March 28, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (03/28/10)

Lettergrade: D

I think we can agree that Hot Tub Time Machine has one of the greatest titles in recent cinema history. The movie itself, though, tries waaaaay too hard and is only occasionally funny, with some long segments in between that range from lame to downright painful.

I've always liked John Cusack, Rob Cordory and The Office's Craig Robinson, but was really turned off by the broken, bitter adults that they are at the beginning of the movie, as well as the shallow, coke snortin' punks that they are shown to have been when the high-temperature aerated water recreational device from the film's title is revealed to have quantum disruption properties and transports them back into the bodies of their 1986 selves.

You'd think that the premise - which borrows liberally from Back To The Future, The Wedding Singer, and the NBC classic Quantum Leap (with a dash of The Hangover thrown in for good measure) - would be fertile ground for big laughs, but there's simply too much dark stuff surrounding all the characters in this one for the comedy to take off. In the middle of the movie, when Cusack has to relive a traumatic breakup that he never really recovered from the first time, he locks himself in his hotel room and snorts a mountain of cocaine as well as any other drug he can get his hands on. I guess the joke is supposed to be that it was the 80s and coke was everywhere, but did the filmmakers really think that a frighteningly self-destructive scene like that was funny? Toward the beginning of the picture, all the college friends gather because Rob Cordoy's adult life sucks so hard that he tries to drink himself into a coma before attempting to asphyxiate himself in his garage. Cue the Benny Hill music.

There are some really funny supporting bits from Crispin Glover as a bell-hop with a grim future, and from Chevy Chase, who as others have noted, basically plays the Don Knotts role from Pleasantville by way of one his personas from the Fletch movies. Nevertheless, the fact that guys like that are around to sprinkle the movie with added craziness only makes the picture seem more uneven and schizophrenic.

Maybe the original idea for this movie was that it would be a dark comedy about roads not taken in life. Even if that was once true, it was clearly retooled to try to get as much of The Hangover's audience as it could. Hot Tub Time Machine isn't funny enough to sit along side that movie or other Cusack work like 1985's classic Better Off Dead or 1997's much loved Gross Pointe Blank (which, like, this movie, was directed by Cusack's long-time producing partner Steve Pink). It's not really deep or interesting enough to qualify as a movie with much substance either, which leads me to that frequent question I ask myself at movies these days: What the hell did they think it was when they were making it?

March 20, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (03/20/2010)

Lettergrade: A-

My wife really wanted to see this Swedish mystery thriller, based on an international best-selling book series by Stieg Larsson, but I must admit I wasn't too keen on going myself. I was surprised, however, that it was as good a detective picture as I've seen in recent years, and that I quite enjoyed it. I'm not talkin' Silence Of The Lambs good, but it is intriguing and surprising with fascinating lead characters and some exciting action scenes. Viewers should be warned that it is in Swedish with subtitles, but if you're willing to take the trip, it's well worth it.

The picture's title, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, is a little a misleading. In some markets, the English title is Millennium: Part 1 - Men Who Hate Women , both of which fail to clue you in to what you're in for (although there is a girl with a dragon tattoo, and several of the men in the movie do indeed seem to have a major dislike for broads and dames). Much of the film is really a straight crime procedural in the tradition of the old Scotland Yard locked room mysteries.

Michael Nyqvist plays an investigative reporter who looks a hell of a lot like Star Trek: The Next Generation's Brent Spiner, if he were fatter and had had severe acne problems when he was a kid. As the film opens, he's just been handed a brief prison sentence for writing an incriminating story about a powerful businessman, and then not being able to substantiate his claims when he was ordered to do so. Luckily, the way it seems to work in Sweden is that you're sentenced to a prison term, and then allowed to do whatever you want for 6 to 8 months while you're waiting for that sentence to start.

By extreme coincidence, right around the time the trial wraps up, an old wealthy patriarch of some rich Swedish business family decides that it's time to hire someone new to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his niece 40 years ago, saving Nyqvist from having to file for unemployment when his newspaper fires his convicted ass. He gets some help from the "girl" alluded to in the title, a punk bisexual juvenile delinquent who was secretly hacking into Nyqvist's laptop every now and again anyway. Eventually, the two meet and form a mismatched Oscar and Felix partnership, only the creepy, romance-free sex happens onscreen in this one.

That aside (and who hasn't been there?), the picture covers familiar territory as far as the crime plot goes, but it is the nuance of the lead characters that is interesting enough to give it all a fresh, new spin. I was surprised by how well and effectively the film was paced... afterward, I was stunned to check my watch and realize that the picture runs close to 2 hours and 40 minutes.

People have been upset about the violence in the movie, but I don't believe it is that graphic as much as what happens is disturbing. An American remake is being planned at the moment, to be directed by Benjamin Button's David Fincher. He's generally no slouch either, but checking out the Swedish version before that one surfaces in a couple years is worth the effort all the same.

March 14, 2010

The Ghost Writer (03/14/10)

Lettergrade: D-

It took me about an hour, but once I came to terms with the fact that there would not be a scene in The Ghost Writer where Ewan McGregor would burst into flames and then get on a motorcycle and drive around flighting crime, I was finally able to take a good, clear look at the movie itself. Funny thing is, if celebrated director and fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski had thrown something like that into this sucker, there might be something worth talking about here. He didn't, and what's left is a political thriller that has uninteresting politics and is not especially thrilling.

McGregor plays - wild guess - a ghost writer who takes a high-profile job helping former British Prime Minister Pierce Brosnan complete his memoirs just as all sorts of political shit starts to hit the fan in terms of war crime charges, etc. Sure, McGregor's predecessor died under mysterious, unlikely circumstances, but why should that give him any pause whatsoever when his boss, played by the slimly and bizarrely bald Jim Belushi, offers him the gig?

McGregor's research begins to uncover inconsistent info on Brosnan's activities early in his career, and knowing that might just get him killed! Frankly, though, during most of the movie, I was more on edge about whether the nearly incomprehensible plot would force me into a deep nap that would give me trouble falling asleep later that night, and thus screw up my sleep schedule for the rest of the week.

The film's considerable tedium is enhanced by Kim Cattrall, in rare role where she doesn't show her ta-tas, and a surprisingly shitty musical score by Alexandre Desplat that made me giggle on a couple occasions. Olivia Williams (as Brosnan's wife) is one of the few bright spots, but if you're really itching to see her in something, catch An Education instead.

Oh, and one more thing: the picture was clearly made with an R rating in mind, but later modified for the U.S. in order to secure a family friendly PG-13. Therefore, each and every f-bomb in the movie has become a poorly dubbed "freakin'" or "bugger." Apart from the shoddy craftsmanship, I'm pretty ambivalent about the changes, honestly, but I do question a ratings system which requires the modification of language in a picture that no self respecting kid would want to sit through in the first place.

All in all, there are worse ways to spend two hours these days, but certainly enough good alternatives that you have no excuse for flushing your precious time here.

A very early journal entry on the Nicolas Cage Ghost Rider from back when I started this blog in 2007.

March 6, 2010

Alice In Wonderland (03/06/2010)

Lettergrade: B-

NOTE: I wrote a follow-up entry on the movie on 10/20/2010 that can be found here.

Tim Burton's live action / motion capture Alice In Wonderland is not a re-interpretation of Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", nor of its 1872 sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There," nor of the Jabberwocky poem that surfaced a few years after that. Instead, it invents an entirely new story that takes place after all those, where Alice, now 19, returns to Wonderland, finds that it is a burnt out shell of what it used to be, and has to kick some serious ass in order to make things right.

I must say I felt a certain amount of disappointment once I was told that this is what the movie was going to be. Although I have a soft spot for 1985's Return To Oz (in which an older Dorthy returns to a post apocalyptic Oz with a similar mission), that movie drew from the imaginative books that Frank Baum himself had written - specifically, second and third Oz books: "The Marvelous Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz" - and made use of a number of new characters and scenarios that were not part of the beloved 1939 MGM movie at all. Burton's Alice, by contrast, simply takes some of the Wonderland gang that you maybe kinda-sorta remember and plugs them into an epic adventure that is more in the vein of the Lord Of The Rings and Narnia movies.

This new version starts off with a great deal of charm and imagination before hitting a serious sag for a bit, and then finally concluding in a somewhat poetic, almost beautiful way. Although I remember feeling a little bored / annoyed midway through, I guess my overall opinion is that it is worth the trip as long as your attachment to the source material isn't that strong. Nevertheless, Burton's flick, while it seems to miss some opportunities, is mostly enjoyable.

I'm not that familiar with the Lewis Carroll writings myself, honestly, and the 1951 Disney cartoon along with the various TV movie versions are but fuzzy memories. Several clips from the 1976 version starring Kristine DeBell used to get frequent play on my computer, but I'm pretty sure that at least one key component of that version departed from what's in the books.

It's the latest film to be released in 3D (irking Avatar's James Cameron, who felt that Alice prematurely pushed his picture out of 3D theaters, crippling its potential to gross even more obscene amounts of money than it already has, apparently). I think Burton used the motion capture technology the right way. He did build sets and had a lot of real actors to work with, setting it apart from Avatar which felt more like a big cartoon for long segments. All-digital characters like Cheshire Cat and Absolem (the caterpillar), seem that much more real as a result. Others like Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and the irreplaceable Crispin Glover as the Knave Of Hearts, look like themselves, but have been stretched and twisted in post production to have exaggerated features. Others still, like the Mad Hatter, don't require any digital augmentation at all, but blend seamlessly into the world.

I will lodge the complaint that I walked away from this picture without much of a sense of what Carroll's books were really trying to be about, or what the characters who appeared in them were meant to represent. I always thought, for example, that the Mad Hatter was a mere side-character in the original story, but since it's Burton regular Johnny Depp playing him, he claims a huge amount of the film's screentime, and his face is all over the advertising (curiously, Mia Wasikowska, who plays Alice, is not). And for that matter, I question the wisdom of having Alice go back to a devastated Wonderland which has a very conspicuous shortage of Wonder.

The movie also spends way too much time on at least one red herring: Whether or not the White Rabbit has lured the correct Alice back to Wonderland. My problem with this is that it's a mystery that's not a mystery at all if you think about it for more than 4 or 5 seconds. Is she the real Alice? Well, she has vague memories of being there before, so we can assume that the answer is yes almost without question. It's not like the movie is going to have us spend 90 minutes with her, then introduce another character that we haven't seen before at the last minute and have her save the day.

Around 1996's Mars Attacks! or so, I started to feel that Tim Burton has approximately zero story sense. If he's handed a good script and is smart enough not to change it, he can do quite well (resulting in movies like Ed Wood). More often than not, though, they turn out like 2005's Charlie And The Chocolate Facotry, in that the films can be enjoyable for a time and there's plenty to admire on a visual / design level, but they tend to reach a point where the story and drama both flat-line, sometimes never to recover. Again, Alice is slightly above average for him, but he's dealing with stories that have been read and loved by children for roughly 150 years now. What was so wrong with them that he decided to do an action-packed coda rather than a skillful retelling?