The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (B)
U.K.: John Madden, 2012, 20th Century Fox
Some countries have massive oil deposits; some have huge veins of silver or gold. England is blessed with a large, constantly replenished reservoir of prime acting talent.
A goodly number of those first-class English actors (seven) play sizable roles in the truly sparkling ensemble of the highly likable and engaging new British film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Expertly, poignantly and wittily, they portray seven elderly or more-than-middle-aged Londoners who have responded to (or fallen for) the persuasive and colorful advertisements for an establishment in Jaipur, India, called the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
This hotel is a supposedly upscale lodging place for British retirees. And the guests are embodied by a treasure house of British theatrical and film talent: Tom Wilkinson as Graham Dashwood (a judge who grew up in India), Maggie Smith as Muriel Donnelly (a longtime housekeeper seething with prejudice), Ronald Pickup as Norman Cousins (unattached and still on the prowl), Celia Imre as Maggie Hardcastle (ditto), Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton as Douglas and Jean Ainslie (a solidly incompatible couple) and, also serving as the film's narrator (through her blog), Judi Dench as the warm-hearted, cast-adrift widow Evelyn Greenslade.
The movie -- based by director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker on Deborah Moogach's novel These Foolish Things -- is a nice little comedy-drama, intelligently made and beautifully designed and shot. But the acting is what makes it special. That glittering cast of British senior stars are a magnificent seven. We should be thankful for them, and also for their junior colleagues in the movie, including Dev Patel, who plays their much younger host, the burblingly enthusiastic and self-deceiving Sonny Kapoor. Sonny owns and manages the hotel (inherited from his father), has prepared the glowing advertising -- and has, shall we say, exaggerated. Compared to most luxury hotels, the Exotic is a little seedy, and, thanks to Sonny, not particularly well-run -- though, with its classic Satyajit Ray-film décor, it looked great to me.
Patel's face will be familiar; he played the contestant on Slumdog Millionaire. Perhaps he was a bit intimidated by his fellow actors here -- as well he should be -- because he overplays a little -- noticeable when you compare him to such masters of subtlety and insight as Wilkinson and Dench, such a grande dame of stylish wit as Maggie Smith (here doing to the servant class what she usually does to the rich), and such a wizard of the odd and offbeat as Nighy -- as well as such sturdy artists of emotion or humor as Pickup, Imre and Wilton.
The seven guests are the key to the tale, and they're the reason to watch the film. Madden and Parker devote some time to Sonny's problems with his lovely fiancee, Suneina (Tena Desae), and with his stubborn mother (Lillete Dubey), crises that include both the travails of hotel management and of potential marriage in a society with a tradition of arranged marriages. But mostly what we follow -- and what we're primarily interested in -- are the star guests. The most poignant turn belongs to Wilkerson as Graham, portraying, with restraint and keen perception, a gay man at the end of his life trying to re-connect with the Indian friend who was the love of his life, whom he hasn't seen since youth, and whom he believes he permanently wronged. The most likeable guest is Dench as Evelyn, beguilingly showing us the difficulties of adjusting to life without the person (her late husband) who shaped and ordered her world. The funniest is Smith. A genius of timing as always, she starts off the movie as an outspoken bigot, and undergoes that gratifying change of heart we see often enough in movies and too seldom in life.
Imre and Pickup, as Madge and Norman, show us that sex springs eternal -- and Nighy and Wilton, as the incompatible Ainslies, show us that rotten marriages do as well.
The Cabin in the Woods (A-)
U.S.: Drew Goddard, 2012, Lions Gate
In The Cabin in the Woods, director-writer Drew Goddard and producer-writer Joss Whedon deconstruct the neoclassic postmodern horror movie, then reconstruct it into something wittier, hipper, more aware and much more entertaining. As we watch, our expectations often undermined, five engaging and very familiar youth-types get together for a weekend in the woods -- hunk-athlete-hero Curt (Chris Hemsworth), his adventurous and available girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), her better-behaved gal/pal Dana (Kristen Connolly), geeky comedian Marty (Fran Kranz) and Dana's smart date Holden (Jesse Williams.)
Night falls. Branches rustle. Harbingers warn. Blood gushes. Evil things lurk. There's a nightmare in the deep dark forest. There's monster lore in the basement, and maybe some monsters too. There are two guys in lab coats (Richard Jenkins), putzing around and jabbering away. So when does the killing and mutilation and screaming start? Who gets it first?
I don't like too many modern horror movies, because most of them seem to have been written with the aid of a Ouija board. But The Cabin in the Woods, probably thanks to Goddard and Whedon as well as their energetic cast and crack crew, is something else. It's clever. It's inventive. It doesn't just keep racing all around, trying to squeeze blood out of turnips, or gore out of turkeys, or money out of massacres. Goddard and Whedon actually seem to be trying to surprise and amuse us and get us to use our brains a little, in a sort of Phildickian way -- and not just divert us by tossing fresh maniacs and brand-new chainsaws around, and trying to scare the crap out of us with every spooky device from Edgar Allan Poe on. A lot of the time, they do.
Zombies and beasts and vampires and sadistic maniacs and unexorcised devils aren't the only subjects available to horror movies, or presidential campaigns, and The Cabin in the Woods proves it. So deconstruct away, dudes. This movie is actually worth watching.
The Babymakers (D)
U.S.: Jay Chandrasekhar, 2012, Millennium Entertainment
Devotees of jokes about masturbation, sterility, sperm bank burglaries and getting repeatedly kicked in the groin will have struck the mother lode with the new comedy The Babymakers -- a movie so coarse, crude and defiantly raunchy that it makes the Farrelly Brothers look like Walt Disney, the Three Stooges look (and sound) like the Three Tenors, and Tyler Perry look like Robert Bresson.
I have no prejudice against raunchiness, as long as its funny, and I've got to admit that I laughed occasionally at The Babymakers. But I didn't laugh with a clear conscience. The Babymakers is pretty bad, and if you remember it much afterwards, it will probably mostly be with regret at the time you wasted watching it, when you could have been doing something more constructive and enjoyable, like making babies.
That's the narrative hook of The Babymakers. Married couple Tommy and Audrey Macklin (the acidulous Paul Schneider and the radiant Olivia Munn) have been burning up the sheets trying to procreate, for many months, when their doctor suggests that the problem may be that Tommy, to put it diplomatically, may be shooting blanks. Tommy objects to this explanation, since years ago, he proudly made multiple donations to a local sperm bank and got no complaints. Some of his sperm, in fact, is still sitting around at the bank, frozen. Since then, though, he's taken repeated kicks to the gonads, and takes some more in the course of this show (and may take even more if any audience members spot him), and the doctor suggests that his equipment may have suffered the consequences.
Off goes Tommy with his wild and crazy pals Wade (Kevin Heffernan) and Zig-Zag (Nat Faxon), to make things right. Their goal: to break into the sperm bank one night and steal his last remaining seed. This sets up the movie's showpiece scene, when clumsy Wade breaks numerous bottle of sperm, spills them all over the floor, then trips and slips and slides around in the jism. I guarantee you've never seen anything like this scene -- which is, of course no reason that you should see it now.
The guys that made The Babymakers -- director-star Jay Chandrasekhar, costars Paul Schneider and Kevin Heffernan and writers Peter Gaulke and Gerry Swallow, are mostly TV and standup comics and filmmakers, and they do know where some laughs are. But it's a hit-and-mostly-miss proposition. The best performance is by Chandrasekhar, who plays a somewhat addled Indian-American crook-for-hire who claims to be a veteran of the Indian Mafia, and plays it with goofball panache.