Tuesday, March 30, 2010

DVD: "Sherlock Holmes" revision empty but slickly enjoyable

Sherlock Holmes (2009) 
128 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

If you're a purist, Guy Ritchie's 21st century update of Arthur Conan Doyle's 19th century egghead sleuth is not your grandfather's cerebral Sherlock Holmes. He's an obsessive-compulsive eccentric with a sarcastic wit and a scientific mind, not to mention a kickboxer with six-pack abs. Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect fit as Holmes and shares a jokey “bromance” chemistry with Jude Law, playing Dr. John Watson as a nicely understated straight man. Their riffing is a good lot of fun and is about as close it gets to refinement. 

Oh, what's the story you ask? There's some business with a shady villain known as Lord Blackwood, who's been sacrificing women with dark magic, hanged, and then mysteriously rising from the grave. Mark Strong, a kind of Andy Garcia with Dracula's slicked-back do, is menacing enough as Blackwood, but the supernatural mystery at stake is much less than elementary. 

Despite some snappy repartee, the first half hour grinds like quick sand. But once it gets going, it really gets going, and Ritchie's kinetic, greasy, aggressively in-your-face directorial style throws a lot our way. Most of it sticks in an alternately exhausting and enjoyable sort of popcorn-movie way. 1890, London has never look so well-produced and grimy at the same time, and right as the Warner Bros. logo comes on, Hans Zimmer's piano score couldn't sound more suitable. The slo-mo device of playing back Holmes' deductive reasoning is clever, and some of the noisy action is fun and amusing. Rachel McAdams is fetching and spunky, showing up as Holmes' former flame, Irene, whose loyalties are suspicious but still harbors feelings for her old lover, but there's very little to her throwaway role. 

This "Sherlock Holmes" feels like a sequel rather than the introductory entry of a franchise and goes on as long as a "Mummy" movie. But as slick, empty entertainment that escapes your memory after it's over, "Sherlock Holmes" comes out ahead as the kind of summery ride not released in the summer. 

Friday, March 26, 2010

Takes time to warm up to but "Greenberg" is a pleasant surprise

Greenberg (Ben Stiller) tries loosening up

Greenberg (2010)
107 min., rated R
Grade: B +

Co-writer and director Noah Baumbach finds humor, pathos, and authentic Los Angeles flavor in the Greenberg, rebirthing Ben Stiller in an interestingly rich role.

He's Roger Greenberg, 40ish, single, and vulnerable, who leaves New York after having a nervous breakdown. He relocates to L.A. to house-sit for his brother, whose people-pleasing personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) will gladly answer any beckon call. Greenberg is a sometime carpenter but mostly a self-satisfied dud who just wants to do nothing with his life for now.

Stiller is never shticky for a moment, a strong performance in a refreshing direction like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; he taps into the not-particularly-likable title character as a narcissist—writing complaint letters to a dozen companies, speaking badly of people in public—but a relatable and ultimately sympathetic one.

Baumbach's character dramedy is low-key and smart and endearing that very well could've been overly quirky or self-conscious if it weren't for the director, writing, and actors. Without forgetting to mention, this is a wonderful showcase for Gerwig, who makes Florence an awkward young woman in a mix of candor and reluctance. Her relationship with Greenberg may remind you of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen's in Annie Hall.

For a film that feels so personal by its filmmaker and wife/co-writer/co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh, there's a lot to be said about living to learn in one's own skin.

"Hot Tub Time Machine" funny as dumbass comedies go; "Chloe" doesn't camp up From-Hell blueprint

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) 
93 min., rated R.

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is the kind of high-concept movie that resists much explanation of plot: the title says it all and will go in the “Hall of Fame of Good-Bad, Tell-It-Like-It-Is Idiot Titles” next door to "Killer Klowns from Outer Space" and "Snakes on a Plane." As extensive TV advertising has already made it clear, it's about a hot tub time machine, you see, and well, what else do you really need to know? After their alcoholic buddy Lou (Rob Corddry) tries to end it all in his garage, recently separated sad-sack Adam (John Cusack) and erstwhile musician Nick (token black dude Craig Robinson) take Lou and Adam's virgin-loser nephew (Clark Duke) on a trip to a ski lodge in Kodiak Valley, where the three buds-for-life memorably celebrated their crazy youth. Then there's a crazy, boozed-up dip in the hot tub, that with a spill of a Russian energy drink, transports them back to 1986—repeating old mistakes and changing the future. 

Flagrantly stoopid, mirthfully lowbrow, but surprisingly clever and ridiculously funny, and so much for time-travel continuity or a lot of story (from the Josh Heald-Sean Anders-John Morris script), but who cares, it's "Hot Tub Time Machine." The bros-before-hos' chemistry is congenial: Corrdry is so hilarious and offensive that it seems director Steve Pink might've given him free reign; Cusack is great as a straight man with a nice romantic subplot; and Robinson has a funny joke involving an accusation of his future wife for cheating when she's only nine years old. It's nostalgic to the '80s teen-party flicks (which Cusack co-starred in back in his geeky days), with cues to "Miami Vice," leg warmers, and Michael Jackson's original skin color. Also, a few nods to "Back to the Future" point to Crispin Glover (The Marty McFly!) as the worst bellhop ever, with one arm, and we wait and wait to see how he lost it three decades earlier. Chevy Chase is funnier in TV's “Community” than the plot-device role he's given here, but he's still a blast from the past to see. A retro dumbass-fun dip back in time, the movie is well aware of how silly it all is and actually smarter than it looks. 


Chloe (2010) 
96 min., rated R.

As a remake of the 2003 French film "Nathalie," Armenian director Atom Egoyan's psychosexual drama "Chloe" is kinkier, bolder, and more psychologically interesting than a Hollywood potboiler. Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, a successful Toronto gynecologist who has a pretty good suspicion that her professor husband, David (Liam Neeson), is cheating. So rather than marriage counseling, to test his faithfulness, she pays a beautiful, doe-eyed call girl named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to tempt him. Once Moore calls off the “business transaction,” Chloe turns her paid position into a fatal attraction with Moore. 

Artsy filmmaker Egoyan takes a trashy story and strips it of sensationalism, but instead giving it nuance. From Erin Cressida Wilson's screenplay, the characters are strong and not without texture from the very strong performances. Admirably, "Chloe" is never played for camp by its performers. Moore is nakedly vulnerable and fiercely convincing as a scorned, lonely woman who longs to feel desirable by her husband again. Coming off of the innocuous "Mamma Mia!", Seyfried is entirely up for the challenge of such adult material and dives into her role as Chloe. The gorgeous, otherworldly 23-year-old is so innocently intoxicating and believable as a Hell-hath-no-fury femme fatale. Both actresses also share a soft-core, erotically titillating scene in bed together that requires going out of their comfort zones, but even a lot of their erotic dialogue seduces our ears. Neeson is given the least to do as David, whose point-of-view isn't really the focus here, but he's well-cast and perfectly fine as a man that would be desired by younger woman. 

Production-wise, this is a stylish, rich-looking film. It's classed up with an elegantly soigne sheen and a patient, chilly mood. And how refreshing to see a movie set and actually shot in Toronto, rather than standing in for another city (Chicago, et al.). After a very surprising twist, the climax rushes into standard-practice “Hooker That Rocks the Cradle” territory. However, in the main, "Chloe" has more thoughtful subtext than late-night Skinemax and the characters are more than just lurid thriller pawns. 


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Polanski's "Ghost" like solid, not great, Hitchcock

The Ghost Writer (2010)
128 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

If you read your trades, you know Roman Polanski was arrested last year in Switzerland and now placed on house arrest. And during all of that, he also went through every step to making and finally editing his latest film, "The Ghost Writer." But let's separate the man's life from the man's work. "The Ghost Writer" is a smart, smoothly orchestrated political thriller, very much in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock.

Ewan McGregor, underplaying it as usual, plays a patsy, also a ghost writer. No name, just known as “the ghost writer” or “ghost” for short. He's hired to complete the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (well played by Pierce Brosnan), à la Tony Blair, with the use of his manuscript. The ghost writer comes to stay inside Lang's political household, some cool architectural digs in Martha's Vineyard à la Camp David. There he has Lang's very loyal assistant (Kim Cattrall) and his political-activist wife (Olivia Williams). The more the ghost writer learns about his subject, the deeper he gets himself into danger, like his predecessor. 

Polanski is a man who knows how to move the camera and keep an audience on edge. Although it has no great thrills, "The Great Writer" depends on paranoia and a “whom can you trust” air of suspense. There's also clever use of a GPS during a car chase. A little dense and “inside” story-wise, but the mystery keeps us off-balance as we're mostly in doubt of who's on who's side or who's doing what. Like Hitchcock, Polanski has a sardonic sense of humor. Along with Alexandre Desplat's score, the film has a deft handling of wry humor without ever being a cold thriller. The performances are also very good: McGregor is the audience's eye, as we're on the same page as he is, and he keeps the movie together. Brosnan is given one of his better performances in a while playing a suit, even if he's given less scenes than the ghost writer himself. Cattrall's British accent often goes in and out, but she's credible enough as Lang's plus-one and shows her range for drama when she's not playing Samantha Jones. In a tiny role, Tom Wilkinson juices it up as one of Lang's former colleague friends. 

Polanski's most tense and beautifully shot moment comes at the climax, when we discover complications of the plot unraveling, all the way to the final shot. While not the filmmaker's best (that would be "Chinatown") nor his most evil ("Rosemary's Baby"), it's one of the better thrillers to come down the pike in a while.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Runaways" effective punk-rock rise-and-fall

The Runaways (2010) 
106 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

A bracingly watchable, well-made but textbook memoir-account of the creation, rise, and fall of the mid-1970s all-girl punk-rock band "The Runaways" that co-existed during The Sex Pistols, were ahead of their time, and jammed out harder than Josie and the Pussycats. Kristen Stewart is the androgynous rebel without a cause, Joan Jett, who plays a mean electric guitar and starts The Runaways. Dakota Fanning, only 16 and going on 21 in glittery eye-shadow and a peep-show corsette, is a 15-year-old peach turned jailbait-sexpot, Cherie Currie, who becomes their lead singer after the band's megalomaniacal creep of a producer, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), writes them their first hit song “Cherry Bomb.” 

Photographer and music-video director Floria Sigismondi, for her feature debut, does a solid job of authentically evoking a specific sense of place and the decade, down to the Farrah Fawcett 'dos and platform heels, blossoming sexuality, and the easy availability to drugs and alcohol and no adult supervision. The vivid staging, whirling pacing, and a cherry-bombin' soundtrack all motivate this world. "The Runaways" isn't an in-depth biopic of The Runaways or the real Currie's 1989 biography “Neon Angels,” but more of a surface-skimming overview. This is more Cherie's story (her broken homelife and sister left to take care of her alcoholic father), with the other band members mostly backup extras. 

Still, it's anchored by the girls' juicy, impressive efforts. Stewart's sullen surliness is an appropriate fit for the hostile Joan in her tough, rawly uninhibited portrayal, in spite of her Joan not being given much of a story. Shannon is amusing and flamboyantly in-your-face as Fowley. Again, it's not always crystal-clear whose story writer-director Sigismondi is telling, but "The Runaways" is an effective time capsule for the musical icons and coming-of-age picture about sex, drugs, and rock n' roll, and should bode well for these young actresses' promising careers. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Black-Mexican "Wedding" sitcom not funny enough

Our Family Wedding (2010)
102 min., rated PG-13
Grade: C -

Amiable performers go slumming in this good-natured but hysterically lame and tired sitcom of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? married to My Big Fat Greek Wedding without the laugh track.

Or the live audience.

TV personalities America Ferrera and Lance Gross charm as a Hispanic-African American college couple ready to get married, before their Los Angelian fathers kill one another. That's right, their dads meet even before they hear the nuptial news: Ferrera's papa (comedian Carlos Mencia's tow-truck driver) tows away Gross's pops' (divorced, swinging radio dj Forest Whitaker) car away.

It's the kids' marriage but the family's traditional wedding, so let the black and Latino insults, fake break-ups, and general buffoonery abound in this broad ethnic-race-clash. As icing on the cake, we get a loose goat horny on Viagra that humps the bride and groom's fathers.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Likable "She's Out of My League" has its moments

She's Out of My League (2010) 
104 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Paging Judd Apatow, "She's Out of My League" sounds like a knockoff of the opposites-attract, salty-and-sweet marriage, "Knocked Up," that worked so nicely like a bun in the oven. But since we're in high demand for a decent romantic-comedy, which hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement, this is a pleasant formula picture that simply does what it sets out to do. Finally, a star vehicle for Jay Baruchel, who's a cross between Michael Cera and Jason Biggs with Don Knotts' googly eyes and gangly, 12-year-old bod, he plays Kirk, a boyish, gawky security screener in the Pittsburgh Airport. 

This being a timeless average-guy-meets-hottie tale, he meets a perfectly beautiful event planner named Molly (Alice Eve), who forgets her cell in security checkpoint and he has to return it to her. And before you know it, they're dating. She thinks he's a nice, safe guy that won't hurt her and he can't believe what she sees him: basically, he's a 5, she's a perfect 10. Kirk and Molly seem to be the least likely match ever since Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl and they may have their complications, but hey, that's why they make movies. 

Director Jim Field Smith's comedy might be slight, and Sean Anders and John Morris do write the oldest climax in the book (a mad dash to the airport!), but it's sweet-natured, has a poppy soundtrack, and gosh darn it, we actually like these characters. There's a nice chemistry between Baruchel and Eve, allowing them to click as a comfortably appealing couple, and the movie succeeds on the fact that you want the leads to have a chance even if we're mostly buying it on a somewhat realistic male-fantasy level. And on their own, Baruchel is endearing as this average Joe rather than a flat-out geek, and British beauty Eve is radiantly sunny and genuine, playing an actual person here. T.J. Miller and Krysten Ritter are hilariously deadpan scene-stealers as Kirk and Molly's blunt best friends. 

Now there is some crassly unfunny business involving shaved pubic hair and premature ejaculation in Kirk's pantalones (parents walk in, cue the licking dog named Captain Pickles, or as one calls it, his “whoopsy daisies early-bird special”) and some of the family characters are just shrill caricatures. But these minor missteps don't detriment the movie's more natural humor and heart: funnier and more convincing stuff is in the bro-banter with Kirk and his airport-work pals. Considering the dubious wasteland of romantic comedies in the last few years, "She's Out of My League" takes a likable, slightly generic stance, like the hero, that's out of those bad entries' league. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Repo Men" loses interest past its premise

Repo Men (2010)
111 min., rated R
Grade: C +

In one of those not-too-distant futures with rain slicked streets and little girls jump-roping to “Stomach, bladder, intestines,” people who don't pay for their bodily transplants have their organs repossessed.

In Repo Men, Jude Law plays a repo man for a company known as The Union and then goes on the run (from partner Forest Whitaker, boss Liev Schreiber, and other goons) when he can't show the bucks for his literal change of heart.

The idea is depraved and fairly intriguing, but this health-care sci-fi horror tale gradually loses its effectiveness in execution.

Repo Men benefits from Miguel Sapochnik's stylish direction and has a morbid sense of humor about itself (i.e. a 9-year-old girl turns out to be a surgeon), including some gruesome, increasingly numbing gore. Even though the script feels like a transplant of other movies like Blade Runner and Repo! The Genetic Opera with some scenes ripped from Videodrome and Pulp Fiction, it's really based on a book called “The Repossession Mamba.”

Bulked-up Law performs with such good cheer even when he's slicing up clients and there are some entertaining, unapologetically over-the-top action, but Repo Men doesn't really serve a point as its twist ending is a stab in the gut.

Not to be confused with the 1984 Repo Man with Emilio Estevez.

"Gentlemen Broncos" unfunny dud

Gentlemen Broncos (2009) 
90 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: D +

In the case of "Gentlemen Broncos'" characters' hideously designed clothing, hack literature, and the movie itself, none of the above knows if it's a mock-up of bad kitsch or just bad kitsch itself. Either way, it's as cringe-inducing as watching William Hung sing “She Bangs.” Another misfit story from the "Napoleon Dynamite"/"Nacho Libre" team of writer-director Jared Hess and his wife, co-writer Jerusha Hess, home-schooled Utah teen Benjamin (Michael Anganaro) writes a sci-fi masterpiece called “Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years.” But after our hero attends a writers' camp, taught by “brilliant” sci-fi novelist Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), he gets his manuscript stolen and published under a different name into Chevalier's new best-seller. 

Clement, the film's lone semi-bright spot, is a hoot as the smug, idiotic author who tells his students to always use “anous” as the suffix of their protagonist's name. But the stuff involving amateur filmmaker Lonnie (Hector Jimenez), who wants to turn Benjamin's book into a feature film, is shticky and teeth-grindingly unfunny. The schlocky Mystery Science Theater 3000-esque visualizations of “Yeast Lords” with a game but wasted Sam Rockwell as Bronco/Bruto are meant to be ridiculous, but they don't exactly show off Benjamin's work as the good literature it's hailed to be and aren't terribly funny with burp and vomit gags. Also, a python poops on Mike White's strange character and poor Jennifer Coolidge, as Benjamin's nurturing mother, gets abused by rat-poisoned darts. 

This off-putting comic-absurdist dud condescends its pathetic, peculiar oddball characters, but is almost more successful in its self-conscious weirdness than juvenile gross-out humor. No matter what, "Gentlemen Broncos" is recommended only to those that actually “got” "Napoleon Dynamite."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Precious" unsparing and hard to shake off

Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire (2009) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

Despite the rather unwieldy title, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is unsparing, harsh, and genuinely gut-wrenching. The morbidly obese, illiterate 16-year-old African American girl from Harlem named Clareece “Precious” Jones is moody and damaged, and for good reason: she's been molested by her skeezy father, pregnant with two of his children, treated cruelly at home by her layabout mother (Mo'Nique), and to top it all off, she's HIV-positive. Newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe towers with her powerful and courageous performance as a withdrawn shell of a human being overcoming her downtrodden, abusive homelife. 

Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher doesn't whitewash the miseries of Saphire's 1996 novel, nor is it just one hard knock after another, but it's alternately upsetting and uplifting. Although it's not always even in a technical sense, Lee Daniels has directed his film with vérité realism, some wit, and experimental style. Painful in Precious' miseries and triumphant in her fantasies, "Precious" is heartbreaking but hopefully told with raw honesty, emotions, and a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It's pretty melodramatic, where the good characters are saintly and the bad characters are one-dimensionally irredeemable, but it's free of heavy-handedness and sentimentality, even if it's executive produced by Tyler Perry and a name-dropped Oprah Winfrey. 

The biggest surprise is caricatured comedian Mo'Nique, who turns in an ever-believable, shattering, ferociously intense performance as Precious's abusive, despicable monster of a mother, Mary; her final key scene shows this pathetic character full-through. An almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey (a big improvement from "Glitter") and Lenny Kravitz do engaging work as a deadpan social worker and a sympathetic male nurse, respectively, as does Paula Patton as Precious' understanding teacher Ms. Rain at an alternative school. 

Though the film is not an easy watch, it's not meant to be and well worth it, ending on a bravely realistic "happy" note. Even if it had nothing else to offer than Sidibe's sympathetic powerhouse performance, "Precious" is something special and hard to shake off.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Burton's "Wonderland" has visual pizzazz but little soul

Alice in Wonderland (2010)
108 min., rated PG.

Mad-hatter fantasist Tim Burton brings his reliably dark, trippy oddness to "Alice in Wonderland," a sequel of sorts and revisionist take on Lewis Carroll's novels, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." But this is an often joyless and turgid Wonderland. In fact, it's actually called “Underland.” 

Relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska, resembling a young Claire Danes and Gwyneth Paltrow, hits all the right notes as Alice, a rather stern and strong-willed 19-year-old Victorian girl about to enter an arranged marriage. She runs away and before you can say “Off with her head!” falls down the rabbit hole. (FYI, she's visiting the place for the second time, even though she doesn't remember it and keeps calling it a dream, and there's debate in this fantasy world whether or not she's the “real” Alice.) And that's where things get “curiouser and curiouser” for Alice, encountering helpful creatures and becoming the hero who can finally end the tyrannical Red Queen's reign and hand it over to her sister, the White Queen (an ethereal Anne Hathaway). Alice is also the only one who can slay the Jabberwocky, the Red Queen's dragon-like monster.

Burton is a genius when it comes to creating colorful, fantastically vivid worlds and a menagerie of kooky characters. Here, we have a cute bunch: the White Rabbit in a waistcoat, a door mouse, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, all of them voiced by an expert British cast. Burton's eccentric muse Johnny Depp—their sixth collaboration together—is enjoyably nutty as the carrot-topped, wonky-eyed Mad Hatter with a speech impediment and a secret two-step dance move. It's not Depp's most inspired performance, mostly a Johnny one-note mash-up of Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka sameness. But Burton's partner, Helena Bonham Carter, whose head is swollen to bulbous size thanks to computer magic, is a wickedly hilarious riot as the Red Queen. Besides screaming “Off with her head!” Carter somehow makes her sympathetic as well. 

"Alice in Wonderland" boasts an eyeful of gorgeous art direction and set design, and an earful of whimsy; bottom line: this is a visual triumph. So why isn't it a better movie? It's curiously hollow, missing the magic and wonder by suffocating the screen with fakey CG window dressing and expensive 3-D gimmickry. What ever happened to practical sets? The timeless story makes nods to its source material and “The Wizard of Oz” but undergoes some underwhelming changes that also might put off purists, all the way to the Narnia-esque battle sequence with Alice in Joan of Arc's armor fighting the Jabberwocky. And what's with the anachronistic end-credit song by Avril Lavigne? 

Grade: C +

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Frozen" chills you to the bone

Frozen (2010)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Talk about a cool hook: A college couple (Kevin Zegers, Emma Bell) and a third-wheel buddy (Shawn Ashmore) on a weekend ski trip don't have ski passes so they pay off the lift employee. What's the worst that could happen, right? Then the chair lift shuts down with them on it for one more slope run, 100 feet up above the ground, and to make matters worse, it's Sunday night, the resort is closed until Friday, and they don't have cell phones (even though dim kids their age don't leave home without it). So whether it's freezing into human popsicles, or breaking their legs in an attempt to jump, or getting attacked by a pack of wolves, the three are screwed. 

"Frozen" is a tense, pared-down cautionary yarn; it's another one of those confined-setting, “what would you do” palm-sweaters like "Open Water," only now it'd be “Open Snow.” Writer-director Adam Green ("Hatchet") sustains his slight premise for its brisk 93 minutes; the dialogue he gives his actors runs the gamut from authentic to forced, and of course sometimes the characters do things that one would never do in the bitter cold temperatures. And the characters aren't too complex, but the performers do a plausible job with the panicky bickering and sorrow that ensues in this situation. 

Green works best behind the camera, giving us inventive angles that make us sweat bullets for these three people. There are also brutal, bone-crunching gross-out moments, helped by effective sound design and make-up. Flawed if you can't suspend some disbelief but mostly suspenseful, "Frozen" delivers a skier's worst nightmare.