Saturday, January 30, 2010

Who let "Old Dogs" out?

Old Dogs (2009) 
88 min., rated PG.
Grade: D -

Who let this dog out? Better yet, why wouldn't Robin Williams and John Travolta have better judgment to euthanize this dog rather than sign onto it? Labored, sappy, and obnoxiously stupid, "Old Dogs" is the kind of childish Disney slapstick vehicle Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas did in "Tough Guys" or Bob Crane in "Superdad." Williams and Travolta mug like they're on sugar highs playing old pals and business partners, a cartoonish sadsack and a cartoonish bachelor, who put aside their business routine on the arrival of Williams' 7-year-old paternal twins that he never knew he had, when his former spring break fling (Kelly Preston) shows up and has to go to jail (don't ask). 

As exhausted and dumb as the premise, director Walt Becker (he of the other lame Travolta-starrer "Wild Hogs") and the editors botch the would-be sight gags with frantic overplay and forced execution. Seth Green gets hit in the crotch, not once, but twice, and Williams falls into a pond not once, but four times, as a kind of instant replay. They all fall flat. Painfully obvious comedy is spelled out loudly in ALL CAPS; for example, Rita Wilson's cross-eyed hand model character gets her hands slammed in a car trunk, screams, and the soundtrack cues “Big Girls Don't Cry.” (They should've cast plus-sized Kirstie Alley to telegraph the joke even more.) Or, another example: when these seasoned actors have their medications switched and trip out. 

Matt Dillon, Justin Long, Ann Margaret, Amy Sedaris, and Bernie Mac guest star, but none of their roles go anywhere so the director must've owed them favors or they were desperate for a gig. Mac, this being his last movie, died in August 2008, but "Old Dogs" really must be an old dog that sat on the shelf too long. To quote one of the actors, “Scat happens,” and the same goes for what happens when funny people do something contradictory like "Old Dogs."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Silly "Rome" does what it sets out do, nothing more

When in Rome (2010)
91 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 

"When in Rome "doesn't fully do what you want a rom-com to do, but it will do for now until something better comes along. Kristen Bell plays Beth, a dedicated, Type-A curator at the Guggenheim Museum, who makes a 48-hour visit to Rome for her younger sister's wedding and meets the charming best man Nick (Josh Duhamel), a journalist and former college football player. After too much champagne, Beth fishes four coins (and a poker chip) out of the Fontana de Amore that attract five men. 

It's cheesy magic, go with it. 

Once she gets back to New York, a quartet of creepy men—poor painter Will Arnett, egotistical model Dax Shepard, Criss Angel-wannabe illusionist Jon Heder, and sausage magnate Danny Devito—start stalking her in hopes of wooing her, but she's sweet on Nick and same with him on her. 

Director Mark Steven Johnson doesn't always have a hand on comic timing from the willfully cloddish script by writers David Diamond and David Weissman, whom you can thank for penning last year's dog "Old Dogs." But Bell has such a girl-next-door charm and Duhamel is dashing, and make an appealing couple. Despite the dumb slapstick and strained plotting, the stars' likability and a game supporting cast make it pleasantly entertaining and get you through it. A physical comic gag, where Beth has trouble breaking a vase upon her toast as an Italian tradition, is initially amusing but strains past its expiration date, and Duhamel is forced to do a lot of broad, labored slapstick (his character is apparently supposed to be clumsy). 

One inspiredly daffy moment is a date at a blacked-out restaurant where customers eat in total darkness (hosted by ridiculously upbeat Flight of the Conchords performer Kristen Schaal wearing night goggles). As we're inundated by the pathetic state of the genre, we'll take acceptably cute, if forgettable, fluff like "When in Rome" that won't make you want to claw your eyes out. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"Whip It" good

Whip It (2009) 
111 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

Hot off of "Juno," Ellen Page is not only the poster-child for articulate smart-alecks everywhere, but now with "Whip It," she's a small-fry, kick-ass whippersnapper on skates. She's Bliss, a rebellious 17-year-old misfit living in the armpit of a small-town, Bodine, Texas, where she works at the Oink Joint and tries pleasing her overbearing, '50s-values mom (Marcia Gay Harden) by entering beauty pageants. This spunky, petite youth in revolt finds a flier for a female roller derby team named the Hurl Scouts in an Austin warehouse. Her coach (Andrew Wilson, Luke and Owen's funnier brother) and the tattooed hardasses see speed in her, nicknaming her on the rink, “Babe Ruthless.” Bliss keeps her passion a secret from her parents, she is romanced by a greasy-haired punk band vocalist, and butts heads with a fellow skater (Juliette Lewis). 

34-year-old Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is made with gusto, affection, and of course, girl power!, and she finds the right tone every time. Shauna Cross wrote the script, taken from her novel “Derby Girl,” and this tried-and-true blueprint has been around the block a jillion times—for one, the obligatory “Food Fight!” scene. But "Whip It" mostly avoids writing out clichés and for a warm, winning, and entertaining formula, that's fine. 

The excellent cast is fun company and gives the film an easygoing vibe. It's great to see Kristen Wiig not only being funny in an otherwise straight role as Maggie Mayhem, but playing Bliss's caring, helpful maternal figure as well. (Zoe Bell and Eve are two of Bliss's other confidantes.) The friendship between Bliss and her best friend Pash (a very funny and likable Alia Shawkat from TV's late, great "Arrested Development") rings so true that you believe they've been friends forever. Daniel Stern plays Bliss's beer-chugging father, and it's one of his best roles in quite some time, while Harden's mother character is more complex than just a one-note shrew. There's a very tenderly delivered scene late in the movie with Harden reading a sincerely written note by Bliss for her beauty pageant speech—and the scene reads the same way. 

The alternative hipster soundtrack by the likes of The Ramones, Radiohead, and MGMT rocks, the rink footage is whippy, and the sport itself is certainly not your basic sport. Barrymore gives herself such a smallish role as Smashley Simpson, an aggressive (but constantly nose-bleeding) chick on the track that you couldn't consider this a vanity piece. "Whip It" good. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fonda and Sykes give one-joke "Monster-in-Law" some laughs

Monster-in-Law (2005) 
95 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

For her return to the big screen after a 15 year hiatus, Jane Fonda must've been ready to let her hair down. It shows in "Monster-in-Law, a gimmicky slapstick vehicle that makes she and boxing-ring opponent Jennifer Lopez look like diva vs. diva fools. Giving you exactly what you expect, it's mildly entertaining. 

J-Lo plays Charlie, a lovely, nice, sweet bohemian who meets Mr. Right in a ridiculously handsome surgeon (a bland Michael Varan). But the moment of truth comes when she has to contend with his mother, Viola Fields (Fonda, having a grand old time), a controlling harpy hot off a mental breakdown. As he proposes on the spot, Viola flips and immediately wages a war against her future daughter-in-law to sabotage her son's "sudden" relationship. When you marry a man, you also marry his mother. 

The stakes are so petty that this one-joke comedy is mostly an obvious, heavy-handed sitcom about mother- and daughter-in-law to-be "ripping" each other apart. Under Robert Luketic's direction from Anya Kochoff's puerile script, "Monster-in-Law" is often cheerfully wicked, with peanut-allergy pranks, literal bitch-slapping, and Jane's face falling flat in a plate of tripe, but it's too silly to be a really biting dark comedy. There's the thought of what directions someone as edgy as Danny DeVito would have taken with this material, as all is forgiven in an about-face of falsely sweet sentiment. 

The written page is a one-dimensional contrivance and few characters feel like real people, but you can't really fault Fonda for her game comedic turn. Viola is an over-the-top, borderline-psychotic caricature that Fonda is a delirious hoot and manages to get laughs. Lopez is always a warm, likable, and genuine presence, but her Charlie is so nice and child-like that you wish she had more of a backbone at times. By comparison, Wanda Sykes is much more subtle playing off some expertly-timed, hilariously-delivered wisecracks as her spunky, acerbic personal assistant Ruby. She's the biggest delight that comes out consistently unscratched in "Monster-in-Law." 

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Zombies, nubile teens get a goofy send-up in "Dead Snow"; the cheese runs thick in "Black Sheep"

Dead Snow (2009)
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Aren't you just sick to death of Norwegian Nazi-zombie movies? If so, pretend this is your first splattering and it'll be refreshing. In "Dead Snow," a group of med students vacation in a mountain lodge for a frosty Easter weekend of skiing, beer, sex—and WWII-era Nazi zombies who lurk in the hills to acquire their gold treasure and feed on human-gut tastiness? 

If you can pardon the rather lame title (what about “Red Snow”?), and tongue-in-cheek blood and grue is your bag of course, "Dead Snow" makes for a jolly, brisk, splattery lark. Aside from all the over-the-top entrails and severed limbs, writer-director Tommy Wirkola has a wicked tongue and self-aware cheek of the kids-in-the-woods horror clichés (the movie junkie of the bunch even name drops "The Evil Deads" and "Friday the 13th" and wears a T-shirt of Peter Jackson's "Braindead"/"Dead Alive"). 

Some hilariously silly gross-out gags involve snowmobiling the flesh-eaters to death, the colonel and his gang popping out of the snow, and a great chase opening scene to “In the Hall Of The Mountain King.” In fact, it'd make a wild midnight double-feature with the killer-sheep picture "Black Sheep." 

Black Sheep (2007) 
83 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

"Black Sheep" is a giddily gory, tongue-in-cheek horror spoof about mutant killer sheep running amok in the hills of New Zealand, munching on farmers and business folk. As if there needed to be more story for a movie like this, sheepish Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) who's an ovinophobic (the irrational fear of sheep, bah) arrives on his family's farm to sell his share to his older brother (Peter Feeney), who has been experimenting on the sheep. And on the same day, a pair of bumbling environmental activists free a sheep from the brother's lab which turns into a rampaging beast. 

The entire production feels like a 30-minute short that has been expanded beyond its breaking point, even at a brisk, faultlessly photographed 83 minutes. Played straight for "Monty Python"/Killer Rabbit-esque laughs, with a highly amusing shot of a herd of killer sheep massing on down a hilltop about to strike and some campy gags, especially its wildly gory centerpiece in which suit-and-tie business people are bitten of their intestines. 

In a morbid sense of wishful thinking, you wouldn't have minded seeing the sheep munch on the throats of the makers of the pitiful Chris Farley-David Spade '90s farce of the same name. Jonathan King's "Black Sheep" is the kind of bloody, cheery B-movie that would make Peter Jackson blush (very evocative of that fellow Kiwi mainstay's outrageous "Dead Alive"). 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Invention" starts out spiky and witty, then loses its way

The Invention of Lying (2009)
99 min., rated PG-13
Grade: B -

The truth is The Invention of Lying has an engaging high-concept premise that calls for a more subversive and inspired comedy than what's invented here.

In a parallel world where everything is the same, everyone very bluntly says what's on their mind (Tourette's?), no matter how rude or hurtful. Ricky Gervais, who makes his behind-the-camera debut (co-directing and co-writing with newcomer Matthew Robinson), stars as Mark, a sadsack screenwriter who gets no respect from his cohorts at Lecture Films and is about to be fired for his failed 14th century/Black Plague script. And then he discovers he can lie!

After a blind date with an autophobic Anna, played by a comically astute Jennifer Garner, who also speaks the truth (“I was just masturbating ... I'm very disappointed and pessimistic about our date”), Mark tries romancing her after he tells everyone he knows what “The Man Who Lives in the Sky” (God) says. Rob Lowe co-stars as a smug rival screenwriter, who takes a superficial liking to Anna (conflict!).

No lie, the joke runs out of steam after a stinging, occasionally hilarious first half hour with the cast's brutally honest quips. From a grateful jolt by some spiky, witty dialogue, likable performances, and nice pop-up cameos by Tina Fey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Edward Norton, the film has its moments, but loses its way and softens its edges with most of the sappy, predictable beats of a rom-com.

For most of the film, Gervais shows his nasty wit, but should've followed through. Maybe next time, Ricky.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Book of Eli" is a lot of post-apocalyptic sameness

The Book of Eli (2010) 
118 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

Coming off the heels of "The Road," the U.S. is another desolate, ashy waste of landscape in "The Book of Eli," a post-apocalyptic good vs. evil western. Stoic, grizzled Denzel Washington is credible as usual playing Eli, but doesn't evoke much personality. His traveler of a character (a prophet?) has a thing for Al Green tunes and KFC handi-wipes, has a miraculous resiliency for bullets, and is very adroit with a machete and rifle. It's been 30 years after the nuclear blast, or whatever it was that caused The End, but Eli sets out to the Old West with an important book (Twilight or maybe the Bible?) and save the remains of humanity. The cruel Carnegie (Gary Oldman, in scenery-chewing bad-guy mode) is in charge of the town Eli finds and wants the book, dammit, for his own purposes, while he holds his blind mistress (Jennifer Beals) prisoner and her barmaid daughter Solara (a strong Mila Kunis) takes up the journey with Eli. 

Twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes give us a stark, bleak view, with Don Burgess's stunning sepia-tone cinematography, and keep their action scenes crisp, standing back for many of the stylized punch-and-stab moments and not letting their editor hack it up. The ashy wilderness in the opening scene—where Eli in a gas mask hunts and kills a sphinx cat with an arrow—grabs us, and road-warrior Eli facing off ruffians with bad dental hygiene recalls a lot from "The Road Warrior." The silhouette six-against-one fight is a nicely cartoonish touch, like something out of "Kill Bill," and there's something regarding cannibalistic humor in a sequence with Eli and Solara taking refuge in the dwelling of a cannibalistic couple (cheekily played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour, both together in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"). 

The twist coda surely is a surprise, but doesn't stand up to scrutiny and so what? In the end, "The Book of Eli" is still a grimly ponderous futuristic tale with some action and religion but not enough energy or plot development. 

Visually lovely "Lovely Bones" feels muted and disappointing

The Lovely Bones (2009) 
135 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

A dead 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), like the fish, from Norristown, Pennsylvania, narrates her own story from beyond of how she was murdered in 1973 in Peter Jackson's disappointing adaptation of Alice Sebold's book, "The Lovely Bones." Her father (Mark Wahlberg) becomes obsessed with finding his daughter's killer: a keep-to-himself neighbor, Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who likes building dollhouses. Rachel Weisz plays the mother who just wants to put Susie's death behind her, but doesn't know how to cope so she runs away. 

Sebold's 2002 reportedly complex 2002 novel is emotionally muted on screen, although director Jackson brings an optic loveliness to the “in-between” in which Susie inhabits and watches over her family and killer, “Our Town” style. The world—a purgatory “middle earth” of sorts between Heaven and Earth—would thought to be unfilmable, but if Peter Jackson (who visually rendered the "Lord of the Rings" films and "Heavenly Creatures" to perfection) can't do it, no one can. He creates a visually rich, beautiful, and trippy wonderland of candy-colored skies and fields, sailboats in glass bottles, and a gazebo, with lush music choices. The placid suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood (filmed in Malvern) and '70s time period are also created quite vividly, along with the haunting cornfields. 

Sometimes, Jackson overreaches himself, taking us out of the film as when Susie and her heaven friend, “Holly Golightly,” dance on '70s records in hippie garb. In spending too much time in the CGI world, alas, not much time is spent on the family and their grief. When the film turns into a detective story, Jackson at least gets the thriller stuff right: in a tense moment, a detective (Michael Imperioli) and Harvey eye each other through the windows of the killer's dollhouse; and Susie's tough, suspicious sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver), breaks into Harvey's house to find evidence in a suspenseful set piece. 

Giving an assured performance and poetic narration, Ronan is excellent at the film's core and holds it together mostly. Tucci, as a man of uncontrollable impulses, is terrifically creepy with his nervous titter and nebbish mustache, a look that'll give you the skeevies. Wahlberg is convincing as a man fighting for his daughter, and early on, Weisz is heartbreaking but then her character disappears. Susan Sarandon, brought in to add humor and levity as the boozy, chain-smoking grandmother, brings a sudden shift in tone to comic domestic hijinks: another time we're taken out of the film. She turns into an Auntie Mame caricature, with a set piece right out of "Uncle Buck" (overflowing washing machine included). 

Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson's script takes a safe, aloof approach, barely hinting at Susie's rape and keeping her murder off-screen (both explicitly described in Sebold's novel). It's inescapable to not be drawn in by this absorbing story for the first act, but some scenes work and others do not, Jackson fashioning this sad-but-hopeful story into a visually lovely but bare-bones vision. The climax of Mr. Harvey's comeuppance is even a confused contrivance and the final scenes are cornball. We still get the sense that a girl from beyond has the power to heal, as when Susie simply utters, “I was here for a moment, and then I was gone,” like a photograph. But with its discouragingly mixed results, "The Lovely Bones" is an unsatisfying experience and not as emotionally cathartic as it should be. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Antichrist": Lars von Trier has officially gone insane

Antichrist (2009)
108 min., not rated (but equivalent to an NC-17).

The best way to deal with a severe state of depression for a filmmaker, in Danish provocateur Lars von Trier's crazy mind, is to make pointless, pretentious arthouse-horror lunacy. His self-therapy, "Antichrist," was hailed as extremely controversial at Cannes and he's “outdone” himself, offering up the ugliest, well-made Feel-Bad Movie of the Year. Hope Lars is feeling better. To really explain the overall experience, that's all you really need to know why the film criminally loses its mind into oppressively grim and ponderous psychosexual “torture-porn.” The near-six-minute, dialogue-free prologue, shot in slow-motion black and white and scored to Georg Friedrich Handel's operatic aria "Rinaldo," is stunning and hauntingly tragic: untamed, artfully photographed shower sex as a bedroom window opens and a toddler totters on up to the window, only to fall stories down to the helpless little one's own death on a snow-covered ground. Very painterly this scene, but there's a hardcore insertion shot that just seems gratuitous and exploitative, which is how the rest of the film ends up going. 

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are courageous, lamblike customers being put through the wringer and going to such dark places as He and She, the nameless couple. She's grieving and He's her personal therapist. He wants to heal her by going to the place She fears the most, Eden, their cabin in the woods, but nature is Satan's church. A self-cannibalizing, talking fox utters, “Chaos reigns,” symbolic acorns rain down on the cabin roof, and a stillborn fawn protrudes from a doe's rump. Now, Dafoe and Gainsbourg give guts-out, physically and emotionally exposing performances, and von Trier is an interesting and provocative filmmaker of fearlessness, no doubt about it. But his "Antichrist," although starting out mesmerizing in its first few chapters, grows tedious, dreary, and heavy-handed to outright punishing. You start to identify with He and She's misery all too well.

If it was von Trier's goal to say something profound, no dice. If he just self-consciously wanted to shock us, mission accomplished. Leading up to the epilogue is "Antichrist's" nonconsensual, NC-17 climax: genital mutilation. Unpleasant, disturbing, too painful for comfort's sake, and for hollow reason. More context behind She taking shears to her clitoris would have been nice. Avant-garde style and wallowing in perverse, sinister imagery of the carnal and the violent aside, what the hell is von Trier trying to say? Is he saying that women are inherently wicked? It's hard to tell and even harder to care.


Monday, January 11, 2010

"Post Grad" wobbly but friendly

Post Grad (2009) 
88 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Animator Vicky Jenson makes her live-action debut with "Post Grad," an awkwardly directed but modestly friendly and conservative dramedy ostensibly about a driven, bookish college grad having trouble with job hunting and temporarily moving back in with her zany sitcom family. 

With her coyote-blue eyes and adorable ingenuousness, Alexis Bledel plays 22-year-old Ryden Malby, who earns her degree in English and hopes to nab a position at a high-end publishing company. Wacky dad Michael Keaton wants Ryden to be a suitcase salesman at his store and gets in a pickle with the cops for stealing belt buckles. Carol Burnett (she's still alive?) is Grandma Maureen, who's obsessed with finding herself an $18,000 casket. Zach Gilford is one of the more normal characters as Adam, Ryden's platonic best friend since freshmen year; he's basically Ryden's Duckie and she's his Andie. Ryden doesn't share more than bff feelings with Adam, but she does engage in a school-girl fling with a thirtysomething Brazilian lover (Rodrigo Santoro), until she remembers Adam's taste for Eskimo Pies. 

The actors do their best and make the most of what they're given, especially Burnett and the lovable, always-dependable Jane Lynch as The Wacky Mother who both score some zingers. Kelly Fremon's clichéd screenplay goes off in a hundred different directions, ending up with a confused focus. Not only that, but the nice moments that are there are jumbled with heavy-handed, off-kilter sketches right out of a bad sitcom—the neighbor's cat is run over and then buried in a pizza box, Maureen keeps a rotating cabinet of her medication in the kitchen and takes her oxygen tank wherever she goes. And what's with the pointless and inexplicable shots of lawn gnomes? Did we miss something? "Post Grad" doesn't flunk, but—wait for it—it's only passing.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mostly entertaining but not terrible is all that can be said for "Vegas"

What Happens in Vegas (2008) 
99 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 

You already know "What Happens in Vegas" by the promo and pretty much get what you'd expect: a mildly entertaining if wildly uneven romp. This is Hollywood's idea of a mainstream battle-of-the-sexes comedy; imagine had Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas reconciled their differences with hugs and kisses at the end of "The War of the Roses" rather than hanging onto that loose chandelier and crashing to their death. Strait-laced, just-dumped Manhattan stockbroker Joy (Cameron Diaz, we kid you not!) and carefree, just-fired woodworker Jack (Ashton Kutcher) wind up in Sin City the same weekend, get rip-roaringly smashed, and wake up married. They also get lucky on a slot machine, winning $3 million; the judge (Dennis Miller) and plot contrivance force these squabbling newlyweds to wait in annulling their marriage by staying together for a six-month trial period of "hard marriage" and counseling (with Queen Latifah) before they can collect their winnings. Dirty tricks and shenanigans of sabotage ensue! 

An always-game Diaz and Kutcher scream, hate on each other, and manufacture charm-your-pants-off grins throughout this frenetic romantic sitcom, which heads exactly where you know it will. Half of "What Happens in Vegas" is shrill and broad, though performed with giddy, hyper energy, and the other half is benign and mushy. Screenwriter Dana Fox and director Tom Vaughan give Diaz and Kutcher plenty of silly marital-warfare gags (Diaz pegging oranges at Kutcher on a skateboard), some of them crass and devoid of any edge (Kutcher urinating in a dish-full sink or dumping Diaz's bowl of popcorn onto his crotch). 

But the well-matched, lightly appealing stars are never afraid to look goofy or act childish on screen, and are well backed by second bananas Lake Bell and Rob Corddry, as their caustic, smartassy pals, who steal most of the laughs. As the saying goes, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas; the movie has that same drunkenly forgetful appeal. 

Friday, January 8, 2010

Entertaining "Daybreakers" just what doctor ordered

Daybreakers (2010) 
97 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

Now this is what the doctor ordered: "Daybreakers," a vampire movie in the "Blade" style with no sullen teens infatuated with smoldering bloodsuckers who have bad hair days (sorry "Twilight"). With much more production help than their campy 2005 feature debut "Undead," the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) have stuck to their high-concept filmmaking approach with a novel, amusing sci-fi horror premise and slicked up their visual style with a cool, blueish palette. 

In "Daybreakers," the vampire mythos stays true: the little suckers have no reflection and bite the dust when their Vitamin-D-deficient asses come near a little sunshine. It's 2019 (you can ignore the Mayan calendar's prediction of an apocalyptic 2012) and everyone's now a vampire, but there is a high demand and shortage in human blood. Nearing extinction, the vampires must capture and farm all the remaining humans, or find blood before they check out. Without the blood, they will turn into home-invading “subsiders,” basically a bloodthirsty cross between an ugly rat and ugly Gollum. 

Ethan Hawke is Edward (no, not Cullen), a sympathetic blood doctor who isn't too happy about being a vampire and can't drink human blood on the rocks (“Life's a bitch and then you don't die”), but has to help a band of human survivors to find a cure. Mr. Bromley (Sam Neill, who looks perfectly evil with green-yellowish eyes and enlarged incisors) plays the Bad Guy in a businessman suit who gets his comeuppance. Nicely playing off his "Shadow of a Vampire" role, Willem Dafoe's Elvis character has a cure to reverse the human-to-vampire process. 

This entertaining film ends a little too neatly, save for all the messy blood-spurting and decapitations, but it has effectively jumpy gasps and giggles in spades. 

Ireland looks pretty but "Leap Year" is a bore

Leap Year (2010) 
100 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

Exactly a year ago in the freezing month of January, the dreadful "Bride Wars" (and let us not forget you, 2007's equally insufferable "Because I Said So") proposed that ambitious women are losers without getting married. Now, a new year and another January—the time to dump big-studio stinkers into theaters—the new weak romantic-comedy "Leap Year" isn't as bad but can't even be redeemed by the charms of Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. Thanks a lot Hollywood. 

Adams plays Anna, a successful, type-A “stager” for realtors who thinks her cardiologist fella, Jeremy (Adam Scott), is going to propose to her but instead leaves for a medical conference in Dublin. Luckily, Anna's father (John Lithgow, needed for 2-minute setup exposition, who was probably desperate for some cash to tip a bartender) explains their family's old Irish custom of leap-year day, so she can surprise him in Ireland and propose to him on February 29th. Looking for a hotel room in the alien European island, Anna meets the scruffy Declan (Matthew Goode), a pub owner, who gives her a room and agrees to get her to Jeremy in time, all for 500 euros. Snore. Can you just see the lame slapstick and complications a'comin? Predictably, an overly precise Ugly American like Anna complains about her cell phone service, flounces around in high heels through rain, tumbles down a hill into mud, takes out the town's electricity, steps in cow dung, and chases after a car that lands in a pond. What a day! 

And Declan loves Anna because, well, he just does, okay? Ah, the lemon-fresh smell of romantic-comedy. 

If "Leap Year" had been made over two decades ago, its story wouldn't feel so overplayed or as such an obvious foregone conclusion. The sparkling Adams is watchable in almost anything, even though her Anna is a shrill, annoying pill, and Goode is nice company. The film boasts some modestly sweet 'rom,' with some nice travelogue shots of the Irish land, but lame 'com' in this sluggish rom-com. If this is the enduring state of romantic-comedies, keep waiting for better.

For January, "Youth in Revolt" sweet and amusing

Youth In Revolt (2010) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Needless to say, Michael Cera is born (some may say, stuck) in the role of a naturally awkward, dweebish virgin. So it's not much of a surprise when we meet his character, Nick Twisp, the precocious Oakland 17-year-old hero of C.D. Payne's book who gets done masturbating and then says he's “a voracious reader of classic prose...and still a virgin.” His divorced mom (Jean Smart), with her new trashy lover (Zach Galifianakis), and his dad (Steve Buscemi), shacked up with a trophy blonde (Ari Graynor), are getting more action than him. On a vacation getaway in a trailer park with Mom and Loser Boyfriend, Nicky meets his likeminded neighbor, Sheeni Saunders (fresh newcomer Portia Doubleday), who shares his taste for vinyl records and foreign cinema. She's been dating a preppie named Trent, but Nick is smitten. Some bad-boy advice from Sheeni motivates Nick to invent a mustachioed, smoking alter ego, Francoise Dillinger, who always gets what he wants. 

In "Youth In Revolt," it's refreshing to see Cera being able to stretch his soft-spoken milquetoast type a little, getting to be “superbad,” playing someone with more confidence as Francoise. Director Miguel Arteta (2002's "The Good Girl") is no stranger to this quirky type of comedy, even inserting an offbeat claymation intro, and gets funny work out of his qualified cast in bit parts, but one wishes their colorful peripheral characters had more to do, or that screenwriter Mike White had worked with Arteta again: Fred Willard appears as a bleeding-heart neighbor stashing immigrants in his basement, Jason Long plays Sheeni's pothead brother, and Emmet Walsh and Mary Kay Place as her religious fanatic parents. 

Some of Gustin Nash's smart, hipster dialogue, feeling more like prose, is so familiar of "Juno" and calls attention to itself, but let's digress. "Youth in Revolt" is fun while it lasts, thanks to Cera's comfortable presence and Doubleday, who's a real find as Sheeni. It's sweet and intermittently funny, so for an early January release, it's a blessing.

"Ugly Truth" raunchy but still a standard rom-com

The Ugly Truth (2009)
96 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

Look at that, another big-studio, commercial Hollywood romantic-comedy where animosity turns to love by story's end. We get it, "The Ugly Truth" is a meet-hate, opposites-attract movie! Katherine Heigl is Abby, a barking, neurotic, type-A TV producer from Sacramento who can't get guys because she obsessively, oh so desperately makes background checks on her first dates and scares them away. Her morning show struggles with ratings, so her boss hires the loutish, tell-it-like-it-is local cable-access host, Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler). She is repulsed by the man-whore Mike, but he is kind've intrigued by spazzy Abby's romantic challenges. Since he thinks he knows what women want and how guys operate, Mike gives her his chauvinistic advice to woo her hunky, next-door neighbor doctor (Eric Winter, who plays an actual person and looks good in a towel), like hang up on his phone calls and make him wait and suffer. Mike even plays her Cyrano de Bergerac, feeding Abby lines through an ear piece, like telling her to eat a hot dog suggestively at a baseball game. Who's Abby going to wind up with? Will Mike share Abby's preference for tap water rather than $7 bottled H20? This is far from Doris Day and Rock Hudson screwball charm. 

The movie is sitcom-plastic and prefabricated with predictability, but as directed by Aussie Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde"), it's also prankish and crassly enjoyable to be kind of fun. An R-rated battle-of-the-sexes rom-com for our times, it has likable stars feeding off dirty dialogue sharp to the taste about orgasms and masturbation. Ruggedly sexy Butler has enough charisma to manage a husky, relaxed charm even out of the Neanderthal Mike. The criticizing, control-freak Abby fares less, though it helps she's played by the ever-appealing Heigl, who looks tan and gorgeously glossy here in bright lighting. But the actress forces the shrill antics on a little too much like a bouncy cartoon and never sits still enough for us to find her lovable. 

At least she shares some sexual heat with her male lead that you can tell they want to jump each other's bones. There is a funny business dinner scene where Abby wears a pair of remote-controlled vibrating panties—a gift from Mike—and the remote gets into the wrong hands and pushed to “ecstasy” mode, leaving her too orgasmic for words to get to the restroom before her climax. All the gag is missing is a better punchline (“Gotta love her enthusiasm, right?”), like Meg Ryan's classic Big 'O' deli scene in "When Harry Met Sally." Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins also get some laughs but are underused as a feuding, married news-anchor team. 

You wish the three pandering, women writers would've broken formula by making Abby and Mike just friends or keeping them as bickering co-workers, rather than postponing the obvious and reverting to fossilized conventions by the final third for some public i-love-yous in a greenscreen-fake hot-air balloon (!). But what's done is done. You want the ugly truth? "The Ugly Truth" isn't so ugly and not extremely truthful, but with this likable kind of star power, it's sometimes fizzy and not half bad for a genre much abused of late. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Attractive leads and some fun treasure-hunt can't liven up "Fool's Gold"

Fool's Gold (2008)
113 min., rated PG-13
Grade: C

When you think of gold, you think of Oscar gold, but Fool's Gold features Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey's golden tans and that's about it.

Fed-up Tess (Hudson) divorces shaggy, slaphappy beach bum Finn (McConaughey), who uncovers a piece of a plate in the Caribbean waters that's part of a long-hunted 1700s Spanish treasure called the Queen's Dowry. By stupid contrivances, the ex-couple both find themselves aboard a yacht owned by a billionaire (Donald Sutherland, what is he doing here?) and his dippy heiress daughter (a sprightly Alexis Dziena, who looks in need of a cheeseburger) and team up to find the rest of the legendary loot. Unfortunately, a rapper-gangster and his dimwitted henchman are in hot pursuit for them and the Dowry.

Oh, and do you think the bickering Tess and Finn will fall passionately in love again?

Everyone is a blundering fool in Andy Tennant's mindlessly entertaining but discouragingly flat romantic comedy-adventure, which tries coasting on the compatibility between the two extremely attractive stars from their last star vehicle, 2003's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. McConaughey flexes some charisma in another beefcake/beach-bum role and Hudson is her likable, photogenic self, and boy, do their bodies ever shimmer, but hoped-for sparks never materialize.

Back to movie, the historical treasure exposition is needlessly overwritten and long-winded when Matty and Katie prattle on and on, and the tone jumps, yes, overboard from lighthearted romantic-comedy to dumb, sometimes too-violent undersea-treasure adventure.

The Australian scenery makes for a beautiful vacation and the action gets lively, but the closest we get to romance is when the camera makes love to the Texan male star's tan-bronze, chiseled physique and the blonde cutie getting weak at the thought of his prowess in the sack.

A light trifle that's easy on the eyes, but as far as recent attempts at romantic-comedy go, Fool's Gold is another genre fool.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Raimi's horror-comic "Hell" return damn loads of fun

Drag Me to Hell (2009) 
99 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A 

Deliciously scary, furiously paced, and a lot of gross fun, "Drag Me to Hell" marks Sam Raimi's return to his signature ghouls-and-giggles bag of tricks. Check out that nostalgically vintage Universal Studios logo opener to get you in the mood, too. It'll be the most damn fun you'll ever have going to hell! 

Alison Lohman plays Christine Brown, a timid loan officer for a California bank who hopes to curry favor to her boss (David Paymer) and receive the assistant manager promotion by being more aggressive and “making the tough decisions.” And here comes her chance, as a 200-something Slavic gypsy crone, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver, wonderfully grotesque and memorably chilling), about to lose her house, asks for a third extension on her mortgage. Christine, of course, declines even after the old hag gets on her knees to beg. Security! “You shame me,” Mrs. Ganush tells Christine, and with that she places a curse of the half-goat/half-beast Lamia, and after three days of being haunted, the selfish Christine will be drug to hell. Dun-dun-dun! 

Low on subtlety but full of outrageously over-the-top gross-out gags—involving phlegm, projective vomit of maggots, and embalming fluid—"Drag Me to Hell" is done with startling, hilariously vile glee that you can just picture Raimi giggling like a school girl behind the camera. His enthusiasm is infectious. The real crowd-pleaser early on is an excellently directed and wild, enjoyably staged brawl between Christine and Mrs. Ganush in a parking garage late at night that, seamlessly blending suspense and macabre humor, involves slimy dentures and office supplies like a stapler and ruler. There's even cleverly icky use of Ganush's scarf, finger nails, and glass eye (sound effects included!), as well as a supersized nose bleed and pesky flies buzzing in and out of facial orifices. And not even a cute pet kitten is safe in this one. None of this is supposed to be taken too seriously, of course. 

Raimi pays homage to his own "Evil Dead" movies (an eyeball-in-the-mouth gag and see if you recognize that yellow 1973 Oldsmobile) like a kooky, crazy-as-hell, deliriously schlocky symphony. Never detracting from its fiendish atmosphere and sinister omens, the film even throws in a bit of Looney Tunes lunacy for good measure. A climactic séance gone wrong with a possessed talking goat also calls back Raimi's "Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn." With a moral lesson to never mess with old gypsy grannies, a tongue-in-cheek, playfully morbid sense of humor about itself, and a campy, cult-following title to match, there's much to savor here in this hoot of a horror-comedy. 

Although Ellen Page was scheduled to be cast as Christine, the sweet-faced Lohman has the perfect measure of cute sunniness and feistiness, and she throws herself into the role. She earns our empathy as Christine, a formerly pudgy farm girl that's eager to please and forced to make all the "tough decisions" in order to earn her promotion. Plus, never has a scream queen gotten so slimed, hit with something, or gotten so much goo in her mouth since Jennifer Connelly in Dario Argento's "Phenomena," but Lohman is quite the good sport. Justin Long fits the bill as Christine's skeptical but supportive boyfriend, a psychology grad student. And Dileep Rao and Adriana Barraza, respectively, as the psychic and medium play their roles with conviction. 

Ivan and Sam Raimi's script is sly and the direction inventive, with caterwauling sound effects and Christopher Young's jolting, histrionic string musical score just right. All that's missing is a groovy cameo by B-movie favorite Bruce Campbell. Even while Raimi has a ball spewing liquids at us, he follows the story to its logical conclusion of unapologetically grim, unmitigated evil. The bread crumbs are laid out so we see the ending coming ahead, but Raimi still subverts our expectations. "Drag Me to Hell" not only surprises by being the real deal for a PG-13 genre piece, but it's a delightfully old-school, more than welcome treat for horror fans. Sam Raimi shows everyone how it's done.