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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Blu Tuesday: The Drop, Lucy and More

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 Drop”

WHAT: When the Chechen-owned drop bar that he works at is robbed by a pair of amateur thieves, well-meaning bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) are tasked with finding those responsible. Meanwhile, Bob finds a wounded pit bull in a trash can and decides to adopt it, but when the previous owner (Matthias Schoenaerts) resurfaces looking for trouble, he must decide how far he’s willing to go to protect the mutt and the woman (Noomi Rapace) helping him care for it.

WHY: Adapted by esteemed crime writer Dennis Lehane from his own short story, “The Drop” doesn’t have the same cynicism as past adaptions of the author’s work, but it’s a grimy little crime drama that harkens back to the great Sidney Lumet films of the 1970s. This is a movie that places mood and character above all else, and though it comes with the undesirable label of being James Gandolfini’s final screen appearance, “The Drop” is a well-paced and expertly acted film that serves as a fitting end to one actor’s career and the exciting emergence of another. Gandolfini shines as the wannabe tough guy who thinks he deserves more respect than he gets, but this is Hardy’s movie through and through, delivering an unusually subdued turn that becomes more impressive by the minute as he carefully peels back each layer of his character. Director Michaël R. Roskam and Lehane also deserve a lot of credit for their respective parts in crafting the movie, because although it hits all the familiar beats of a slow-burning crime thriller, there are just enough small nuances that allow it to stand on its own. Hollywood doesn’t make too many movies like this anymore, but “The Drop” is a perfect example of why it should.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Michaël R. Roskam and author Dennis Lehane, there’s a collection of deleted scenes with option commentary and five production featurettes, including a profile on the late James Gandolfini.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Lucy”

WHAT: An American student (Scarlett Johansson) living in Taiwan is forced to become a drug mule for the mob. But when the experimental substance implanted in her stomach accidentally leaks into her system, it grants her the capacity to tap into her brain’s full potential and unlock new abilities.

WHY: On the surface, “Lucy” sounds like a typical Luc Besson film, complete with a kickass heroine and goofy premise. But while the movie starts off that way, it eventually devolves into a metaphysical mess that’s equal parts “Tree of Life,” “Limitless” and “Transcendence,” with a not-so-subtle nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though Besson is clearly intent on exploring deeper, philosophical themes with “Lucy,” he doesn’t seem to know what they are, or at the very least, able to convey them in a manner that doesn’t come across as just a bunch of gobbledygook tacked on at the end of a lifeless action thriller. The material prevents Johansson from doing anything other than look like a deer in headlights for 90 minutes, while Choi Min-sik is wasted as the one-dimensional villain and Morgan Freeman’s only purpose is to explain all the bullshit sciencey stuff. The film is also surprisingly short on action, which makes you question why Besson felt the need to package it like one of his usual genre movies at all, because although it’s nice to see the director stepping out of his comfort zone and taking bigger risks narratively, the problem with “Lucy” is that it none of it really works.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and a look at the science behind the film, namely the debate about the idea that humans only use 10 percent of their brains.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Movie Review: “The Wedding Ringer”

Starring
Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Alan Ritchson, Olivia Thirlby
Director
Jeremy Garelick

The premise for “The Wedding Ringer” has a blind spot the size of Texas. If someone were to actually do what Kevin Hart’s character does here, it would not be long before they ran into one of their former clients’ spouses, or a girl they hooked up with after the reception, or a family member of the wedding party (you get the idea), while pretending to be the new character. Not to mention, the movie wrings laughs out of a scenario where men spin a hideous web of lies to their wives-to-be as a means of impressing them, which is the worst possible way to start a marriage. It’s a house of cards, with a near-zero level of plausibility, and yet, “The Wedding Ringer” works in spite of all of these things. Hart and Josh Gad have great chemistry, the script is surprisingly smart for such a broad comedy (they don’t stoop to making the supporting characters dunces in order for the plot to work), and there is an underdog mentality to it that is intoxicating.

Doug Harris (Gad) has a problem. He’s about to get married to out-of-his-league Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), but he doesn’t have any friends, and therefore no best man or groomsmen. The wedding planner sniffs this out (Gretchen, conveniently, is still in the dark about this), and suggests that Doug meet Jimmy Callahan (Hart), who runs a business providing services for men who need a best man. Doug, however, doesn’t just need a best man: he needs a best man and a whopping seven groomsmen, something Jimmy has joked about but never executed before. The groomsmen Jimmy recruits are less than ideal, but Doug goes along with it given the circumstances. As Doug and Jimmy get to know each other – Jimmy has a strict ‘This is a business arrangement, and we are not friends’ policy – and as Gretchen’s family gets to know Jimmy, lines get blurred.

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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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Blu Tuesday: Gone Girl and More

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.

“Gone Girl”

WHAT: When his wife (Rosamund Pike) disappears under mysterious circumstances, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the investigation. But while the media and townspeople are quick to vilify him, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) senses that something isn’t quite right with the case.

WHY: It’s hard to imagine watching a film like “Gone Girl” having already read the Gillian Flynn novel on which it’s based, because the movie is a strikingly bold and unique murder mystery that hinges on the shock-and-awe nature of its dark, twisted story. You’d be hard-pressed to find a director more suitable for the material than David Fincher, and he handles the he-said/she-said dual narratives with razor-sharp precision. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike deliver excellent performances as the two leads (Pike, in particular, is sure to see her career skyrocket as a result), while supporting actors like Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, and yes, even Tyler Perry, are all perfectly cast in their respective roles. That’s to the credit of Fincher as well, who makes even the strangest casting choices (like Perry and Neil Patrick Harris) seem like no-brainers in hindsight. Though the movie is a bit overlong and the ending feels rushed compared to the slow-burning first act, “Gone Girl” is the kind of the movie that you won’t soon forget. It’s not Fincher’s best work, but it’s an engrossing and clever thriller that will make you want to rush out and read Flynn’s novel the minute it’s over.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director David Fincher and an Amazing Amy book titled “Tattle Tale.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Men, Women & Children”

WHAT: A collection of intersecting stories about the dangers of the internet, including a middle-aged schlub (Adam Sandler) whose wife (Rosemary DeWitt) cheats on him using a dating website; a former star quarterback (Ansel Elgort) who’s coping with his mother’s desertion through an online role-playing game; a high school cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) who posts provocative photos to her modeling site; and a mother (Jennifer Garner) so obsessed with keeping her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) safe that she tracks her online activity.

WHY: “Men, Women & Children” might as well have come with the subtitle, “Or Why the Internet is Really Bad,” because that’s pretty much the message that Jason Reitman is preaching in his latest film, an enjoyable but flawed drama about communication in the digital age. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the topic has been broached before. The little-seen 2012 drama “Disconnect” tackled similar material in its exploration of the muddled lines between reality and identity on the internet, and that film did a better job, partly because it had fewer storylines to juggle. Reitman handles the interconnected narrative remarkably well, but while “Men, Women & Children” has some interesting things to say, it doesn’t reveal anything that most people with a basic knowledge of the internet didn’t already know. Yes, going online can be dangerous, but there are plenty of beneficial things about it as well, and Reitman seems afraid to touch upon those aspects in fear that it will dilute his message. Is it a little heavy-handed and melodramatic as a result? You bet, but there’s enough good in the film – or at least good intentions – that it’s able to hold your interest even when it’s not firing on all cylinders.

EXTRAS: There are five deleted scenes (including an additional storyline), as well as a short behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with director Jason Reitman and the cast about the effect of technology on our lives.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Revenge of the Green Dragons”

WHAT: Set in New York City during the late 1980s and early 90s, two Chinese immigrants (Justin Chon and Kevin Wu) are pressured into joining the Green Dragons gang, quickly moving up the ranks as the organization gains notoriety within the community.

WHY: With “Infernal Affairs” director Andrew Lau behind the camera, and Martin Scorsese serving as an executive producer, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “Revenge of the Green Dragons” might actually be decent. Instead, it’s a cliché-ridden gangster film posing as a sprawling crime saga that’s plagued by a lack of character development, unintentionally funny dialogue (sample line: “There’s a storm coming, and I don’t know of any umbrella that can keep the city dry.”), and cheesy guitar riffs that, while they certainly belong to the era, only add to the comedy. One of the big selling points of the movie is that it’s supposedly inspired by real-life events, but the historical bits are shoved to the background in favor of the more generic story involving Chon and Wu’s characters. Neither actor is very good, but Harry Shum, Jr. (“Glee”) takes the cake as the gang’s business-minded boss, whose performance comes across like a low-rate Bruce Lee impersonator. Though Ray Liotta’s appearance as the FBI agent investigating the Green Dragons is meant to lend some credibility to the film, it does the complete opposite, while the last-minute twist reeks so bad of desperation that it’s as if Lau is trying to recapture the success of “Infernal Affairs” for American audiences. The only problem is that Scorsese already beat him to the punch.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, a trio of production featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

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