Archive for March 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

March 27, 2010

The last two times John Cusack collaborated with his longtime buddy Steve Pink, the results were Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) and High Fidelity (2000), which they both helped write. Three other guys wrote Hot Tub Time Machine (starring Cusack and directed by Pink), so the movie doesn’t hit the heights of the previous two classics. It’s more of an affable romp, The Hangover by way of The Wedding Singer: three guys having a wild and crazy night back in the ‘80s, though they began the night in 2010. As advertised, Hot Tub Time Machine involves a hot tub that becomes a time machine, sending disgruntled fortysomethings Cusack, Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson back to 1986, along with Cusack’s 20-year-old nephew Clark Duke, who wasn’t even born yet.

In truth, Hot Tub Time Machine is the sort of “high concept” low-budget comedy that might’ve been made back in ‘86; it would share a video-store shelf with Bachelor Party and Where the Boys Are ‘84. As such, it’s not terribly ambitious. It seems to hang its narrative on two or three killer scenes; a lot of the rest is filler. The filler is often amusing, though, since these guys are innately funnier than were the lads in The Hangover. The guys are spirited to a ski lodge on a particularly eventful night for them in ‘86, and they determine to do everything the same — any divergence might lead to disaster in the future. Part of the fun is in how quickly they break their pact and set about rewriting their past.

I imagine any serious time-travel nitpicker who thinks about the plot for more than a minute will judge the whole thing implausible. But that’s not really the point. For Cusack and Pink, this is kind of the conclusion of their trilogy of films about the depressed Cusackian hero escaping into past simplicity. Cusack’s presence here, along with Crispin Glover as a bellhop, Chevy Chase as a mysterious repairman, and even Karate Kid villain William Zabka as a mustachioed sleazeball, takes some of us back to the land of leg warmers, MTV and cheesy comedies. As per tradition, Cusack falls for someone with smarts and great taste in music (Lizzy Kaplan), while Corddry and Robinson try to reset their disappointing lives to the dismay of Clark Duke, who fears all this divergence will erase him from history.

Hot Tub Time Machine occasionally feels as though it has more on its mind, but it’s best when sitting with the three old friends, who have decades of shared experiences, in-jokes (their whispered “The Great White Eskimo” never gets old) and resentments stored up. It’s a comfortable and ultimately comforting film; its message is “embrace the chaos,” and the heroes, like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, are looking for “a dare-to-be-great situation.” The movie doesn’t really dare to be great; it settles for being sometimes-raunchy post-Apatow fluff, with a better cast (and less nudity) than it would’ve had in 1986. It gets a pass from me — there’s always something going on, the funny bits are really funny — but from the guys who gave us High Fidelity and especially Grosse Pointe Blank, it’s something of an underachievement.

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Herzog as a plastic bag. Awesome.

March 24, 2010

Not only is this short film by Ramin (Goodbye Solo) Bahrani — whom Roger Ebert has dubbed “the director of the decade” — beautiful and ingenious, it also features THE VOICE OF WERNER HERZOG AS THE PLASTIC BAG.

This is clearly the peak of cinema right here, and nobody should ever again attempt to make a movie. This is it. Everything else will be poor and beside the point.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

March 22, 2010

Lisbeth Salander, the 24-year-old heroine of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and now the film version, is a great, prickly creation. On paper she may seem a collection of quirks: a goth, bisexual, chain-smoking, brilliant computer hacker with a history of violent behavior. But Noomi Rapace, the actress who breathes life into Lizbeth, gives a full-scale star-making performance with reserves of complexity and pain. Rapace carries this two-and-a-half-hour murder-mystery solidly, and seemingly effortlessly, on her slim sharp shoulders. Whoever takes the role in the upcoming American remake has gigantic shoes to fill.

Lisbeth isn’t the only lead, though. The other is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist facing three months in prison after his exposé of a corrupt industrialist got him tagged for libel. Mikael is hired by another industrialist, this one retired and far more benevolent, to help solve a 40-year-old mystery. The businessman’s niece went missing in the ‘60s, and he believes she was murdered. He also has little trust or love for his family, some of whom were or still are Nazi sympathizers. It’s a large family with many red herrings. Mikael takes the job — he has nothing better to do, and the case revs up his muckraker’s blood.

The mystery isn’t the best reason to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; for one thing, it leads to the sort of revelatory moment we’ve all seen a million times, in which the killer explains himself and seems to lack only a pointer and chalkboard. (The recent Shutter Island included that, with some parodic wit, I think.) No, the reason to watch is the relationship between the fortyish journalist and the severe young hacker, who eventually helps him with the case. The original Swedish title of the book and movie is Men Who Hate Women, and Lisbeth has met more than her share of such men. But Mikael is different; he doesn’t seem to have a corrupt or even sexual bone in his body — he cares only about compiling evidence. His monomania appeals to Lisbeth, who has her own one-track mind.

The movie really is their story, though it’s over an hour into the film before they even meet. Before that, we watch them separately, each having a difficult time of it. Lisbeth is assaulted twice by a sleazeball who’s been appointed her new “guardian,” but she avenges herself so swiftly and decisively that we spend the rest of the film not worrying about her. She can take care of herself. It’s Mikael, surrounded by a clan of suspects monitoring how close he’s getting to the truth, that we worry about. Director Niels Arden Oplev spreads gravely ominous music over the proceedings, pointing up how isolated Mikael is in his shack on the family’s compound. The suspense, I think, would be easier to sustain if we didn’t know there are two other books — and movies, though they have yet to open here — in this series.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo compels us in the good old ways — the piling up of clues, the decoding of hints, the use of old photos to recreate a micro-movie of a subtle but key event. What sets it apart thematically is the late Stieg Larsson’s preoccupations with racism, misogyny, and financial scandal as corrosive elements in the Swedish character. What sets it apart emotionally is the moving and sometimes funny rapport between the rumpled reporter (Michael Nykvist’s warm, steady performance will probably be overlooked but shouldn’t be) and the pierced angel/demon who can do anything with a MacBook. I’ll happily sit for two more movies featuring this pair; I only wish there could be more.

Green Zone

March 14, 2010

One productive way to approach Green Zone might be as a dark comedy of frustration. Early on, warrant officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) and his team are in Baghdad after the 2003 shock-and-awe, in search of weapons of mass destruction. They speed out to a congested area full of looters. They navigate around the looters and discover that a confirmed WMD site is being defended by a sniper. They take out the sniper and move in, fumbling around in the dark building. Will they find what they’re looking for? We know they won’t, but they don’t know that. Miller has run two other missions with the same results. He’s beginning to get annoyed.

Green Zone tracks Miller as he ricochets around Baghdad like a righteous bullet, looking for The Truth. Are there actually WMDs here, and if not, why does government intel keep sending men like Miller and his team into harm’s way to chase shadows? Director Paul Greengrass, who worked with Damon on the last two Bourne films, employs his usual shaky-cam to sometimes vertiginous effect — it’s a rugged, you-are-there style, pumping up excitement. It’s a thriller in which we’re forever ahead of the hero; we know The Truth he seeks, and it’s not a very happy one, so the action is in service of an almost nihilistic mood. Miller pokes his nose into every seething corner of Baghdad to uncover the pointlessness of his very career.

Greg Kinnear turns up as the Pentagon slickster who wants to keep the WMD ruse going for the suckers back home. Whoever cast him deserves a cold beer, since he and Damon previously shared the screen — and a body — as Siamese twins in Stuck on You. The actors have a couple of clenched, hostile exchanges here, and I was left imagining how many takes they must have ruined because they couldn’t keep straight faces. Damon also has strong rapport with Brendan Gleeson as a CIA man who bluntly tells Miller he’s wasting his time; movies could do worse than to pull in seasoned, hard-bitten Brit actors to set the hero straight (Ray Winstone also performed this function in Edge of Darkness).

As Miller gets closer to the identity of “Magellan,” the mysterious source of info about WMDs, Green Zone never stops for a breath, and neither does Miller. The last third is fairly exhausting. Miller bounces around the city, browbeating gullible reporter Amy Ryan or conscripting Iraqi civilian Khalid Abdalla (in perhaps the film’s best performance) for near-constant service as his “translator.” There’s torture, there’s a lengthy chase — a real action-thriller climax, except the thrills turn to ashes in our mouths. Green Zone says that not even Matt Damon in full fury can change much of anything. By the end, the Iraqi people are already rejecting the U.S.-approved “democracy” Kinnear’s character wants to put into place, and Miller emails his findings off to every major media outlet in the Western world, for all the good it’ll ultimately do. Mission unaccomplished.

Oscars 2010

March 8, 2010

The problem with following the Oscar race closely is that, by the time the big night finally arrives, there aren’t many surprises left. Were you shocked that Jeff Bridges won? Or Sandra Bullock? Or Mo’Nique, or Christoph Waltz? Maybe you were, and for that I envy you. Those of us who were tracking all the pre-Oscar awards — the Golden Globes, the various guild awards — saw all of the above win trophy after trophy. The only surprise would have been if any of those actors hadn’t won.

There was one source of suspense and drama, though — the battle between David and Goliath, where David was The Hurt Locker (which has grossed only $13 million) and Goliath was, of course, Avatar, the most successful movie of all time. Adding to the drama: This was the first time in Oscar history that a divorced couple — Kathryn Bigelow for Hurt Locker, James Cameron for Avatar — were pitted against each other for the Best Director prize. Factor in also that, were Bigelow to win, it would be a historic moment, the first woman to take the award.

As the world now knows, it was Bigelow’s night, and as a fan of some of her previous films — Near Dark, Strange Days — I couldn’t be happier. Avatar was a great ride, but The Hurt Locker was the better film. And the Academy, to its credit, recognized that Avatar’s unprecedented financial windfall was reward enough. A lot of Avatar fans went to bed angry tonight, but a lot of casual observers will now be curious about the little film that could.

As for the ceremony itself, it certainly wasn’t the most painful Oscar night ever, but other than the eleventh-hour suspense it wasn’t the most exciting, either. As noted, the acting categories were a lock on all fronts. The idea of Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as co-hosts is more appealing than what the men actually did; sure they had their amusing moments, but there were long stretches of the evening when you sort of forgot they were around. At one point, we saw them backstage sharing a Snugglie for a gag, and for me that said it all: They were more comforting than lively. Neil Patrick Harris, who kick-started the show with a song-and-dance number, showed far more pizzazz. Give him a shot at hosting next year.

As usual, the In Memoriam segment picked the usual selection of obvious favorites (Swayze, Jacko) and obscurities (agents, etc.) while neglecting the likes of Farrah Fawcett, Edward Woodward, Henry Gibson, Dan O’Bannon, Arnold Stang, and Bea Arthur. Meanwhile, teen-movie auteur John Hughes, who died last year, got his own separate tribute hosted by his former stars, many of whom have not aged well. In comparison, the great French director Eric Rohmer got a two-second mention during the In Memoriam death march. I’d like to think Hughes himself wouldn’t have approved of that.

Overall, the Oscars were the usual mix of baffling dance numbers, self-congratulation, predictable wins, and goofball montages like the extremely lame horror-movie tribute, which any horror fan watching must have considered sketchy and condescending — this was supposed to make up for the fact that horror films almost never get nominated for major awards, much less win. (They had time for this, but no time to properly honor Roger Corman or Lauren Bacall.) But we still watch every year, don’t we? And horror junkies like me can take solace in the fact that the director of the southern-fried vampire noir Near Dark now has two Oscars. That’s something, I guess.

A Woman’s Touch

March 7, 2010

Since we may see the first-ever female Best Director Oscar winner (Kathryn Bigelow) Sunday night, I was asked how many female directors there are — specifically, female directors who haven’t made only low-distribution indie flicks (i.e., Nicole Holofcener, Kelly Reichardt, etc.). Well. That narrows the field a bit. But I managed to come up with a few (aside from Bigelow). Remember, these are not all necessarily the best female directors — just the ones who have been given the keys to major-studio, wide-release projects.

LEXI ALEXANDER

This one-time stuntwoman and world champion in both kicboxing and karate helmed 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, a cartoonishly violent third attempt to bring Marvel Comics’ vigilante to the big screen.

KARYN KUSAMA

After debuting with 2000’s indie drama Girlfight, Kusama came a cropper with 2005’s bomb Aeon Flux, then made somewhat of a comeback with the underrated Megan Fox horror/comedy Jennifer’s Body.

MIMI LEDER

Hasn’t been heard from in a while, but for a brief period in the late ’90s she was entrusted with some big-ticket items: 1997’s The Peacemaker, 1998’s Deep Impact, and 2000’s Pay It Forward.

DREW BARRYMORE

Made her directing debut last year with the enjoyable Whip It. Has also produced films since 1999.

NORA EPHRON

Has made quite a few disposable romantic comedies, though Julie & Julia was amusing.

CATHERINE HARDWICKE

Started indie (2003’s Thirteen), went decidedly mainstream with 2008’s Twilight.

PENNY MARSHALL

Hasn’t directed since 2001’s Riding in Cars with Boys, but for a while she was probably the most consistently successful (in terms of box office) female director of the ’90s.

NANCY MEYERS

Has helmed five soft-focus entertainments, most recently It’s Complicated.

AMY HECKERLING

Made two defining teen films, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless.

MARTHA COOLIDGE

Has Valley Girl, Real Genius, and Rambling Rose to her credit. Was also the first woman to serve as president of the Directors Guild, 2002-2003.

MIRA NAIR

Whether or not you enjoyed them, Vanity Fair, The Namesake and Amelia were big-budget projects.

BETTY THOMAS

The Second City alumnus and former Hill Street Blues actor has directed The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts, Dr. Dolittle, 28 Days and I Spy. Oh, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

PENELOPE SPHEERIS

Aside from her rock-documentary The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, she also made Mike Myers a viable movie presence with Wayne’s World.

ANNE FLETCHER

Started as a dancer/choreographer, went on to direct Step Up, 27 Dresses and The Proposal.

BARBRA STREISAND

We can’t very well avoid her. Has directed three films, none of which were shy, retiring little indie flicks.

ELAINE MAY

Can’t avoid her either, since she directed what’s considered one of the big modern flops, 1987’s Ishtar. She hasn’t directed since.

The Crazies (2009)

March 1, 2010

If you think of The Crazies as an adaptation of a nonexistent Stephen King story, I guess it’ll be more enjoyable. It has a few King trademarks: the small rural place, the laconic heroes doing what they can to survive. It’s essentially The Stand meets Cell. The movie, though, is a remake of a film that predates most of King’s published work — a 1973 chiller directed by George A. Romero. The earlier Crazies is best seen now as a dry run for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — it has the same large-scale focus and a similar dim view of humanity under pressure. It was also, I think, Romero’s Nixon-era, post-Kent State don’t-trust-the-government riff. The new Crazies borrows the paranoia but doesn’t seem to emerge from anything personal; it’s just the latest classic-horror remake, after they’ve run out of Romero zombie films to redo. (I look forward to a Martin remake starring Michael Cera. Well, not really. Don’t get any ideas, you Hollywood assholes.)

The infected people in The Crazies aren’t zombies; exposed to an experimental virus, they lose their minds and turn violently homicidal. If it sounds familiar, that’s because 28 Days Later ripped off the premise and set it in England. Anyway, a plane goes down near Ogden Marsh, Iowa, and the bio-warfare muck it’s carrying gets into the local water supply. Sheriff Timothy Olyphant and his physician wife Radha Mitchell start noticing people acting funny. The town drunk wanders onto the local baseball field with a shotgun during a game. Worried wives take their suddenly spacey husbands to Mitchell’s office. Soon enough, the whole town is targeted for “isolation,” which seems to mean destroying property indiscriminately.

The Crazies is acted and executed competently enough (this is director Breck Eisner’s second theatrical feature, after 2005’s amiable adventure Sahara). But the new script (credited to Scott Kosar and Ray Wright) doesn’t take the premise anywhere fresh. If you’ve seen any of the aforementioned zombie/contamination movies, you will sit through this one entirely unsurprised by anything that happens. The physician, of course, is pregnant, which is supposed to up the stakes, but we’ve seen so many women-with-child-in-an-apocalypse before — right down to the recent Legion — that the trope has lost any power it once had. Funny, too, how the physician never gets to use her medical knowledge after a certain point, though you’d think it would come in handy.

A nearly unrecognizable Joe Anderson (Across the Universe) turns in invaluable support as Olyphant’s deputy; he keeps you guessing whether the deputy’s growing paranoia is due to stress or contamination. The physician’s office assistant joins the trio on the run for a while, leading to an extremely unnecessary sidetrack search for the assistant’s boyfriend. We don’t care what happens to either of them. Olyphant and Mitchell are no slouches, but after a while they run out of notes to play, as does the movie. Romero’s original film focused more on the government’s hapless attempts to contain the plague (and showcased a much wider variety of the infected townspeople’s shocking behavior); this one takes a narrower, less interesting view, sticking with the small group of survivors, and we’ve been there before. Romero had plenty to say with his film, and he said it loudly and angrily. This one has nothing much to say except that seeing your town overrun by psychos and gas-masked sociopaths would really suck.