REVIEW: Pain & Gain

20 06 2017

Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” features characters who misinterpret “The Godfather,” “Scarface” … and “Pretty Woman.” So is it any surprise that the film on the whole has no idea what it’s talking about when it comes to the American Dream? The concept gets so much lip service throughout that it becomes bludgeoning. Most high school juniors could write something more insightful from their American history classes alone.

Its idea of upward mobility is really just commodity fetishism and capitalistic greed masking itself as aspiration. With their synthetic, steroid-enhanced hardbodies, the would-be Robin Hoods of South Beach feel like Reaganite heroes washed up in the wrong era. Some elements of stealing from an undeserving, coddled elite have resonance in a post-Occupy world; as one gym rat puts it, “I don’t just want everything you have, I want you not to have it.” But the political considerations feel ancillary at best.

“Pain & Gain” is at its best when Bay just embraces the physical comedy of his bulky Goliaths. Some decent humor arises from their ignorance and impotence – as “swoll” as Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo and Dwayne Johnson’s Paul Doyle may be, their common sense as men is almost entirely absent. It’s too bad that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, rather than standing outside and sizing them, choose to drop to their level and assume their intelligence level. C+

REVIEW: Baywatch

24 05 2017

In the opening credits sequence of “Baywatch” – unoriginally set to the tune of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” – Dwayne Johnson’s Mitch converses with a surfer bro on the beach where he lifeguards. The chat has to be subtitled because, of course, Florida English is practically unintelligible to the untrained ear. It’s one of the few subversive or creative tricks the film has up its sleeve in a waterlogged two hour runtime.

What passes for clever throughout “Baywatch” is Mitch and the rest of his bathing suit-clad team engaging in middle-school level taunting by pulling out some new name to taunt Zac Efron’s Matt Brody, a Ryan Lochte-esque “him-bo” has-been swimmer. (The film appears to have wrapped before that Olympian’s robbery scandal in Rio, so the parallels do feel a little eerie.) “21 Jump Street” this most definitely is not. Seth Gordon’s film, which passed through the hands of six writers, takes far more pleasure in fitness porn and over-the-top humor than any kind of satirization or interrogation of its source television show.

There are hints here and there of a movie “Baywatch” could have been. Various instances of fraternizing between men display the faintest whiff of parodic homoeroticism – only to fade into a low-grade gay panic joke. The film plays like a studio-massaged bauble, selling products (shout-out to the Tag-Heuer product placement) and its stars’ chiseled physique above all else. It’s like a two-hour aquatic Equinox ad with some narrative propulsion added in for good measure – even complete with an unearned feminist zinger in its climax! The hit-or-miss humor is a generous life preserver to keep us from drowning in their consumerist ocean. C+


27 11 2016

My first film in theaters, officially, was Disney’s “Pocahontas” as an impressionable young 3-year-old. But the first movie I really remember seeing was another animated gem from the Mouse House – “Hercules.” I distinctly remember the energy of the sneak preview crowd, the toe-tapping jams and the inspirational journey of a hero finding his place in a cosmic plan.

Nearly 20 years later, I found much of those same elements at work in the latest Disney animated feature, “Moana.” (It’s probably no coincidence that the two films share the same directing pair, Ron Clements and John Musker.) Both films thrive on theatricality, creativity and sincerity. Their stakes might tip towards the fate of entire civilizations, yet they never lose track of their human factor: a longing for self-actualization that unites us all.

This story of a young Hawaiian chieftess, Auli’i Cravalho’s titular character, seeking both her higher calling and salvation for the villagers that count on her shares a similar mythic dimension as “Hercules.” In a sign of evolution for the studio, though, they take the time to learn and care about the culture in which they place their narrative. From tattoos to topography and language to lore, Disney portrays Hawaii’s traditions respectfully and without exoticizing. There’s more to this Hawaii than one might gather from dinner theater at a resort, in other words.

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REVIEW: Central Intelligence

15 07 2016

Rawson Marshall Thurber’s “Central Intelligence” takes a tried and true premise – a mistaken identity thriller in the vein of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” – and finds a way to make it just mildly entertaining. The director’s past films, “DodgeBall” and “We’re The Millers,” were pretty straightforward comedies. As he ventures into the realm of the action-infused comedy, Thurber never quite finds the grooves and rhythms of this hybrid genre.

Thankfully, he gets some relief from the dynamic chemistry of the film’s leading men – two high school classmates on very opposite trajectories headed towards their 20-year reunion. Kevin Hart’s Calvin Joyner was the all-around stud that everyone loved and wanted to emulate; now, he flounders behind a desk as an accountant with dwindling prospects for advancement. Dwayne Johnson’s Bob Stone went through high school as Robbie Weirdicht, an affable but friendless face in the crowd relentlessly taunted for having more to love; now, he is “Jason Bourne with jorts.”

Though Calvin was not well-acquainted with Bob in his glory days, he agrees to meet up with him for drinks before the reunion and unwittingly gets drawn into a case of international espionage. The stakes and the object in question do not seem to matter so much (classic MacGuffin) as the constant back and forth between who Calvin can trust – Bob or the CIA agents (led by Amy Ryan) who tote real guns and badges. The changes in allegiance keep “Central Intelligence” on its toes, something that serves it well when gags land lightly or moments for emotional resonance lack power. Hart and Johnson compliment each other nicely, with the former playing more grounded and the latter doing a more ridiculous persona than normal. The talents of both actors, however, feel underserved here. C+2stars

REVIEW: Fast Five

5 04 2015

Generally speaking, I am very against walking out of – or turning off – movies (see Random Factoid #4, which still holds true nearly 6 years later).  But one movie that I can unashamedly say I stopped watching halfway through was the original “The Fast and the Furious” movie.  Rarely had I found myself so unengaged with the story and action of a film, so I just deleted it off my DVR after quickly hitting a wall.

A few years later, I don’t quite know what inspired me to watch its fourth sequel,  “Fast Five.”  (Though if I recall correctly, it was a 99¢ rental on Amazon Instant Video.)  I felt completely vindicated in my decision to turn off the original after watching it.  I didn’t turn it off like I did with the first film, but I think I tuned it out around the same time to do homework.

I can certainly understand why this series appeals to people, be it the diverse cast or the undeniably impressive car chase/action sequences.  I just need more from a movie, like a real story to tie those things together.  I don’t remember a single thing that happened in the film, and I don’t feel the need to go Wikipedia the plot summary to even offer the pretense of what I thought of the events.  See this movie if you have a pretty low standard for entertainment and do not require a lot of substance to satisfy you.  C / 2stars

REVIEW: The Other Guys

6 08 2010

Will Ferrell made a name for himself playing in the movie industry by playing some crazy larger-than-life characters, such as Buddy the Elf and Ron Burgundy. Recently, he has been tarnishing that name by playing Will Ferrell, or at least how we have come to perceive Will Ferrell: a lazy, pathetic, and fairly eccentric bum. After a series of unintentionally humorless flops, it’s hard to have confidence that “The Other Guys” could end the slump.

The movie isn’t great, certainly nowhere near the likes of “Elf” or “Anchorman,” but it’s a definite improvement from “Step Brothers” and “Land of the Lost.” The story and the characters still aren’t quite back in full force, yet there’s some comfort in seeing the return of a crucial ingredient – laughter.  Fairly often, a joke will fall flat or just not work quite right. But more often than not, they manage to work, and we laugh more than we wince.

This isn’t the movie to break Will Ferrell’s slump; however, it’s definitely a step in the right direction and hopefully the beginning of an upward trend. It definitely helps that he’s not playing some ridiculous moron but rather a regular Joe Schmoe moron, someone who might actually exist out there. While we’ve been there done that with Ferrell’s one-note comedy of bizarre characters, there’s something refreshing and, dare I say, exciting about watching him go off the beaten path for a while.

But there’s more to this movie than just reporting that Will Ferrell can be decent again. We can’t forget Mark Wahlberg, who plays a cop that is a complete polar opposite of his Staff Sgt. Dignam from “The Departed.”  While he got to play the ultimate hard Boston police officer in the 2006 Best Picture winner, he’s tackling a decidedly different role as Holtz, the paper-pushing officer stuck working with Ferrell’s pitiful Gamble.  Wahlberg has never been in a comedic movie before, yet it’s amazing how he blends right in as if we’ve been seeing him do these types of movies for years.  I won’t go as far as to call he and Farrell a new “odd couple” (a new favorite critical comparison), but they certainly do play off each other well throughout the movie.

It’s the two marquee names that carry the movie.  They don’t get any help from Eva Mendes, who plays Gamble’s smoking hot wife, or Steve Coogan, the Brit who plays the Wall Street scumbag who is meant to remind us of Bernie Madoff.  Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, the Dignams so to speak of the movie, aren’t in the movie long enough to produce many laughs, and the ones that they do were ruined in the trailer.  There are some nice running jokes with Michael Keaton, the police chief who moonlights at Bed Bath and Beyond, that wind up being funny after a few tries.  But have no doubt about it – this is Mark Wahlberg’s movie and it is Will Ferrell’s movie, for better or for worse.  B- /

REVIEW: Tooth Fairy

7 06 2010

Dwayne Johnson (aka “The Rock”) has become quite good at using his physical strength as an asset in kid’s movies. He managed to turn Disney’s “The Game Plan” into something actually quite disarming and fairly entertaining. But now, after doing “Tooth Fairy” for Fox, we can clearly see that charm doesn’t follow the star. Perhaps it’s strictly Disney’s property, this movie seems to suggest.

The movie deals in the mythical, offering a different and ultimately disconcerting take on the Tooth Fairy. There isn’t one tooth fairy but multiple, many of whom are swapping money for teeth not out of their benevolent spirits but as an act of penance. That’s the case for aging hockey star Derek Thompson (Johnson) who is apparently incredible yet still in the minor leagues. He kills dreams not just by ruining the myth of the Tooth Fairy but by pessimistically offering his take on the future to crush idealism.

So he receives a summons from the “Department of Dissemination of Disbelief,” led by a fairy played by the always graceful Julie Andrews.  This is just a wannabe of the Council of Legendary Figures in “The Santa Clause 2,” which included Mother Nature, Father Time, Cupid, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, Santa Claus, and a self-conscious Tooth Fairy seeking a less emasculating title.  But there’s more to the movie’s demise than just the fact that the premise has been used before.  “Tooth Fairy” is critically deficient in creativity and energy, both of which are needed to power a movie of such mythical magnitude.  Johnson here merely dials it in, absent of all the fun and compassion he showed in “The Game Plan.”  It’s almost as if he’s as tired of acting the same tired message as we are of receiving it.

The real question the movie raises is where on earth has Billy Crystal been the past decade. And why on earth did he choose “Tooth Fairy” to come back with? That’s not exactly a triumphant return with a blaze of glory. He makes two small appearances and manages to get a few small chuckles out of us, although one has to wonder if they are pity laughs for a man that once could consistently leave us in stitches.

I will give “Tooth Fairy” that it does have one great strength: puns.  Clever wordplay involving teeth and fairies pops up all throughout the film and in great quantities.  Depending on your sense of humor, you’ll let out either a mild chuckle or you’ll roll your eyes.  But puns are no replacement for good comedy and imagination.  C /