Friday, March 26, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (Steve Pink, 2010)

One drunken night in a ski lodge's whirlpool magically transports four guys to 1986 in HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. Rob Corddry's Lou is suspected of trying to kill himself while blasting Motley Crue and revving his car while parked in his garage. His old friends Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson) are also experiencing some rough patches in life and decide that a trip to one of the places from their glory days will be good for all of them. Tagging along, much to Lou's chagrin, is Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke).

When they roll into town, the guys find that most of it is boarded up. The resort and its employees are in shambles. The hot tub is on the fritz too, and when it does begin working properly, it sends them back twenty years in time.

Nostalgia exerts a powerful pull, so as the oldest Generation Xers hit middle age and the youngest approach 30, it's no surprise that '80s revivalism is being shuffled out for this pop culture-minded age group. From its silly title and concept to the cheap sets and loud fashions, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE looks and plays like something studios churned out during that decade.

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE'S unrefined charms, nonsensical plotting, scruffy filmmaking, and appropriate casting produce a decent simulation of '80s comedies. Essentially it's the cinematic equivalent of Pepsi Throwback. Spotting the references to Cusack and co-star Crispin Glover's old movies supplies an amusing diversion, and the film mines the differences between then and now for occasional laughs.

The unfiltered hostility in Corddry's performance matches well with Robinson's deadpan style as well as bringing energy to a film that feels kind of tired. Through its slack editing and direction, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE gives the impression of a halfhearted effort, as if the film's name and story were wacky enough that any old gag would do. For as uproarious as the jokes are intended to be, they often land much more softly.

It's not that the film isn't funny or pleasantly stupid. At issue is that it seems like HOT TUB TIME MACHINE'S humor is overly reliant on fond memories of its predecessors rather than generating much that's witty in and of itself. The sloppiness is a fitting tribute to the movies HOT TUB TIME MACHINE resembles, but that's not entirely a positive quality.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My CIFF 2010 Film List

For attendees at this year's Cleveland International Film Festival and fans of lists, this is where I'm keeping an updated inventory of the films I've seen and their corresponding grades/points. Due to the instant nature of determining grades and points and moving on to the next film with little time for reflection, there's always the potential for upgrades and downgrades. This is more of a flash poll than a final verdict.

The current plan is to see 50 films (plus one short) over eight days, which ought to provide a good overview of this year's slate, or at least what I sample from it. Originally I intended to update this during the fest, but typing in Blogger doesn't work as well on the iPhone as I thought it would. Here's what I've seen so far:

Final update made

-Lourdes - A/92
-No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson - A/90
-Marwencol - A/87
-Accident (Yi ngoi) - A-/84
-9500 Liberty - A-/80

-Inside Hana's Suitcase - B+/75
-Disco & Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda) - B/72
-For the Love of Movies - B/70
-Max Manus - B/70
-A Brand New Life (Yeo-haeng-ja) - B/69
-Masquerades (Mascarades) - B/69
-The Desert of Forbidden Art - B/68
-The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER) - B/67
-The Great Contemporary Art Bubble - B/67
-Last Train Home - B-/65
-North (Nord) - B-/65
-The Happiest Girl in the World (Cea mai fericita fata din lume) - B-/63
-The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner - B-/63
-Please, Please Me! (Fais-moi plaisir!) - B-/62
-Pop Star on Ice - B-/62
-Convention - B-/61
-Dear Lemon Lima - B-/60
-Do It Again - B-/60
-Turtle: The Incredible Journey - B-/60

-Bare Essence of Life (Urutora mirakuru rabu sutôrî) - C+/59
-Down Terrace - C+/59
-Garbo: The Spy (Garbo: El espía) - C+/59
-Bananas! - C+/58
-My Year Without Sex - C+/58
-Shameless (Nestyda) - C+/58
-The Taqwacores - C+/58
-Colony - C+/57
-The Good Heart - C+/57
-Cash & Marry - C+/56
-My Tehran for Sale - C+/56
-Vincere - C/52
-Headhunter - C/51
-Falkenberg Farewell (Farväl Falkenberg) - C/50
-Will You Marry Us? (Die Standesbeamtin) - C/48
-Paper Man - C/46
-Cooking History - C-/45
-The Ape (Apan) - C-/44
-Father and Guns (De père en flic) - C-/43
-Harvest - C-/43
-The House of Branching Love (Haarautuvan rakkauden talo) - C-/42
-Bomber - C-/41
-Storage - C-/41
-December Heat (Detsembrikuumus) - C-/40

-Adrift (Choi voi) - D+/38
-Van Diemen's Land - D+/37
-Love Hurts - D-/23

For fest attendees who stumble upon this and think I'm off my rocker with some of these ratings, I am aware that what tops my list and brings up the bottom is often out of step with passholder favorites and dislikes. I heard several times how much people enjoyed Bomber, for instance.

The Bounty Hunter

THE BOUNTY HUNTER (Andy Tennant, 2010)

Ex-husband and wife Milo Boyd (Gerard Butler) and Nicole Hurley (Jennifer Aniston) are reunited in THE BOUNTY HUNTER when she skips out on a court appearance and he's tasked with bringing her in. Nicole is an ambitious journalist whose career focus led to her break-up with Milo. Now that job fixation leads Nicole to digging into a story about a suspicious-looking suicide rather than showing up for her appointed case before a judge.

Since the divorce Milo has lost his job as a police detective and makes ends meet as a bounty hunter. Apprehending his former wife looks like a chance for some sweet revenge, but Nicole can be a wily target.

As a lousy mystery and lousier romantic comedy, THE BOUNTY HUNTER is two bad films in one. For a comedy of remarriage, Aniston and Butler have a distinct lack of chemistry. Their failed relationship is supposed to provide that extra zing to his pursuit of her, but little evidence exists that these two characters ever felt deeply for one another or even were more than passingly familiar. Based on their absent romantic history and tension, she might as well be some random bail-jumper for him to chase.

Butler again plays a sensitive soul hiding behind a malicious creep persona. His BOUNTY HUNTER role isn't quite as off-putting as his turn in THE UGLY TRUTH, but both parts have the diminishing effect of molding Butler into a smug, unappealing performer to watch. Aniston has rarely found film work that caters to her comedic strengths. In THE BOUNTY HUNTER she seems as disinterested as everyone else.

Director Andy Tennant possesses a decent track record for light entertainments, with EVER AFTER and HITCH among his filmography highlights. This candy-coated yet ill-tempered version of a procedural isn't suited to his romantic comedy chops. In a confounding choice, the film is built around the suicide Nicole is investigating. The crime and corruption mystery is as boilerplate as they come. It also receives excessive and misplaced attention for a film with the primary concern of convincing us these two squabbling lovebirds are destined for one another despite their protests.

Grade: D+

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Ghost Writer

THE GHOST WRITER (Roman Polanski, 2010)

Playing a character referred to as The Ghost, Ewan MacGregor accepts a lucrative offer to write former British Prime Minister Adam Lang's memoirs in THE GHOST WRITER. Like anything that appears too good to be true, the assignment quickly proves to have its pitfalls. After agreeing to the job The Ghost is mugged and has a manuscript stolen.

The previous ghost drowned in what is considered a suicide or alcohol-fueled accident, but doubts linger about the official line. The ex-politician's assistant refuses to let the last writer's draft leave the island compound. Then news breaks that Lang (Pierce Brosnan) may be brought up on war crimes charges for assisting the CIA with illegal rendition and torture.

Co-writer/director Roman Polanski fashions THE GHOST WRITER as a '70s-styled potboiler bubbling with paranoia and conspiracy. This isn't CHINATOWN level work from Polanski, but THE GHOST WRITER still succeeds as an above-average thriller that dabbles in the political and the personal. A la LAW & ORDER'S ripped from the headlines stories, Tony Blair's actions in office serve as juicy inspiration for a plot trading in accusations of shady government dealings, but rather than delivering substantive political commentary the film is more interested in watching what happens when a group of people close ranks as external pressure ramps up.

Lang and staff, which now includes The Ghost, aren't bound by the island compound's gates, but their mental isolation from a hostile outside world yields compelling responses. Lang continues to come and go as he sees fit while those caught in the crossfire, such as his wife, rivetingly played by Olivia Williams, and The Ghost, hunker down. Both in the foreboding weather and narrative tautness, the encroaching sense of doom pushes the film along with quiet intensity.

THE GHOST WRITER can be read as a metaphor for Polanski's much-publicized life in exile, with the politician standing in for the disgraced director and the writer taking the public's place. Despite The Ghost's best attempts to uncover the truth, he's kept at arm's length from his subject. What he observes is a man who seems relatively untroubled by the storm around him and indignant about his alleged wrongdoing. Those with vested interests are complicit in covering up key points. If this depiction isn't reflective of how the director feels about his situation, then he's done a good job of leading the audience astray in such an interpretation.

A ghost writer's purpose is to tell someone else's story in that person's voice. As co-writer and director Polanski gets to speak for himself through the film, but for all of it's mirroring of real life circumstances, THE GHOST WRITER'S shrouded revelations are ever transitory.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 12, 2010

Green Zone

GREEN ZONE (Paul Greengrass, 2010)

Time and again Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) follows intelligence reports regarding the locations of Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2003 Baghdad, but much to his unit's frustration in GREEN ZONE, they find absolutely nothing. A source known as Magellan has supplied all of the information that predicated the United States' intervention in Iraq, yet the experiences of troops on the ground and doubts of a CIA operative suggest that the books have been cooked, so to speak.

In reteaming Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who made the last two Jason Bourne movies together, GREEN ZONE becomes a crypto BOURNE film that again finds a single man doggedly trying to uncover the truth and take down those who would hide it. Driving the narrative is the bad intelligence and futile search for WMDs that characterized the start of the ongoing Iraq War, so there's no doubt that GREEN ZONE cannot avoid the taint of dividing viewers according to political ideologies.

The film comes down squarely against a war that has proven costly in American and Iraqi lives, especially if it was conceived out of lies, so it's tailor-made for hot button editorials and seething viewers sympathetic to both sides of the Congressional aisle. Depending on your view, the film whips you into righteous anger or offended antagonism.

Stripped of its political urgency, GREEN ZONE is a dynamic action film akin to recent Best Picture winner THE HURT LOCKER. Greengrass utilizes the cinema verite style that has been his trademark since BLOODY SUNDAY. The wobbly camerawork and quick cutting tend to induce fatigue, especially during a climactic nighttime chase of an Iraqi general through war-torn streets, but the director brings an undeniable immediacy to the material that a more static aesthetic would struggle to maintain.

Occasionally Greg Kinnear relieves the film's unrelenting nature as an administration toady obstructing the hero's best efforts. The ending, which can be interpreted as a conventionally happy conclusion, has produced grumbles in some corners, but in retrospect, I wonder if it isn't one last gut punch regarding the irrelevance of facts. GREEN ZONE may be too intent on achieving its purpose to unwind for some necessary spells, but as a politically-charged action film, it accomplishes the mission.

Grade: B-

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Oscar picks 2010

The long crawl of this Oscar season culminates this evening when the awards are finally handed out. Winners in the major categories seem pretty easy to target, so if you're in an Oscar pool with a semi-informed crowd, it's going to take success in the tech categories and such to win. For what it's worth, here are my picks to win the gold and hopefully net me a fistful of dollars:

Best Picture: Avatar

A movie this financially successful has to win, doesn't it? The feel good story the press wants to write can come in...

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker

It isn't common for these two awards to split, but I don't foresee any other outcome.

Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

These all seem like locks, but I am getting the sense that we will get one surprise here. The Supporting Actress category often seems to produce the unexpected. While the idea of Mo'Nique winning an Oscar fits the bill, she's been the prohibitive favorite since Sundance 2009. I wouldn't be stunned if someone else walked away with the trophy. Still, Mo'Nique gets picked on my pool sheet.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker

Best Animated Feature: Up
Best Documentary Feature: The Cove
Best Foreign Language Film: Un prophète

The "experts" are nearly unanimous in The Cove winning that I'm backing off my gut instinct to go with The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Foreign Language Film has been such a crap shoot of late, with lesser seen films beating better known ones. I'm betting the Audiard plays better than the Haneke, although I've seen neither. So watch one of the others to come out on top.

Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Cinematography: Avatar
Best Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Best Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Original Score: Up
Best Original Song: "The Weary Kind", Crazy Heart
Best Sound Editing: Avatar
Best Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Best Visual Effects: Avatar

If there's this kind of back and forth through these categories, it keeps things interesting for Picture and Director. If Avatar comes up short here, not including the mortal lock that has to be Visual Effects, then it likely indicates a tipping of the scales toward The Hurt Locker.

Best Animated Short: A Matter of Loaf and Death
Best Documentary Short: The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Best Live Action Short: Instead of Abracadabra

I've seen all the Animated Shorts and think the Wallace and Gromit short is clearly the best of the bunch. I've seen none of the others. I'm being somewhat the sentimental homer in selecting Dayton filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's entry in Documentary Short, but keep in mind that multiple nominee Reichert has never won.

If everything goes according to my picks, the breakdown looks like this:

5 - Avatar
4 - The Hurt Locker
2 - Crazy Heart
2- Up
1 - The Blind Side
1 - The Cove
1 - Inglourious Basterds
1 - Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
1 - Un prophète
1 - Star Trek
1 - Up in the Air
1 - The Young Victoria

We'll find out soon enough if these awards are as predictable as I've felt they will be.

Post-Oscars addition: 17 of 24 overall, including a pathetic 0 for 3 on the shorts. My instinct was correct that neither of the better known Foreign Language Films might not win, but I didn't have the temerity to check the box for the winner. In other words, no credit.

What I saw and heard of the show amid the party conversation was not exactly riveting television. The Actor and Actress nominee testimonials took far too much time. The biggest surprise was the casualness with which the Best Picture was awarded.

The best news: awards season is over.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Brooklyn's Finest

BROOKLYN'S FINEST (Antoine Fuqua, 2009)

BROOKLYN'S FINEST tells separate but eventually converging stories about three New York City cops wrestling with the inherent problems of their jobs.

With an expanding family incapable of comfortably occupying their home, Sal (Ethan Hawke) supplements his meager income by stealing from criminals and crime scenes. Eddie (Richard Gere) is a week away from retirement. He tries to ignore the problems he sees on the streets when not on the clock, but a glimpse at his desperate, lonely life shows that he lugs around all the terrible stuff he witnesses. Tango (Don Cheadle) has a strong desire to transfer out of his deep undercover assignment, especially when he's asked to bring down a drug dealer who's watched his back for years.

BROOKLYN'S FINEST weaves together familiar stories of police corruption and desperation that feel much smaller in size than the near-epic runtime suggests they deserve. Character development and the intertwined threads are conveyed in shorthand. Director Antoine Fuqua gives the well-trod material more room to roam than necessary but fails to shade it in anything but the drabbest law enforcement blue.

The dueling brevity and long-windedness means that BROOKLYN'S FINEST is best suited either to a lean cop drama in theaters or, in an ideal scenario, serialized television. In a TV show the characters can be granted more intricate and well-rounded arcs than is possible in 132 minutes divided among three leads. Fuqua delivers a watchable film but one that's also bland and derivative.

BROOKLYN'S FINEST fails to surprise at pretty much every turn. The lack of originality or the unexpected wouldn't be as large of an issue if the three protagonists held more interest, but these beleaguered officers' grim tales fail to make an impression. Hawke's at his scuzziest, Gere is at his most tragic, and Cheadle is at his most honorably conflicted. In skimming each of their plot lines, BROOKLYN'S FINEST simply doesn't find a way to do justice to to any of them.

Grade: C

Monday, March 01, 2010


STRONGMAN (Zachary Levy, 2009)

The documentary STRONGMAN follows New Jersey's Stanley Pleskun, who performs under the name of Stanless Steel. This scrap metal salvager bills himself as one of the world's strongest men when it comes to bending steel. Stanless is reportedly the only person who can bend a penny with his bare hands. While he has the ability to change the shape of metal, it seems that he lacks the power to alter his life into what he wishes it would be.

Although the rigorous cinema verité style may agitate viewers accustomed to slick documentaries, STRONGMAN'S unvarnished approach complements its salt of the earth subject. The narrative repetition reinforces his constant struggle to achieve greater success. What can be more frustrating than to believe you have a special skill yet don't receive the equivalent acknowledgment for it, whether in the form of accolades or monetary compensation? Stanless doesn't make a living solely as a strongman, but clearly he desires for his uncommon abilities to propel him above his current living conditions.

To call STRONGMAN a real life version of THE WRESTLER is an easy comparison but one with merit. Just as Mickey Rourke's washed up pro wrestler could have been a laughable caricature, the person that Stanless shows himself to be and that director Zachary Levy presents is a flawed but basically decent guy who aches deep down because he can't make his dream come true. Leg lifting a truck in a parking lot or bending a horseshoe at a kid's birthday party isn't where Stanless thinks he should be, yet he pushes forward to to get every scrap he can.

Levy could have played such moments for cheap laughs at the strongman's expense, but the director displays a great deal of empathy for his subject. At the same time, Levy shows that Stanless' pride and stubbornness can hold him back too. He insists on the purity of his stunts, but from a practical standpoint, much of what he does simply won't translate from a stage to the rear of the auditorium or even on television. In that sense he's like an artist who won't budge at all on any creative decisions lest it compromise the integrity of the work.

STRONGMAN provides an intimate perspective of coming up short in pursuit of a goal but plowing ahead anyway in the hope that one day the destination. Whether it's a Sisyphean task depends on if you're the one pushing the stone or watching someone do it.

Grade: B-

(STRONGMAN is playing at the Arena Grand from March 5th through the 7th during the Arnold Sports Festival.)