Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Hot Tub Time Machine"

Hot Tub Time Machine - Directed by Steve Pink, starring John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke - Rated R

The Kurgan would fit right in with these guys.

Hot Tub Time Machine: your response to the title alone should indicate whether or not you're going to like this ridiculous comedy. I heard that title the first time and thought, "Awesome." If, on the other hand, you think it's the dumbest movie title you've ever heard, then you're probably not going to be in the right mindset to enjoy this one.

Hot Tub Time Machine is about three friends, Adam (John Cusack), Nick (Craig Robinson), and Lou (Rob Corddry), who have grown apart (and miserable) since their heyday in the 80's. When Lou accidentally attempts suicide (by rocking out and revving his car in a closed garage), Adam and Nick decide a reunion at their favorite ski resort should bring Lou out of his funk and bring the friends back together. Oh, and Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) is along for the ride as well. So they get to the resort, which is now dilapidated, start partying in the titular hot tub, and wake up in the 80's.

Obviously the movie is a bit goofy, but what hooked me in was the realistic portrayal of friendship. These guys aren't sappy buddies who are always there for each other. These friends are brutally honest and they are constantly hurling insults at each other. Maybe that doesn't sound like friendship to some people, but to me, it rings pretty true. It's also a good recipe for comedy. Let's face it, insults can be really funny when their aimed at fictional characters.

The characters here are nothing new, but they are all believable. But this is not a character piece, so it really boils down to the performances. I've never been a fan of Cusack (and even after this film, I still don't care for his acting), but I could abide him in this film. Clark Duke plays the exasperated dork very well. But it's Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson who make this film. Corddry's hard partying loser is obnoxious, idiotic, and hilarious. And it helps that he gets some of the dirtiest and funniest lines of the film. Robinson's character is bit more reserved than Corddry's, but he's just as funny. His deadpan delivery coupled with his exaggerated outbursts make for some great scenes. It's safe to say that if you've liked anything Corddry and Robinson have done in the past, then you'll definitely like them in this one.

Hot Tub Time Machine also features some amusing supporting performances. Crispin Glover was by far my favorite. Glover plays a one armed, bitter bellhop in the present, but a happy go lucky two armed man in the past. You can imagine what the running gag is from this scenario. Some might feel that it runs its course after a couple times, but I laughed every time he was in an "arm loss" situation. Also amusing is the appearance of William Zabka as a sleazy gambler. That name might not be familiar, but you've seen this guy before. He was the young villain in multiple 80's movies, including The Karate Kid.

That's not the only nostalgic 80's moment in this film, but the era isn't exactly a major part of the movie. You get the obligatory "in the past" scene that pokes fun at the technology, clothing, and hairstyles, but aside from that and the soundtrack, the 80's aren't focused on all that much. It's more about these characters being young again and the consequences of messing with the past. I'm fine with that, but I think the filmmakers could have capitalized on 80's movies a bit more. I would have loved a cheesy montage, or maybe the side plot with the preppy ski patrol guys could have been expanded. But it's only a minor gripe in an otherwise very funny movie.

There are other issues I had with the movie, though. Cusack's love interest scenes felt a bit forced and they really slowed the movie down near the end. And some jokes just fall flat completely. But there are definitely more hits than misses.

Hot Tub Time Machine isn't going to go down as a comedy classic or anything, but it's certainly worth watching. It may be too stupid for some people, but if you hear that title and you laugh a little bit, then odds are you're going to enjoy this one.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"Triangle" / "Precious" / "The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day"

*It was another slow week at the theatre; I didn't want to watch Gerard Butler butcher yet another American accent in The Bounty Hunter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn't exactly my demographic, and Repo Men just doesn't look good enough to drop eight bucks on (though I will definitely watch it on video). So this week I'm reviewing another batch of video releases, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel with Hot Tub Time Machine this weekend followed by Clash of the Titans the week after.

Triangle - Written and directed by Christopher Smith, starring Melissa George - Rated R

The Evil Kurgan was interested in this one, but just a little bit...

Triangle is a film in the same vein as Timecrimes. (If you're unfamiliar with Timecrimes, I suggest you check it out, especially since I think it's a bit better than this film.) It's definitely a mind bending movie and there's enough going on for there to be plenty of discussion once the film is over. What I mean by that is that there are references to Greek mythology that leave things open to the viewer's interpretation and that's always a good thing, in my opinion.

The film is about Jess, a single mother/waitress whose child suffers from Down syndrome. She is invited on a boating trip on a yacht named "Triangle" and everything is going well enough until the ship is hit by a sudden storm that leaves it capsized. The group is found by an ocean liner and then things get weird. I don't want to write anymore about the story because I feel that even giving a general description of what the bulk of the movie is about would be a spoiler.

That probably tips you off that this movie is a bit out there and that is absolutely true. Anyone looking for a straightforward thriller that takes place on a boat would be better off watching Ghost Ship. Triangle is anything but straightforward. But it is not one of those needlessly complex movies that will leave you annoyed when it's all over. I think anyone who pays close attention while watching this film will at the very least have a general idea of what it's all about.

Personally, I didn't think this film warranted an in depth interpretation. This isn't Stanley Kubrick we're dealing with here, after all. But the film is interesting and it kept me guessing throughout without ever becoming boring or ridiculous. I can understand some people giving it a closer look, though. Like I said, there are elements to be explored with this film, I just didn't want to explore them for more than a few minutes.

If you want a more pleasing and worthy film, I suggest Timecrimes, but if you can't be bothered with subtitles and still want a decent mind bender, then by all means, watch Triangle.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire - Directed by Lee Daniels, starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, and Paula Patton - Rated R

And you thought Commodus' crush on his sister was disturbing...

Precious is a difficult movie. I don't just mean that it's about the very difficult life of the title character, but it's also difficult to review. If you think that all movies are meant to entertain, then you may not like this film. I didn't find it entertaining at all. The subject matter is just a bit too bleak to allow for entertainment with this one.

Precious is about an obese teenager from Harlem who has an abusive mother, is pregnant with her second child (the first one had Down syndrome) and is being kicked out of school. Oh, and the father of her two children is her own father. And her mother forces her to eat so she stays fat. And her mother physically abuses her. And her mother verbally abuses her. get the point. If you find enjoyment out of any of that, then there is something wrong with you.

But this movie is not meant to be entertaining. It's meant to be hopeful. I suppose it might succeed on that level with some viewers, but I just felt tired after the first hour. The filmmakers created such a miserable situation that the sense of hope in the film was almost completely overshadowed. I just wanted all the misery to end. I suppose that means this is an effective drama and I am certain that if you watch it, it will affect you in some way. Bleak movies don't bother me all that much, but this one turned into borderline overkill. So I suppose it boils down to how much you're willing to take. If you can deal with that amount of misery, then you'll probably love this one.

Aside from the amount of misery on display, Precious is without a doubt a well made film. Lee Daniels has some style and the visuals added a lot to the film. Precious's dream sequences have an authentic dream-like quality. The camera movement impressed me the most, though. Daniels moves the camera with ease and it makes things a bit easier to watch.

You may have noticed that I haven't even mentioned the performances of this film. That's because I'm a bit late to the game with this one and everything has already been said about all the principal actors. I'll just say that Mo'Nique and Sidibe give extremely authentic performances and I completely believed their characters throughout.

So I'm not very impressed with Precious but I understand the praise it has received. I just like my misery in smaller doses, I guess. This film was too much. It beats the viewer into submission to the point that any semblance of hope is wasted when it's all said and done.

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day - Written and directed by Troy Duffy, starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, Billy Connolly, Julie Benz, and Clifton Collins, Jr. - Rated R

Kurgan laughed a few times, but he never laughed in slow motion.

First off, let me say that I am not a die hard Boondock Saints fan. I thought the first film was amusing and all, but I have never understood the obsessed following it gained. The first film was an attempt to be edgy and stylish, but I just thought it was cheap and stupid most of the time. That said, I actually enjoyed this sequel and I imagine if I liked it, then the die hards will love it.

This second outing just seemed funnier and better put together. That doesn't mean this film is perfect or anything. I still found the shootouts to be slow motion bore fests and it doesn't seem like the filmmakers have learned to make proper cuts, since most scenes have an almost jarring transition.

But I could slightly get past that on this one. I don't recall laughing much during the first film (even though it was supposed to be funny at times), but I chuckled multiple times during this one and for the most part they were intentional laughs. The main reason for this is Clifton Collins, Jr. I've enjoyed his work since I first saw him in The Stoned Age years ago. He basically takes over the role of the deceased sidekick from the first film: Rocco. I always thought Rocco was stupid and annoying, but Collins' character, Romeo, is stupid and funny.

Reedus and Flanery do well this second time around as well. Sometimes I didn't find them completely convincing, but for the most part, they made the movie fun. I can't say the same for Julie Benz, who replaced Willem Dafoe's FBI agent. She attempts a southern accent and it is absolutely terrible. I found her every scene to be insufferable.

I suppose most of my problems, like the accent, are due to the over the top antics of Duffy. I'm sure he was completely happy with Benz's accent. He may have wanted it intentionally bad, but just because someone does something poorly on purpose, that does not mean that it is ironic or clever. Sometimes it is what it is: terrible. It's not just the accent and the ridiculous dialogue (like "I'm so smart I make smart people feel like they're retarded"), it's also the over-directed shoot outs. I get it, slow-mo and techno music make shootouts stylized and "cool." But can't he mix it up a bit? No, not only can he not mix it up, he forces you to sit through some shootouts two or three times. I'm not joking. In this film, there is a bar room shootout that Duffy actually did without using slow-mo. But just when I thought he had changed his ways, he shows the shootout again, but this time in slow motion. To top it all off, he shows an alternate version of the shootout a minute later in, you guessed it, slow motion.

Duffy knows his audience, though. I thought the shootouts from the first film were boring, but apparently an entire sub-culture loved them. So Duffy delivers more of the same, which is a problem for me, but probably a positive aspect for the legion of Boondock fans out there.

So the gist of all this is that All Saints Day is a little funnier and amusing than the first film. I don't expect many converts from this film, though. I liked it a little and all, but I still don't consider myself a fan. It's worth a rental, though.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Gentlemen Broncos" / "Universal Soldier: Regeneration"

Gentlemen Broncos - Directed and co-written by Jared Hess, starring Michael Angarano, Sam Rockwell, and Jemaine Clement - Rated PG-13

The Evil Kurgan likes his comedy as weird as possible.

Gentlemen Broncos is the latest film from Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre) and if you haven't heard of it that's because the studio barely gave it a theatrical release. But it's finally on DVD and I thought it was well worth the wait. But if you didn't like Hess' previous films, then I can almost guarantee that you won't like this one.

Gentlemen Broncos is about Benjamin, a home schooled teenager who loves to write fantasy fiction. The story revolves around Benjamin's fantasy novel, "Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years." His new friends try to make a film version of it and his favorite author, Ronald Chevalier (Clement), steals the story and publishes it as his own. This premise allows for the film's strongest point: the fantasy story sequences.

In these sequences, a hilarious Sam Rockwell plays both Bronco (Benjamin's bearded, redneck hero) and Brutus (Clement's altered, "tranny" hero). Each version is hilarious and Rockwell is impressive in his second multiple part role of 2009. I don't want to spoil any of his lines, but I found nearly everything he said to be funny.

But it's all a different kind of funny. This is not broad comedy (even though it does feature a decent amount of gross out humor - more on that later). I hate to use the word quirky since it is how every Hess movie is described, but it is perfectly fitting. This is a quirky movie. It's very weird at times and sometimes the jokes need a few minutes (or even a second viewing) to sink in. Once you accept that it is goofy and some of it makes absolutely no sense, then you should free yourself up to laugh quite a bit.

The gross out humor might turn some people away. In fact, everything I've come across that is negative for the film (of which there is plenty) has mentioned that Hess has relied on gross out humor to salvage any comedy for this movie. I would completely disagree. Sure, the movie is gross at times (the snake defecation, the puke-kiss, etc.) but it certainly doesn't rely on it. In fact, I found some of it a bit funny.

The gross out humor doesn't make the movie or anything, though. Gentlemen Broncos is all about the fantasy sequences and it's other comedic weapon: Jemaine Clement. The "Flight of the Conchords" star is absolutely hilarious in this. I read that Hess asked him to read his lines like Michael York and that is obviously going on and Clement nails it. His voice makes mediocre lines funny. But it helps that he has some of the best lines of the film as well. If nothing else, I suggest that everyone watch Clement's scenes in this film (which is something that even the negative reviews suggest). He even gets the funniest prop: an ever present bluetooth headset that he never uses. I just wish this film would have gained a larger audience so Clement could get some bigger roles.

Gentlemen Broncos isn't for everyone, but it's certainly for more people than the studio gave it credit for. This is not that different from Hess' earlier work. I think it stands right up there with Napoleon and Nacho. Maybe you won't like it as much as me, but I definitely think you'll find yourself laughing if you give it a chance.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration - Directed by John Hyams, starring Andrei Arlovski, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme - Rated R

As utterly pointless and annoying as Bruce Banner's dad.

It's no secret that I am an unapologetic Jean-Claude Van Damme fan, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I decided to review this direct to video (DTV) release since I didn't catch anything new at the theatre this past weekend. How could I not review the return of Lundgren and Van Damme to the Universal Soldier franchise?

Unfortunately, I don't have much to say about this one. I was honestly expecting this to be Lundgren vs. Van Damme for an hour and a half with Andre Arlovski (a former UFC fighter) peppered in here and there. What I got was a starring vehicle for Arlovski, in which Van Damme doesn't factor in until the second half and Lundgren only features in for about fifteen minutes. Am I wrong in thinking the only appeal for this movie was Van Damme and Lundgren? If I am, and you're just looking for a mediocre action film, then by all means, rent this one.

If you're like me, though, I think you should save your time and money because this one was honestly disappointing. It has it's moments, sure, (the showdown between Van Damme and Lundgren was great but oh so short) but when I see Van Damme on the cover of a movie, I expect him to be the star. On top of that, the plot is some ridiculous Cold War-esque crap about a bomb blowing up Chernobyl. I wish they had had the budget to take this one out of Eastern Europe because it seems like that is the only place Van Damme films a movie these days.

I need to write a bit about Arlovski. It befuddles me as to why he would get more screen time than Van Damme or Lundgren, because he doesn't have half the screen presence of either of them. It would have been much better if his role didn't exist at all and Lundgren played the enemy unisol that Van Damme was brought in to take down. On top of the lack of screen presence, the choreographer obviously got pretty lazy with Arlovski's scenes because ninety percent of his fight scenes end with him on top of the guy punching his opponent's head repeatedly into the ground. Which would be fine if it was really brutal and only happened once or twice. But it's borderline comedic and it happens every five minutes it seems. At one point a guy jumps out a window and a few characters run over to look down at him. While they're watching, Arlovski trots onscreen and does his punch deal to the obviously unconscious body. It's just pointless and annoying, which kind of describes the entire film now that I think of it.

I was hoping that Van Damme would make a legitimate comeback after the praise he received for JCVD, but he went right back to his old ways with this one. What is really infuriating is that he turned down a role in The Expendables to make another video release that is most likely as mediocre as this film.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is a failed attempt to rejuvenate a dead franchise and I'm afraid it also re-solidifies Van Damme as a strictly DTV star. Skip this unless you're a die hard like me and if that's the case, you've probably already seen it anyway.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

"Alice in Wonderland" / Mini-Reviews: "Hunger" / "The Invention of Lying" / "The Damned United"

Alice in Wonderland - Directed by Tim Burton, starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter - Rated PG

The Kurgan digs the Mad Hatter...he just wishes he was a little evil.

Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s latest collaboration, is equal parts strange and goofy. This is not a bad thing, I was just hoping for something a bit darker. The film is still enjoyable and it certainly held my interest.

This version of the classic story by Lewis Carroll is really a combination/reimagining of both “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” So you get the usual cast of characters (the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, the White Queen, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat), but with a more traditional, linear plot. I am not a Lewis Carroll scholar or anything, but the books, from the skimming I did, came across as more of a random series of crazy events. To be honest, I was happy to see a linear plot added. I suppose a purist might have problems, though.

The linear story I mentioned above starts off simply enough. Young Alice has just awoken from a nightmare involving the above cast of characters. Her father let’s her know that even if she is a little crazy, it’s okay (lesson to all little girls: it’s okay to be yourself). Cut to eleven years later, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a young lady, expected to marry a lord and lead a very boring life. Instead, she chases after the White Rabbit and falls down the rabbit hole. And this is, of course, where the story picks up a bit. Alice quickly learns that she is foretold to be a great champion who will slay the Jabberwocky with the vorpal sword and help bring peace back to Wonderland. She and the inhabitants of Wonderland, however, are not sure if she’s the right Alice for the job.

I’ve summarized the story enough. Suffice it to say that all of the expected encounters have a point behind them and they all lead up to the showdown between the Red Queen and the White Queen. I enjoyed the story of the film, especially since it gave the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) a back story and a purpose. Still, though, do not expect this to be a Mad Hatter movie just because Depp’s face is plastered all over the marketing. The Hatter is still a side character, though Depp’s scenes were the most enjoyable in the film. You really can’t go wrong when Depp is given free rein to crazy up the screen.

Depp is great and he is backed up by some other fun performances, both live action and voice. Helena Bonham Carter and Crispin Glover (as the Red Queen and Stayne, Knave of Hearts, respectively) work very well together. Carter handles the famous “Off with their heads!” outbursts quite well and Glover is a creepy guy no matter what he does so his presence alone made his character work. Among the voice actors, I enjoyed Alan Rickman as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat the most. They both seemed to embody each character perfectly.

Since there are voice actors, that obviously means that a good portion of this film is done with computer animated effects, and they are quite well done. The world created for the screen looks great. I found myself just looking around the screen picking up the little details here and there (of course it was easy to pick up the smaller elements since I was watching it in IMAX). Wonderland might not be Pandora or anything, but it is still interesting enough to keep your eyes busy throughout the film.

Inevitably, Alice in Wonderland is going to be compared to Avatar since this is the first IMAX/3D release since that blockbuster came out. First off, the 3D is not as impressive as it was with Avatar. This may be because Alice wasn’t shot in 3D; it was converted to 3D later. This is becoming a common practice since Avatar started breaking records and I’m not sure I like it. Don’t get me wrong, the 3D is still impressive at times and it helps you feel like you’re in Wonderland along with Alice. I just wish they would’ve have actually filmed it with 3D cameras instead of converting it later.

Alice in Wonderland still looks good, it just could have looked so much better. I enjoyed the story more than the visuals, if for no other reason than it was quite different than I expected it to be. It may have been a bit goofier than I would have liked (the Mad Hatter’s little dance at the end was quite stupid), but it has some great moments as well (Alice’s showdown with the Jabberwocky was my favorite). The film makes for a decent family film. I don’t think it’s going to go down as a beloved classic or anything, but I certainly think Alice in Wonderland is worth checking out.


Hunger - Co-written and directed by Steve McQueen, starring Michael Fassbender - Not Rated
This film, which seemed to take forever to get a video release, is best known for Fassbender's performance and for good reason. Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, an Irish political prisoner who died during a hunger strike in prison. Fassbender deserves every bit of praise he gets. He's actually not on screen as much as you would think, but his moments are extremely effective. It's not only his physical transformation (which I found even more shocking than Christian Bale's weight loss in The Machinist) that is impressive. I found the lengthy dialogue scene with a priest to be just as effective. And that is really saying something for this movie in general: I found a twenty-plus minute dialogue scene in which the camera never moves to be completely enthralling, not to mention impressive, as it was one continuous take. That scene alone makes this film worth watching. That doesn't mean the rest of it isn't good, though. Steve McQueen did a great job of putting the viewer in prison. It's not pleasant and it shouldn't be. And it is very effective.

The Invention of Lying - Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, starring Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, and Louis C.K. - Rated PG-13

This high concept comedy takes place in a world where lying hasn't been invented yet. Although, technically that's not correct. Characters in the film just blurt out what they are thinking sometimes. So it's not that people can't lie, it's also that they cannot stop themselves from telling people what is on their mind. Of course, this factor makes character interactions much funnier so I'm okay with it. I'm not going to ruin any of the gags for you, just rest assured that you'll laugh at least a few times during this one. I found it quite funny, but I could see some people getting tired of the joke halfway through. Oh, and some people will definitely be turned away by the film's treatment of religion, so if you're easily offended when it comes to religious matters, you may want to skip this one. If you're not easily offended, give this one a try.

The Damned United - Directed by Tom Hooper, starring Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, and Timothy Spall - Rated R

I wasn't expecting much from this film. Mainly due to the fact that it's about a soccer (sorry, rest of the world, I mean football) coach rivalry during the 1970's between Brian Clough (Sheen) and Don Revie (Meaney). But it turns out that it is actually a character study of Clough. He is ambitious to the point of obsession, but it's hard not to like the guy because Sheen plays him so well. But what really hooked me with this one was the way the story was told. It jumps around a bit and that makes things much more interesting than if it was in order. I was worried about having to watch a lot of soccer scenes but that turned out to be a complete non-issue as well. This simply is not a sports movie. I know nothing about the sport of soccer and my lack of knowledge did not affect my viewing at all. So if you were put off by the subject matter with this one you might want to think again because The Damned United is much more than a soccer movie.