and “Like Someone in Love.” Considering I’ve now seen “Frances” and “Like Someone,” but “Me and You” has yet to see release in America, I’m satisfied with my decision. The Playlist recently posted the film’s lovely trailer, but pointed out that while it is set for U.K. release, it has no stateside distribution deal. “Me and You” is an intimate, occasionally claustrophobic film that would work nicely as a VOD release. (Oddly, Bertolucci initially intended to shoot it in 3D.) Hopefully, a studio will step up and bring the film to the States soon.

The critical response from TIFF (and, before that, Cannes) was mostly negative, which I guess puts me in the minority. Covering the fest for Buffalo Spree, I called “Me and You” “a wonderfully incisive look at adolescence,” and I stand by that belief. The performances from young star Jacopo Olmo Antinori as unkempt, perennially headphones-wearing teenager Lorenzo, and Tea Falco as his drug-addicted half-sister, Olivia, are note-perfect. The soundtrack is rather wild for Bertolucci, featuring the Arcade Fire, the Cure, and Muse. And the cinematography by Fabio Cianchetti, who also shot “The Dreamers” and “Beseiged,” is extraordinary. Yes, it is certainly “slight” when compared with some of Bertolucci’s other epics, and does not quite hit the highs of his previous effort, “The Dreamers,” but it is still a worthy addition to his canon.

In other Bertolucci news, the 73-year-old director recently unveiled a 3D restoration of “The Last Emperor” at Cannes, and will serve as jury president at this fall’s Venice Film Festival.

“Blue” Draws Raves and Criticism (But Mostly Raves), Warner Bros. Gangster Classics, and More

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A few quick hits on this Memorial Day.

  • Todd McCarthy breaks down the Cannes winners for the Hollywood Reporter: “Whether it had won or not, this was already destined to be the year of ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color,’ given how everyone had to see it just for the unprecedented and protracted realistic sex scenes between Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux in Abdellatif Kechiche’s close-up, three-hour portrait of a female love affair.”
  • Manohla Dargis takes issue with “Blue,” and it will be interesting to see if her opinion will be shared my other major critics as “Blue” heads to the States: “‘It’s disappointing that Mr. Kechiche, whose movies include ‘The Secret of the Grain’ and ‘Black Venus’ (another voyeuristic exercise), seems so unaware or maybe just uninterested in the tough questions about the representation of the female body that feminists have engaged for decades. However sympathetic are the characters and Ms. Exarchopoulos, who produces prodigious amounts of tears and phlegm along with some poignant moments, Mr. Kechiche registers as oblivious to real women.”
  • However, reports Michael Phillips, “Spielberg and his fellow jurors took the unusual step of awarding the top prize not simply to director and co-writer Kechiche, but to the film’s two lead actresses. The jury, he said, felt ‘privileged’ to watch this three-hour film of ‘deep love, deep heartbreak’ evolve at its own pace and rhythm.”
  • I take a look at Warner Bros. new “Ultimate Gangster Collections” today on buffalospree.com. The sets, divided into “classic” and “contemporary,” are pretty stunning; perhaps the film I’m most looking forward to watching again is Michael Mann’s “Heat.” It’s sad to think that De Niro and Pacino have made only a handful (if that) of relevant films since then. But my goodness, that L.A.-set crime epic is pretty special.
  • Speaking of Michael Mann, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky recently penned an interesting short analysis of the director’s “Miami Vice” film, a movie that was received with a collective shrug upon release but now, he says, “has emerged as a major touchstone for my generation of critics. If you’re young and you’re writing seriously about the medium, there’s a good chance that you’re a ‘Miami Vice’ fan.”
  • The “Much Ado About Nothing” hype machine will soon go into overdrive, which kind of thrills me, since I’m hoping to see my name continue popping up. It is NOT mentioned in this NY Times piece, but it’s a good read all the same.

It’s a lovely, sunny Memorial Day in Buffalo — time to get away from the computer and enjoy it.

Image of Cannes winners Abdellatif Kechiche, Léa Seydoux, and Adéle Exarchopoulos, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Spielberg’s Cannes Jury Goes “Blue”

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One of the most acclaimed, and intriguing, films at Cannes this year was the French lesbian coming-of-age drama “Blue is the Warmest Color,” and the predictions were correct: Steven Spielberg’s jury has awarded “Blue” the Palme d’Or. It instantly rockets to the top of my hope-it-plays-TIFF list.

The Playlist has the complete winners list; here is a rundown:

  • Palme d’Or: “Blue is the Warmest Color,” Director: Abdellatif Kechiche (also shared by stars Adéle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux)
  • Grand Prix: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Prix de la Mise en Scene (best director): Amat Escalante, “Heli”
  • ‘A Touch of Sin’Prix du Scenario (best screenplay): “A Touch of Sin,” Writer: Jia Zhangke
  • Camera d’Or (best first feature): “Ilo Ilo,” Director: Anthony Chen
  • Prix du Jury (jury prize): “Like Father, Like Son,” Director: Kore-Eda Hirokazu
  • Prix d’interpretation feminine (best actress): Berenice Bejo, “The Past”
  • Prix d’interpretation masculine (best actor): Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”

Jeff Nichols’ “Mud”: One of 2013’s Finest Films

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A very quick Sunday update, as the film world awaits the announcement of this year’s Cannes awards …

I finally saw Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” last night, and was riveted. It is the finest work yet from the director of the great “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter,” a superior achievement that will surely rank among the year’s best.

It’s a dense story with a novel-like feel — virtually every character could warrant his or her own lengthy subplot, especially Joe Don Baker’s craggy King — but what Nichols does most effectively is give his actors time to truly build each scene into a slow-burning marvel. It’s a long movie, over two hours, but I can’t think of a wasted scene.

I could see Matthew McConaughey enter Oscar talk, although it is more likely to occur with “Dallas Buyer’s Club.” Either way, he deserves praise. What an amazing stretch of films for him. Just as strong is young Tye Sheridan, the sweet, not-as-tough-as-he-thinks-he-is Ellis. This kid is a star in the making, anchoring every scene in which he appears.

What a wonderful film “Mud” is — one to be savored. Expect to hear much more on this from me. For those in Buffalo, hurry up, and see it while it’s still playing at the Eastern Hills Mall.

Have a lovely Sunday — enjoy “Arrested Development”! Her?

 

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

A New Column: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (Starting With “Promised Land”)

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Back in 2010, a strange South Korean Western (clearly inspired by Sergio Leone) titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird” arrived in America to modest reviews. It mostly did not work for me, but it had its clever moments, and it also had that droll title.

When I was trying to think of a running column for my site, something that would not constitute a review — as I’ve made clear, this is NOT a review site; my main (freelance) review outlet is the Buffalo News — but would instead offer a simple way to analyze and ponder films, TV shows, etc., I thought of that title. It seems to me that it offers a fine pathway for analysis.

Let’s give it a try, shall we?

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird: Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” (2012)

It’s difficult to think of a filmmaker who has had a more strange career path than Gus Van Sant. Consider that he has directed landmark indies (“Mala Noche,” “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho”), a couple true box office successes (“Good Will Hunting,” “Milk”), a couple disastrous flops (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” the notorious shot-for-shot “Psycho” remake), and others that are pretty difficult to classify (“Gerry,” “Last Days,” “Restless”). He has never been one of my favorites, although I adore “Cowboy,” “Idaho,” and “To Die For.”

Van Sant is never dull … but he sure can come close. “Promised Land,” the story of a corporate guy dispatched to a small town to buy drilling rights, is modestly enjoyable (I’d go **1/2), but also anonymous, and pretty unmemorable. Let’s take a look at the film, which just arrived on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Good: 

  • The acting. Matt Damon was made for a role like this — the smart, likable, conflicted everyman who gets in over his head. His co-writer, John Krasinski, is also good as an environmentalist with some secrets to hide. Hand-in-hand with the acting, of course, is …
  • The casting. Consider the supporting cast: Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Titus Welliver. Holbrook, especially, has some nice lines as a teacher and sketpic. So, cheers to …
  • The dialogue. There are some wonderful scenes between Damon and McDormand, and Damon and DeWitt. He and Krasinski deserve some credit for these well-drawn characters. (It’s based on a story by Dave Eggers.)

The Bad:

  • So what? “Promised Land” doesn’t leave the viewer with much to take that we didn’t already know. We understood going in that fracking was a tricky subject. And so it remains. Part of the problem is a script that is straight-forward until a sudden “twist” that seems out of place and pretty damn unbelievable.
  • It should be shorter. It’s a lonnng 106 minutes, especially the last 30 or so.
  • The film is just not memorable enough. A movie about fracking should have more passion, shouldn’t it?

The Weird:

  • The director. Is this really a Gus Van Sant film? I mean, really? It’s visually pedestrian, and stylistically bland. In other words, this is “Forrester” Van Sant.
  • The release date. “Promised Land” was a late entry in the 2012 Oscar race, but for the life of me, I’m not sure why. It opened in limited release on December 28, at the height of “Les Mis,” “Django,” “Hobbit,” and “Lincoln,” and was buried. Even a film with the audience unfriendly topic of fracking should gross more than $8 mill if it stars Matt Damon and played 1,600 theaters. A late-winter release would have been far more effective, to say nothing of early fall.

In final analysis, “Promised Land” is reasonable entertainment, thanks to its performances and dialogue. Perhaps, then, Van Sant’s hands-off approach was wise. Just try remembering it a week later.

 

A couple other Saturday notes:

  • Cannes announces its awards tomorrow night, and it would be silly of me to make any kind of prediction — all I could base it on what I’ve read on Twitter. But the three films to keep an eye out for seem to be the lesbian coming-of-age favorite “Blue is the Warmest Color,” Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” and Francois Ozon’s “Young and Beautiful.” But never count out the Coens, Steven Soderbergh, or Marion Cotillard, either …
  • It’s nice to see “The Hangover Part III” proving to be a box-office disappointment. Can’t wait to see how hard it falls on week two.
  • “Arrested Development.” New episodes. Netflix. Tomorrow. Never thought all of those words would go together.

Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Weekend Preview: Forget “Furious” and “Hangover” — Three Dramas From TIFF 2012 Have Finally Arrived

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Okay, let’s get the biggies out of the way first.

Make no mistake, “Fast & Furious 6” — I love these titles — is going to be huge. I actually think the latest Vin Diesel-starrer could hit the $100 million mark from Friday through Sunday; if it does not, it will easily hit that mark over the four-day holiday weekend. I have to hand it to Justin Lin and all involved in this series for knowing their audience, and finding new ways to liven up the series. I haven’t loved any of the “Fast” films, but they’re nothing if not fun.

The same can’t be said about “The Hangover” series. Every installment has been worse, culminating in the disastrous “Hangover Part III,” a movie that I think will disappoint even the biggest Wolfpack fans. I would expect it to open with $40-50 million, but this will not have strong word-of-mouth, and should be the lowest grosser of the series.

I almost didn’t notice that the animated “Epic,” which I feel like I saw a trailer for several years ago, opens this weekend, as well, and that’s a nifty bit of counter-programming. It seems to have the kid market all to itself until “Monsters University” on June 21.

Far more unique than those behemoths are three films that played at TIFF 2012 (I missed all three) and are set to open in Buffalo today: The Dennis Quaid-Zac Efron-starring “At Any Price” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” The most interesting thing about “Price” is its director, Rahmin Bahrani, the director of several strong features (“Goodbye Solo,” “Chop Shop,” and “Man Push Cart”), and the great short “Plastic Bag,” memorably narrated by Werner Herzog. I recall “At Any Price” had one of the more off-putting TIFF program descriptions, ever, something about the competitive world of agriculture. Hmm.

“Fundamentalist” is Mira Nair’s first film since the god-awful “Amelia,” and with this pedigree — based on the best-selling book, and with a diverse supporting cast that includes Om Puri and Keifer Sutherland — it is certainly interesting on paper, even if TIFF reviews were mixed.Critics were kinder to Francois Ozon’s “In the House,” which also opens in the Queen City. The latest from the director of “Swimming Pool” stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner, both of whom can currently be seen in the Cannes world premieres “Only God Forgives” and “Venus in Fur,” respectively.

Speaking of Cannes, Sunday is awards day … So expect some Twitter madness.

One last note: In 24 hours, it was first reported that the North Park Theatre on Hertel would close, but the latest update is … it will stay open. Consider this, then, a happy ending to very sad news. It is the most beautiful, ornate moviehouse in Buffalo, a place that is the closest approximation to the theaters my parents told me about. I had noticed it seeming a bit under-populated during my last few visits, but the public outcry over that initial news could give it new life. Nice!

Photo courtesy of IFC Films

A Bad Hangover

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My one-star review of “The Hangover Part III” is in today’s Buffalo News — click here to read. I did not expect greatness, but was stunned at just how poor this third and supposedly final film in the series was.

I’m also expecting it get destroyed this weekend by “Fast and the Furious 6” at the box office. Tomorrow, I’ll have more thoughts on the Memorial Day weekend box office, including a look at other movies opening in Buffalo.