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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Barely Lethal

Not as good as it should have been, but way more fun than it could have been.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A young orphan girl, raised by her very specialized orphanage to be a master assassin, finally gets her chance to be a regular teenage girl when a mission gone wrong allows her to fake her own death and enter herself into a foreign exchange program where she gets to live with a perfectly “average” American family. Escaping her past, however, proves to be a lot harder than it looks.

What we thought

Barely Lethal is, frankly speaking, a truly brilliant title for a movie. It's the kind of title that is so good that an entire movie can spring out, fully formed, from nothing more than those two little words. It certainly wouldn't surprise me if that was the case here. It's not particularly surprising that the actual film is never as good as its punny moniker might suggest but even if it does feel like a very real missed opportunity, it's actually way more fun than you might think a Grosse Point Blank for the Twilight crowd might be.

No question, it would have been great if Barely Lethal took the Buffy the Vampire Slayer route and used its silly premise as a metaphor for real adolescent concerns (though, to be fair, it does touch on this at least a little) or did something anarchic in the mold of Kick Ass or Kingsman: The Secret Service. It's sadly nowhere near that interesting. It's also a very far cry from the much more adult and gritty Hannah, which is another obvious touchstone for this movie. It's not even really a movie about assassins or high octane action – though, again, there is a bit of this.

The Rewrite

Hugh Grant is back doing his Hugh Grant thing. Not that I'm complaining.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

With his career in the dumps, Keith Michaels, a once celebrated Hollywood screenwriter, heads off to be the lecturer of a screenwriting course at an East Coast college.

What we thought

There is nothing at all surprising or remarkable about the Rewrite and there's definitely something ironic about a movie with this unoriginal a script set around a screenwriting course. And yet, there is something oddly comforting about just how familiar it all is.

At the heart of all this, of course, is Hugh Grant who is on full-on bumbling, foppish cad mode and though this is nothing we haven't seen a thousand times before, to me at least, he's as endearing and as funny as ever. If you don't like Hugh Grant, you need to stay as far away from this as possible but if you liked him in Four Wedding and a Funeral and any one of the dozen-or-so identical roles in the past, I can't see any reason why you wouldn't like him here. Grant doesn't make many films these days so it's hardly like his performance feels stale. Safe, certainly, but it feels, if not fresh, then at least soothingly familiar.

And that soothing familiarity carries through to all of Hugh Grant's many excellent co-stars. Marisa Tomei plays a loveable single mother, Alison Janney is cuttingly funny as the college's head of department and even J.K Simmons slides effortlessly into a role that is the polar opposite of his breathtaking and awards-winning work in Whiplash. Nothing new to see here but plenty to laugh at (or with, really) and even more to love.


Oh, how wrong things can go.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

George Pemberton's thriving timber empire is threatened by the pressures of the Great Depression, but when he meets and marries the enigmatic Serena, things take a turn – but perhaps not in the ways he was expecting.

What we thought

Serena should really have been something special. Based on a beloved novel, it reunites the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence with her increasingly impressive Silver Linings Playbook co-star, Bradley Cooper, for a thematically rich and complex period-drama, directed by Susanne Bier, an Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker. And it is something special. As long as by “special” you mean a stunning and singular example of a calamity of a film that is infinitely less than the sum of its parts.

Serena had absolutely everything going for it but the result is a disastrous mess and one of the year's most tedious, dirge-like and frankly badly told movies. It's hard to know where things started to go wrong, but every aspect of the film – save, perhaps, for the moody cinematography and unobtrusive score – is an unmitigated disaster.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Roundup for May 2015

Quite a bit to talk about (however briefly) so let's get right to it.

The Age of Adeline. (7/10) Despite some overbearing narration, some hilariously daft pseudo-science and a none-too-interesting male love interest for our titular character, the Age of Adeline is a surprisingly charming and moving romantic fantasy. Its story of a woman who can never age because of a freak accident and can't really live because of it, is never as fully explored as it could be but it does raise some interesting themes, the characters are largely sympathetic and it features terrific performances from three of its main stars, Blake Lively (with a very well played "transatlantic" accent), Ellen Burstyn and, most especially, Harrison Ford at the absolute top of his game. It's both kind of silly and kind of wonderful at the same time..

Hot Pursuit. (4/10) A largely laugh-free action comedy that seems to think that the mere act of teaming up such diametrically opposed actresses as Sophia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon would be enough to generate sufficient laughter, but its lazy jokes and even lazier Mindnight Run knockoff script only drive home just how much that is not the case. Its fast pace and committed comic performance from Reese Witherspoon saves it from the bottom of the trash heap but it's certainly not worth a trip to the cinema.

Accidental Love. (4/10) A truly terrible bit of Universal Healthcare propaganda disguised as a lame comedy, featuring a cadre of top-notch acting talent doing their best to ruin every theoretically funny gag in the film. I certainly don't have a problem with its message, which I agree with entirely, but it's so leadenly handled that even I was pissed off by its political hectoring. Worse, this story of a woman who has to live her life with a nail embedded in her head because she can't afford to get it extracted is the perfect setting for sharp satire and crazy comedy but damn near every single joke it attempts just falls horribly flat. No wonder it took eight years to be released, and without its director's (David O Russel, no less) name attached at that. However, it is such a horrible misfire of a movie that it's actually a fairly interesting study in just how badly wrong a potentially great movie can go. Check it out for that, if absolutely nothing else.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Forger

Almost forgot to post this. Which is kind of fitting if you think about it...

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

A convict with ten months left on his sentence makes a deal with the devil to get out of prison early to spend with his terminally ill son. The cost: making use of his brilliant forgery skills to create a fake copy of a Monet with which his former boss can replace the real one he intends to steal.

What we thought

Aside for doing weird, weird things on stage at a couple of awards shows and being the subject of not a small amount of controversy, we haven't seen much of John Travolta these past few years. Frankly though, even if The Forger is nowhere near as bad as most critics suggest, I can't really say that it was a particular pleasure seeing Travolta again. It's a pity, he was rather good for a little while there, back before he torched his own career with the whole Battlefield Earth debacle, but he has since become a rather unsettling screen presence that is far better suited to playing the monster in a horror movie than an apparently sympathetic lead in a crime drama.

It's a problem that the film has a hard time shaking off in its opening act but things definitely get better as the film progresses. Whether it's simply a case of getting used to Travolta's strangeness or if its the deflection of attention away from him and more onto his character's son (Tye Sheridan) and father (Christopher Plumber, stealing the show), I can't say for sure, but this is definitely a film that gets increasingly enjoyable as it goes on.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond

Pardon me if this feels slightly more like a book report than your typical review. It's just that kind of movie.

This review is also up, in slightly altered form, at Channel 24

What it's about

After being arrested for trying to sabotage the dismantling of a NASA base, Casey Newton, a passionately idealistic and fiercely intelligent young woman, finds a mysterious pin from the 1964 World Trade Fair in her belongings; a pin that alerts her to the existence of a far happier future than the one towards which our world is heading. As the mystery of the strange pin deepens, Casey soon finds herself teaming up with a former boy genius, Frank Walker, to save the world from an apocalyptic fate.

What we thought

Despite a few iffy reviews from the American press, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond has plenty going for it. Its terrifically retro-futuristic art design, its likeable characters, its very solid cast and the fact that it's a creative genre film that is nether a sequel, a remake nor a comic book adaptation, are already enough to set it apart from the pack, but what impresses most about Disney's latest live action feature is that it is a big budget, CGI-heavy summer blockbuster that happens to have a genuine, honest-to-goodness philosophy at its core. It's a philosophy that informs the entire film, never being overshadowed by even Tomorrowland's most spectacular of set pieces, and it's a philosophy that stands firmly against the tide of the current cultural climate.

Best of all, this all comes from a film with the most inauspicious of origins: a tourist attraction at Disneyland!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

After that murders row of horrible, horrible comedies that I've reviewed over the last couple of weeks, boy did I need this!

The first Pitch Perfect was an unexpected smash and an even more unexpected comedy gem, but it wasn't necessarily one that was begging for a sequel. Of course, when the numbers add up, a franchise must be born so here we are three years later with a followup that is very nearly as good as the original. It has a couple of slight flaws, to be sure, but it's overall a real delight that easily deserves the big box office numbers it's sure to get.

The story this time around does not quite have the perfectly measured simplicity of its predecessor, but it works well enough. And even if the film's half dozen or so subplots do often threaten to overwhelm its primary plot, they still work perfectly well on their own terms. As such, the main narrative thread of the Bellas needing to climb their way back to respectability after a disastrous show for the president all but sinks their career has to share the spotlight with Beca's (Anna Kendrick) new internship, Fat Amy's (Rebel Wilson) weird, weird relationship with Bumper (Adam Devine), Chloe's (Brittany Snow) struggle with the idea of life after the Bellas and newcomer Emily's (Hailee Steinfeld) attempt to fit into the group as a "legacy" with songwriting aspirations.

This much plot does also mean that most of the supporting characters may get some great gags (Hana Mae Lee once again all but steals the show as the hilarious psychotic-non-sequitur-spouting Lilly) but are very much stuck in the background in terms of character development and plot. Weirdly, this also includes the first film's male lead, Jesse (Skylar Austin) who is basically stuck playing what is, when the genders are switched, the "doting girlfriend" role.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Who knew I'd be fighting so hard against the tide about this of all things! Everyone and there grandma seems to love Fury Road. I, however, do not...

I'm not sure if it was bravery or stupidity to have the latest Mad Max movie rely so heavily on the events of the original trilogy but, either way, I would be lying if I said it paid off.

It has been many, many years since I've seen any of the Mad Max films and, considering that the final part of the original trilogy came out some thirty years ago, I'd wager I'm not alone in that. Indeed, I would wager that a huge portion of the film's target audience (read: teenage boys) have never even seen any of Max's previous cinematic exploits.

Now, since I remember next to nothing about any of the previous films, I can't say with any certainty just how much Fury Road actually references them. What I can say though, was that for the opening act of the film I really had no idea what was going on. Oh sure, I got that we were in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, where water is of ultimate value and human life is not. I even got that our nominal "hero" is a bloke named Max, this time played by the weirdly miscast Tom Hardy, who is clearly plagued by some past tragedy and who spends much of his time getting the shit beaten out of him. I also figured out  that the pale, freaky looking geeks were the baddies and that the horribly scarred bloke in the Skeletor half-mask was the film's Big Bad.

Actually, scratch that. I did know what was going on. I just didn't know why I should care.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Unfinished Business

Yup, another stinker from the once quite funny Vince Vaughn.

This review is also up at Channel 24.

What it's about

A middle-aged entrepreneur is one deal away from finally turning his nascent business viable. All he needs is that one “handshake”. But when his old employer sets her sights on the same deal, he and his two employees head off on a world-wide business trip to get that increasingly elusive “handshake”.

What we thought

After having already reviewed Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and Get Hard, I'm running out of things to say about terrible, one-star Hollywood comedies. It's slightly better than Paul Blart and slightly worse than Get Hard and if the idea of one of these things coming out once a year wasn't bad enough, trying to deal with three of them in all of two weeks is almost too much to handle.

Like the others, Unfinished Business' biggest crime is just how staggeringly unfunny it is. Vince Vaughn hasn't been good in years, it's true, but with a supporting cast that includes people like Tom Wilkinson, James Marsden and, most importantly, Nick Frost, you should surely be able to count on a couple of laughs along the way and at least just a hint of comedy. Well, you would be wrong.

Paul Blart Mall Cop 2

I'm going to need to do a review roundup soon because Avengers: Age of Ultron isn't, in fact, the only halfway decent movie out there - which is something you may well think when you consider my most recent batch of reviews for Channel 24.

Take this little masterpiece for example...

This review is, as mentioned, up at Channel 24. In my gleeful desire to rip Paul Blart several new ones, I did let a few grammatical errors slip through, so this "bloggified" version of the review should read slightly better.

What it's about

Paul Blart heads off to Las Vegas with his daughter in tow for a mall cop convention but, once again, they find themselves at the wrong place, at the wrong time, as she stumbles upon a gang of art thieves in the middle of a heist.

What we thought

Kevin James' losing streak of starring in terrible movie after terrible movie continues, as he once again dons the mantle of Paul Blart to deliver what is easily the worst mainstream film (it's going to be tough to beat the arthouse awfulness of Saint Laurent) to come out so far this year.

It's not quite the worst film that James has ever shown up in, as its not as offensive as those ghastly Adam Sandler movies in which he always takes on a thankless supporting role. This is, however, the point where there really is no more giving Kevin James the benefit of the doubt, just because he was perfectly amiable in the equally amiable sitcom, The King of Queens. James has now reached the point where, like Sandler himself, his name alone is enough of a red flag to send all but the most hapless of masochists running in the opposite direction.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is nominally supposed to be just a bit of a light-hearted romp for younger audiences and, as such, nothing really to become too cross about. And yet, there's no shaking the sense that this condescending attitude towards its young audience is every bit as offensive as the worst idiot-baiting sex comedies out there (and would you know it, there's one of those out this week as well). Yes, I realise that kids today are raised on stuff like the creepy, psychedelic insanity of the Teletubbies but, damnit man, kids are much, much smarter than anything in the cash-grabbing cynicism of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 could ever hope to suggest.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Beyond the Reach

There has to be something half way decent released this week, right?

Just to be clear, this really, really, really isn't it.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

After a hunting trip in the Mojave Desert goes horribly wrong, a young guide becomes the target of the corporate shark he was supposed to be accompanying.

What we thought

Despite some beautifully filmed American vistas and a gleefully demented (though often misjudged and occasionally irritating) turn from Michael Douglas as a very deadly corporate fat-cat, Beyond the Reach is unfortunately something of a dud for newcomer director, Jean-Baptiste Leonetti, who clearly wanted it to be his great calling card for a wider, non-French-speaking audience.

Sadly, I can't make some terrible pun about Beyond the Reach exceeding its reach or anything because, ironically enough, the film actually doesn't have much reach – neither in terms of ambitions or mainstream accessibility. In effect, it's trying to be a very focused thriller about a “have” literally trying to hunt down and kill a “have not” for his own mistakes but, for all of the potential of its socio-economic overtones, it sadly fails to pique even the slightest interest in its stories or its characters – let alone in what it's trying to say.

Get Hard

Get Lost.

This review is also up at Channel 24

What it's about

James King is a millionaire businessman who finds himself sentenced to ten years of hard time in San Quentin State Prison for various counts of fraud. In order to prepare himself for the ordeal (read: potential rape) of living life in maximum security prison, he approaches Darnell Lewis, the owner of the car-washing business he frequents, with a lucrative offer of $10 000 cash to teach him how to survive his next ten years. The catch though, is that despite James' racist assumptions about him, Darnell is actually a hard working family man and not the hardened criminal that James thinks him to be. Still, Darnell could really, really use that money...

What we thought

I'm getting kind of sick of saying this about damn near every comedy that comes out these days but, seriously, where the hell are the laughs? Yes, Get Hard has been the subject of a lot of controversy for its questionable racial and sexual politics but forget all that – the real problem with Get Hard is that it is absolutely, resolutely lacking in any halfway decent gags. I think I sniggered maybe twice in the film's 100-minute run time and, honestly, I think that was mostly just out of a sense of duty to a bunch of performers – as well as a director and a trio of writers – who really should be a whole lot funnier than this.