Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hit and Run (2012) ***1/2

I don't know how this movie snuck past me before this. I remember liking the trailer, but then I forgot about it until it popped up on Netflix the other day. I'm glad it did, because this movie is nothing but fun! Kristen Bell, of course, is adorable. I would watch her in anything. Dax Shepard, who co-stars, co-directs, and wrote the screenplay, is very naturalistic and likeable. It's Bradley Cooper in dreadlocks, however, that puts the movie over the top.

Shepard plays Charles (AKA Yul), a pleasant guy living in a sleepy town as part of the witness protection program. His world gets turned upside down when his girlfriend, Annie (Kristen Bell), is offered her dream job in the one place he can't safely visit, Las Angeles. Throwing caution to the wind, Charles whisks Annie off to L.A. in his classic Lincoln Continental, trailed by all kinds of trouble in the form of Annie's ex-boyfriend, Charles's police liaison (Tom Arnold), and Charles's old partner-in-crime Dmitry (Bradley Cooper).

“Hit and Run” is ironically titled, because all the characters are trying not to hit and run, but to build a stable relationship with someone. Charles and Annie are on the classic, relationship-testing road trip. Dmitry has his own committed relationship with his bank-robber girlfriend and their collection of dogs. Even Tom Arnold's U.S. Marshall finds love in the end.

Fortunately, with all this lovey-dovey stuff getting passed around, the movie manages to avoid sentimentality. “Hit and Run” gets it right by taking time to develop the characters as individuals, not just as chess pieces that have to be moved around in fast cars to serve the plot. There are fast cars, however. This is an action-comedy, after all, and “Hit and Run” strikes a nice balance between the two.

Another thing the movie gets right is the dialogue. Reminiscent of a Tarantino movie, the conversations in “Hit and Run” are treated as genuine events that matter to two people, not just as exposition or plot devices. Whether they are debating the use of homophobic slurs or the virtues of buying better dog food, the characters talk to each other like people who actually have something to say.

3.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Bad Santa (2003) ***1/2

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) may just have the best job in the world. He gets to spend eleven months out of the year lazing about, doing whatever he wants. Then, each December, he meets up with his friend Marcus (Tony Cox) to pull a burglary. Marcus, you see, is a dwarf, which makes it easy for him to get a seasonal job as one of Santa's elves. Willie, who is also a safe-cracker, plays the Santa role, and the job gives them easy access to whatever mall or department store they work in. Once they have cased the joint, they clean it out, then spend the rest of the year enjoying their earnings.

The beauty of this setup is lost on the alcoholic, perpetually-depressed Willie. His drinking and nihilism are gradually making him less reliable as a mall Santa and as a partner-in-crime for Marcus. Then Willie meets a girl. Sue (Lauren Graham) is way too cute for an alcoholic bum like Willie, but apparently she goes for him because she has a Santa fetish. (Also, Billy Bob Thornton married Angelina Jolie in real life, so maybe we are just meant to understand that this is his superpower.) You would think that a hot, new girlfriend might inspire Willie to clean up his act a little, but he pretty much keeps on drinking and trying to screw everything up. It isn't until Willie gets involved with a weird, little, fat kid that he starts to feel some empathy and grow as a person. The kid's parents are gone, leaving him in a fancy house with his demented grandmother. At first, this just gives Willie a great place to hide out and party with Sue, but eventually these four form a twisted family.

“Bad Santa” is an example of how a lot of cinematic sins can be forgiven if a filmmaker gets the tone of a movie right. There are tons of holes in this plot, but the darkly comic tone is maintained consistently without getting TOO dark or resorting to sentimentality. The result is a fairly hilarious little dark comedy. As holiday films go, I'll take “Bad Santa” over “Miracle on 34th Street” any day.

3.5 stars out of 5