Movie Review: “Get Hard”

Starring
Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson, T.I.
Director
Etan Cohen

“Get Hard” feels like the filmmakers are playing a prank on the audience. It has all of the beats and clichés of an ‘80s-era buddy cop action comedy, right down to the innuendo-laden one-liners, the score (just above porn quality) and the off-color jokes, which are ‘holy shit they did not just say that’ offensive. That seems to be the point – love ‘em or hate ‘em, a lot of the jokes in the ‘80s action films are in very poor taste – but that is also what makes the movie feel like a con. Are they merely trying to cast an unflattering light on the films from that era in order to show how tacky they are, or are they trying to trick modern-day audiences into laughing at a series of tasteless jokes, when deep down the audience knows that it shouldn’t? Either way, the movie isn’t playing fair, and even if it had played fair, it wouldn’t have mattered; there’s a condescension to it all that undercuts every barrier-pushing joke. Had they respected the audience, this could have been a much better movie. But they didn’t, and here we are.

James King (Will Ferrell) is a very successful hedge fund manager, engaged to the smoking hot daughter (Alison Brie) of his boss (Craig T. Nelson). He is living the dream, until he is arrested for a litany of fraud charges (of which James proclaims his innocence), and the judge throws the book at him, sentencing him to 10 years at San Quentin. James knows he’s a dead man walking in a prison like that, so he asks Darnell (Kevin Hart), who runs a small-budget car washing service that James uses, to teach him how to toughen up, to “get hard.” Why does James ask Darnell this? Because Darnell is black, and courtesy of his sabermetric expertise, James concludes that Darnell has spent time in jail. Darnell, of course, has not spent time in jail, but he needs cash to put a down payment on a house in a better neighborhood, so he takes James’ money and fakes it the best way he can. This plan will go horribly wrong for all concerned.

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Movie Review: “While We’re Young”

Starring
Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin
Director
Noah Baumbach

After “Frances Ha” and Noah Baumbach’s upcoming film, “Mistress America,” it felt safe to assume the writer-director had taken on a new demeanor, because there’s a joy to those films rarely seen in his past work. As it turns out, it was wrong to presume that he was done with his days of making audiences squirm, because that side of Baumbach has returned with a vengeance. “While We’re Young” is perhaps the filmmaker’s most unpleasant picture to date, and that’s a compliment.

Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a happily married couple. They’re comfortable with the choices they’ve made, including not having kids, but they begin to question those choices when they see the family their friends have built and, especially, after they meet a young and overly hip couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). The two youngsters are wild and free, which is a lifestyle Josh and Cornelia attempt to emulate. The middle-aged couple begins to feel young again, thanks to some funky hats and hip hop dance classes, but his fantasy doesn’t last too long, as the older couple begins to realize that maybe this isn’t how people their age should be acting.

“While We’re Young” is a mix of the old and new Baumbach. It’s as cringe-inducing as his early work, but it’s also as accessible as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.” The film is filled to the brim with jokes and awkwardly comedic scenarios, almost to the point of exhaustion. Baumbach has recently exhibited a strong eye for pacing; he’s telling his stories with a faster pace, without ever making them contrived, rushed or any less human. His recent work is as driven by story as it is by character, and Baumbach balances the two rather nicely.

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Blu Tuesday: The Hobbit, Unbroken and Into the Woods

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”

WHAT: After successfully defeating Smaug, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) and the surviving citizens of Lake-town head to the Lonely Mountain seeking refuge. Thorin (Richard Armitage), who’s since been consumed by the dragon sickness, refuses to help, leading the humans and elves to declare war on the dwarves. But when Azog the Defiler and his battalion of orcs attack the dwarven stronghold, the three armies must put aside their differences and fight alongside each other in order to stop them.

WHY: Splitting “The Hobbit” into three movies has been a point of contention among fans ever since it was first announced, and the futility of that decision has never been more evident than with “The Battle of the Five Armies,” a 144-minute marathon of masturbatory excess in which the titular set piece (one that’s contained within a single chapter in J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel) makes up almost half of its bloated runtime. Much like the first two installments, the movie has its share of great moments, but they’re surrounded by a lot of extraneous filler that pushes Bilbo even further into the background. These films were supposed to be about Bilbo’s journey “there and back again,” but you wouldn’t know it from the ever-changing protagonists, shifting focus between Bilbo, Thorin and Bard the Bowman with such frequency that it leaves little room for actual character development. But while “The Battle of the Five Armies” may be the weakest entry in the “Hobbit” series, it’s a nonetheless fitting end to a trilogy that’s biggest problem was taking so long to get there. Could it have been better? Absolutely, especially when measured against the far superior “Lord of the Rings” films, but fans will love it regardless, and that’s to the credit of the fantastic ensemble cast, incredible visuals and Jackson’s limitless creativity.

EXTRAS: There’s a featurette about the five armies, a retrospective on Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga, and the final part of “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth.”

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Unbroken”

WHAT: The true story of Olympic distance runner Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), who spent a harrowing 47 days stranded in the Pacific Ocean with two fellow soldiers (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock) after their plane crashed during WWII, only to eventually be rescued by the Japanese navy and sent to a POW camp run by a merciless commander known as The Bird (Miyavi).

WHY: It’s taken decades for a Louis Zamperini biopic to get made, and although that may be surprising considering his extraordinary story, it’s easy to see why some of Hollywood’s most powerful and talented filmmakers had so much trouble adapting it for the big screen. This is a movie that singles out one man for his bravery and perseverance in a war where thousands of other men were going through the exact same thing. Granted, none of those guys were Olympic athletes or survived 47 days on a raft, but you don’t really feel any more emotion for Zamperini just because he suffered more than the rest. Angelina Jolie still deserves a lot of credit for succeeding where so many failed, and the opening act – which intermixes scenes from Zamperini’s childhood and the 1936 Berlin Olympics with his pre-crash days in WWII – is really smartly handled. Jack O’Connell also turns in another star-making performance as the resolute war hero, reaffirming his status as an actor to watch, while Japanese rocker Miyavi does some good (if uneven) work as Zamperini’s sadistic tormentor. The film looks great as well thanks to some stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, but despite its fascinating source material, “Unbroken” isn’t as powerful or inspiring as it sets out to be.

EXTRAS: In addition to a making-of featurette, there’s a profile on the real-life Louis Zamperini, a concert performance by Miyavi, some deleted scenes and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Into the Woods”

WHAT: A vengeful witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with collecting a series of magical items from popular fairy tale characters – including a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – in exchange for reversing a family curse preventing them from having children.

WHY: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” probably seemed like a pretty clever idea when it debuted back in 1986, but the musical doesn’t feel quite as fresh or groundbreaking in a post-“Shrek” world. Though there’s a lot of great talent on display in Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation, many of the actors are wasted, including Meryl Streep, whose performance is so mediocre that it makes her recent Oscar nomination look like a complete joke. Johnny Depp, meanwhile, is in the film for about five minutes, despite his face being splashed across every piece of promotional material in a pathetic attempt at drumming up interest. James Corden just about holds the movie together, and youngster Lilla Crawford stands out as the brash Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s not enough, especially when the music is so unmemorable, save for one hilariously bad duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s princes that’s fittingly titled “Agony.” “Into the Woods” is supposed to be a witty and unabashedly adult deconstruction of famous fairy tales, but that’s rarely evident in Marshall’s film. Instead, it’s a giant bore that wears out its welcome long before the torturous final act.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Rob Marshall, a four-part making-of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew about working on the movie, and a deleted song performed by Meryl Streep.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

Movie Review: “Insurgent”

Starring
Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer
Director
Robert Schwentke

No movie franchise embodies the term “meh” better than the “Divergent” tetralogy, because although the second installment is a competently made sci-fi thriller, it suffers from many of the same problems as the last movie – namely, a troubling lack of excitement, suspense and emotion. You’d think the fact that “Insurgent” isn’t bogged down by the same tedious exposition would allow the film to dig deeper into its characters and mythology, but you doesn’t learn much more about the main players by the end of the movie than when it began. That might be forgiven if author Veronica Roth’s universe was the least bit interesting, but the whole faction concept is so silly and contrived that it’s a wonder no one thought to question it sooner. And to think there’s an entire faction dedicated to intelligence.

“Insurgent” picks up several days after the events of the first film, with Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) denying involvement in the attack on Abnegation, instead placing the blame on Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James) and the rest of their sympathizers, who have since sought refuge with Amity. When Jeanine recovers a mysterious box containing a message from the colony’s founding fathers that requires a Divergent to unlock it, she sends bulldogs Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer) to round up Divergents to put through the box’s rigorous testing process. Meanwhile, Tris and Four unite their Dauntless friends with the factionless rebels – which is led by Four’s presumed-dead mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts) – to take down Jeanine and the whole faction system.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that “special one” Tris is the key to unlocking the film’s MacGuffin, which apparently doesn’t even appear in Roth’s novel, because there isn’t a single original idea in the movie. The generic plot device doesn’t serve much purpose, either, other than to keep Jeanine busy and provide a staging ground for the special effects-heavy final act that puts Tris through a series of virtual reality simulations designed to test her aptitude in all five factions. The problem, however, is that with the exception of the final 20 minutes and a few small character moments, “Insurgent” doesn’t do enough to progress the overarching story to warrant an entire film. The big reveal at the end will undoubtedly change the direction of the series going forward, and hopefully for the better, but the real question is whether anyone will still care by that point.

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Movie Review: “The Gunman”

Starring
Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone
Director
Pierre Morel

Lightning doesn’t strike twice, as proven by director Pierre Morel’s recent output. Since his 2008 smash hit, “Taken,” Morel has been unsuccessful in trying to recapture the magic of his wildly popular B-movie. Though the French filmmaker helped turn Liam Neeson into an action star, he’s failed to do the same for John Travolta and Sean Penn. The latter stars in the director’s newest picture, “The Gunman,” an incredibly middle-of-the-road thriller that’s so light on action that the first 45 minutes doesn’t contain a single set piece.

“The Gunman” is a surprisingly small-scale movie, where most of the action takes place in contained locations. This kind of less-is-more approach is always welcomed, but it doesn’t work in the film’s favor, since none of the characters can hold your attention. This self-serious thriller tries to be more than what it really is. In the vein of “Taken,” the drama is redundant, thin and clunky, but unlike that movie, the emotional conflict doesn’t play second fiddle to the action. This a character-driven film, taking way too much time to tell an all-too-familiar story.

Jim Terrier (Penn) is a mercenary with a dark past, but he’s finally found happiness in the Congo. When we meet the sniper, he’s in a loving relationship with Annie (Jasmine Trinca), but that all ends when Terrier and his team kill the country’s minister of mining. Terrier, without telling Annie, has to go on the run. Years later, he returns to the Congo to do some good working for the NGO, but of course, he’s pulled back into the game after some men try to kill him.

Terrier suffers from headaches and memory loss, so fighting to stay alive isn’t going to be easy. Right from the start of the film, we’re served a trite conflict. A sick operative? We recently saw that character in “3 Days to Kill” and “Dying of the Light,” both of which are fairly mediocre movies that still managed to put that idea to better use. Penn is fine in the role, but the material fails him, which is ironic considering he co-wrote the script. The actor is a great writer and director, and he actually covered a similar journey – a man with a dark past getting in the way of him starting over – in his incredible 2001 film, “The Pledge.”

It’s the supporting actors that help bring some flickers of life to “The Gunman.” At one point, Idris Elba shows up in a glorified cameo playing a character named Jackie Barnes. Who wouldn’t want to see a franchise starring Elba as a mysterious Interpol agent? He’s in “The Gunman” for five minutes, and he makes every second count. Elba has some fairly on-the-nose dialogue to deliver, but an actor of his caliber can make every cheesy line sizzle. Strangely, the same cannot be said for Javier Bardem, playing an old colleague of Terrier and Annie’s new husband, who’s an early candidate for a Razzie nomination. His performance goes so big that his character leaves reality far too quickly. Bardem’s scenery chewing never fits this overly dour film.

If “The Gunman” was 20 minutes shorter and more action-oriented, it could have been a blast. Morel knows how to shoot action. He never shows us anything new, but the action is often impressive – quick and brutal, but never jarring. Morel knows how to put together an exciting set piece, but drama is not his forte. There’s nothing emotional about Terrier’s romance or his attempt to start over. Almost everything about “The Gunman” is by-the-numbers, which is fine, but it doesn’t even tell a familiar story particularly well.

  

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