Monday, July 1, 2013

Short Takes: Identity Thief, Hud, American Graffiti, Hotel Transylvania

A handful of short reviews for films I've recently seen.

Identity Thief (2013, dir. Seth Gordon)

Identity Thief, at it's core, is a classic comedy set-up: a case of mistaken identity mixed with two buffoons going on a road trip together. Pratfalls ensue, and eventually lessons are learned. There's nothing new going on in this film, and for the most part it slogs on for way too long with plot strands that never really seem to come together. Worst of all, most of the jokes - if that's what they're meant to be - fall flat. Jason Bateman's stuck with a straight-man character that's never truly likable, leaving Melissa McCarthy to do most of the heavy lifting here. Her work is certainly commendable, garnering laughs from sheer force of will from a script by Craig Mazin (who did work on sequels for Scary Movie and The Hangover) that does her no favors. She belongs in a better movie than this. D+

Hud (1963, dir. Martin Ritt)

When the film first premiered 50 years (!) ago, it was billed as a Rebel Without a Cause-type teen rebellion movie, with Paul Newman's titular character as the focal "outlaw." However, the film is much more sophisticated than its marketing implied. Set on a ranch in a hot Texas summer, young Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) arrives to live with his grandfather Homer (Melvyn Douglas), housekeeper Alma (the incomparable Patricia Neal), and Hud, his uncle. From there, Hud and Homer's contentious relationship is explored as a foot-and-mouth disease epidemic plagues the animals on the ranch. As a contemporary Western, it's a fascinating film, built solely on these characters and their relationships to each other; no gimmicks necessary. One of the best and most overlooked films of the 1960s, it features Oscar-winning performances from Douglas and Neal, plus Newman at his peak, both physically (give or take Cool Hand Luke) and professionally. It's a film that's not to be missed (Best Shot discussed here). A

Hotel Transylvania (2012, dir. Genndy Tartakovsky)

Released last fall, Hotel Transylvania is one of those animated films that goes on to be a major success (it's total domestic gross sits at $148 million) but no one seems to particularly like or even remember (see also: The Croods, any of the Ice Age or Madagascar sequels). The premise promises a monster mash: Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) has established a luxury resort for all kinds of ghouls deep in the heart of Transylvania, far away from the humans that hate them. All the while he's trying to prevent his "teenage" daughter - she's just turning 118 - from wandering out into the human world. This is all threatened when a zonked-out human (Andy Samberg, redeeming the Sandler-Samberg pairing from their other 2012 endeavor) wanders into the resort. There's a lesson about letting go and tolerating others buried in the film, but it's mostly non-stop cartoon chaos, with gags flying at such a consistent rate that the ones that land seem to stick better than they should. Directed by Tartakovsky, perhaps best known for Cartoon Network's Dexter's Laboratory and the superlative Samurai Jack, it has a madcap sense of joy. Too bad it couldn't take time to make the characters memorable. C+

American Graffiti (1973, dir. George Lucas)

Long ago, in a Hollywood far, far away...George Lucas made films that didn't have the phrase "Star Wars" in the title. Here, he travels back to 1962, following a collection of SoCal teenagers over one summer night as they come to terms with the end of high school and the beginning of their new adult lives. Well, some of them at least: while Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) worries about going to college on the East Coast and Steve (Ron Howard, here credited as "Ronnie Howard") frets over his relationship with Laurie (Cindy Williams), John (Paul le Mat) is content to cruise the main drag in town looking for a race, while Terry (Charles Martin Smith) just wants to be cool for once in his life. Everyone's interwoven tales unfold over the course of the film, some better than others. Curt's is the heart of the film, and Dreyfuss is easily best-in-show as he metes out the benefits of staying put or heading out. However, it never feels like a complete film; Lucas is balancing more than he can really handle here, and it shows in how, at times, the film seems like it was just an excuse to use the music rights to a ton of classic songs - there's hardly a single frame of film that's not soundtracked by a Golden Oldie or the howling anarchy of Wolfman Jack - and bask in the nostalgia. What should be a rip-roaring trip to the past just feels oddly muted (Best Shot post coming Wednesday 7/3). B-

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