The Upside

January 30, 2019 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Kevin Hart, Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman
Directed by: Neil Burger (“Divergent”)
Written by: Joe Hartmere (debut)

American remakes of already wonderful foreign-language films can sometimes be a hard sell, especially when Hollywood’s take doesn’t live up to the original movie. For every Oscar-winning film like “The Departed” (a remake of the 2002 Chinese film “Infernal Affairs”) there is a badly-executed U.S. version of “Oldboy” (a remake of the 2003 South Korean film of the same name). It’s easy for things to get lost in translation when not enough attention is paid to the spirit of the preceding picture.

Such is the case in “The Upside,” a remake of the exceptionally charming 2011 French drama-comedy “The Intouchables,” one of the highest-grossing, non-English language films in cinematic history. The film is so beloved it has already been remade in India and Argentina, with a second remake in India in the works. Although “The Upside” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, it became collateral damage when allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced. The film was shelved, then sold and finally dumped out in January — the month where most studios send movies to die.

“The Upside” isn’t dead on arrival, but it’s nowhere near memorable. Directed by Neil Burger (“Divergent”) and adapted by first-time screenwriter Jon Hartmere, the film follows Dell (Kevin Hart), an unmotivated, jobless ex-convict who inadvertently gets hired as a live-in caretaker for Phillip (Bryan Cranston), a widowed, quadriplegic billionaire.

Through their professional relationship, which is frowned upon by Phillip’s loyal associate Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), the men form a bond where each of them opens one another’s eyes about personal issues that are keeping them both from living fulfilled lives. For Dell, it’s rising above his bad habits as an absent father to care for his estranged teenage son. For Phillip, it’s allowing himself to take chances in finding happiness.

While Hart and Cranston produce a few sincere moments, Hartmere’s script fails to build a strong enough emotional tie between the two to make audiences believe their friendship means much to either of them. When it’s time for them to step up and fully support each other, their good deeds ring false. Even the scenes they share together as employer and employee feel forced and lack real humor. In one scene, Dell reluctantly replaces Phillip’s catheter and refuses to utter the word “penis.” He finally says it after Phillip involuntarily gets an erection.

Despite “The Upside”’s struggles, Cranston is still able to tap into his character’s mindset and pull off a passable performance with what little the screenplay gives him. It is also noteworthy to see Hart dial down his usually brash personality, although this specific dramedy obviously wasn’t the right project for him.

Limitless

March 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Abbie Cornish
Directed by: Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”)
Written by: Leslie Dixon (“The Heartbreak Kid”)

Busting at the seams with its spunky, offbeat vibe, the thriller “Limitless” is like the super-drug it peddles. With its miraculous promises, the film is too intriguing not to bite. When it hits your bloodstream, the high is exhilarating. But once that buzz starts to wear thin, things become exhausting. It’s the type of movie filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (the duo behind the “Crank” series) could’ve possibly written if they hadn’t hit the 8-ball so hard.

Based on Alan Glynn’s 2001 “techno-thriller” novel “The Dark Fields” – which expands on the oft-repeated myth that humans use only 10 percent of their brains at a time – “Limitless” tosses logic out the window, but does so with some entertainment value during the first hour of this pharmaceutical sci-fi starring the occasionally likeable Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover,” “The A-Team”).

Cooper plays Eddie Morra, a failed writer who can’t finish his book or keep a girlfriend and looks like he’s been sleeping under a highway for the past year. All his problems are solved when he is introduced to a tiny, clear pill known as NZT that activates the brain’s complex circuitry and allows him to use 100 percent of it 100 percent of the time.

With his sudden surge of brilliance, the “enhanced Eddie” is able to access infinite amounts of knowledge, learn new languages in minutes, and cash in at the poker table. Add a little hair gel and some designer duds and the fast-talking and now extremely charming Eddie is primped to take on the world and bag every hottie he can impress with his massive mind.

While Eddie’s smarts are never in question (in one scene he seems to be channeling a lecturing Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting”), it’s the script by Leslie Dixon (“Hairspray,” “The Heartbreak Kid”) that needs some sharpening. Approaching the narrative from a very conventional angle, Dixon delivers an innocuous screenplay to director Neil Burger (“The Lucky Ones,” “The Illusionist”) set in the cutthroat financial sector. When Eddie starts crunching numbers for stock-market tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro), he becomes a character plucked straight out of “Wall Street.”

Stylized without being obnoxious, “Limitless” makes some unique choices in cinematography and art direction, but comes up short on substance. Skimping on the most interesting facets of the story (questions about addiction and damaged psyches), “Limitless” shies away from thought-provoking elements and spirals into its own mental breakdown.

The Lucky Ones

September 14, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, Michael Peña
Directed by: Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”)
Written by: Neil Burger (“The Illusionist”) and Dirk Wittenborn (“Fierce People”)

Not original enough to make a pro-war statement, and too contrived to make an anti-war statement, “The Lucky Ones” seems comfortable in passing itself off as road trip flick about friendship. It’s unfortunate, however, that the screenwriter’s efforts are impractical and flat.

In “The Lucky Ones,” three U.S. soldiers, Colee (Rachel McAdams), Cheever (Tim Robbins), and T.K. (Michael Peña) meet each other in the airport when they are sent home for leave. While Colee and T.K. are deployed home for 30 days because they have sustain injuries (she’s shot in the leg and he’s nursing a shrapnel wound to his scrotum), Cheever has completed his service in the military and is looking forward to spending time with his family.

As luck would have it, their trip starts poorly when they land in New York and cannot make a connecting flight to their respective cities because of a blackout. Instead of waiting for the airport to reschedule their trips, the trio decides that it would be faster to rent a car and drive cross country to their destinations – St. Louis for Cheever and Las Vegas for the others. Colee’s  plan is to return her dead friend’s guitar to his family in hopes that she can stay with them, while T.K., who is suffering from impotence because of his below-the-belt nick, is looking for a prostitute to help him with his little problem before he goes home to his fiancée in Florida. (I guess streetwalkers don’t live in the Sunshine State).

But when Cheever gets home and finds out his wife wants a divorce and his son needs money to go to Stanford University, it only make sense that he continues traveling with T.K. and Colee to Vegas so he can win his son’s tuition playing blackjack (I guess they’ve never heard of student loans).

They are all brainless ideas that implode on paper and even more so when McAdams, Robbins, and Peña, all good actors in their own right, try to help director Neil Burger explain who military men and women are by putting a name and face on these universal characters. The problem is that Burger and writing partner Dirk Wittenborn have created a set of stories far too unbelievable to latch onto in any way.

Through their journey we never really learn what is going on inside the heads of these three soldiers or what it’s like coming home knowing the stay is only temporary. It’s obvious that Burger wants to say something about the emotional state of the soldiers once they hit American soil, but instead of connecting us to them thoughtfully, he throws too many obstacles in their way that don’t benefit the overall importance of the story. Why write a scene where Cheever locks the keys in the car when, five minutes later, they find someone to open it with a slim Jim? It feels like Burger and Wittenborn have strung together skits to form a hybrid dramedy that goes nowhere and wastes valuable time.