Category Archives: Now Showing

ALL THE WILDERNESS

Producer:  Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Spelling
Director: Michael Johnson 
Writer:  Michael Johnson
Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Isabelle Fuhrman, Evan Ross, Virginia Madsen and Danny DeVito 
Studio: Screen Media Films 

C+

The woods that abut the house teen James Charm (Kodi Smit-McPhee) shares with his widowed mother Abigail (Virginia Madsen) represent in a literal way the wilderness in the title of Michael Johnson’s tale of a boy coming to terms with the death of his father; but while he traipses through the forest, it’s the figurative wilderness in James’ mind and memory through which the boy must find his way. That’s the essence of “All the Wilderness” (formerly titled “The Wilderness of James”), a coming-of-age story that covers familiar terrain in a decent but not terribly compelling fashion.

The exact circumstances of the death of James’ father aren’t revealed until fairly late in Johnson’s screenplay, but clearly they’ve affected the young man deeply. He wanders aimlessly, drawing quite nice sketches in a notebook as he goes—but they’re always of dead things. Occasionally he offers predictions about when people are going to die—a practice that leads the local bully to slug him when James says the guy’s going to croak in little over a year. And James’ visits to a shrink, Dr. Pembry (Danny De Vito, in what amounts to little more than a cameo) are of little help, since the boy is uncommunicative and the counselor’s demeanor is so understated that he comes across as barely interested, even though during one session he’ll admit he knew the dead man.

Of greater help are two chance meetings James has. The first is with Val (Isabelle Fuhrman), another of the psychiatrist’s clients, who befriends the boy after a rather strained beginning. The other is with Harmon (Evan Ross), a street kid who lives in a skateboarders’ den, where he writes and records music. Harmon encourages James to loosen up and the youngster responds in a way he’s unable to with the adults in his life, though Abigail certainly wouldn’t approve of her son’s trying pot and picking up a weapon. James’ nocturnal excursions to hang with Val and Harmon go nicely until he comes upon them getting closer than he likes, which sets off his jealous side.

At this point Johnson could easily have taken the story in a conventionally melodramatic direction, but happily he resists that choice, opting instead to continue the film’s quiet, ruminative approach. There’s a revelation about the death of James’ father that is frankly less than surprising, and some sudden decisions that the boy makes about his life—he chooses to accept an invitation to enter a school for the gifted that he’d previously resisted, for instance—that suggest he’s finally found his way out of the darkness and is willing to move forward again. That makes for an ending that doesn’t shake the rafters—and frankly the symmetrical return to the opening scene has a shopworn feel—but it’s of a piece with Johnson’s overall scheme, which prefers atmospherics to action.

Smit-McPhee anchors the film with a sensitive, subtle turn as the gangly protagonist, and though Madsen and DeVito are underused, both Ross and Fuhrman register nicely. DP Adam Newport-Berra captures the Oregon locations well, especially in the scenes of James’ nighttime excursions through the Portland streets. Other technical credits are adequate, and the music score by Jonsi and Alex Somers add mood to the mix.

“All the Wilderness” is a gentle, understated but only fitfully affecting tale of a teen’s psychological turmoil. But even at a mere 76 minutes, it does drag, and its narrative drowsiness might lead a viewer to wish for a bit more energy in the telling. In sum, a promising first feature, but not an overwhelming debut.

HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2

Producer: Andrew Panay 
Director:  Steve Pink
Writer:  Josh Heald
Stars:  Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs, Chevy Chase, Collette Wolf, Bianca Haase, Jason D. Jones, Kellee Stewart and Jumail Nanjiani
Studio:  Paramount Pictures

F

Proof positive that nowadays they’ll make a sequel to anything, no matter how putrid the original—but then didn’t “The Hangover” already demonstrate that? The first “Hot Tub Time Machine” was dreadful, a 99-minute avalanche of coarseness, raunchy gags and scatological pseudo-humor aimed at the lowest conceivable level. This follow-up, again directed without style by Steve Pink, offers more of the same except that John Cusack, one of the original ensemble, passed this time around and is replaced by Adam Scott as his character’s son. Even though his career isn’t exactly thriving at the moment, his decision shows that Cusack still retains some discrimination in his choice of projects; Scott, not so much.

The script by Josh Heald begins with a prologue showing the effect the trip back to 1980 in the first picture has had on three of the four travelers (Cusack’s insurance salesman Adam having disappeared). Disgusting Lou (Rob Corddry) used revelations about technological advancement to found Lougle (ha, ha!) and live like an over-the-hill rock star. Erstwhile pet-groomer Nick (Craig Robinson) is able to fulfill his dream of a singing career by stealing songs that haven’t been written yet and performing them himself. Lou’s nebbish of a son Jacob (Clark Duke), on the other hand, apparently hasn’t used his foreknowledge at all, still serving as his father’s footstool butler.

When Lou is shot in the groin by an unknown assailant—understandably, one must add, given his loathsome character—Nick and Jacob take him to the first film’s hot tub (which, we’re abruptly informed, has been moved into Lou’s mansion) and go back in time again to save him. But the thing instead sends them into the future—2025, to be precise—where Louis is again whole (and as obnoxious as ever). So they decide to take advantage of the opportunity to find out who attacked him, presuming that doing do will enable the assailant to be deterred somehow, and in the process link up with young Adam (Scott), an incredibly straitlaced guy who joins their mission although he’s to be married the following day (which of course introduces a “Hangover” thread to the plot).

None of this makes the slightest sense in logical terms, of course, but that doesn’t make any difference, because “Hot Tub 2” uses the loony premise simply to present a cascade of gags that are variously gross, misogynistic, homophobic, drug-centric , simply ugly or an unholy combination of the above. Most of them, unfortunately, simply aren’t funny. There’s an occasional moment of real humor—a gag involving a “smart” car that determines to kill Lou (again, an understandable reaction to meeting the guy) has promise, for example, though it’s never developed; and the stream of pop culture references, especially cinematic ones, can bring a slight smile. But when the supposed highlight is a television game show—hosted by Christian Slater, who once upon a time had a career—that involves what amounts to anal rape for laughs, you’re left to wonder just how low American comedy can sink. If this movie is any sort of barometer of contemporary taste, the culture is in deep, deep trouble.

Of course, any movie would have difficulty surviving Corddry at his worst. A thirty-second cameo of him playing this vile character would probably be too much, but here he’s effectively the star, and is frankly insufferable over the long haul. (When the inevitable sentimental bonding between Lou and Jacob occurs, it’s truly awful.) Robinson is more genial but still stiff, and the thought of his being able to make even the best song in the world’s popular strains credulity past the breaking point. Duke gets little to do but look befuddled or angry, while Scott plays the material he’s given (including one of those dismal drugged-out sequences that includes lots of bizarrely distorted visuals) as well as he can, but the material is all so terrible that his effort is in vain. Jason Jones shows up as an apparent replacement for Crispin Glover from the original and gets a good deal of screen time, but to little effect, and Chevy Chase reprises his handyman cameo, looking understandably lost and bored. All the women in the cast are poorly used, and while the production quality isn’t very good, it’s certainly better than the screenplay deserves.

It’s difficult to imagine a movie more determinedly vulgar and crass than this, or one more likely to evoke groans of disgust than gales of laughter. But wait a few weeks, and something even worse will probably come along. Those are the times we live in.