Friday, March 26, 2010

Gettin' Tubbed

Photo courtesy of NY Times and MGM Studios.

Remember the worst dorm party you've ever had back in college. Yeah, that one where maybe you had a little too much of any particular substance that was being passed around and things went a little too far with some of the party's participants. Now, imagine if the movie Back to the Future was playing in the background. Put that whole situation in a blender and add a hot tub just to spice up the batch.

That's pretty much the experience of watching Hot Tub Time Machine, the latest collaboration between Steve Pink and John Cusack, the minds behind High Fidelity. It doesn't try to make sense and that's the key to its success, making for one hilarious, guffaw-loudly-in-your-seat experience.

A bit of advice to dear readers: if you Netflix the following films and see them beforehand, the movie will be a whole lot more enjoyable for you: Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Karate Kid, Better Off Dead and Back to the Future. And that's just the ones off the top of my head - the filmmakers did their research to try to cram in as broad an array of 80s culture as possible. The movie ends up depicting the 80s not as it was, but the 80s our culture at the time wanted it to be.

Right from the get-go the movie shows that it is going to be rude, crude, and tasteless. It is a rated R, and a hard R it truly is. The jokes are completely politically incorrect, which is a plus - its rare to see anything nowadays that has such a no holds barred approach to dumping on the face of any sort of common decency. What's not a plus is the amount of homosexual jokes that fly - I know we're trying to make this 80s, but note to director Steve Pink: let's not lose sight of the fact this is a 2010 audience watching this.

The plot is pretty simple: a bunch of depressed 40-somethings (plus one nerdy teen) decide to get away to an old ski lodge, jump into a hot tub, and after a night of hard-drinking and god knows what else, they end up at Winterfest 1986. Having the original 80s boy John Cusack playing the down-and-out insurance salesman Adam with poor taste in friends makes this movie on several levels. Cusack's ability to laugh at himself allows him to be both the straight man and the comic relief in this film. He also seems so happy to not be playing another "serious" movie role and just get to roll with the boys. Adam's pals include Lou (Rob Corddry) who becomes the hero in the weirdest of ways, and Nick (Craig Robinson) who are good foils for each other - Nick is the soft, sensitive man and Lou is the loud obnoxious jerk. One memorable quote from the film Nick says in regards to Lou: "He's an asshole, but he's our asshole." Chevy Chase has a small role as the jaw-droppingly unfunny hot tub repair man, who thankfully vanishes soon after he appears.

Beyond the feel-good nostalgia trips, from the music to the aforementioned movie and TV references, what I enjoyed most about this film was it showed people behaving as they truly are, for better or worse. Clark Duke, who plays Cusack's nephew Jacob, gets increasingly frustrated as he sees his elders acting like total idiots. Creepy old man Chevy warns the older guys they all must do exactly what they did during 1986 and not deviate from the path, lest the future be changed for good. As that plan goes out the window for each one of them, Jacob resigns himself to stop trying to make sense of it all, go with the flow, and hope for the best. I have often found myself in that very situation, trying to keep a group together when ultimately all the individuals want to go off and make their own bad choices.

We, the audience, are in Jacob's shoes as we watch this weirdly entertaining pastiche of 80s culture. Don't think too hard about what might be simmering in that hot tub. Just jump in and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

DVD Spotlight: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day all glitter and no substance

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day is a charming way to pass an hour and a half if its pouring rain outside or dismally cold. Unfortunately the day I viewed this film it was neither.

Based on the 1939 novel by Winifred Watson which follows the whirlwind adventure of a rather plain, sour-on-life, and unbelievably poor woman who gets swept up in the socialite pre-WWII glittering 1930s, the film stars Frances McDormand as the title role of Guinevere Pettigrew and an overly giddy Amy Adams as Delysia Lafosse, the would-be man-eating starlet that comes to depend on Miss Pettigrew to clean up her messes.

Delysia is presented as a free-spirited woman who dangles men on the end of a string in order to get ahead in life - somewhat shocking stuff to be writing about in the 1930s. In fact, Miss Pettigrew quickly discovers the apartment Delysia is residing in doesn't even belong to her, but rather a strong-nosed man by the name of Nick Calderelli (Mark Strong) who allows her to sing in a club that he owns. Then there's the heart-of-gold pianist Michael Pardue (Lee Pace) who wants nothing more but for Delysia to realize he is the one for her and spend the rest of his life accompanying her on the keyboard. Finally, there's the young and silly Phil Goldman (Tom Payne) who it seems will cast whatever girl will give him the best sex in the lead role of his new West End play. All of these men, sad to say, are rather boring.

McDormand does an admirable job as playing the Ugly Duckling role while maintaining her rigid personality and morals - and it is indeed pleasant to see her be rewarded for being simply herself, just in better clothes. Adams, however, seems to be on giddy autopilot throughout the film, giving little to no variety from her virginal turn as the wide-eyed innocent in Disney's Enchanted. It's hard for me to even buy that her character has slept with all these men, like Adams is trying to apologize for Delysia's loose behavior by amping up the heart of gold aspect to her personality. She bounces through the honey-colored lens of the camera, but as a viewer I wasn't convinced she was having all the fun that she seemed to be having. A little more devil in the details would have spiced up her vanilla performance quite a bit.

However, the budding late-stage romance that forms between Pettigrew and Joe Blomfield (Ciarán Hinds) could be the only real thing that escapes from this overpuffed cream pie of a film. A quiet gentleman who just happens to run one of the most successful lingerie companies in England, his slow smile and gently persisting courtship of Pettigrew despite his engagement to the much younger and delightfully poisonous Edith (Shirley Henderson) make him loveable and endearing. I found myself unexpectedly falling for him in much the same way Pettigrew does.

The whole film could have easily been scaled down to a stage play. Most of the action takes place in Nick's apartment, and while there are overtones to the impending World War about to take place, all darkness is quickly brushed aside in the glitter of high society. The film goes down with the ease of a fine glass of white wine, but leaves an eager mind on an empty stomach.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Alice, by any other name

This picture belongs to Disney and was downloaded directly from the movie Web Site at

There's been a lot of discussion swirling around about the new Alice movie as to whether it is any good or not, and I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring among others, if only as a writing exercise in a different venue.

I thought it was a fun film. I was entertained and even enchanted, which says something considering the glut of CGI films out there. What computer wizardry has been able to create with such relative ease has set the bar a little higher on originality, particularly when it comes to Tim Burton, who has struggled in recent times to create a film that is not a facsimile of his previous work in terms of weird characters running around in black and white stripes.

Burton does have the usual roundup of actors, with a wonderful performance by Helena Bonham Carter as the narcissistic Red Queen (a combination of the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass and the Queen of Hearts in Wonderland...not too much of a stretch) and Depp as, what else, the Mad Hatter. Depp doesn't do a particularly convincing job of being mad, but that is all right, because in this case he's a supporting character rather than the sun the movie revolves around - a welcome change, I found. In truth, it is the side characters that tend to carry this movie, with an absolutely irresistible Cheshire cat with a smile like Jack Skellington that almost splits his head in two, with luminous eyes that shine out of the night sky. He rolls in and out of the screen with a grace that is accompanied wonderfully by the velvety voice of Stephen Fry and has a penchant for disappearing in wispy strands of blue. Anne Hathaway also does a memorable turn as the White Queen, with her royal grace accentuated by rather neurotic tendencies (like potion-making), making her equally as lovable.

There is no dirth of strong female characters in this film, which is something that is particularly appealing to me. When Alice burst out of the Red Queen's palace on the back of the Bandersnatch, a great, large spotted beast that looks like a cross between an ocelot and a polar bear, the Cheshire cat inside of me smiled wide. Each character, no matter how small, is given heart, personality, and depth rather than simply being so much CG confection filling up the screen.

Alas, this is where the magic ends. Burton suffers from a lack of the big picture. His most successful works are close in, painfully detailed small stories that work in worlds that have boundaries and limits. Edward Scissorhands, one of his most beautiful pieces, is about a kind misunderstood creature plopped in a conservative Florida suburb. The entire story takes place in this suburb. The Nightmare Before Christmas takes place in very specific worlds with very specific boundaries - and the stop-motion creative process close in by its very nature.

Unfortunately that bodes ill for a place like Wonderland, whose only boundaries are one's own imagination. Underland, as Burton calls it, looks like a bombed out shell of its former self, save a few green tendrils Alice encounters on the way in. We don't really get to see much of the place and frankly there isn't much there to see due to the Red Queen burning the hell out of everything with her fire-spewing beast, the Jabberwocky. How much more rich the film could have been if only Burton could have looked up from his computer screen and tried to see his Wonderland from a bird's eye view. I also missed certain characters - I was hoping the talking flowers could have had more than a few moments in the sun before getting trampled over by death and destruction.

But setting aside all it could have been, what we do have still makes for a lot of fun. The story is well thought out and I liked the intensity of this older, warier Alice. and there is something to be said for a bold step in another direction. The title "Alice in Wonderland" is misleading because it is not the Alice we once knew. But the Alice we are given isn't so bad, either.