Thursday, June 19, 2014

Think Like A Man Too Review

Aside from being partly a product placement for Steve Harvey’s relationship book, “Think Like A Man” (directed by Tim Story) was a worthwhile romantic ensemble comedy in which a group of men and women competed against each other to be the top dogs in their relationships. Yes it was clichéd, but it had a great cast that had great chemistry. Now comes “Think Like a Man Too” (also directed by Story), which wisely distances itself from the book (and Harvey, mostly) and tones down the Battle of the Sexes plot so present in the first one. This time it takes place in Las Vegas and the night before one of the couples is to be married, the males and the females will have a little fun.

The entire cast is back, which is the movie’s main asset. There’s the betrothed couple Candace (Regina Hall) and Michael (Terrence Jenkins), Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara) and Kristen (Gabrielle Union), Zeke (Romany Malco) and Mya (Meagan Good). Then there’s Dominic (Michael Elay) and Lauren (Taraji P Henson), the token white dork couple Bennett (Gary Owen) and Tish (Wendi McLendon Covey). And who can forget the high energy Cedric (Kevin Hart) who acts like a horny puppy dog for the duration of the movie. Not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. As far as Kevin Hart is concerned I think he’s hit and miss. At times his hyperbolic little guy schtick can be great and other times it can wear you out.

Luckily he’s in the company of some immensely talented comedians that prevent the movie from just being The Kevin Hart show. Elay—who was in another Kevin Hart comedy earlier this year, “About Last Night—especially excels as the sensitive chef, along with Hall who manages to be both sweet and raunchy. I also have to commend Owen, whose dorky married with kid’s white guy character chimes in at just the right moments. For example, he would be more content with seeing “The Jersey Boys” than going out and partying.

As in the first movie there is still competition between the men and the women (in the form of dueling/bachelor/bachelorette parties) but as I said before it’s toned down considerably and instead the movie is mainly about two sets of friends escaping to Vegas for the weekend to hang out and b.s with one another. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. In fact I welcome that kind of comedy. There doesn’t need to be any babies, or tigers, or gangsters or other wildly extravagant gags and plot points (I’m looking at you “Hangover”) to make the movie funny. And it’s this simplicity, along with the near flawless comedic chemistry of the cast, that makes “Think Like A Man Too” entertaining enough.

Are there clichés? Sure. There’s a gambling montage (two in fact) and a shopping for nice clothes montage. Does every joke work? Of course not. The worst offender is easily the lengthy (and fatiguing) singalong to the 90’s R&B/Hip Hop song Poison by the girls in a nightclub. And as to be expected there’s the usual third act drama that almost slows the action to a halt. Luckily, Story and Co. don’t spend too much time on it, keeping the comedy momentum going until the credits roll. And even better they’re able to avoid the break up/make up plot point altogether, something that caused the first movie to drag (you know, because there were five couples and therefore five break up/make up sequences).

For what it’s worth “Think Like A Man Too” is better than its predecessor. The jokes are better overall, it’s not structured around Harvey’s book, the men and women are already together which saves us the hassle of having to sit through multiple girl/guy wooing scenes and it doesn’t feel redundant. It might help to see the first movie –if you want to get acquainted with characters and see how they got together—but at the same time I think it can be enjoyed by itself. A critic colleague sitting next to me hadn’t seen the first one and seemed to like it just fine.

“Think Like A Man Too” isn’t great and it won’t stand the test of time and I’m sure after a couple months I will have forgotten about it. But for the time being, you can do much worse.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Jersey Boys Review

Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” is a handsome looking movie. As with “J Edgar,” Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern shoot this one in mostly low light giving the entire picture a noir-ish look that also punctuates James M Murakami’s production design, making the period décor—the movie spans from the 1950’s to the 1990’s—pop off the screen.

Based on the hit Broadway musical, “Jersey Boys” recounts the story of the music group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, from their origins in a tough New Jersey neighborhood, to their fame and finally to Valli’s solo career. Unfortunately, the production design is the only thing that really pops as the movie—despite featuring some great music—suffers from a narrative that gets increasingly less interesting and more cliché, and from a general lack of energy. Even the musical performances failed to resonate in my mind as I type this review.

That being said the film gets off to a pretty great start. When we first meet the Four Seasons they’re just a bunch of young Jersey hoods getting into trouble, going nowhere, and in their own words “busting each others’ balls.” There’s the bandleader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), the biggest troublemaker of the group, the bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda, who does fine but for the life of me I can’t remember anything else about the character’s personality) and of course Mr. Valli himself (played by John Lloyd Young), the shyest member of the group but also the one with the voice that would catapult the band to fame. There’s also Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the songwriter of the foursome who joins a little later.

This is the only section of the movie that has any kind of energy in it. Watching the four of them mess around with one another, bullshitting, spouting New Jersey slang as they play nightclubs and try to stay out of trouble—usually failing to do so—is intoxicating. Not to mention the fact that the four actors have incredible chemistry, playing off each other almost perfectly. There’s something authentic and easygoing about this first section. Even Christopher Walken in a minor role as a mob boss and supporter of the group manages to make a small but memorable impression.

However, it’s when it moves away from being about The Jersey Boys (a group of scrappy underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks) and about the Four Seasons (the band) that the picture begins to decline in quality. “The Jersey Boys” falls into the typical musician biopic traps; there’s the “we’re getting famous montage” showing them writing and recording songs—we get to hear all of their hits, one after the other-- as well as some heavy partying. And of course there’s the falling out between the group. Tommy becomes the loose cannon of the group, running up a huge debt to some mobsters. Aside from the fact that this is Musician biopic 101 stuff the drama feels forced and soap opera-esque. There are moments between the band members that are meant to be taken serious but are undone by some really bad overacting and dialogue. All that easygoing, genuine energy that’s built up in the first thirty or forty minutes practically dissipates and Eastwood puts the film into autopilot.

Things get even worse when the band breaks up and the focus of the movie turns to Frankie’s solo career (with Bob writing and producing). That’s because Frankie—as a character—is, well…bland. He can sing, god bless him, but he’s by far the blandest of the group. He’s the good boy, the only one who gets married and has a family, and the one who gets stepped on. And he stays in this one note for the entire movie. He’s tolerable in the early section of the movie because he’s part of a group and the brotherly relationship he has with the other three is kind of endearing. Though, when it’s just Frankie it’s not compelling. I would have preferred the movie follow Tommy around. Newcomer Lloyd Young does the best he can and singing wise he’s very good but the role simply doesn’t have enough meat to sustain the last act of the movie.

On top of that, more drama is shoehorned into the plot. Frankie’s fame and constant being on the road takes its toll on his family. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this but Eastwood handles it in such a flimsy way, introducing this domestic drama at seemingly random moments. The trouble involving Frankie’s troubled adolescent daughter comes out of nowhere and we’re supposed to care about it even though we’ve never seen this kid or heard about this trouble before. At this point though, the picture has pretty much slowed to halt.

There are other issues. The musical numbers, while not bad, don’t really stick with you. Instead feeling like an afterthought to the narrative when they should be front and center. Since this is a movie adaptation of a stage musical I imagine screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (the original authors of the musical) had to add a lot more story and dialogue and you can see that. At two hours and fifteen minutes the movie is weighed down by its cliché story and drags on. And finally, there’s some really really bad old age makeup at the end of the picture. I know this sounds like nitpicking but this is the second time in a row (after “J Edgar”) that an Eastwood movie has had bad old age make up. I’m talking about some amateur zombie movie makeup in certain shots. I’m thinking he should stay away from that.

I could list more problems but there’s not really any point. I’m sure die hard fans of the musical will go see this “Jersey Boys,” and probably find enjoyment from it but I feel like they—and everyone else curious about the movie—would be better off staying home and listening to the original Four Seasons music. I haven’t seen the original stage play but my mom who has says that the music is really the only thing that matters. The music is what’s going to live on whereas this movie will be quickly forgotten.


The Rover Review

In “The Rover” director David Michod excels in creating a harsh and remorseless post apocalyptic atmosphere. One where everybody has either given up or is struggling to find a reason to hang on. It takes place ten years after a worldwide economic collapse, in the sunbaked Australian Outback. Everything’s dusty and barren and hot. And for the most part it’s still everyman for himself.

The movie revolves around Eric (Guy Pearce), who’s your quintessential Post-apocalyptic drifter. He’s solo of course (at least at first), doesn’t talk unless he has to and when he does talk it’s mainly in an unpleasant and semi angry tone. Although, this anger isn’t totally unwarranted. “The Rover” gets going when Eric’s car is stolen by a group of fellow wasteland travelers. From there, with the forced help of Rey (Robert Pattinson), an American whose brother is one of the thieves, Eric proceeds to track them down to get back his vehicle. 

As far as plot is concerned, there isn’t much. It’s as simple as two guys in search of a car. However, “The Rover” is more about character and atmosphere, something that’s sorely lacking from most mainstream cinema. Eric and Rey are basically polar opposites, Eric intense, calm, calculating and slightly insane. Whereas Rey is…well, a stuttering dimwit and that’s putting it mildly. It comes as no shock that when we first meet him he’s been left for dead (by his brother and friends) after some kind of attack and if it weren’t for the fact that he knows where his brother and friends are heading (so Eric can get the car back), he would be of no use to Eric. But it’s this peculiar character juxtaposition that makes “The Rover” interesting. In a normal setting these two would never interact with each other in a million years and yet, when the apocalypse strikes and survival becomes the only priority all kinds of relationships form.

Not surprisingly, Pearce is very effective in playing Eric, a man who has nothing left to lose, a man who before getting his car stolen just wandered around the Outback without purpose and practically dead inside. As the movie goes on you keep asking yourself why he’s so determined to get his car back, but really, what else does he have to do to pass the time? And at the end we find out the very personal reason why he’s so driven to get his car back.

The real surprise in the cast is Pattinson, the “Twilight” star giving an extremely authentic performance as a naïve, dimwitted young man who’s trying to recover from a large dosage of harsh post apocalyptic reality: essentially being abandoned by people he thought cared about him. It can be frustrating to watch his character stutter and stumble around at times but Rey is, nevertheless, endearing and by the end you find yourself caring about him.

There is a general air of pessimism and futility in “The Rover,” which isn’t surprising in a gritty post apocalyptic thriller such as this one. However, what‘s interesting is that amidst all the desolation and lawlessness, small traces of civilization and society try to claw their way back on to the continent.  There’s a minor military presence—at one point Eric gets captured by a group of them and is almost sent to Sydney for some unknown purpose—and there are trains up and running carrying some kind of cargo. And perhaps most surprising, the small businesses that sell food and supplies scattered about the Outback accept paper money. In one scene Eric gets infuriated because a gas station will only accept American dollars saying, “Why does it matter? Its just paper!” This question (“why does it matter?”) lingers all throughout the picture – and raises a few more. Why bother trying to restore things to the way they were before? Why try to rebuild society? So that there can be another economic collapse or something even worse? And why is value still placed on paper money when there’s been a major economic collapse? Overall, “The Rover” is about what things have value, or rather what things should have value. What’s worth saving? What’s worth caring about?

 “The Rover” is admittedly a slow burn and I have a feeling some viewers will be underwhelmed by how the movie plays out. There is a reveal at the end, but it’s a subtler reveal and I could see some audience members saying, “is that it?” That being said, the picture does a phenomenal job of winding up the tension and creating a level of discomfort. Michod doesn’t give us a lot of time at the start to get comfortable with the movie’s environment or to get acquainted with the characters.

And this being a post apocalyptic film you can expect that Eric and Rey will run into their fair share of roadblocks. Michod manages to keep us on edge the entire duration of the picture; I know it’s a cliché to say that I was on the edge of my seat but there were moments when I was sitting up straight, clutching my armrest. Cinematographer Natasha Braier lets most of the individual shots linger, which helps create even more tension and Antony Partos’ stirring electronic score does its part to amp up the suspense. However the quiet moments feel just as tense. “The Rover” isn’t for everyone but those looking for a deliberate and compelling thriller should be pleased.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Palo Alto Review

Gia Coppola’s debut feature “Palo Alto” is a well made but ultimately slight depiction of high school life in Palo Alto, California. Based on the book of short stories by James Franco of all people (who also has a small role), “Palo Alto” mainly centers on three restless, angst ridden teenagers --their grade isn’t explicitly stated but I assume either sophomore or junior--as they navigate their way through various social situations in high school life.

There’s April (Emma Roberts), the timid good girl who’s somewhat attracted to her benevolent and hip soccer coach Mr. B (Franco). Then there are the two self-destructive males, who have all sorts of angst and restlessness. First up there’s Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who seems to be upset that he’s not getting anywhere with April—at least, I think so—and as a result gets into trouble with the law, drunk driving and resisting arrest. Punk kid. However, he does get the chance to get his life back on track. And then there’s Teddy’s friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), who appears to just have a bone to pick with life in general and so he spends the whole movie just being irresponsible and annoying, alienating himself from his friends.

In fact that’s a good way to describe all three of these characters’ actions in the movie. They all intentionally alienate themselves from regular high school social life. They may interact with other normal high school students (like two attractive, gossiping gals) and attend parties, but they never really seem to fit in at any of these social gatherings, remaining right on the fringe. There are a lot of shots of them sitting or standing in places by themselves silently staring off into the distance, contemplating their existence. And so they act out.

As far as plot is concerned, there isn’t one. The film also doesn’t have much direction, I guess, because these teenagers don’t have much direction themselves. They just exist and don’t appear to have any long-term goals or aspirations. There’s only one mention of college in the entire movie, when April goes to a college counselor and when the counselor asks her what she wants to do she responds “I don’t know.” Their parents aren’t much help: they’re either absent or they don’t really care, often times just sitting around smoking weed while their kids do the same.

Gia Coppola is the granddaughter of Hollywood legend Francis Ford Coppola and the niece of Sofia Coppola (another talented director) and, like her aunt, Gia already has a fairly acute eye and ear for teenage life. All of the situations feel down to earth and the dialogue exchanges come off authentic, like in the opening scene when Teddy and Fred just sit in their car drinking and shooting the shit about whatever topic comes to mind. For the most part nothing feels overdone or artificial. The acting is also on par, all of the players looking and sounding like real teenagers.

Other than that, there’s not much else to say. “Palo Alto” is a competent film but it’s not very deep and it comes off rather insignificant. This isn’t exactly new ground that Coppola is covering and she doesn’t do enough with the material to take it to the next level. The characters will undoubtedly resemble teenagers you went/go to school with, but they don’t have much of an arc. And after a while it is sort of difficult to remain fully invested in them because they are, in the end, just spoiled Palo Alto teenagers in need of an extracurricular activity. Seriously. More than anything these kids are just bored. Why not get a hobby? Or a part time job?

Nevertheless, “Palo Alto” is a fine first feature and continues to show that the Coppola family has immense filmmaking talent.