Thursday, March 26, 2015

Get Hard Review

I think it’s safe to say that when you call your movie “Get Hard,” you’re begging for audiences to go in with low expectations. It’s the kind of title that screams, “This is the only part of the movie we put any kind of effort in.” So, I went into Etan Cohen’s new comedy expecting to laugh maybe a few times—mostly out of politeness—and then just wait for it to end so I could go home and write my scathing review.

To my astonishment, “Get Hard” is not only funny but consistently funny, a major plus. It’s often difficult to sustain comedic momentum over the course of a feature length film, particularly when the comedy isn’t striving for much. “Get Hard” isn’t a revolutionary picture, it acknowledges and sort of plays around with common racial—both black and white—ethnic and cultural stereotypes but it’s not out to change the world, nor is it a scathing satire. Instead it simply wants to use those stereotypes to tell raunchy jokes. And it does. And it had me laughing…a lot. There’s something to be said for that.

The movie’s greatest strength is the first ever paring of comedic titan Will Ferrell and relatively new comedian Kevin Hart—although, up until now he’s been in a string of mainstream comedies and checking his IMDB page he shows no signs of stopping—a pairing that’s superb. One I hope to see more of in the future.

Ferrell plays James, a doormat executive at a stock company who’s framed for fraud and sentenced to ten years in a maximum-security prison. Patronizing and wimpy, naïve and idiotic—James is a standard issue Ferrell character and watching “Get Hard” you’ll be reminded of his countless other movies. However, much like other well known comedic personas—Jim Carrey, Jonah Hill, to name a few—Ferrell is damn good at what he does and here he makes it look effortless. The square, technical way he delivers lines, his childlike ignorance towards urban culture and his penchant for having mini freak-outs and bouts of pathetic weeping is impeccable. And when matched with Hart’s own comedic persona, it’s even better.

In general, I think Hart is hit and miss. In movies such as “Think Like a Man” and the horrendous “Ride Along” he mainly plays the hyperbolic sidekick. Kicking and screaming, jumping up and down like a peppy dog. It can be funny and it can wear thin real quickly. In Cohen’s film Hart plays a slightly toned down, more matured version of this persona, one that proves to be refreshing. He’s Darnell, a working class family man that’s hired to teach James how to be tough in prison to avoid anal rape—a stereotype that provides the basis for a large majority of the jokes—the only problem is, Darnell isn’t exactly the tough type and is in some ways just as wimpy as James. I wouldn’t necessarily call him the straight man of the duo but he’s not the clown either. In fact both actors take turns being the clown and the straight man.

Together, the two have phenomenal chemistry—their comic personas perfectly bouncing off the other. Just when you start to get tired of one, the other swoops in to save the scene. For the most part Cohen doesn’t let each of the individual set pieces go on for too long. Even during those extended sequences where Ferrell and Hart were clearly given the go ahead to improvise off one another for as long as possible, I never felt fatigued.  Overall, the script by Cohen, Jay Martel and Ian Roberts keeps the focus on the central duo, with little attention to the actual plot. One of the worst offenses a comedy can make is getting bogged down in plot exposition at the expense of jokes, especially when the plot is generic and predictable. It’s pretty clear right away who sets up James.

With all that being said, the movie isn’t perfect and not just because of the normal flaws—scenes going on for too long easy gross out humor, an action filled finale etc.—that plague comedies like this. The movie can be homophobic at times, mainly in regards to James’ fear of getting raped in prison, as well as misogynistic. The only prominent female character is James’ finance Alissa (Alison Brie) whose sole character traits are “gold digger” and “sex object.” It’s not completely surprising to see homophobia and misogyny in a comedy like this but it’s worth noting and it’s the main reason why “Get Hard” never rises above being a solid raunchy comedy.

Even so, I still can’t deny the fun time I had at “Get Hard.” The picture isn’t destined to be a comedy classic and it certainly isn’t going to satisfy everyone’s taste, but it satisfied mine. Any comedy that can keep me laughing for its entire duration is worth the time in my book.


Serena Review

It not a good sign when a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence—two of the hottest actors working today, previously starring in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”— is given a low profile release.

Suzanne Bier’s “Serena,” a period drama/romance/thriller, has been pretty much forgotten. After spending nearly two years in post production the picture was screened at the BFI Fest in 2014 and given a limited theatrical release in February 2015, expanding on March 20th. Having seen the finished product I can say it’s not a great film, especially considering the immense talent involved. The script by Christopher Kyle (based on the book by Ron Rash) is uneven and the picture fails in terms of being a romance. At the same time, “Serena” isn’t a total disaster. It’s well made, the leading performances are strong and there are other aspects of the narrative—besides the romance—that prove to be compelling enough to warrant a solo watch at least.

Taking place in the Smoky Mountains during 1929, the movie revolves around George Pemberton, (Bradley Cooper) an entrepreneur from the East coast who runs a timber company. One day he meets the beautiful, mysterious Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) who takes his breath away. I realize this is a cheesy phrase but that’s basically how it happens, which leads us to the movie’s biggest flaw. As a steamy romance “Serena” fails right from the start. George and Serena’s meet cute is rushed and unconvincing—before they have a chance to say two words to each other they’re already married and passionately making love. Bier fails to establish a solid romantic base between them early on, so there’s no real spark in the later romantic sequences either. In addition, Cooper and Lawrence are given terrible, cheesy dialogue to work with during these scenes: “Our love began the day we met,” or “I never thought I’d find you.”

Yet, I didn’t see their relationship as purely romantic, but one similar to Warren Beatty’s and Julie Christie’s in the western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”: two ambitious, individually minded people locked in a business relationship. When George takes Serena to live with him in the mountains, she isn’t a feeble stay at home housewife but an active member of the business. She supervises the logging camp, shows workers how to correctly saw a tree and immediately knows what to do when a worker has a serious accident. In other words, Serena settles into this harsh, male dominated frontier environment with ease. And I think part of George’s affection—and obsession-- towards her comes from a feeling of respect towards her strong-minded attitude. Naturally her position of power doesn’t sit well with everyone and this creates a tension between her and some of the other higher ups in the company. Tension that leads to some thrilling and enthralling sequences later on.

Speaking of the western film, the theme of civilization corrupting nature is prominently featured in “Serena.” At this point in time, the Smoky Mountains contain one of the last virgin forests, so the government wants to turn it into a national park-- a move that would mean no more logging. Much like McCabe, George is intelligent and self-motivated, intent on being a successful businessman whatever the cost. This notion is further emphasized through his reoccurring quest to hunt and kill a panther. There’s no real reason for him to do it other than because he simply can and the scarcity of the species makes him want to do it even more. In this regard, George has two obsessions: Serena and the desire to become successful by conquering the wilderness and having a monopoly on logging in the area. That being said, The Great Depression is going on and a major logging camp provides a number of jobs for local residents, a reality that further complicates this situation. In a time of great unemployment, what’s more important to people? Jobs or preserving a patch of land that could potentially yield thousands of dollars. It’s a fascinating point of tension, one I wish Bier and Kyle had pursued a little more.

Unfortunately, the picture keeps leaning on the passionate romance angle. Lawrence and Cooper continue to spout schmaltzy dialogue and George’s other love interest Rachel (Ana Uluru) is sadly one-dimensional. Normally, this wouldn’t be as big a problem but Rachel plays a rather important role in the film’s climax. Ultimately things take a  “Fatal Attraction” like turn, which is exciting and certainly not expected but also doesn’t resonate as much as it should because the romantic connections aren’t completely there.

As usual, Cooper gives a solid performance; his charming everyman qualities practically make him blend in with the period surroundings. George doesn’t always do admirable things but Cooper infuses just enough likability and personality to make him compelling to follow.  However Lawrence is the true acting stand out-- giving an intimate and nuanced performance that gets more complex. Serena is strong and intelligent, fully capable of surviving on her own. Though, she also shows moments of vulnerability and we eventually find out she’s still sorting through some emotional baggage brought on by a family tragedy years ago. As the movie goes on Serena becomes increasingly unpredictable and unstable, something that George fails to see.

Overall, “Serena” isn’t the disaster its turbulent production would lead you to think. It’s well made—Morten Soborg’s cinematography captures the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains, highlighting the various shades of brown and green of the vegetation and the bright orange sunsets peaking through clouded skies. Nonetheless, it’s not the great movie it could have been, making its low-key theatrical release not very surprising.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Gunman Review

In Pierre Morel’s “The Gunman,” veteran actor Sean Penn gets to channel his inner aging action hero in the vein of Liam Neeson, who starred in Morel’s earlier film “Taken,” among others. Here Penn plays Jim Terrier, an expert sniper who works at a private security firm protecting humanitarian aid efforts in The Democratic Republic of Congo. While doing this, he’s assigned to assassinate the Mining Minister, a job that will come to haunt him in the future. Seven years later, after unnamed assassins attempt to kill him, Jim must figure out who’s hunting him.

Penn is competent in the role. He can certainly kick ass and clearly has been working out. A few scenes feature a shirtless Sean, displaying his bulging muscles. And Jimmy’s a resourceful fella, I’ll give him that. We’re never in doubt of his ability to gain the upper hand in a situation. Unfortunately, Penn doesn’t have much charisma or the soothing gravelly voice Liam Neeson has. Add to this the fact that the character of Jim is one-dimensional—reminiscent of countless other “expert action heroes”-- and you’ve got an underwhelming action protagonist trying to drive a cliché, derivative action picture. Most of the time in these kinds of pictures, if the star has personality or some style he or she can elevate the material. If your movie doesn’t even have that, well, you’re in trouble.

The action sequences are shot in typical Bourne-style shaky cam, a fad that’s, at this point, stale and kind of annoying to watch. In a fight scene I like to see the fist, or leg (or melee weapon) make contact with the body. Yet, to Morel’s credit, the action beats are well spaced throughout the film. There was never a moment I felt overwhelmed by any of the action set pieces. At the same time, the non-action sequences aren’t very compelling either. The plot is standard issue “cover up” fare and most of the story events and big revelations are obvious twenty minutes before they appear. During some moments I got antsy waiting for the characters to figure out a revelation I had already figured out a scene ago.

The only mildly interesting aspect of the movie is the underlying theme of business corrupting philanthropy. As the set up above suggests, the very same security company hired to provide protection to aid workers could also be hired by a private company to do bad things, bad things that can throw an already unstable country into even more chaos. However this is only lightly explored--Morel instead choosing to focus on the more generic aspects of the movie—so it feels tacked on, creating tonal confusion.

Even worse, for a movie this derivative, “The Gunman” takes itself awfully damn seriously, opting to be stiff and rigid, as opposed to embracing its silly, pulpy material. Penn is the worst offender, running around the streets of Barcelona and London—gun in hand—like he’s Daniel Day Lewis. Only the supporting cast--containing the likes of Javier Bardem as an old friend and Mark Rylance as the former head of the security company Jim worked for--manage to have some fun, their performances verging on loopy at times. A scene towards the beginning featuring an intoxicated Bardem is probably the most memorable moment in the movie. Sadly, even their contributions aren’t enough to save the picture. So, “The Gunman” dully moves along from one plot point to another.

Otherwise, there’s not much else to report. There are some gunfights, a love interest, a finale at a bull-fighting ring  and Jim has some sort of post-concussion brain condition. Another aspect of the story that’s tacked on, serving no real substantial purpose in the end. On the whole “The Gunman” isn’t terrible, it’s just not very good. Dull to watch most of the time and does nothing to stand out. And Penn makes for a rather unremarkable action hero.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It Follows Review

We open on a calm, deserted Suburban Street in Michigan. Suddenly, a teenage girl runs into the frame, looking distraught and panicked, like she’s running away from someone in her own house. A random neighbor standing nearby asks if she needs help. The girl says “no” and the neighbor goes back to unpacking her car, as if nothing’s happened. The teen’s father comes out confused, asking her what’s wrong.  The girl, still looking distraught, walks back into her house.

A few beats later.  The girl drives a car out of the garage in a hurry, constantly looking in her rearview mirror.  She finally ends up on a beach at night, starring off into the distance. Someone or something is following her but the viewer sees nothing. She calls her dad saying she loves him. Saying goodbye? A split second later the scene transitions to morning where the girl lies dead--leg mangled, standing stiffly in the air above the rest of her lifeless corpse.

So begins David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows,” a superb horror film that creates an atmosphere fraught with paranoia and looming dread. Terror is around every corner, inescapable. Like the best serious horror films, “It Follows” relies on subtlety; tension quietly rumbles beneath the surface, flaring up every so often in a scene of sheer horror, before dying down to recharge. Mitchell lets most of the individual shots linger, allowing the viewer to soak in the anxiety and ominousness even longer. On the whole, Mitchell takes his time, letting each scene unfold gradually. He’s not in a hurry to tell his story, which makes the proceedings more frightening.

A majority of horror films go to great lengths to try and scare the audience. They employ “jump scares”-- cheap, empty thrills that wear off immediately. It’s like filmmakers are afraid of boring the audience. “It Follows” is free of such scares and even the most shocking moments never go too far over the top. In the opening sequence, for example, the transition between poor teenage girl sitting helplessly on the beach and getting mysteriously contorted, is abrupt yet handled without any bells and whistles because the transition is so jarring on its own he doesn’t need to call any more attention to it. Mitchell lets his scary images speak for themselves and uses blood and gore ever so sparingly--in fact I believe there are only two scenes that include blood and gore in a major way—and therefore effectively. We aren’t bombarded with a dozen moments of gore.

As far as plot is concerned, the less said the better, but “It Follows” is essentially an STD horror movie. The nineteen-year-old protagonist Jay (Maika Monroe from “The Guest”) contracts a deadly disease—a ghost? A virus? We’re not exactly sure and Mitchell is wisely scant on details regarding the origin and its exact mechanics—after a one-night stand with a man. He reveals that it will always follow her, take the shapes of different people—either strangers or people she knows-- to try and get close to her. And no matter what, don’t let it touch you.

From the suburban setting and teenage antics, to the pulsing eerie electronic score by the band Disasterpiece, “It Follows” evokes the style and mood of an old school slasher film. However, the situation feels much scarier than the ones in films like “Friday the Thirteenth” and “Halloween.” The antagonist is slow moving like Jason and Michael Meyers but it can only be seen by Jay and no matter how far she goes—at one point she and her friends take refuge in a beach house a good distance away—it always finds her and its shape shifting abilities make it difficult to anticipate and prepare for. Basically, Jay is being terrorized by a slasher movie villain only she can see. Also, unlike most teenage slasher movies, Mitchell’s script never verges into stupidity, whether unintentionally or intentionally. While there will always be a place for intentional, self-aware horror movies there’s something immensely impressive about pulling off serious horror in this day and age.

 Jay is a composite of numerous horror movie character types. She’s extremely attractive--the object of numerous male gazes, like her friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and two random neighbor boys who view her in her back yard pool-- yet she also comes off as shy and innocent, as well as intelligent and strong. While showing moments of vulnerability, she’s the furthest from a helpless weakling. Jay is a wholly three-dimensional character and Monroe gives an authentic, understated performance.

The supporting characters like Paul, her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi) while not as fleshed out as Jay, are at least likable. They’re not revolting one-note characters waiting around to be killed. In fact there are a number of pleasant, comforting moments between the scary ones in which the characters talk to one another as normal teenagers about normal teenage things. There’s a nice balance of terrifying moments and pleasant moments.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is flawless. The score is used at just the right times, accentuating the horror on screen without being too overbearing. And often times Mitchell leaves the most important moments silent. Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography is smooth and graceful--as opposed to being grainy like most low budget horror films—giving the movie an almost dreamy look. In addition, a majority of the scenes are filmed in long shot, emphasizing both the impending doom that plagues every frame, as well as the overwhelming isolation and claustrophobia Jay feels. She’s the only one experiencing this terror and no matter how far she goes, the entity’s inescapability constricts her. Overall, “It Follows” might be one of the more aesthetically pleasing low budget horror movies to come along in recent years.

In the end, “It Follows” isn’t profound or groundbreaking; it contains a number of hallmarks associated with the horror genre, yet the execution is nearly flawless. It’s clear Mitchell knows the ins and outs of the genre and knows what’s effective horror and what’s not effective horror.