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: The Secret Life of Pets

11 07 2016

Universal Pictures’ Illumination Entertainment has been collecting plenty of money in the 2010s thanks to films like the “Despicable Me” series, but what is their identity? Prior to “The Secret Life of Pets,” the answer was unclear. Now, they might have found their answer.

Each prominent animation division has its strengths – Pixar’s is packaging adult themes into child-friendly tales; Disney Animation’s, charming with old-school fairy tale morality; DreamWorks’, creating parallel humor tracks for children and parents. Illumination feels well-positioned to capture a middle ground between all three, should they follow in the example of “The Secret Life of Pets.” And they definitely should.

The film feels like their “Toy Story” in many ways, and not just because the premise, story and characters feel so obviously indebted to Pixar’s debut feature. What that 1995 film did for toys in the chest, Illumination does for pets in the crate. Coming over twenty years later, their work might not feel nearly as ingenious, but it is still quite imaginative nonetheless.

Much like Woody was threatened by Andy bringing home Buzz, comfortable house dog Max (voice of Louis C.K.) feels endangered when his big-hearted owner rescues the lumbering stray Duke (voice of Eric Stonestreet) from the pound. Rather than finding a way to coexist, the two wind up lost and endangered. Only for these conflict-riddled canines, the environment they must navigate is not a nondescript suburban neighborhood. It’s the sprawling metropolis of New York City.

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REVIEW: The Wedding Ringer

10 05 2015

“I’m really starved for a new Kevin Hart vehicle,” said no one in the year 2015.  But the market gets what it wants, so moviegoers get five Kevin Hart films in fifteen months.  The fourth of these to see release, “The Wedding Ringer,” will likely only feel satisfying for those only getting their first piece of Hart.

This uninspired, unimpressive comedy takes the premise of “I Love You, Man” and somehow manages to make it a dull slog.  Josh Gad, a hilarious physical comedian in his own right, gets neutered of his talents to play the friendless schlub Doug Harris.  With just a week before his wedding to the gorgeous and shallow Gretchen (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), Doug has unbelievably neglected to procure a single groomsman.  A mistake that big takes him, in our eyes, from lovable loser to indisputable idiot.

Thankfully, their wedding planner steps in and suggests hiring a boutique outfit run by Hart’s Jimmy Callahan: The Best Man, Inc.  For a nice fee, Jimmy can throw together a fake wedding party and successfully fool all the guests into thinking his actors are actually lifelong friends of the groom.  The enormity of Doug’s request, however, hardly provides a proportionate helping of laughs.  Jimmy’s merry band of misfits provides more cringes than laughs, and any hilarity comes with a side order of guilt or shame.

Hart and Gad mostly find themselves reduced to gags about their distinctive body types and voices, a real waste of their considerable comedic gifts.  The lazy scripting from Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender certainly gives them no material to help them shine.  When all is said and done, whether “The Wedding Ringer” is a bigger waste of time for its stars or its audience might be the only pressing question raised.  (If you can stick it out until the end, though, fans of TV’s “Lost” will get the last – and biggest – laugh.)  C2stars

REVIEW: Get Hard

7 04 2015

To be fair to writer/director Etan Coen, I did enter “Get Hard” with knives at the ready to draw.  I am currently enrolled in a sociology course on race and ethnic relations, and a film that appeared chock full of vast generalizations seemed like a great potential paper topic for unit focusing on explanations for enduring racial inequality.  Because of that, I perversely did not leave the movie disappointed.

“Get Hard” is not actively, avowedly racist, although Coen does perpetuate some troubling stereotypes.  He can try to hide the film under the protection of satire and exaggeration, yet those labels hardly excuses the underpinnings and assumptions that come with wading into such territory.

Not to mention, he also tries to turn topics of concern into an invitation for laughter. Making an educated guess that a black man has been to jail, as Will Ferrell’s James does, based on their disproportionate rates of incarceration is a sad truth.  It ought to inspire genuine reflection, not a quick giggle.

But the only cause for concern in “Get Hard” is gay panic.  Everyone in the film seems to be in agreement that any sort of oral or anal sex is a punishment infinitely worse than systemic racism (never mind that any heterosexual person could engage in either act).  The homophobia that runs rampant through the movie made me wonder if the script was secretly written by Dr. Ben Carson, the Republican presidential hopeful who uses prison as an example for why homosexuality is a choice.

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REVIEW: Ride Along

21 03 2015

If anyone ever wanted to know what a mash-up of “Training Day” and “Monster-in-Law” would look like, “Ride Along” exists for their viewing pleasure.  Ice Cube stars as Office James Payton, an elder statesman trying to scare away a potential spouse for a loved, protected younger sister.  In order to vet his potential brother-in-law, Kevin Hart’s pint-sized Ben Barber, James gives him a taste of a day defending the law.

Their antics are nothing particularly noteworthy or hilarious.  “Ride Along”is a film of mild ambitions that results in only the most modest of payoffs.  The irony of featuring Ice Cube, the rapper who famously sang expletives at the police, playing a law enforcement officer has already been mined by “21 Jump Street.”

The film is only worth watching for Hart, who does his best to elevate all of his scenes.  The now seemingly ubiquitous star is a fun-sized Chris Rock with the falsetto of Chris Tucker, and the burst of energy he brings to “Ride Along” makes him rather endearing. Perhaps I sympathize with him innately, since I reside at the lower end of the height spectrum myself.

Personal feelings aside, Hart gets a nice showcase out of an otherwise forgettable film.  I might rewatch “Ride Along” if it happens to be on cable while I get my oil changed, but I doubt the scenario ever occurs where I’ll voluntarily rewatch this mediocre comedy. C+2stars