Friday, March 18, 2011

"Limitless" has limits but it's fun

Limitless (2011) 
105 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

Ya know how they say we access only 20 percent of our brain? "Limitless" entertains the idea that one clear little pill lets you access all of it. Also, Bradley Cooper proves he can be more accessible than the fratboy type, still commanding the screen while flashing that sexy smirk. 

In this slick, snappy hedonistic-thriller, Cooper stars as Eddie Morra, a schleppy, broke, heavy-drinking New York writer who's creatively blocked from writing his manuscript and then dumped by his successful editor girlfriend (Abbie Cornish). His luck changes when he runs into his ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth), who introduces him to a sample pharmaceutical drug called NZT. Supposedly FDA-approved, it enchances the brain. After taking one, he becomes more motivated and focused. Not only that, but Eddie finishes his book in four days, becomes fluent in foreign languages, and soon his knowledge about everything and new groomed makeover allow him to bed women. Eddie's a super freak, flying high on NZT, until Russian goons come knocking and he captures too much attention at a trading firm. 

Director Neil Burger gives this intriguing pill of an idea, based on Alan Glynn's 2001 novel called "The Dark Fields," an adrenaline kick with lots of propulsive visual panache. That's for sure up front from the cool, dazzling opening credits sequence (a single, sped-up shot zooming through the Manhattan streets) and a drug-trippy style. Cooper has the tan, cocky leer of Matthew McConaughey but way more charisma and intensity. Abbie Cornish is also good but underused as Eddie's on-again, off-again girlfriend Lindy, who kicks ass when she takes the drug. In a supporting role, Robert De Niro is snaky and formidable as business mogul Carl Van Loon (what a name) who becomes fascinated with Eddie. 

Leslie Dixon's screenplay does have its limits—introducing a possible murder and a merger but never going anywhere with them—but the getting-there is what's addictive that you'll want a taste of what Eddie's having. "Limitless" could've been deeper than just shallow entertainment, but at least it gives you a fun time, especially if you let your brain accept it 100 percent. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Red Riding Hood" has lots of style but very little brains

Red Riding Hood (2011)
100 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

You've got to wonder who "Red Riding Hood" was made for because it's no Disneyland bedtime story and not much of a horror film. Hmm, teen angst, werewolves, and a girl torn between two of the best lookers in her town. Why, this sounds like the same neck of the woods as director Catherine Hardwicke's last film ("Twilight"). In basic terms, Red Riding Hood is "Twilight" in wolf's clothing that panders to fans of the Bella-Edward-Jacob love “twiangle.” Even on its own terms, this is a lumbering, lifeless revision of the grim, phallic fairy tale. 

Yes, the basic premise is still intact: A girl in a blood-red cloak with a basket goes over the river and through the woods to her grandmother's house. But there's “more” going on here, and it's less interesting. This time, the Girl in Red gets a name. Valerie, the virginal but lusty blonde, is played by the saucer-eyed Amanda Seyfried (and what good casting, considering what snow-white skin and big blue eyes she has). Her village of Daggerhorn is plagued by a werewolf, long before her sister is even killed. Valerie's hot for the hunky, bad-boy woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), who has a meet-cute while trapping a bunny for hunting boots, but she's arranged to betroth a nice boy with money, Henry (Max Irons, Jeremy's son). Valerie apparently has a psychic connection with the werewolf that draws her to accusations of witchcraft, summoning wolf-removal specialist and clergyman, Father Soloman, hammed up and slimed up by Gary Oldman, who orders guilty parties to his bronze chamber, The Elephant. As he warns on the night of the Blood Moon, the wolf is no outsider but could be anyone's neighbor or wife, and the whole village is on edge. 

No one is above suspicion, which makes "Red Riding Hood" turn into a whodunit with a bunch of red herrings piling up. Could it be Team Peter or Team Henry, or her mother with a secret (Virginia Madsen) or papa (Billy Burke, yes the same actor cast as Bella's cop pops)? Maybe it's Soloman, who has sharp, gray, wolf-like fingernails? Or perhaps it's Valerie's New-Agey, brown-eyed granny (Julie Christine in dreadlocks)? You'll hardly care as you give up and wait, and once it's revealed, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense anyway. The romance is an emotionally bankrupt snooze, although Seyfried and Fernandez cook up some heated action in a bale of hay (tsk, and Bella is still waiting 'til marriage). Otherwise, Irons and Fernandez are handsome pieces of interchangeable furniture, except one has dark, gelled hair and the other dirty blonde. The whole cast is directed to remain stone-faced, like they're in a bad dinner theatre at a Renaissance Faire, thanks to David Leslie Johnson's silly, humorless script. 

The filmmakers get in the “Grandma, what big eyes you have...” schpeel, and it's amusing but unimaginatively saved for a dream sequence. There's even a brief nod to the 17th Century French version (that's even before the Brothers Grimm) with cannibalism, but it's flicked away within seconds. The medieval costumes and misty, wintry production design are stylized and pretty, even if shot on soundstages in Canada. And the swooping helicopter shots of the green forests imprint a sense of atmosphere, and a sense of déjà vu reverting back to Forks, Washington. Then there's the Big Bad Wolf, a fake CGI creation that doesn't provoke any threat. (A conversation he shares with Valerie, in his Lord Voldemort tone of voice, will have you in stitches.) So why can't anyone make a less cheesy werewolf anymore? Where's Rick Baker when you need him? "Red Riding Hood," what little brains you have! For the filmmakers' sake, hopefully there's more of a happy ending to next year's "Snow White" revision with Kristen Stewart, but in the meantime, check out 1996's "Freeway," a wildly twisted, grimly funny twist on "Little Red Riding Hood" with a pre-famous Reese Witherspoon.

Two Little Films, One Good & One Bad

I Saw the Devil (2011)
141 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Forced to be recut by the Korea Media Rating Board for its violence, filmmaker Kim Ji-woon's "I Saw the Devil" is a tense, disturbing, brutally violent slasher-revenge opus. The Devil in question isn't literal but instead a serial killer named Kyung-chul (Choi Minsik) who drives an after-school bus and finds pleasure in killing young women. From the frighteningly memorable prologue, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha) is stranded alongside the road with tire trouble, sitting in her car as the snow falls. The killer asks if she needs help, then bashes her head with a hammer and drags her body to his warehouse. When her severed ear and head turn up, the girl's grief-stricken special agent fiancee, Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), takes a two-week leave and takes revenge. Instead of just turning him in or killing him in one sit, he makes sure Kyung-chul's pain is beyond terrible. He puts his martial-arts skills to use by beating the monster to a pulp, planting a GPS device in his stomach, and repeating the hunt-and-torment process over and over. A little Achilles tendon slicing is the least of this Devil's worries. But since he's equally psycho-minded as his pursuee, wouldn't that make Soo-hyeon a monster too? 

Asian exploitation films are usually guaranteed to be cruel, grotesque, and beautiful, and "I Saw the Devil" is no different. It turns the torture games on their heads with the cleverly twisted cat-and-mouse storytelling, a nerve-rattling score, and interesting locations from a greenhouse to an empty hotel for the double-trouble characters' duel. Choi is sinister and deranged as the center of evil, and Lee is sleek, dangerous, and ultimately understandable as the “good guy” caught up in evil-doings. About 30 minutes could've been shaved off, but after this one, you'll know what pain and revenge feel like. 

Rubber (2011) 
80 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

French writer-director Quentin Dupieux's horror-comedy "Rubber" defies filling any real category with its absurd, dementedly silly one-of-a-kind premise alone. We get to spend 80 minutes with a tire. A killer tire, rolling its way down the California desert and paving a bloody path for no reason. A satirical primer sets the tone: a lieutenant pops out of a car trunk, breaks the fourth wall, tells us life and even the greatest films follow a philosophy of “no reason,” and describes the film we're about to watch as “an homage to no reason.” Like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" never showed the characters going to the bathroom or washing their hands, the tire (credited as “Robert”) just up and rises from the sand one sunshiny day and kills anything and anyone (i.e. an empty water bottle, a scorpion), and then uses its psychokinetic powers to blow up harder-to-flatten objects (i.e. a rabbit, motel guests). For no reason. Meanwhile, an all-ages group of spectators with binoculars overlook the tire's massacre from the desert as he stalks and kills people. Again for no reason. And that's the whole film. 

"Rubber" has some blackly comic wit and self-aware deconstruction of other movies in brief moments. Also, a cop's plan to distract the tire with a mannequin and a foreign woman's naughty script reading should rile up a deadpan laugh or two. But what it boils down to is a bizarre experiment that gets no real traction: it doesn't work as either a slasher or slapstick and wears out its welcome long before the halfway point. Dupieux has an amusing concept in theory, but while it might've worked as a short film, his one-joke execution becomes boring, overly cute, and just plain stupid. Really, there's not much reason to see "Rubber." 

"Take Me Home Tonight" is '80s fun...if only it was released 4 years before

Take Me Home Tonight (2011)
97 min., rated R.
Grade: B

If John Cusack and Molly Ringwald were thirty years younger again, they would have made "Take Me Home Tonight," a true '80s lover's dream come true. Fans of those all-night-party teen flicks that defined their generation, from 1973's "American Graffiti," 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," 1989's "Say Anything," and 1993's "Dazed and Confused," will party like it's 1988 in their acid-washed jeans with director Michael Dowse's affable homage that unironically delights in the clichés. Instead of virginal dorks, the movie focuses on college graduates in 1988, San Fernando Valley during one big, raucous night. 

Topher Grace, who conceived this story, showcases his boyishly cute Everyman likability as Matt Franklin, an MIT graduate who's working at Suncoast Video in the mall. His parents (Michael Biehn, Jeanie Hackett) see so much potential in him, saying "you could be an astronaut," but Matt just feels like an aimless failure. So on the night of The Big Party for Labor Day weekend, where it's like high school all over again, he puts up a charade telling people he works at Goldman Sachs, especially to snag his crush, former prom queen turned banker Tori Frederking (Teresa Palmer, a smiley, blonde double for Kristen Stewart). And he and his wacky slob of a best friend Barry (Dan Fogler) steal a Mercedes and come into the possession of some blow. Eventually, Matt's lies will catch up with him. Meanwhile, Matt's twin sister, Wendy (Anna Faris), is contemplating marriage with her dumb tool of a boyfriend, Kyle (Chris Pratt, Faris' real-life hubby), or going to grad school in Cambridge. 

"Take Me Home Tonight" is a love note to the 1980s, getting the look and feel of the John Hughesian decade completely right. Hughes fans will recognize "Shermer High School" as the fictional high school in "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." The fashion is amusing, from the scrunchies to the Madonna lace gloves, and the soundtrack rocks, making good use of Dexy's Midnight Runners' “Come On Eileen," Duran Duran's “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes." Palmer is radiant and energetic, and she and Grace make an appealing couple. Faris is underused but still amiable in the straight-man role. Fogler spends most of the movie out of control or coked out. Lucy Punch has fun as Matt's obnoxious stalker, Michelle Trachtenberg slinks around as a goth chick, and Demetri Martin is hilariously self-deprecating as a wheelchair-bound old classmate. 

It's inconceivable why this film was shot in 2007 and now just seeing the light of day, four years later, and it's from the sex-cocaine antics that are mostly unnecessary anyway. The only surprise you'll find here is that Eddie Money's “Take Me Home Tonight” song is nowhere to be found, but "Take Me Home Night" still makes a fun, sweet time capsule for nostalgics. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Very Bad Things" has some nastily funny moments but goes too far

Very Bad Things (1998) 
100 min., rated R.
Grade: C

Black comedy is in the eye of the beholder. That's the case for "Very Bad Things," an increasingly absurd, sometimes nastily entertaining, but thoroughly mean-spirited and scabrous black comedy of errors. 

Kyle, the henpecked groom (a boring-since-"Swingers" Jon Favreau) of demanding bride-to-be Laura (Cameron Diaz), and his four suburban frat-boy buddies, Boyd (Christian Slater), Jewish brothers Adam (Daniel Stern) and Michael (Jeremy Piven), and quiet Moore (Leland Orser), are off to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. To cap off the wild night of gambling, boozing, and drugging, they hire a stripper/hooker to come into their hotel room. But the scene turns ugly real quick when, after a little wall-banging sex, she ends up dead, on accident of course, from being impaled on a towel hanger. Don't you hate it when that happens? The brains behind the operation is slightly insane Boyd, who suggests they cover up the body ("a 105-pound problem") rather than call the cops. As the wedding approaches, the five friends find themselves turning on one another which only snowballs more crimes. 

Actor Peter Berg must've been hunting for a mordant shock comedy worthy of Quentin Tarantino when given the chance to shoot his first gig. "Very Bad Things" certainly lives up to its savagely twisted promise of edgy, really-black comedy, but when it comes to murder, dismemberment, and other immoral violence, the line is crossed to ugly horror. Giggly discomfort has its limits. Berg more than crosses the boundaries of good taste; he breaks and demolishes them. His own hand-written script has an unashamedly take-no-prisoners approach, which is bold for a mainstream comedy like this, but the characters are such a hateful lot of macho jerks that they deserve their just desserts. In fact, hardly anybody is left standing by the end credits. 

The whole cast works hard, but sometimes the histrionics grow weary. Piven is such a manic bomb that he looks ready to detonate, and Stern is histrionic and irritatingly squirmish as the family man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But Slater and Diaz stand out with the most bite. Slater does another smirking, psychotic Jack Nicholson impression with that gleefully devilish twinkle in his eye, almost as if he's playing an all-grown-up version of his J.D. from the other death-obsessed comedy "Heathers." And Diaz is in determinedly shrill bitch mode as the wildly stressed-out bridezilla who will not let a few dead bodies in her wedding party stop her from having her wedding. But she's a nut-cracking hoot, on the flip side of her perfectly perky Kimmy in "My Best Friend's Wedding," and actually earns the movie's loudest laughs. 

"Very Bad Things" isn't without some shockingly out-of-control surprises, especially the hilariously bloody Wedding From Hell at its climax, but ultimately, laughs are disposed into body bags. Now that's a very bad thing. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Underrated "In Dreams" darkly riveting

In Dreams (1999) 
100 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Though underestimated, "In Dreams" is a nightmarish, atmospheric, and darkly original film. Annette Bening plays Claire Cooper, a woman living a satisfied life with her husband (Aidan Quinn), who flies 747s for a living, and a young daughter, Rebecca (Katie Sagona), who's practicing her lines for her school play of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." For a while, Claire has been having recurring dreams about a missing girl in an apple orchard being led away by a figure with long red hair. After Rebecca goes missing, Claire seems to hold the key to the location of the disappearing children through clairvoyant premonitions of the murderer's next move. Her life begins to unravel, causing everyone around her to believe she is insane. 

"In Dreams" is a psychological horror drama, but as directed by Neil Jordan (1992's "The Crying Game" and 1994's "Interview With the Vampire"), it's not purely a genre picture. The film can be as confusing as a dream and unpleasant, especially for parents, but it's rather imaginative and often riveting. After one of Claire's premonitions leads to the Carlton Hotel, her family's missing dog, and another dead body, it's a head-scratcher why the character whom she sees dead is not told this in time. However, the outcome of this premonition is less important than the ominous, suspenseful staging of it, which owes some inspiration to Mrs. Bate's quick, stairway-set attack in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." 

Every disturbingly eerie image is gorgeously visualized by Darius Khondji's cinematography, from the opening scene of an underwater ghost town, to the forest setting of Rebecca's play, to the apple orchard. The color-red motif might seem overdone, but it's motivated and not used distractingly under Jordan's sure hand. Also, the finale could've come off as an annoying cop-out, but it's satisfying and reminds of 1992's "Candyman." Bening is extraordinarily good as Claire, who could've very well been a stock Woman in Peril with a less trained actress, and Robert Downey Jr. is quite creepy as Vivian, the serial killer with a troubled past. "In Dreams" will be hard to forget.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bland "New in Town" as fresh as Limburger cheese

New in Town (2009) 
96 min., rated PG.
Grade: D +

Scrunchy-faced Renée Zellweger's character in "New in Town" may be new in town, but this material is as old as the first tapioca recipe, smelling as fresh as Limburger cheese. Lucy Hill is a single, corporate-climbing executive for a dairy company from Miami who volunteers to travel to one of their factories in small-town New Ulm, Minnesota and cut employment by fifty percent. Of course, she doesn't make the best first impressions, especially with local union rep Ted (Harry Connick Jr.) who likes beer and drives a pick-up truck. Will Lucy warm up to the New Ulm residents and not be able to take away the livelihoods of such hardworking people? And will she fall for Ted? Yah, you betcha! 

This terminally bland fish-out-of-water rom-com is graph-plotted like "The Pajama Game," using every Hollywood movie cliché, including stereotypically good-hearted but dim Minnesotan caricatures straight out of "Fargo," right down to the Gunderson last name (where's Marge when you need her?). 

Lucy is apparently an idiot because she traveled to Minnesota in the dead of winter, wearing a skirt and high heels, and no winter coat—in fact, she tries hiding her hard nipples. Oh, and she doesn't know how to make a fire without a remote. Seriously? And all of the northern male residents love ice fishing, all the women spend their waking lives making tapioca, and if neither hobby is your hobby, you're a fish-out-of-water. 

Comfortably pleasant as a vehicle for Zellweger, but director Jonas Elmer oh-so-desperately (ice) fishes for charm and sets up every gag so laboriously. For example, on a hunting trip, Lucy can't seem to unzip her hunting suit to pee, so when Ted finally gets it open for her, she accidentally shoots him in the rear with a rifle. The huggable actress does the most with the least, a lame and pedestrian script by newcomer Ken Race and "Sweet Home Alabama" scribe C. Jay Cox. Connick and Zellweger's romance lacks any fire or complication, and their “spicy” comic banter falls flat as a pancake. The rest of the cast is severely wasted, with Siobhan Fallon Hogan, as Lucy's aw-shucks secretary Blanche; J.K. Simmons, as the beer-bellied factory manager; and Frances Conroy, as another friendly towny. 

For a contemporary romantic comedy, "New in Town" sure feels as old as they come, don'tcha know?! 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The "Scary Movie" Series

Scary Movie (2000) 
88 min., rated R.
Grade: B

The scariest thing about "Scary Movie" is how shrewd this parody is, even down to its primary target's Dimension Films backer, and how flat-out tasteless it can be. But not NC-17 tasteless as criticized. The Wayans brothers' cheerfully lowbrow, often clever spoof of "Scream" (itself a half-spoof and originally titled "Scary Movie"), "I Know What You Did Last Summer," and the horror genre clichés is to the Wayans' "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" for what they did for the blaxploitation genre. 

Sloppy, silly, raunchy, and offensive, yes, but sometimes undeniably funny, "Scary Movie" is filled to the gills with the kind of references and in-jokes that only the sharpest horror buffs will pick up on. Keenen Ivory Wayans directs (and gives a small bit in a movie theater trailer poking fun at slavery epic "Amistad"), while brothers Marlon and Shawn star and ham it up, respectively, as the token stoner sidekick Shorty and the closet-homosexual jock Ray who likes sticking his fingers into orifices that belong to anyone besides his own girlfriend Brenda (Regina Hall). 

Carmen Electra gamely opens up the first scene in the first-victim Drew Barrymore role from "Scream," harassed over the phone, picking up a banana as her weapon of choice, chased in her white brazier and panties through a sprinkler, stabbed in the breast implant, and then killed off. The cast all keep their straight faces on, making it that more funny: newcomer Anna Faris throws tons of wide-eyed, banana-headed enthusiasm into the virginal Neve Campbell role of Cindy Campbell; Cheri O'Teri is a hoot as the snappy, stop-at-nothing reporter Gail Hailstorm (could she be mocking Courtney Cox's Gail Weathers?); and improv comic Dave Sheridan out-dumbs David Arquette as a retarded cop. 

Just when we thought the spoof genre ran its course, "Scary Movie" sneaks up on us with enough gross/funny/stoopid gags (and a penis or two). From the "Airplane!"/"The Naked Gun" school, with a hint of the Farrelly Brothers, the Wayans have a ballsy, anything-goes abandon—it's a comedy that knows how smart to be about how dumb it is. 

Scary Movie 2 (2001) 
80 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

The same movie makers behind the spoof sequel regurgitation "Scary Movie 2" lied with their first movie's tagline, “No sequel.” Shawn, Marlon, and director Keenen Ivory Wayans, along with the seven writers, are strictly out to cash in this slovenly rush job as "The Haunting," "The Amityville Horror," "Hollow Man," and "What Lies Beneath" are just a few of the horror movies that step up to be skewered. Again, the jokes only work if you've seen the movies being spoofed. Even then, most of them fall flat. 

For the string of story, damsel-in-distress Cindy (Anna Faris) and newcomers are tricked by their oily professor (an underused Tim Curry) into staying the night inside the haunted Hell House. Chris Elliott as the grossly disfigured butler is initially amusing, but the same gross-out bit with his small hand is used over and over until it ain't funny anymore. 

This is a depressingly sophomoric sequel. What follows is a parade of alarmingly crass, lame penis jokes and homosexual stereotypes, and lots and lots of bodily fluids. That's right, semen, urine, you name it, this movie's got it. Despite it having nothing to do with the proceedings, nothing comes close to the stray, raucous amusement aroused in the opening riff on "The Exorcist" (with James Woods doing a spin on Father Merrin, Natasha Lyonne as the possessed Regan, and both sharing a contest of who can projectile-vomit more pea soup). The clever, giggly bawdiness is sorely MIA in "Scary Movie 2." 

Scary Movie 3 (2003) 
90 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Anna Faris and Regina Hall, the only returning cast members of the first two "Scary Movie" movies, get caught in an invasion by aliens that leave mysterious crop circles on minister Charlie Sheen's farm and discover the existence of a videotape that kills you when you watch it. 

Now having "Airplane!" creators David Zucker and writer Jim Abrahams on board, "Scary Movie 3" is a slight improvement over the last installment. This fast, goofy, if threadbare third go-round to an already dead franchise spoofs "Signs," "The Ring," "The Matrix," and "8 Mile" (even though these obviously aren't all "scary movies"), with yet another cobbled-up story clotheslining a string of lowbrow jokes. 

The opening "Ring" parody with Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson is silly and slyly funny, but then the rest of the movie starts; you know you're in trouble when the opening scene is the funniest set-piece. Gags about pedophillic priests and Michael Jackson aren't shocking or amusing, just in bad taste. Leslie Nielsen, here playing the dim president, still has his deadpan flair for comedy that he showed in "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun" movies. More misses than hits, but the jokes come at such a fast-and-furious pace that when one falls flat, a few more are around the corner. 

Scary Movie 4 (2006) 
80 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

David Zucker and Jim Abrahams are back to old school form, spoofing "Saw," "The Grudge," "War of the Worlds," "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Village," with the cluelessly wide-eyed Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) becoming caretaker for a haunted house during an alien invasion. Craig Bierko has the right comic timing and dead-ringer looks of Tom Cruise. 

An obligatory if scattershot-funny sequel of the "Scary Movie" franchise that has long run out of gas, "Scary Movie 4" is chock full of cheap, goofy laughs relentlessly coming and going like junk food. The story is surprisingly smoothly constructed, even if it's only the foundation for jokes. The "Saw" spoof opening with Dr. Phil and Shaquille O'Neil has some giggles, as does the "Grudge" spoof with Charlie Sheen, a bottle of Viagra, and a high-rise splat to his death. There's a "Brokeback Mountain" spoof, featuring petroleum jelly, salty nuts, and a tent while two gay black cowboys serenade each other to Lionel Richie's "Hello," that's amusingly warped at first but then goes on past the funny mark. 

Not much freshness in its aimed targets, relevance to "scary movies" or comic consistency, but if you have a taste for silly humor (and have been waiting to catch the sight of Leslie Nielsen's 80-year-old rear end) and you've seen the movies being parodied, this may hit the spot for an old times' sake. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

New on DVD/Blu-ray: "Due Date," "Every Day," "Faster," "Love & Other Drugs," and "The Resident"

Due Date (2010)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Todd Phillips works the same mold with "Due Date" as his last hit "The Hangover," but even more than that, it's a down-market, uncredited retread of "Planes, Trains, & Automobiles." Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis are in the Steve Martin and John Candy type roles in this sporadically funny if uneven road-trip odd-couple comedy. 

After a misunderstanding on a flight from Atlanta, architect Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr.) hesitantly hitches a ride to Los Angeles with wannabe actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) in order to make it home in time to meet his pregnant wife's (Michelle Monaghan) due date. The both of them drive west with many of speed bumps (so to speak), including Peter's daddy-abandonment issues and Ethan carrying his late daddy's ashes in a coffee can to give the proper burial. Obviously, Downey Jr. is the angry straight-man and Galifianakis is still exposing his high-maintenance man-baby syndrome. Downey Jr.'s Peter understandably loses patience over Ethan, even when he becomes mean and short-tempered, and Galifianakis's Ethan is an annoying, socially inept idiot, falling asleep while driving and masturbating before he goes to sleep when both of them have to sleep in their rental car. Once we see a little humanity in Ethan, it still doesn't make him any less tolerable. But the verbal exchanges between the two characters are pretty funny, particularly in the first half, and Ethan has the cutest masturbating French bulldog of all cute, masturbating French bulldogs. Galifianakis's offbeat sight alone, outfitted with a scarf, a perm, and his vaguely effeminate walk, is hilarious. 

There are some funny cameos too, including Juliette Lewis and director Phillips as a couple of weed dealers, as well as cast members of the TV sitcom “Two and a Half Men.” A detour with Jamie Foxx, Peter's best friend who used to date his wife, is introduced but dropped, and Monaghan is thankfully not just a shrill she-devil like the ladies in The Hangover, even if she's mostly relegated to just answering Peter's phone calls. A highway car crash and a lot of pain don't make for good comedy gags, and a stop into Mexico and a chase by the border patrol isn't funny. Phillips and his three writers could've brought up a better comedy, but "Due Date" still has its moments wholly because of its two stars. 

Every Day (2010)
93 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

In case you thought we needed another dysfunctional-family film, Richard Levine's feature debut, "Every Day," is a relatably messy if depressing Sandwich Generation N.Y.C. dramedy. Liev Schreiber is the Mr. Mom dad, Ned, a scriptwriter for a ridiculous, sex-heavy TV series uncool about his gay, more-composed teenage son (Ezra Miller). His in-control wife, Jeannie (Helen Hunt), is spending all her time caring for her sick, crotchety, pee-stained father (Brian Dennehy), who dreams of his old band-playing days but wants to kill himself with pills. When Ned's scripts get poo-pooed by his gay boss (Eddie Izzard), he teams up with a sexy, uninhibited co-worker (Carla Gugino) who tempts him (going for a night swim/making out/getting high are her tactics for taking the edge off). 

The characters are written mostly as types, but the reliable cast approaches deeper ground. Ultimately, there's little modification to the obvious beats and neither the writing nor the acting can make you care enough. Whether or not it's intentional, Levine finds a witty visual gag in a pool sex scene between Schreiber and Gugino (“9 Inches Deep”) amidst this crisis-filled slog.

Faster (2010)
98 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

After playing with the tots in kiddo movies, such as "The Game Plan" and "The Tooth Fairy," Dwayne Johnson is finally back to busting skulls and taking names as The Rock in "Faster," a meat-and-potatoes action B-movie. Built like a brick shithouse, he plays Driver, an ex-con who did 10 years behind bars for a bank robbery. Go figure, he was the getaway driver, while his half-brother was killed. Now with vengeance on the brain, Driver goes down a hit list of people who deserve to die. Meanwhile, a slick, filthy rich software-engineer-turned-assassin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and a troubled cop (Billy Bob Thornton) are hot on his tail. With less charisma here than what he's normally underrated for, Johnson is so grim and wounded here, but he's still watchable. Thornton is good as the near-retired junkie cop, who looks like he could be Bad Santa's brother, and Carla Gugino brings her usual no-nonsense attitude to her detective role. 

What looks geared as an over-the-top, fast-and-furious grindhouse flick, with its characters labeled on screen as archetypes (“Driver,” “Killer,” “Cop,”), has more character texture and soaked up in more dark misery than your average death-wish vigilante movie. Director George Tillman Jr. and the screenwriters Tony and Joe Gayton don't bring anything new to the empty moralism of the formula, the forgiveness themes are hammered home, and a predictable last-act plot reveal is a big “duh.” But "Faster" is lean, mean, and gritty, with the kills swift and brutally satisfying, and that might be good enough for a movie that's more about tortured souls than fast cars. 

Love & Other Drugs (2010)
112 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Hollywood must be on a happy-pill kick because they've finally made a refreshingly candid, bittersweet, and adult romantic-comedy in "Love & Other Drugs." Actually, it's not really a romantic-comedy, but more of a romance with humor, drama, and a bit of history (The Release of Viagra, circa 1996) from Jamie Reidy's nonfiction book “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman.” All the elements are skillfully handled here in one film, without feeling like a muddle. It shouldn't be a hard sell with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in the leads. 

Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Randall, a superficial womanizer who's always gotten what he wanted and now works as a sales rep. He sells Prozac and Zoloft to healthcare professionals everywhere, where he then meets a patient named Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), a 26-year-old with Stage 1 Parkinson's. Their relationship starts out strictly as banging, as Maggie makes it clear she doesn't want any romantic attachments, but naturally, Jamie starts to have genuine feelings for her. As the relationship becomes the focus of "Love & Other Drugs," some of the Big Pharma stuff becomes distracting, but at least it's a fresh backdrop for a romance. And a few Viagra jokes never sink the weight of the story. 

Director Edward Zwick could have stripped all the scenes with Jamie's chubby millionaire brother, played by Josh Gad, probably because Jack Black and Jonah Hill were busy. This obnoxious comic-relief character just lives on Jamie's couch and in one instance is creepily caught masturbating to a sex tape of his brother and girlfriend. Gyllenhaal's Jamie takes time to warm up to, getting past the smarmy self-satisfaction, but Gyllenhaal nails the slick salesman charisma and puts forth emotional concern. And Hathaway has such a prickly personality and naked emotion that she makes Maggie interesting. After playing unhappily marrieds in "Brokeback Mountain," the sexy couple makes their bed scenes sizzle and the nudity's matter-of-fact and honest (you won't find Hathaway modestly wearing a bed sheet around her chest after sex). There's no denying that a romantic public announcement is a Hollywood cliché (at least there's no “slow clap”) and that a man chasing the woman he loves aboard a bus usually only happens in the movies, but "Love & Other Drugs" is still the creamier of the crop. 

The Resident (2011)
91 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

A good formula thriller is hard to come by, what with predictability and pacing. "The Resident," in spite of that bland title, at least gets the job done. It's easy to buy Hilary Swank in this role as a hard-working doctor rather than her turn in her last bomb thriller, "The Reaping." Shaking off the swampy plague and serving as executive producer on this project, Swank plays Dr. Juliet Dermer, who works long hard hours at the hospital and is just coming off a bad breakup (with Lee Pace). Time to move on, she's in luck when she finds a spacious, affordable apartment with the best Brooklyn view. It's so good to be true, so what's the catch? As the rugged but seemingly nice building owner, Max (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), tells her, utilities aren't included—and there's lousy cell phone service. Ding, ding, ding. Something's amiss right away. Could her apartment be haunted? Not quite. Once the camera lingers on Juliet stepping out of the tub and rubbing lotion all over her legs, we get the feeling someone's watching her. After mixed signals, Juliet kisses Max, but that darn breakup still has her down. 

Until the half-hour mark, "The Resident" gives us a rewind to Max contriving Juliet move-in and the fact that he's got her whole place rigged with two-sided mirrors, peep holes, and hidden wall spaces. The movie tips its hand early and doesn't pretend to have a mystery up its sleeve when another red herring might've helped. Now that we're one step ahead of Juliet, where to go now? Morgan turns up the nice-guy charm, then he's beyond creepy, like when Juliet's out of her place at work, he uses Juliet's toothbrush and does other twisted obsessed activities. And Christopher Lee's creepy turn as Max's tenant grandmother adds to the menacing atmosphere. Lots of rustles and increasing hum effects permeate the soundtrack that you feel might symbolize Max's mind cracking. 

More themes of voyeurism (and comparisons to that junky Sharon Stone thriller "Sliver" from 1993) are at work in "The Resident," but writer-director Antti J. Jokinen and co-writer Robert Orr gives this competent, straight-up thriller a jolt of sleaziness and uneasiness. Swank's Juliet may not know what we know, but her actions make more sense than most movie heroines in peril. And the penultimate scene where she watches her own surveillance camera is truly chilling and heartbreaking. When it finally gets going and the mystery is revealed, the movie gives a satisfying chase, although settles for the don't-kill-him-when-he's-down slasher clichés and does anyone else live in the building? No sweat, "The Resident" is a slickly well-crafted programmer with nothing really new in store. 

"Vanishing" visualizes fear but doesn't fully satisfy

Vanishing on 7th Street (2011)
90 min., rated R.

In Brad Anderson's near-miss chiller "Vanishing on 7th Street," darkness will scare the dickens out of you. Certainly, there's nothing original about another apocalyptic tale where characters wake up to a desolate world. But here, some sinister, unknown force plunges Detroit, Michigan into complete darkness, giving off ghostly shadows that are kept away by light. Yeah, those sinister, unknown forces are at it again. We start out with an indelible set piece at a crowded AMC movie theater; the lights go out, the people disappear, and all that's left are their clothes and belongings. So far, so good. 

And then there were four. Those left standing meet up in a deserted dive bar, among them being a movie theater projectionist (John Leguizamo), a TV anchor (Hayden Christensen), a doctor (Thandie Newton), and a 12-year-old kid (newcomer Jacob Latimore). Their loved ones are missing, but they need enough powered light sources when the sun goes down. Can they hang on? "Vanishing on 7th Street" has quite the interesting premise, something out of a Stephen King novel or a “Twilight Zone” episode. 

Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski is obviously trying to tackle existential themes in an allegorical fashion but nothing ever bigger happens. It's supposed to be vague and it is vague, but rather than overexplaining things, he under-explains what's at work here. Genre filmmaker Brad Anderson certainly brings a disquieting eeriness, as he did in his abandoned-nuthouse horror film "Session 9," and relies on restraint rather than gore or CG effects. He captures the unknown better than most hacky, hokey horror films do, and this couldn't have been an easy film to light, that's for sure. Also, cheap jack-in-the-box scares are minimal here; it's more about shivery atmosphere enveloping us and the characters. We gather information about these characters little by little, without extraneous subplots, and the groaning, ghoulish shadows are actually pretty menacing even if they're not really explained. 

So for a stripped-bare horror film, it's not half-bad. However, stretches of everyone yelling “I exist! I exist!” at the shadows and hitting their flashlights to go on don't amount to much. In fact, the film ends on a flat, unsatisfying note that'll have most asking, “Is that it?” Anderson's film is all about the questions when we want the answers (Why just these four people? What are those goblin things? Are they in Purgatory? Is the word “Croatoan” graffitied on a wall just a portent-heavy link to the 16th century lost colony of Roanoke? So what? etc.). It's just too bad that no one except the filmmakers will be able to acknowledge the big picture before "Vanishing on 7th Street" vanishes to its final credits. 

Grade: C +

Despite precious title, "happythankyoumoreplease" is an earnest pleaser

Happythankyoumoreplease (2010)
100 min., rated R.
Grade: B 

On the outside, "Happythankyoumoreplease" looks like another indie so pleased with its own self-conscious hipness. Like that preciously quirky, no-spaced title for starters. But on the inside, this multi-character seriocomedy is surprisingly down-to-earth and earnestly made. Josh Radnor (from TV's How I Met Your Mother) pulls a Woody Allen triple duty, writing, directing, and starring in his debut, a roundelay of young New Yorkers dealing with relationships, career moves, and other foibles in a happy Manhattan. There's even passing mention of the man that makes a movie once a year when he should take time off to spend with his wife/daughter. 

Radnor leads the way as Sam, a struggling “voice of our generation” writer who's late to an important publishing meeting (with Richard Jenkins) when he sees a young black foster-care boy stranded on the subway and it becomes his problem. As he fails to turn the boy over to the authorities, he “adopts” him to woo a pretty waitress/cabaret singer named Mississppi (Kate Mara), whom is asked on the same day of meeting to move into his apartment for three days. Without hair and eyebrows and her head wrapped in colorful, Barbados-style scarves, Malin Akerman plays Sam's best friend, Annie, a self-defeating alopecia-sufferer who always falls for scummy “29-year-old 12-year-olds.” Might she fall for her cheesy-creepy co-worker named Sam #2 (Tony Hale)? Another couple is Sam's cousin, Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan), and her boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber), who has a business deal brewing in L.A., while she wants to stay on the East Coast. 

Now, with all these characters, the film flows pretty well between each story, even if the parts are more compelling than the whole and they all tie up pretty smoothly (and simultaneously) at the end with truisms. These people are so gosh-darn likable and actually talk, sometimes about philosophy, and all of them are worthy of loving and happiness. "Happythankyoumoreplease," that convoluted title coming from one of Annie's conversations with an Indian cab driver, is actually less self-indulgent and more naturalistic, especially from the nice work of its cast. Akerman gives her best performance to date; Mara has a natural charm behind her beauty; Kazan is a quick, smart motor for Radnor's dialogue; but Schreiber (a hunkier Joel Moore) is a bit flat and mawkish. Radnor is a huge fan of close-ups during conversational scenes, but his DV cinematography is polished and the soundtrack is a soothing mixtape of hipster songs by Jaymay. So, thank you Radnor, this is a fine first effort. More please.