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I suppose I find the concept of "internet horror" or "cyber thrillers"
more intriguing than a large number of my peers do. I say this because
the latest entry in the genre, "Unfriended," has been met with a great
deal of scrutiny before its release like few horror films I can recall.
Immediately after seeing the trailer, I was mesmerized by the shooting
style, as I am with a great deal of these kind of internet-based horror
films, like "The Den" and "Untraceable." "Unfriended" is a stylish,
taut thriller that uses incredible realism to create its online world,
and predicates itself off of continuous mystery while simultaneously
leaving you within arm's reach of everything happening.
With this process, the audience becomes voyeurs into the lives of six souls, all of whom are active in a Skype videochat. We are focused on Blaire's (Shelley Hennig) laptop screen, who was a close friend of a girl named Laura Barns, who killed herself due to persistent harassment and cyberbullying she received from a video taken of her a year ago. While Blaire misses Laura, her other friends - her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), her girlfriends Jess and Val (Renee Olstead and Courtney Halverson), the smartass Ken (Jacob Wysocki), and equal smartass Adam (Will Peltz) - who are in the Skype chat with her do not recall her with such fondness.
The group notices an unknown person lurking in their chat - a user named "billie227," whom they cannot hang up on in the chat nor get away from. The user, who turns out to be Laura Barn's old Skype account, doesn't have a microphone or a camera and communicates through text in the Skype chatroom, and begins to harass and threaten the group of friends. The user starts by posting incriminating videos and photos to the Facebook accounts of the friends before gradually turning more and more sinister over time, getting them to turn against their own peers with the secrets and provocative information it releases and taking a fatal twist.
"Unfriended" builds with a terrific sense of urgency, never allowing things to happen too quickly and allows the characters to pragmatically go about the situation by doing things like messaging others in secrecy, using other online links to try and discover what's going on, and so forth. The realism in the characters' behavior on the internet and the actual operation of the internet is some of the strongest I've seen in this genre. Director Levan Gabriadze nails the glitches, lags, and common social patterns of virtual communication here, right down to the way characters type out messages before erasing them in frustration.
Nuances lurk everywhere in "Unfriended," be it in the aforementioned aesthetic sense or the personal sense (cast and crew can be seen as Facebook friends, Blaire's computer always has a "Teen Wolf" tab open, as Hennig is in that particular program, etc), all of which effective in the way that they add to the realism of the picture. Even the actors, while playing contemptible people in general, get their character traits right and wind up being intensely watchable. Probably the most charming is Ken, played by Jacob Wysocki, who is finally playing a comedic character and clearly having fun with the persona. After starring in two films boasting a sulky, morose protagonist, one can only hope this propels him to even more great projects in his career.
Above all, "Unfriended" is frightening because with the internet brings limitless possibilities, especially in the way this particular films blends the online interaction element with the supernatural but not in the cliché-ridden, terribly predictable way we've seen it done before. "Unfriended" doesn't pull punches, for it wants its suspense to build to something in the long run and jump scares aren't the payoff it's looking for. It's too savvy for that, especially after conjuring up such perfect atmosphere. It was written, directed, and made by people who get the internet, understand the genre and the minefield of pitfalls they're working on, and respect it and its audience enough to deliver old-fashioned scares in a relatively new manner.
Give journalist and satirist Jon Stewart credit in the regard that,
while he hosts a satirical news program on Comedy Central, he doesn't
stay confined to the bubble of his network. With his directorial debut
Rosewater, Stewart branches out and acknowledges the hugely topical
issue of international journalists covering stories in places where
uprisings are ongoing and are arrested, interrogated, tortured, and
often killed for simply bearing witness to certain public events. It's
a frightening reality, and Rosewater's theatrical release came around
the time when numerous beheadings of journalists by the Islamic State
were hitting mainstream Television, with front-page news basically
justifying the existence of this particular film.
The film recalls the true story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who was arrested and interrogated whilst covering the 2009 Iranian election. The wonderful character actor Gael García Bernal plays Bahari, an idealistic young journalist who travels to Iran, leaving behind a newly pregnant wife. Bahari meets several young Iranian radicals, who are supporting the progressive candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi over the controversial, incumbent dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He carries his camera throughout the land, and captures enormous, violent protests when Ahmadinejad wins the presidency by more than half the vote.
Bahari is eventually arrested and mistaken for being a spy, on account of a satirical American Television program he did (where Jon Stewart's personal side of the story comes into play, as Bahari's real-life captivity was based off his appearance on an episode of Stewart's program The Daily Show). As a result, he is kept in solitary confinement, blindfolded and interrogated by a vicious man (Kim Bodnia) he only identifies by the smell of rosewater on his clothes.
The captivity scenes are intriguing because of how Stewart confines us inside the four walls of Bahari's cold cell, rarely letting us peek at the outside world. Films that involve trapping lead characters should almost always do everything they can to keep us inside the room with them, as it's a tactic that allows for unblinking voyeurism into the character's situation and makes us feel just as trapped as he or she is. In this case, Stewart is smart to keep us in solitary confinement along with Bahari, only venturing out to show momentary reactions of family and news reports of his captivity once the information hits the mainstream airwaves.
Stewart's directing, however, is largely uncharacteristic of anything I can immediately note, aside from a few intriguing unsteady shots. He doesn't adopt any kind of artful style during the entire film, which isn't a huge issue, and keeps every aesthetic relatively muted or on a basic level, ostensibly not to detract from the story, which Stewart clearly wants to be told. Bernal, once again, does a wonderful job at portraying subtle traits that make up an entire character; watch how Bernal's Bahari communicates largely in gestures and kind mannerisms, even to his captors. This was evidently something that wasn't explicitly stated in the screenplay, but something Bernal decided to carry out through his body language and his overall attitude throughout the film, making for a character that is instantly likable and a complete gentleman throughout.
As stated, the timeliness of Rosewater really couldn't have been better. The safety and overall welfare of international journalists is an issue that deserves attention, and, as shown from this particular film, the repercussions of harm's way can be brutal (or even more brutal than show here). With that said, Stewart does his best not to make Rosewater emotionally manipulative, though he somewhat does during the later scenes involving Bahari's wife and the circulation of his captivity. Nonetheless, there's a lot going on here that warrants attention, and even if you separate the project from the name behind it, this is still a film well worth seeing, not only for its topical nature, but for Bernal's performance.
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Directed by: Jon Stewart.
Below Zero has all the components of a genius Laurel and Hardy short:
for one, it's not burdened by its length in any way, it features a nice
balance of situational humor and slapstick comedy, has a few inclusions
of some fun special and practical effects, and never becomes dry or
tiresome in its material. It's one of the funniest shorts by the men I
have yet to see.
Laurel and Hardy are a couple of petty street musicians, performing in subzero weather and not even making a dime. When they are informed by a police officer (Laurel and Hardy regular Frank Holliday) that they are in a crime-ridden area, the two decide to treat the police officer to lunch at the finest restaurant. It isn't until they finish their meal and are acquainted with the bill do they realize a grave mishap has happened that could only infer false intentions.
Below Zero, in a way, feels like a satire of manners for this time period. By today's standards, even at their most foolish, Laurel and Hardy always use gentlemanly, proper language, but when they are out to lunch with the police officer, such language transcends the boundaries of self-parody, which is funny in its own right. Something about the brazen silliness of Below Zero combined with its uncanny ability to be so formal provides for a very tongue-in-cheek edge to Laurel and Hardy I'm not sure I've witnessed before.
The short also is helped by some uproariously funny situational humor, specifically the ending and the very beginning, when Laurel and Hardy discover why they have yet to make a dime despite performing for two hours. All of this, encapsulated in a zealous pace with two charismatic men at the forefront, makes Below Zero so charming and watchable and among one of the finer shorts of the Laurel and Hardy lot.
Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Frank Holliday. Directed by: James Parrott.
Richard Linklater, as a writer and director, loves to let his
characters breathe while on screen and confine them to a day's worth of
events. However, with The Newton Boys, he attempts to infuse his
laidback style with a true crime caper, concerning the Newton Gang, a
group of four brothers who robbed banks in the United States during
Prohibition. He conducts the film in an episodic manner, devoting over
two hours to these brothers, their robberies, and their schemes by
simply allowing their conversations to prevail and the charm of the
actors to carry the film.
The ringleader of the gang is Willis Newton, played by Matthew McConaughey, a suave, smooth-talker who maps out these heists. His brothers are the amiable ladies man Jess (Ethan Hawke), the lovable softy Dock (Vincent D'Onofrio), and the youngest and wiliest Joe (Skeet Ulrich). In addition, the brothers seek the help of Brentwood Glasscock (country singer Dwight Yoakam) to help blow the safes of banks with ample amounts of nitroglycerine. The Newton's work under a simple code of conduct, which states they won't kill, they won't harm or rob any women or children, and they won't snitch.
Immediately, what The Newton Boys lacks is the element of perspective. Examining successful biopics of recent time, like Jersey Boys and The Wolf of Wall Street, both films benefited from the perspective of many of their individuals, particularly Jersey Boys, which showed how one story was told with bias from each of the band members. Despite spending two hours with these brothers, we feel like we're hanging out with them more than we're being told their story or learning of the men themselves. The brothers never transcend past caricatures, and Linklater's energy level and interest in these characters seems greatly diminished, especially considering his last several films.
The irony with Linklater and The Newton Boys is here's a film about bank robbers running from the law, and it manages to be less interesting than Linklater's formal directorial debut Slacker, which focused for no more than five minutes on a single character and Before Sunrise, which simply featured two characters walking and talking. Linklater's investment in his characters is noted with every film I've seen from him, but here, it's as if he's within arm's length of his characters at all times, never gravitating towards them to learn about them, despite the glacial-pace of the film. The conversations between the men reiterate tired ideas describing how robbing the banks isn't a bad thing because they're essentially stealing from insurance companies, so clearly, stealing isn't so bad. These conversations undermine the titular characters, and the coffin-sealing nail is no perspective is ever provided on these men to show how we're supposed to view them.
So The Newton Boys drags on without much energy, like someone who worked a forty-five hour week and begrudgingly took on a twelve hour shift to follow it up. As it meanders and rifts around, it manages to drain the energy out of us, the audience, as well, and we're left with a film that's lifeless and impotent, two traits I never thought I'd associate with Linklater. All the pieces are here aesthetically, with the costumes, the music, and the aura of the Roaring 20's all captured with visual flair, and the four young leading men prove they have charisma, but at the end of the day, that's all they have, and a film about bank robbers needs more than that.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Dwight Yoakam. Directed by: Richard Linklater.
Director George Tillman, Jr. is responsible for several contemporary
urban comedies that provide pleasant humanization of tight-knit black
communities, such as the "Barbershop" trilogy, the incredibly
underrated "Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete," and even the biopic on
The Notorious B.I.G.. This fact makes it all the more perplexing to try
and figure out why Tillman would want to direct a frothy, Nicholas
Sparks romance film set in the backdrop of fantasy land where all the
characters are well-off, white caricatures that find themselves in
incredibly contrived and picturesque situations.
Thus is "The Longest Ride," another entry in the tired line of Nicholas Sparks film adaptations that leave no cliché untouched and no emotion unexploited. This time around the story concerns Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson), a driven art student in North Carolina, looking to obtain an internship in the fall in New York City. On a night out with her girlfriend at a rodeo, Sophia meets a professional bull-rider named Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood), a dashing young gent who is a southern romantic at heart. He treats her with the respect and kindness she has come to expect but never expected and is smitten with his schoolboy charm.
On the way home from their first date (a tablecloth picnic overlooking beautiful scenery because this film might as well be a postcard in terms of realism), they spot a car that has driven through a guardrail and off the road. In an act of instinct, Luke pulls an unconscious old man from the vehicle with Sophia rescuing an old wicker basket just before the car is engulfed in flames. The old man's name is Ira (Alan Alda), and the basket houses a barrage of letters that he wrote to his late wife Ruth. Ira grew up during the World War II days and had to make a huge personal sacrifice to be with the one he loved unconditionally, deciding between his own mental health and their love, with Ruth deciding whether or not she could continue to make their relationship work. Now, in present day, Sophia must decide whether or not to go along with her internship or stay behind with Luke, who must decide whether or not to pursue his bull-riding career through one traumatic injury after another.
The first problem with most Nicholas Sparks films is that they take two potentially thoughtful stories and mesh them together to create a romance amalgamation. What usually unfolds from that is one large film that undermines the potential of its two rich stories by squandering themes for cheap sentimentality, emphasizing the attributes of far-fetched romance, and creating one obvious setup after another that sets itself so far apart from reality you'd swear you're watching science-fiction.
Sparks films and novels are as much of a brand as Marvel and Tyler Perry films. They aren't for those seeking any kind of realistic portrayal of human behavior; audiences go to have their emotions tickled with the idea of true love and the sacrifices people can make to maintain such strong feelings and connection. For the rest of us, we get a film that desperately plods along for over two hours, occasionally hitting narrative highs when it focuses on the World War II days of Ira and Ruth, but descending back into pitiful lows when we focus on their younger counterparts. It is then when "The Longest Ride" stalls mercifully with several romance clichés that it makes you wonder why even its fanbase succumbs to such low-grade, lackluster trite.
Finally, while the film's ending isn't quite on par with the nonsensical "Safe Haven," it's still on the same level of ludicrous to the point where far-fetched can't even describe it accurately.
Superfast! is the third film of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's,
the men formerly responsible for theatrical atrocities like Date Movie,
Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans, to be released on video-on-demand
and very few theaters across the United States rather than having them
premiere on over two-thousand nationwide theaters. Contrary to many, I
find this to be a good thing, as it greatly limits the number of people
who will not only see these films but hear about these films as well.
Unlike with mainstream theatrical releases, low key video-on-demand
releases have little publicity and, unless you're in touch with the
film community or the producers of certain films, your chances of a
film on the independent circuit finding you before you find it are slim
Superfast! is the long talked about parody from Friedberg and Seltzer that would lampoon The Fast and the Furious franchise. With an astonishing budget of $20 million, yet not even looking half as good as something made for TV, this is an unbelievably dated and stale parody for two major reasons. One, it relies on the biggest cheapshots of the characters, actors, and situational events of the series, rather than the genre clichés that make these films so predictable, a trait that Friedberg and Seltzer will ostensibly never recognize, and, secondly, with The Fast and the Furious franchise already spanning seven films, the series has had enough time to parody itself for lasting over a decade. It doesn't need a low-grade parody film to lampoon its existence; that what every film after the fifth one was designed to do.
Rather than a real plot in Superfast!, we're expected to go along with and laugh at characters that look like impersonators of those from The Fast and the Furious series. Paul Walker's Brian O'Connor is turned into a sarcastic dimwit played by Alex Ashbaugh, Vin Diesel's trash-talking Dominic Toretto is given a brain-dead, atrociously unfunny makeover by Dale Pavinski, Mia Toretto is replaced with Lili Mirojnick's vapid doppelganger, and Dio Johnson does the honors of parodying Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Luke Hobbs character. Throw in cheapshots towards the characters' thin personalities, vehicles, car-lingo, racing sequences, and overall franchise lunacy, and, despite aiming low, Superfast! can't even make the obvious funny.
The film settles for jokes that set the lowest bar and goals for the film, yet can't even manage to make those jokes hit, as everything is simply too dumb to function on numerous levels. In addition, at ninety-four minutes, trying to make this film have a cogent plot, or even exist past a Saturday Night Live skit, was an absolutely ludicrous ideas, as more than halfway through the film, we see Friedberg and Seltzer run out of gas and force the jokes to start recycling themselves.
Superfast! is as loathsome as The Starving Games, the duo's last parody effort before shifting gears to Best Night Ever, their first and only non-parody film which was so bad it might has well have stuck to the winning formula. In the end, I'm left with the baffling question as to why over $20 million was invested into a video-on-demand project by two guys who have had disintegrating appeal over the last several years. Despite probably the large sum of money they've ever been blessed to work with, Friedberg and Seltzer prove that a heavy check still can't buy witty or marginally intelligent dialog and Superfast! is another film to discard in the ever-growing barrel that is their filmography.
Starring: Alex Ashbaugh, Dale Pavinski, Lili Mirojnick, and Dio Johnson. Directed by: Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.
Part of the reason Frank Sinatra is an American icon, embedded in
American pop culture, is because he was the pioneer for a lot of
celebrity actions and activities we now see as commonplace or even
conventional. For one, Sinatra was one of the first singers with an
enormous fanbase, especially with young teen girls, who would croon
over him like he'd croon over the microphone for one of his songs. In
addition, Sinatra was a persistent social activist, a tabloid figure
following his relationship with actress Ava Gardner, a singer turned
movie star, a figure the public eye intensely watched and judged based
on his private actions, and a mob-connected individual.
All of these attributes alone are chronicled in the first two hours of Alex Gibney's four hour documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, which airs over the course of Easter weekend on HBO. Gibney has effectively painted a grandiose film that, in two hours, meticulously details Sinatra's childhood and rise to fame, while painting the portrait of a man who's fame and wealth plummeted in one of the first cases of worldwide stardom in the United States.
Sinatra was born and raised in Hoboken, New Jersey to a mother who acted as the neighborhood caregiver, taking in and helping raise children from all over the neighborhood. Sinatra began to enjoy the sound and culture of music, saving enough money to buy a microphone at a young age so he wouldn't have to project and embrace ridicule for using a megaphone, and went on to be a part of the "Hoboken Four," a group that would perform at variety shows before entertaining local nightclubs.
Eventually, however, Sinatra broke from the Hoboken Four and embraced a solo career as a crooner, singing glacially paced tunes that showed that songs could be sung in a slow manner and still be viewed as effective ballads. In just over a year, Sinatra had become a hit with teen girls, who started fan clubs expressing support for the singer. He then gravitated to being a huge success amongst those of all ages. One music critic states that while films birthed celebrities, Depression-era America couldn't afford movie tickets and resorted to radio for free entertainment, which is how most became acquainted with Sinatra's sound and style. While resting comfortably on top of the world, Sinatra eventually began to falter due to heavy drinking and his relationship with movie star Ava Gardner, which was heavily documented right before the public eye. This is the beginning of what looks to be an immense downfall if it wasn't for managerial interference and Sinatra's determination to get back on track.
Furthermore, following a sharp decline in popularity, Sinatra worked to reinvent his image for the public. The 1950's saw individual wealth grow astronomically, with teenagers finally being able to "afford their own subculture," as one social critic brilliantly puts it, and people gaining the expendable income to use for entertainment like movies and records. It was then that Sinatra saw a rebirth of interest and appeal that was never seen before; not only did Sinatra create the epitome of a global superstar, but he also showed one of the most incredible comebacks in showbiz history.
Inevitably, Sinatra faced his downfall in the late 1960's, with slumping album sales, even his renowned concept works, and, by that time, singers would either get older and fade out or make a fool of themselves. Sinatra clearly didn't have his heart in his work anymore, and following a retirement concert in 1971 where he played eleven defining songs of his life and career, stepped off the stage and proceeded to move on, closing one of music's most fascinating and profound chapters.
Sinatra: All or Nothing at All does a beautiful job at cleanly showing this history in a manner that's unambiguous and straight-forward. Gibney structures the film nicely, infusing Sinatra's personality into the film seamlessly and leaving the weight on him and numerous other primary accounts of his fame to tell his story. Even at four hours, cannot expand on every idea and notion Sinatra was about. Gibney never gets lost in the glamor, keeping things grounded in humanity and development and, in turn, undoubtedly creates one of the year's strongest documentaries.
NOTE: This review is heavily edited; go to the Critic Reviews section and find my name to read the more elaborate and detailed one.
"Woman in Gold" tells an extraordinary story with the utmost
ordinariness in style and structure. It uses what I fear will become
the newfound "Philomena" cliché of a stubborn, moody old white lady
getting helped by a square, middle-aged white man who grows to
appreciate a walk of life he apparently never even knew existed before.
The only difference was "Philomena" worked because of strong chemistry
between its leads and a story that was told in an impacting manner,
articulating the core of the events within proper emotional and
narrative boundaries. "Woman in Gold" is what happens when all of that
is traded for what looks to be a "collect the check" job on all fronts,
where everyone involved just seems more concerned with collecting their
pay rather than telling a story with the significance and heart it not
only bears but deserves.
The film revolves around Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles, who seeks the help of a lawyer named Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to recover Gustav Klimt's iconic painting of her aunt, known as Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I. During the time of World War II, the painting was confiscated by the Nazis and now hangs in a museum in Vienna, Austria, where it is as renowned as the Mona Lisa. Maria and Randol travel to Vienna to try and convince the Austrian government to allow Maria to claim the painting, but the government has made it virtually impossible for anyone who isn't wealthy beyond their wildest imagination to sue or challenge the government. Eventually, the two return to America, following a breathless bout of walking in circles, to discover that they can sue the Austrian government on American soil due to the painting being licensed for commercial use in America. What entails is an exhausting legal battle that is taken all the way to the Supreme Court.
"Woman in Gold"'s first immediate problem is it can't do anything without oversimplifying. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, Maria meets Randol, she tell him the story of her aunt and Klimt's painting, and they are off to Vienna in a flash. The legal battle that apparently takes so many months to progress and move to the Supreme Court is covered within about five minutes in montage and, when we do see glimpses inside the courtroom, it's the same kind of artificial, theatrical environment we've grown accustomed to in American movies. Finally, every wall the characters run into in their quest to obtain what is rightfully theirs always seems to pose a way out that's almost too clean to exist. Every way around the Austrian government is portrayed as a flash-in-the-pan, revolutionary moment that makes you wonder why these two bright individuals didn't think of that before they started (IE: the cost of suing the Austrian government being in the millions - shouldn't they have known that as a "worst case scenario" event?).
It's also worth noting that it's impossible for a dynamic to be achieved between both Mirren and Reynolds because screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell doesn't write a line of dialog that's purpose is to paint both of these individuals as characters and not narrative vessels. Every conversation these two have between one another is about the case or about the history; none of dialog works to humanize either party and it isn't until the end we realize that due to how little we're impacted by the outcome of it all. This gives "Woman in Gold" a dreary and dull personality, and makes it even more disappointing to see two great actors squandered for the sake of persistent plot progression.
"Woman in Gold" is one of several films to be released over the last two years that concerns art, the creation of art, and to whom the art should belong to. Last year, George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" was a misguided effort, but found success in at least detailing the process of obtaining valuable works that the Nazis had stolen, a subject that's only now really circulating into the mainstream. In addition, we also had Tim Burton's "Big Eyes," which, while a bit different, found itself infusing style and visual flair into a story that probably wouldn't have clicked had no personality been injected into the screenplay and the visual aesthetic. "Woman in Gold" is another film that takes a hugely important topic and squanders it, and, now more than ever, we need not only another film on Nazi art thieves, but a good one at long last.
Etan Cohen's "Get Hard" is an absolutely abysmal comedy for more
reasons than it takes the worst attributes of both its lead performers
and tries to make a ninety-four minute film rely on them. The film
makes the classic mistake of assuming that all it takes to be funny is
to be mindlessly vulgar and have several sight gags masquerading as
comedy, forgoing any semblance of wit and subtly in order to be as
brazen as possible. When Will Ferrell's straight-laced character was
reading off numerous insults he concocted himself, and one of them was
"I will punch you right in the f***," I knew what kind of comedy was on
my hands, and I wanted to wash them thoroughly with soap and water.
This is a hopelessly dirty and incompetently racist film, but it's far too stupid and narrow-minded to be seen as truly offensive. Admittedly, however, to see a film like this get made in 2015, in a time where political correctness runs rampant, is very surprising, but nonetheless, to be offended by "Get Hard" gives the film too much credit. It implies that a strong reaction was prompted during the film where the film doesn't deserve such. It deserves to be dismissed and quietly swept away to late night TV on Comedy Central where its only audience will be insomniacs and very curious cinephiles. With the ample amount of Judd Apatow comedies that have proved they can be raunchy and heartfelt, there's no place for a film like "Get Hard" and its breathless attempts to be funny.
The film concerns James King (Will Ferrell), a wealthy hedge-fund manager who is engaged to a gold-digging woman and working for his father's company. He has an enormous house and is constantly reminded of how important it is to go after one's goals by his manipulative wife who sees nothing but untold dollar signs in him. During his birthday party, James is indicted on several counts of embezzlement and is given a month leeway before he's sentenced to ten years in a maximum security prison (this part makes "Get Hard" kind of a fantasy film, but I digress).
In order to find out how to survive in prison, James seeks out the first black man he sees, a man named Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart), who works in a car wash at James' office. Despite Darnell never having been to prison, he sees James' racial profiling and stupidity as pitiful traits and agrees to help him for $30,000. Darnell concocts a rigorous prison training course, complete with weight-lifting, prison riots, "kiestering," and gay sex in order to make James "hard" (aka ready for prison).
As expected, "Get Hard" descends into the "maximum antics, minimum laughter" realm of comedy fairly quickly. Jokes and sight gags are fired constantly, but all of which burdened by embedded stereotypes, shallow writing, mundane vulgarity, or a combination of the three. During these scenes, Ferrell plays bumbling and clueless and Hart plays frantic and loud, effectively minimizing each of their talents to conform to the bottom-barrel screenplay at hand. The sole merit of the film is how it appears to evoke the tired idea perpetuated by the wealthy that all the poor or the working class need to do is pull themselves up by their bootstraps and they too can be as successful as they are. This scene is demonstrated pretty effectively during the first time James and Darnell interact (Darnell taps on James' window to get his attention and James thinks he's being robbed), but the film quickly forgoes that element of social satire in order to maximize its time for desperately unfunny humor.
By now, you know if you want to see "Get Hard" or not, and if you do, that's your own prerogative. This is another one of those films so tailor-made for the lowest common denominator where, much like most Happy Madison films, those who made the film have a lower impression of those who will see the film than you ever could of the film. When you see "Get Hard," just know that it and its creators stoop to a level of condescending none of us can begin to understand.
"Danny Collins" is the kind of film ripe for emotional manipulation and
mawkishness, so much so that its potential to squander its wealth of
talent makes one clench in their seat, hoping for a different result
than the one they foresee. While there is definitely sentimentality to
be found in the film, such scenes are handled with pleasant restraint
from writer/director Dan Fogelman (writer of "Tangled" and both "Cars"
films). "Danny Collins" is likely one of the few commendable adult
dramas we will get this year, and it's nice to see that it's a
particularly winning blend of restriction and talent.
The film concerns the title character (played by Al Pacino in his best, most subtle role in years), an aging, alcoholic, cocaine-addicted singer, disillusioned with his current state of faking it through sold out performances, playing the same old tired songs (his most famous song echoes the tune of "Sweet Caroline") he has since he began his career in the 1970's. One day, he decides to drop everything, cancelling the remainder of his tour in order to venture out to stay indefinitely at a Hilton hotel and work on his songwriting, something he hasn't done in several decades, much to the dismay of his long suffering manager Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer). While staying at the Hilton, Danny tries to make right with his son Tom (Bobby Cannavale), who has gone on to marry a beautiful woman (Jennifer Garner) and lead a solid life without the help of his father, whom views him as a deadbeat, as well as win the heart of the stubborn hotel manager Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), who shoots down every dinner request he makes.
All of this angst and disillusionment arises when Danny receives a long-lost letter from John Lennon, following an interview at a magazine where Danny references Lennon as a major influence. In the letter, Lennon tells him to be true to himself and states that the money and fame don't corrupt a person, but personal choices and vices will always be the downfall of a man. With this, Danny becomes rather tumultuous and realizes he's been stuck in a dead-end, creative funk for years, unable to produce a winning record or anything of noteworthiness for years. He uses this opportunity to take a vacation and hopefully find creative inspiration and connectivity amongst those he should've been in contact with for many years.
Pacino is always the centerpiece of "Danny Collins," in nearly every shot of the film and always bearing some kind of discernible energy, whether it be boisterous or subtle. This is Pacino's most accomplished role in years, as he finds ways to create his own character and infuse him with just the right amount of life for the occasion. He is never overcome with theatrics, and plays everything in a genuine, low-key manner, something we haven't seen from Pacino in quite some time. His portrait of an aging alcoholic musician who realizes he hasn't done anything creative or for himself in years (perhaps there's some loose, real-life connection there, but that's all speculation, of course) isn't played in a manner where overacting prevails emotion and that's the key to a great deal of "Danny Collins"' success.
The supporting characters in "Danny Collins" all transcend the lines of typical supporting characters, as they branch out to become their own character and are brought to life thanks to a collection of great talent. Among the best of the lot is Christopher Plummer, who serves as Danny's best friend in the film as well as his financial and managerial guide. Plummer is just as wry here as he's ever been, never missing a comedic or dramatic beat, and turns up just in time to save the film from becoming too sappy or too dramatic. Bobby Cannavale also does arguably some of his finest work as Danny's understandably livid son, who has been left in the dark and in the working class region of the world while his father adores all the fame of show business, so he thinks, and leaves all other responsibilities unattended. Cannavale, like Pacino, acts within his own restraints of showing anger but not being overly dramatic about the entire affair, never breaking out in a fight with his father nor letting loose a monologue of vulgarities. Almost every conversation held between them conducts itself with a pleasant sense of situational realism.
"Danny Collins" is a surprising little film, and given how its small theatrical release is being expanded little by little, I have a feeling it will resonate with the baby boomer crowd as time goes on, giving them a little opportunity for cinematic enrichment as they're often forgotten. If that's the case, this is fine film to see, especially if you're only planning on seeing one, maybe two, films this year.
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