Friday, March 30, 2012

Despite stylish look and some cheekiness, "Mirror Mirror" merely fair retelling

Mirror Mirror (2012)
106 min., rated PG.
Hollywood sure likes its fairy tales, what with TV shows "Once Upon a Time" and "Grimm" and not one but two takes on the "Snow White" tale being released this year, let alone three months apart. "Mirror Mirror" is the first wrinkle on the dark Brothers Grimm fairy tale, decidedly more cheerful and all-ages friendly but nowhere near as eye-rollingly hammy and pandering as suggested by its dreadful marketing. With director Tarsem Singh in command (pulling a McG and going just by "Tarsem" in the credits), this half-earnest, half-jokey retelling is an opulent feast for the eyes, which is great because everything else is pretty flat and often wackily unfunny.

From the beginning, The Queen (Julia Roberts) narrates, clarifying that this is her story, not Snow White's. She makes a few mocking asides, commenting that her stepdaughter's parents named her Snow White because it was "the most pretentious name they could come up with" and that the unemployed townspeople waste their time singing and dancing all day. After the King supposedly goes missing in the woods and the Queen is left to rule the kingdom, Snow (Lily Collins, daughter of Phil) is cooped up in her room while her wicked, vain stepmother sucks tax money from the town's peasants so she can have lavish parties downstairs. When the Queen orders Snow to be taken into the woods and killed on her 18th birthday, she's set free instead and found by the seven dwarfs (all played by some real, great little people). Meanwhile, Prince Alcot (Armie Hammer) finds his way into the Queen's castle and he's so handsome that she wants to marry him, so all of her money troubles will be over.

"Mirror Mirror" is not a totally arch fractured fairy tale like the original "Shrek," the delightfully inventive gem "Ella Enchanted," or even the hugely enchanting "Enchanted." In fact, this beauty could've used a bit more bite, snark, or something. As expected with director Singh's visual flair and surrealist eye since 2000's staggeringly trippy "The Cell," the costumes, sets, and overall production design sure are colorful and imaginative, even if most of the film is shot on Canadian soundstages. (The Queen's wedding actually looks like the garish, opulent Capitol in "The Hunger Games.") Otherwise, the director's pacing is oddly inert and the jokes rarely fall into a rhythm that works.

The film sticks to the basic framework of the tale while tweaking it here and there with quirks of its own. Instead of merry, mine-working dwarves whistling while they work and sporting cute names, the seven little men are bandits on stilts made of accordion pantaloons. There's no Sneezy, Grumpy, etc., but instead we get names like Grub and Grimm. One likes to eat a lot, and another has a crush on Snow. Also, rather than making Snow clean house, they teach her out to fight like a swashbuckling warrior princess, so that must be a female-empowerment spin. The Queen's beauty regimen with the help of bird poop, bees, maggots, and snakes is a weird, devilish touch. There's also a beast (which looks like a dragon-reindeer hybrid) lurking in the woods, and a surprise comes of that. Most refreshing is the handling of the "poisoned apple." 

Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller's script tosses out a couple meta, anachronistic throwaway lines, "It's time to change the ending," and another about focus groups, which are clever enough but tacked-on and inconsistent with what's come before. The screenwriters don't really explain the other world the Queen enters when she goes through her mirror (floating up from the water, onto a bridge, and into a hut where a black-magic twin version of herself reflects in the mirrors). Oddly enough, the Queen's double looks like Dr. Jekyll's servant that Roberts played in "Mary Reilly." 

Roberts is such a recognizable movie star that whatever role she's cast in, it's still Julia Roberts with her wide smile and infectious cackle. Luckily, given her first truly villainous role, she has cheeky fun with it and gets in some cartoonishly cruel wisecracks. Collins, daughter of Phil, has a sweet, bewitching Audrey Hepburn quality about her (and check out those dark, monstrous eyebrows), but she's a blank screen presence. That is until she leads an enjoyable Bollywood dance number to "I Believe" across the end credits. Outside of that, Collins mostly just hits her mark and says her lines with a polite blandness. Hammer is perfectly dashing as a Prince Charming and game enough to look goofy, something Brendan Fraser used to be able to do. His hairy naked chest appears quite often as a joke and his white tooth even sparkles at one point. At one point, he's given a "puppy love" potion to drink, turning him into . . . a puppy. Licking Roberts on the face and asking to have his belly rubbed is momentarily amusing, especially to see the strapping actor get loose, but the joke plays itself out. Nathan Lane, as the Queen's faithful and much-abused servant Brighton, provides some of the funnier gags with his perfect comic timing. Mare Winningham is also nice to see as a baker woman who has taken a liking to Snow since she was young.

Previous "Snow White" tellings range from the bloody-fun and grim "Snow White: A Tale of Terror" to the Amanda Bynes teen modernization "Sydney White." "Mirror Mirror" at least exceeds negative preconceived notions; it's kind of fun and kind of charming, but despite being pretty to look at, it's also pretty dull. Like a reflection of celebrities wearing designers, this movie wears Tarsem. The Justin Bieber generation might enjoy it, but the animated Disney classic, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," from 1937 remains the standard. Hopefully the upcoming "Snow White and the Huntsman" is the fairest one of all.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Inspired bits in "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" grow desperate and tiresome in feature form

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012)
93 min., rated R.
For those who aren't culturally in the know, Tim and Eric are inscrutable wits of odd, twisted, post-modern "anti-humor." Their brand of sketch comedy has premiered on their 2007-2010 TV series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim comedy block, and has acquired a strong cult following. Now it's time for their big theatrical break with "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," a scattershot and ultimately tiresome expansion of occasionally inspired, mostly irritating shtick. If you cracked up consistently throughout a similar Adult Swim brainchild, the cult TV show-turned-feature "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters," you're most likely the target audience for this curiosity. 

In Hollywood, fake-baked clowns Tim (Tim Heidecker) and Eric (Eric Wareheim) have blown a billion dollars on making an unwatchable three-minute movie. (They inadvertently used a Johnny Depp impersonator instead of the real thing, and spent the rest of their budget on hiring personal stylists.) After they show a preview screening of their finished product, their financier Tommy Schlaaang (Robert Loggia, who looks like an evil little goblin here) is furious. Then one night at the clubs, where they just want to get black-out drunk and high, a TV commercial comes on above the bathroom urinals: mall owner Damien Weebs (Will Ferrell) of S'wallow Valley Mall requests someone to help save his mall and make a billion dollars. So the two schlubby nincompoops get the idea to get back the lost money and reinvent themselves as a business called "Dobis P.R." The mall turns out to be a post-apocalyptic scene full of homeless squatters. There's a vicious wolf on the loose (why not?). Eric becomes smitten with a mall employee named Katie (Twink Caplan, most memorable as Miss Geist in 1995's "Clueless"). Tim takes the 10-year-old son of a "used toilet paper store" owner as if he was his own. All the while, Mr. Schlaaang realizes Tim and Eric leave town and wants them dead. 

This is more of a stretched "Funny or Die" sketch of non-sequiturs than a real movie, so it's easier to pick apart as a whole. Taken on the basis of a joke-by-joke rhythm, the first 30 minutes are funny as Tim and Eric's absurdist humor goes, but then the movie turns to even more gross desperation. A running sight gag, where Tim and Eric daintily scamper with their hands at their sides to the song "Two Horses," vaguely earns a smile. A gluten-infested restaurant called Inbreadables gets a laugh. Less funny and clever is the the "Shrim Institute" scene (young boys defecating on Eric in a bathtub) that follows, intercut with Tim and a 65-year-old woman having sex with dildos. Sames goes with the abuse of Tim and Eric's mothers (one of whom gets their finger sliced off).

Is it stupid and nonsensical? Every bit of it, but whether or not it's supposed to be FUNNY isn't always certain. The funniest bitand this is relativeis the opening, a faux "paid advertisement for Schlaaang Incorporated." Chef Goldblum (Jeff Goldblum) comes on to introduce the Schlaaang Super Seat ("If you're not sitting in a Schlaang Super Seat, you're just not sitting down!"). From there, we get Tim and Eric's movie, a Schlaaang Films production, also produced by Schlaaang 21 Productions…and the Schlaaang Group…presented in Schlaaang Sound. For about 30 seconds, the credit, "Directed by Tim & Eric," glimmers and shines on the screen, and that's obviously the joke. This sort of repetition is only amusing in small doses. 

With unfunny, uncredited pop-up cameos, the film is stacked with one-note, off-putting characters. John C. Reilly gets to cough up blood as the slobby, deathly ill Taquito. Will Forte shouts angrily a lot. Ferrell makes Tim and Eric watch "Top Gun" twice immediately upon their arrival. Zach Galifinakis also shows up early on, as Tim and Eric's personal shopper/spiritual guru Jim Joe Kelly.

You might chuckle at Tim and Eric's absurd, oddball brand of humor every now and again, but then groan later because it's so obnoxious and infantile. It's almost in the style of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "BASEketball," except those dudes are able to write stabbing satire amidst infantile jokes. We should hand it to Heidecker and Wareheim for never breaking character. However, these free-wheeling nincompoops are trying so hard to be ha-ha hilarious, random, and strange that their shtick only works for barely half of the movie.

It's a tough call to even review "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie" because comedy is so subjective and this comedy is such a matter of taste. What one viewer might bust a gut over (like masturbation and explosive diarrhea), another might just retch their guts up. In 11-minute periods, Tim and Eric can be daringly weird and even funny, but for a 93-minute movie, it just gets tiresome and moronic. In a press interview, these guys said a huge percent of the world population (17%) shares their humor. That remaining 83% isn't going to find anything to laugh at here.

Grade:  C -

Nice enough "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" hard to defend but hard to dislike

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012)
108 min., rated PG-13.
Like a good, sugar-lending neighbor, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" is there, and it's generally pleasant and nice enough. By the film's oddly dry, non-metaphorical title, it sounds like less of a catch and more of a bore. The film is based on the satirical 2007 novel by Paul Torday, which might seem like a guide to fly fishing, however, it's as much about the hooking of fish as The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing is about hunting and fishing. Sure, there's hydro-engineering and salmon galore, but it's more of a love story, just a pretty toothless one.

A "visionary" Yemeni sheik named Muhammed (Amr Waked) wants to introduce salmon fly fishing to his desert country in the Middle East. When buttoned-down British fisheries expert Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) receives an e-mail from investment consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) about building the sheik's pipe dream into a 50-million pound project, he's skeptical from the onset. Meanwhile, the bleak conflict in the Middle East has the Prime Minister's bossy PR officer, Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), looking for a good news story, until the British-Yemeni collaboration sounds like the most positive PR project. Although bringing salmon into the arid river seems "fundamentally infeasible," Dr. Jones reconsiders and makes the impossible dream possible.

McGregor is charming as always and the lovely Blunt is a peach. Their Alfred and Harriet work up enough interest as characters but not really as romantic partners. Though Alfred has his quirks (Harriet even assuming he has Asperger's early on), McGregor doesn't overplay them. The two actors don't work up much chemistry beyond a platonic level, but they radiate a sweetness. As subplots for their characters, Alfred is henpecked by his wife Mary (Rachael Stirling), a government employee who travels abroad to Geneva. Their marriage has clearly gone stale. Then there's Harriet who has been dating an Army captain, Robert (Tom Mison), for three weeks, and he's posted to Afghanistan, only to go missing in action. Once Harriet gets a call about this news, she falls into emotional disarray. These subplots are at least necessary for Alfred and Harriet to grow and give them a commonality. Even the conclusion of Harriet's M.I.A. beau isn't so much a narrative contrivance as it later becomes a PR move on Maxwell's part. 

Adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy ("127 Hours") and directed by Lasse Hallström (2010's "Dear John"), the film has a bland, low-key sensibility. Hallström is more understated with this material, eschewing the sentimental melodrama often found in his previous films. Early on, there's even some British-y quick-wittedness to the dialogue, but it tails off once Harriet and Alfred take it to Yemen. Terrorism and Middle Eastern issues figure into the plot, but are tossed out before teetering the tone into tragedy. However, the story itself doesn't create enough of a dramatic ripple for us to really care whether or not its two protagonists get together in the end, even though we know they might.
Scott Thomas is comically shrewd and having all the fun, ready to chew up all the fish (and her co-stars) like a piranha. Her prickly, cynical edge is a much-needed contrast with the film's tone. Also, as the sheik, Waked has a serenity and charisma. The peerless look of the film is really what makes it so watchable. Terry Stacey's luminous cinematography is a sight to behold, and the scenery in "the" Yemen (Scotland and Morocco as stand-ins) is appropriately tranquil.
A benign little trifle, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" has its charms, but on the whole, it's small potatoes. It doesn't annoy or cloy, and definitely doesn't offend, but doesn't fully engage you either. Hard to defend but hard to dislike, the film earns most of its good will from an appealing cast. Still, there are plenty of more significant fish in the sea that you'll probably forget this mellow one was ever swimming.

Grade:  C +

Friday, March 23, 2012

Harrowing "Hunger Games" shouldn't leave fans and uninitiated hungry

The Hunger Games (2012)
142 min., rated PG-13.
A bid to be the next big—make that gargantuan—film franchise adapted from a popular book series, "The Hunger Games" is less obvious about who its target audience is than like, say, "Twilight." Though the 2008 popular trilogy by Suzanne Collins is most likely aimed at its ravenous YA readers, there's an accessibility to the film. It's visceral, emotionally unflinching, and honestly violent without being overly brutal or savaged, as its premise might suggest to the uninitiated. Yes, death is treated as a game and young people are killing other young people. Director Gary Ross, whose solid track record includes 1998's lightly subversive sitcom satire "Pleasantville" and 2003's satisfying crowd-pleaser "Seabiscuit," wouldn't seem like the most obvious choice to reign this material. But, as a version of the oft-uttered line goes, the odds are ever in his favor.

Once again, after her Oscar-nominated role in 2010's intensely bleak "Winter's Bone," Jennifer Lawrence is living off of squirrel meat and head of the household, this time playing fatherless 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. Adept with a bow and arrow, she hunts for food while living in the starving-poor District 12, one of eleven other districts in the nation of Panem (what's left of North America), where she's lucky if she can even get a loaf of bread. Each year, as a punishment for a rebellion against the wealthy, dictating fortress known as The Capitol, 24 kidsone boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 from each districtare selected by lottery to participate in the Hunger Games. The event is a to-the-death fight televised for everyone to see. On the day of the Reaping, where the District 12 tributes are chosen for the 74th year, announcer and escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) picks out the name of Primrose (Willow Shields), Katniss' 12-year-old sister. Immediately, Katniss steps up and volunteers to take her place as the tribute. Also chosen is the baker's son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and together they are whisked away on a superfast train to the colorfully futuristic Capitol. There, they train with other tributes before they attack each other. Only one will walk away victorious, while 23 of them aren't so lucky.
Director Ross, working from a script he co-wrote with author Collins and Billy Ray, have their work cut out for them. They take on the challenge to remain faithful for its pre-sold fan base and fill in the gaps for those coming in cold (like yours truly) to this cinematic translation. With two and a half hours' worth of story to tell, the film never feels long, breathlessly moving along with a forward momentum. When it comes to all the relatively dense exposition and plot, the ins and outs of this dystopian future are established well enough through an opening title graphic and the pre-Games scenes. As for the rules and inner workings of the blood sport, they are quite simple (the sound of a canon signals a tribute's death, and tributes can have sponsors send them parachutes of water, food, medicine, etc.). At its core, this is a commentary of blood sport becoming a national form of entertainment (not far removed from "Death Race 2000" or "The Running Man") with the allegorical subtext of a Have and Have-Nots tale. Many have compared the premise to "Battle Royale," a Japanese thriller also based on a book, and the source material itself was criticized for its coincidental similiarities. But the strength of "The Hunger Games" lies in its protagonist of Katniss and her selfless motivations.

There's little suspense in who will come out on top since Katniss obviously has to live out two more installments, but that doesn't lessen the tension in how she'll do it. From the time a nervous Katniss stands inside a tube and surfaces to the woodsy "arena" with her 23 other opponents, we're tense and completely invested in seeing our female warrior coming out a survivor. From there, an alliance is formed, and Games master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) can manipulate the sun and create fire or beasty dogs from the control room to add more danger. The stakes are kept high, as Katniss hides out in trees and in one instance encounters a hive of genetically enhanced wasps called Tracker Jackers, which can sting you to hallucinatory spells or even death. With the violence on display here, the film never coddles its audience nor does it rub our faces in the bloodshed. It's inherent to the story and just bloody enough. Restricted with a PG-13 rating, the filmmakers might've found less compromise with the emotional stakes if the deaths of tributes had been more graphically depicted. That's not to say the film needed gore, but the action is somewhat censored by some blurry, frantic camera work and quick edits. Long takes and wide framing of shots are rarely found. Nevertheless, we never lose involvement, and the action is intense and exciting.

Lawrence is simply commanding in the role of Katniss. She has a fierce screen presence and gravitas that perfectly captures the character's iron-willed bravery and resourcefulness. She's a survivor, but not completely undaunted when she has to kill others unless it's in self-defense. And for a fan-fiction heroine, Katniss is a strong female gladiator for the feminist persuasion, unlike "Twilight's" comparatively spineless Bella Swan. Hutcherson is fine with his low-key charisma useful for the character of Peeta. He's morally upright but tries to play up the PR aspect, holding hands with Katniss and confessing his crush on her so the audience will eat it up and remember them. As Gale, Liam Hemsworth is just a hunk on the sidelines. Early on, the close but platonic bond between Gale and Katniss is nicely portrayed. Taking into account all the sold-out midnight showings that point to the movie being a box-office hopeful, there will surely be more of Hemsworth's Gale as a romantic rival to Peeta in the second and third editions.

The film is also dotted with a few game, flamboyant supporting turns. Banks, powdered and bewigged like she hopped off the Marie Antoinette parade, brings an amusing egocentricity, theatricality, and wit to Effie, the District 12 escort. Stanley Tucci, in a blue pompadour, is also dynamite as TV host Caesar Flickerman with enough game-show host energy and charm. Donald Sutherland and Bentley mostly have to act wily, respectively, playing the tyrannical President Snow and Seneca. But Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz are the more interesting standouts as Katniss and Peeta's drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy and Katniss' compassionate stylist Cinna, shaping their characters with empathy. Making the only impression as one of the killing-machine tributes is Isabelle Fuhrman; go figure that her character is skilled with a knife after her insidious turn in "Orphan." Also, Amandla Stenberg is wonderful as Rue, a quiet tribute that befriends Katniss; her scenes with Lawrence are deeply felt with a powerful send-off.

Larry Dias' set decoration and the costume design by Judianna Makovsky sharply range from the grey concentration camp look of District 12 to the campy, retro-futuristic/Kabuki decor of The Capitol (where everyone is gaudy, privileged, and shallow). Equally terrific are Tom Stern's gleaming cinematography and the plaintive music score by James Newton Howard and T-Bone Burnett. Harrowing and compelling, "The Hunger Games" should resonate for anyone with a pulse. For those that didn't get caught in the buzz of Ms. Collins' books, the film version might force some to play catch-up, and fans that devoured the books cover to cover won't leave hungry. Well, it will leave them hungry for more Katniss. The finish isn't really a cliffhanger, but satisfyingly lays the groundwork for "Catching Fire." After "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," let the games begin for another promising pop franchise on Hollywood's hands.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

V.O.D. Review: Bloodless, undercooked "Moth Diaries" wastes intriguing themes

The Moth Diaries (2012)
82 min., rated R.
Grade:  C -

Based on Rachel Klein's novel, "The Moth Diaries" seems to want to explore female sexuality, relationships, and anxiety. But as written and directed by Mary Harron (2000's dark, slyly satirical "American Psycho"), the film turns those intriguing aforementioned themes into a thumbnail for an undercooked, mostly two-dimensional "From Hell" drama with a vampire. It's "Let the Right One In" meets "The Roommate," two movies that should've never been converged. 

Two years after her notable poet father committed suicide, 16-year-old Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) gets dropped off to start a new term at Brangwyn College, a former hotel that's now an all-girls boarding school. She counts on her best friend, Lucy (Sarah Gadon), as her source of companionship, until the arrival of the new girl. Her name is Ernessa Bloch (Lily Cole), and she seems a little strange, staring out of windows and pacing in the courtyard at night. However, Lucy is the first to warm up to Ernessa, and Rebecca becomes quite jealous. As she learns about Gothic vampire stories in her English class, taught by dishy professor Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman), Rebecca begins to suspect something off about the new girl. Ernessa's room smells. A classmate plunges to her death. Soon, Rebecca's obsession with Ernessa and Lucy becomes too much for her dwindling group of other friends, until she's alone. 

Predating "Dracula," the tale of "Carmilla" taking over the narrator becomes a major parallel to narrator Rebecca's suspicion of Ernessa. The film also remains faithful to the diary narration in Klein's novel. Is Rebecca an unreliable narrator (with unresolved feelings about her father's death) or is Ernessa really one of the undead with an affinity for plasma? Harron leans towards the latter, overliteralizing it with scenes of there-she-is-and-now-she's-gone, Ernessa walking through glass, and brief girl-on-girl action. Had Harron taken a more ambiguous, surreal approach, the story might've been more interesting. 

Harron seems to throw in thematic elements, hoping to form a meaningful whole, but little of it commits. The theme of teenage sexuality is introduced through plot points, but then feels oversimplified and unexplored. Rebecca and Ernessa have some sort of kindred-spirit connection (both losing their fathers), but it never amounts to anything deep. Same with Rebecca keeping watch as one of her friends goes to lose her virginity and comes back unimpressed. As for the film's obsession with moths, Rebecca's happiest memory shared with her father is the beautiful sight of seeing a lunar moth, and then later, Rebecca sees a swarm of moths inside Ernessa's dusty bedroom. To Harron's credit, she doesn't carry out the moth symbol with too heavily a hand.

All grown up since 2002's "In America" and masking her native accent here, Irish lead Bolger has an earnestness and innocent appeal that resembles Ellen Pompeo (TV's "Grey's Anatomy"). She never pushes or overplays the damaged trauma, paranoia, and frustration of Sarah. British model-turned-actress Cole has such an ethereal, moon-shaped face and swollen cheeks that she's perfect to play a vampire, but really only has one note to play Ernessa. Of their fellow classmates, only Gadon and Valerie Tian stand out, respectively as the much-loved Lucy and free spirit Charlie. Speedman, the only real male character (aside from Rebecca's father in flashbacks), does what he can with the sketchily drawn Mr. Davies, a listener for Rebecca.

This distaff story has some emotional depth and truth in the parasitic nature of female relationships. Filmed in Montreal, "The Moth Diaries" has solid production design without overdramatizing its Gothic-horror leanings. The horror elements are more metaphorical than cheap but either way, not very scary. Final revelations in the last ten minutes aren't that revelatory, except maybe to Rebecca, and the climax lacks any sort of suspense or struggle. At face value, there is one chilling moment of blood raining inside of the school library.

"The Moth Diaries" is a handsome production and had promise to be more. Less provocative than it thinks it is, Harron's treatment of the source material is mostly an uninspired, bloodless "Gossip Girl" episode. If this is the best Harron could do, then maybe Ms. Klein's novel wasn't really about anything in the first place.

Monday, March 19, 2012

DVD/Blu-ray Reviews: "The Sitter," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Carnage," "The Muppets," "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," and "Creature"

The Sitter (2011)
82 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
Director David Gordon Green must have the most crooked career path as a director, successfully starting out in the indie platform and then trying his hand at more commercial comedies, like 2008's overrated "Pineapple Express" and 2011's woefully unfunny "Your Highness." Now, onto his seventh film, the decidedly R-rated and crass "The Sitter" takes a big bite from Chris Columbus' charming out-all-night gem "Adventures in Babysitting" in 1987. That is, if that PG-13 comedy threw in F-bombs and an opening sex scene.

Before he slimmed down and became svelte for his post-"Superbad" career, Jonah Hill stars as Noah Griffin, who's introduced as a generous loser. He gives amazing oral sex to his sort-of-but-not-really girlfriend, Marisa (Ari Graynor), without any reciprocation, but he's unemployed and sits at home, too lazy to even answer the phone. But when his single mother has to cancel on a date to babysit, Noah takes the initiative and does his mom a favor. Noah regrets his decision when he gets stuck taking care of his three obnoxious, misfit charges at the Pedulla household. There's Slater (Max Records), who's tightly wound and hooked on prescription meds; 8-year-old Blithe (Landry Bender), who's obsessed with makeup, fashion, and being a party-hardy celebrity (Noah calling her JonBenét Ramsey); and Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), an El Salvador adoptee who's too busy making cherry bombs in his basement bedroom. When Marisa calls Noah from a party, inviting him to have sex but requesting coke (not soda), he jumps at the opportunity, stealing the Pedullas' mini-van with the kids in tow. Naturally, the night spins out of control, dragging the kids into a drug den, a bar mitzvah, a jewlery store robbery, and high-speed car chases, while Noah dishes out wisdom to each of his charges who become a little wiser by morning.

For a comedy that meshes rowdy kids, violent drug dealers, gangs, and oral sex, "The Sitter" doesn't lack dubious taste, but upticks a bit as it goes along. It may not be fresh or very inspired, but still has some laughs and a sweetness to it that doesn't feel disingenuous because the characters are handled with respect in regard to their personal issues/insecurities. 

Screenwriters Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka have more nerve than most studio comedies for their first produced script. In recent years, mainstream comedies have a morally repellent protagonist front and center, what with "Bad Santa," "Bad Teacher," and the most recent "Young Adult." Some have an arc and others remain the same. Hill's Noah is more deserving of an arc because he's not that bad of a person. Twenty-four years ago, Chris Parker's (Elisabeth Shue) motivations for taking the kids for a night on the town were selfless compared to Noah's. However, his heart is in the right place even when he's being a smartass, and who better to play him than Hill, a funny and endearing comic presence. 
Of the three kids, Records surprisingly turns in a shaded performance as Slater, a closeted-gay teenager coming to terms with being more comfortable in his own skin. Bender has comic timing as the too-precocious Blithe, too, but Hernandez's character is pretty stereotypical and one-note. Graynor is her dippy self, achieving the go-for-broke energy of her hopelessly lost Caroline in "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," itself a nod to "Adventures in Babysitting." Her Marisa is selfish and hateful, only calling Noah when she wants cunilingus or blow, but later shows a conscience and comes to realize the way she treats Noah is wrong. Much better is Kylie Bunbury ("Prom"), who's sweet and smart as one of Noah's former classmates. Finally, Sam Rockwell, as demented coke dealer Karl who ranks his friends, is a hoot and much funnier than his last comic turn in 2009's "Gentlemen Broncos."

Green employs brisk pacing, stringing along all the comic set-pieces. Not all of the jokes work, including Noah being mistaken for a pedophile waiting for Blithe in the little girl's underwear section of a department store. And Noah, his dad, and the news make a deal of an impending geometric storm, but there's never a payoff for it, so why include it? "The Sitter" is a hit-and-miss endeavor with a heart at its core. Maybe in the future, Green can find more ways than drugs and violence to tickle our funny bone.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Grade:  C +

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Jeff, Who Lives at Home" slight but surprisingly moving and introspective

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)
82 min., rated R.
Grade:  B + 
What if M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" held clues to our destiny in the universe? The title character, Jeff (Jason Segel), thinks this way. That's due to all the time the 30-year-old layabout spends smoking pot and living on the couch in his mother's basement. A phone call (that's likely a wrong number), where the man on the other end asks for "Kevin," gets Jeff thinking, "What if there are no wrong numbers?" That same fateful day, when his mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon), who's stuck working in an office cubicle on her birthday, asks her son to run a simple errand and buy wood glue to fix a pantry door, Jeff actually leaves the house but takes his philosophy with him. From a bus rider named Kevin to a "Kevin's Kandy" delivery truck, he just knows this seemingly ordinary day of random occurrences will lead him to the elusive Kevin and ultimately his destiny. Meanwhile, Jeff's more successful brother, Pat (Ed Helms), is having martial troubles with long-suffering spouse Linda (Judy Greer), especially after he buys a Porsche before checking with the missus first. Once Pat coincidentally runs into Jeff, these couldn't-be-more-different siblings try mending their own relationship while Pat tries getting to the bottom of his own with Linda, who may or may not be having an affair. WIll it all lead to some bigger picture with Jeff around?
With 2008's "Baghead" and 2010's "Cyrus" surprising in unique and satisfying ways, mumblecore-founding brothers Jay and Mark Duplass venture into more studio-comedy territory while still maintaining their signature indie sensibility as writer-directors. While "Cyrus" was able to reach a broader audience with the attraction of Jonah Hill and John C. Reilly, the film had much more going on underneath than any puerile, broad comedy. "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" is the same way. It begins as a frustrating, cringe-inducing slacker comedy, as characters tend to embarrass themselves in situations, but then soon catches you off guard and grows on you. (After Paul Rudd in "Our Idiot Brother" and now Segel in this, potheads don't get enough credit for their wisdom.) 

The shaggy, seemingly on-the-fly aesthetics—handheld cinematography with close-ups and crash zooms—already feel at home in a Duplass Brothers film, like long stretches of dialogue are anticipated in anything from Quentin Tarantino. Early on in the film, when the camera does zoom in and out, it feels like too much of a director's self-conscious technique that holds no meaning at all. Then once the narrative takes hold, one should hardly notice. The story's small-town setting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also works as an interesting choice for the banal world that the characters live in and where Jeff seeks to find his destiny. Such overused locations as New York City or Los Angeles wouldn't have had the same milieu.

In every screen role that finds him, Segel has an innate charm and humility, and both traits are most vital for the good-natured character of Jeff. Segel's lumbering teddy bear/Frankenstein's monster size (fitting into a comfy hoodie and gym shorts) makes Jeff that more of a lovable galoot. He's not a slacker cliché with his head in a perpetual cannabis haze but a lost soul whose failure-to-launch issue comes from not having found his meaning in life yet and finally learning to seize the day. Proving he will not be pigeonholed as an insecure milquetoast (a type he played so well in "The Hangover" movies and "Cedar Rapids"), Helms finds it in himself to play Pat, a real jerk of a man. Business meetings at Hooters and being the new owner of a Porsche suggest Pat is the brother that has his life more together, but he calls Jeff "Sasquatch" and ridicules him for his lofty theories. Sporting a well-landscaped beard around that real set of white choppers makes the actor look appropriately smarmy, but beyond the surface, Helms molds Pat into a man of self-conflict that burdens his wife. Whatever was performed off the cuff (if not most of it) seems to work between Segel and Helms especially. Finally, let's not forget Greer, as Pat's wife Linda, who suffers bottled-up emotions of her own. Making sure Linda never comes off as a shrew, Greer knows just how to play her scenes without a false note. Last seeing her in last year's "The Descendants," be grateful this gem of a character actress keeps turning up in films worthy of her talent.

On a screenwriting level, the coincidences might be considered absurd contrivances. But on a deeper level, those coincidences don't feel contrived but make sense when the film is about the interconnectedness of life. Where the film ends up going could also be considered a deus ex machina, but it just stays faithful to its philosophical ideas—that everyone and everyone is interconnected—and comes together in an uplifting, everything-happens-for-a-reason tidiness. That's not to say the film plays it safe or patly ties everything up in a neat bow because it's not only amusing but inconspicuously moving, gentle, and surprisingly introspective. No one goes through a drastic change or becomes a saint, but everyone feels less stuck than how we first found them at the start. The small level of poignancy "Jeff, Who Lives at Home" reaches doesn't hit us over the head; Michael Andrews' music score is just subtle enough without screaming "Feel, will you?!" and we can already feel the emotions in our gut.

A subplot involving the widowed Sharon receiving flirty instant-messages at work from a secret admirer is a most welcome add-on to her sons' personal journeys. Feeling "old and flabby" at her age, the fact that someone notices Sharon gives her hope and a feeling of self-worth. Also, with her frustration of still housing one of her adult sons, she deserves her own moment of recognition. Sharon taking a moment to stare at a photo of sublime paradise is also a nice telling detail of her spoken dreams of being "kissed under a waterfall" (which is later fulfilled in a sweet moment of improvisation). Sarandon is excellent in the part, and there's a surprising payoff, loveliness, and sense of hair-down freedom to her character's thread.

"Jeff, Who Lives at Home" is that rare film that could have benefited from being longer. Though feeling slighter than it could have been with even more fleshing out of its characters, the film has affection and respect for the people involved in the story. There's actual tension in following these characters and where fate will take them. It's not a big spoiler, but Jeff does eventually get around to buying the wood glue and fixing the broken door slat. Perhaps it's a metaphor for Jeff fixing his life too, or maybe it's not, but you come away liking and believing in Jeff. This is a little film that works in a big way.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hilarious, knowing "21 Jump Street" gives you the right to bust a gut

21 Jump Street (2012)
109 min., rated R.
Recycling an old TV show to make a feature film has had inauspicious results (have you seen "Car 54, Where Are You?"? Or, "The Dukes of Hazzard"?), but "21 Jump Street" revives the lame old address with this knowing, goofy, often hilarious comedy-action satire. The 1987-1991 Fox TV crime show about the cases of youthful cops going undercover is all but a memory, now mainly known for kickstarting lead actor Johnny Depp's career (and not so much for Richard Grieco). Jonah Hill developed the story with screenwriter Michael Bacall ("Project X") and uses the musty premise as a springboard for a raucous post-"Superbad" comedy with action. While it may have sounded like yet another lazily conceived idea, "21 Jump Street" dusts off the straight-faced tone of the long-running '80s time capsule, gives it a modern, foul-mouthed sensibility, and turns the material into a complete blast of quick-witted laughs, playful wit, and fast energy. And it doesn't hurt that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum make an inspired comic duo.

Back in high school, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) was the geek, nicknamed "The Not-So-Slim-Shady," with braces and bleach-blonde Slim Shady hair. He hadn't the confidence to ask a pretty girl to the prom. Jenko (Channing Tatum) was a long-haired meathead who thought he'd be crowned prom king, until missing the dance due to bad grades. Seven years later, these two dudes become the unlikeliest of buds when they both enroll in the Metropolitan City Police Academy and help each other graduate. Thinking the job would come with more car chases, Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to park duty. Their first drug bust and arrest ends disastrously, as Jenko can't even read his criminal suspects the correct Miranda rights, so their boss (Nick Offerman) transfers them to a revived undercover police program on 21 Jump Street. Gathering at an abandoned church with four other outcasts, Schmidt and Jenko are handed a mission by the angry, stereotype-embracing Captain Dickson (Ice Cube). They must go undercover as high school students, brothers Doug and Brad, to investigate the dealing and supplying of a recent dangerous hallucinogenic drug called H.F.S. 

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (2009's "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") assuredly bridge a broad comedy and overblown actioner without face-diving straight into an obvious spoof. From the beginning, they give a self-referential wink and a nod to the revamping of '80s-era properties and the running out of ideas. Johnny Depp (yes, Tom Hanson from the show) even drops in for a cute, clever cameo, as does Holly Robinson Peete for a fleeting moment, but no Richard Grieco?! The film knows Hill and Tatum are too old to blend in with high school students but has fun with the idea. For instance, everyone keeps saying Tatum's Jenko "looks about 40" and must have gone through puberty when he was 7. It also upends high school conventions, as Schmidt and Jenko discover high school has changed since their day. Now, the popular clique is tolerant and somewhat studious; their gatherings even consisting of Taco Bell takeout and guitar strumming. Before leaving for school, Jenko even scoffs Schmidt for wearing both straps of his backpack instead of just one. Cut to getting to the school: everyone wears both straps. There's also sly lampooning and deconstruction of big-budget action movie chases. A freeway chase with a narcotics ring on the undercover cops' tail isn't a standard action chase, but comes with a shrewd running gag: flammable gas tanks don't explode when the characters (and you) expect them to. 

Some very funny highlights come in the situational comedy of Schmidt and Jenko inadvertently switching their undercover identities. Schmidt becomes Brad—the athletic, popular one—and Jenko is Doug, whose class schedule includes AP Chemistry ("Chemistry. That's the one with the shapes, right?"). When the two come to find the H.F.S. dealer is popular yearbook club member Eric (Dave Franco), they both have to swallow the drug to prove they're not narcs. Thereafter, they feel the different stages of the high, one being "tripping ballsack." Schmidt's confidence goes through the roof, performing an enthusiastic song in his theater class that places him in the lead of the school production of "Peter Pan." Jenko runs into a band practice, not being able to stand on his feet and falling through a gong. The fun continues when the two legals decide to throw a mini-"Project X"-style house party at Schmidt's parents' place. Once the bullets-whizzing action section takes over (and the drug supplier is revealed), there's violence but it doesn't repel any of the humor from hitting. 

Even for a smartly stupid-funny commercial comedy, "21 Jump Street" doesn't feel the need to dumb down its characters. There's a dollop of sweetness that never takes a 180 into lesson-learning nonsense. Though Jenko is a bit of a dummy in the early scenes, he's made a good friendship with Schmidt and holds his loyalty to him. As Schmidt gets a do-over to be cool and popular, fraternizing with Eric and his crowd, Jenko gets tight with the nerds and realizes that being "cool" wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. Near the end of both cops' undercover mission, their "lesson" is revealed during a well-edited action sequence that, in a less smart film, would've just been played out in an after-school special fashion. 

In his first physically slimmed-down role, Hill surely hasn't lost his comic delivery and timing. He can nail a line with merely a deadpan stare. As Schmidt, he gains the confidence that he didn't have as a high school senior, so it's easy to root for him. Not since Michael Cera in "Superbad" has Hill found a better foil than, as it turns out, Tatum. As a hunky former model-turned-actor who has headlined action movies and sappy romances, Tatum is the biggest comedic surprise here. In last year's Vince Vaughn/Kevin James comedy muddle "The Dilemma," the actor showed promise for comedy and now he really proves it. He's not only good-looking but loose, and he has a sense of humor about himself and takes chances. Who knew the kid had it in him? In supporting roles, cute rising star Brie Larson (Showtime's "The United State of Tara") brings much more to her role as "The Girl," playing Molly (Schmidt's love interest) with a smart-ass coolness and sweetness. As Eric, Franco (James' brother) has charisma and wicked swagger, and achieves more interestingly odd touches than any other vapid actor could. Perhaps it's in his genes. 

A great screen comedy is hard to come by (last year's "Bridesmaids" coming pretty damn close), so this one isn't without its bumps in the road. As payoffs of certain subplots go, the circle of science geeks (that Jenko befriends and later help him and Schmidt bug the final drug deal in the hotel room at the prom) is later forgotten about. We don't really need a scene with them realizing Jenko, or "Brad" in their eyes, is really a cop, but it might've been handled with a smoother payoff. Also, it's set up that Jenko's cheerful chemistry teacher, Miss Griggs (the adorably funny Ellie Kemper), gets flustered around her hard-bodied peer and secretly wants him, but there's no real satisfying landing to that joke either. Remember, these are just small oversights. Otherwise, the sight gags and side-splitting quips come at a lightning speed, even when they're peppered with male-genitalia jokes that feel more organic than just crass for crassness' sake. It may be early in the year still, but "21 Jump Street" takes a high rank in the comedy field. Can I oversell this riot any more?

Grade: A -