THE BACK-UP PLAN
Jennifer Lopez's first screen outing in four years isn't a motion picture so much as it's a new form of Chinese water
torture: Seemingly innocuous at first, it continues to pelt the viewer with one abysmal scene after another until insanity seems like the only logical result. Lopez stars as Zoe, a single woman who, tired of waiting for Mr. Right while her biological clock continues to tick away, elects to conceive through artificial insemination. But wouldn't you know it, as she walks out of the clinic, she bumps into a charismatic cheesemaker named Stan (Alex O'Loughlin), and they begin
dating. Zoe waits until Stan falls in love with -- and makes love to -- her before she alerts him to the fact that she's pregnant and that he'll have to deal with this issue if he wants to permanently commit to her. Zoe's actions throughout the picture make her a particularly odious heroine, but that's the least of this film's problems: More detrimental are the slapstick gags scripted by Kate Angelo and directed by Alan Poul, including (but not limited to) the scene in which Zoe wrestles with her dog for possession of a pregnancy test stick and the sequence in which a woman gives birth in a bathtub while members of her single-mom support group chant around her (speaking of the support group, this movie exhibits nothing but contempt and derision toward single women). There's also the usual rom-com character of the outspoken best friend (Michaela Watkins) whose wisecracks are supposed to be funny but are instead merely obnoxious, the expected cutaway
shots to the mutt whimpering or barking whenever one of the humans says something stupid (needless to say, this happens frequently), and an unhealthy obsession with scatological humor. The only bright spot is seeing '70s sitcom vets Linda Lavin (Alice) and Tom Bosley (Happy Days) in minor roles; the rest is unspeakably awful.
DEATH AT A FUNERAL
A remake of a film that was released a mere three years ago -- wow, that was quick; what's coming out next week, a remake of March's Hot Tub Time Machine? -- director Neil LaBute and writer Dean Craig scuttle the British setting of 2007's Death at a Funeral in order to stamp this with a "Made In USA" label. The result is a perfectly pleasant piffle, a comedy that fails to produce many big laughs but knows how to parcel out its small ones at an acceptable clip. Still, this isn't half as uproarious as LaBute's ill-fated remake of The Wicker Man, a bomb whose unintentional laughs continue to
delight viewers via well-spliced YouTube compilations. But I digress. Death at a Funeral focuses on the events surrounding the laying to rest a well-respected man who leaves behind a wide assortment of friends and family members. Among the ranks of the bereaved is his oldest son Aaron (Chris Rock), who's forced to shoulder the entire cost of the funeral since he can't count on his successful yet irresponsible brother Ryan (Martin Lawrence). But Aaron's issues with Ryan take a back seat when a stranger (Peter Dinklage, reprising his role from the original) arrives at the funeral home hoping to blackmail the siblings over their father's extracurricular activities. A true ensemble piece, this suffers when humor takes a back seat to drama -- for example, the plotline involving a slick businessman's (Luke Wilson) attempts to win back the deceased's niece (Avatar's Zoe Saldana) adds nothing. But the picture is breezy enough to always get back on track fairly quick, and there are some nice comic moments from Danny Glover as a cantankerous uncle, Tracy Morgan as a perpetually nervous acquaintance, and James Marsden as Saldana's boyfriend, whose accidental ingestion of hallucinogens leads to some madcap mishaps.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
Based on the children's book by Cressida Cowell, this centers on a village wherein the Viking population is constantly at war with the neighboring dragons. Bumbling young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the son of the fearless Viking
leader Stoick (Gerard Butler), wants to join the ranks of the dragon slayers, and he gets his chance when he wounds a feared Night Fury. But rather than go for the kill, Hiccup ends up releasing the creature, and before long, the two become inseparable -- a real dilemma, considering the lad is expected to soon complete his schooling and start slaughtering dragons. Writer-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (scripting with William Davies) gently advance the themes of acceptance and understanding without any pushy shoving, and the animators do a bang-up job in their designs of the various breeds of dragons on view throughout the picture. As expected, they save their best work for the Night Fury (named Toothless by Hiccup), endearing him to audiences by providing him with quasi-feline features (he looks like a silky black cat in close-ups). Craig Ferguson contributes some good moments as Hiccup's trainer Gobber, and how odd is it to see Butler involved in a film that doesn't suck?