Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: Get Hard

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Can a comedy successfully critique stereotypes, while at the same time help to perpetuate them? In the case of "Get Hard," the crass new comedy starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, the answer is, unfortunately, no.

In the film, Ferrell plays the type of man-child we've come to expect of him - but this time, he's a grotesquely wealthy and casually racist Wall Street type, rather than the frat boy characters he played in raunch fests "Old School" or "Step Brothers." Near the film's beginning, James (Ferrell) gets set up for some sort of hedge fund scandal and is sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Desperate, he turns to Hart's Darnell, a car wash owner who dreams of establishing a bigger and fancier wash, so that he can take his young daughter out of the South Central school she attends. For reasons too absurd to explain here, James assumes Darnell has done prison time and offers to pay him to help him toughen up, so that he can survive his stint in the slammer. Darnell realizes that this could be his ticket, so he doesn't correct James' assumptions.

The material could have made for a good comedy. In the case of a film like Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," humor revolving around race resulted in some big laughs. But in the case of that film, the humor was at the expense of white perceptions of a black character.

To be fair, "Get Hard" takes some pains to poke fun at the way white people - especially wealthy ones - view persons of color, but it is also loaded with sequences that perpetuate those beliefs, especially during the numerous scenes in which James attempts to get protection in prison from Darnell's cousin (T.I.), who is the leader of a violent South Central gang.

Even more troubling is the film's casual homophobia. The most consistent joke of "Get Hard" is that James will likely become somebody's "bitch" in prison and numerous punchlines revolve around whether Ferrell's character will be able to withstand the sexual favors he will be forced to proffer once he's behind bars. During one sequence, Darnell takes James to a gay bar to practice giving blow jobs - as if that and being sexually assaulted in prison are one and the same.

Also, James' wife (Alison Brie, of "Mad Men") is portrayed as a castrating gold digger, while a woman involved in T.I.'s gang with whom James sort of becomes involved is mostly utilized for sexual purposes. Darnell's wife (Edwina Findley) is the only woman portrayed sympathetically. For good measure, the picture throws in some jokes at the expense of Latinos as well.

In the end, James and Darnell begin to appreciate each other's merits and the filmmakers attempt to wrap up the movie with what appears to be a plea for tolerance. However, "Get Hard" is another in a long line of films - which also includes Adam Sandler's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" - that wants to have its cake and eat it too. In other words, the film wants to poke fun at all of its various minorities through the use of old stereotypes, but then asks the audience to be accepting of others. The film has a few laughs and, occasionally, some good intentions - but not enough to drown out its problematic elements.

Review: While We're Young

Image courtesy of A24.
Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young" is not only one of the director's funniest efforts to date, but also a film that could strike a certain chord with persons of a certain age. It combines the world-wary wisdom and sardonic humor that were the stock-in-trade of Baumbach's best films, "The Squid and the Whale" and "Greenberg," but it also displays the lighter touch from his lovely "Frances Ha."

In the film, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are Josh and Cornelia, a middle aged New York City-based couple who both work in documentary filmmaking. Josh received acclaim for his first film, but has been laboring away at a second documentary that seems to have gotten away from him and is taking 10 years to complete. Cornelia produces films directed by her father (Charles Grodin), a well-respected documentarian from the old guard.

While teaching a class on documentary films, Josh meets a younger couple - Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) - who ignite a spark in the older couple, who are the only pair in their middle aged circle of friends without children.

The dynamic between the older and younger couples is utilized for a number of funny sequences, including one in which Josh and Cornelia are seen tinkering with their various gadgets, while the hipsterish Jamie and Darby watch old VHS tapes at their apartment, read dog-eared paperback books and listen to Lionel Richie and Billy Ocean on vinyl. An outdoor beach party and a weekend retreat with a shaman are equally amusing.

But the film's comedic tour de force occurs when Josh attempts to pitch the idea for his film to a skeptical producer, which is followed by an equally funny sequence as the documentarian screens the six-and-a-half cut of his film to his father in law.

The film takes a slightly darker turn late in the proceedings that some have criticized as being unfairly harsh on millennials. I don't agree with these criticisms and believe that the finale, which is set against a tribute dinner for Grodin's character, aims to show how Josh is a true believer with standards, rather than being a tsk-tsking toward the younger generation.

As I've said, "While We're Young" is very funny, but it's also poignant as Josh and Cornelia discover that while rediscovering one's youthful tendencies can be fun, so can learning how to act one's age. Stiller brings the right amount of humor and pathos to his character, while Watts proves her abilities as a comedian - I doubt you'll forget her hip hop dance class sequence.

Although he has worked closely with Wes Anderson in years past, Baumbach has gradually become an heir apparent, of sorts, to Woody Allen. I can't think of another New York-based filmmaker who captures the lives and relationships of the city's denizens in such a truthfully humorous manner as well as he does. "While We're Young" is, ultimately, a film about artistic integrity, but also self-honesty - and it's one that rings true.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: The Gunman

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
Sean Penn appears to be following in the footsteps of Liam Neeson by making a middle-aged bid to be an action star in Pierre Morel's "The Gunman," a by-the-numbers international thriller that displays a decent amount of professionalism, but not much in the way of inspiration.

It's not a bad film and the talented cast - which also includes Idris Elba, Javier Bardem and Ray Winstone - does their best with a storyline that has been trotted out by Hollywood again and again - a once violent man attempts to reconcile his past, only to be drawn back into the world he escaped through one nefarious plot or another.

In the film, Penn plays Terrier, a former killer for hire who takes part in an assassination in the Congo at the film's beginning, causing that nation to plummet into chaos. Years later - and still feeling guilty about his former line of business - Terrier has returned to the Congo, but this time to assist an NGO. However, a group of seemingly random men attempt to kill him but, of course, fail.

Terrier seeks out his old crew, which includes Bardem as a shifty business man and Mark Rylance as the team's former leader. This whole scenario wouldn't be complete without the girl that got away, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), who is now married to Bardem's Felix. Elba plays an Interpol agent, while Winstone is an old pal of Terrier's who doesn't appear to mind when his friend calls in numerous favors.

Chekhov once stated that a gun in a play is there for a reason, namely that, at some point, it is going to be used. In this film, it's pretty safe to say when a climactic sequence is set at a bullfight in Barcelona, someone is likely to get gored.

And that's sort of the problem with "The Gunman," which is far from a bad movie, but is too familiar to set itself apart from the exact same types of films Neeson has been making in recent years, some of which have been good. Penn's character is able to get himself out of any jam, due to this particular set of skills, and most characters appear to have hidden agendas. It's the type of film where the hero takes on 10 men in an abandoned warehouse and you know he'll be the one to walk away.

Penn and the cast bring a certain level of gravitas to the material, which is thin, because they are a talented lot. Penn is one of the very best actors of his generation, so I'm sure he could elevate the action genre through his participation. I'm just hoping if he does another film of this type, it's one that's a little more distinctive than "The Gunman."

Review: Jauja

Image courtesy of The Cinema Guild.
Lisandro Alonso's "Jauja" is a strange historical epic that is equally hypnotic and lethargic. While I can't quite recommend it, the film has its share of merits and, at its best, casts a peculiar spell over the viewer.

The film is set in the 1880s in the sparsely populated region of Argentina known as Patagonia. Viggo Mortensen plays Captain Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish engineer who has come to the region, where the "Conquest of the Desert" is being carried out against the area's aboriginal population by the Argentine army, with his daughter, Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger).

Dinesen appears uncomfortable with the gruff Argentine soldiers, who make no attempts to mask their lusty feelings toward Ingeborg, and he tries to keep her at all times at arm's length. But one night, Ingeborg unexpectedly disappears with a young soldier, the two youths fleeing into the seemingly endless desert expanse. The rest of the film involves Gunnar's attempt to track them down, riding into the desert alone on a horse.

For those unfamiliar with Alonso's films, such as "Liverpool" and "Los Muertos," his work is punctuated by visual beauty and deliberately slow pacing. In fact, numerous shots are static images with virtually no movement taking place within the frame. In other words, viewers with little patience need not apply.

"Jauja" is an often beautiful film, but its story is so mannered and often slight that the hypnotic effect it creates only goes so far. Late in the film, there are some surreal developments as Gunnar stumbles upon a cave, where an older woman appears to live with a pair of twin beds. Whether this woman actually exists or is a mirage, of sorts, is left to the imagination.

And near the film's end, the action suddenly shifts unexpectedly to a seemingly modern day manor where the actress who plays Ingeborg roams about its grounds. Similar to the woman in the cave, there's no particular context, but the combination of these two sequences combined with the lush photography of Gunnar walking the deserts of Patagonia during the film's first half make for a somewhat dreamy experience. If the first two-thirds of the film had been as intriguing as its unusual culminating sequences, I might have warmed to "Jauja" a little more than I did.

All in all, the film is not a bad one. It's often entrancing, the visuals are beautiful and one can't help but be impressed that Mortensen can give a solid performance in two languages - Danish and Spanish. The pieces in "Jauja" do not come together, but it seems obvious that they are not necessarily meant to. The film is of the type I can appreciate, even if my overall feelings for it are lukewarm.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Review: It Follows

Image courtesy of Radius TWC.
Most of the best horror films offer something more than scares and bloodletting - and David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows" is easily one of the best of the genre in some time. Not only will it likely creep you the hell out, but it's thoughtful, provoking, even poignant at moments and stays in your memory long after you've left the theater.

Mitchell's first film was "The Myth of the American Sleepover," a Linklater-esque drama about a group of teens looking for connection during the course of the summer's last weekend in Michigan.
"It Follows," which makes great use of its Detroit and suburbs locales, is also primarily focused on teens - in fact, adults hardly ever make an appearance - but rather than using 1980s teen dramedies as its inspiration, it has turned toward the horror genre from that same era.

With an eerie synth score reminiscent of "Halloween," Mitchell's film has a touch of George Romero, a healthy dose of John Carpenter and, narratively, an aura and tone that somewhat resembles Herk Harvey's 1962 freak-out "Carnival of Souls." And yet, it has a mind, style and story all its own. It is, without a doubt, one of the more unique entries to its genre in some time.

The film opens with an unsettling sequence. A young woman runs from her home as if fleeing from something or someone, stops in the middle of the street, surveys the scene, runs back into her home, comes back out, drives away in her car and ends up on a beach, where she places a call to her family. Moments later, she is lying dead on the beach with her legs twisted grotesquely back. This is the film's only visually gruesome scene.

The story then follows Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who spends easygoing late spring days with her younger sisters and a few kids on their street as summer approaches. Mitchell has incorporated the laid back vibe of his earlier film during some of his sophomore picture's early scenes. Jay spends time with a young man named Hugh (Jake Weary), who takes her on a date to a movie that ends abruptly after something seems to have disturbed him. Not long afterward, they have sex in his car and then, shockingly, she awakens tied to a chair.

Hugh explains to her that he is being followed by a presence - always a person, but a shapeshifter that can take the form of a loved one or stranger - that moves slowly, but is always heading toward its intended victim. If the creature, let's call it, gets to you, it'll kill you. And the only way to rid yourself of it is to sleep with someone else, therefore passing the curse on to another. But if the person to whom you passed it is killed, then it comes back to you, so it's beneficial to warn the person with whom you've slept, so that they continue to pass it along. Although the film's central story revolves around sex, the filmmakers have thankfully not used it as a prudish warning against engaging in the act as many other horror films have done since the birth of the slasher film.

If this sounds convoluted, it's no matter. This is not a film in which plot is the most important element, unlike like the majority of American horror films. "It Follows," similar to last year's spellbinding "Under the Skin," uses genre as a format in which to ponder more philosophical matters.

Toward the film's end, which culminates with what is arguably an act of defiance, a character reads a passage from the book they've been toting around with them - Dostoevsky's "The Idiot." The quote involves the certainty of death and although I can't quote it exactly, this other passage from the same novel is applicable as well: "There is the sentence and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape and there is no torture in the world more terrible."

So, what exactly is the creature stalking Jay? It could be anything, but for the purpose of the film, it's arguably the loss of innocence or adulthood. Or even death itself. When one is young, it's difficult to imagine one's life coming to an end, although it inevitably does. "It Follows" is, ultimately, a film about facing down the things one cannot escape.

Aside from being more thoughtful than most of the other recent entries in its genre, "It Follows" is just flat-out scary. The burnt out and dilapidated neighborhoods of Detroit make for some creepy visuals and the unsettling score help to create a constant feeling of impending doom.

And the filmmakers have utilized an ingenious tactic by using tracking and long shot panoramas to allow viewers to spend much of the film searching the edges of the frame and trying to determine whether the slow moving beings heading toward the characters are everyday folks or, possibly, the creature taken another form. The film becomes a white knuckle experience, never giving the viewer a sense of catharsis, even for a second.

"It Follows" is the type of horror film to which all entries into the genre should aspire. It's the type of film that lingers in your memory long after you've seen it and will likely haunt you for days.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: Unfinished Business

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
I can only assume the title here is referring to the jokes that appear to be missing from the film. "Unfinished Business" is a comedy, so I'm told, but it's one that barely provokes a smile, much less a laugh. Vince Vaughn is a funny guy, so it's a shame to see him saddled with such a poor vehicle for his talents. Hopefully, his turn in this year's second season of "True Detective" will help to make it easier to forget this misfire.

In the film, Vaughn plays a businessman who confronts his cutthroat boss (Sienna Miller) during the opening sequence and storms out to create his own business, a la "Jerry Maguirre." But rather picking up a fellow employee and love interest, he nabs Tom Wilkinson's Timothy, who has been fired due to his age, and Mike Pancake (Dave Franco), who failed to impress during a job interview with Vaughn's company, most likely because he comes off as partially insane. Also, the repetition of Mike's last name is apparently meant to be a joke, which breaks Roger Ebert's First Law of Funny Names (look it up).

A year after forming their own company, the trio travel first to Maine and then to Germany to close a deal with a smarmy executive (James Marsden) and find themselves, not surprisingly, in direct competition with the company they all previously fled.

Meanwhile, Vaughn's family is seemingly falling to pieces in his absence. His son is being teased due to his weight and his daughter is having problems of her own. One of the script's biggest failings is its cross-cutting between the raunchy antics of Vaughn and his cohorts (a glory hole sequence, two drunk men slapping each other and a scene in a nude sauna) and the sappy scenes in which Vaughn attempts to deal with family issues. The problem is the raunchy scenes are not particularly funny and the dramatic ones are not persuasive.

In the film, Vaughn plays a variation of his basically decent guy in a midlife crisis, while Franco's character seems to be the Man Who Fell to Earth. Wilkinson, a great actor, is forced to play the dirty old man character and the best the script's writers appear to have been able to come up with for him is a role-playing scene with a maid that is more awkward than funny.

There are talented people involved in this film and my hope is they will move on to better things. "Unfinished Business" is an early contender for being one of the year's worst.

Review: Chappie

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Imagine if Johnny 5 had decided to run off with Los Locos in "Short Circuit 2" and you sort of have a sense of where "Chappie" is heading. In all seriousness, Neill Blomkamp's third feature has some intriguing ideas, so it's a shame that it is also filled with a number of unfortunate elements.

For starters, "Chappie" is not a bad film. There are some plot threads with which I could have done without, but the picture is competently made.

Set just shortly in the future, South Africa's police force has decided to use robot cops to patrol its streets, the result being a swift drop in crime. But Deon, the scientist who invented the robotic police force, wants to do more with his creation that simply use them for crime fighting tactics. He takes the body of one of the damaged droids and plugs into it a chip that will help it to develop its own mind. This robot, named Chappie, begins to have consciousness and think for itself, although its learning process is similar to that of a child.

Deon's boss - played by Sigourney Weaver - does not want him to help a robot have a mind of its own and his nemesis, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), has designed a more aggressive, military-type robot that Weaver's character believes is not appropriate for community policing.

And here's where "Chappie" begins to run a little off the rails. The robot is stolen by a group of thugs who plan to use him for robberies and strong-arming fellow criminals. They are played by South African hip hop group Die Antwoord, both of whom are covered in tattoos and look like characters straight out of a "Mad Max" movie. In the film, Blomkamp has made the strange choice to allow Ninja and Yo-Landi play themselves, a move that provides for some colorful moments, but just as often brings the proceedings to a halt. One nagging thought: What to make of Blomkamp's seeming obsession with having a majority of his characters wear mullets?

Vincent concocts an evil plan - because with what other type of plans do nemeses come up? - to shut down the city's robocop forces and use his own machine in their place. This move, of course, puts Deon, Chappie and his criminal pals in a very tight spot.

"Chappie" is a strange mixture of tones and genres. On the one hand, when Yo-Landi and Deon teach the robot how to paint or read a book, the picture almost feels like a movie aimed at kids. Then, there are the numerous action sequences, which start off violent and culminate with the killing of a fairly significant character in an extremely gruesome manner.

Blomkamp has some interesting ideas at play here as to what it means to have "consciousness," but he tries to throw in a somewhat happy ending, depending on your perspective, that feels like a bit more than a stretch.

I thought the director's first film, "District 9," was a very clever science fiction film that incorporated the theme of Apartheid, while "Elysium," though not as good, involved health care. "Chappie" is the weakest of his three films, despite some decent stand-alone moments. Aside from Patel's likable Deon, Chappie is likely the character with the most humanity in the film. Perhaps, the picture would have been a little better if the humans involved were better utilized.

Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Here's an example of a film that probably did not need to exist, but ends up being a pleasant surprise. Much of the success of "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," a sequel to the surprise 2011 hit, can be attributed to the cast, all of whom bring a certain level of professionalism and charm to material that is arguably flimsy.

In the first film, a group of British retirees travel to India and stay at the titular hotel, which is run by Sonny (Dev Patel), but then end up deciding to stay on permanently. In the sequel, Sonny is attempting to expand his operations by purchasing a building that he will convert into a second hotel. At the same time, he is planning his wedding to Sunaina (Tina Desai) and expectantly waiting for an inspector to arrive and determine whether the property will fall under the umbrella of a U.S. hotel chain operated by David Strathairn.

Muriel (Maggie Smith), the resident fusspot, is acting as co-owner with Sonny, while the other residents of the hotel have their own set of problems: Douglas (Bill Nighy) wants to take his "relationship" with Evelyn (Judi Dench), who nabs a job working with a textile company, to the next level.

Madge (Celia Imrie) is, as the song goes, torn between two lovers, while Norman (Ronald Pickup) attempts monogamy with a new girlfriend on whom, through strange circumstances, he ends up taking out a hit.

The issue with reviewing a film like "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" is that the picture takes characters from a previous movie, throws them into "situations" for the sake of creating a sequel and then tying together their various plot threads. In other words, if you've seen the first film, you pretty much know what you're getting and there's not much more to be said.

But in this case, what you get is pretty good. This sequel is far better than it should be, mostly due to the cast, which also includes Richard Gere, whom Sonny is convinced is the inspector. Smith combines the grouchy antics of her character with some genuine warmth, Patel is energetic, to say the least, and Nighy and Dench bring a certain amount of pathos. So, while "Second Best" may not bring much new to the table, it's an enjoyable, well made and worth a look.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Focus

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
It's nice to see Will Smith the Movie Star back after a series of not-so-great vehicles for his talents, including the overwrought "Seven Pounds," the forgettable "Men in Black 3" and the just-plain awful "After Earth." In "Focus," he gets to play the type of smooth operator he portrayed in "Hitch," but in a role that leans a little more on drama than comedy. That's not to say his work in the film is much of a stretch, but it's nice to see Smith appear once again in a film where he seems to be having a good time.

His character, Nicky Spurgeon, is a con man who excels both at the short con and the long game and he uses his skills to school a young woman named Jess (Margot Robbie, of "The Wolf of Wall Street"), who wants in on the action. The first half of the picture is cool and breezy as Nicky and his crew, which now includes Jess, travel to New Orleans and pickpocket, swindle and bamboozle folks during Mardi Gras. Their targets range from average Joes on the street to high roller gamblers.

On the one hand, it's difficult to believe that Nicky and company could be quite as good as they purport - and one particular con involving a famous Rolling Stones song, among other things, is a bit preposterous. And yet, it works because the film moves at a clip and the cast makes the characters believable even when the script takes absurd turns.

After their big con in New Orleans, three years pass, during which Nicky and Jess do not see each other. They both turn up in Buenos Aires, where Nicky is working with a wealthy - and potentially - dangerous man who invests in race cars, has a crew of heavies on staff and with whom, as it turns out, Jess is romantically involved. Coincidence? Take a guess.

Nicky and Jess get in over their heads and there are a few plot twists that will likely not surprise you as the film progresses toward its finale, which includes one twist I doubt you'll see coming.

There have been numerous con artist pictures over the years, including some very good ones ("Matchstick Men") and a handful of great ones ("The Grifters" and "House of Games)." "Focus" doesn't stack up against those films, but it's good entertainment. And while Smith has yet to make the film that will act as a reminder as to why he was once one of Hollywood's A-listers, this picture, at least, is a good start.