Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lock up the "The Ward" with John Carpenter's other duds

The Ward (2011) 
88 min., rated R.

Never one to be shy about coming off self-serving, John Carpenter seems to be making horror films for himself now because "The Ward," his supposed return to form, is an unoriginal dud. This is "John Carpenter's The Ward" after all, but "Halloween" this is not. After burning down an old farmhouse and being arrested by the police, amnesiac runaway Kristen (Amber Heard) gets admitted to an understaffed Oregon mental institution. Right away, things don't seem right, and she becomes haunted by the angry ghost of a departed patient who's killing off Kristen's four fellow loonies (Mamie Gummer, Danielle Panabaker, Lyndsy Fonseca, and Laura-Leigh) that walked off the set of "Girl, Interrupted." Could it be the seemingly caring doctor (Jared Harris)? Is Kristen loco? Or do they really have a ghost in the ward? How can a ghost operate the hospital's electroshock?

Set up as a snake-pit ghost story set in the late 1960s, "John Carpenter's The Ward" tries playing with our expectations, until becoming a slasher flick and ending up as "Shutter Island" psychobabble with that same-old twist (you know which one). Horror-meister Carpenter is still strong behind the camera and shows a sense of craft. He knows how to light a creepy hallway, establish a spooky, one-dark-and-stormy-night atmosphere, and gives us five hokey but effective jump-out-of-your-seat scares. Carpenter doesn't compose his own score time time, but Mark Kilian's score is tingly and haunting. 

Michael and Shawn Rasmussen's script just doesn't measure up to the rest. The brutal kills help break the monotony, but like a deflated balloon, a plot revelation three-quarters of the way in isn't much of a surprise, and the cheesy, ludicrous twist of moldy leftovers is the final straw. Heard makes for a strong, edgy heroine, but her female co-stars' performances are either histrionic (Gummer) or embarrasssing (Leigh). It's been a long wait for Carpenter to reinvent himself (since the 9-year-old "John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars"), but considering "The Ward" has no original style or narrative trick of its own, desperate horror fans wouldn't have minded the delay. Mostly it's one big gotcha.

Grade: C -

Saturday, May 28, 2011

All freshness skunked in "Hangover Part II" but laughs aplenty

The Hangover Part II (2011)
102 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Even more wildly popular than "Beverly Hills Cop," Todd Phillips' "The Hangover" became the top-grossing R-rated comedy. It was a wild, pretty clever, funny enough sausagefest-romp but didn't change the world either. Now we have "The Hangover Part II," which at first glance looks more like a lazy, cynical, phoned-in remake. Because the setup is so tantamount to the first movie, it's as if screenwriters Craig Mazin, Scot Armstrong, and director Phillips played the Mad Libs word game while writing it. But since the original was such a hit, why not construct virtually the same blueprint? As a pointless sequel, "The Hangover Part II" isn't expected to have the same surprise or thrill as the first time around, but it doesn't show a shortage of laughs either. 

"The Hangover Part II" substitutes glitzy Las Vegas for seamy Thailand, but the gang's all here, as dentist Stu (Ed Helms) is there to get married to a lovely Thai-American woman (Jamie Chung) whose father makes it clear Stu is as soggy as rice. So rather than just having brunch at an IHOP as a bachelor party, the smooth Phil (Bradley Cooper) and screwball Alan (Zach Galifianakis) push to celebrate with a few beers as The Wolfpack, along with the soon-to-be-bride's 16-year-old Stanford whiz brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), and the former lost groom, Doug (Justin Bartha). Once again, the man-boys wake up in a drunken stumpor, only now in a squalid Bangkok hotel. What happens in Bangkok, stays in Bangkok. There's that call to Doug's wife Tracy (Sasha Barrese) again: "It happened again." But instead of the tiger/baby/chicken in the hotel room is a smoking, drug-running monkey. Rather than Stu waking up to a tooth missing, he has a face tattoo like Mike Tyson. Alan's head is shaved. And the missing person is the brother-in-law…with his severed finger left in a bowl of ice. What clues will the Wolfpack find this time to piece together their hangover? 

A dark, meaner edge and the dare-you-not-to-laugh brashness allow the same beat-by-beat story to hang together, and it's just as wild and still pretty funny even if the freshness in solving the mystery feels a bit, well, skunked. "The Hangover Part II" gets most of its manic comic momentum and laughs from the chemistry of these three stooges and their casual throwaway lines. 

This time, Galifianakis makes his goofy, drug-inducing Alan even more mentally challenged and obnoxious than before, almost to the level of his rehashed character in Todd Phillips' "Due Date," but he's still a scene-stealer. And while Ken Jeong's Chow was the weakest spot in the original, whatever comes out of his cackling mouth here is quotable and pure insanity. Oh and yes, his private junk comes "up" for a sight gag again. Although not the one lost this time, Justin Bartha is curtailed again, while Lee's Teddy is poorly used. 

The shenanigans, ranging from a tranny strip club to a buddhist temple, earn laughs, and director Nick Cassavetes makes an amusing cameo as a tattoo artist, as does Paul Giamatti as a crime lord. The Mike Tyson reprisal cameo falls flat, but the final "revealing" slideshow of the real debauchery that went down is just as shockingly hilarious as before, and includes one ballsy photo reminiscent of a controversial Viet Cong prisoner execution. So, while "The Hangover Part II" doesn't bring anything new to the party, it will please fans of the first three-sheets-to-the-wind escapade in spades.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" Franchise

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) 
143 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

The cross-promotional appeal of "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" is that anyone will want to visit or revisit the Disneyland attraction that which the movie gets its inspiration. And enjoy the movie itself, of course! In fact, Johnny Depp as a gypsy-pirate drunk on Captain Morgan is a ride in itself. With matted hair and golden teeth, Depp first makes his gleefully grand entrance, stepping off his sinking boat onto the dock, as rogue scoundrel Captain Jack Sparrow. Once the British governor's plucky daughter, Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley), is kidnapped by the evil Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his crew of scallywags, who stole Jack's ship, The Black Pearl, during a mutiny and subsequently cursed and turned into the walking undead whose ghostly bones are shown in the moonlight. With the help of Elizabeth's love, ex-pirate blacksmith Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), and a motley crew, Jack must reclaim The Black Pearl and save Elizabeth before Barbossa uses her as a human sacrifice and restores his mortality with the use of the young woman's gold medallion. 

Based on the amusement park water ride, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (why the double-barrelled title, matey?) might've been a blunder for a movie. It's certainly longer than it needs to be (at two and a half hours) and a tad plot-heavy, if not nonsensical. What's the need for so much swordplay amongst the mortal buccaneers if they can't be fatally defeated? But as it turns out, this is a rollickingly rousing, epic-scale swashbuckler that's a lot of fun to watch. Director Gore Verbinski ("The Ring") moves things at a lively clip and the movie is atmospherically shot, combining the staples of a pirate movie (sword fights, walking the plank) with a ghost story (severed skeleton hands on the loose). Composer Klaus Badelt's main theme also has a driving, heroic rhythm. 

The juicy, jolly cast gorges itself on a feast of fun. Top-biller Depp is a chameleon, owning the movie with his relishingly flamboyant performance as the swishy, rum-guzzling, mascara-wearing Sparrow. Rush plays over-the-top villainy with dastardly gusto as Barbossa, Bloom is suitably dashing as the boyish hero, and the very poised Knightley makes for a plucky, beautiful heroine. Even in the slighest roles, Lee Arenberg and Mackenzie Crook are a very goofy-funny Laurel and Hardy type of pirates who need eye and dental insurance. "Pirates of the Caribbean" delivers exactly what you're looking for in overpriced summer popcorn, especially when Depp's Jack Sparrow is guiding the ship. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) 
151 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Another Disney World ride, Space Mountain, never got its own movie, but "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" was a 2003 summer hit and spawned itself a sequel three years later. You could tell it'd be a franchise because there's a colon in the titles. Less is obviously more, but "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" goes the more-is-more route from the Walt Disney-Jerry Bruckheimer juggernaut. Upon their wedding, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) are arrested on charges for assisting in the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), so they must find the key to open a mysterious chest that's also wanted by the half-squid, half-human captain of the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). 

Bloated by at least an hour, this sporadically fun but trudging sequel has no hard-driving story to tell, but it still has enough imaginative treats that nearly top "The Curse of the Black Pearl." As always, this "Pirates" movie is stylishly designed, boasting very impressive monster makeup. More engaging and amusingly over-the-top are the action set pieces: the hamster-wheel of sorts bit with Sparrow is especially thrilling and funny, and a gargantuan sea monster's attack on the Black Pearl is pretty intense. Depp entertains again as Jack Sparrow in another cheeky, kooky, although more-restrained performance, but as Davy Jones, Nighy gets to eat up the screen with relish, assisted by a deliciously creepy-crawly makeup job. Knightley and Bloom are a little less interesting as characters for the second voyage but still get to do a lot of clomping around. Naomie Harris makes an enjoyably campy addition as voodoo priestess Tia Dalma. 

Gore Verbinski returns as director, amping up the action and laughs, and so do the last screenwriters, whose convoluted and overstuffed script has virtually nothing to propel the movie and finds no resolution even by the end, shoving itself into a corner. Instead, we're left with a cliffhanger for yet another sequel. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" is mostly a chaotic blur, but enjoyable as a cotton-candy movie. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
169 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

Exhaustingly bloated and interminable, the third installment "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (shot in tandem with "POTC: Dead Man's Chest") goes down with the ship. When we last found them, lovebirds Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) needed the resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to rescue rum-soaked Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), last seen being swallowed up by the Kraken into Davy Jones' locker. Meanwhile, the devious Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) plans to wipe out the pirate population. And blah, blah, yadda, yadda, the plot goes on from there. At a 169-minute running time that don't know when to shut up, all that's missing is the kitchen sink—Chow Yun-Fat is wasted and The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards drops in as Jack's dad for a stunt cameo. But the plotting feels clogged, convoluted, and overwritten. 

Aside from the fun Depp and some crackling wit breezing it along, this "three-quel" spins its wheels as even most of the action sequences feel more like tediously hectic trials rather than so-called summer fun. Most indelibly nifty moments: Jack's head-trip as he hallucinates multiple copies of himself, and a sequence in which the Black Pearl passengers capsize the ship to return to the world of the living. Those tasty morsels aside, "At World's End" goes out with a whimper and hopefully marks the end of "Pirates." The experience is like going to a popular restaurant where the food looks delicious but tasting it is disappointing. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

New on DVD/Blu-ray: "The Roommate" and "The Rite" (aka The Bad Rs)

The Roommate (2011)
92 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: D +

Most of us can relate to the nightmare of sharing a college dorm room with a bad roommate. But in lieu of going in any interesting or remotely surprising direction, "The Roommate" is just another glibly formulaic blank-from-hell thriller. And not even a fun, trashy, or thrilling thriller. It's this generation's teenybopper answer to "Single White Female" in the dorms, like "Swimfan" was to "Fatal Attraction" in high school, with a pretty CW Channel cast. 

Anyone who's ever seen a movie before knows the drill: a mentally unhinged person becomes obsessed with someone, then becomes an extreme, outright loony psycho whose motto is “If I can't have them, no one can, dammit!” In "The Roommate," small-town girl Sara (Minka Kelly) moves to Los Angeles for her freshman year of college and quickly becomes friends with her roommate Rebecca (Leighton Meester), a friendly local girl. Before long, Rebecca turns clingy, needy, and jealous of anyone that competes for her roomie's attention. At worst, you'd think she'd just be stealing Sara's food or locking her out of the room, but no, this bad roommate wants Sara's life and she'll take out anyone that ruins her plan. Rebecca might as well have “Bat-Shit Crazy” tattooed on her forehead. 

"The Roommate" is a pallid, laughable Lifetime Movie that cheapens schizophrenia/bipolar disorder as Rebecca's twisted motivation to put Cuddles the kitten in a dryer, rip a girl's belly-button ring clean off, and seduce a professor and then blackmail him. Sure, the movie makes some gutsy attempts to shock, especially for a PG-13. But first-time screenwriter Sonny Mallhi's lazy script oversimplifies Rebecca's psychosis by having Rebecca's mother (Frances Fisher) asking Sara privately if her daughter has been taking her medication at school, and then it's never dealt with thereafter. Once finding Rebecca's prescription antipsychotic pills for herself, Sara could consult her RA, but nope. Rebecca is just made to be a rudimentary basket case, plain and simple. 

Rather than putting a twist on this very familiar blueprint, Mallhi and Danish director Christian E. Christiansen (in his U.S. debut) amazingly rip off every beat from "SWF" like an A-to-Z to-do list, even down to the predictable to-the-death cat fight. Even the cinematography is muddy as if the lense is in need of Windex. The editing is overly choppy and obscures what's going on, and one odd transition from an eye dissolves into a turkey on a plate. As for the actors, Kelly and Meester look like they could be sisters, or doppelgangers. Kelly has a sweet, attractive valley-girl face with her lip gloss always shining, but that's about it. Only Meester seems to be trying, getting her Jennifer Jason Leigh stares down pat and showing a few subtleties, but she's wasted in this stock role. Billy Zane gets to sleaze it up as a fashion design prof, and Cam Gigandet is a hunky mannequin that squints a lot and makes cocky smirks as Sara's frat boyfriend. "The Roommate," more like 'Stupid White Female,' fails at characterization, psychology, and suspense, instead earning more eye-rolls than attending a Psych 100 lecture at 8 a.m. Enough said.

The Rite (2011)
114 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C

The Power of Anthony Hopkins compels you in "The Rite," a religious horror drama, while everything else is self-serious and uninteresting. And that's a disappointment, considering it's from director Mikael Hafstrom (who gave us the effectively spooky "1408") and the ads suggested something promisingly chilling. Despite Hopkins receiving top billing, newcomer Colin O'Donoghue takes the lead as Michael, a skeptical atheist fresh out of the seminary to enter the priesthood. To get out of his father's (Rutger Hauer) mortuary business, he goes off to Rome to study exorcisms under the shadowing of the unorthodox Father Lucas (Hopkins). Is the Devil real or part of Lucas's bogus methods? 

Ever since he tried cannibalism as Hannibal Lecter, Sir Anthony Hopkins can give a steely, genuinely chilling gaze with those beady eyes better than anyone. He makes woodchuck scenery-chewing an art form. O'Donoghue has an appealing presence and gives us someone relatable. Too bad Hauer's always-heady presence goes to waste. You can forget the owl-like head spinning and upchucking of pea soup, as Hopkins amusingly quips, because this film wants to say it's "inspired by actual events" and dares to explore faith. 

"The Rite" doesn't have you in its grip as much as it just plods along, and the pacing isn't European-flavored in its deliberateness when it's just rather sluggish. The showdown between Good and Evil is hokey and over-the-top; then again, it's a hoot and gives the movie a jolt of campy energy, with a possessed Hopkins' enhanced growl and name-calling Michael "kissy lips." The exorcism scenes of a pregnant teen contorting her body are intense and loud, and disturbing in the instance of bloody crucifixion nails, but we've seen this all before from sequels, prequels, and knockoffs. "The Rite" doesn't change the fact that William Friedkin's "The Exorcist" exists and still horrifyingly holds up today. 

"Something Borrowed" takes the middle road

Something Borrowed (2011)
103 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Lately, a well-done romantic comedy is like asking for pigs to fly. For every "Going the Distance" and "No Strings Attached," there are shrill and unfunny misfires like "Bride Wars" and "The Back-Up Plan." The in-between "Something Borrowed" tries to be more than just another disposable "chick flick." It's a wedding/love-triangle "sismance" romantic comedy, based on Emily Griffin's best-selling novel, but while it borrows from "My Best Friend's Wedding," "Something Borrowed" gains some truth and insight into female relationships too. Sweet-cheeked Ginnifer Goodwin is Rachel, the doormat protagonist, an attorney who's just turned 30 and makes the mistake of sleeping with her longtime crush and law schoolmate Dex (Colin Egglesfield), who happens to be her best friend's fiancee. This obviously gets her into a real pickle, as she vicariously lives through the wild, sexy Darcy (Kate Hudson), whom she's known forever. Rachel introduced Darcy to Dex six years ago and practically gave him away, even while secretly in love with him and Dex still having feelings for her. Once their affair takes off and feelings are finally revealed, Rachel and Dex can't seem to reveal the truth to the third wheel. 

Without even trying, Goodwin is adorable as ever and makes her Rachel likable, despite being a pathetic martyr and not having much of a backbone. Egglesfield has Tom Cruise/Eric McCormack good looks and shows some charisma, but his Dex is passive and lacks decisiveness. Hudson is in the toughest spot, playing such an obnoxiously self-involved, immature party girl, that she barely gets the chance to rise above one dimension. At least she's having fun. But it's never understandable why Rachel and Dex, respectively, would be best friends with or be getting married to Darcy in the first place. Of course, Rachel is made to be the less "hot" one, even though she's just as gorgeous. And since Darcy never seems to work, why so many back-and-forth visits to the Hamptons? Another mystery is why Dex's old-money parents would rather him marry Darcy than the smart, good-hearted Rachel. Because Dex's mother (Jill Elkenberry) is depressed? Take her to a therapist, don't marry a dim narcissist! The real comic relief is John Krasinski, as Rachel's best platonic male friend Ethan who figures out what's going on before Darcy and acts gay to turn off a clingy gal (Ashley Williams). He steals every scene with his instant likability and wittily timed line readings. 

Directed by Luke Greenfield (2004's severely underrated gem "The Girl Next Door"), working from TV writer Jennie Snyder's script, the film doesn't resort to cheap slapstick. There's a hit-in-the-face gag with a badminton racket, but it's more character and plot-driven, and Hudson and Goodwin perform a fun choreographed dance to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" that reflects the characters' history and friendship. Though it's overlong and could've been improved had Darcy been buried in the Hamptons' sand, but "Something Borrowed" is more diverting than not and refreshingly ends on a note of melancholy and happiness rather than settling for a tidy, upbeat foregone conclusion. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Smart, hilarious "Bridesmaids" tells 'chick flicks' to suck it

Bridesmaids (2011) 
125 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

Ever since SNL comedienne Kristen Wiig received her brief but hilariously deadpan big-screen gig in Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up" and about fourteen supporting bit parts, she's finally found her solo headlining vehicle in "Bridesmaids." This raunchy, rowdy, R-rated, and yet warmly felt, human, and always fun marriage of gross-out hijinks and female-centric charm is a testament to Wiig's brilliance as a comedy goddess. Being a Judd Apatow production, "Bridesmaids" is pretty long for a comedy, but it'll have you laughing so hard and so often that time will fly when you're having fun. 

Wiig plays Annie, a Milwaukee thirtysomething whose life leaves more to be desired: she has booty-call sleepovers with a chauvinistic jerk (a hilariously smarmy Jon Hamm), her bakery business went under and now works at a jewelry store, and she shares an apartment with two creepy, unpleasant British siblings (Rebel Wilson and Matt Lucas). The only positive constant in her life is her childhood best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who's recently engaged and crowns Annie to be her maid of honor. Immediately frazzled, Annie then meets the motley crew of a bridal party, including the prim, seemingly perfect Helen (Rose Byrne). She tries to outdo Helen at every turn but merely embarrasses herself as all the pre-wedding planning gets to be too much for Annie's emotions. 

The women, not men, are at the forefront of the shenanigans much like 2002's raunchy, unjustly maligned romp "The Sweetest Thing," proving the ladies can have just as much fun as the dudes. But "Bridesmaids" is too smart to be called another "chick flick" (a sexist and condescending label anyway) and it's more than just "Bride of 'The Hangover'." In fact, this movie would tell a shrill wedding comedy like "Bride Wars" to suck it. The script by Wiig and her Groundlings improv buddy, screenwriter Annie Mumolo (who has a quick on-screen role), is both honest and hilarious. And director Paul Feig, who collaborated with producer Apatow on the beloved TV series "Freaks and Geeks," holds the jokes long enough to let the awkward moments play out believably and humorously. He also makes sure his whole cast of sharp comediennes get in on the spotlight. 

Front and center, Wiig is a secret weapon. She's a nimble physical and verbal comedian with ace timing, and not a vain actress. Identifiable, appealing, and dexterous, she can do anything and always makes you root for Annie, despite how petty her jealousy is. Her loopy charade from mixing pills and booze on an airplane is hysterically priceless, as is Annie and Helen's one-upmanship during their speeches at Lillian's engagement party, along with the way in which Annie tries getting her love interest's attention. Following lunch at a questionable Brazilian restaurant, a dress fitting turns into a vomitorium from food poisoning. It's a broad, outrageous gross-out set piece and played with such comedic fearlessness, but feels a bit shoehorned in. Otherwise, the humor is grounded from the social discomforts of real-life situations and the relationships among women actually feel real. The history of Wiig and Rudolph's real-life friendship carries over on screen as Annie and Lillian with warmth and naturalism. 

Melissa McCarthy is an absolutely ballsy force, almost unrecognizable as the butch, coarse, sexually ravenous Megan, with her brash, weird punchlines delivering a laugh every time. Rather than coming off as a caricature, Megan is delightfully odd, endearing, and real. Get this woman a spin-off, stat. She even gets to share a funny scene with her real-life husband, Ben Falcone, as a plane air marshall. Even the usually straight-faced Byrne gets to shake it up a bit, fabulously playing off Wiig. Her Helen could've easily just been a screechy, snotty villain but shows a sympathetic side. Of the last remaining bridesmaids, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper have the least to do as cougar wife/mother of three Rita and naïve, Disney-loving newlywed Becca, but nearly always hit their mark and show comedic discipline. Chris O'Dowd is charming in a non-traditional way as Annie's love interest, Officer Nathan Rhodes, an Irish state trooper. Finally, the late Jill Clayburgh is wonderful in her final role as Annie's mother, who's enrolled in AA. 

Bottom line, no one in the winning cast is afraid to look silly and leave their inhibitions at the door, or make fun of themselves, including the band Wilson Phillips that gets the last laugh, well, second to last. Try getting their song "Hold On" out of your head afterwards. "Bridesmaids" is comic bliss, and it's about time. 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Seamy "Informers" less than zero

The Informers (2009) 
100 min., rated R. 
Grade: D

The pointless and dismal "The Informers" is one of those seamy Bret Easton Ellis movies, only vacuously so, that urges you to jump in the shower for a rub-a-dub-scrub after enduring it. All of its decadent, hollow, debauched characters desire sleeping with anyone and everyone, drugs, wealth, fame, and listening to Pat Benatar—and the adults are prime unfit parents. Author Ellis and Nicholas Jarecki adapt Ellis' 1994 novel, set in 1983 Los Angeles, and it's mostly a collection of too many characters with soap-opera stories that have no connection and no discernible meaning: why should we give two hoots about these bored damaged goods? 

As our “protagonist,” a bland Jon Foster plays the bisexual drug dealer, Graham. His dad, miserable Hollywood bigwig William (Billy Bob Thornton), is trying to get back together with his mom, long-suffering pill popper Laura (Kim Basinger), while continuing his affair with news anchor Cheryl (a jittery Winona Ryder). One of Graham's buddies Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci) is vacationing in Hawaii with his lecherous father (Chris Isaak). As if that's not all sordid and messed-up enough, pre-comeback Mickey Rourke (typically looking in need of a shower) as a drifter kidnaps and sells kids. And it's unfortunate this has to be the late Brad Renfro's memorial-farewell picture, playing a twitchy would-be actor doorman, after dying earlier in the year of a heroin overdose. Amber Heard as Graham's polyamorous play thing Christie struts around without a shirt, much less undies, so the film can get in its gratuitous nudity. 

For the record (or if you care), the film contains no vampires (!) from the novel, but bloodsuckers might've been more interesting than all these thinly written soulsuckers. Director Gregor Jordan shoots his film with a glossy sheen (possibly symbolic of the characters' superficialty?) and there's nostalgic '80s music, but that doesn't stop "The Informers" from being "less than zero."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Drearily obnoxious "Heartbreak Kid" breaks comedy to pieces

The Heartbreak Kid (2007) 
115 min., rated R.
Grade: D

Loosely based on the 1972 Elaine May farce by the same name, "The Heartbreak Kid" is a dumbed-down, grossed-up, and drug-out remake. And it's an embarrassment for all involved and misery for us watching. 

Ben Stiller is no stranger to this type of role, playing middle-aged San Francisco bachelor Eddie. He rushes into marrying a blond, beautiful environmental researcher named Lila (Malin Akerman) and then slowly-but-surely discovers on their honeymoon in Cabo, Mexico that his bride is a complete nightmare. Lila sings along to every song on the radio, insists they hold hands at breakfast, and causes Eddie to feel physical pain during sex, and that's just the beginning. Needless to say, he falls for free-spirited Mississippi vacation girl Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) instead. 

If any moviegoer that loves busting a gut needs proof that comedy is a fragile business and an effortful case to crack these days, even for the Farrellys, "The Heartbreak Kid" is it. This typical gross-out enterprise from brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly—of all people, and startlingly co-written by two more people—is grating, interminable, mean-spirited and worst of all, excruciatingly unfunny when all it had to do was bring on the funny. The ribald R-rating puts the "yuck" in yuk, relying desperately on bodily humor for laughs with queasily grotesque gags involving overgrown pubic hair, a jelly fish, nasty sunburn, and a deviated septum, none that ever surpass the slyly hilarious payoff of "There's Something About Mary's" 'hair gel gag' or 'Stiller's penile flesh caught in a zipper gag.' However, there are two wildly funny sex scenes, proving the Akerman character to be a freak in the sheets while shouting "Jackhammer me!"

Stiller's Eddie is an unappealing jerk that you don't really care if Lila drives him off a cliff. Though admittedly showing fearlessly nimble comic flair and will remind some of Cameron Diaz, Akerman is obliged to act insufferably obnoxious as a harridan and embarrass herself repeatedly. Frankly, you just feel sorry for her. But Monaghan adds much-needed, amiable charm as Miranda that you can't really blame Eddie for liking her. Given some of the rudest but criminally funny dialogue, Ben's father Jerry Stiller is at his smarmiest as he gives his son advice on "booming" women. A depressing misfire, "The Heartbreak Kid" is going to break the Farrellys' fans' hearts. 

New on DVD: "Country Strong" and "Waiting For Forever"

Country Strong (2011)
117 min., rated PG-13
Grade: C

Months, maybe weeks, after Country Strong is long gone from theaters, it'll be known above all as the movie showcase that proves Gwyneth Paltrow can sing when she's not guest starring on TV's “Glee.” That's right, girl's got pipes and she's country strong! This had potential to be like a fun, heartfelt country-song story if it didn't bathe in so many darn tootin' clichés and weren't so thinly written. 

Following a drunken public meltdown and a miscarriage during a Dallas concert, six-time Grammy winning country singer Kelly Canter (Paltrow) with a lot of baggage gets released one month shy from rehab for drug and booze addiction to go on a comeback tour. She wants her honkytonk-singing orderly/fling, Beau (Garrett Hedlund), acting as Kelly's AA sponsor, to open for her, but her manager husband, James (Tim McGraw), already has an opening act in the form of doe-eyed, overeager beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), who suffers from stage fright but might have as much popstar talent as Carrie Underwood and a few secrets. Anyway, they all hit the road, Beau included, but is it too soon for Kelly's comeback, and will she return to the booze and pills? 

Written and directed by Shana Feste, the predictably melodramatic, unfocused script is the worst offender, and it's about as smartly choreographed as a square dance. It makes Kelly's miscarriage an elephant in the room, but gives us a clunky metaphor for her loss, as she carries around a wounded baby quail she found in rehab inside a cigar box. Groan. 

We don't learn enough about these unfleshed-out characters to care about or make sense of them and their personal demons. Even the editor favors many unexplained, insignificant scenes that only muddle relationship beats. Paltrow sometimes handles Canter's fragility well and her paying a visit to a Make-a-Wish child with leukemia is a nice scene, but she hysterically over-emotes during the self-destructive, mascara-running episodes. It's as subtle as a vodka bottle being thrown at a wall...oh wait, this movie has one of those moments, too. 

All the actors give sincere efforts, and they have solid voices as they did all the warbling themselves, but it's frustrating that a real-life country star like Tim McGraw doesn't even get a chance to sing; his James is just aloof. Hedlund, with his scruffy sexuality and charisma, and Meester, who's endearing and photogenic, land the biggest impression. 

The drama doesn't always ring true, and the whitewashing script isn't deserving of such an off-puttingly wrongheaded event for the climax if moviegoers think they're in for Kelly Canter's rise-and-fall-and-rise-again tale. But while Feste's script could've used revisions before shooting, the soundtrack at least has some foot-tapping pop songs and Paltrow's “Coming Home” is a crowd-pleaser. 

Now for a bad music pun: Country Strong may have some pretty strong singles, but it's a weak album. 

Waiting for Forever (2010)
95 min., rated PG-13
Grade: C

What if a childhood friend entered back into your life and then revealed that he's been following you ever since? Sounds like a horror film, right? It's not supposed to be creepy, but Waiting for Forever is never the sweetly poetic, wistful romance it strives to be either. 

More of a miscalculation than a crushing disaster, this drippy, confused stalker-romance could've been a wonderful fairy tale but it just doesn't sit well. 

Oddball drifter/street-performer Willie (Tom Sturridge) makes his homecoming to his Pennsylvania town once his childhood friend Emma (Rachel Bilson), now a Hollywood TV actress, returns to see her dying father (Richard Jenkins) in the care of her mother (Blythe Danner). You see, Willie and Emma haven't talked since his parents died in a fatal train accident when they were just children, but he knows Emma's every move…he goes where she is. Willie is so kooky that he dresses himself in a bowler hat and pajama pants, like a Johnny Depp impersonator doing an act from Benny & Joon, while talking to his dead parents. 

Director James Keach and screenwriter Steve Adams can never decide whether the character of Will is an eccentric clown or a naive with a serious mental problem that the written and directed treatment of him just comes off sad and irresponsible. If that's not bad enough, a story point involving a murder gets tossed in, needlessly so. The performances aren't bad: Sturridge manages some spacey charm in spite of his ill-defined character; Bilson is cute but given very little to do; and Danner is excellent playing another one of her delicately cheerful dears of a mom. 

Whimsical but not irresistible, Waiting for Forever is an odd duck that ends before it can grow on you. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

"Story of Us" has truthful moments but disappoints from Rob Reiner

The Story of Us (1999) 
95 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

If Harry and Sally divorced after meeting and marrying, it would turn out like "The Story of Us," director Rob Reiner's drab but forcefully acted look at marriage. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer spat, cry, and slam doors; the marriage they depict is a war zone and it's about as much fun as sitting in on an angry therapy session. Ben and Katie Jordan are an exhausted couple who after 15 years of marriage can't find what was good about it. Once they drop their kids off at summer camp, they begin a trial separation and we're given a recount of the good, the bad, and the ugly in episodic, nonlinear flashback. 

Reiner balances the unpleasant screaming matches with some light humor, but has a way of undercutting the painfully accurate observation with annoyingly forced dialogue more consistent in a sitcom. In particular, the “best friend” characters are there for comic relief, but Rita Wilson shrilly strains as she talks to Pfeiffer about orgasms, and Reiner himself gives Willis aphorisms about butts. Woody Allen had a wittier and more subtle way of wringing laughs from his marital couple stories. But one funny montage of the Jordans' various shrinks cuts to Ben and Katie, who are told to always have “six people in their bed,” with Red Buttons, Betty White, Jayne Meadows, and Tom Poston as their folks imagined on either bed side. Another nice sequence has Ben and Katie trying to reignite their relationship in Europe—all because of their shared hatred for a bothersome, overly perky American couple. 

Willis and Pfeiffer are utterly convincing as this “Everycouple” and give it their mightiest. We get a sense of the couple at their happiest and surely at their worst, with occasional he-said/she-said confessionals to the camera, and they're sympathetic enough to see if they work it out or not. Though, it's too bad Alan Zweibel and Jessie Nelson's glib script wasn't more fully written rather than just giving us timeline montages set to Eric Clapton's lyrical score. Pfeiffer makes a final speech of joy, frustration, and sentimental cobbled together that she delivers with smiling-through-tears conviction, but it feels “written” (like an audition monologue). 

Despite some wonderful scenes and the leads' compelling performances, the film paints itself into a corner with a too easy happy ending when the ugly truth would've actually been more satisfying. "The Story of Us" is Reiner's story of disappointment. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Water for Elephants" glossy, old-fashioned corn

Water for Elephants (2011)
122 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, including you Twi-hards out there, step right up to this adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling novel. It's "Water for Elephants," romantic-drama corn given the "Titanic"/"The Notebook" design but gloriously mounted and appealingly old-fashioned corn. 

Sleepy-eyed Robert Pattinson shows more color in his cheeks and expression in his face as Jacob Jankowski, a Great Depression-era veterinary student at Cornell about to take his final exams before losing his parents in a car accident. He hits the road penniless and hops aboard a train that belongs to the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. Yes, he runs away and joins the circus. Then once Jacob meets the star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who rides horse-back, he immediately falls for her, even if she's the wife of the circus owner, a cruel, abusive man named August (Christoph Waltz). After the star horse dies of disease, August invests in an elephant named Rosie (who understands Polish!) as the new animal star in hopes that she will bring in enough money to keep the circus alive. But will a forbidden romance, a controlling ringleader, and a beautiful pachyderm cultimate in "The Great Circus Disaster of 1931"? 

Directed by Francis Lawrence from a script by Richard LaGravenese, "Water for Elephants" is gauzy, satisfying entertainment but never achieves enough passion or emotional impact to believe the love triangle. Bookended with an old Jacob, poignantly played by Hal Holbrook, the wraparound framing device (and the golden-year-old actor) convince us of a life-changing relationship more than the actors playing the runaway and star attraction. And that's where the one (but not elephantine) problem with "Water for Elephants" lies. There's a little tension between the two, Pattinson shows a little escape from his broody typecasting cage, and Witherspoon is radiant as usual with the look of a Classic Hollywood bombshell. But neither actor has much of a character, beyond a backstory, to work with. 

Some of the colorful circus-freak characters fall out of the three-ring circus when they should've at least stood by the guardrails, especially Jacob's boozy mentor Camel (Jim Norton) and dwarf roommate Kinko (Mark Povinelli). As it goes for the circus act and the movie itself, Tai the well-trained elephant steals the show as Rosie: she's stubborn, gentle, helpful, and you can see her soul in her eyes. She ain't no CGI fool. Of Tai's human co-stars, Waltz is the most interesting to watch. No less insane than his Oscar-winning turn as the Nazi colonel in "Inglourious Basterds," he's deliciously volcanic if ever so broad as the heavy, shifting between savage cruelty, charm, and cartoonish villainy. 

Otherwise, from a technical aspect, "Water for Elephants" looks great, evoking both the period and circus atmosphere beautifully. Like the feeling you had as a kid attending the circus, Water for Elephants casts a magical spell on you, with or without the perfunctory romance.