Friday, March 26, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine: Merely lukewarm

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) • View trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for pervasive crude and sexual humor, nudity, drug use, relentless profanity and brief gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.26.10
Buy DVD: Hot Tub Time Machine • Buy Blu-Ray: Hot Tub Time Machine (Unrated) [Blu-ray]

Right off the top, you'd expect that a film called Hot Tub Time Machine couldn't possibly live up to its title.

You'd be right.

The good news is that director Steve Pink's men-behaving-badly comedy isn't a complete train wreck; the casting is better than the material deserves, and some of the dialogue is pretty funny ... and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Jacob (Clark Duke, far right) finds it weird enough to get into a hot tub with
three "old dudes" -- from left, Nick (Craig Robinson), Lou (Rob Corddry) and
Adam (John Cusack) -- even if one of them (Adam) is his uncle. But things
are about to turn much, much stranger, when a combination of unlikely events
whisks them all back a quarter-century in time.

Unfortunately, the script  credited to Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris  indulges overmuch in the filthy conversational style and tawdry poo-poo humor that has become de rigueur in this post-Judd Apatow world. It's hard to think kindly of a flick that opens as one of its main characters shoves a hand into a dog's fundament, in order to retrieve an excrement-covered set of car keys ... which then get tossed into some dweeb's open palm.

Yes, sir: the veritable height of hilarity.

But that's not entirely fair. After a rocky prologue, Hot Tub Time Machine settles into a groove that'll certainly be appreciated by fans of Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, and particularly the latter. If watching grown men debase and humiliate themselves is your idea of a good time, then this 'Hot Tub' should provide 93 minutes of utter joy.

Our protagonists are one-time best buds who've grown apart over the years, and have reached a mid-life crisis prompted by a failure to amount to anything. Adam (John Cusack) seems reasonably savvy but is an emotional wreck, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend; Nick (Craig Robinson) chafes at a dead-end job worlds removed from the music star he once hoped to become.

Unabashed hedonist Lou (Rob Corddry), having descended to the depths of loser-dom, makes a half-hearted attempt to end it all. This becomes a wake-up call to Adam and Nick, who brightly propose a road trip to the last place they all had a good time together: a ski resort in Kodiak Valley (actually Fernie, British Columbia), where everything still seemed possible back in the day, when they were poised on the brink of manhood.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon: Loads of Fire-Breathing Fun

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) • View trailer for How to Train Your Dragon
Five stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for dramatic intensity and mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.10
Buy DVD: How to Train Your Dragon • Buy Blu-Ray: How to Train Your Dragon (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Dragon Double Pack) [Blu-ray]

Animated features have become a lot more popular in recent years, but quantity certainly shouldn't be confused with quality.

Granted, top-notch examples aren't quite as rare as hens' teeth; Beauty and the Beast and Coraline come to mind, and of course Pixar has an impressive gift for delivering instant classics.

But despite some box-office hits -— most notably the Shrek series  the DreamWorks animation division hasn't arranged all the necessary elements in quite the right way.
After plenty of love, patience and fresh fish snacks, Hiccup finally persuades
his huge new friend to take him for a ride ... assisted by a rather complicated
saddle and rudder-control gadget that the boy whipped up late at night, when
nobody was watching. After all, Viking teens are supposed to kill dragon.

Until now, that is.

How to Train Your Dragon is a dazzling, cleverly scripted and wildly entertaining delight: a top-notch treat that prompts use of the word "perfect."

Yup. Well and truly.

Can't think of a single thing that could be better.

Everything works, and works superbly: from the voice talent to the eye-popping visuals; from the ingenious adaptation of Cressida Cowell's popular book to the just-snarky-enough dialogue; from the eco-friendly message  delivered so gently that only a troll would find it bothersome  to an underdog storyline that is never less than charming.

And the 3-D effects?


We've certainly seen other animated efforts employ 3-D, but How to Train Your Dragon is this medium's Avatar: the first animated feature to use 3-D technology logically, in service of the narrative, while also finding ample opportunities for superbly choreographed action scenes that'll have you leaning, tilting and ducking, as if you're in the picture.

Augment all this with John Powell's rich orchestral soundtrack, and the result is by turns comical, suspenseful, poignant, breathtaking and  as we progress to the third act  exciting.

Wholly, totally magnificent.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Repo Men: Take it back

Repo Men (2010) • View trailer for Repo Men
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, nudity, plenty of violence and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.19.10
Buy DVD: Repo Men • Buy Blu-Ray: Repo Men (Unrated) [Blu-ray]

Buried somewhere beneath a wealth of directorial flourishes  and too many efforts to appease arrested-adolescent gorehounds  lies the faintly beating heart of a reasonably imaginative cautionary tale.

Too bad we have to wade through so much distasteful swill, to reach it.
Remy (Jude Law, left) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) truly enjoy their work, the
"wetter" the better. After all, what's not to like about shooting folks and
blowing stuff up ... and then, as an added bonus, harvesting "rented" organs
from deadbeat clients?

At its core, Repo Men is a disturbing what-if scenario that belongs in the good company of Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner and Brazil: all stories that extrapolated current events to pose a series of extremely unsettling questions. The central premise in each of those films has yet to come true, I'm relieved to report ... although Fahrenheit 451 is inching ever closer, thanks to the decreased value of the intelligently printed word, in this 21st century age.

The irony: Books won't be destroyed by fire, but by collective disinterest.

And while the horrific events suggested by Repo Men probably won't become standard operating procedure any time soon, one cannot help chuckling over the timing of this film's release, as it hits theaters amid renewed debates about the desperate need to re-boot this country's health care system.

To be sure, our lives are unlikely to be snuffed by a nameless thug who arrives in the dark of night, with a legally defensible claim to "retrieve" the artificial livers, lungs and hearts that have kept us alive ... but is that really so different from being denied similar conventional medical care via a phone conversation with some bureaucratic drone who wouldn't know a forceps from a fork, who has all the bedside manner of a fence post, and who reads from a script prepared by bean-counters beholden to nobody except their shareholders?

I dunno. As a package, Repo Men may be bombastic, ghastly and reprehensible more often than not, but the core message still gets delivered. The points raised by the novel on which this film is based  The Repossession Mambo, by Eric Garcia, the idiosyncratic writer who also brought us the similarly mordant Matchstick Men  can't help raising the little hairs on the back of our necks.

The time is some unspecified point in the future, when a single corporate behemoth dubbed The Union has secured control of all medical technology relating to artificial limbs and organs. For the equivalent of a mortgage, you, too, can shed your failing heart for a bio-mechanical construct that'll keep you alive (until something else threatens to fail).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ghost Writer: Clearly risky

The Ghost Writer (2010) • View trailer for The Ghost Writer
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief violence, profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.18.10
Buy DVD: The Ghost Writer • Buy Blu-Ray: The Ghost Writer (Single-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

This one's more Hitchcock than many Hitchcock films.

The Ghost Writer looks, sounds and feels like the thrillers Hitch made back in the 1950s, when the Master of Suspense was at his prime. Director Roman Polanski's new drama must be deliberate homage, because it includes many of the same elements: unsettling production design, an isolated setting that gives the story an oddly timeless aspect  despite plot elements that are as contemporary as last month's newspaper headlines  and a moody orchestral score, by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), which sounds like the work Bernard Herrmann did for Hitchcock in (for example) North by Northwest.
After accepting an assignment to edit and enhance the ghosted memoirs of a
controversial former British prime minister, our somewhat guileless hero
(Ewan McGregor) is dismayed to discover that all work must be done within
the locked and heavily guarded confines of his subject's isolated home.
Before long, the job takes on even more sinister overtones...

Best of all, The Ghost Writer is slickly adapted from a thriller by Robert Harris  who worked on the screenplay with Polanski  a journalist-turned-novelist who also wrote Enigma, which became an intelligent and vastly under-appreciated film in 2001. I've not yet read The Ghost, but after seeing this film, the book just hit the top of my pending pile.

The premise is beguiling: A successful British writer (Ewan McGregor) is offered the job of ghosting the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a controversial former British prime minister. Initially, the assignment isn't all that appealing to our protagonist ... who, true to his profession, never is named in this film. He's more than a little disturbed by the knowledge that his predecessor wound up dead, apparently having fallen off a ferry and drowned.

Such concerns are eased by the impressively huge salary.

Or maybe not. Our "ghost" discovers that he's expected to complete the work within four quick weeks, and that he must fly across the Atlantic that very night, in order to spend as much time as possible with Lang, currently staying at an isolated, heavily guarded compound on an island off the Eastern seaboard. Worse yet, the huge typed manuscript cannot leave the office in Lang's home, where our hero is expected to do all his work.

Things get even murkier once we meet Lang and his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams), and staff, notably the former prime minister's come-hither personal assistant, Amelia (Kim Cattrall). Marital discord and sexual tension hover over this home like a shroud, and the oddly idiosyncratic cook and gardener just add to the overall tension.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Green Zone: Zoning out

The Green Zone (2010) • View trailer for The Green Zone
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for battlefield violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.12.10
Buy DVD: The Green Zone • Buy Blu-Ray: Green Zone [Blu-ray]

The Green Zone gets by with a lot due to momentum, which is fortunate; the moment you stop to think about Brian Helgeland's ludicrous script, the whole thing falls apart.

This much-heralded reunion between director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon  after working together on the latter two entries in the Bourne series  is nothing more than fanciful wish fulfillment: a revisionist take on the "big lie" that got the United States into Iraq, guaranteed to delight liberals and enrage conservatives.
After foolishly charging into the rabbit warren of Baghdad's mean streets late
one night, hoping to facilitate a meeting with the high-level members of Iraq's
Baath party who've gone to ground, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt
Damon, center) gets kidnapped by parties unknown. What, like he should
be surprised?

Given the rigorous military protocols established at the outset of this war zone drama  which takes place in 2003, right around the time President Bush naively declared "victory in Iraq" during his infamous photo-op  it's simply not credible to accept the notion of a lone wolf soldier breaking rank, ignoring the chain of command and plunging pell-mell into the middle of Baghdad, because he knows The Truth Is Out There.

Not even if the lone wolf is Matt Damon.

Perhaps sensing his uncertain footing, Greengrass makes a point, in his film's press notes, of insisting that, "This is not a movie about the war in Iraq. It's a thriller set in Iraq."

Yeah, right. And if my grandmother'd had wheels, she'd have been a trolley car.

It's simply not possible to view this film, and its preposterous storyline, while ignoring the context of recent events that remain quite fresh in everybody's memory ... and, in fact, continue to unfold to this day.

Initially, the actions taken by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) are reasonable, if unlikely; all too soon, however, he morphs into Jason Bourne while blithely ignoring personal safety ... and the safety of the half-dozen men who faithfully follow him.

Honestly, the word "reckless" can't begin to cover this film's third act.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

That Evening Sun: Simmering tension

That Evening Sun (2010) • View trailer for That Evening Sun
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for battlefield violence and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.11.10
Buy DVD: That Evening Sun • Buy Blu-Ray: That Evening Sun [Blu-ray]

Some films get the bulk of their dramatic heft from the interactions between central characters; others take a subtler approach, building mood and atmosphere into a sort of cinematic tone poem that evokes an emotional response with a minimum of dialogue.

That Evening Sun is just such a film.
Abner Meecham (Hal Holbrook) is surprised to find his home occupied by a
woman (Carrie Preston) and her barely dressed daughter, Pamela (Mia
Wasikowska), but he has an even nastier jolt in store: the male presence in this
family, who turns out to be a much-despised acquaintance.

Although fueled by star Hal Holbrook's faultless performance as an octogenarian not about to go quietly into the good night, director/scripter Scott Teems  adapting William Gay's short story, "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down"  isn't all that concerned with conventional storytelling.

Teems establishes place first: the dilapidated, financially distressed, suffocatingly hot purgatory of a tiny Tennessee community well on its way to becoming a ghost town. Not since 1981's Body Heat has the sweat-stained discomfort of oppressive humidity been so convincingly caught on camera; Teems and cinematographer Rodney Taylor have quite a talent for weaving random images  humming insects, sun-baked wood, shimmering roads  into a tapestry of weary discomfort.

The events detailed in this setting are more a random snapshot than a linear narrative with a fixed introduction and conclusion, and that's appropriate; Gay's prose has been compared to William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy, for the way it sets a mood more than anything else. Indeed, Gay dedicated this short story to McCarthy.

Teems' film also is unsettling because of the way it works against our expectations; the few characters in this story aren't black and white, but more shades of gray.

One thing becomes clear, though, fairly quickly: Nobody is apt to wind up happy when these events play out.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Alice in Wonderland: It's a wonder!

Alice in Wonderland (2010) • View trailer for Alice in Wonderland
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for monster-battling violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.10
Buy DVD: Alice in Wonderland • Buy Blu-Ray: Alice in Wonderland [Blu-ray]

The knowledge that a new version of Alice in Wonderland would involve director Tim Burton, star Johnny Depp and scripter Linda Woolverton  who worked on Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mulan  seemed a match made in heaven.

I couldn't imagine a trio of artistic sensibilities better suited to Lewis Carroll's wildly imaginative and sneakily subversive classics.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska, center) approaches her destiny -- to face the
Jabberwocky on a field of battle -- as the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and
White Queen (Anne Hathaway) offer words of encouragement, in Tim Burton's
gleefully opulent handling of Alice in Wonderland.

And, indeed, this re-booted Alice in Wonderland is an eye-popping delight: a perfect showcase for Burton's zany visual panache, Depp's whimsically eccentric performance style and Woolverton's blend of fairy-tale affectations with modern sensibilities.

Burton's film isn't actually an adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; it's a mash-up of that 1865 novel and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, along with the nonsense poem  "Jabberwocky"  that is part of the latter book. Additionally, this interpretation of Alice takes place a bit later, after our heroine has matured into a young woman on the verge of marriage, who suffers from a recurring dream that involves all sorts of strange creatures from a dimly remembered realm.

This changes the story dynamic, transforming our protagonist from a mostly helpless little girl — who merely witnesses assorted strange events  into a resourceful, kick-ass action heroine who takes charge of her own destiny.

Not that she starts out that way. Even this more mature Alice, a practical young woman, spends a good deal of time believing that she's having another bad dream, instead of actually living it.

Events begin amid the boorish British aristocracy, where Alice (Mia Wasikowska, appropriately plucky)  having lost the father she loved dearly, and therefore forced into unpalatable options  receives a proposal of marriage from a titled lout not fit to lace up this intelligent, high-spirited young woman's corset. (Not that she believes in wearing such a pointless clothing accessory.)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cop Out: Over and out

Cop Out (2010) • View trailer for Cop Out
No stars [turkey]. Rating: R, for violence, relentless profanity, smutty dialogue and frequent drug references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.4.10
Buy DVD: Cop Out • Buy Blu-Ray: Cop Out

The lunatics are running the asylum.

Bruce Willis must be incredibly desperate, because nothing else would explain why he'd sign up for this appalling project. It's difficult to believe he found some merit in Robb and Mark Cullen's creative typing: simply astonishing, because their efforts aren't even good enough to be called "writing."
When NYPD cops Jimmy Monroe (Bruce Willis, left) and Paul Hodges (Tracy
Morgan, right) need to break into a Mexican gangster's home, they enlist the
talents of a stoner burglar (Seann William Scott): a plan that comes to a
bewilderingly clumsy end ... as if Scott suddenly decided he no longer
wanted to be a part of this debacle. The whole film feels that way...

More than anything else, Cop Out is a stab at mainstream glory for a numb-nuts spoof project along the lines of Dance Flick, Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Superhero Movie, Disaster Movie and a dozen other recent no-name-cast turkeys that somehow secured theatrical release  for two mercifully quick weeks  instead of being buried in the purgatory of late-night cable and satellite TV.

Every one of the above-named flicks was dead on arrival, and consider yourself lucky if you've never heard of them.

Cop Out belongs in their company.

This miserable excuse for exposed celluloid has a bit of cachet only because it's directed by cult fave Kevin Smith, the impresario behind Clerks, Chasing Amy, Jersey Girl and  whoops!  2008's deservedly ignored Zack and Miri Make a Porno. But even Smith's fans may have trouble digesting Cop Out, because this is his first effort as a true hired gun: directing a movie he did not write, or co-write.

Frankly, I don't think he even bothered to go to work each day. This film wasn't directed; it just sort of hatched.

My 5-year-old nephew could have made a better film. His 3-year-old brother could have acted circles around everybody present in this dreck.

Cop Out is made by giggling arrested adolescents who regard poo-poo jokes as the height of humor, and I don't even want to speculate about the mindset of the viewers who, at last week's preview screening, seemed to be having a good time. I fear for the future of our country, if those folks are gonna wind up running things some day.