Cusack’s a downer in likable “Hot Tub Time Machine”

Look, John -- even ROB CORDDRY can't believe you're in this movie!

The funniest thing about “Hot Tub Time Machine” is John Cusack — not because he says or does anything all that funny, but because he wears a look of fish-out-of-water bewilderment that’s uncomfortably hysterical. It is the astonished, slightly ashamed look of a man who went against everything his gut, his head, even that sardonic little shoulder angel (you know John Cusack’s shoulder angel is pithy) told him and took a part in this preposterous, occasionally hilarious movie anyway. As shocked as you are to watch this movie and see him in it, he’s all the more shocked to be in it.

Why Cusack chose this part should be a mystery to his fans (note: I’ve been one back since the “Tapeheads” and cameo in “Bob Roberts” days). Maybe, doubling back to his “Con Air” era, he wanted to make a “smart business decision” (i.e., cash). It’s also not unheard of that he’d want to stretch his wings, like he did with “Grace Is Gone,” only this time try his hand at a randy, grown-up dudecom. Whatever the reasoning, the choice was a bad one because Cusack can’t unwind and enjoy himself. He’s basically a rampaging buzzkill — not a straight man, but a buzzkill. Everyone else in “Hot Tub Time Machine” seems to know the score, know this is loopy fun and not much else. Cusack doesn’t. And it’s not a good sign when Crispin “Creepy Thin Man” Glover is having more fun than anyone.  

Cusack’s apparent discomfort, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate that “Hot Tub Time Machine” is a downer or a waste of time — far from it. Steve Pink’s light-hearted screwball buddy comedy delivers most of the laughs it promises thanks to Rob Corddry, who can’t be accused of not diving into every part with equine energy, and Clark Duke, enough a student of the Michael Cera School of Comedy to temper Corddry’s manic turns. Duke, Corddry, Craig Robinson and Cusack, an odd quartet any day of the week, find themselves in the very situation the movie’s title lays out. Adam (Cusack) and Nick (Robinson) have crumbling romantic lives. Jacob (Duke), Adam’s nephew, spends all his time playing “Second Life” in his uncle’s basement. They are paragons of stability next to Lou (Rob “I’m growin’ out my bangs” Corddry), an alcoholic whose latest stunt may have been a suicide attempt. No one’s quite sure how to handle the situation, so the gang heads back to the ski lodge where they spent their teen years … only to find the place deserted, as pitiful as they think their lives have become.

Enter the hot tub of the title, which turns out to be a time travel device. At first, the guys are in denial, though they can’t ignore guys “rockin’ cassette tape players” and Jeri-curl ‘dos. Michael Jackson being black should have been the tipoff, but Jacob is the voice of reason: “Do I really gotta be the asshole who says we got in this thing and went back in time?” Lines like these provide “Hot Tub Time Machine” with some zing, with Corddry stealing the best of them. (His idea to change the past to “prevent Miley Cyrus” belongs in the comedy time capsule.) The ’80s throwbacks (MTV! 10-pound cell phones! people snorting coke openly!) are a fun blast from the past, as are all laugh-at-not-with the decade jokes. Poor 1980s — you endorse a few bad ideas, like banana clips, jam shorts and leg warmers and people never let you forget it.

Ultimately, that’s what “Hot Tub Time Machine” amounts to: some laughs generated by ’80s jokes and the antics of Duke, Robinson and Corddry. There’s also a running gag about when the one-armed bellhop (Glover) of the future will lose his arm that doesn’t lose its appeal. It’s not as smart or raucous as the “The Hangover,” but it doesn’t try to be. In fact, the actors don’t try to do much of anything except run with the material. Though I do hope at least one of them took Cusack aside in-between takes to say: “Do I really gotta be the asshole who tells you this just isn’t your thing?”

Grade: B-

Visually striking “Alice” lacks emotional weight

Helena Bonham Carter steals scenes (and heads) in Tim Burton's eye-popping "Alice in Wonderland."

Back in Underland after a 13-year absence, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself lost and certain she’s the wrong Alice. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is just as certain she’s the right one, but there’s a catch. “You used to be much more … ‘muchier.’ You’ve lost your muchness,” Hatter laments. Alice has lost her groove, poor lass, and he’ll stop at nothing — including the use of frequent accent switches — to help her find it.

This is what Tim Burton’s long-anticipated and fluorescent-hued film amounts to: a 109-minute quest to find Alice’s muchness, the very same muchness a corset-filled life in London has chased away. As a visual experience, “Alice in Wonderland” proves a feast for the eyes, a smörgåsbord of vibrant colors and landscapes, delightful costumes (the Red Queen’s make-up and the mushrooms alone are amazing). Give in to the 3D pull if you must, but this film is meant to be seen the way it was filmed: in 2D. As a movie, though, there’s a lack of emotional depth and character development that make it difficult to connect the “wow” we see with our eyes to any real sense of heartfelt wonderment. And seeing the magic and feeling it — the way we do in, say, “Avatar” — are two very different things.

The saving graces, however, come in the form of the characters, many of which are so vibrant and unforgettable they detract from the film’s shortcomings. (Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat could induce a smattering of night terrors, for example, as could Helena Bonham Carter’s strangely touching Red Queen.) Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes liberties with Lewis Carroll’s tale; some are successful and some are not. “Alice in Wonderland” begins in London, where Alice is set to marry an uppity, blockheaded lord (Tim Pigott-Smith). Underland is no longer in her thoughts, and life has become gray since her father’s (Martin Csokas) death. Now Alice must weather a marriage proposal in front of people she hates wearing no stockings and no corset (she believes in neither). In gallops the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) to lead her down the rabbit hole, where everyone, from Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) to that wise old toker* the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), insists she can’t be the Alice of 13 years past. They waste pages of dialogue arguing about this. They don’t reach a conclusion, not until the Mad Hatter sets them right. She is Alice, she will save them from the Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and the lovely, magnanimous White Queen (Anne Hathaway) will take back her throne.

The lead-up to the Big Battle — a crushing disappointment of a CGI-coated finale where the seams show through — proves to be somewhat tedious and rushed. Writing is a weak point in “Alice in Wonderland,” with Woolverton providing little development on the best characters and Burton spotlighting the weakest ones. The Mad Hatter acts like a narrator/historian, but he’s a mystery to us. Maybe he’s written as an all-over-the-map chap or maybe that’s just how Depp plays him; either way, it doesn’t work. He’s an annoying kook, not a lovable one. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is a rather uninteresting villain who gets loads of screentime, whereas Fry’s ominous Cheshire Cat and Rickman’s droll caterpillar are reduced to a few scenes.

Not everyone fairs so badly. Hathaway’s bright smile and chirpy manner hints that the White Queen isn’t so different from her evil sister, only more restrained. Wasikowska gives Alice some gumption, a kind of uncertain, coltish beauty and spirit that illustrate the painful tug between youth and adulthood. And yet the true, unadulterated star of “Alice in Wonderland” is Burton favorite Helena Bonham Carter, who’s simply smashing as the freakish, self-conscious Red Queen. She is a woman who insulates herself with a throng of mindless nodders, people who don fake noses and bellies and ears to offset the queen’s oversized head. She’s quick to anger and still there’s a softness in her for the outsiders, although her sad, lonely life has taught her that “it is far better to be feared than loved.” She gets at our hearts in ways the film she’s in simply cannot.

Grade: B-

*Don’t kid yourself. He’s a pothead.

Who moved my tart?

Happy “Alice in Wonderland”-in-3D-Opens-in-Theaters-Nationwide Day, Interwebbers!

(My sincerest apologies. When I get this excited about a movie, I’m taken over by ROY-G-BIV demons.)

I don’t know if y’all know this, but the only appropriate ways to celebrate this happy day are:

  1. Sing “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” long enough to lift your spirit but not so long that your coworkers call the Men in White Coats to take you away.
  2. Work the phrases “Cheshire Cat grin,” “down the rabbit hole” and “off with her head!” into conversations where they have absolutely no business. Alternately, go to the office fridge at lunchtime (when the masses converge), look inside and demand, in shocked tones, to know: “Who stole the tart?”
  3. Go see the movie. Duh.

Happy viewing!

 

Review: “Back to the Future” (1985)

Ah, the future. Weight has nothing to do with it in "Back to the Future."

People who chance upon the wonder of time travel all tend to want the same thing: second chances. For what is time travel if not the ultimate cosmic do-over, a chance to make a different choice in the past and hope that alteration will improve the future? Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a little different. With youth on his side, he has few real regrets, so his accidental time-travel mission involves changing the lives of others. It just so happens those “other lives” belong to his teen-age parents (Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson) circa 1955.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote “Back to the Future” with Bob Gale, merges these two unlikely concepts to create a film brimming with wit, intelligence, sidesplitting sight gags, more than a little heart and a most creative (if monumentally disturbing) reinvention of the Oedipus complex. “Back to the Future,” then, is a rare movie indeed, one where there’s sturdy balance of science fiction and humor. Factor in the very human and subtly poignant backstory that involves the redemption of a painfully timid character, and the first installment of this trilogy becomes even more rare: a film that does, in the simplest sense of the word, offer something for everyone.*

The story Zemeckis and Gale creates begins in 1985 in Hill Valley, Calif., where Marty lives what he believes is an unenviable life. His father George (Crispin Glover) lacks a spine and spends his days at work being bullied by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson), while his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) glugs vodka at dinner. But there are two things that make Marty happy: his girlfriend (Claudia Wells) and his friendship with scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a kook who sports a ‘do that puts Albert Einstein’s to shame. He’s the kind of chap, we expect, whose inventions never amount to much … until the day they do. Doc Brown’s constant tinkering moves from strange to astounding when he accidentally creates a time machine out of a souped-up DeLorean. Why a DeLorean? “If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Oh, that Christopher Lloyd. Always with the bug-eyed witticisms.

A chase (also accidental) finds Marty rocketing down the Twin Pines Mall parking lot in the time machine and landing somehow in 1955. And Hill Valley in 1955 is as unprepared to experience Marty as he is to experience Hill Valley. The ’80s-centric teen can’t quite believe what’s happened to him until he finds himself sharing counter space at the local malt shop with his father, a hopelessly shy nerd. That meeting leads to a mishap that changes Marty’s parents’ initial meeting (turns out his mother finds her future son most attractive) and threatens to alter his own life permanently.

The clash between 1950s-era ideals and Marty’s futuristic notions — pay attention to the smallest details; they matter — provides some of the funniest moments. Hill Valley’s townspeople see his puffy vest and keep asking him why he’s wearing a life jacket. A much-younger Doc Brown scoffs at the idea that Ronald “the actor?” Reagan could win the presidency. “I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady,” he retorts, and later imagines plutonium is sold like Tylenol in drugstores in 1980s America. At the school dance, Marty rips into a guitar solo that leaves the students speechless. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he observes, but assures them “your kids are gonna love it.”

What’s amazing about “Back to the Future” is the timeless feel of these sight gags. Over the years, every last one of them has refused to age, to seem dated or grow stale. Instead, they feel as fresh and funny today as they did in 1985. That timelessness is a powerful testament to the strength of the actors’ performances (here we see glimpses of the exquisite comic timing that would make Fox a name) and Gale and Zemeckis’ visionary script. Perhaps that’s because “Back to the Future” reminds us that while we can’t predict our future, our choices give us the power to navigate it how we choose.

Grade: A

*Avoid cliches like the plague.

Review: “Beowulf” (2007)

BeowulfViewers, leave your preconceived notions at the door: This isn’t your eighth-grade English lit teacher’s “Beowulf.” No, this “Beowulf,” a CGI-coated, action-packed visual spectacle of a film directed by Robert Zemeckis, has a wicked, sly sense of humor that surprises you. In fact, the double entendre-laden dialogue, the expertly-choreographed battle scenes and the over-the-top characters all feel like something straight out of a Monty Python film. Think of “Beowulf” as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the CGI generation.

The film, of course, is based upon the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” a distant, unpleasant memory for some (excluding yours truly, former English major). Set about 700 A.D., the film, like the poem, opens on the eighth-century Danish kingdom of aged King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who has called his warriors to the mead hall for a celebration. All the mead-soaked merrymaking comes to an abrupt halt when hideous, shrieking monster Grendel (the ever-creepy Crispin Glover) starts snacking on the king’s guests. Hrothgar then issues a call for heroes to kill Grendel.Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, whose booming voice could — and probably has — incited on-the-spot battle cries), a valiant, boastful warrior from Geatland (part of Sweden), and what can accurately be described as his traveling “entourage” of coarse, mannerless warriors. The famed Geat accepts Hrothgar’s challenge as much for the reward as a chance to bed his lovely queen (Robin Wright Penn) and sets off a chain reaction of events that does not, at various turns, follow the legend.

But enough about the plot. The fun of “Beowulf” hides in the unexpected ways the plot unfolds. For starters, there’s the director’s decision to use “photorealistic animation,” which means the characters resemble real-life actors. It’s certainly a bold choice, since that animation style can look downright freaky and sometimes downright soulless and scary (“Polar Express,” anyone?). Here it’s been tweaked and improved to the point where the characters’ appearances are almost spot-on. Their expressions and eyes still aren’t quite there, still lack the spark of life that suggests humanity, but it’s close enough. (It’s even possible to see the faintest traces of Glover’s unusual features behind his Grendel getup, and Angelina Jolie is clearly recognizable as Grendel’s seductive mother.) And the animation, no doubt, injects “Beowulf” with the same kind of enchanting surrealism that’s made the film’s literary inspiration a perennial favorite on high school and college reading lists.

There’s another surprise in “Beowulf”: The film or, more accurately, the director has a biting sense of humor. (And this reviewer chooses to believe the laughs are intentional, not accidental.) Entire scenes are played for comic, satirical effect, and there are too many allusions to the Python troupe to be accidental. Consider the fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf, which should win some sort of award for Best Choreography or Best Use of Props to Conceal Exposed Private Parts. The reason? Beowulf is entirely naked, but every move, every prop is designed to prevent the audience from seeing what can’t be shown. Half the fun is figuring out what “cover” will be used next. The whole thing would be right at home in a Python sketch.

The characters’ speeches, too, are unexpectedly comical. Observe the scene where Beowulf and his right-hand warrior Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) debate who will enter Grendel’s cave first. When Beowulf loses his arm in battle, his response recalls that of the Black Knight in “Holy Grail” (remember the “your arm’s off” exchange?). The humor makes “Beowulf” a rather surprising film, one that will make Old English lit scholars no doubt howl with displeasure. But see it with an open mind and it’s a thrilling, visually stunning experience you won’t soon forget.

Grade: B-

Off with ‘er head: “Alice” teaser arrives

Just when you think Tim Burton can’t top himself, he does … and gives you years’ worth of unsettling nightmares in the process.

Yes, yes, filmophiles, you know what I’m talking about: Burton’s bright, menacing, gleeful non-animated take on “Alice in Wonderland.” If ever there was a movie meant to be made, and made by the King of Creep, it’s “Alice in Wonderland.” (Come to think of it, I’m not entirely convinced Burton isn’t a reincarnation of ole’ Jabberwocky Joe.)

The cast is too exciting for flowery words, so I’ll just go with names: J. Depp as The Mad Hatter; Alan Rickman as The Caterpillar; Anne Hathaway as The White Queen; Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen; and Crispin Glover (you may remember him as Thin Man in “Charlies Angels: Full Throttle”) as The Knave of Hearts.

Bad news, though — this little beaut’s not coming out until 2010. In the meantime, watch the trailer or, if you’re in the mood to put your Ambien to the ultimate test, mosey on over to Imdb.com and check out these dead Michael Jackson-meets-”Nightmare Before Christmas”-meets-the craziest acid trip Timothy Leary never took promo shots.

 

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