Hot Tub Time Machine

I wish John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, and Clark Duke could go back in time and salvage the title Hot Tub Time Machine. The movie doesn’t live up to it. Their Wellsian jacuzzi takes them to 1986—not even far enough to prevent this from being a rip-off of Back to the Future, which came out the year before. Maybe it was intended as an homage when the filmmakers cast Crispin Glover—George McFly—as a one-armed bellhop, but it’s just plain laziness when they throw in (throw up?) a subplot about a betting scheme or Robinson giving an ’80s audience a sneak peek at the Black Eyed Peas. Srsly. These must be high times for high concepts, but this comedy left me stoned in the wrong way: I knew what it felt like to win Shirley Jackson’s lottery.

Duke (of the Web series Clark and Michael) is entertaining as the nerdy 20-year-old who witnesses his own conception—even though he’s a few years early. (Either that or his mother suffered a horrifyingly protracted pregnancy. Not that the filmmakers betray much knowledge of or experience with female behavior.) Corddry, who gets the best lines—as well as the worst—works well to hide how one-note the jokes are. Blubbery Robinson is a pitch-perfect bawler when he chews out his no-good girlfriend—who’s nine at this point in history. But he’s yet another victim of that recent brah-medy staple: the dude who’s scarred from pussy-whipping. The self-hatred inherent in Robinson and Corddry’s roles isn’t satirical; it’s as if guys have lost a cosmic war between the genders, and this passive aggression is the menfolks’ only way to rattle its cage. The shtick isn’t even funny in a sad way anymore; it’s just pathetic. I’m not exactly sure what Cusack’s motives were. He’s listed as a producer, and gets top billing, yet he’s stuck playing the straight man—he’s not particularly funny, nor does he get his head wet in the serious subtext. Then again, middle-aged pathos wouldn’t really float in this tub’s brackish water.

Back in 2003—aged about 15—I wrote a comic about modern-day teenagers traveling back to 1985 via a Back to the Future D.V.D. featurette. I even made the same joke about Michael Jackson’s pigment. On the whole, it was pretty lame; but I ever-so hoped that something clever could come of the premise as executed by grown-ups. Instead, the resultant script could’ve been written over a weekend. It’s a hangover of The Hangover, which had itself binged on Will Ferrell comedies. I laughed a few times during H.T.T.M., but if I found a hot tub that would whirlpool me back to before I bought my tickets, I’d gladly take a dip. Hollywood has a knack for taking quirky ideas and focus-grouping them into oblivion; the setups keep getting weirder, but the jokes remain the same. If this movie were to reach 88 miles per hour, it’d be because the filmmakers were asleep at the wheel.


The Ghost Writer

In The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski’s chilly new thriller, rain clouds converge over Martha’s Vineyard in the way that sunlight loomed over L.A. in Chinatown. Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, has fallen from grace and retreated into writing his memoirs; but the initial ghostwriter has drowned, and his vacancy haunts the feet that fill his shoes (Ewan McGregor). The newb arrives just as the International Criminal Court charges the P.M. with crimes against humanity; through rendition, Lang allowed terror suspects to be tortured by the C.I.A. Over the course of the narrative, the popular hack writer grows a political pair, and follows in his predecessor’s gumshoe footsteps. But cognizance has its consequences.

The Ghost Writer is based on a speculative novel by Robert Harris, who co-wrote the script with Polanski. Lang is a shadow of Tony Blair, just as this movie is in the shadow of Chinatown. But this damp, penumbral cool is just the shade the filmmakers needed. This thriller is suffused with subtle disquietude; it soaks through the performances and gives the scenery both rainy-day enchantment and despair. Rooms with open doors that the camera does not enter wreathe with mystery like a beckoning spectral hand. Pawel Edelman’s cinematography makes a billionaire’s state-of-the-art beach house seem abstract and derelict; yet, when pale emanations of daylight seep into the interiors, there’s a kinship between these images and the earthy, inviting melancholy of old Dutch paintings. (Alexandre Desplat’s cuckoo-Andrew Bird glockenspiel pings have a similar effect.) The film’s P.M. used to work on Downing Street; he’s flanked by reporters and trucked to Capitol Hill for the sake of P.R. But most of the action takes place on a shoreline during the off season—an isle of lost souls and shut-ins. Unlike the tempests that plagued nearby Shutter Island, Polanski’s storms are always incipient, always on the horizon. The dangers are impersonal; they loom in the distance. Take, for example, a scene in which McGregor pays a visit to one of Lang’s classmates from Cambridge—Tom Wilkinson, of course—whose old New English manse is tucked in the russet, viny woods of Eastern Massachusetts. The C.I.A.-connected old boy’s wife telephones someone about the writer’s arrival, as if he was expected. Polanski frames her in the background, just far enough away to notice that her dress seems strangely out of date; but her face is as indistinct as the party she’s calling.

In the past, Polanski’s camera would sneak up on its subject; it swiveled around and peeped from unexpected places. In The Ghost Writer, the director’s compositions have the naked strength and clarity of an old John Huston movie. One long take of a note being passed from one hand to another looks like an homage to Hitchcock. But one of the wittiest pirouettes—a squirrel nabs McGregor’s attention and shifts his glance to a car that’s tailing him (in the middle of nowhere, and in the background, of course)—made my heart aflutter with vintage Polanski. What’s more, this shot is a beautiful demonstration of the movie’s collusive universe. Technically and psychologically, this film is as deft, cold, and sophisticated as Wilkinson’s Yalie intonations.

Like the hitchhiker in Knife in the Water, McGregor’s ghostwriter isn’t dignified with a name. This proffers more than the low opinion that writers often have for themselves (J.K.!); the writer is out of his depth in the exclusive sphere of ruling élites, just as the hitchhiker was unready for bourgeois pettiness. It takes a dubious mettle that these naïfs lack; and Lang—to some extent—is short on it, too. But McGregor’s no naïf; the scribbler seethes—his books are bestsellers, yet he views himself as a failure—and the actor sharpens the knives that the scriptwriters hand him with an edge of self-disgust. (The dialogue is smart and spiky, if not quite on par with Robert Towne’s Chinatownastiness. Then again, what is?) McGregor is better served here than he was in a comparable role in The Men Who Stare at Goats, which was made by a neophyte director. (Polanski’s been at it since 1962.) And, just as nobody expects much intellectual acumen from a photogenic smiler like Lang, one may be surprised to see a dashing former Bond seem so easily overbearing. Brosnan gives Lang the what-the-hell-happened disgust of someone you’d happily have a beer with, but who shouldn’t have been elected to public office. Sound familiar?

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The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans

I can’t help but feel that, given the right circumstances, even the most sophisticated among us can devolve into reality-show contestants. When it was reported that Werner Herzog was making a movie based on Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), the latter basically said, “Oh no you di’-in’t,” and the former retorted, “I ain’t here to make friends.” The new film, christened The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans, shouldn’t have borrowed its predecessor’s title at all. It isn’t a sequel, a remake, or an homage. Nic Cage plays a bad lieutenant, all right, but not bad enough to boogie before us like his antecedent, Harvey Keitel, did—in the raw.

More than the wardrobe has been changed. The ’92 version was cold but smoldering; it was a classic unintentional comedy long before coked-up Keitel bellowed “You rat fuck!” to a wraithlike vision of Christ (although the film has nothing on a more recent addition to the genre, The Wicker Man—starring Nicolas Cage). Herzog’s tone is entirely different. Once, when asked why other directors have cast him in comic bit parts, he said, “I have a peculiar humor that becomes a cross that I bear. … I’m pretty good at it, as long as I can be someone who’s vile, base, intimidating, and dysfunctional.” Herzog does not appear in this movie, but his sense of humor costars with Cage, and their chemistry together is marvelous. The new Bad Lieutenant truly is vile, base, intimidating, and hilarious.

Transposed from New York to Louisiana, this crooked cop (who has a name this time around—and a dorky one, at that: Terrence McDonagh) isn’t investigating the rape of a nun; he’s charged with defending a teenager (the auspiciously named Denzel Whitaker) who witnessed a spree of brutal murders to which a drug kingpin (rapper-cum-actor Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner) is suspiciously connected. Unchanged, however, is the policeman’s alpha-male baditude. He’s the biggest bungler since Inspector Clouseau, but Peter Sellers didn’t date a high-class hooker with a habit (Eva Mendes); offer his services as an inside man to criminals; blackmail drug-running ravers and bang their babes; fix college football games; rack up tens of thousands of dollars of gambling debt; threaten women at a nursing home; or stuff his nostrils with heroin and cocaine—sometimes mistaking one for the other and then taking the other to put him in the right mood for going to the office. Not even Keitel did all that. Slouched over and coiffed so that his hair is like a loose wig, Cage does—and he’s as tweakily undead as he was in Vampire’s Kiss. One doesn’t expect any semblance of realism from Cage’s performances, and certainly not any sanity; but if a role calls for him to be vile, base, intimidating, and dysfunctional, he’s perfectly game.

Written by William A. Finkelstein, whose résumé includes NYPD Blue, L.A. Law, and Cop Rock (!!!!!!!!), Bad Lieutenant could almost be a parody of police procedurals—or it could be a police-procedural script that Herzog and Cage then parodied. Aside from a sadistic fellow detective, Pruit (Val Kilmer), McDonagh’s station house is a roomful of cliché-mouthing blanks; they might as well be shooting blanks, too. But parody doesn’t quite cover it. With its anomic hero, Herzog’s Rescue Dawn may have been a parodic spin on patriotic P.O.W. stories, but it was like an unfunny in-joke that the audience was outside of. Herzog is too singular and trippy a talent for straight-up satire; perhaps this partly explains a fabulous fish-eyed shot of a gator surveying the highway patrol at a crime scene, and then, deeming it unworthy of his time, slinking back into the bog.

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Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton’s misadventures in Wonderland are woefully miscalculated. Unlike Alice, who chased her dream down the rabbit-hole, the director seems to have stumbled into it. His Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a hole in the screen—an A-hole, to be precise. In this conception of Lewis Carroll’s 19th-century whimsies, the ingenue has been aged to the brink of adulthood. She’s an ahead-of-her-time feminist (obvi!) corseted by Victorian England, and the twitty, orange-haired scion (Leo Bill) of her late father’s business associate expects her to be his bride. But she follows that wascally wabbit to Wonderland where, prophecy dictates, she’s to slay the Jabberwocky and save the kingdom. Alice, underwhelmed by the prospect, shrugs it off; she assumes she’s mired in an unusually heavy sleep, so she floats through the whacked-out scenery like a lucid dreamer awaiting her alarm clock. Following an undefined change of heart, she saves the Mad Hatter’s head (whole body played by Johnny Depp) from the oft-used chopping block of the Red Queen (whose head is Helena Bonham Carter’s and hair is Queen Elizabeth I’s). Alice rescues him dutifully, but continues to insist that he doesn’t exist. She may be liberated enough to ditch her bustle, but she wears her arid patrician heart on her sleeve.

The screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, cobbled together Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, but the hybrid hasn’t been plotted out; it’s a pastiche. One may not be sure why Alice is afraid to face a dragon that she thinks is imaginary, or whether the Red Queen’s vizier (Crispin Glover) recognizes Wonderland’s Most Wanted. (When he corners Alice in the corridor is he on to her or coming on to her?) Carroll didn’t let narrative get in the way of his paradoxes, which he structured like algorithms or derivatives—flawlessly meaningless. In this new Alice in Wonderland, paradoxes push the narrative forward. It moves full-steam ahead without having anywhere to go, even when a scene is worth loitering over. Burton maintains the suspense only sparingly—as when Alice sneaks about the cage of a toothy mongrel, prompting the gooiest cinematic lick since Gozu. But, on the whole, this movie would’ve flunked calculus—and its driving test, too.

In some ways, however, this adaptation is Wicked: The Mad Hatter has become Dorothy’s dimwitted Scarecrow. Even beneath a Lady Gaga pancake—and Mountain Dew-daubed irises the size of manholes—Depp grimaces better than anyone else in Hollywood. He gives the picture a much-needed emotional core. No longer burnished into terseness, as he was in Public Enemies, Depp is back in weirdo mode. He playfully backhands the Carroll-tinged dialogue, but his Hatter is a sad clown rather than a mad one—and Depp’s Chaplinesque proficiency makes Alice’s disregard all the more painful. Even in the original book, she wasn’t a particularly endearing character; she was the arbiter of the Age of Reason. But you can’t make her foil lovable if you don’t provide someone to love him. Dorothy’s teary departure from Oz might be a little mawkish for modern tastes, but when Alice says farewell to her friends, she may as well be flipping them the bird. In a coda as implausible as anything in Wonderland, she promptly rejects her beau, tells off the aristocracy, and woos her would-be father-in-law into making her a venture capitalist. She has all the P.R. charm of a Martha Stewart when she announces her intent to open trade routes to China. What will she trade? Let me guess—opium? Despite the ominous, oblong production design, a skirmish between Reds and Whites worthy of Tolkien and Eisenstein, and some snappy surrealist repartee, I was through with this looking-glass long before the brat set sail. If she only had a heart…

Recently, Burton’s imagination has fizzled when applied to the intellectual properties of others—even though Sleepy Hollow is a Halloween treat, and Batman Returns one of my franchise-film favorites. His Sweeney Todd was messy, too, and when Depp moonwalks in Alice, I flashed back to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—a bad trip. Maybe, to me, a superheated mess like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is preferable because it was an iteration of the filmmaker’s mind; the squiggly story-line seemed to mean something to Terry Gilliam, even if the audience felt it was on the wrong side of his imaginarium. Where the Wild Things Are was a little sleepy—if not hollow; Spike Jonze clearly loved the material. His vernal warmth would’ve melted this icicle Alice. But Burton’s large-scale, Disney-financed perennial seems chilled by frantic labor and compromise. The mash-up will probably leave children feeling blue. It’s not the world-soul melancholy that the (somewhat creepily) death-aware Coraline left one with; Alice will merely jumble kids’ sympathies. Burton directs the way the White Queen (a surprisingly spunky—and surprisingly platinum—Anne Hathaway) concocts a magic elixir: with a pinch of underhanded wit, but as jittery as if there was a gun pointed at her head.

And the Winner for the Best Picture of 2009 is . . .

Paid, as I am, merely by my satisfaction in writing and yours in reading, I don’t fritter my hours away compiling the best-of lists that the pros—much to us amateurs’ collective pleasure—slave away at, or the sort of star-studded, red-carpet reportage that asks the celebutantes who they’re wearing. (Those queries make me wish that Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs was invited to awards shows.) But I have reviewed nine out of this year’s unprecedented 10 nominees for Best Picture, and have linked them below in the order that I posted them.

(Yes, I know I’m missing The Blind Side; that doesn’t mean I feel I’m missing out. If it makes you feel better, I’ll substitute my review of Invictus, another feel-good, family-friendly ravager of racism that—to my surprise—didn’t ravage the doting hearts of the Academy.)

  1. Up
  2. Inglourious Basterds
  3. The Hurt Locker
  4. District 9
  5. A Serious Man
  6. An Education
  7. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
  8. Up in the Air
  9. Avatar

Best Picture of 2009

Wanna know my pick for to whom the Oscar should go? Too bad. But if you peruse these exquisite pieces of filmtastic analysis, you’ll probably get a good idea.

Continue reading “And the Winner for the Best Picture of 2009 is . . .”