Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber
Directed by: Mira Nair (“Amelia”)
Written by: William Wheeler (“The Hoax”)
Based on the New York Times bestselling novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” takes viewers into the past of Changez (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani man who moves to the U.S. to go to Princeton and chase the American dream. He rises to the top of a consulting firm where he is immediately take under the wing of Jim (Kiefer Sutherland), an executive who believes Changez has what it takes to thrive in the industry. After 9/11, however, things take a turn for the worst for Changez as he is met with new difficulties because of his nationality. Met with hostility from a country he loves, he soon finds himself at the center of a kidnapping. Sitting across from him is Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), a reporter who wants to find out where Changez’s ideals lie.
The element that works best in “Fundamentalist” is Changez’s rise to prominence at his firm Underwood Samson. Changez is a natural at thinking critically and assessing values of companies, often reminded by Jim of his “gift.” Ahmed plays these scenes with a well-rounded, quiet confidence. In fact, Ahmed is easily the strongest part of the film. He shows not only the ability to anchor the story as the lead, but delivers a wide emotional range. The film also takes time to reminds its viewers of the uneasiness with foreigners (and especially those of Middle Eastern descent) that was held in America shortly after the 2001 attacks. Not only is he mistakenly arrested on the street, but when returning from an international flight, Changez is singled out, taken to a backroom and strip searched. It’s a touch ham-handed but director Mira Nair certainly gets her point across that racial profiling exists in this country.
Technically, the majority of the film takes place in flashbacks, which attempts to offer most of the intended tension for the film. The plot, however, becomes convoluted and the payoff is weak. Additionally, there is a subplot involving Changez and his girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) that don’t work. The romance (and the arguments) between these characters fail to ignite any passion or chemistry on the screen.
In the wake of the events of the Boston marathon bombings, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is likely to be a hot topic for debate. It’s anti-profiling themes can be taken several different ways, with its impact either strengthening or weakening depending on how one relates it to current events. Regardless, the film as a whole fails to muster up enough interest and wears out its welcome over its bloated 2-hour-plus run-time. It’s a nice display for Ahmed, who is likely new to American audiences, but doesn’t have enough substance to stand alone as a strong political thriller.
In its inaugural year last April, the Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas featured 200 performances on 12 separate stages over the course of four hilarious days. This year, the line-up of national acts has grown even bigger and more impressive, starting with comedian Jim Norton. Norton, who is a regular on SiriusXM’s “The Opie and Anthony Show” and former host of the short-lived HBO comedy showcase “Down and Dirty with Jim Norton,” brings his self-deprecating, personal, topical and often dirty and offensive material to the stage on Saturday, April 27at Midnight at the Paramount Theater in downtown Austin.
Moontower is only in its second year of existence but they’ve been able to pull some really good acts. What about the festival appealed to you?
There are a lot of good acts working there. Amy’s [Schumer] working there, [Anthony] Jeselnik, [Marc] Maron. So the fact is when you see these really good comics doing something and you’re invited to do it you feel good to be associated with good comedians. And I like Austin. I’ve only done Austin once, but I loved it. The money was good and it’s a late-night show. It seemed like a really, really easy one to say yes to.
I saw last week that Louis CK was kind of criticized by a blogger about something he said during his HBO special. How frustrating is it as a comedian to see other comedians continue to be attacked for things they are saying on a stage in the context of their act?
It’s embarrassing for the country. It’s frustrating, but it makes me embarrassed for the country because we’re such a nation of twats. I mean that’s across all gender lines. We’re just babies. It makes me angry. Also, I find the outrage with all of them to be absolutely fraudulent and attention seeking. I have zero respect for the people offended by comedy or want to have comedy “taken to task.” Zero respect for them.
Right. It seems like in a lot of these cases you have these interest groups come out and basically try to dictate what is or isn’t okay to joke about. Do you think that makes things a lot more difficult for comedians who are trying to have their free speech and say what they want to say during their act?
Well, you have to take your free speech. You have to say what you want anyway. The interest groups are all selfish. All of them. Black groups care about black stuff, gay groups about gay stuff, Irish groups about Irish stuff. Every interest group is self-centered. So why anybody takes them seriously when they snivel about language is laughable. I respect a lot of what they do. I think that GLAAD is fighting for gay marriage and all these real things – these legitimate things – and then they get caught up on somebody’s language and I’m like, “Shut the fuck up.” Like, “That’s what you’re worried about?” Then they lose me. You know what I mean? Or all these other special-interest groups like women’s groups. They were all founded for a reason. They all started for a very legit reason and they’re all fighting for a real thing. But when they begin language policing it just makes me sick to my stomach. And I don’t believe that they’re truly offended. What they want to do is piggyback on the performer. Like when they catch you out there, “Gotcha!” They want to jump on your back and then you run around and parrot their message. It’s really weird. Special-interest groups are parasitic when they catch people saying something.
What about this past weekend when [Boston Red Sox player] David Ortiz dropped that F-bomb and the FCC came out and said that since he spoke from the heart it was OK. Were you annoyed by that?
No, I mean I liked the way they did it because they get letters from people like the Parents Television Counsel and all those other vomit-inducing groups. So, I think what happened is they were just kinda coming out and saying, “Everybody can just shut their mouths. We’re not changing anything.” I think that’s why the FCC did that. They kind of came by that to cut off any complaints that might come in.
Do you think the FCC doesn’t look at things circumstantial enough? Like they’ll just throw out a fine if you’re breaking a rule rather than looking at context?
Well, the FCC is a worthless organization. I mean, the content is everything and I can understand at one point where certain profanity wouldn’t be allowed but then they just, like everything else, over-extended and over-reached and they just became hateable thought-police. The reason cable is just kicking the shit out of radio and TV as far as all these awards are concerned is because a lot of the content can’t be done on regular TV. A lot of the honest language, they can’t have on regular TV. So I think the FCC has hopefully lost some steam.
Do you think it’s important that no subject is off-limits in terms of comedy?
Absolutely not. Of course, it’s all in terms of how you address the subject. Like, if you do a Boston Marathon joke, you might wanna be careful not to make fun of the people who got their legs blown off, you know, cause then people will be like, “Eh, we don’t see any joke there at all.” But the subject itself, why not talk about it? Why not talk about the incompetence of the attackers? Or make fun of their attraction to Islam? Whatever you want to make fun of. Usually you want to keep it off the victims, though. Or make fun of the media and the way covered it. But there’s no subject as a rule that is off-limits. Absolutely not.
Do you think in some cases it can make things like that easier to deal with? Just the fact that you can find a laugh somewhere in such serious subject matter?
It actually makes it easier for me. They call it gallows humor and I’ve always had that. So that’s what I think the great part of comedy is. People go, “Well, that’s not a funny subject.” Well, of course not. That’s the beauty of talking about it. The subject doesn’t have to be funny to talk about it. A comedian’s job is to take a subject, even an unfunny subject or a sad subject, and allow you to laugh at it. Or about it. Or with it.
You’ve been doing “Opie and Anthony” for many years now and I was wondering if being in that kind of environment where you’re always around funny people put some pressure on you to be funny or at least entertaining for four hours a day. Does that impact how you approach stand-up or do you see those as two different processes?
They’re different things. I hear Ant laugh or Opie laugh but with stand-up there’s an immediate reaction with strangers. So it makes you think more about topical stuff because we’re talking about them all morning. But it doesn’t really change the way I approach stand-up because I can’t meander on stage the way I can on radio. You can just talk about something for a little while.
Something I’ve heard you say on the show before is that you don’t really watch other comedians. Can you kind of elaborate a little on that?
I don’t want to know what they’re doing for a couple of reasons. A: it will depress me if it’s really good and B: I don’t want to be influenced by it. Like I’ve seen Louie (CK) do stand-up a million times, but I’ve never watched one of his stand-up specials. It’s not cause I don’t love him. I think he’s great. I think he’s hilarious. I just don’t want to see other people’s jokes, you know what I mean? I just don’t want to know. I don’t want to know what they’re doing. I’m only concerned with what I’m doing and this way I know any time I come up with a joke it has not been tainted or influenced by another person.
Does that make it any more difficult to know whether or not somebody has done a similar joke or a similar premise that you’ve done?
Yeah, I mean, it’s almost like if someone else is doing the exact same joke that I’m doing then one of us shouldn’t be doing it. But premise-wise, there are very few things that you can talk about that aren’t talked about. What can I talk about that no one else is? Which is why whenever I talk about stuff I try to put my own personal life into it and expose myself. Cause that part I own. I talked about Tiger Woods when that was topical. I can get my own destructive perversions and now I make fun of him. To me, that’s what makes it mine. That’s what makes it original. Owning up to my own bullshit, my own deviance.
That seems to be a trend that you see more and more often – comedians getting more personal with sometimes unflattering details about their lives. Do you think that’s something that is ingrained in a comedians DNA – to be able to talk about those things with no shame?
Some comedians. And sometimes even with shame. But I think comedians have learned how to take these demons and these horrible things, the things that hurt you or make you whatever, and make fun of them because it’s a way of getting power over them. That’s all it really is. Just a way of getting power over something that you feel is hurtful. Some comics don’t talk about stuff like that though. They don’t talk about personal stuff at all. So that kind of varies from comic to comic.
Something I feel like I’ve noticed is that there’s more comedians who are stepping away from the “joke-punchline” format and going to more anecdotal, long-form stories. Is that something you’ve noticed or picked up on?
Well, I mean again, I think that a comic should do all things. I think set up and punchlines are fine. But I also think you should be able to tell a story without making it such a joke-fest that there’s nothing believable about your story. But I think sometimes a laugh can come, not on an anti-punchline but on certain moments in your story. It doesn’t always have to be a rhythmic pounding. Any good comic, I think, is a little unpredictable. Whenever I see a comedian who is predictable in his rhythm or predictable in every opinion he has, I get immediately bored. When comics try and be right all the time, they get boring. I think you’re only obligated to be honest. You’re not obligated to always be right.
You’ve written two New York Times Best-selling books. I imagine that when you’re working out new stand-up material you have an instant sense of whether something works or not for an audience. Is not having that immediate feedback something that makes writing a book more challenging?
Well, I didn’t mind it because I’m a pretty good judge of my own writing. I re-write and re-write and edit and re-edit it so many times that by the time it got out, I was very confident in it. But it does make it a weird thing without any feedback, sure. But sometimes that can be an advantage because you get to look at it so many times before anybody else sees it. So I’ll get a good feeling whether or not it’s good. Like, I’ll read it and go, “Oh, that sucks!” Or, “Wow, that really holds up 10 days later.”
Has there ever been any point where you’ve gotten burned out on stand-up after doing it for so many years?
When I shoot a special, I’m done with that material. Like, “Please Be Offended,” I shot a year ago and it aired on Comedy Central and I haven’t done that material in a year. I just shot another special about a month ago which is going to be called “American Degenerate,” which will not air until June but I’m almost done with this material, too. So I don’t get burned out on it but I get burned out on certain material. I’m actually still enjoying the stuff I’m doing now cause I’ve been doing it less than a year, but after a year or 15 months I get burned out on certain jokes. As long as I’m switching out my material, I always find stand-up to be pretty fresh.
So your special will be running on Epix. Is there any kind of theme to it or is it just you doing your thing?
It’s me just talking about myself and what’s going on in the country and attacking the media. It’s like “Please Be Offended,” but the material is totally different. It’s me tying in my own dysfunction to what the rest of the country is going through.
Starring: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassell, Rosario Dawson
Directed by: Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”)
Written by: Joe Ahearne (debut) and John Hodge (“The Beach”)
Though his movies are well known and his reputation as an impressive filmmaker is planted in the world of cinema, director Danny Boyle has never quite had a huge audience for his work. In fact, only one of his movies has ever crossed the $50-million box office threshold, and only three have crossed $20 million. Of course, that all changed when Boyle orchestrated and directed the opening ceremony for the 2010 London Summer Olympics, which was watched by an estimated 900 million people around the world. After being at the helm of an event watched by nearly a billion people, Boyle returns to his roots with another low-budget independent feature. In his follow-up to the stunning multi-Oscar nominated 2009 film “127 Hours,” “Trance” (which was actually filmed before the Olympic ceremony planning, shelved, and finished post-Olympics) is Boyle’s take on a psychologically skewed art-heist film.
In “Trance,” art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) helps to orchestrate a heist of an expensive painting. In the middle of improvising a double-crossing scheme, Simon suffers a blow to the head by ring-leader Franck (Vincent Cassell) and suffers amnesia. Unable to remember where he hid the painting, Franck enlists in a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to figure out where the priceless painting was stashed. Elizabeth discovers Simon is in trouble and from there, relationships, motives and greed begin to emerge.
The performances in “Trance” are fine, but nobody particularly stands out. McAvoy is the best of the bunch, as he gets to play a wide variety of emotions. With Cassell, you get an above average version of a very typical crime villain. Dawson brings an overt sexuality to the role, which is laid on pretty thick by Boyle. Ultimately, it serves no real purpose other than to unnecessarily complicate relationships between characters. Strangely enough, while they all have pretty good on-screen chemistry, their relationships within the movie are poorly written and difficult to buy into.
Screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge along with Boyle perhaps overload on confidence, expecting the audience to care about the eventual end point of the story. The problem is that while the half-cooked plot lines are left hanging, there is no suspense or curiosity attached to them. Though there are themes of greed, trust, and obsession, which linger throughout the entirety of the film, the script as a whole feels incredibly unpolished and haphazardly thrown together. The presentation of hypnosis throughout the film requires a suspension of disbelief and even then is still extremely far-fetched. For a director who has such a distinct visual style and flair, even the look of “Trance” fail to impress. Sure, there are some neat camera angles and shot compositions but certainly nothing that could be considered a unique stamp for Boyle.
While “Trance” starts with an interesting premise, it eventually collapses on itself after an exhausting series of underwhelming twists that takes entirely too long to develop. Even after a drawn out, overdramatic expository scene, which explains nearly everything, there are still narratives turns in what seems like a never-ending loop of penultimate endings. Instead of being a thoughtful and challenging suspense film, “Trance” is unnecessarily confusing and akin to being given pieces to a puzzle that you just want to give up on halfway through.
Starring: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin
Directed by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”)
Written by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) and Billy McMillin (“Project Kashmir”)
On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the following days, three teenagers: 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin were arrested in connection with the murders. After a highly publicized trial, Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison and Echols was sentenced to the death penalty. Since that date, the case has been heavily disputed and evidence had been piling up that potentially indicated that the three teenagers known as the “West Memphis Three” were, in fact, innocent. “West of Memphis” is a look into how forced confessions, poor police work, and a lack of hard DNA evidence contributed to one of the most infamous cases of wrongful imprisonment.
After the success of the first three HBO documentaries in the “Paradise Lost” series, “West of Memphis” is the 4th total movie on the subject and the first unrelated from the first trio of films. With the wealth of information about the case already displayed in that franchise, it is nearly impossible to ignore the HBO documentary series and treat them as a separate entity from “West of Memphis.” There’s not a lot of difference as far as informational content between the two. There are, however, some subtle changes that make “West of Memphis” interesting in its own right. To separate itself, “West of Memphis” spends a great deal of time covering the third-party private investigation, which was partially led and funded by Oscar-winning director/producer Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” series) and his wife and fellow Oscar winner, screenwriter and producer Fran Walsh (“The Lord of the Rings.”) Throughout the investigation, forensics experts analyze new and previously uncovered DNA information, as well as other physical evidence that could potentially exonerate the West Memphis Three. This also includes fascinating legal details of how the case was woefully mishandled by not only the police, but also the prosecution.
Where as “Paradise Lost” spent a lot of time focusing on the litigation part, as well as an insight into the mind of Echols, “West of Memphis” spends more time talking about the curious case of Terry Hobbs who was the stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Branch. While Hobbs is covered in “Paradise Lost,” a huge chunk of “West of Memphis” deeply explores the personality and curiosity of Hobbs as a person of interest. These scenes include fascinating interviews from people previously unheard of and some strong evidence that insinuates perhaps Hobbs is the real perpetrator of these crimes. As with “Paradise Lost,” the main focus is on Echols, the supposed ringleader of the group. As an interview subject, Echols is fascinating, intelligent and completely captivating to listen to. While Misskelley and Baldwin are not nearly as interesting as Echols, more time could have been spent with them to get their perspectives in more distinct manner.
From a directorial perspective, “West of Memphis” provides a more cinematic experience than its “Paradise Lost” counterpart. Included are several scenic shots of Arkansas and one memorable shot in particular involving giant turtles to show that the murder of the boys was not related to satanism as the prosecution suggested. Since the case has been such a high profile one since the early 90s, most people know the West Memphis Three have been released from prison. While the latest installment of the “Paradise Lost” series follows the big release day, “West of Memphis” provides a very small glimpse into their lives outside of their cells. While this epilogue of sorts is not nearly as detailed as it could have been, it is still interesting to watch these grown men, who have been in prison since they were teenagers, assimilate into the real world.
The story of the West Memphis Three is so fascinating that there is no such thing as an overload of information, details and coverage. As a human-interest story, it is a staggering look at how fallible the entire judicial system can be. It retreads a lot of details seen in other places, but it also differs enough be its own product. For information-based material packed into a short amount of time, the outstanding “Paradise Lost 3” is a great place to start building familiarity with the case. “West of Memphis” is perhaps better suited as a companion piece.
Starring: Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Steve Buscemi
Directed by: Don Scardino (TV’s “30 Rock”)
Written by: Jonathan M. Goldstein (“Horrible Bosses”) and John Francis Daley (“Horrible Bosses”)
It used to be that magic was something as simple as a few card tricks, pulling a rabbit out of a hat or in the case of the most famous magician of all-time Harry Houdini, performing death-defying escape acts. Somewhere along the line, however, acts like Criss Angel and David Blaine showed up, who while maintaining the traditional sense of magic, began injecting large-scale, often endurance-based stunts like being trapped under ice or standing on things for long periods of time. With this came the transition from Vegas acts to TV specials. The landscape of magician-related entertainment was changing. As a very loose social commentary of sorts, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” shows the exaggerated difference between old-school and new-school magicians.
As people get tired of watching the recycled acts of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) they begin to flock to street magician Steve Grey (Jim Carrey) who performs absurd stunts. When Wonderstone and Marvelton have a falling out, Wonderstone is forced to come up with a magic act on his own for the first time. When Burt has a revelation that he isn’t the same on his own, it is up to him to try to reconnect with a partner to win back his audience.
Though “Burt Wonderstone” has its comedic moments that work, it is surprising how little of the laughs come as a direct result of the seasoned comedic cast. Carell’s character is brash, annoying, and has character traits that seem to come and go at random (his accent, for example). Buscemi disappears halfway through the film, having failed to make a true comedic impact. His return later on doesn’t provide much humor either. Carrey’s appearance winds up being more of an extended cameo. He will periodically appear on the screen to do his wacky trademark Carrey stuff and then just disappear for large chunks of time. Simply put, nobody in the cast is particularly funny despite some of the scenarios they are involved in hitting their mark.
Most of what works in “Burt Wonderstone” comes from sight gags, both subtle and occasionally overtly goofy. Things like Wonderstone trying to perform a magic trick after the separation between him and his partner are legitimately funny. Other magic tricks performed during the film are actually amusing. That isn’t to say all of them are. Carrey’s character, which is the most obvious Criss Angel exaggeration possible, makes his living off shocking stunts that are too grotesque to be considered magic. The first of his stunts involving a card trick and a knife is particularly funny, but the concept of stupid stunts wears out its welcome fast. It is definitely not helped by the over-the-top performance Carrey is know for delivering.
The final act of the film is absurd, but thanks to a pretty funny epilogue, is somehow acceptable. Mainly, “Burt Wonderstone” wastes its strong comedic cast. The subject matter is a little outdated with traditional magicians and magic shows seemingly weaning in popularity. But perhaps even cloaked in irony, the goal of “Burt Wonderstone” is to reignite people to that type of entertainment.
Starring: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune
Directed by: Peter Webber (“Hannibal Rising”)
Written by: Vera Blasi (“Woman on Top”) and David Klass (“Walking Tall”)
Taking place after the Japanese surrender in World War II, “Emperor” tells the story of General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) who is assigned a task from General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to investigate whether Japanese Emperor Hirohito will be tried as a war criminal for ordering of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. With the Japanese uninterested to talk and Fellers’ past involvement with a Japanese girl complicating the situation, the truth might not be as easy to find.
Since the end of the wildly popular TV show “Lost,” Fox has done little to cement himself as a leading man in films. His performance in “Emperor” is often times wooden and uninspired. His line readings feel forced and unnatural. Other than one scene where he actually shows some emotional range, his ability to do this on a consistent basis is stifled throughout the film. It is pretty impressive that Jones is able to get away with giving the same exact performance in nearly every role he plays. It is hard to argue what he does isn’t the same look, inflection and attitude in every film. While he doesn’t have nearly as much screen time in the film as Fox, Jones is merely passable as MacArthur.
The investigation of war crimes unfolds in a way that is absent of tension. Even though it attempts to tells a part of history, the script fails to be interesting. It never feels like anything major is at stake. Screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass look to a weaker secondary story between Gen. Fellers and his Japanese love interest. Their relationship provides no emotional stock for the view and are achingly generic.
Even with a historic story that might be unknown to many people, “Emperor” is too dull to resonate on any level. Fox isn’t quite ready to take the reigns of a lead role and the film is too weighed down by a subpar romantic subplot. Perhaps there is no greater sign that a movie is doomed from the very beginning than when even the always-dependable Jones is overshadowed by his massive corncob pipe.
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Elanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Bryan Singer (“X-Men”)
Written by: Darren Lemke (“Shrek Forever After”), Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher”) and Dan Studney (debut)
Based on the fairy tales “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer” comes a fantasy movie from former (and future…future past?) “X-Men” director Bryan Singer. In “Jack the Giant Killer,” farmhand Jack (Nicholas Hoult) decides he must climb up a giant beanstalk in order to save Isabelle, (Elanor Tomlinson) a princess who has been kidnapped and is trapped at the top. When Jack and the team of the King’s men reach the top of the beanstalk, a group of newly awakened giants await.
Though the acting in the film isn’t bad, it is certainly nothing to write home about either. For better or worse, everyone in the film plays everything relatively straight, so you get actual effortful performances from acting veterans like Ewan McGregor and Ian McShane. The same goes for the performances from Hoult and Tomlinson as Jack and Isabelle. While neither of them are particularly good, they are adequate enough to where they aren’t trite or cheesy.
One of the things that “Jack the Giant Slayer” struggles with is finding a consistent tone. At times it seems as if the PG-13- rated film is going for a serious, adventurous tone while other times Singer takes full advantage of gross out and flatulence humor that would appeal to younger kids. Regardless of tone, the script is also a problem with lame jokes and a tendency of extended lulls in action.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” trudges through most of the first half of the film as the entertainment levels wax and wane. The final act of the film is a CGI-heavy battle sequence that finally ramps up the action and adventure levels. The effects behind the actual CGI giants are pretty good, but the noisy finish can’t quite make up for the film’s overall mediocrity.
It’s a little surprising that Warner Bros sunk $200 million into a CGI-heavy fairytale adaption with no stars in its leading roles. What makes the situation even more perplexing is spending that much on a film without a distinct tone, a strong story, a worthy script or built in audience. Too serious and dull in parts for small kids, and too juvenile and monotonous in others for older kids, tweener tone in “Giant Slayer” misses the mark on all intended audiences and will likely prove to be massive waste of cash for a studio that is struggling to find a hit in 2013.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Joe Bernthal
Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh (“Felon”)
Written by: Justin Haythe (“Revolutionary Road”) and Ric Roman Waugh (“Felon”)
Look no further than his current WWE resurgence and the fact that he has major movie roles in the next four consecutive months to tell you that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a popular guy. After making his debut in supporting roles in the early 00’s, and a strange stretch of becoming a family film star, Johnson has now worked his way to regular occurring leading-man status in action-packed films.
“Snitch” begins with Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) agreeing to receive a package of drugs and hold them for a friend. The box is tracked and Collins is arrested, falsely implicated for drug distribution, and subjected to a mandatory minimum sentencing of 10 years. To try to lessen his sentence, John Matthews (Johnson) agrees to become an informant for the DEA, a job that becomes more and more dangerous as he is forced to infiltrate the underworld of drug dealers and cartels.
Johnson, who has apparently ditched his recognizable wrestling name “The Rock” in his billing, unspectacularly gets his way through the films deeper moments. Though he has made strides as an actor since his first foray, he still doesn’t quite reach levels of legitimacy during the scenes that call for emotion. Of course, the script is at fault for some of that.
There are a couple of supporting roles that are pretty good including the ex-con employee role from Joe Bernthal, perhaps best known for his role on TV’s “The Walking Dead.” The best performance in the film goes to veteran Berry Pepper in his role as a DEA agent. Ridiculous goatee aside, Pepper is able to use his experience as a character actor to give gravitas to scenes and pull up the performances of those around him. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast including those actors who play his son, wife and ex-wife are given absolutely nothing to do throughout the duration of the film. They are simply wasted characters.
The most pressing problem with “Snitch” is the cliché, and painfully mediocre screenplay during the first half of the film. Moments of dialogue truly sound like they were constructed for a made-for-TV movie and as a result the actors (especially Johnson) struggle making an impact. One of the biggest issues with “Snitch” lies in the very motives of the protagonist. Director Ric Roman Waugh does not flesh out the relationship between Matthews and his son and despite a few scenes of father and son talking through a jail-cell phone booth, their relationship feels hollow and thin. Though he states his reasons for risking so much over and over again, it is at times difficult to buy into this relationship completely.
The second half of “Snitch” is on a slight uptick, with some mildly entertaining gunplay and action sequences. One thing that can be appreciated is Waugh’s ability to show restraint and not turn the normal everyman Matthews into some murderous badass who is suddenly a combat and strategy expert. Instead, the things Matthews does are (relatively) conceivable and the actions sequences work a little better because of that. That certainly doesn’t mean that these sequences are great, but rather decent enough to keep interest in the film.
Johnson’s presence in the film is a little flat and at times lifeless, which is curious considering Johnson’s infectious charisma is the sole reason that he was able to successfully jump from the wrestling ring to the big screen. The last frame of “Snitch” also takes the opportunity to make a social commentary statement on the war on drugs in the United States, which agree or disagree with the point, is a little annoying in its own right. Throughout the film, the messages are mixed and the plot details are often flimsy. Ultimately, “Snitch” ebbs more than it flows and the film turns out to be a forgettable addition to “The Rock’s” repertoire.
Starring: Josh Duhamel, Julianne Hough, Cobie Smulders
Directed by: Lasse Hallstrom (“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”)
Written by: Leslie Bohem (“The Alamo”) and Dana Stevens (“City of Angels”)
It’s the week of Valentine’s Day and many men everywhere are preparing to give their wives, girlfriends and dates the best gift they can: trying to sit through a Nicholas Sparks book adaptation. The latest challenge comes in the form of “Safe Haven,” Sparks’ most recent book about a girl fleeing an abusive boyfriend.
In “Safe Haven,” a woman named Katie (Julianne Hough) arrives in a small North Carolina town where she hopes to start a new life. There, she meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), a widowed father of two who works at the local general store. Apprehensive and scared at first, Katie tries to move on all while looking over her shoulder for her ex, who is searching for her.
The first hour of “Safe Haven” is actually not all that bad. Sure, there is some jarring editing that randomly bounces back and forth between Katie’s new life and her boyfriend who is on the prowl for her. And let’s not forget the average acting from the chronically paranoid Hough and flimsy, useless characters like her friend Jo (Cobie Smulders). Let’s not forget the predictable romantic storyline that weaves its way through the first half of the film. But there’s also things that are okay, namely the charming and grounded performance from Duhamel who plays a devoted father and romantic lead quite well. There’s also a really nice performance from the adorable Mimi Kirkland who plays his daughter Lexi. The word good is perhaps too strong, but even though the romance is predictable and schmaltzy and the script is at times sickeningly saccharine, the first half of the film is relatively watchable.
The back half of the film is a different story. As things intensify and truths reveal themselves, Katie’s world becomes endangered and the film begins to crumble. The style of jumping back and forth between her life in North Carolina and her boyfriend trying to hunt her down wears out its welcome as the transitions become even more distracting when they start to include what really happened in her past. Events happen in the climax of the film that should have massive consequences but are for whatever reason completely ignored.
Then there’s the ending. The first wrinkle of the film’s ending is telegraphed and hokey and bad enough as it is. What follows can only be described as manipulative, nonsensical, god-awful garbage, and that is putting it lightly. It is a “twist” that turns out to form one of the dumbest endings to a film in recent memory. The bulk of the blame should belong to Sparks himself, since the book apparently shares the same ending. Audiences should be insulted that Sparks treats them like his own personal emotional marionettes, tugging at their strings and forcing them to react or cry by any means necessary.
While the film skirts the edge of watchability for a decent period of time, it is ultimately formulaic, factory-made, melodramatic dreck that is even further submarined by an ending so lame that even a sigh would roll its eyes at.
Starring: Jason Bateman, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Favreau
Directed by: Seth Gordon (“Horrible Bosses”)
Written by: Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”)
Though Kirsten Wiig might have been the star and creative force behind the smash hit “Bridesmaids,” perhaps nobody benefited more from the films success than actress Melissa McCarthy. Not only did she have the entire country talking about how funny she was, but she rode that level of acclaim and popularity to heights like hosting “Saturday Night Live,” winning an Emmy for her work on “Mike and Molly,” and even being nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Bridesmaids.” Like many before her, McCarthy’s status now gives her the chance to jump from scene-stealer to leading lady. She starts that venture off in the new comedy “Identity Thief.”
When Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) notices that his identity has been stolen, he must travel to another state to catch the person who is using bank accounts. His trip leads him to Diana (McCarthy), a long-time criminal who uses illegal schemes to excessively spend other people’s money. When Sandy and Diana’s safety is threatened by a crime boss Diana scams, they must travel cross country together before trouble finds them both.
With the television show “Arrested Development,” Bateman proved himself to be one of the best straight-man comedic actors around. His seemingly normal character surrounded by complete chaos served as a perfect springboard for others to play off of him. What made Bateman so great, however, was his ability to find laughs himself through reactions and subtle humor. Unfortunately, Bateman’s post “Arrested” career has him stuck in a similar role to the Michael Bluth character he played on the show. Like his characters in “Horrible Bosses,” “The Switch,” and “Extract,” Bateman once again plays an uptight, seemingly normal man who can’t catch a break. In “Identity Thief,” most of Bateman’s purpose is to stand back and let McCarthy do her thing. Because of this, he does not get to showcase the comedic talent he possesses. It’s unfortunate to see a talented actor fall the victim to typecasting, but Bateman can’t seem to shake this particular persona.
In her first post-”Bridesmaids” leading role, McCarthy whiffs in the humor department, though it isn’t entirely her fault. Flat out, the biggest issue is that director Seth Gordon banks on the most of the humor in the film coming from the audience finding McCarthy unconditionally funny. Time and time again throughout “Identity Thief,” the audience is expected to laugh at the barrage of unfunny scenes and situations simply because it is McCarthy doing it. Simply put, it is putting faith that audiences find her inherently funny. It’s the same thing that happens with Will Ferrell. Someone pitches “Will Ferrell as a figure skater” or “Will Ferrell as a 70’s basketball player.” They skimp on quality, bank on people to find laughs because they find everything that Will Ferrell does funny, and end up with massive duds like “Blades of Glory” or “Semi-Pro.” There are more than a few scenes in “Identity Thief” that dig for cheap, lazy laughs rooted in a woman of McCarthy’s size doing physical acts or acting over the top.
Of course, the main reason why the comedy in “Identity Thief” fails is because of screenwriter Craig Mazin, who penned “The Hangover Part II” and the last two movies of the “Scary Movie” franchise. It’s hard to tell what the goal of the film is, but whatever pieces that are attempted fall short. The film doesn’t evoke the mismatched chemistry and build the complex and humorous relationships that road-trip comedies typically have. This also includes the few scenes of raunchy, gross-out comedy. The films few amusing moments come from clear improvisation from its two leads. There is a tonal shift towards the end of the film that features some attempts at dramatic moments that don’t fit. Even though the scenes don’t work in the context of the film, McCarthy is able to show her emotional range as an actress and proves that if perhaps given better material, she can really shine in a role that calls for humor and dramatic chops.
One of the more interesting storylines to follow with “Identity Thief” will be if McCarthy can prove herself to be a big box-office draw as a lead actress. Perhaps there are enough people who do find her funny in any situation and will devotedly show up at the box office for her latest films. While her time as a burgeoning lead comedy star is off to an inauspicious start, one wonders what she can do if she’s not forced to be the female version of Kevin James.
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Mattias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure
Directed by: Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”)
Written by: Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”) and Thomas Bidegain (“A Prophet”)
As 2013 continues to parade out its less than stellar early year films, the yearly trend of late releases from 2012 (mostly independent and foreign language) continue to trickle into art house theaters. In the French language “Rust and Bone,” Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard (“La vie en rose”) plays a killer-whale trainer who is involved in a tragic accident that brings her together with a former fighter turned odd job worker (Mattias Schoenaerts) who is focusing to keep his life together after his young son has abruptly entered his life.
Both of the lead performances in “Rust and Bone” are top notch. Schoenaerts, who is likely to be largely unknown to American audiences, turns in a solid, albeit subtle performance. He’s able to deliver lines with ease and bring a strong sense of emotion when the role calls for it. The true star of the film is Cotillard. In playing someone who has just undergone a traumatic injury, Cotillard is brilliant at emoting sadness. There is so much pain behind her gazes and stares in the scenes where it appears as if she has just given up. It’s a very bold performance in which she could have very easily slid into an Oscar nomination.
The most impressive element of “Rust and Bone” has to be the direction from Jacques Audiard. While perhaps not reaching the epic proportions of his 2009 Oscar nominated film “A Prophet,” Audiard brings his very unique style and elevates everything from the screenplay forward. Audiard has a certain way of keeping a film grounded and having a keen eye for the raw sensibilities of things. Scenes in which there is both physical and emotional grit and squalor are shown without pulling any punches. Along with that, Audiard can also be visually mesmerizing such as the portions of the film involving the killer whales, both prior to and after her accident. Along with that, Audiard is able to keep the narrative driving forward, ultimately introducing new wrinkles into an already complex relationship. Without question, “Rust and Bone” is one of the best-directed films of the year.
As a whole, the construction of “Rust and Bone” is quite simple. It’s a character study about two people who have been crippled both emotionally and physically. The narrative, while strong enough to keep the film moving, is ultimately secondary to watching a fascinating, but strange relationship go through trials and tribulations. Along with Audiard and without divulging too many details integral to the plot, major kudos need to be given to the special effects team for their amazing work in the film. France chose the very good and extremely crowdpleasing “The Intouchables” as their Best Foreign Language film submission and ultimately did not receive a nomination. Although the lack of a nomination for Cotillard’s performance is perhaps telling, one wonders if France would have had better luck submitting the stronger, but more alienating film.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville
Directed by: Kim Ji-Woon (“I Saw The Devil”)
Written by: Andrew Knauer (debut)
After spending eight years as the Governor of California, action-star Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the big screen in “The Last Stand.” When a dangerous druglord escapes the custody of the FBI during transportation, he devises a plot to escape to the US/Mexico border through the quiet, small town of Summerton Junction. When former LAPD cop and current Sherriff Ray Owens (Schwarzenegger) finds out, he decides to round up a small team and do everything he can to stop the dangerous criminal.
Schwarzenegger returns to the screen with the type of charisma that made him a bonafide action star in the 80s and 90s. Of course, with that comes unintelligible lines and some very poorly acted scenes, but that is ultimately part of the package and really the charm of his performances. The cast is rounded out with a few comedic actors to wedge between the violence. Luis Guzman and Johnny Knoxville both get a few decent one-liners out but don’t really add much to the film overall.
In his previous Korean films, most notably in “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” director Kim Ji-Woon has shown a great knack for constructing unique and exceedingly entertaining action sequences. In his American debut, Ji-Woon sticks mostly to car chases, flying bullets and blood spray. While a few scenes of excessive violence are amusing, the amount of action and pure fun never quite reaches the levels seen in previous films. In fact, the mayhem is pretty standard fare when compared to his other projects.
The introduction of the “escaped fugitive” plot is where the film begins to lose steam. What is supposed to be a captivating creative action sequence is actually quite boring. From here, the film begins to become stale. Bad plots, (complete with massive holes), bad dialogue, and even a few scenes of shoehorned and inauthentic emotion plague most of the movie. The final showdown of the film, while the best part of the movie, is also ultimately a let down.
With his rising age and lack of acting chops, it will be interesting to see where Schwarzenegger’s career will go from here. “The Last Stand” wears out it’s jokes at the expense of Arnold’s age, so any forthcoming reference in other films will be immediately passé. While “The Last Stand” delivers on its promise of gunfire and explosions, it does so in unimpressive and unmemorable fashion. While Schwarzenegger’s presence is entertaining, the story just isn’t interesting enough.