Monthly Archives: March 2015

Hardly Hilarious

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Putting two funny guys together doesn’t make a doubly funny movie

Get Hard

Starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart

Directed by Etan Cohen

R

The first thing you see is a close-up of Will Ferrell, sobbing uncontrollably. The camera holds the shot. This is a comedy, so a well-known comedic actor boo-hoo-ing must be funny…right?

Audiences will likely ask themselves that question, and more than once, as Ferrell and his costar, Kevin Hart, riff through a raunchy gauntlet of jokes built around a premise that certainly, on the surface, isn’t humorous at all: When an investment firm fat cat is sentenced to 10 years of hard time, he fears he’ll never endure the brutalities of prison life.

It helps in the humor department, of course, that Ferrell is a very funny guy. And Hart, who’s parlayed standup and TV success into a budding movie career (Ride Along, The Wedding Ringer) can be a manic ball of comedic energy. But two funnymen together doesn’t always add up to a doubly funny movie. For that, the finger of blame points to Etan Cohen, a screenwriter (Men in Black 3, Tropic Thunder) making his theatrical directing debut, and definitely not to be confused with Ethan Cohen of the Cohen Brothers, the Oscar-winning sibling duo who made No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Fargo.

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Alison Brie

Ferrell plays the investor dimwit, James King, as an offshoot of the family tree of clueless man-children sprung from Anchorman, Step Brothers, Elf, The Other Guys and other doofuses from his comedy hall of fame. James racks up $28 million with a single phone call; he’s engaged to the daughter (Alison Brie, from TV’s Community) of his firm’s owner (Craig T. Nelson); he sings along to Icona Pop’s I Love It as he drives his car with its vanity plate that reads IMA GAWD.

So it rocks his world when he’s arrested for an investment scandal, and the judge throws the book at him, making him an example of white-collar, one-percent-er crime. James, proclaiming his innocence, refuses to accept a plea deal and is given 30 days to set his affairs in order. In a panic, he turns to the only black person he knows, Darrell (Hart), the owner of the car wash that tends his vehicle every day. Wrongly assuming Darrell has served hard time, James begs him to impart his prison survival skills.

Although Darrell’s criminal record is, in fact, nonexistent, he needs $30,000 to move his family into a better home and get his young daughter into a safer school. So he names his price, pretends to be an ex-con, and agrees to school James in how to “get hard.”

This is—or could have been—some pretty edgy stuff, dancing around race and racism, class and social mobility, wealth and income distribution, and very real fears that most normal people would have about suddenly finding out they’re going to spend a decade behind bars. But director Cohen turns Get Hard into one long, smutty joke that keeps returning to one central topic, prison rape, as a punch line. There’s a particularly unfunny scene that stretches on long after its questionable humor has played out, in which Darrell and James go to a gay brunch spot so James can, shall we say, sharpen a certain skill set in which he’s lacking.

GH_D13_056.dngSome genuinely funny bits sneak through. A dinner-table scene, in which Darrell uses the movie storyline from Boyz n the Hood in place of his own, is a hoot. And the “training” scenes, especially when Hart impersonates a whole prison yard full of inmates, or faux-fights with Ferrell, feel like jolts of improv hilarity that show the two stars straining make humor however, wherever, whenever they can in a movie that frequently leaves them stranded.

But too often, and far too much, Get Hard settles for cliches, crudeness and stereotypes instead of anything original, clever or as scathingly funny as it might have been. Ferrell and Hart work tirelessly to stay on their feet as the comedic ground crumbles underneath them and their talent. They do seem to enjoy each other’s company, and they have a crisp, odd-couple chemistry that clicks and crackles, even as the movie clanks and crashes. Hopefully, this won’t be the last we’ll see of them together.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Back to the Future

Hot youth reunite in grim dystopia for part two of ‘Divergent’ trilogy

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Insurgent

Starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Kate Winslet & Theo James

Directed by Robert Schwentke

PG-13

 

What’s in the box?

That’s the question that drives the plot of the second movie based on author Veronica Roth’s young-adult Divergent trilogy about love, loyalty, politics and identity in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Chicago.

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Shailene Woodley, Theo James & Ansel Elgort

Shalene Woodley returns as Tris, a “Divergent” who doesn’t fit into any of the dystopian society’s other rigidly prescribed factions based on personality and aptitude: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peacefulness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (bravery) and Erudite (intelligence). As the movie opens, the subdivided system has fallen apart, insurrection has swept across the land, and the ruthless Erudite overlord (Kate Winslet) blames it all on rebel Divergents.

Peace, we’re told, can only be obtained by opening a rune-covered, boxed-up do-dad containing a secret message “from the founders” of the long-ago, walled-in society that that has ultimately disintegrated into chaos and ruin. And the only person who can open the box—through a series of grueling, simulated tests, or “sims,” that are like wiring into a life-or-death computer game—is a Divergent.

Winslet’s icy CEO/empress orders her minions to round up Divergents until she finds one who can pass—survive—all five sims, each based on one of the factions. What’s in the box, that drives her to coldly sacrifice others to obtain it? The search is futile…until they find Tris, the purest, most “divergent” of all the Divergents.

Some viewers have faulted the Divergent series as being too derivative of The Hunger Games, which—fair enough—also featured great-looking, well-coiffed, repressed young people in a grim future world, fighting each other, held against their will and railing against an unjust, repressive, totalitarian regime. But every franchise of anything has its fans, and Roth’s trio of novels—like The Hunger Games—will also be stretched into four films before it finally wraps up in 2017.

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Octavia Spencer

Insurgent, in addition to Woodley, finds several other young actors returning to their roles, including hunks Theo James, Ansel Elgort and the series’ true secret weapon, Miles Teller, who provides much-needed levity—and what little real surprise there is to be found in the thin storyline. Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts are newly aboard, and their relatively seasoned maturity frequently gives them the air of grownups navigating a bustling high school hallway.

The plot is convoluted and confusing, moving at a gloopy glacial pace punctuated by spasms and spurts of running, chasing, shooting and scuffling. The special effects, when Tris is hooked up to the sims contraption, are bombastic, jarring blowouts that pummel, rather than dazzle, the senses. Some of the large interior scenes seem designed, propped, costumed and photographed less like pieces of a dystopian drama and more like a Broadway musical—I halfway expected someone to break into a song called “Beyond the Wall” or “United We Diverge.”

What’s in the box? Oh, that: The setup for two more movies!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Of Rags and Riches

New ‘Cinderella’ updates age-old fairytale with modern spectacle

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Cinderella

Lily James, Cate Blanchett & Richard Madden

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

PG

Downton Abbey launched the acting career of Lily James as the rebellious young Lady Rose, a character who joined the show’s sizeable ensemble in 2012. Now, in her first major movie role, the 25-year-old actress steps outside the Downton manor and into the iconic glass slippers of the most famous rags-to-riches fairy tale of all time.

Actor-turned-director Kenneth Branagh’s lavish, live-action production of Cinderella hews closely to the once-upon-a-time basics of the centuries-old European folk tale, especially the version with which most modern-day viewers are most familiar, Walt Disney’s iconic theatrical cartoon of 1950. But Branagh fills the outlines of Disney’s animated characters with pounding human heartbeats, encourages robust performances from his fine, mostly all-British cast, and wraps it all up in a sumptuous package of colorful, to-die-for costumes, spectacular settings and lush cinematography.

This Cinderella is also built on a deep foundation of tenderness and forgiveness, an antidote to all the cruelty and unfairness that our Cinderella will ultimately face, and overcome. “You have more kindness in your little finger than most people possess in their whole body,” says her dying mother (Hayley Atwell) to the little girl, “Ella” (Eloise Webb), who will grow up to become the “ragged servant girl” eventually transformed—for one literally magical night—into the princess of all princesses.

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Cate Blanchett (center), Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera

Lily James is as lovely as sunshine as the grown-up Cinderella, whose limitless optimism and kind-heartedness endures even after the arrival of her “evil” new stepmother (Kate Blanchett) and her two mean, dingbat daughters (Sophie McShera, also from Downton Abbey, and Holiday Granger).

You know the rest. But one of the coolest things about Branagh’s movie is how he makes this familiar tale feel so fresh, even though you know exactly where it’s going. He stages it like a full-scale period drama rather than a bedtime story, and there’s an epic splendor to everything—sweeping vistas of coastlines and oceans of the British Isles; vast, ornate castle interiors teeming with extras and activity; the lonely spaces of Cinderella’s attic quarters and kitchen.

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Richard Madden

The ballroom sequence between Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden from Game of Thrones) is magnificent; the transformation of the pumpkin into a glistening, golden carriage—courtesy of the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter)—is a thing of whimsical wonder; the climactic, kingdom-wide search for the foot that perfectly fits the left-behind slipper has intrigue, humor, edge and suspense.

Both James and Madden find characters beyond—and beneath—their starry-eyed storybook romance, and Blanchett maintains a delicious, delicate balance of coldness and camp.

This grand new version of Cinderella may not make you believe in fairytales. But it might make you think, like Cinderella, that with enough “love, kindness and occasionally, a little bit of magic,” the world might, indeed, become a better place.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Walking Dead

Olivia Wilde gets lost in a clunky spook house of recycled sci-fi hokum

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The Lazarus Effect

Starring Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass

Directed by David Gelb

PG-13

From the opening shot, you know something bad’s going to happen.

As a group of hotshot young scientists, lead by Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass, attempt to resuscitate a dead pig—their latest chapter in a search for a breakthrough they hope will ultimately benefit coma patients—you can sense the dread, even if they don’t.

“You are playing God with a bunch of dead animals!” one of them later tells another.

Of course, that’s it! But they learn that lesson too late. Perhaps if they’d only looked a little closer at the title of their own movie, or watched any number of other films over the years, or even paid more attention to what they were doing. Lazarus, as many other folks seem to know, is a character in the New Testament who was reported to have died and been raised back to life by Jesus; his name has since become enshrined as secular shorthand for anything wrongly thought to be deceased.

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Celebrating too soon…

The idea of “man playing God” is an ancient one, older even than the tale of Lazarus, as old as ancient mythology. But it really took pop-cultural root with the character of the Frankenstein monster, created by novelist Mary Shelley in the 1800s and later turned into an entertainment icon in movies, TV, cartoons and even breakfast cereal. The fingerprints of Frankenstein are all over just about any sci-fi or horror “reanimation” tale that’s ever followed it, including this one.

Here, Duplass’s character is named Frank, and it’s the beautiful Wilde who becomes the “monster” after an incident in the lab goes horribly awry.

The Lazarus Effect starts off with some smart, intense ideas, sharply batting around topics of science, faith, mortality and the financial realities that drive modern-day scientific research. But the dialogue soon enough veers into gobblygook and the plot disintegrates into a clunky haunted-M-128_06382rv4_rgbhouse hodgepodge: flickering lights, fiery visions of clawing hands and a little girl in hell, and Zoe popping up from the shadows—or from underneath a sheet.

Zoe can read people’s thoughts, complete their sentences and move things with her mind. She has super-senses. “I think something’s wrong,” she tells Frank, in a moment of clarity…and terror. “I can see things; I can hear things.” Then she vomits up a torrent of white stuff. Turns out the lab accident has made her super-smart, utilizing all her brain instead of just part of it. And all that intelligence, for some unexplained reason, has made her angry…really, really angry.

Most viewers will be angry, too, at this mismanaged mess of a monster movie, which strands its two talented stars in a spook house of recycled sci-fi and horror-show hokum and loftier concepts lifted from other, far better films—like Carrie, The Shining, The Omen, The Exorcist…and, of course, Frankenstein. This sub-par scare-flick entry in the “back from the dead” genre starts smart but gets dumber as it goes, crash-lands on a downer note that I can’t imagine will please anyone, and ultimately fails to bring any encouraging signs of new life to a tale that’s nearly as old as life itself.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Slick Willy

Will Smith is supercool scammer in international con caper

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Focus

Starring Will Smith & Margot Robbie

Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Rated R

In Hollywood, everyone loves a con man. From The Sting to American Hustle, movies about charismatic con artists, scamp-ish scammers and fun-loving flimflammers have been parting moviegoers from their money for decades.

Will Smith, once one of the most bankable movie stars on the planet, takes on the genre with Focus, a sleek and stylish caper flick that combines the con with comedy and romance. In Hollywood shorthand, they call that a rom-con.

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Margot Robbie

Smith plays Nicky, a smooth, charming career criminal in charge of a hipster crew of pickpockets, thieves and other masters at separating unsuspecting schmoes from their credit cards, wallets, watches, jewelry and other valuables. In the opening scene, he turns the tables on the beautiful Jess (Margot Robbie), a small(er)-time hustler who quickly becomes his partner and his protégé—and, soon enough, his lover.

Nicky and Jess swap life stories, hop in and out of the sack and embark on a stealing spree in New Orleans over Super Bowl weekend that nets over $1 million in swiped goods. But the movie doesn’t really catch fire until fully 45 minutes in, when they encounter a high-rolling businessman (B.D. Wong) at the big game who entices Nicky into a round of ridiculously high-stakes gambling. The drama builds to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” which, we later find out, is something quite more than just a song on the soundtrack.

But in this movie, with everyone on the take and on the make, and some kind of sleight of hand in practically every scene, nothing is quite what it seems—and you can’t really trust anyone…or can you? This is especially true in the second half of the movie, when the story jumps ahead three years and across the globe, and all the characters end up in a completely different scenario, in different “roles.”

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Adrian Martinez

Gerald McCraney comes onto the scene (and possibly onto Nicky); Brazilian movie superstar Rodrigo Santoro plays a suave Formula 1 racing stud; and Adrian Martinez, who’s been in some 80 moves and TV shows as a supporting player, provides a lot of levity—and much of the reason for the movie’s R rating—as Nicky’s loyal sidekick.

Focus keeps you guessing. And it’s gorgeous to look at with two beautiful co-stars, often bathed in sensuous, sexy close-ups. Robbie, who made such a splash in The Wolf of Wall Street, makes a particularly strong impression in this constantly evolving cat-and-mouse game. The on-location shots, especially when the action shifts to Buenos Aires, are golden, sunbaked vistas that will chase away even the deepest winter blues. The director-writer team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa; I Love You, Phillip Morris; and Crazy, Stupid Love) know how to keep things lively, luscious and lovely.

The dialogue can be dumb and clunky, the action isn’t quite as crisp as it could be, the danger never quite sharpens to a knife’s edge of worry about anyone, and some of the extremely complicated scheming requires some big, big stretching to swallow. But Focus has so much eye-candy razzle-dazzle, and it all looks so fabulous, it makes you forget about many of those pesky things, lost in its cool, groovy vibes and its long-con gamesmanship, and—hey, just a minute: Where’s my wallet?!!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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