Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Losers

The Losers
Grade: C
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, Chris Evans, Columbus Short, Jason Patric
Director: Sylvain White

In the future, will every comic book have its 15 minutes of fame?

As we hurtle toward some grand geek culture apocalypse, The Losers might be evidence of this theory. Have you ever heard of DC Comics' The Losers? There’s not a lot you are likely to expect from the film, and it’s likely to live up to your expectations.

There are two approaches to comic book filmmaking. Some films notably stylize their efforts by using digital technology to create over-the-top fictional worlds (Sin City or The Watchmen). Then there’s the older style, such as the original Superman films. The Losers never chooses between the two. Sometimes it’s straight-up realistic action. Other times, it opts for ridiculous stylized violence within a realistic setting. As a result, it’s often difficult to suspend disbelief. It’s a nagging problem that never gets solved.

An Army recon team raids a drug processing compound. A camp CIA maniac orders their death but misses, leading to a tragedy. Believed dead, they want revenge. A mysterious woman shows up to help them. The villains include previously noted CIA guy, his not-too-bright henchman, and a team of the flabbiest former special forces soldiers that you’ll ever see. The material is so inspired by The A-Team that the group sometimes travels by ugly van.

Chris Evans, as the group wiseass Jensen, has moments, but not as many or as clever as he should. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the leader Clay, brings some haggard charm. Zoe Saldana seems to be at her weakest, maybe a little bored.

There certainly nothing all that wrong with The Losers. It has some decent action moments, some effective comedy, and it never lost my interest. But as it leaves itself open for a sequel at the end, it really just makes you sigh.

Death at a Funeral

Death at a Funeral
Grade: D
Cast: Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, James Marsden, Zoe Saldana, Danny Glover, Columbus Short
Director: Neil LaBute

Stressed at a funeral. (Chris Rock)

Suave at a funeral. (Martin Lawrence)

High at a funeral. (James Marsden)

Hot at a funeral. (Zoe Saldana, who has grown a mysterious tilde)

Short at a funeral. (Columbus Short)

Gay at a funeral. (the corpse)

Short and gay at a funeral. (Peter Dinklage)

Looking more and more like Alec Baldwin everyday at a funeral. (Luke Wilson)

Dead at a Funeral. (Death at a Funeral)


Grade: B
Cast: Liam Neeson, Christina Ricci, Justin Long,
Director: Agniezska Wojtowicz-Vosloo

Is it time to ponder the career of Liam Neeson?

Perhaps it is, as he enters the theaters for the second time in two weeks. Last week, he posed through the role of Zeus in Clash of the Titans. This week it’s the psychological thriller After.Life.
There was little streak between Schindler’s List and the biopic Michael Collins where Neeson seemed destined for great things. Now, his screen presence is that of a late, bloated Orson Welles or a Charlton Heston hemmed in by defining roles. This is coupled with an unhealthy attraction to small roles in schlock. It still feels like slumming for his Schindler’s co-star Ralph Fiennes to take a role in Titans. Yet nowadays it feels like Neeson’s home.

Still, a smart director can still use his sunless presence to strong effect, as the Dutch debutant Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo does in this unsettling psychological thriller. The result is the first effective Neeson performance that I’ve seen in quite some time.

Neeson plays a solemn mortician who might have a special gift. Is he a psychically endowed loner kindly escorting the recently dead to the afterlife? Or is he a delusional serial killer? A mostly naked Christina Ricci is the prospective corpse who is about to find out. The whole thing plays like a good, long Twilight Zone episode, always on the precipice between irony and dread.

After.Life is a creepy little number that keeps threatening to ruin itself but never quite does. It solves its own mystery and then reverses course. You will likely leave the theater discussing with a friend exactly what was going on. In this it trusts its audience enough to forego the typical Hollywood rule of complete explanation. I also like the way the film looks – different and nightmarish without being outgoingly showy, with generous use of the entire frame. And this is one of the little secrets of horror films today – they’re the only ones willing to take visual chances. It is paired with a spirited performance of a spiritless man.

Clash of the Titans

Clash of Titans
Grade: D
Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Mads Mikkelson
Director: Louis Leternier
Free Admission Granted

So it’s a race to the bottom.

We get one remake. That eliminates one film that can be remade. So the next one - as a natural law - will be worse than the last. So we keep going down and down and down.

Clash of the Titans is an uneasy and possibly unholy mix of Greek mythology and popcorn movie. Watching it is like watching a film out of the fifties based on a classic novel. No one will mistake the dialogue for Sophocles. The language seems to be borrowed from another film character directed by Louis Leternier, The Incredible Hulk.

The mythic storyline is fairly straightforward. The city of Argos is in revolt against the Greek gods on Olympus. To punish their insolence, Zeus gives the god of the Underworld, Hades, permission to release the beast known as the Kraken and demand the sacrifice of the princess Cassiopeia. The only hope is a half-god, half-man named Perseus (Avatar’s Sam Worthington), who happens to be wandering around the city at the right time.

If you’re going to do this, you might as well do the action well. It’s quite good, particularly the scene in which Perseus and pals seek to take the serpent head of Medusa. In addition, the advances in effects help tremendously over the original, in particular for the flying horse Pegasus, quite smooth now.

The film continues the Curious Case of Sam Worthington, an Australian actor who likely will be in three significant box office hits, including the biggest hit of all time, and still not be a recognizable star. Will he become a star before he successfully emotes? Vegas certainly could put out a wager.

Clash of the Titans has 3-D, but barely. I can hardly tell you where or when. While having depth in the field of vision is one thing. Depth in characters or story is not the same.

Hot Tub TIme Machine

So quick, Back to the Future meets The Hangover.

You pretty much have to get that thought out of the way before discussing Hot Tub Time Machine, a film that deserves an Oscar for its title alone.

Famously Howard Hawks designed Rio Bravo as a response to High Noon, a film he couldn’t stand. You get the feeling that director Steve Pink is up to the same thing. Didn’t I call The Hangover the Death of the American Comedy? Raunchily smart, appealingly dumb, and willing to take it the whole nine outrageous yards, Hot Tub Time Machine might be at least a little bit of a rebirth.

Consider the similarities:

• Four friends take a bonding trip. The four friends are the above-it all asshole (John Cusack), the henpecked emasculee (Craig Robinson), the antisocial nut (Rob Corddry, annnnnnnnnd somebody else (geeky teenage nephew).
• Each film has a last-hurrah trip that turns into a wild and crazy weekend. In The Hangover, it’s a Vegas Bachelor Party trip goes to Hell when they lose the . InHot Tub Time Machine, a visit to a California ski resort goes haywire when their hot tub transports them back to spandex1986 to relive events.

With that in mind, Hot Tub Time Machine does exactly what it should do – it takes all the Hangover’s problem and corrects them.

• By having the men drugged or sleeping through the experience, The Hangover becomes a film of mild reaction shots rather than outrageous events. It’s a lot more fun to actually watch the zaniness in Hot Tub Time Machine than to have people tell you about it afterward.

• The Hangover thinks it’s crazy, but never actually gets there. Hot Tub Time Machine gets crazier and crazier and weirder and weirder until everyone is winking and nodding at its silly premise because it’s too much fun not to.

• The Hangover takes its running gag – the lost baby – and surrenders it. Oh, it’s your baby? Here’s your baby. The running gag in Hot Tub Time Machine is how the bellhop loses his arm, which it keeps teasing, maybe one or two times too many, but at least they don’t give it up without a punchline.

• While it made me smile a lot, The Hangover made me laugh less than 10 times, and three of them were during Ed Helms piano song. The quick-witted raunchiness of Hot Tub Time Machine, finds ways to make you laugh, even when you think you shouldn’t.

The result is that Hot Tub Time Machine becomes the film that I kept reading that The Hangover was.