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Time Trials 

Hot Tub 2's wrinkles, McFarland's runner's high

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HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2. The first installment was winningly clever and absurd, so it was disappointing to learn that John Cusack would not reprise his role, and that the movie's release date was pushed back from Christmas Day to February. The latter is never a good sign, usually indicating a lack of confidence on the part of the studio. (Wes Anderson's multiple-Oscar-winning Grand Budapest Hotel overcame its humble late March release critically and commercially, but it is a rare exception). Which is all to say that my initial rush of enthusiasm for Hot Tub Time Machine 2 had been well tempered with trepidation when it finally came time to watch the movie. This may have been a good thing, as it met, if not exceeded, my slightly lowered expectations.

In the Hot Tub universe, time has been good to our protagonists. Since discovering a hot tub time machine in Hot Tub Time Machine, the boys have gone on to considerable success. Nick (Craig Robinson) has built an enviable career as a producer/performer by appropriating hits from Hanson, Nirvana and Lisa Loeb, among others. Lou (Rob Corddry) is one of the richest men in the world, having transitioned from fronting a hair metal band to starting and helming Internet juggernaut Lougle. Jacob (Clark Duke) pretty much just hangs out, not entirely satisfied. Adam (Cusack) is in the wind, vaguely referenced only occasionally. When someone tries to assassinate Lou at a company party by shooting him in the genitals, Nick and Jacob pull him into the time machine — conveniently stashed in his mansion — to go back in time and stop the attack. Somehow, though, they find themselves in a parallel-universe in 2025, where their lives have followed slightly different trajectories. They enlist the aid of Adam's son Adam (Adam Scott) on the eve of his wedding and attempt to readjust the future and return to the past.

On balance, the things to like about Hot Tub Time Machine 2 outweigh the rest. The cast is funny, as always, although they generate more laughs when improvising than when on script. The movie's concept of the near future, with its gender-neutral fashion, vengeful and intelligent automobiles and sleek, web-based masturbation devices, has some clever, thoughtful touches. Unfortunately, the narrative starts to slide into over-earnestness in the second act and never completely recovers. The focus shifts to Lou's low self-worth, substance abuse and lack of concern for others, and we watch the comedy evaporate before our very eyes. I appreciate the thematic material, but this particular movie would have been well-served by a lighter touch and a little punch-up. R. 93m.

MCFARLAND USA. Somehow, I'm mildly shocked every time I see one of these Disney sports movies. Generally my sensibilities skew pretty dark, and if pulled into an interrogation room, I'd be unlikely to say PG-rated underdog movies from the middle of the mainstream are what pluck at my heart strings. But learning these things about ourselves keeps life interesting. And it turns out I'm a sucker for this stuff.

McFarland, USA opens in Boise, Idaho, at halftime of a high school football game. Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) is trying to motivate a team that seems to have no interest in competing, much less winning. When the team captain won't stop back-talking him, White throws a shoe at the kid, hits him in the face and gets fired. We learn that this — an aggressive outburst precipitating termination — is something of a pattern for our protagonist. An unsettling way to start a heart-warming story about overcoming our differences, but the movie buries the information so we can just move on. White moves his family to dusty, predominately Hispanic McFarland, California, home to the only school that will have him. The transition is a difficult one, both professionally and culturally. White butts heads with the football coach and gets drummed out of that program. In a moment of clarity, it occurs to him that many of the boys at McFarland High run insanely well. He sets out to build a cross-country program, against no little resistance from the students and their families, who rely on them as earners.

There is nothing surprising whatsoever about the narrative arc of McFarland, USA. Some of the patriotic elements (the white benefactor expanding the horizons of underprivileged kids, the montage set to the national anthem) are almost too much to take, but given the context I'm willing to let it slide. The story hits all the marks we've been trained to subconsciously expect from movies like these. And even if it feels, at times, a little like an afternoon TV special, there are moments of joy and triumph that made me tear up, despite my best efforts. PG. 128m.

— John J. Bennett


A DIOS MOMO. The dreamy story of a boy in Uruguay learning to read during carnival. NR. 108m.

CECILIA. An upwardly mobile practitioner of Santería works her magic on the eve of Cuban independence. R. 127m.

FOCUS. Will Smith plays a slick con man (can no one be trusted?) and Margot Robbie plays the ex who may or may not be conning him. R. 104m.

THE LAZARUS EFFECT. Medical students figure out how to bring back the dead because that always works out. Starring Olivia Wilde warmed over. PG13. 83m.

AMERICAN SNIPER. Bradley Cooper plays a Navy SEAL in an intense and moving biopic/war movie that doles out adrenaline and domestic devastation in equal measure. R. 132m.

BIRDMAN. Back after swooping up all the Oscars. Excellent weirdness as a former superhero franchise star (ahem, Michael Keaton) grasps at a second act. While his character struggles, Keaton clearly still has his chops. R. 120m.

THE DUFF. Teen makeover comedy about a girl (Mae Whitman) who finds out she's the Designated Ugly Fat Friend in her group. It's like Mean Girls never even happened. PG13. 101m.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. The real torture is the muddled characters and blush-worthy story. If you came for more than a little slap and tickle, use your safe word and bail. R. 125m.

JUPITER ASCENDING. Gorgeous trademark visuals and a wreck of a story from the siblings Wachowski. With Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum and a stylishly villainous Eddie Redmayne. PG13. 127m.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE. Funny, charming Taron Egerton steals the show in this imaginative action comedy about a street punk who becomes a spy. With Colin Firth and Samuel Jackson. R. 128m.

THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE OUT OF WATER. He of the square pants leads his undersea crew onto land in this animation and live action mash-up. PG. 93m.

STILL ALICE. Julianne Moore plays a linguistics professor losing her mind to Alzheimer's Disease. With Alec Baldwin. PG13. 101m.

WHIPLASH. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons play a young jazz drummer and his bandleader who pushes him to his limits in this breathless intensive on the nature of greatness. R. 107m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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