New reviews – ‘The House Bunny’ and ‘Transsiberian’

The House Bunny (dir: Fred Wolf)

“Aren’t we just the luckiest girls in the world?”

Shelley (Anna Faris) is an orphan living out her idea of a fairy tale – living in the Playboy Mansion and being the closest thing to a legal version of a professional courtesan, or at least the American frat-boy redefinition of a geisha. When she’s booted from the Mansion after her 27th birthday (that’s 59 in Bunny years, you know) with little more than a form letter, she finds a new career, shaping minds and bodies of the social misfits of a sorority of nerds and outcasts on the verge of losing their charter and their house (the latter to a snooty sorority of vicious social-climbers).

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Behind each of the frumpy outcasts of Zeta House is a hot chick just waiting to reveal her cleavage to drunken college guys. Bubbly blond airhead Shelley (Faris) is just the girl to show these sorority sisters (spunky square-peg Emma Stone, rebellious Kat Dennings) how to party, flirt and strut their stuff.

“I’m not a prostitute,” the big-hearted, benevolent Shelley squeals at one point, though the film treats the mansion girls as little more than hookers on retainer. That’s apparently fine with Playboy, whose brand is all over the PG-13 movie, right down to an appearance by Hugh Hefner himself.

Anna Faris is so funny in the lead (a part she helped develop for herself – Faris is also a producer on the film) that she helps distract from the vacuum of creativity in the script and the messed-up message behind what should be your basic nerd empowerment movie for the girls. Director Fred Wolf builds the whole thing around Faris, which is great when she’s on screen but doesn’t leave much for the co-stars. Emma Stone (from Superbad) is earnestly intent as the socially-clueless smart girl and Kat Dennings (soon to be seen in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist) is all attitude as the surly goth rebel, but neither of them have any material to work with, and (nothing against them) they haven’t the magic to spin gold from straw that Faris somehow possesses. It’s Faris’ film in every way and she’s great. I wish the film was half as good as she was.

Read the complete review here.

"The House Bunny" - Dedicated to releasing the hot chick behind every sorority misfit
"The House Bunny" - dedicated to releasing the hot chick behind every misfit sorority sister

Transsiberian (dir: Brad Anderson)

The romance of the railway journey isn’t the fist thing you think of as you chug through the endless snow-covered wilderness of Siberia in this thriller. The rattling no-frills train is no Orient Express but a relic from the old Soviet days. This outfit’s idea of entertainment is a close-circuit music track that floods American easy listing hits of the seventies into every cabin, and our Americans passenger can’t find the off switch.

That’s the least of their worries in this The Lady Vanishes for the 21st century, with drugs in place of espionage intelligence and Russian mobsters in place of Nazis. Even the innocents abroad feel contemporary: generous modern day missionary Roy (Woody Harrelson, all aw-shucks sincerity) and his wife Jessie (Emily Mortimer), ostensibly saved from her wild past by Roy’s warm support and idealistic outlook and now focused on her photography, but you wonder if she’s just hiding her impulses behind her lens.

Their cabin mates in the sleeper car aren’t quite so benevolent: attractively dangerous Spaniard Carlos (Eduardo Noriega, who sets off alarm bells by his very presence) is making moves on Jessie, and just may have gotten Roy out of the way to clear his path. The look in the eyes of his young American traveling companion (Kate Mara) says “beware.” Jessie should pay more attention to her. Especially when Soviet narcotics cop Ben Kingsley, fresh from the scene of a murdered drug smuggler, shows up on their train and immediately ingratiates himself with the Americans.

Woody Harrelson loves a good train journey
Woody Harrelson loves a good train journey

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Anderson, who co-wrote as well as directed, makes effective use of the locations — the unending landscape of snow-covered forests is both handsome and unnervingly isolated — and plays with expectations by tossing in ambiguities and suspicious twists. While it keeps the audience off balance and complicates the motivations, the plotting often feels arbitrary and lazy, just a way to slow things for the brewing character drama and Jessie’s struggle with her reckless impulses.

Transsiberian feels like one of those international thrillers that Cannon Films kept pumping out through the ’80s, with a story tailored to opportunities (Siberia! Train!) and a multinational cast to seal foreign sales. Like the best of those films, it’s a little sloppy and full of convenient coincidences, but at its best roils with edgy character tensions. And Anderson’s stripped-down direction becomes unexpectedly unforgiving when he finally lets the throttle out for the inevitable collision.

Read the complete review here.

Hamlet 2 (dir: Andrew Fleming)

“Hamlet 2?”

“The deuce. That’s right.”

Steve Coogan is failed actor turned failed high school drama coach Dana Marschz in the erratic but often hilarious comedy from director Andrew Fleming and writer Pam Brady (of South Park and Team America fame). When you get the obvious stuff out of the way – a terribly untalented drama coach faces a class full of kids who are stuck there because their first (and second and third and fourth) choices were all shut down – the film is a parody of all of the inspirational teacher movies. Dana wants to be that teacher, at least as defined by glossy Hollywood movies like Dangerous Minds. It’s also the story of an untalented man who wants nothing more than to be an artist. And what’s worse is that, in his moments of clarity, he knows that he has no talent. But that doesn’t stop him from creating.

It’s a slow start and the humor, mostly based on audience discomfort over the awkwardness of its main character, is more conceptually than practically funny. But Steve Coogan make much of it work. He reaches back to his fictional “Alan Partridge” persona and then builds on it, creating a seriously nerdy figure whose tastes in art and cues for drama are utterly banal.

I interview Steve Coogan about Hamlet 2 and other films here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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