Monday, February 28, 2011

Damon's wide-eyed perf makes "Informant!" great goof

The Informant! (2009) 
108 min., rated R.
Grade: B

The emphatic title with an exclamation point proves Steven Soderbergh might be a little too pleased with himself and his new movie, "The Informant!" But being played for laughs, it works as an odd, amusing, entertainingly wacky absurdist comedy. The always-exciting filmmaker seems to be taking the corporate misconduct from his "Erin Brockovich" and bits of the retro-coolness from his “Ocean's Umpteenth” movies, and concocting a freewheeling, satirical take on a straight-faced true story, based on Kurt Eichenwald's book. 

With a stenciled stache, wide-eyed glasses, bad toupe, and beer belly, Matt Damon is nearly unrecognizable and cast against type (doughier than usual, gaining an extra 30 pounds). Played with loony, geewiz cheerfulness, Damon is wonderfully deadpan here as nebbish, eccentric whistle-blower Mark Whitacre who makes Agent Maxwell Smart look like an egghead. The Ivy League biochemist works in an executive position for a giant corn conglomerate called Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and once feeling uneasy about the company's malfeasance, Whitacre blames it on a mole and brings his concern to the FBI. With his only backer being wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale from TV's “The Soup”) come in and Whitacre goes in as an informant, turning in his bosses for a price fixing scheme, but as he keeps digging himself a deep hole, the lies just keep coming and don't quite add up. 

Like a stream of consciousness, Whitacre's mumbling internal voice-over musings about neckties and flossing are interestingly random and show just how fascinatingly wonky his brain is rather than having us identify with why he did what he did. Instead of being a substantial story about the self-deluded man's diagnosed Bipolar Disorder or the dumb, broad farce as being advertised, "The Informant!" is great goofy fun, with Marvin Hamlisch's jaunty, retro-burlesque music and a funky '70s vibe, all part of Soderbergh's light, buoyant touch. Though it has no real heart or emotional core, it's a 'toon of a trip and the joke seems to be on us. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Pass on Farrellys' tame "Hall Pass"

Hall Pass (2011)
98 min., rated R. 
Grade: C -

One can usually count on Peter and Bobby Farrelly to dig up some crude, memorable laughs in their films, their previous outing "The Heartbreak Kid" just a painfully unfunny speed bump in their hopeful road back home. A horny schlub comedy like "Hall Pass" should have been a barrel of laughs in your belly, but it's more like a kick in the pants. Owen Wilson and Saturday Night Live's Jason Sudeikis (in his first lead movie role) play Rick and Fred, dorky best pals in suburban Providence who are happily married but ya know, their eyes wander from time to time. 

When their respective wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) get fed up with their hubbies' immaturity, they decide to call their bluff, issuing weeklong “hall passes” so both men get the unsupervised, guiltless sexual freedom out of their system. (This is apparently normal as the setup is explained by their psychologist friend, played by an oddly cast Joy Behar.) Anyway...wa-hoo! Rick and Fred get excited to live it up and get so much tail, but (as the joke goes) forget how to swing, and (as the moral goes) learn to abide by traditional domestic values. Meanwhile, the wifies are in Cape Cod, where they decide to have their own freedom with a baseball team. 

It's not that "Hall Pass" basically saying all men are pigs and women are nags is the film's failing, it's that all the comedy either feels mild, lame, or just plain lazy. The Farrelly brothers work from a script they co-wrote with Pete Jones and Kevin Barnett, and while sentiment is often expected from the Farrellys, this time they seem to be such softies that they try not to embarrass themselves with too much gross-out crudeness or comic surprise. What's so fun about our heroes finding out that infidelity is bad? Wilson and Sudeikis are playing such putzes that it's easy to laugh at them; if only there was more to laugh about. The pot brownie hijinks are stale, penises aren't funny when they just flash themselves at the screen, and a Fat Guy character popping a squat in a golf course sand pit has no setup for the payoff to sing. The jokes certainly land, but many land with a forced thud or dead air. And a climactic car accident and subplot involving a jealous loser with a gun feel incongruous. 

The freshest touch is the TV's “Law & Order” dun-dun sound effect cued to each title card of the guys' week of shenanigans. Some of the pick-up lines earn chuckles, as does their Applebee's pickup joint turning into a food coma; there's a quick bodily gross-out with a party girl that can't vomit; and Richard Jenkins steals the most laughs as a wrinkly-skinned swinger. Of the women, stunningly beautiful Aussie native Nicky Whelan displays much charisma as a sweet barista that catches Rick's eye. Applegate and Fischer (who is so badly lighted and looks fake-baked) are smart, funny women, but you would never know here by the writing, especially in Fischer's case. 

The Farrellys have certainly made some hilarious and ticklishly demented comedies since breakout successes like "Dumb & Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary." Like all their work, the gross-out kingpins again straddle the line of their broad, raunchy stuff and cross-on-their-heart sweetness, twofers that recall the guys' glory days. But in a case of diminishing returns, "Hall Pass" is a disappointing misfire because these guys, never about subtlety or taste, are either growing up or aren't trying. Either way, this sex comedy feels too safe and is too afraid of sex. Sneaky move on the trailer cutter's part though; they saved all the decent laughs for the ads. Grudgingly, you can pass on "Hall Pass." 

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Just Go with It" would be easy if it were funnier

Just Go with It (2011) 
116 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

OK, so going into another Adam Sandler farce, we're probably supposed to just go with the sitcommy contrivance behind the forgettably titled romantic-comedy, "Just Go with It." And his eye-rolling hit-in-the-groin slapstick, giant Jewish noses, and peepee jokes that's become the arrested adolescent's permanent shtick. And that his co-star Jennifer Aniston isn't hot behind glasses and supposedly dull, flat hair, but the actress (old buddies with Sandler) actually shines here and the two surprisingly have enjoyable chemistry. 

In "Just Go with It," Sandler plays Danny, a big-time plastic surgeon whose near-marriage years ago has him burned, forcing him to pretend to be married so he can nail women without the commitment (wouldn't that make them homewrecking sluts then?). Aniston is Katherine, Danny's loyal office assistant/nurse, a divorced mother of two young kids who rolls her eyes at Danny's piggish games to land babes. Then he meets Palmer (swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker), a knockout sixth grade math teacher, whom he thinks is The One, until she finds his ring and thinks he's married. So on the fly, Danny invents a harebrained story that he has an ex-wife-to-be and Palmer insists on meeting her. So take away her glasses and let down her hair, Katherine passes as Danny's hot debutante ex-wife 'Devlin' and her kids are bribed to pass as Danny's kids with fake names. There we have it, a road to love paved with a whole lot of lying, and a trip to Hawaii with everyone, along with Danny's cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson) posing as Katherine's goofy German boyfriend Dolph Lundgren. In other baffling news, Nicole Kidman shows up as Katherine's superficial college sorority “frenemy” whose real name is Devlin, with her husband played by musician Dave Matthews, and you just know the lies will keep piling up from there. 

The premise behind "Just Go with It" has been trotted out before, making it a credited remake of 1969's Walter Matthau-Ingrid Bergman-Goldie Hawn film "Cactus Flower," itself based on a 1965 Broadway show that was adapted from the French play “Fleur de cactus.” The stupidly labored plot is purely “Three's Company” stuff, since it could be solved in a few minutes' time had the characters been smart and opened their mouths, but like the title says, we're intended to just go with it. Too bad director Dennis Dugan, the Sandman's frequent collaborator, flattens the farce with the dopey crap the Happy Madison production company loves churning out. Even if Sandler didn't write the script, not many of the “Sandler-ized” jokes click, scenes are prolonged, and the movie strains itself to nearly two hours. Granted, it is less crude and appalling and marginally more entertaining than other Sandler outings, and the soundtrack has some cool mash-up songs (i.e. General Public's "Tenderness" with Rihanna's "Umbrella"). And where else are you going to see Dave Matthews pick up a coconut with his butt cheeks?

Aniston, the best thing about "Just Go with It," is actually playing a smart grown-up after rom-com junk like 2010's misbegotten "The Bounty Hunter." She looks fab and has sharp comic timing, making her a nice, likable match for Sandler's juvenilia. Also, rather than hating one another from the start (like in most formulaic rom-coms), Danny and Katherine are friendly from the beginning to the end where they fall in love. Showing he can be charming, Sandler is Sandler, but isn't playing much of a catch here (i.e. he plans to marry Palmer on a lie, then tell her his pretend kids died in an accident). 

Decker makes her feature debut, but so little is asked of her, besides getting in a few Bo Derek/Christie Brinkley bikini strides. She has such little connection with Sandler that we never buy her as Danny's soul mate. And Palmer says she can tell when Danny's lying but apparently believes all of his moronic lies. Without ever learning that she was duped, her character is dispatched without any explanation. Her husband, tennis star Andy Roddick, gives a cameo however. Subbing for Rob Schneider, Swardson's “hilariously zany” sidekick is only funny in extra small spurts, least of all when he's pretending to be German, although gets one ridiculous scene to revive a sheep. Even the child actors (Bailee Madison and Griffin Gluck) are cloying, especially with Madison's cockney accent. Kidman hasn't been this spontaneous in a while, really going for it in a hula contest and coconut smoochie game, and her fake Devlin later shows dimension. 

Aniston and Sandler deserved a wittier script to flaunt off their genuine sparks, but Sandler fans will probably get their money's worth anyhow, even if Aniston is the only bright light to just go with it. As is, "Just Go with It" would've been easy had it been a little bit funnier. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Appealingly cast "Romantics" too trite to care

The Romantics (2010) 
95 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

It won't really take a wedding planner to know how "The Romantics" goes, but we're still left knowing and caring very little about the characters or their problems in this trite pre-wedding jitters drama. The titular self-dubbed “romantics” are a close-knit group of college friends that gather at a waterfront Yacht Clubby estate in Long Island for uptight, controlling Lila's (Anna Paquin) nuptials with Tom (Josh Duhamel). For conflict or contrivance, take your pick, the bride's Yale roommate and maid of honor, nervous writer Laura (Katie Holmes), has too-recent history with the groom. After a night of drunken revelry, do you think that chapter of Tom and Laura's lives is over yet? By dawn, an awkward “Dynasty” episode ensues, a perfect storm hits, and the film's over. Is that a spoiler? Not really. 

First-time director Galt Niederhoffer adapts her own novel and helms this project (and Holmes executive produced), but it's too bad how unsatisfying it is. Her Ivy Leaguers do a lot of purple yacking and face sucking, none of it very interesting. The booze-infused toasts go on as long as the ones in "Rachel Getting Married" and induce the same amount of cringing. And at least the talented cast couldn't be more appealing and attractive. Holmes does the most emoting here, Paquin is just a stone-faced bridezilla, and Duhamel shares little chemistry with either. Candice Bergen plays the same overbearing character she's been playing for the last decade, here as Lila's mother, Adam Brody gets to crack wise and act gooey, and Elijah Wood is goofy in a bowtie but pretty much wasted. Akerman is the most comfortable here as the flower child, cutely named Tripler. 

Take away the shaky, indie-vibe camera work and twinkly score, easily influenced by Wes Anderson and the Duplass Brothers' mumblecore genre, "The Romantics" is still too uninspired and even more "St. Elmo's Fire"-lite than that already-shallow film. When Duhamel wails to his romantic friends, “We are all so uninspired,” he might as well be talking about the film. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" unsentimental and offbeat gem

It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010) 
101 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

Eventually, the kids will be all right in "It's Kind of a Funny Story," which marks the third film by writing/directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Based on Ned Vizzini's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, this loony-bin dramedy finds 16-year-old Craig (Keir Gilchrist) off his Zoloft, clinically depressed, and suicidal, so he check himself into the psych ward of a Brooklyn hospital. Surrounded by genuinely crazy people, he learns his problems really aren't that bad, but he stays on longer, finding a makeshift mentor in fellow patient Bobby (Zach Galifianakis) and shows interest in a sweet teenage cutter named Noelle (Emma Roberts). 

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is alternately unsentimental, engaging, and offbeat for a film entirely set in the depressing walls of a hospital wing, with story shades of "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" and tonal references to John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club." The film really listens to and understands its characters, even if the extraneous hallway crazies are just two-dimensional types. Gilchrist, who could be taken for Justin Long's younger brother, is low-key, believable, and identifiable as Craig. (Unfairly, other critics dismiss him as “flat” but he's playing a character who might be depressed!) Though the flashiest performer, the bushy-bearded Galifianakis shows a surprising stretch in his darker, more damaged portrayal of a manchild. He actually feels quite fit as a patient, especially his amusingly kooky entrance in doc scrubs as a Doogie Howser type (because the ER has the best coffee), and he displays a nice sensei-samurai chemistry with Gilchrist. Roberts, maturing in each role she takes, is appealing and natural here as Noelle. Going against the cliché, Viola Davis brings empathy and down-to-earthiness to her role as the psychiatrist. Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, respectively, are warmly maternal and overbroad as Craig's parents, but their roles aren't really explored. 

"It's Kind of a Funny Story" is not without its problems—it could've cut deeper and not settled for some pat clichés—but co-writer and directors Boden and Fleck find a way of balancing tone, making their film darkly funny but also sneakily touching and inspirational. The mopey story is livened up with the inclusion of Craig's artistic drawings springing to life with whimsical animation, as well as a relatable, exuberantly campy moment where Craig is coaxed into belting out the vocals for Queen's “Under Pressure” in music appreciation and imagines him and his groupmates as glam rock stars. 

It's kind of a funny story, but the film endears and you won't need antidepressants after you admit yourself.

"I Spit on Your Grave" remake vile and unwelcome

I Spit on Your Grave (2010) 
107 min., unrated.
Grade: F

The most shocking thing about "I Spit on Your Grave" is that someone actually remade it and that the MPAA thought an actual rating would dilute its power. You will surely need a clean shower with bleach and cheap vodka afterwards if you punish yourself to endure this ugly, repellent, unwelcome remake. 

Comely Sarah Butler gets put through the degrading wringer as Jennifer, a hot novelist on vacation alone in a cabin in the Hickville woods. What part of “alone in a cabin in the Hickville woods” don't horror-movie chicks understand? After a confrontation with a redneck at the local gas station, she's stalked, gang-raped, and left for dead. Rape her once, shame on them, rape her twice, shame on her, as she systematically tortures and kills her assailants. Is violence justified or is Jennifer also at fault? Is "I Spit on Your Grave" misogynistic or a feminist film? Neither. It's empty, distasteful garbage. 

Closely resembling the unwatchable 1978 rape-and-revenge flick's structure to the appointed end, Steven R. Monroe's exploitation pic may have a cleaner look but it's still the same phony-feminist nastiness. Plot holes and contrivances are actually the least of sins here. The first half is repulsive, the middle is dull, and the last half thinks a woman's cruel, excessive fantasy-just desserts is the same as sick entertainment and a rah-rah feminist rant. The male degenerates, including a crooked sheriff and again a retarded young man, are such hateful, leering, one-dimensional caricatures straight out of "Deliverance." 

"I Spit on Your Grave" may intend to be brutal and gruesome, but it's still vile torture-porn, as if slicing genitals is a novelty. So artless and unentertaining that it's only effective as a sadistic, anti-man, and anti-woman snuff film, and no one should see it. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"Extra Man" explodes with quirks and doesn't work

The Extra Man (2010) 
108 min., rated R.
Grade: C

Writing-directing team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (behind "American Splendor" and "The Nanny Diaries") adapt Jonathan Ames' 1998 novel in "The Extra Man," a queerly light-as-a-feather-boa curio. It means to delight, but the film is like a vaudeville, pre-Woody Allen time warp that's OD'ed on whimsy. The New York City in "The Extra Man" is an otherworldly place with odd, mannered eccentrics. 

Paul Dano plays Louis, a gawky, sensitive young man who exists out of the present time (like say, a 1920s-era novel like his favorite, “The Great Gatsby”) and has a strange fascination for cross-dressing. He reads a room-for-rent ad and moves in with a dandy gentleman, the gadabout playwright Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline), who appears sexless but acts as a gigalo. They both share a fancy for opera, while Louis shows a secret interest in tranny bars and becomes Henry's “extra man.” 

Kline brings his Kliney wit and color to the unpredictable, larger-than-life Henry. He's the most amusing, mirthful thing in the film and really the only interesting character. It's just too bad "The Extra Man" wasn't solely about this class-act man. The always-understated Dano is a rather soggy protege. John C. Reilly randomly shows his face behind a full-grown beard and shaggy ogre hair, with a tone-deaf voice, as Henry's neighborly friend Gershon. Celia Weston and Marian Seldes do what they can in underwritten roles as wealthy widows. And a too-earnest, caffeinated Katie Holmes plays a vegan co-worker at Louis's environmental-magazine workplace that shows no interest in him. Kline endears, but "The Extra Man" is unctuous and unfocused. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Rileys" well-acted and heartful

Welcome to the Rileys (2010) 
110 min., rated R.
Grade: B

In the well-acted, melancholy melodrama "Welcome to the Rileys," James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo give affecting performances as Doug and Lois Riley, an Indiana couple married for 30 years who have been struggling since they lost their 15-year-old daughter. They have their own ways of grieving: He's taken comfort in a local waitress and cries/smokes in the garage, while she's an agoraphobic from feeling guilty. While on a plumbing sales trip in post-Katrina New Orleans, Doug meets a hardened, foul-mouthed underage stripper named Mallory (Kristen Stewart, in her rawest, non-"Twilight" turn to date) who needs order in her life. He “adopts” her as if she was his own daughter, and this is when Lois decides to finally get out of the house and meet her husband. Mallory is a runaway without a mom and dad, and Doug and Lois become her healing force and vice versa. Initially, Stewart's trampy, bruised-eyed, rebellious Mallory insisting on giving Gandolfini a lap dance is creepy and the relationship isn't plausible at first blush. 

Ya'll can relax though, as Doug doesn't become Mallory's sugar daddy; it ends up being paternal, not sexual. But if you think about it, this is like "Taxi Driver," aside from Doug being nicer than both Tony Soprano and Travis Bickle and there never being any bloodshed. And Leo, having the toughest job here, never overplays her delicate-flower Lois, even if her leaving the house to drive to Indiana gets a few laughs. Actor-turned-screenwriter Ken Hixon's script touches on grief, loneliness, healing, and redemption, and expresses these themes in a way that never feels sentimental or tidy. The sensitive direction of music-video award-winner Jake Scott (son of Ridley) and the very good performances turn "Welcome to the Rileys" into something heartfelt and hopeful. 

At 3 hours, "Grindhouse" is enormous B-movie fun

Grindhouse (2007)
191 min., rated R.
Grade: A

"Grindhouse," Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's double-billed labor of love to grainy '70s-era exploitation films, is more than just a wild, witty, and affectionate replication of everything cheap-o and sleaze-o-rama. Two movies for the price of one, and a total blast. It's a full-bore experience of a night out at the grindhouse-multiplex, with a double-feature attraction divided by concession-stand commercials and four faux trailers, all topped off with deliberately tawdry scratches, hairs and tears in the film, shaky projections, and even entire missing reels as part of the nostalgic fun. 

Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," a gleefully cheesy, way-over-the-top orgy of gore and schlock, pays loving homage to low-budget cannibal zombie pictures. In the Texas backwater, a deadly virus leak by the military results in the town being overtaken by zombies. Rose McGowan is a cheeky, juicy standout as Cherry Darling, a former go-go dancer that adopts a machine gun for a leg, and there are plenty of funny, cute guest cameos in store, one literally coming with a wink. 

Tarantino's feature-length film "Death Proof," a slasher/revenge yarn paying tribute to "Vanishing Point," is more Tarantino than grindhouse in its gabby first half hour and one nasty, gnarly car crash. He lulls us in with lots of smartly written but exhaustingly indulgent chick chitchat for its actors to chew on before setting us up for the kill and paying it all off in one of the most wildly exhilarating (and non-computer-generated) car chases in recent memory, with a satisfying girls-kick-ass finale. Kurt Russell plays big-bad-wolf creepy to perfection as Stuntman Mike, a scarred old stunt driver who psychotically uses his muscle car to prey on women (voluptuous Vanessa Ferlito, Sidney's daughter Sydney Tamiia Poitier, and Jordan Ladd) at an Austin, Texas bar. McGowan reprises her presence as Mike's first victim. He then gets a taste of his own murderous medicine from a quartet of bad-ass Hollywood women (including Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, real-life Kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Bell is truly captivating and charismatic, playing herself as the cat-like daredevil who wants to take a for-sale Dodge Challenger for a "test drive," and yes, she does all her own stunts. 

Then there are the trailers (or “prevues of coming attractions”), all hilariously inspired parodies with a tongue-in-cheek kick of their own, that would make great B movies themselves: Rodriguez gives it another go with the X-rated "Machete," which has Danny Trejo as a bad-mutha Mexican (his character cranked up from the innocuously goofy "Spy Kids" movies) and Cheech Marin, a street-smart priest with a stash of weapons; Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the S.S." is a Nazi-lycanthropic gas, featuring a laugh-out-loud surprise cameo by Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu; Edgar Wright's "Don't" is a spot-on British gothic horror spoof; and Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving" is a giddily disgusting and twisted holiday-themed slasher flick (“White meat, dark meat, all will be carved!”). 

Minus no theatrical intermission, it's three-plus-hours of the bloody, campy, rowdy B movie to end all B movies that only genuine film buffs will “get” and adore. "Grindhouse" may not be high art, but it's a platter of brilliant trash that's so much of a so-bad-it's-good thing.