Reel Opinions

Saturday, March 28, 2015


At the beginning of Home, Earth is invaded by the Boov, a race of squat and squishy blob-like aliens who are constantly on the run from the much more threatening looking alien race known as the Gorg.  The Boov have decided to make Earth their new home/hiding place from the Gorg, so they relocate all of the humans into an amusement park-style internment camp set in the middle of the Australian Outback, and take over all of our major cities.

Anyone who just read that above paragraph could probably come up with a highly imaginative film just from that set up alone.  What do the humans think about all of this?  Heck, what are their response to the Boov, or their new home?  Where did the Boov come from?  Where did they live before they came to our planet?  Anyone who asks these kind of questions could have one heck of a movie on their hands.  But Home plays it safe.  Too safe, actually.  After the humans are abducted by giant tubes and dropped into their new home, we never really see them again until the end.  Instead, the movie focuses on Oh (voice by Jim Parsons from TV's The Big Bang Theory), a Boov outsider who only wants to make friends, but his efforts always seem to end in disaster.  His latest attempt (he wants to throw a housewarming party to celebrate his new apartment on Earth) has led to possible destruction for his very race.  He accidentally sent his party invitation out to all species of aliens in the galaxy, including the dreaded Gorg.  With the Gorg arriving, not only are the Boov not safe, but Earth probably won't last long either.

Oh is forced to go into hiding when the Boov leader, Captain Smek (Steve Martin), labels him a fugitive for his mistake.  While Oh is running from his own kind, he happens to run into a human girl named Gratuity "Tip" Tucci (voiced by recording artist Rihanna).  Young Tip looks to be about 12-years-old, which is why it's weird to hear the voice of the 27-year-old Rihanna coming out of her.  Not only does her voice not match the character's look, but she doesn't bring much enthusiasm to her performance.  Her presence is obviously only to provide another celebrity name to put on the film's poster.  But, I digress.  Tip was somehow able to avoid being abducted and sent to the camp when the Boov captured all the humans.  Her mother (Jennifer Lopez) was captured, however, and Tip is determined to find her.  The two team up to go on an adventure to both fix Oh's mistake, and find Tip's mom.  Saving the rest of humanity from their prison never really comes up, as they only seem interested in tracking down the mother.

So, we have a little girl and an alien becoming friends, and the girl teaching the alien about the importance of family and friendship, which he knows nothing about.  It takes a superhuman effort not to think of the much superior 2002 Disney animated film, Lilo and Stitch, while watching Home.  Even without that comparison, this movie comes across as something that is pleasant enough, but never really stands out in any way.  Home feels like it's been market tested to an inch of its life, from the celebrity casting, right down to the "hip" music soundtrack that plays during key scenes.  The movie is cute, and features a few moments that made me smile, but it also has the hollow feel of a corporate product.  It's been designed to be as safe and as inoffensive as possible.  I'm sure little kids will enjoy it, but it will do nothing for their imaginations like a great animated film can.  This movie will probably sell some toys, and be forgotten about in less than a year.

The only bright or inspired part of the film is Parsons' voice performance as the naive and lonely Oh, who has always been shunned by his fellow Boov, and eventually sees Tip as his first real friend.  He gives the character a child-like innocence, and his backward Yoda-like way of speaking is kind of cute.  There is also Tip's overweight cat, Pig, who never talks, yet still gets some of the best visual gags in the film.  Outside of these two elements, everything about Home is completely standard.  It's been widely reported that Dreamworks Animation has been in financial trouble, and was even forced to lay off most of its staff.  Movies like this that refuse to take any risk or chance whatsoever is probably a good indication as to why this happened.  From the miscast lead celebrity voice, to the writing, and even the visuals (the most important part of an animated feature), it feels like there was little imagination at work here.

I have no doubt the movie will be successful, as kids have been bombarded with advertising for it during the weeks leading up to its release.  It will make money, but wouldn't it be better for the studio to not only have a movie that makes money, but is also something imaginative and gets kids excited?  Couldn't hurt, is all I'm saying.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Get Hard

You can tell that Get Hard was largely improvised by its two stars, Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart.  The movie itself has little to no plot, and is basically built around a lot of scenes where the two comic actors are playing off each other.  There are some scenes where this approach works, and I found myself laughing.  But there are also moments that fall completely flat.  The end result is an uneven movie that works some of the time, and not so well the rest.

To be fair, this movie is a big improvement over some other recent adult-oriented comedies that I have sat through lately, like Unfinished Business and Hot Tub Time Machine 2.  The fact that the movie contains some actual laughs puts it in a league far above those two films.  Heck, if the movie only had one laugh, it would be seen as an improvement.  Fortunately, Farrell and Hart do play off of one another quite well, and create some funny rapid fire dialogue.  But sometimes, you can almost see them floundering as they try to make the material they have to do funny.  This is what ultimately holds back the film.  These guys can only do so much.  They need support from the script, and I don't think it's fully there.  The stuff that does work I credit to Farrell and Hart, as they almost seem to be making it up on the spot.  If director and co-writer Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) was smart, he would have just let the two stars rework the entire script on their own.

The set-up: Ferrell plays James King, your standard clueless character that Ferrell specializes in.  He's not breaking any comedic ground here, but he still gets laughs.  James is living the good life as a stockbroker.  He has a huge mansion, a materialistic fiance (Alison Brie), and a boss (and future father-in-law) played by Craig T. Nelson who is preparing to make him a business partner.  Most of the laughs in the early part of the film comes from James' narrow view of the world, and just how wrong he is about everything and everyone around him.  On the other end of the spectrum is Darnell (Hart), a poor working class family man who needs money to get his car wash business off the ground, and put his young daughter in a better school.  The two men seem destined to never truly cross paths (other than a funny awkward encounter in a parking garage early on), but then fate steps in when James is busted by some federal agents for fraud.

James says he is innocent, and believes that the truth will come out, but the judge winds up throwing the book at him, and sentences him to 10 years in San Quentin.  He has 30 days to get his affairs in order before he has to report to prison.  It's around this time that James and Darnell have another run-in with each other, and James offers to pay him if he will help him get ready for prison life.  James is under the mistaken impression that because Darnell is black and he talked about what it's like in San Quentin, that he has served hard time.  Darnell needs the money in order to give his family a better life, so he goes along with it.  As far as comedy premises go, this one's kind of stretching it, but Ferrell and Hart have an easy comedic chemistry with each other, and I enjoyed watching them trading one liners.  Some of the scenes depicting James going through Darnell's "training" for life in a maximum security prison is actually hilarious, especially when he turns James' sprawling mansion into a makeshift prison, with James' staff and servants serving as other inmates or brutal guards.

The scenes where we get to enjoy the interplay between the two leads are what works here.  Unfortunately, there are just as many scenes that either land with a deafening thud, or just aren't funny to begin with.  A good example would be a scene where Ferrell is forced to give a blow job to a random stranger in a bathroom as part of his training.  The scene goes on far too long, and just never builds to any real laugh.  There's also a moment where Ferrell tries to blend in with a white supremacist biker gang that also seems stretched out without really going anywhere.  These scenes seem like set up set pieces provided by the screenplay, and the actors just don't know how to make it work.  This would have been a better movie if it just focused on the offbeat relationship of the two main characters, and did not have to include any outside elements, like the tacked on action climax where the characters try to clear James' name.

Get Hard works from time to time, but it never goes that extra mile and builds into something really special.  We want to see these two leads attached to a better script, one that would be better suited to their improv talents.  The laughs they do get are genuine ones, but it never goes deeper than just one liners.  We never sense a real friendship growing between these two guys.  They sometimes come across as a couple of stand up comedians practicing the shtick together.  It's certainly not bad shtick, but we're still left wanting more.  We want the movie to step in and give these guys real characters to play, and it never does.  There's a promise of this in some scenes, such as when Darnell invites James to his home for dinner, but it never builds to anything satisfying.

I will say that I did enjoy parts of this movie, but not enough to fully recommend it, and I constantly felt like there should be even more to it.  The actors do the very best they can with this material, and probably give it more than it deserves.  Should this movie prove to be a hit with audiences, it will be entirely thanks to them.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Gunman

Sean Penn seldom makes a movie, so what possessed him to do The Gunman?  More precisely, what possessed him to also co-produce and co-write it?  This is a lethargic, haphazard and derivative thriller that generates no interest in its plot or characters.  It seems to exist simply as a vanity project for Penn, and an opportunity to show off his chiseled 54-year-old body at every opportunity.

This is not an escapist or fun action movie.  It's dire, depressing and gory.  I have no problem with an action movie wanting to take itself seriously, but it often helps if you give a damn about the people who are getting their heads blown off, or gored on the horns of a bull.  Nobody in this movie gets to create anything resembling a real person.  They're too busy looking tortured, sad and miserable before they wind up brutally murdered.  The film kicks off with Penn playing Jim Terrier, who at first seems to be a NGO security consultant in the Congo enjoying a fling with a pretty young doctor named Annie (Jasmine Trinca).  Turns out Jim is leading a double life, as he and his other friends who work alongside him are secretly hired killers working for evil mining corporations that want their opposition dead.  Jim pulls off an assassination, and then must flee the Congo without telling Annie why, or the truth about himself.

Flash forward eight years later, and we find Jim back in the Congo trying to repent for his past sins by working as an aid and digging wells for poor villagers.  That's when some hitmen show up and attempt to kill him.  He gets them first, but he quickly realizes that someone from his past is trying to silence him.  Looking for answers, Jim must reunite with some of his former partners, and a variety of shadowy individuals, who are played by the likes of Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone and Mark Rylance.  He is also reunited with Alice (who is now married to Bardem's character), and attempts to rekindle things while he's running around, killing the people who are trying to kill him.  All this, and he also has to deal with a dangerous brain condition that seems to be slowly killing him.

The Gunman is long and dragged out, with lengthy stretches where nothing much happens.  There are also quite a lot of scenes that require Penn to take off his shirt, or show off his arms, just so he can show us how in shape he is for his age.  A still photo of Penn in a magazine would have the same effect.  We don't need this movie to show us that.  It's not that I don't understand the appeal it would have for Penn to reinvent himself as an action star at this point in his career, similar to what Liam Neeson did with the original Taken.  In fact, Penn even hired the director of that movie to direct this one.  But the reason why Taken worked with most audiences is that the movie did a good job of showing Neeson as someone not to mess with.  This movie paints Penn's character as being so bland and personality-deprived, we just don't care.

The action sequences, which should be the highlight, are also instantly forgettable, and look like a lot of the stuff we saw in the Bourne films.  So, what does that leave us with?  Not much, I'm afraid.  The characters are written at the most basic level, and not even the romantic relationship between Penn and Trinca generates much heat.  No matter how the movie forces them together and tries to convince us they're a hot item, the chemistry remains at bay.  This is a flaccid movie all around, with nothing that grabs our attention.  I have no problem with Penn wanting to do something that makes him out to be an action star, but why this one?  He must get better scripts than this every day.  What drove him to this particular project?

I will never know the answer, obviously, so I will just chalk The Gunman up as a momentary lapse of logic on his part, and hope that he's a bit more choosy with what he gets involved in next time.  I'm sure he has much more interesting projects lined up in the future, and I'm also sure this will become a curious footnote in a continuing career before too long.

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When Divergent came out one year ago, I wrote that the film featured "some interesting ideas, and a compelling futuristic world".  My hope was that the second installment, Insurgent, would build on that promise.  And while the film is certainly watchable, it feels like a step down from the first.  Instead of building upon or expanding on the world and characters introduced in the first, we get a very standard "second movie", which raises more questions than answers, and seems to exist solely to kill some time until the third installment (which will be split into two films) hits.

Instead of allowing us to learn more about the characters who sparked our interest last time, this time the plot is much more of a straight-forward action film, and based around some kind of box that apparently holds a message from the original founders of the futuristic society that the characters live in.  The evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) gains possession of the box early in the film, and thinks it will help her with her plan to rule over the other factions in the post-apocalyptic Chicago that serves as the film's setting.  Unfortunately, only a Divergent (someone who holds all five virtues that the society builds itself on) can open it.  For anyone who saw the last movie, there will be no prizes for guessing who the mystery Divergent that can open the box is. 

Speaking of our young Divergent heroine, Tris (once again played by the likable Shailene Woodley), she is on the run after the climax of the last film, where she witnessed her parents and many of her friends get killed during Jeanine's attempt to overthrow part of the futuristic society.  Joining her is her love interest Four (Theo James), her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and the slimy Peter (Miles Teller), who changes allegiances so many times at the drop of a hat during the course of the film, he comes across more as a tool of the screenplay than a thought-out character.  The young heroes find a safe haven where they can hide from the forces hunting them, so Tris decides to symbolize leaving her old life behind by cutting off her hair.  She joins a long list of female characters in movies who have cut their hair to symbolize moving on with their lives, or starting over.  Of course, any woman can probably tell you that cutting your own hair and not making it look like it was done with a lawn mower is easier said than done.

In order to fight back against the forces pursuing them, Tris might have to make an allegiance with Four's mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts), who was thought to be dead, and is building a resistance army.  But can she be trusted?  If this plot sounds a little slight to you, that's probably because it is.  The movie tries to pad out this thin premise to two hours by throwing in a lot of recaps of the first movie's plot, more than we probably need.  We get flashbacks, Tris' nightmares about the tragic climax of the last film, and even a scene where Tris and Four are forced to take a truth serum, and recap the events of the last movie to a group of people who think they're fugitives at first.  While I was never exactly bored watching it, I could tell there were many moments where the three credited screenwriters were just killing time, and trying to stretch out the plot.  If the first movie introduced us to this world and these characters, then Insurgent exists simply to bide time before the (hopefully) more interesting events in the third and fourth films.

That's not to say nothing works here.  There are some good action sequences staged here, particularly during the film's last hour, where Tris must go through a series of trials.  In fact, I would say that the action sequences are pretty much the main emphasis this time around, since the characters don't get a lot of opportunities to stand out here.  We don't really learn anything new about them, and relationships are not advanced much past the point where we left them at the end of Divergent.  Tris spends most of her screen time haunted by events in the last movie, and aside from getting a PG-13 sex scene with Four, doesn't get to do much we didn't see before.  Naomi Watts gets some good scenes as new character Evelyn, but the ending of this movie definitely hints that her best moments are ahead.  And then there is Kate Winslet, who memorably played against type as an icy cold wannabe tyrant in the first movie, but here is given little to do.  It really is disappointing.  The first film set her up as a great villain, and then she barely gets to make an impression here.

I would label Insurgent as a movie that disappoints, but still manages to remain on its feet somewhat.  I definitely wanted the movie to flesh out the characters more, and we also get to see very little of the intriguing world the movie is set in.  But, I certainly wouldn't label it as a disaster either.  The characters and performances are still likable, even if they seem a little short changed this time around.  Some of the actors even manage to rise above their slight characters from time to time.  Miles Teller gets a couple laughs as the sarcastic and opportunistic Peter.  And even if their relationship seems a lot more hollow than last time, Shailene Woodley and Theo James do have some kind of romantic spark.  It's definitely hindered by a script that doesn't seem to care much about it, however.  It's the actors that create any chemistry that is there on the screen. 

My hope is that the final two films will go back to fleshing out these characters and making them as interesting as they appeared to be when they were introduced to us.  I'm not writing this series off quite yet, but it is showing signs of frailty.  There are a lot of good actors and some good ideas in this franchise, and hopefully they get the chance to stand out more in the next installment.

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Run All Night

The opening scene of Run All Night shoots the movie in the foot right from the word go, putting its audience in a hopeless mood.  Then, little by little, the movie improves, and I started to get involved in the story it was telling.  And then, just when I think it's going to work, the movie again slips up and never quite recovers.  While it is well made and more than watchable, the movie fails to live up completely to the promise it has when it really works.

Let's talk about that opening scene.  The movie makes the mistake of using a flashback structure, and it kicks off right in the middle of the ending scene.  Even though we have no real idea toward the finer details of what's going on, the images and the voice over by Liam Neeson all but spells out how this story is going to end.  I'm not going to go into any detail of the content of that scene, but it's a move from which the film never quite recovers.  Lose the flashback structure, and we might have cared more about these characters.  The story proper begins the previous day from the opening scene, and we are introduced to the latest tortured and violent character in Neeson's resume, Jimmy Conlon.  Jimmy was once a feared hitman working for his friend and crime boss, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris).  Now, he's pretty much lost everything, except for his friendship with Shawn.

Jimmy has an adult son who has written him out of his life, and wants nothing to do with the world of violence and crime that his father lives in.  That son is Michael (Joel Kinnaman), who is trying to build a decent life for his wife and two young daughters.  He tried his hand at being a professional boxer once, but his career never took off, so he works now as a limo driver.  While working one night, Michael happens to witness a murder pulled off by Shawn's son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook).  Michael goes on the run, but Danny tracks him down and tries to kill him.  Jimmy gets to Danny first, shooting him dead, and now Shawn wants revenge on both Jimmy and Michael for the death of his son.  There are dirty cops everywhere, with the only good one in the film being played by Vincent D'Onofrio, and he's been looking for an excuse to throw Jimmy behind bars for years, so he won't listen to them.  Michael will have to rely on his father's expertise in the crime world if he wants to survive and keep his family safe.

The stuff that works in Run All Night are the scenes concerning the relationship between Jimmy and Michael.  This is not really a film where the son realizes his father has loved him all along, and the two reconcile.  Rather, this is a film about two people who have been distant with each other all their lives, and are forced to rely on each other.  Neeson and Kinnaman are both very good individually, and share some great scenes together early on when the movie is focused on them.  These are fascinating characters, and I also enjoyed the relationship between Jimmy and Shawn.  The two men, made enemies due to recent events, obviously have a lot of respect for each other, and both obviously wish they knew another way to handle the situation they're in.  The movie creates some complex character relationships here, and the dark and tragic characters kind of reminded me of the Neeson film from last fall, A Walk Among the Tombstones, which I enjoyed.  When the movie felt like it was going down the same path as that film, I was intrigued.

But then, the movie starts to resemble a junky car flying down the highway, with the individual parts flying off.  Little by little, it loses what was making it work for so long, and just becomes one long chase picture.  Just when we start really getting behind these characters, the script goes on auto pilot, and can't think of anything to do with them except have them engage in one shoot out or car chase after another.  My heart began to sink right around this point.  The movie was starting to pick itself up after fumbling so badly in the opening, and I was really looking forward to finding out what would happen to these characters.  Turns out all I had to look forward to were some action sequences that are handled well, but don't exactly excite because there's nothing new about them.  They follow the age-old formula where the bad guys can't hit the broad side of a barn, while the heroes never miss.  This is another movie where the bullets have read the screenplay in advance, and only hit a person when it is required.

If only the movie had kept up the character-heavy direction it seemed to be going in early on, I wouldn't mind so much.  But eventually, it gets to the point that the characters are running around and shooting at each other so much that they barely have time to say two words to each other.  The movie never really offends, and has obviously been made by experts in the genre, but you still wish they didn't sell themselves short when it seemed to be going so well for a while.  And because I lost interest, I started to notice little details.  For example, the movie is set in New York City at Christmas time, a time of year where you can barely turn a street corner without seeing lights strung up everywhere.  Heck, even the street side hot dog vending carts are draped with decorations.  And yet, only the inside of buildings are decorated.  There's a scene where Liam Neeson is driving through Times Square, and we don't see a single Christmas decoration up.  It may not seem like a huge deal, but anyone who's been to that part of Manhattan at Christmas will find that image hard to swallow.

The saddest part is Run All Night could have easily worked if the screenplay had just been tweaked a little.  Drop the opening scene, keep the character relationships strong throughout the entire film, and maybe trim the running time a little (at roughly two hours, it feels a little long), and you'd have a really good movie.  There is a lot to like here, but it makes a few too many mistakes for me to fully recommend it.  It's definitely a close call, though.

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In bringing the 1950 animated film of Cinderella to live action, what director Kenneth Branagh has essentially done is given us an unapologetic Disney fairy tale with modern day visuals.  It doesn't have a cynical or ironic bone in its cinematic body.  It's not a satire like Enchanted, and it's not a reinvention like Maleficent. It's a total fairy dust, "talking" mice (well, they communicate through squeaks, anyway) movie.

That's not to say there haven't been any improvements to the story.  Cinderella's Wicked Stepmother (played with the right amount of cold menace by Cate Blanchett) has a little more motivation for acting the way she does toward Cinderella, without coming across as sympathetic.  We still feel happy when she gets her comeuppance at the end.  As for Cinderella herself (played by Lily James from TV's Downton Abbey), she is still incredibly sweet and kind, without being cloying.  We sense a lot of strength in James' performance.  She's not a pushover.  She has moments of weakness, and there are also some moments where she takes matters into her own hands, while still remaining the character that young girls for generations have fallen in love with.  The biggest improvement here is the Prince (Richard Madden from Game of Thrones), who was a total non-entity in the original film, but is fleshed out here, given a personality, and even a sweet secondary relationship with his ailing King father (Derek Jacobi), leading to some genuinely emotional moments.

Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy) have found the perfect balance between staying true to traditional Disney storytelling, and updating it just enough to give a reason for this remake's existence.  We get a lot more backstory this time focused on young Ella's time with her mother (Hayley Atwell), who teaches her young daughter to "have courage and be kind", until an illness takes her away from her family.  Along with her father (Ben Chaplin), Ella lives a comfortable life, until father remarries with Lady Termaine, who brings along her two vain and idiotic daughters, Drizella (Sophie McShera, also from Downton Abbey) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger).  Another new addition to the story is that we get to see more of the relationship between the father and his new wife, and also get a sense that father comes to realize that he has made a mistake with time.  However, before anything can be done, her father leaves on a business-related trip, falls ill during his travels and succumbs.

From here, the movie follows the path we expect, with Lady Termaine reducing young Ella to being a servant girl in her own home, and the girl earning the nickname Cinderella from her cruel stepsisters.  There are still some new elements to be found even here, however.  Ella and the Prince get a scene together before they meet at the ball, and there's also a bit of royal intrigue, with a scheming Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) trying to force the Prince to marry out of convenience for the kingdom, instead of love.  However, all the expected story beats are here, including the arrival of the Fairy Godmother (played by a surprisingly subdued Helena Bonham Carter, who wisely does not overplay the role), and Ella's grand arrival at the ball.  The movie has a strong understanding of what has made the animated film resonate with young girls over the years, respects it, and does absolutely nothing to tarnish its memory.  All the changes or additions here have been made to better the story.

What makes this version of Cinderella stand out the most, however, is the visual style that has been brought to it.  This is the first film of 2015 that can be described as "beautiful", as the costumes and sets are truly first rate in every regard.  Kenneth Branagh has long been known for his lavish looking films, and this is no exception.  The design of the carriage that takes Ella to the ball is a beautiful marvel, as are the costumes worn during the dance itself.  The movie has a wonderful sense of lighting, grand sets, and a lot of scenes that grab your attention just from the way they have been shot.  My only hope is that this movie isn't coming out so early in the year that it will not be remembered for some technical recognition when it is Award time again early next year.

More than the actual movie itself, most children are probably excited about the 7-minute cartoon short reuniting the characters form 2013's animated mega-blockbuster, Frozen, that plays before the movie.  Titled Frozen Fever, the short film is a sweet and funny addition, but in no way overshadows the main attraction.  Those who come for the film mainly to see the cartoon before it may be surprised that they find themselves liking the main feature just as much, if not more.  That being said, it's a welcome add-on to the movie, and should be just enough to keep kids excited about the Frozen sequel that was announced officially just a couple days ago.  The new cartoon is pretty slight overall, but it has plenty of charm, and it's great to see the memorable characters back together again.

With more live action remakes of Disney animated films already announced (including The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo), I can only hope that the filmmakers will use Cinderella as a guidance tool as to how to stick with traditions, while also creating a new experience.  This is certainly a perfect template to follow, and hopefully is the start of of what will be a strong series.

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Unfinished Business

Here is a real sad sack of a movie.  Nobody looks like they had fun while they were making it.  The movie is lifeless and gloomy.  Even the screenplay credited to Steve Conrad (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) can barely muster any enthusiasm for itself, and is built of a bunch of scenes where little to nothing happens.  Unfinished Business just kind of sits there, looking at its feet for 90 minutes, and then quietly asks us to leave.

The ad campaign for the movie is a total bait and switch.  The trailers would like you to believe that this is a raunchy comedy with Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson and Dave Franco playing uptight guys who cut loose during a business trip to Germany, and get into a lot of crazy alcohol-fueled situations inspired by The Hangover.  What you should know is that all those scenes of the characters partying is taken from a five minute montage that happens about 70 minutes into the film.  What the movie really is, or at least wants to be, is a heartfelt drama about Vaughn as a concerned dad trying to help his overweight preteen son overcome the bullies at school who are harassing him on line.  He's on this business trip to Germany so he can sign a deal that will give him the money to send his kid to a private school.  There are some attempts at humor during the trip, but every single joke falls flat.  There's not a single laugh to be had.  Believe me, I counted.

The opening scene seems to be inspired by Jerry Maguire, with a man named Dan Trunkman (Vaughn) telling off his cold as ice boss (Sienna Miller) after she gives him a 5% pay cut, and walking out of his job, vowing to start his own company and compete with her.  Only two of the other employees at the company agree to join up with his start-up business.  One of them is Timothy (Tom Wilkinson), a somewhat bitter and unhappily married old man who constantly dreams about having sex with a woman in a 'wheelbarrow position" and won't shut up about it.  The other is Mike Pancake (Dave Franco), a fresh-faced kid who, if only he was a little bit smarter, could be considered a moron.  I hope you find the fact that Mike's last name is Pancake funny, because it's one of the most repeated gags in the film.

A lot of the movie hangs on the chemistry between these three guys, and the actors have none.  It's not that they're not trying, they just seem kind of defeated by the material they've been given.  Vaughn and Wilkinson, in particular, seem tired and unfocused.  As for Franco, he seems to be trying, but really comes off as annoying instead of funny.  His performance rubbed me the wrong way from the moment he walked on screen, and considering that he's supposed to be the comedic highlight of the film, that's a very bad sign.  The movie follows the three guys as they try to make a deal with a much bigger corporation.  They fly out to Portland, Maine first, and then to Germany.  The movie makes it a point to note that the heroes have no money left, so how they are affording these flights and hotels, I have no idea.

As the guys go about on the business trip, Vaughn's character is constantly interrupted by his problems at home.  He has two kids, one who is being bullied, and the other a girl who keeps on getting in fights at school.  His wife is basically a non-entity, and only exists to call him and talk about what's going on with the kids multiple times a day.  There is an attempt at a subplot where Vaughn begins to realize he should be at home more for his kids, but it doesn't go anywhere.  Nothing in this movie goes anywhere.  This is the sort of movie that throws in a scene where the three heroes walk into a gay bar to look for a business client, and it forgets to have anything funny or racy happen.  Oh, we get a scene built around a "glory hole" in the bathroom of the bar, but again, nothing happens. 

Unfinished Business certainly feels unfinished on just about every level.  It delivers no laughs, the dramatic moments are schmaltzy, and everybody within it seems to just be cashing a paycheck so they can wipe this movie off their resumes as quick as possible.  Everybody involved with this seems to hope no one will notice it, so you should grant their wish and save your money.

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Saturday, March 07, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Call it truth in advertising, but as the title suggests, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel really does lag a little bit behind 2012's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  That's not to say it's bad, as it's not at all.  The movie is quite charming and funny, actually.  It just feels a bit more contrived really, which may be due to the fact that the original film was intended as a stand-alone story.  Like a lot of unplanned sequels, the movie sometimes has trouble finding ways to carry on the plot.  But the charm of the performances, as well as some genuinely funny dialogue, more than makes up for any shortcomings.

The film continues the story of an assortment of British retirees living in a retirement hotel in India, and how the experiences there have changed their lives.  As this story kicks off, the hotel's youthful and enthusiastic owner, Sonny (Dev Patel), has traveled to America with his curmudgeonly partner, Muriel (Maggie Smith), in the hopes of striking a deal that will expand their franchise to a second building.  They meet with an executive (an underused David Strathairn), who is interested in the business deal, and states that he will send someone disguised as a guest at the hotel to examine the building and its management before he will agree to work with their expansion plan.  Shortly after Sonny and Muriel return to India, a charming new guest checks in - an American by the name of Guy Chambers (Richard Gere).  He claims he's trying to start his life over and write the novel he's always dreamed of, but Sonny is convinced that Guy is the man sent to examine the building, and so he sets out to give him the royal treatment.

There are a lot of subplots to go with this one, perhaps too many.  The main one concerns Sonny and his fiance, Sunaina (Tena Desae) making their final wedding plans.  It's around this time that a handsome man from Sunaina's past (Shazad Latif) suddenly walks back into her life, and (at least to Sonny) seems to be trying to charm Sonny's future bride.  We also get some individual plots for each of the retirees living at the hotel.  Douglas (Bill Nighy) and Evelyn (Judi Dench) are continuing their shy and slow relationship, still afraid to admit their feelings for each other.  When Evelyn gets a job that will require her to travel, Douglas is not sure what to do or say to her.  It gets even more complicated when Douglas' former wife, Jean (Penelope Wilson), shows up wanting him to sign divorce papers, and he has to deal with that as well. Former ladies man, Norman (Ronald Pickup) is trying to settle down with his new love, Carol (Diana Hardcastle), but he fears she might not be faithful to him.  Finally, Madge (Celia Imrie) is caught in a love triangle of sorts, and must decide where her heart lies.

The main difference between Second Best and the first movie is that the original was a simple and heartfelt movie about a group of people who thought life had passed them by, and discovered they could all have a second chance at either life or relationships.  This movie takes a much more convoluted and almost sitcom-like approach to its plot.  It's full of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and contrived situations that only exist simply because the characters don't say the one or two words it would take to fix the misunderstanding.  Ordinarily, I would find this infuriating, but returning screenwriter Ol Parker wisely does not play the situations too broadly.  These still feel like the same charming people we fell in love with in the first movie.  Even if the situations they're in don't ring as genuine as they did the last time, they're still entertaining to watch, because the cast is filled with old pros.

Could actors like Dench, Smith, Nighy and Gere play these kind of characters in their sleep?  Undoubtedly.  Fortunately, they don't appear to be bored, and give their portrayals as much life as possible.  Dench and Smith, in particular, get some wonderful moments where they exchange witty banter and insults during their scenes together.  Who else but Maggie Smith could deliver lines like, as when she describes her trip to America, "I went with low expectations, and I was still disappointed" with a kind of direct honesty that makes you fall in love with her even more?  It's the cast that carries this admittedly unnecessary sequel, and makes it charming.  From Patel's constant enthusiasm and optimism, to the quieter charms of Nighy and Dench, there's not a single performance that's off.  Even Richard Gere, who kind of sticks out from the mostly British cast, gets a few sweet moments as he starts a relationship with Sonny's mother.

This is a case of a sequel that did not really need to be made, but you're glad they did anyway.  There's still enough warmth and humor to carry this idea through another movie, so while it may be an unnecessary sequel, it's not an unwelcome one.  I may even welcome a third visit to these characters.  Maybe.

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