Will Smith hasn't starred in a movie since 2013's sci-fi disaster "After Earth", a Smith family affair that also involved son Jaden as co-star and wife Jada as co-producer. Oh, and M. Night Shyamalan was the director. And...it laid an egg.
If Smith believed, after reading the script for "Focus", that this could be his big comeback film, then he needs to get his eyes checked. While it's not on the level of "bomb" (or "After Earth") as I was fearing, "Focus" is completely underwhelming, with an average plot that is rarely unpredictable, a big problem for a film about con artists.
Smith plays con king Nicky. One night in NYC he unexpectedly meets Jess, a low-level con (played by "The Wolf of Wall Street"'s Margot Robbie). Jess tells Nicky that she wants to become as big and successful in the con business as he is, and that she'll do anything to become his apprentice. This includes becoming his partner in crime (and in bed) in New Orleans, during the week of a fictitious professional football league championship game (clearly the NFL wanted nothing to do with this production).
In one of the few standout scenes, Nicky, who's also a compulsive gambler (or is that just part of the act?) takes things a little too far with a high-roller in his luxury box in the stadium, all the while slowly reeling Jess, and us, in. More suspense comes from this nearly 10-minute sequence than in all of Mark Wahlberg's remake of "The Gambler". Unfortunately, there are interesting twists and turns that are necessary in con/caper films to keep you guessing and playing along.
After Nicky and Jess' relationship takes an interesting turn, they reunite in Buenos Aires for more misadventures that take up the entire second half of "Focus", which is much slower than the first. This section is less about the cons and crimes, and more about the romantic ups and down of the Smith and Robbie characters. For only a few brief moments did I believe these two could be a real couple. There's hardly any chemistry between the actors.
But at least they're now comfortably acquainted with each other, as they're teaming-up again for next year's "Suicide Squad". It's an appropriate title, since that's where it appears Smith's career is headed. However, that film and this December's NFL drama "Concussion", could get the former #1 Box Office draw back onto Hollywood's A-List. In the meantime, "Focus" only serves to make the prospects of a successful comeback even more unclear.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Focus" gets a C.
"McFarland, USA" is the latest "Based on a True Story" sports drama from the studio king of the genre, Disney. This time, the Mouse House employees had to go all the way back to 1987 to find their latest inspirational, underdog story. And, after using baseball, football, basketball, hockey, horse racing, golf, bobsledding, and even cricket with last year's "Million Dollar Arm", I do give Disney credit for daring to greenlight a script about one of the least popular sports: High School cross country running.
Does "McFarland, USA" follow the traditional, predictable Disney sports movie formula? Absolutely. Fish-out-of-water high school football coach Jim White (played by sports movie king Kevin Costner) moves with his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters to the small, Mexican-American migrant worker town of McFarland, CA and decides to start a cross country team at the school after noticing four kids in his gym class who excel at running.
A total of seven boys join the team. Some must pick in the fields before school and after practice. Together they, along with Coach Blanco, must work together, and overcome many hurdles, in order to become a successful team and maybe, just maybe...CHAMPIONS!
"McFarland, USA" is packed with all the sports story swerves you'd expect - no respect from opponents, troubles at home, the fight against incredible odds. However, unlike the dull and corny "Arm", thanks to authentic performances (particularly from a very good Costner) and a grounded, not-too-overly sentimental approach, "McFarland, USA" is largely able to rise above a formulaic script. The film actually kept my interest for nearly the entire time. It doesn't demand a 100% emotional investment, nor does it provide the excitement of other sports dramas, such as "Secretariat", but it's solid, serious and satisfying family drama that paces itself nicely and gets to the finish line with its head held high.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "McFarland, USA" gets a B-. But you've got wonder what's left for Disney in the "based on a true story sports drama" front? With cross country off the list, can bowling, synchronized swimming or field hockey be next in line? I bet the studio's crack staff of researchers are already hard at work.
I did not see the original "Hot Tub Time Machine", which was released in 2010, but a lot people did and many consider it a modern cult classic comedy. Now, a whopping five years later, we get the just plainly ridiculous "Hot Tub Time Machine 2", which joins the list of "Taken 3" and (while it could turn out to be a good film) "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" as 2015 sequels that had no business being made.
The star of the original, John Cusack, is out (though there are a few images of him) and "Parks and Recreation"'s Adam Scott is in as Cusack's character's son, Adam. The trio who took that fateful dip with Cusack in the first film, Lou, Nick and Jacob (played by Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Clark Duke) get back into the tub, to try to go back in time to prevent Lou from being murdered, but instead are sent to the future.
With a wild premise like this there are really no rules, so the possibilities for gags and crazy storylines are limitless. Unfortunately, "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" is simply a hot mess. The only genuine laughs come from occasional exchanges between the characters insulting each other, along with some basic, but still funny, movie and TV show references. The "Nick Webber Strut", performed by Robinson, is the film's only solid running joke.
The time travel aspects of the story are overly complicated - maybe on purpose - but it doesn't work. And a heavy reliance on over-the-top sexual humor drags the viewing experience into the gutter. With only a Dixie cup's worth of comedy in this entire hot tub, director Steve Pink chooses to go the all-too predictable route, filling the remainder of the movie with scenes of sex, drugs and alcohol, which continuously take the storyline down the drain. No doubt many people, upon leaving the theater, will be wishing they could step into a time machine of their own to go back a few hours and rethink their decision to see "HTTM2". It's an SNL skit on steroids: funny/wacky premise, a few clever moments, but goes way too far and for way too long.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" gets a C-.
In 2011 Colin Firth won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in "The King's Speech", which included many memorable scenes. Now, four years later, Firth stars in "Kingsman: The Secret Service", director Matthew Vaughn's follow-up to "X-Men: First Class". "Kingsman" does provide Firth with the opportunity to appear in, quite possibly, the most memorable scene of his long, successful career. It's also his worst.
Vaughn attempts to have fun by breaking plenty of rules of the action genre, mostly with a ridiculously high level of violence, purely for shock value. I can almost guarantee the body count in this film will be higher than in any other action film this year, maybe any film period. In fact, if Vaughn ever writes a book about the making of "Kingsman", it would certainly be titled "How to Get Away with a Ton of Movie Murders".
The script is loosely based on a series of comics published from 2012-2013. And it shows. Unfortunately, the over-the-top visual style is more appropriate for the page. Watching someone, literally, get sliced in half, from head to toe, and then split apart, probably looked real cool in the comics. On screen it just seems silly. And even though the source material is recent, a lot of "Kingsman" is surprisingly dated, including the plan by quirky evil villain Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson, with a baseball cap, a lisp, and a love for Big Macs) to save the planet from global warming. Not a lot of imagination there.
The Kingsman secret agents, of course, must stop Valentine. But long before we get there, a young street punk named Eggsy (played by Taron Egerton) gets recruited by Firth's veteran, well-tailored, Kingsman agent, Harry, to join the program. Eggsy must first go through a series of tests with other fellow candidates. Much like we've seen over and over in films including "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent", this process takes way too long before reaching its obvious conclusion. And as for that career-low scene involving Firth - let's just say you'll know it when you see it.
The main problem with "Kingsman" is that it doesn't know what it wants to be: A modern take on the classic British Spy movie (a.k.a. the Bond films)? An anti-British spy movie, tweaking the old formula? Or, the way Vaughn should have gone: a satire of the classic British spy movie, which it does a nice job with in certain spots. I do give Vaughn credit for being able to keep our interest for most of the 2+ hours. However, by the time we get to the slow-motion, exploding heads, accompanied by full orchestra, it's clear Vaughn is out of ideas and is simply throwing everything he can at the screen, just hoping something will stick.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" gets a C.
"Jupiter Ascending" is the latest sci-fi/adventure from The Wachowskis. Since their "Matrix" trilogy wrapped-up in 2003, they haven't had much success. 2008's "Speed Racer" was forecasted as a summer blockbuster and instead ended-up a complete car-wreck. 2012's visionary "Cloud Atlas" was interesting, but not the Best Picture contender everyone expected, nor a box office hit (even with Tom Hanks!)
And now they've officially earned their third strike in a row with the dull, completely unoriginal and highly mainstream "Jupiter Ascending". This was originally set to be released last July, but got pushed back to Feb. '15 because they said the special effects weren't going to be done in time. This could be true, but also a nice excuse which allowed the film to escape the hot spotlight of a summertime flop and, instead, be sent-off to the wasteland of quickly forgotten wintertime films. Problem is, "Jupiter Ascending" is so bad, I'm going to have a hard time forgetting it.
Channing Tatum, who had a very good 2014, with "22 Jump Street" and "Foxcatcher", doesn't look like he was having much fun playing Caine, the spliced part-Wolf/part-Human. Mila Kunis (who I swear waved at me while she was backing into her driveway in suburban Hollywood neighborhood I was visiting last month) plays Jupiter Jones, born shortly after her Russian astronomer father died while trying to save his prized telescope. She cleans houses for a living, but it turns out that, genetically, she the Queen of the Universe, or something like that. She's never been stung by a bee because, as stated by Sean Bean's military-man Stinger, bees don't sting royalty. I wonder if Prince William would agree.
For reasons too complex to explain in writing (though the Wachowskis somehow did in order to form a screenplay), Jupiter is targeted by two brothers who rule the universe, controlling the planets and harvesting those who live on them so they can live forever. But if Jupiter is alive, she controls all. So one brother wants her dead and the other wants to marry her, and then kill her. Either way, things don't look too promising for the reluctant queen. However, she's got Tatum's Caine to protect her, first here on Earth, and then in the cheesy space locations where all these ridiculous characters and creatures exist.
Eddie Redmayne is a co-frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar for his excellent performance as Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything". But he gives an embarrassing performance as Balem, the brother who controls Earth and wants Jupiter dead. The only saving grace for Redmayne is that he's nearly unrecognizable and he doesn't have a lot of screen time so he could be saved from "The Norbit Effect", named for another Eddie - Eddie Murphy - whose performance in that disaster cost him an Oscar for "Dreamgirls".
"Jupiter Ascending" is more than two hours, much of it devoted to dialogue-free, monotonous action scenes, accompanied by such an annoyingly loud score that it's difficult to take any of the battles seriously. The story itself is predictable, yet confusing, but most of all, completely pointless. As for the effects - the talking alligators are pretty good, but only in comparison to Katy Perry's singing sharks.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Jupiter Ascending" gets a D-.
Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? If you don't know the answer to that question by now, you've been living under a certain sea star's rock. SpongeBob SquarePants has been a worldwide cultural phenomenon since his debut on Nickelodeon in 1999. In 2004, the sea creatures of Bikini Bottom went from TV screens to movie screens with "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie", in which Krusty Krab owner Mr. Krabs' arch-rival, Plankton, finally stole the Krabby Patty formula. SpongeBob and best friend Patrick then went on an epic adventure (complete with an iconic David Hasselhoff cameo) to get back King Neptune's crown and save the day.
A little more than 10 years later, the heroic sponge and co. have returned to theaters for "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water". It's difficult to call this a sequel because it isn't a direct, next chapter in this film series. Rather, this is simply a new installment in this very unique franchise, but one aimed at a fresh target audience.
Those who grew-up with SpongeBob in its prime, and were six or seven years old when the '04 movie was released (including yours truly) have remained loyal fans of the show and have been anxious to finally get a second feature. "Sponge Out of Water" is an amusing, largely entertaining and memorable film. However, it's clear director Paul Tibbitt (a staple of the TV series from the beginning) and screenwriters Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel ("Kung Fu Panda") didn't make this movie for the diehard fans of the show, who are certainly expecting non-stop laughs.
There are only about half a dozen great one-liners and a couple of laugh-out-loud exchanges and gags in the entire 90 minutes. In comparison, most of the 11-minute TV episodes include more than that. In the "funny" department, and only here, does "Sponge Out of Water" underwhelm. This is a very different film from the original, and in many ways a departure in scale and tone from the show, because it's directly aimed at the new generation of fans - 6-12 year-olds - who will be thrilled to watch new, unpredictable escapades involving some of their favorite cartoon characters.
The storyline doesn't stretch too-far outside the SpongeBob wheelhouse: Plankton still wants to get his hands (?) on that Secret Formula (again, forget about anything that happened in the original film), but when he tries to take it, literally, out of SpongeBob's hands, it magically disappears. So Plankton and SpongeBob actually have to work together as a team (the film's core theme) to try to get the formula back.
But, after a post-apocalyptic stretch in which Bikini Bottom is in a state of chaos because there are no Krabby Patties, and a time-travel sequence involving a very strange, talking dolphin, a Squidward-sauras and a wacky Pharrell Williams song, SpongeBob, Patrick, Sandy, Mr. Krabs, Squidward and Plankton eventually make it into our world (as the trailers have revealed). The animation bravely changes from hand-drawn to CGI and these guys have to take down the pirate Burger Beard (played by Antonio Banderas), the evil mastermind behind all of this madness.
"Sponge Out of Water" is quite ambitious in mixing multiple genres and multiple styles of animation together into one crazy and wildly bizarre action film for kids. Young audience members will mostly remember the final 20 minutes, which involves an aquatic version of "The Avengers" and provides some fun moments.
In order to enjoy watching "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water", you've really just got to go with it, whether it's Burger Beard talking to some sidekick, comic relief seagulls, the odd interactions with the human beach goers, and even a late-in-the-film rap battle. This may be one of the most creative movies released all year. Banderas said in a recent interview that everything about the world of SpongeBob is "surreal", and that's why the characters and the show have remained so popular for 16 years. Surreal perfectly describes this newest film, which I'm sure will not be the last. And as someone who's been a fan for nearly my entire life, I will continue to watch the show and look forward to what's coming next from the superstar sponge and his pals.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" gets a B+.
Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") is nominated again this year in the Best Actress category for her raw and consistently believable performance as Sandra, a wife and mother of two, fighting to keep her job in the Belgian drama "Two Days, One Night".
That's all the time Sandra has to find and persuade 16 co-workers at a solar panel company that they should turn-down their bonuses and, instead, vote for Sandra to keep her job. It isn't going to be easy, since Sandra is just coming back to work after time away battling depression. And many of her co-workers simply can't afford to pass-up their 1000 Euro bonuses, because they have to take care of their own, struggling families.
At just 95 minutes, "Two Days, One Night" moves-along quickly. There are no major subplots (though at times we feel that something is coming), so the story is just as simple as my plot synopsis. It becomes obvious early in the film that some of the workers will support Sandra and others will not. Nonetheless, the movie is an interesting study of a desperate, possibly unstable woman, pushed to do things she does not want to do.
And it's Cotillard's work that elevates the straightforward screenplay. We experience her pain (both physical and mental) and frustration. Her character feels just as bad (if not worse) having to ask others not to take their bonuses as she does for the tough situation she is in.
Other movies have delved into this topic, but none so directly as "Two Days, One Night", in which we get the portrayal of a woman, who despite her flaws, has the strength and courage to fight for and, ultimately, do what's right, even if it's not what's right for her.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Two Days, One Night" gets a B-. It's no surprise that Cotillard's nomination is the film's only Oscar recognition, but her performance alone makes it worth seeing.
This year's group of five Oscar nominees in the Best Animated Short Film category is the strongest I've ever seen, so coming-up with a clear frontrunner is not easy. Here are the Nominees:
"The Bigger Picture" (8 min., UK) - The style is groundbreaking, with a mix of life-size claymation figures and set pieces, as well as paintings. The story is heavy - two brothers taking care of their elderly, and eventually dying mother. Authentic to a tee, but rather depressing. B-
"The Dam Keeper" (18 min., USA) - This is my favorite of the group. Brought to life with more than 8,000 paintings, the story centers around a grade-school pig who has a very important job - taking care of the dam that protects the town. Pig is also bullied at school for being dirty. But that all changes when he's befriended by a new student, Fox. With some raw and surprisingly powerful scenes, including a shockingly serious turn in the second half, this is daring and often brilliant. A-
"Feast" (6 min., USA) - It's the most widely-seen of the group since Disney debuted it in theaters before "Big Hero 6". This is about a dog named Winston who loves human food, and his owner who begins a human relationship that directly effects Winston's eating habits. It's a little simple, but charming, sweet and satisfying, though I would've chopped-out an unnecessary extended ending. B-
"Me and My Moulton" - (13 min., Canada & Norway) - A Moulton is a unique style bicycle. And even though it's in the title. this isn't exactly what the short focuses on. Rather, it's about a middle-daughter of a quirky family, who's living, what she believes, is an imperfect life. The animation is light and bright and there are some clever moments. But it's the serious and surprisingly deep themes that stand out. B
"A Single Life" - (2 min., Netherlands) - All I will delve into about this CGI short is that a woman receives a record of a song called "A Single Life". She begins to play it, and what happens next is rather unique and a little bizarre, but original, funny and quite memorable. B
And the four "Highly Commended" shorts shown are:
"Sweet Cocoon" - (6 min., France) - All-too-predictable story, low-level animation and a terrible ending. C-
"Footprints" - (4 min., USA) - Bill Plympton's latest has a decent concept but a disappointing payoff. C
"Duet" - (4 min., USA) - Legendary Disney artist Bill Keane's beautiful love story. B+
"Bus Story" - (11 min., Canada) - Solid tale of a quirky bus driver in a small town. C+
On The Official LCJ Report Card, the "2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation", overall, gets a B. Seek it out at a nearby theater before Oscar Night on Sunday, February 22nd. And my prediction for which short film will win The Oscar will be announced, along with my picks in all the other categories, in mid-February.
The trailers that The Weinstein Company released for "Paddington" were noisy and slapstick-heavy, making this family adventure, based on the iconic children's book character, appear to be dreadful. They also decided to push the US opening date back from Christmas Day to the middle of January, normally a move made when a studio realizes that their film is dreadful.
But then I started noticing something amazing: glowing reviews for "Paddington" began to pop-up everywhere online, from both the US and the UK. And then the film received two BAFTA nominations (the British equivalent of The Oscars), including one for Best Adapted Screenplay. All of them made me begin to wonder - "Can it really be that good?" Well, to my pleasant surprise, "Paddington" is that good, indeed.
Paul King, a British indie writer and TV director who never helmed a "commercial" film before, deserves much of the credit. I'm sure offers for new projects are already pouring in for King, whose unique and magical vision shines throughout "Paddington". Numerous imaginative scenes involving such things as a life-size doll house of the Brown home that comes to life, toys of all shapes and sizes and an recurring calypso band supply a "live" soundtrack could easily have come from the minds of Wes Anderson or Tim Burton, but King makes every bold element on display his own.
The opening scenes take us deep in the jungles of Peru, where we are supplied, via newsreel footage, with Paddington Bear's backstory: A British explorer discovered the rare domesticated bear species and told the bears he encountered they would be welcome as friends if they ever visited England. Following a Disney-esque event, Paddington's aunt sends the young bear (voiced by "Skyfall"'s Ben Whishaw) off alone to London, to find a new family, complete with that famous "Please take care of this bear" tag.
The Brown family notices the bear at the Paddington train station (that's how he gets his name) and decides to take him in for the night. Mr. Brown (played by "Downton Abbey"'s Hugh Bonneville) wants Paddington to immediately be taken to the authorities, while Mrs. Brown (Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins) thinks their new visitor might benefit their two children and add some much-needed life to their home.
Similar to the animated character of Captain DuBois in "Madagascar 3", Nicole Kidman plays an evil taxidermist named Millicent who learns that Paddington is in London and wants to make him the masterpiece of her extensive collection. Kidman, thankfully, plays it relatively straight-forward.
"Paddington" doesn't rely much on big laughs in order to satisfy its audience. There are a few quality one-liners, such as a narrator stating "There are 107 ways Londoners say 'It's raining'", as well as a well done running joke involving the marmalade sandwich Paddington keeps in his hat and some pigeons. There are a couple of slapstick scenes (which are amusing enough), but they are far from dominant in the story.
Many of Britain's finest came-out to be a part of this adventure: "Doctor Who", Peter Capaldi, plays the Browns' neighbor, Jim Broadbent is an antique shop owner, Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton voice Paddington's aunt and uncle, and Julie Walters plays the Browns' wise housekeeper. They, along with the young actors who play the Brown children, all deliver at the right tone for this fable.
The CGI work of the Paddington character is excellent and Whishaw's voice work is a perfect fit. Originally, Colin Firth was picked to be the voice of Paddington, but late in production, the casting switch was made. This turned out to be a great decision, as Firth's distinctive voice would have been too identifiable and mature for the young, mischievous bear.
Overall, this is a crowning achievement, and one of the best adaptations of children's story to a live-action film in recent memory. It has the perfect balance of humor, hijinks and heart.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Paddington" gets an A-. To paraphrase a line from one of Paddington's distant relatives: "It's smarter than the average bear movie".
"Black or White" is inspired by true events and stars Kevin Costner as Elliot, a successful lawyer who works and lives in an affluent areas of Los Angeles. We learn in the opening scenes that his wife has just died in a car accident. The couple had custody of their young, African American granddaughter Eloise (played by Jillian Estell) because her mother, their daughter, died while giving birth to Eloise when she was only 17. The girl's father, a drug addict and criminal, was in and out of prison and not in the picture. He is also black.
The following day Elliot, who's been treating years of pain with excessive alcohol use, shares the news of the death with Eloise after school. It's a nicely executed, heartbreaking scene.
Shortly after the services, Elliot learns that Eloise's other grandmother, Rowena (played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) has decided to seek full custody of Eloise, and bring her to Compton to live with her extensive family. She feels the girl needs the love of her relatives and to be exposed to the black culture and community, which she's not getting now. Elliot won't give-up his granddaughter and Eloise wants to stay with him. So the battle for custody of this little girl is on, with race playing a major role in the strategies used by both sides.
Anthony Mackie gives a career-best performance as Rowena's brother, Jeremiah, an accomplished lawyer who will represent her side in court. He's determined to make this case all about Black vs. White, painting Elliot as a racist. Rowena reluctantly gives-in to this strategy since it may be the best way for them to win custody. And the fight for Eloise gets ugly, portrayed through a series of incidents, confrontations and courtroom scenes. And Eloise's father returns, complicating things even more.
"Black or White" deals with more tricky, hot-topic issues than it can handle, including death, child custody, substance abuse, and most of all racial tension. You'd think this would mean that it's a straightforward drama. But writer/director Mike Binder (whose last film was the 2007 Adam Sandler/Don Cheadle drama "Reign Over Me") mixes in a surprising amount of light material, including an upbeat compilation of music, a goofy girlfriend of Elliot's lawyer partner, and an over-the-top math tutor hired by Elliot to help his granddaughter. Each of these is constantly interrupting the dramatic tension and flow of the main narrative.
The result is an uneven film in both story and tone, with the positives slightly outweighing the negatives. Costner is excellent in several showcase scenes, and Spencer is solid as a proud woman with a good heart who's blinded by the love for her family. Andre Holland ("42", "Selma") dominates the screen time in the film's second half as Eloise's biological father, who says he's trying to clean up his act, but is losing that fight. This subplot gets a little too much attention.
While watching "Black or White", I was thinking back to the classic child custody film, "Kramer vs. Kramer". What made that 1979 Best Picture winner truly work was the relationship between Dustin Hoffman's Ted and his son Billy. The courtroom scenes did not dominate the film, or take away from the father-son story. It's the exact opposite in "Black or White", as the focus becomes more legal and less emotional as the film progresses.
At times, "Black or White" is quite effective, moving, and daring in dealing with its controversial topics. However, Binder just as often plays it safe, getting both heavy-handed and light in sections that just didn't need either. If handled better, this could've been a very powerful movie. Instead, it falls short of being both a gripping film and a fresh commentary on race relations.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Black or White" gets a disappointing C+.
I never thought it was possible that an awful trailer for a film could turn out to be better than the actual movie. But, as he seems to do in every film - whether as a wacky character, or in a wild costume, or just with his performance - Johnny Depp has stunned me yet again. "Mortdecai", which Depp both produced and stars in, left me mortified.
Depp has, once again, typecast himself into his unique brand of quirkiness, playing a bumbling Brit with a bloody bothersome accent named Lord Charlie Mortdecai. He is an art aficionado whose latest "masterpiece" is his own mustache. Depp reportedly had multiple versions of it on set - no wonder it looks so ridiculously fake on screen.
The plot can be described in one sentence: Mortdecai learns that a famous painting has been stolen and he goes to great lengths, with his bodyguard and loyal manservant Jock (played by Paul Bettany) to get it back. There's also a whole lot of nothing involving Charlie's wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), a British inspector (Ewan McGregor) who's had a crush on Johanna for more than two decades (somebody should tell him to move on while he still can) and a slew of others who want the rare painting for themselves. Jeff Goldblum plays one of them. He's fresh-off of another "painting heist" comedy, "The Grand Budapest Hotel". I wasn't a big fan of Wes Anderson's latest zany effort, but it's an all-time classic compared to "Mordecai".
The script was written by Eric Aronson, whose only previous credit is the 2001 film, "On the Line", which starred Joey Fatone and Lance Bass. Enough said. The story runs around in so many circles, like a dog chasing its tail, and by the time we reach the end there isn't one hint of satisfaction. Out of the 106 minute runtime there isn't moment of enjoyment or quality. EVERYTHING is wrong, from the low-level plot, to the copycat "Monty Python"/ "Pink Panther"-esque lead character, the embarrassing supporting performances, humorless stunts and gags, and clumsy camerawork and editing. I didn't laugh once, and the five other people in the theater were dead quiet as well.
As for Depp, it only took two months after his short, yet impressive performance as The Wolf in "Into the Woods", to get him on back my list of least reliable actors in Hollywood. Hard to believe he, an everyone else involved in this mess, believed they were working on something anyone would want to see.
Shockingly, "Mortdecai" is based on a novel by the late Kyril Bonfiglioli, who was an art dealer. It had a much funnier title - Don't Point That Thing at Me. But the novel was written more than 40 YEARS AGO! No wonder nothing about this version seems fresh or original. Slow, stale and so silly that it can't be taken seriously, even as a farce, "Mortdecai" is the classic example of a movie project gone wrong and buried by a studio in the month of January. However, in this case, Lionsgate didn't bury it deep enough. This not only belongs six-feet under, but with a high-rise built on top of it so there's absolutely no chance it could ever see the light of day.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mortdecai" gets an F. Even though we're only four weeks into the year, it will be a serious contender for 'Worst Film of 2015' honors.
"Cake" is quite a departure in the career of star Jennifer Aniston. First of all, it's a drama. Most of the films Aniston has done have been over-the-top, romantic comedies. And before that, of course, she became a star on the TV sitcom "Friends". Next, "Cake" deals with difficult subjects: pain, suicide and death. And finally, to be authentic in the portrayal of her character, Claire, Aniston doesn't wear any makeup. It's a bold decision and a brave performance, deserving of the Best Actress nominations she's already received from Critics Choice, SAG, and the Golden Globes.
"Cake" is one of those films in which the life of the main character is unveiled in pieces, as the story progresses, and you don't figure-out everything until the very end, and even then there are unanswered questions. Claire is living in a suburban California home, separated from her husband. She has a housekeeper Silvana (played by "Babel" Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza). And Claire takes a lot of medication to deal with the constant physical pain she's dealing with throughout her body. Claire has noticeable scars, but early on we're not sure why. And she has major psychological scars as well.
Nina, one of the women in Claire's support group, recently committed suicide by jumping off of a highway bridge, leaving behind a husband and young son. Seeing, in the opening scene, a large picture of Anna Kendrick, who plays Nina, surrounded by the other support group members, is a little startling. Over the next few days, Claire begins to question, as we do, why Nina took her life. In an attempt to get some answers she begins an unlikely friendship with Roy, Nina's widower (played by Sam Worthington).
"Cake" is not the feel-good film of the year. The tone is consistently grim and sad, with only a few brief, lighter moments, as Claire tries to make it through each day dealing with her many physical and emotional issues. She's angry, depressed, and most days it's only the addiction to pain killers that keeps her from lashing-out at everyone around her, and possibly, herself. Hope is nowhere to be found. And as the narrative unfolds, we get more details as to why. The question is: can Claire be saved?
While I admire what this script was attempting to do, there aren't as many layers to "Cake" as I was expecting. The story is surprisingly straightforward, though there is a deeper meaning to many of the elements, including the film's title. But for the entire time, thanks to Aniston's incredible work, we are with Claire as she struggles to turn her life around, haunted, not unlike Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" (not as far-off of a comparison as you might think) by the tragedies of her past, the desperation of her present life, and the fears of what's to come.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Cake" gets a solid B.
Practically a year to the day after the Ice Cube/Kevin Hart action comedy "Ride Along" opened (becoming 2014's first box office hit), Hart is back with the romantic comedy "The Wedding Ringer". He plays Jimmy, the owner of a Best Man service business in which he participates in the weddings of total strangers who don't have a real close friend to be their Best Man.
Doug (Josh Gad) is one of those guys. He's gone through his Rolodex and can't find anyone to be the Best Man at his upcoming wedding to demanding fiancee Gretchen ("The Big Bang Theory" star Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting). So he hires Jimmy, who also needs to recruit seven other guys to be Doug's groomsmen. Of course, this all has to be kept secret from Gretchen, her family, and all the wedding guests. For his fake identity this time, Jimmy is a priest from North Dakota who also serves in the military named Bic Mitchum. As the story goes, he and Doug have been best friends since college.
Of course, in reality, Jimmy and Doug know nothing about each other. But that will change over the next 10 days.
"The Wedding Ringer" is a lot funnier than I expected. Hart and Gad deliver many smarter than average, laugh-out-loud lines that poke fun at relationships, their characters, and completely random material. The humor is often raunchy, but mostly positive, current and on target. The duo make for an entertaining on-screen pair well beyond the five-minute dance sequence teased in the trailer.
While the concept of the "The Wedding Ringer" is unique, the execution is predictable, though never dull. The middle act is the weakest due to extended periods of time spent at Doug's bachelor party, the ridiculous rest of the evening, and a touch football game featuring NFL Hall of Famers which was added simply to fill time.
And, unfortunately, the story gets overly sentimental at times. You expect it at the end, but too often throughout the film, Hart, Gad and Jennifer Lewis (who plays Jimmy's assistant) have scenes involving heart to heart conversations that kill the mood of what wants to be and should be simply an outrageous comedy. These auditions for dramatic roles in future films were unnecessary.
However, a refreshing effort with a satisfying number of laughs is a not a bad way to kick-off the genre in 2015, and it's a welcome alternative to all the serious Awards Season options currently in theaters. Plus, if you're a Cloris Leachman fan and thought she was ready to retire from acting, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Wedding Ringer" gets a B-.
The film that defined Clint Eastwood/Director in the 1990s was "Unforgiven". In the 2000s, "Million Dollar Baby", his excellent boxing drama co-starring Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, likewise earned Eastwood Best Director and Best Picture Oscars. Now, for this current decade, "American Sniper" could very well be the film that takes Eastwood to the pinnacle of his profession once again. This powerhouse drama is not only one of the best movies of 2014, but may be the quintessential contemporary war film.
Bradley Cooper, who's given recent standout performances in "Silver Linings Playbook", "The Place Beyond the Pines", and "American Hustle", raises the bar even higher in this true story about the life of Navy SEAL. Chris Kyle. Kyle is enjoying life as a Texas cowboy, riding bulls and hanging with his younger brother when, in August 1998, he sees TV accounts of the U.S. Embassy attacks in East Africa. He immediately decides to join the military, and signs-on for the tough SEAL program. During his training he meets and falls in love with the woman he would soon marry, Taya (played by Sienna Miller).
There have been plenty of great films depicting the nightmares of war, and a handful of films that deal with the effects of war on soldiers once they return home. What sets "American Sniper" apart (and above) is that it does both. Eastwood provides remarkable insight into the two sides of Kyle's life, working from a script based on Kyle's best-selling memoir. The majority of the action takes place in The Middle East, where Kyle served four tours, compiling so many kills as a sniper (more than 150 in all) that he becomes known as "The Legend". But it's a title he doesn't embrace, believing he's simply doing his job: protecting his fellow soldiers, his family, and his country.
But it's Kyle's interactions with Taya on the phone from Iraq and Afghanistan (as she's raising their family alone), and his time at home in between tours, which provide some of "American Sniper"'s most powerful moments. We see the challenges, the stress and the suffering that both of these people are going through. Taya struggles with the idea that Chris wants to return fighting, even though he has a loving wife and children that need a father. But Chris struggles with life when he's away from the action, and doesn't have a weapon in his hands. He's unable to focus on his family without hearing suspicious noises or looking for trouble. And in one tragically sad scene in an auto repair shop, we witness him incapable of accepting the thanks from a vet whose life he saved in battle. This is one of Cooper's shining moments.
The violence in "American Sniper" is brutal, bloody, and tragically real. It's even more authentic in look and feel than 2012's "Zero Dark Thirty" and last year's "Lone Survivor". Eastwood's first-rate directing of the action sequences is fearless, highlighted by a masterful, climactic dust storm battle. This scene is topped only by the stunning impact of the final 10 minutes, which provide the ultimate tribute to this imperfect, but honorable American hero.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "American Sniper" gets an A. It is a Modern Classic.
Several films in recent years have dealt with the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease, but none so effectively and tragically as "Still Alice". Based on the best-selling novel by Lisa Genova, "Still Alice" stars Julianne Moore plays the title character, a Columbia University professor of linguistics, who, at the age of 50, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. The shattering news has a dramatic affect on her and her family tremendously, including husband John (Alec Baldwin gives his most authentic performance in years), son Tom, and daughters Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (an excellent Kristen Stewart). Alice knows that she cannot beat the disease, but vows to enjoy the remaining time she has while most of her memories are in tact.
Over the course of the film we witness Alice as her condition dramatically worsens. There are numerous heartbreaking scenes in which she simply can't remember names or faces, misplaces things and getting lost in her own home. Scenes working with her neurologist and sharing the initial news of her condition with her children are especially powerful.
There's little suspense in the story, since the characters and the audience all know Alice's fate. And yet "Still Alice" is one of the most riveting film experiences of the year. We are continuously pounded emotionally, as this intelligent woman, so full of life, crumbles, mentally, before our eyes. The scenes become harder and harder to watch and we share in the hopelessness and despair that Alice and her loved-ones are going through. And it's Moore's incredible performance that makes it all work. Nothing her ever feels forced or phony, even when you think the script might go there.
At times "Still Alice" does get a little too heavy-handed, with a piercing piano soundtrack and too many flashback images. And there are a few minor, but noticeable continuity issues. However, this is a performance-driven film about a very important subject, and it needs to be seen.
In one of the film's best moments, Alice, already far into the disease, accepts an invitation to speak at an Alzheimer's conference. We see her highlighting each line as she reads it with "this yellow thing" (unable to remember the word "highlighter") so that she doesn't read the same line over and over. Moore has previously been nominated for four Academy Awards, but has never won. With this performance expect that number now to go to five, with a first win very likely.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Still Alice" gets a B+.
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