Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

If they gave an Oscar for Best Title, I think “Hot Tub Time Machine” would be an early contender. I mean, the movie doesn’t even need a trailer; the title tells you everything you need to know to decide whether or not to see it. This is pretty much a movie about people traveling through time in a hot tub.

It doesn’t do to focus too heavily on the plot, but the story is that Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Lou (Rob Corddry) are 40-something guys whose lives kind of suck. They head out on a ski trip to their favorite old resort, where “Nobody gets carded, and everybody gets laid,” dragging along Adam’s nephew Jacob (Clark Duke). There, the guys booze it up, party in the hot tub, and, you guessed it, travel back to the ‘80’s. The hung-over buddies don’t realize anything is amiss at first, but gradually the hairstyles, music, and day-glo clothing start to clue them in. When Nick asks someone, “What color is Michael Jackson?” and she responds “Black,” they know they are in trouble. This sets up the best line of the film, when they all stand around the magic hot tub and Jacob asks, “Do I really gotta be the asshole who says we got in this thing and went back in time?” Then there’s some plot stuff about how the three older guys have to go back and do everything the same way they did it the first time around or else it will destroy the future (which sucks anyway, for these guys), but there’s no need to get too invested in the details. Just enjoy the drinking, pissing, puking, bleeding and disappointingly stingy sex scenes.

This brings me to a disturbing modern movie trend, which is that supposedly raunchy movies have replaced bare breasts and hot sex scenes with stuff that is actually raunchy, like puking, diarrhea, and, even worse, male nudity. WTF?! I think the Joe Bob Briggs breast count for “Hot Tub Time Machine” is probably about 2 ½, at best. If this were an actual movie from 1980, there would have been a naked babe running through every other scene. I’m just sayin’; standards have dropped!

One thing the filmmakers did get right is the ‘80’s styles. A lot of movies set in the ‘80’s dress the girls like Madonna album covers, but “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a lot closer to the real thing. I also loved the blond, asshole-ski-patrol, ‘80’s jerk character, who was lifted straight out of John Cusack’s 1985 comedy “Better Off Dead.” Speaking of blond ‘80’s jerk characters, William Zabka, the original “Karate Kid” villain, makes a cameo. (See if you recognize him.) In another classy nod to the ‘80’s, Chevy Chase appears as a mysterious hot tub repairman.

“Hot Tub Time Machine” is definitely not the best comedy I’ve seen in the last few years. It isn’t quite as good as “The Hangover,” and it definitely can’t stand up to “The 40-year-old Virgin” or “Superbad.” Still, it’s a good time, and I can almost guarantee you will laugh. You’d better! If you actually go see a movie called “Hot Tub Time Machine” and don’t laugh, that’s just embarrassing!

3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)

I stand in awe of the phenomenon that is Neil Patrick Harris. Just a few years ago he was a child-actor punch line, better known as Doogie Houser, MD. Then he turned up to do a little self-parody in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Next, he took on the enduring role of Barney in “How I Met Your Mother,” and since then has been on an unstoppable roll of triple-threat awesomeness.

“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” is something I read about in Entertainment Weekly. It seems to have been a small project by Joss Whedon (“Firefly”), featuring Nathan Fillian (the captain from “Firefly”) as superhero Captain Hammer and Neil Patrick Harris as aspiring super villain Dr. Horrible. Dr. Horrible longs to join the ranks of top super-villains, and the story follows his attempts to commit a crime worthy of membership in that club. Unfortunately, when he isn’t getting foiled by Captain Hammer, he is distracted by a cute girl from the Laundromat. The whole thing is interspersed with musical numbers, and it is loads of fun. Seriously, Google it.

4.5 stars

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Groundhog Day (1993) *****

It’s really nice to rediscover a classic. I had honestly forgotten how much fun “Groundhog Day” is, and how much of an existentialist classic it is. Everybody knows this film, right? Bill Murray plays Phil, a narcissistic regional TV weatherman with aspirations for the big networks. He gets sent with his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) for yet another Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, an assignment that Phil hates. He looks forward to being a big-time network weatherman and letting someone else cover the small-town kitsch of Groundhog Day. After doing their report, Phil and his team get stuck in Punxsutawney by a blizzard. He spends another night in his quaint bed and breakfast, and he awakens the next day to…another Groundhog Day. He encounters all the same people, conversations and events as the day before. He is understandably disoriented, and when he tries to discuss the situation with his coworkers, they naturally think he has gone crazy, but no problem, because the next day everyone except Phil forgets everything, and it’s 6 a.m. on Groundhog Day again. This happens again and again and again, as Phil goes through various fascinating stages of dealing with his situation.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, in its own way, “Groundhog Day” is as ingenious a meditation on the human condition as the classic Franz Kafka/Orson Welles film “The Trial.” Both films address existence from a perspective that we are each headed toward an inevitable conclusion, no matter what we do along the way. In “The Trial” (and in existentialist philosophy), that conclusion is death and nonexistence. In “Groundhog Day,” the conclusion of each day is that Phil simply wakes up at the beginning of another Groundhog Day, no matter what he has done on the previous go-round. It is fascinating to watch him deal with this reality in various ways, first with nihilism, then hedonism, then through a misguided attempt to trick Rita into loving him, using accumulated knowledge about her interests and personality. Finally, Phil reaches a place where he decides that if he is going to have to live the same day over and over, he will simply try to live it well, being the best person he can be.

I saw this film back when it was released, and I remember it being intriguing, but in my mind I think I categorized it as mostly a Bill Murray comedy. I’m certain that it will be filed in the Romantic Comedy section of your local video store. Netflix lists it as “Romantic Comedy/Fantasy.” Fantasy is probably closer to the appropriate genre, but I think Inspirational might be more on the money. The Netflix summary says that Phil “realizes he's doomed to repeat Groundhog Day until he learns that his actions can affect the outcome,” but they’ve got it wrong. Much like the protagonist in “The Trial,” Phil never gets any explanation for what has happened to him, and the fact is that he repeats Groundhog Day until he learns that his actions CANNOT affect the outcome, but that being a good person is worthwhile anyway. This is the challenge faced by atheists and agnostics: how to find meaning in a life that may simply end, without being judged by a higher power. “Groundhog Day” delivers its message with humor, but the message is intense, nonetheless.

Murray has had a number of nuanced, provocative roles in his somewhat under-rated career. “Rushmore” and “Lost in Translation” are a couple of good ones. “Groundhog Day” may not necessarily feature Murray’s best acting, but the more I think about it, the more I think it is his best film.

5 stars out of 5

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Single Man (2009)

There are great movies, and then there are great performances. “A Single Man” isn’t a particularly great movie, although it is competently done for a Sundance-type movie by a rookie director (fashion designer Tom Ford). The film does, however, feature a great performance by Colin Firth. He plays George, an English professor frozen by grief 8 months after the death of Jim, his lover and life partner of 16 years. George has decided to kill himself, and the movie follows him on what is to be his last day. The universe is not content to let George simply fade away, however. As he goes about tidying up his affairs, giving a last lecture, and having dinner with his best friend (played by Julianne Moore), he keeps having run-ins with people who seem determined to drag him back from the edge of despair. Finally, it is one of George’s students, a thoughtful, and optimistic young man (Nicholas Hoult) named Kenny, who makes George dare to consider being happy again. As Kenny puts it, “You never know what’s going to come next.”

“A Single Man” is exactly what it should be, a small, thoughtful movie that you just know is based on a book by somebody (Christopher Isherwood, in fact). It is, perhaps, a bit too full of scenes where men stare searchingly into each others’ eyes, but otherwise it makes a fine, intellectual-chick-flick. What takes the film beyond that status is Colin Firth’s acting. He is absolutely perfect in this movie. He is temperamentally the obvious choice for George, having played so many other restrained, extremely British types. In scene after scene, Firth speaks volumes with just a subtle change in facial or body position. He adeptly takes us inside the despair of this buttoned-down, closed-off character and makes us feel joy when George’s ice starts to melt.

3.5 stars

Friday, March 05, 2010

District 9 (2009) ****1/2

You simply have to see “District 9.” This relatively low-budget, sci-fi thriller may be the most gripping film of the year. This is definitely one where 8 bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!

In the near-future setting of “District 9,” an alien spaceship comes to earth and settles in the sky over, of all places, Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, nothing. No attack, no “We come in peace,” no musical scales. The ship just sits there while the world bickers over what to do. After months, the South Africans send commandos to cut their way in, where they find a million aliens starving and living in squalor. The film explains all of this retrospectively, through interviews, which go on to describe how the aliens are ferried down to the ground and fed. Unfortunately, pity for the aliens quickly gives way to fear and suspicion. Managing a million refugees of any kind is a challenge, and when the starving, desperate masses are bizarre-looking, tentacled creatures (soon nicknamed “prawns” due to their resemblance to shrimp) with an unknown language, problems are bound to ensue. The aliens are soon surrounded by fences and guards; District 9 becomes essentially a concentration camp; and quickly the opportunity to establish true communication with the prawns is lost. The prawns build themselves shelters which form into a shanty town; Johannesburg finds itself with another impoverished minority group; and human-alien interaction devolves into the spheres of crime, law enforcement, and exploitation.

Into this morass is thrown Alien Affairs agent Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley). Wikus is a loveably dorky bureaucrat who gets assigned the job of relocating the “prawns” to a reservation miles from human habitation. He provides comic relief with his sweater vest and clipboard, trying to boss around military commandos, but he is capable of surprisingly callous cruelty because he views the aliens as nothing more than animals. That begins to change when he gets exposed to a substance that begins to slowly turn him into one of them.

Sharlto deserves some credit, by the way, for a really excellent performance in his first feature film. He is on-screen for probably 90% of the movie, and he is as funny as he is intense. His next film looks to be the “A-Team” movie, which I don’t know if I’ll be watching, but I do hope to see this guy again.

“District 9” is the kind of movie that makes me feel good about the future of movies. On a budget of $30 million (probably less than the marketing budget alone for “Avatar”), first-time director Neill Blomkamp has made an action movie that is vigorously entertaining and thought-provoking. The story is obviously inspired by South Africa’s racially fraught history, but the lessons translate equally well to the American experience with the Indians, or even to the screwed-up events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. The point that struck me the most in the film was how, when finally presented with intelligent, alien life, humans so quickly gave up on understanding and settled for contempt and exploitation.

The story behind the story of this film is that Blomkamp wrote and made a short film about the aliens called “Alive in Joburg,” which came to the attention of “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. Jackson recognized a fellow genius and tapped Blomkamp to direct a Halo adaptation. When that movie fell through, Jackson apparently offered Blomkamp the chance to turn “Alive in Joburg” into a full-length feature, and thank goodness he did. In a season when all the attention is on movies in 3D, it is nice to see that filmmakers can still entertain us just by making the characters and the story three-dimensional.

4.5 stars out of 5