Movie Review: “Mortdecai”

Starring
Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky
Director
David Koepp

There’s no sugar-coating it: Johnny Depp is in a rut, and if he’s not careful, he could end up like Nicolas Cage really soon, because “Mortdecai” is bottom-of-the-barrel bad. Though the actor has earned criticism for his proclivity to play eccentric oddballs, he seems to be having a lot of fun here as the mustachioed title character. Unfortunately, he’s the only one, because this throwback to the goofy capers of the 1960s isn’t even remotely entertaining. In fact, it fails on just about every level, so committed to its ridiculous premise that it doesn’t bother to step back and recognize what an unholy mess it is. “Mortdecai” could have been the spiritual successor to Peter Sellers’ “Pink Panther” series, but it has more in common with Steve Martin’s terrible reboot.

Depp stars as Lord Charlie Mortdecai, a British art dealer who’s fallen on hard times. With his family’s estate in danger of bankruptcy, he agrees to help his old university friend, Inspector Martland (Ewan McGregor) – who just so happens to be in love with Mortdecai’s wife, Joanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) – with a murder case that’s linked to the theft of a lost Goya painting… for a finder’s fee, of course. Aided by his loyal manservant/bodyguard, Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany), Mortdecai launches an investigation into the missing masterpiece, only to discover that it may contain the code to a Swiss bank account filled with Nazi gold. Everyone wants the fabled Goya for their own reasons, including an American billionaire (Jeff Goldblum), a Russian mobster (Ulrich Thomsen) and a freedom fighter (Jonny Pasvolsky) intent on using the money to fuel his rebellion, but first, Mortdecai must prove that it even exists.

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Movie Review: “Blackhat”

Starring
Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Viola Davis, John Ortiz, Ritchie Coster
Director
Michael Mann

It’s been six years since Michael Mann’s last film (“Public Enemies”), and more than a decade since his last good one (“Collateral”), so it’s not very surprising that his newest movie doesn’t buck the trend, especially after Universal condemned it to a January release date. Mann is a director who not only seems wildly out of touch, but has come to care more about the look of his films than what they’re trying to say. To be fair, when the camera isn’t shaking around like it’s in the middle of an earthquake, “Blackhat” boasts some really gorgeous visuals, particularly the neon-drenched nighttime scenes. It’s just a shame that the story hasn’t been given the same attention, because while “Blackhat” is no worse than your standard Hollywood action-thriller, it would have been a lot more interesting to see Mann take a big risk and fail than to settle for such a safe, middling paycheck movie like this.

After a malicious hacker, or blackhat, causes a meltdown at a nuclear reactor in China and makes millions on the stock market by driving up the price of soy, FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) is ordered to work with Chinese cyber-specialist Chen Dawai (Wang Leehom) to track down the person responsible. Chen notices that part of the computer code used in the attacks was co-written by him as a student at MIT, so he convinces the U.S. government to make a deal with the program’s lead architect, imprisoned hacker Nicholas Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), in exchange for his help. Desperate to stop the elusive blackhat before the next attack, the FBI agrees to Hathaway’s demands, but when the investigation hits a dead end, he must decide between going back to prison and doing something illegal that, while it would keep the hunt alive, will land him in even more trouble if caught.

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Movie Review: “A Most Violent Year”

Starring
Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel
Director
J.C. Chandor

Writer/director J.C. Chandor has quickly become one of the most promising American filmmakers working today, maturing as both a director and storyteller with each new project – from Wall Street potboiler “Margin Call,” to man vs. nature survival tale “All Is Lost,” to his latest movie about an ambitious immigrant’s rise to power. All three films are markedly different stories, but they share a common thread in that they’re about characters that have been thrown into the fire and forced to react. “A Most Violent Year” might just be the strongest example of this yet, with Chandor content to sit back and allow the story to develop organically rather than force the point through manufactured conflict. It takes incredible discipline to build tension that way, and though he risks losing his audience with such a slow-burn approach, “A Most Violent Year” holds your attention thanks to some fine performances and a surprisingly engaging narrative.

Set in New York City during 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history (hence the title), Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) finds his heating oil company embroiled in a turf war – with trucks hijacked and drivers beaten at an alarming rate – at the worst time possible. Abel has just gone into escrow on a waterfront fuel yard that could take his business to the next level, and he only has 30 days to close the deal with the bank or surrender the down payment. Meanwhile, a young district attorney (David Oyelowo) tasked with cleaning up the oil industry’s corruption launches an investigation into Abel’s company, despite the latter’s insistence that he runs a (mostly) clean and legal business. But when one of his drivers (Elyes Gabel) – having just returned to the job after being robbed at gunpoint weeks earlier – tries to protect himself from a pair of hijackers against Abel’s direct orders, everything that he’s worked so hard to create threatens to come tumbling down.

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Movie Review: “The Gambler”

Starring
Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange
Director
Rupert Wyatt

Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a curious beast. It’s based on a film that’s just obscure enough that a remake wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers, yet is well-regarded by those who have seen it. In other words, the 1974 original starring James Caan isn’t exactly holy ground, but there’s not much to improve on either, which makes this Mark Wahlberg vanity project feel every bit as irrelevant as the story it’s trying to tell. There’s nothing wrong with flawed characters – in fact, that’s what makes some of the best movies – but when they’re as irredeemable as the one that Wahlberg plays in “The Gambler,” it makes it very difficult to give a damn what happens to him.

Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a college English professor who gave up on his literary dream after his first novel was met with little fanfare. The grandson of a banking magnate, Jim partly attributes his privileged upbringing to becoming the degenerate, high-stakes gambler that’s led him to his current predicament. After falling into debt with a Korean mobster (Alvin Lee), and then borrowing money from nefarious loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams) that he promptly loses on the blackjack table while trying to win back what he owes, Jim is given seven days to pay or else. When his mother (Jessica Lange) eventually caves in and gives him the $260,000 to clear his debt, vowing that it’ll be the last time she bails him out, Jim blows it at the casino instead, putting him in a precarious position when Neville threatens the lives of his two students.

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Movie Review: “Selma”

Starring
David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Stephan James, Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Wendell Pierce
Director
Ava DuVernay

Though it coincides nicely with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the events depicted in the film, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” has the unenviable distinction of being one of the timeliest dramas of 2014. But while there’s no denying that its message resonates even more in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, hopefully those parallels won’t end up overshadowing the movie itself, because although it’s not quite as sobering as last year’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” “Selma” is a deftly made drama about an important piece of American history that’s guaranteed to be a major awards contender, largely due to the outstanding lead performance from David Oyelowo.

The film opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Oyelowo) – having already delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech the year prior – receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his part in helping to abolish segregation. But King knows that his work is far from done, and he turns his attention to voting rights in the South, where, although it’s technically legal for black citizens to vote, they’re made to jump through ridiculous hoops (like naming all 67 Alabama County judges) in order to register. When King and his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, are invited to Selma, Alabama to stage their latest fight, they organize a series of non-violent protests in the hopes that it will force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass legislation that specifically prohibits the discrimination of black voter registration. Though Johnson refuses to budge on the subject, instead intent on pursuing his War on Poverty, King continues to test his resolve with a planned 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, fully aware that the racist state troopers and local cops will respond violently, thus generating the news coverage necessary to pressure Johnson to stop dragging his feet on the issue.

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