Thursday, March 26, 2015

Laughs on the way to prison

Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart team up for a comedy that's short on imagination.
If you read the words "American comedy," what springs to mind?

If "stupid," "tasteless" and "juvenile" crop up, you're definitely in the right ballpark.

I'll go with dumb and even dumber for the new comedy Get Hard in which Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart strain to deliver as many jokes about homosexual rape as an "R" rating can abide.

Get Hard -- a movie that seems to have built around little more than stereotypical thinking and commercial calculation -- relies on the fact that Ferrell is so insistently goofy, it's difficult to be offended by him. For his part, Hart has perfected a mixture of agitation and likability.

Together, Ferrell and Hart do their best to sell a comedy that's long on repetitive gags and short on imagination. Their best isn't enough.

Here's the premise: Ferrell plays a rich Los Angeles hedge-fund manager who's sentenced to 10 years in jail after being wrongly convicted of fraud.

Thinking most black males have done prison time, Ferrell's James asks the guy who washes his car (Hart's Darnell) to prepare him for the frightening ordeal of prison.

James doesn't think to ask whether Darnell actually has been in prison (he hasn't), but figures that any black man should know the ropes when it comes to incarceration. Family man Darnell goes along with James's racist assumption because he needs $30,000 to move his wife and daughter out of South Central and into a safer neighborhood with better schools.

Once the deal is struck, James and Darnell retreat to James's mansion where they try to simulate prison conditions as a way to ready James for the harsh realities of San Quentin, the slammer where he's supposed to serve his time.

The movie's obvious double entendre title should give you a clue about the kind of humor that's on tap. It also helps to know that you'll have seen Ferrell's bare butt twice before the opening credits have finished.

The supporting cast is pretty much incidental. For the record, Craig T. Nelson plays James's boss, and Alison Brie appears as the boss's daughter, a conniving sexpot who -- at least at the beginning of the movie -- is engaged to James.

Some of the early reviews of Get Hard have talked about the movie's homophobia. There's even a men's room scene in which James -- pretty much a failure at turning himself into thug -- is told that the only option he has left is to learn how to fellate tougher convicts, voluntarily becoming the "bitch" they want him to be.

Comedies that try to push the envelope when it comes to bits that are bound to offend the unwary can earn a modicum of forgiveness by being funny. This one, not so much.

When it finally dawns on Darnell and James that James never will transform into a hard case, they devote their time to wrapping up the movie's poor excuse of a plot by trying to prove that James doesn't have to do the time because he didn't do the crime.

Director Etan Cohen, who wrote Tropic Thunder and Men in Black 3, gleefully packages the movie's bad taste, stereotypes and endless jokes about prison rape. But as Hollywood comedies go, Hard Guys feels like it's mining material that long since has been tapped out or possibly even run out of town: It's more of the same, only maybe even less clever.

An aging rocker seeks redemption

Al Pacino stars as a singer who squandered his talent.
In 2005, a British musician named Steve Tilston learned that John Lennon had written him an encouraging letter. The catch: Tilston never received the letter, which was written in 1971 and sent to a rock magazine, where it apparently languished until it wound up in the hands of a collector.

The story instantly raised questions about how Tilston's life might have unfolded had he been able to read that letter when it was sent.

That mind-blowing incident inspired director Dan Fogelman's Danny Collins, the fictionalized story of a sell-out American musician (Al Pacino) who -- like his real-life counterpart -- learns too late that he once received a letter from Lennon urging him to pursue his own vision.

Never having seen the letter, Danny followed a commercial path. When we meet Danny, he has become a kind of show-business joke, a singer whose work appeals to aging boomers who implore him to repeat what amounts to a series of insipid hits, most notably a song entitled "Hey, Baby Doll."

When Danny's manager (Christopher Plummer) finds the letter and presents it to Danny as a birthday present, the singer's world is ... you'll pardon the expression ... rocked.

Danny suddenly realizes what he's known all along: He's wasted his life on trivial rock and wanton sex, much of it to the accompaniment of drugs and alcohol.

From an artistic point of view, Danny committed the worst of all sins: He betrayed his own talent.

Deep into his 60s, Danny decides that it's time for a change.

He drops a pre-arranged tour, junks his philandering young girlfriend, leaves his plush Los Angeles home and heads to New Jersey, where he checks into a Hilton hotel. He insists on having a baby grand piano delivered to his room so he can write the music he should have been creating all along.

Why New Jersey? Danny has a grown son (Bobby Cannavale) in New Jersey. He's never seen the young man, but Danny thinks it's time to set his personal life straight. To do this, Danny must overcome the justifiable resentments of a son he essentially abandoned.

Cannavale's Tom works construction. His wife (Jennifer Garner) is expecting the couple's second child. The first child, a daughter, suffers from ADHD, and touches Danny's heart. He wants to be a grandpa.

Danny's commitment to sobriety wavers with the ups and downs of his developing relationship with his son. He also tries to seduce the hotel's manager (Annette Bening), a prim woman who's smart enough not to fall for Danny's banter -- at least not at first.

Neither drippy enough to slop over into sentiment nor observant enough to be entirely convincing, Danny Collins hardly qualifies as the kind of movie in which you'd like to see Pacino.

Pacino makes it clear that Danny isn't the least bit deluded about the kind of figure he cuts. He's tired of being preposterous, but he's also addicted to the material success that a one-note career has given him.

Fogelman (Crazy, Stupid Love) doesn't always make obvious choices, although much of what transpires in Danny Collins feels contrived.

Watching Pacino has its rewards, but this story of a man seeking redemption in his golden years fails to provide either him or us with sufficient challenge.

Horror in the quiet mode

It Follows treats horror as a sexually transmitted disease.
We've all seen plenty of movies in which sex mingles with danger, but few have so directly presented the perils of close encounters as It Follows, a movie that turns horror into a sexually transmitted disease.

Director David Robert Mitchell 's debut movie has received a great deal of attention, partly because it goes against the current horror grain of blood, gore and shock.

In my view, Mitchell's mood-reliant movie has been a bit over-praised, but it deserves credit for taking the usual starting point for teen horror -- sex as a transgression for which a teen-ager (usually a girl) must pay -- and pushing it into menacing terrain.

Mitchell's story revolves around Jay (Maika Monroe), a 19-year-old whose sexual encounter with a boy (Jake Weary) results in a singularly devastating consequence.

The young man is being followed by a strange, ill-defined entity that threatens his life and scares the hell out of him. The only way he can rid himself of this horrifying affliction is to pass it on to someone else through sex.

In this sexual game of tag, Jane suddenly is "it."

A disturbing premise sets up a situation in which Jay becomes keenly aware of everyone in her environment and so do we. That's the movie's biggest strength: It has us looking around every frame for trouble. It traps us in its disquiet.

The demon (I use the term as a kind of shorthand, although the movie never really tells us much about the "it" of its title) can appear in a number of guises and is visible only to the person who's being followed.

Once Jay realizes her predicament, she and her initially dubious friends must figure out a way to break the spell under which Jay has fallen.

This demon-busting crew consists of Jay's sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and a couple of friends (Keir Gilchrist and Olivia Luccardi).

Fair to say (as many have) that It Follows is more in touch with the insistently eerie spirit of Korean horror than with American slice-and-dice cinema.

That's a definite plus, but I wouldn't say that the developments in It Follows are entirely credible, and Mitchell sometimes seems to be trying a little too hard to up the anxiety ante.

Still, if you like creepy horror, Mitchell delivers enough of it to make you wonder whether security is little more than illusion.

The score by a musician who calls himself "Disasterpeace" helps create the movie's eerie aura, although it sometimes sounds as if a jumbo jet has taken a drastically wrong turn and is roaring through your head.

Divorce, Israeli style. It's not pretty

A gripping movie about one woman's quest to end her marriage..
According to Orthodox Jewish law, a woman only can be divorced from her husband if he agrees to give her what is known as a "gett," a religiously sanctioned document that's necessary if the marriage is to be dissolved. If the husband refuses, the woman cannot be divorced.

This religious provision, which is part of Israeli law, can lead to heartbreak and frustration when a recalcitrant husband chooses to deny his wife's request.

This is the background for the powerful Israeli movie Gett: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem, a sobering courtroom drama about one woman's efforts to obtain a divorce from her reluctant husband.

Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane, a woman who hasn't lived with her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) for three years. Viviane supports herself as a hairdresser, and still helps pay off the family mortgage.

As possessive as he is pious, Elisha won't budge. As the movie unfolds, we learn about what appears to have been a loveless marriage in which Viviane became increasingly miserable. The couple had four children, only one of whom remains at home.

It's instructive that the opening images are presented from Viviane's perspective. She's seated in the courtroom, which means the camera is looking up at the men who will decide her fate. Further elaboration seems unnecessary.

Vivian's lawyer (Menashe Noy) persuasively argues her case, but can't disguise his growing exasperation. Elisha is represented by his brother (Sasson Gabai). A three-judge panel is led by a rabbi played by Eli Gorstein.

Gett takes place almost entirely in an unadorned courtroom, where Elkabetz subtly and more directly reveals her reactions to the proceedings or to witnesses who testify during hearings that wind up spanning an agonizing five years.

Co-directed and co-written by Elkabetz and her brother Shlomi Elkabetz, the movie raises issues that range from legally and morally substantive to highly personal. In this context, marriage -- no matter how unhappy -- is deemed of greater importance than Vivian's individual fulfillment.

What are the grounds for divorce? asks one judge.

She doesn't love him anymore, says Viviane's attorney.

A lack of love is not sufficient grounds for a divorce, replies the judge.

Not surprisingly, there are moments when this battling husband and wife, both originally from Morocco, look at each other with a bone-chilling contempt that amplifies the meaning of a familiar phrase, "If looks could kill."

Elisha says his wife's secular ways interfered with his religious observance and wrecked their 30-year marriage.

But the couple became engaged when Vivian was only 15, well before she legitimately could have known what she wanted from life.

Gett proves compelling because its clash of values is deeply felt and because the movie takes place in a hot-house atmosphere in which Viviane's smoldering emotions are never far from the surface. Elkabetz's performance is quietly vivid, expressing both Viviane's long-suppressed sexuality and her mounting disdain for a lop-sided court proceeding.

It's impossible, I suppose, for a secular American audience not to take sides in this dispute. The judges aren't necessarily committed to saving the marriage, but they must obtain an outcome that conforms to religious law.

Still, law favors the stony-faced Elisha. At one point, the judges encourage Viviane to return home to try to work things out. She does, but the situation proves intolerable.

Without being preachy, Gett presents one of the best cases ever made in a movie for civil law, not as a means of opposing religion -- those who choose to follow religious law should be able to do so -- but as a way of protecting vital human freedoms for those who want to live otherwise.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Improvement in the 'Divergent' series

Insurgent adds a bit of pep to the series' overall mediocrity.
There are at least two ways to look at Insurgent, the second installment in the planned four-movie Divergent series.

Taken on its own terms, this second chapter remains a disappointingly familiar helping of young adult sci-fi with a story built on a rigid caste system that divides what remains of the world's population into distinct personality groups -- the smart, the honest, the aggressive, etc.

Those stumbling into Insurgent with no prior knowledge will find a passable if not especially novel addition to a genre -- dystopian sci-fi -- that's best when it's a bit more brainy.

But if one allows for a little relativism, and places the movie in the context of a franchise with two more movies remaining, it's possible to argue that Insurgent marks an improvement over a far more tepid first installment.

With new director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, RED and R.I.P.D.) taking over from Neil Burger, this second helping emphasizes action and special effects, some of which are truly dazzling.

In this edition, the evil Jeanine (Kate Winslet) wants to capture heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley). A full-fledged divergent, Tris possess genes from all of the five personality types into which this futuristic society has been divided.

Tris also has the power to open a mysterious box that contains a message from the group that originally set up the factional system that's supposed to ensure that peace prevails.

Although the screenplay by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman and Mark Bomback remains laden with jargon, Insurgent feels a bit freer and looser than its predecessor.

The movie opens with a quartet of rebels on the run. Tris, her boyfriend Four (Theo James), Chris's brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and Peter (Miles Teller) are all fleeing the evil regime.

Early on, the movie's quartet of refugees seeks sanctuary among the greenery and quietude to an Amity village, Amity being the faction dedicated to a total lack of conflict, as well as to what appears to be a grimly wholesome vegetarian diet.

The head of Amity (Octavia Spencer) eventually decrees that the interlopers must be expelled from the Amity Eden.

We quickly learn that Tris has become mired in guilt from the last movie. She blames herself for the loss of her parents, a bit of torment that provides Woodley with a chance to add psychological depth to a character who also struggles to contain her most violent impulses.

Bland in the first installment, James adds a bit of welcome color to his portrayal, but the characters in Insurgent hardly qualify as memorable.

Sporting a brunette dye job, Naomi Watts makes an appearance as Four's mother, a woman he neither trusts nor loves. Watts's Evelyn leads a group called Factionless, misfits who may become a necessary part of the alliance that's required to overthrow Winslet's Jeanine, as much the tyrannical ice princess as ever.

The story builds toward scenes in which the captured Tris is hooked up to a device that causes her to hallucinate and puts her character through the severest of tests.

I don't know precisely what to make of it, but Tris's torture prompts the movie's best visual accomplishments, including a vertiginous sequence in which Tris imagines that she must rescue her mother from a burning house that's uprooted and careering through the ruins of what's left of Chicago.

And, yes, this is another movie in which someone could have gotten rich by cornering the rubble market.

I can't imagine that anyone but devotees of Veronica Roth's trilogy of novels will be enthralled, but that group seems large enough to create a seasonal hit.

Roth's final novel, Allegiant, is scheduled to be broken into two films. Listen, cynicism comes easy for me, but this time, I choose to be optimistic.

Despite its obvious liabilities, the Divergent series at least seems to be trending positive.

''71' immerses us in chaos in Belfast

A brutally involving look at a British soldier stranded behind enemy lines.

Getting caught behind enemy lines probably qualifies as a soldier's worst nightmare, particularly if that soldier happens to be alone.

That's exactly what happens to Private Gary Hook (Jack O'Connell) in the gripping, war-torn '71, a hyper-agitated helping of cinema set in Belfast during the tumultuous period of "the troubles."

Belfast is not a place Hook or anyone else wants to be with bullets flying and kids throwing bags of feces at the British troops, who are supposed be serving as peacekeepers.

The British soldiers aren't helped by a nervous commanding officer (Sam Reid) who leaves his troops ill-equipped to deal with the chaotic episode in which Hook is separated from his fellow soldiers.

O'Connell (Starred Up and Unbroken) belongs at the forefront of any list of important young British actors. Totally at home in a movie that relies on visceral charge, O'Connell embodies all of Hook's resourcefulness, panic and vulnerability. He gives a jolting, live-wire of a performance.

First-time director Yann Demange brings an immersive quality to this story of a British soldier on the run in a political environment so complex it can't help but erupt into chaos.

Protestants are battling with Catholics and the British soldiers are thrown into the middle of all this, along with unscrupulous undercover agents who try to play both sides from what appears to be a non-existent middle.

Demange seems less interested in sorting out political issues than in making a movie in which Private Hook must run for his life, a breathless flight full of convincingly lethal possibilities.

Hook -- a product of British foster homes -- is not fighting for a cause: He's simply trying to survive, and the various Irish factions don't pose the only threat to him.

At various points, Hook receives help from the locals, notably when a father and daughter (Richard Dormer and Charlie Murphy) provide him with shelter. But for Hook, there's no real comfort: Any situation can turn volatile in an instant.

Screenwriter Gregory Burke doesn't spell out Hook's background, but it's safe to assume that he joined the Army because he had few other options. Early on, we learn that Hook's younger brother (Harry Verity) is stuck in the same children's home that presumably spawned Hook.

After an institutionalized upbringing of extreme indifference, the army probably looked like a pretty good deal.

The point here is that soldiers such as Hook quickly become pawns in a game that they don't really understand -- not that anyone else understands it, either. Hook is as much a victim as he is peacekeeper.

We emerge from this movie in somewhat the same battered state as Hooks: We may not totally comprehend what happened, but we sure as hell don't want to re-visit this nightmare again.

That's probably a good thing: Movies such as '71 give us a taste -- cautionary, one hopes -- of how it feels to be tossed into a world in which there are no safe havens.

A look at the world of studio musicians

During the 1960s and early 1970s, a group of talented Los Angeles-based studio musicians became the uncredited force behind a ton of rock 'n' roll hits. Dubbed The Wrecking Crew, these musicians worked with groups (The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds), individual performers (Cher and Nancy Sinatra) and a host of others. Sometimes, the members of The Wrecking Crew played on recordings because they were better than a band's real members, who were told to take a hike. The documentary named for The Wrecking Crew revolves around major personalities in this respected group, notably bassist Carol Kay and guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Directed by Tedesco's son Denny, the movie pays tribute to musicians who, for the most part, remained anonymous to the public. The film acquires poignancy because many of those interviewed (Tedesco began the project in the mid-1990s) are no longer with us and because these gifted musicians became less important as bands became more musically proficient. It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated (that would include me) to learn that Glen Campbell began his career as a well-respected studio guitarist, only later establishing himself as a solo performer. The Wrecking Crew may not be in the same league as some of its predecessors (20 Feet From Stardom or Muscle Shoals, for example), but it's a valuable addition to the expanding number of documentaries that have been chronicling the history of popular music.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Familiar tale proves entertaining

Cinderella returns, this time with special effects and Cate Blanchett
Taking a break from Shakespeare, director Kenneth Branagh manages a neat trick: He serves up a visually witty and passably entertaining version of a story so familiar, we hardly can believe anyone wants to tell it again.

Lily James (of Downton Abbey) appears as Cinderella, a preternaturally understanding young woman who does her best to adjust to the substantial misfortunes fate deals her -- the early-picture death of her mother (Hayley Atwell) and the later demise of her doting father (Ben Chaplin).

It seems Dad made only one major mistake in his life: After being widowed, he married the conniving Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and brought his new wife and two daughters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) into his stately home.

You don't need to know much more because you already get the drift.

The pleasures of this Disney-produced edition of Cinderella have less to do with discovery than with its visual extravagance, created in part by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos.

Branagh's use of computer generated imagery serves to suggest a connection with Disney's fanciful animated version, a 1950 release that's regarded as a classic. Technological advances allow Branagh to offer novel views of wonders such as lizards turning into footmen for a pumpkin that has been transformed into a carriage.

Did I mention the movie's lovable mice?

An able supporting cast helps bring Chris Weitz's screenplay to life, as well.

Richard Madden plays the prince in this version, never a great role. The prince's father (Derek Jacoby) presses his son to get married, but pushes for the young man to wed a royal.

We also meet a devious Grand Duke portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard, who's ultimately saddled with the task of bringing additional intrigue to the story.

In this telling, Lady Tremaine -- a.k.a. The Wicked Stepmother -- tries to cook up a conspiracy with the Grand Duke that will prevent Cinderella from fulfilling her romantic destiny.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the gifted Blanchett makes the role her own, avoiding the temptation to create a sneering caricature.

The fairy godmother is played by Helena Bonham Carter, an actress who attempts to wring every bit of amusement out of her role.

This Cinderella isn't delivered with a heavy hand, and the result is an entertainment that boasts a wide range of secondary pleasures.

Examples: Dante Ferretti sets are suitably impressive. Sandy Powell's costumes provide their own amusement, particular those of Drisella and Anastasia, the two impossibly snooty stepsisters. Evil Stepmom boasts a preposterously expressive collection of hats.

Given the scale and color of the production, it's hardly surprising that Cinderella functions like a musical in almost every respect, except for the fact that it has no musical numbers. I can't say I missed them.

The primary audience -- girls and tweens -- probably will enjoy the movie, and the parents who accompany them won't suffer. To ask for anything more from another telling of the Cinderella story might be to demand the impossible.

'Run All Night:' Another vengeance saga

Liam Neeson and Ed Harris can't salvage this genre exercise.

Liam Neeson and Ed Harris play characters who share a deep history in Run All Night, the latest in what seems the endless series of kick-ass movies that have come to define Neeson's career.

In this current blast of violence and revenge, Neeson and Harris play a couple of Irish guys from Brooklyn who have known each other for a very long time, long enough for Harris's Shawn Maguire to be tolerant about the sorry state into which Neeson's Jimmy Conlon has fallen.

Time and guilt have turned Jimmy, a one-time hitman, into a pathetic neighborhood souse. For his part, Shawn is trying to live in semi-respectable, middle-class fashion.

Watching Neeson and Harris together makes you wonder what sort of movie might have developed if director Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed Neeson in 2014's Non-Stop, hadn't stepped into a bucket full of genre junk, doubling down on violence, jumbled action and contrived plot twists.

The trouble starts because Shawn's obnoxious son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) gets into trouble for setting up a heroin deal that his father rejects. This leads to a variety of plot contortions that culminate when Jimmy is forced to shoot Shawn's son in an act of self-defense.

Uninterested in how much of a bastard Danny might have been, Shawn vows vengeance. He pledges to kill Jimmy's son (Joel Kinnaman), a family man who works as a limo driver and who long ago broke off contact with his father.

Brad Ingelsby's screenplay establishes a situation in which a wayward father must try to save his son's life, a process that takes place over the course of one cold Christmas Eve.

Kinnaman, an unusual talent who starred in the RoboCop remake and in the TV series The Killing, strikes me as a difficult actor to cast. If you've seen him in The Killing, you know he can be compelling in an offbeat way. But he never quite finds his groove here, which means the movie's father/son dynamic tends to feel perfunctory.

The supporting cast features Vincent D'Onofrio as a Brooklyn cop who has spent the better part of his career trying to put Jimmy behind bars. Last seen as one of Martin Luther King's cohorts in Selma, Common turns his back on non-violence to portray a hitman who does Shawn's bidding.

Of course, Jimmy sobers up long enough to spring back into grueling action, which is really what the movie's about.

I wish I could say that Collet-Serra brought a clever spin to the action set pieces, but he pretty much hits every note straight on as the movie goes through its predictable paces.

Run All Night fails to fulfill the promise of its grittiest scenes. That's all the sadder because Harris makes Shawn's conflicted affection for Jimmy seem real, and because Neeson carries the weight of Jimmy's misdeeds with palpable sadness.

But all this to what avail? Despite flourishes that suggest real dramatic ambition, Run All Night goes nowhere we haven't been before.