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The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

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-

Momentarily Appropriate Quotelet

“What the hell’s wrong with being stupid once in awhile? Does everything you do always have to be sensible? Haven’t you ever thrown waterballoons off a roof? When you were a little kid didn’t you ever sprinkle Ivory flakes on the living room floor ’cause you wanted to make it snow in July? Didn’t you ever get really shitfaced and maybe make a complete fool of yourself and still have an excellent time?”

Gib, “The Sure Thing”