Monthly Archives: January 2015

Ding-Dong Dud

The giggles come with groans in latest Kevin Hart comedy


The Wedding Ringer

Starring Kevin Hart, Josh Gad & Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting

Directed by Jeremy Garelick


Kevin Hart is a funny guy, with chops honed from years in comedy clubs, manic energy and a rat-a-tat-tat sense of timing and delivery that turns even so-so punch lines into zingers. It’s just too bad he still hasn’t found a movie worthy of his skills and talent.

The Wedding Ringer, a raunchy bro-mantic comedy that had been bumping around several movie companies for over a decade before finally getting made and released, stars Josh Gad (the voice of Olaf the snowman from Frozen) as Doug, a workaholic tax attorney with wedding bells in his future and the depressing prospect of no best man and no groomsmen. Poor Doug is a likeable schlub, but he just doesn’t have any friends.

Who’s he gonna call? Well, lucky for him, there’s Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart), a professional best-man-for-hire who gives sad-sack grooms all the down-the-aisle fakery, including groomsmen, money can buy.

That’s the setup for a series of comedic pre-wedding misadventures, some of which seem awfully familiar (because we’ve seen them before), along with some other, more unique detours. Jock humor? Check. Gay jokes. Oh, yes. Bachelor party with a stripper? Of course. A gag involvingJosh Gad;Affion Crockett peanut butter, a basset hound and someone’s private parts? Uh-huh. Depending on your disposition, you’ll either be chuckling or groaning, and likely some of both.

Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, best known as Penny on TV’s The Big Bang Theory, plays Doug’s finance, Gretchen, whose sweetness soon turns sour, in a one-dimensional part that exists only to be steamrolled flat by the Hart-Gad comedy express. Here’s hoping she gets another crack at another, fuller, better role in another, better movie, soon.

But Cuoco-Sweeting gets first-class treatment compared to what happens to Cloris Leachman. The Oscar-winning actress, who appears as Gretchen’s elderly grandmother, literally goes up in flames during a family dinner. Here’s hoping she gets another part in a film that doesn’t roast her like a Thanksgiving turkey, and then keep joking about it for the rest of the movie.

Josh Gad;Kaley Cuoco;Mimi Rogers

Doug (Josh Gad) sweats out his predicament between his soon-to-be mother-in-law (Mimi Rogers) and his bride-to-be (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting).

The very idea of the movie is preposterous, but you can’t really bash it for that. Its most loathsome offense is its premise that neither men nor women are trustworthy, that both sexes are schemers and losers—a toxic taint of mistrust and misogyny that makes every joke, even the funny ones, land with a jaded thud.

If you’re in a generous mood, you might gravitate to the movie’s subtext of male friendships, or note the (relative) subtlety and sly grace of Olivia Thirlby, as Grechen’s younger sister, who almost susses out Doug and Jimmy’s ruse. And you might smile, and rightfully so, at the song-and-dance sequence into which Doug and Jimmy break when they crash someone else’s wedding party, with the camera circling around and over them, a joyous surprise outburst of moves, grooves and high spirits that seems to come…well, from some other movie entirely.

A better movie.

Here’s hoping that, for Hart and everyone else, their next projects, whatever they are, have better rings to them than this ding-dong dud.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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‘American Sniper’ aims for entertainment & something deeper


American Sniper

Starring Bradley Cooper & Sienna Miller

Directed by Clint Eastwood


If you were one of the millions of people who read Chris Kyle 2012 bestseller American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, you might have thought, “That’d make a great movie!”

Steven Spielberg, thought so, too, and wanted to direct it. Bradley Cooper, who’d already ventured into executive roles with his Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, agreed, and wanted to produce it—and wanted Chris (Guardians of the Galaxy) Pratt to star in it.

But in Hollywood, things don’t always end up the way they start out. Spielberg decided to take a pass, and Clint Eastwood stepped in. And Cooper decided not only to produce, but also to play the leading role of the highly decorated U.S. Navy SEAL, who killed more than 160 “hostiles” during four tours of duty in the Iraq War—before his life took its own ironically tragic turn.

TA3A6997.dngIt would have no doubt been different, with a different director and a different leading man, but it’s hard to imagine it being much more successful, dramatically stronger or more emotionally visceral. Eastwood and Cooper both bring their A games for this taut, tense, terse drama that depicts Kyle’s trajectory from Texas good ol’ boy to one of the military’s most effective killing machines, as it also bites down hard on the psychological effects of war, violence and combat that linger long after the fighting is over.

Cooper is an undeniably versatile actor; he’s done serious drama as well broad comedy. But this role is unlike anything he’s ever undertaken, requiring him to bulk up with 30 pounds of muscle and take on a vowel-stretching Lone Star drawl to play Kyle, who knocked around as a rodeo cowboy before enlisting in the SEALs after watching TV coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.


Sienna Miller

Sienna Miller plays his frustrated wife, Taya, who watches helplessly as her husband wrestles with emotional demons she can’t fathom each time he returns home from a tour.

Eastwood, 84, is a Hollywood icon best known as for his portrayal of a “hall of fame” of iconic cowboys, cops and other classic characters—but he’s also directed more than 30 movies, beginning back in the early 1970s, for which he’s won two Oscars.

Working with his longtime cinematographer Tom Stern, he sets up every shot with solid, no-nonsense precision. Every detail feels right: the paint on the scope of Kyle’s rifle, worn away by thousands of minute focusing adjustments; the makeshift U.S. outposts on the outskirts of Fallujah or Sadr City, where the plywood on the barracks for the troops looks so fresh you can almost smell it; the quick red splatters of blood, which splash across the bleached-out, blanched background tones like crimson punctuation marks, whenever Kyle’s aim is true.

Kyle’s reputation as a deadly marksman makes him feared among the Iraqi opposition—and highly valued as a trophy. Other snipers, including one known as Mustafa, have their sights trained on him. And then there’s a shadowy terrorist henchman, the Butcher, whose torture instrument of choice is a power drill. Be warned: There’s one particularly harrowing scene, involving an hysterical Iraqi family, whizzing bullets, dueling snipers, Kyle’s wife on a cell phone, a growling dog, and the Butcher and his drill. Eastwood doesn’t rub your nose in it for any longer than necessary, but it’s a terrifying reminder of atrocities of war.

“It’s a heck of a thing to stop a beating heart,” Kyle tells his young son, taking him on his first hunting trip, making him understand that killing anything is not to be taken lightly. Is American Sniper pro-war or antiwar? Is a sniper a hero, or just a soldier doing his lethal job? Where’s the line between civilization and savagery during wartime, and what’s the price of walking it? Can there ever be enough good to overcome evil? Eastwood wants viewers to watch, think and decide. American Sniper aims for entertainment as well as something even deeper, and hits its mark.

 —Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Marching Across Time

‘Selma’ connects past and present at pivotal civil rights flashpoint


David Oyelowo (second from left) stars as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Selma’


Starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo & Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Ava DuVernay


It depicts events that happened half a century ago, but the drumbeat—and the heartbeat—of the present pounds loud and clear in Selma.

Set in the weeks leading up to March 1965, it’s a moving, powerful portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King and his passionate work to turn back the toxic tide of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans, especially in the South.

British actor David Oyelowo does a phenomenal job as King, conveying the combustive cocktail of faith, focus, outrage, diplomacy and drive that fueled his mission leading up to the “peaceful protest” marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to bring national attention to voting rights. His King is no martyred saint, but a charismatic, pragmatic leader who can take sit-down meetings with the President in the White House, as well as a husband, father and family man trying to keep his own “house” from crumbling from pressures inside and out.


Carmen Ejogo plays King’s wife, Coretta.

A scene in which King’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo, also terrific), confronts him over his well-known infidelities is a masterfully staged, perfectly written and expertly performed moment in which the silence becomes as important as—and even more weighty than—the words.


Oprah Winfrey plays a civil rights activist.

The protests at the heart of the movie may have been “nonviolent,” but the event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, March 7, was an episode of horrific, horrendous brutality, as hundreds of marchers were attacked by state and local police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with tear gas, clubs wrapped in barbed wire, and horsewhips. Director Ava DuVernay, a former Hollywood publicist who worked her way up through the studio system via music documentaries and indie films, depicts the one-sided confrontation as a melee of swirling smoke, raining blows, sickening thuds and crumbling bodies.

King is the movie’s central figure, but note that it doesn’t bear his name. It’s about more than the man; it’s about the movement he inspired. And specifically, it’s about how the crucial flashpoint of that movement came at one moment in time, in one specific place, and that place was Selma.

And, appropriately, there’s a big supporting cast that helps get it there, including Tom Wilkinson as Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson; Tim Roth as Alabama Gov. George Wallace; Oprah Winfrey as activist Annie Lee Cooper; Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover; Ledici Young as gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; and numerous other actors, including Martin Sheen, rapper Common, Stephen Root, Niecy Nash, Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, Andrè Holland, Stephan James and Wendell Pierce, portraying other real-life players in the drama.


King meets in the White House with Pres. Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).

The filmmakers didn’t have access to King’s archive of speeches, so his orations are paraphrased—to magnificent effect. And there have been questions and quibbles about the movie’s authenticity and precise historical accuracy, especially about its portrayal of King’s relationship with L.B.J. But leave the parsing of small details to small minds. As the 50th anniversary of the events depicted in Selma approaches, this big-issue movie—with policemen beating and killing unarmed black men, streets filled with peaceful protesters, and repressive voting laws that disenfranchise minorities—feels chillingly contemporary, all too real, and monumental in more ways than one. Selma profoundly reminds us that while the marching may lead to the mountaintop, we still, sadly, haven’t fully made it there yet.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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The ‘Eyes’ Have It

Amy Adams & Christoph Waltz shine in quirky true retro-art tale


Big Eyes

Starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz

Directed by Tim Burton


Appropriately enough, the opening shot of Big Eyes is a big eye—and a tear.

For this is a sad tale—sort of. Based on the true story of Margaret Keane, the artist whose paintings of children with big, sorrowful eyes became a kitschy art sensation in the 1960s, it stars Amy Adams as Margaret and Christoph Waltz as her husband, Walter.

The “sad” part of the story is that Walter took full credit for Margaret’s paintings, keeping his wife and her talent hidden in his shadow for almost ten years.


Christoph Waltz & Amy Adams

“People don’t buy lady art,” Walter tells Margaret, convincing her that “they” would benefit more if he becomes known as the creator of the wistful-looking, saucer-eyed waifs on the canvasses—and above the signature that read simply “KEANE.”

Amy Adams, whose career has spanned a spectrum of widely diverse roles (American Hustle, The Muppets, Her, The Master), shines with a wounded, subdued glow as Margaret, making us understand both the weakness that would let her character remain a victim of Walter’s bullying, as well as the strength it took for her to finally leave him—and then, 20 years later, sue him to prove her rightful claim to the paintings.

Waltz, the German-Austrian actor who became known to American audiences in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, brings a manic, electrified energy to Walter, depicted him as a trifecta of showy self-promotion, talentless hackery and scary domination.


A tense moment with Margaret’s visiting friend (Krysten Ritter)

Big Eyes might seem an odd, highly conventional choice for director Tim Burton, best known for the eccentric, wildly imaginative look, feel and subject matter of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and The Nightmare Before Christmas. But there are quirks a-plenty in the weird true story itself, and Burton’s signature touches abound, especially in the movie’s bight, day-glow colors; his attention to far-out, decade-spanning period details; and the casting of some fine character actors in supporting roles, including Terence Stamp (as a snooty New York Times art critic), Danny Huston (a tabloid reporter who serves as the movie’s narrator), Krysten Ritter from TV’s Breaking Bad (as Margaret’s best friend), Jason Schwartzman (an art gallery snob) and Joe Polito (a nightclub owner), all of whom provide their own dry, dark-comic edges to the central melodrama.

The movie culminates in a recreation of the 1986 trail, a showdown in which a judge orders Margaret and Walter into an easel-versus-easel contest for the jury to determine who was the real artist of the “big eye” paintings.

Burton’s movie brings up several issues: the subjugation of women in the 1950s and ’60s, intellectual property theft and the role of media and publicity in creating fads, movements and celebrity. But mostly it’s a wacky history lesson about a real-life woman who finally set the record straight, told by a director who loves a kitschy underdog tale, with two lead actors who put their own colorful brushstrokes on a zesty, little-known story. Big Eyes may not become a big breakout hit, but it’s certainly a big, bright surprise.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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