by Preston Tolliver
For those who don't know, Jubilee is a member of the X-Men who appeared in Uncanny X-Men #244 in 1989. Her powers consisted basically of wearing ridiculous sunglasses and shooting fireworks from her hands, rendering her useless for just about any event other than Charles Xavier's annual Fourth of July barbecue. What I'm saying is that if you're about to go to battle with Magneto, you'd be advised to not waste your time and just leave Jubilee the hell out of it.
And so, not unlike the human sparkler, here are five comic book movies you probably shouldn't waste your time with ...
5. “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007)
Do you know what that giant cloud about to eat Earth is? Neither did anyone else. Twentieth Century Fox managed to not only squash the hopes of intergalactic fanboys everywhere hoping to catch a glimpse of the flamboyantly purple world-eater, but it also managed to ruin one of the best characters in the Marvel Universe, practically castrating the Silver Surfer, ridding him of powers that made him one of Marvel's most underrated badasses. What could have been an epic battle between herald and master essentially amounted to the Surfer preventing the world from experiencing a cloudy day.
The movie had potential. The casting was spot-on: Jessica Alba was an alright Sue Storm, Chris Evans personified the arrogance of Johnny Storm (though he makes a far better Captain America), and Ioan Gruffudd was as much Reed Richards as Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. The movie was heavily criticized for its lack of depth and respect to its own characters, and because of that, we're sentenced to a future of what already looks to be worse ‘Fantastic Four’ movies while Fox hangs on to the rights of one of Marvel's most iconic groups.
4. “Batman and Robin” (1997)
There's not a lot I can say that isn't already summed up by director Joel Schumacher's commentary on the movie, in which he spends his time actually apologizing for it. Even George Clooney has apologized.
I love Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, mostly because of all the ridiculous things he says. That's why I actually kind of love this movie. He resurrected the wit of his John Matrix character from “Commando,” only instead of making puns about killing everyone, he made them about the weather. It was classic Schwarzenegger, the icing on a cake that was destined to be nothing more than a mockery of the Batman universe.
3. “Wolverine: Origins” (2009)
When comic books turn movies, it's pretty frowned upon when directors make changes to the original storylines, but it's often met with some acceptance: Sending Wolverine back in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” made sense, because to send the Ellen Page-cast Kitty Pryde back 40 years would to turn her back to a twinkle in her father's eye. But when you change a character entirely — say, when you turn one of the franchise's most beloved characters into an abomination with powers he never had in the comics, and his best trait is sewn shut — you're going to make enemies. Let's hope Deadpool confronts this in his new film.
2. “Daredevil” (2003)
Thank God for the new “Daredevil” series. In one fell 13-episode swoop, Netflix and Marvel were able to collaborate together and transform “Daredevil” from Marvel's punchline to guy who will probably kick my teeth in if I mention Ben Affleck.
The movie has been seen as nothing short of an atrocity — chock full of awkward, sexually tense fighting scenes between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner and Affleck sporting a lackadaisical effort at a Daredevil costume. It brought the beginning and what fans (understandably) think should have been the end of his superhero career, with comic fans the world over letting out a giant groan in unison when he was announced Christian Bale's successor as Batman.
1. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
When thinking up this list, “Spider-Man 3” didn't even make the cut. Instead, “Amazing Spider-Man 2” went in at number 5, and everything else went down. And before starting with the "You put a movie you didn't even remember in the worst spot?" nonsense, just hang tight a second, let me point out something: this movie was so bad that it was subconsciously wiped clear from my memory. That's something that happens to war veterans and children who watch their family get murdered. It was only while doing a Google Image search for “Amazing Spider-Man 2” that I remembered the atrocity that was Emo Toby Maguire and Venom. Oh God, Venom.
Looking back, I can't think of one good thing to say about it — the casting was bad, the writing was bad, and even its choice of villains was bad (Sandman and another Goblin? Really?). They tried throwing in Venom as a last-minute draw for fans, and it worked — true believers entered the theater hoping to see one of Marvel's most popular antiheroes; instead, they left with their heads down wondering where everything went wrong with the world.
Side note: Why was Topher Grace cast as Eddie Brock? Did Sam Raimi owe someone a favor? Wouldn't Brock Lesnar make a perfect Eddie Brock? It's even in the name! Sounds like destiny.
Luckily, a third web-head reboot is on its way, and even luckier for us, we can skip all the weird puberty metaphors. There's been a lot of discussion about who should take the webs (Get it? Like "take the reins"? Sorry, I'll just going to watch this video again.) now that Andrew Garfield is out. Some people want an African-American Spider-Man, while others want a closer portrayal of the Peter Parker of the comic books. Personally, I don't care — just don't give me Toby Maguire.
by Philip Price
It's that time of year again, the summer movie season is upon us. As always, this annual commencement of super hero blockbusters and action films galore with high budget comedies and low budget horrors both looking to break out in their respective genres begins with the first weekend in May. As you likely already know with the present media blitz attacking every screen you look at it will be the latest ‘Avengers’ adventure that will be kicking off summer this year, but there is a whole lot more to talk about and a whole lot you might not have heard of yet.
10. ‘Inside Out’
It has been three years since we've received an original Pixar offering during the summer movie season and two years since we've received one at all. While last year’s absence from the still reigning studio of animated features certainly wet many an appetite for their return it doesn't hurt that “Inside Out” looks to be a return to form that has been sorely lacking in the wake of the lackluster reviews for “Brave” and the overall drag that was the two “Cars” movies. Telling the story of 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias) the film goes inside her mind to explore the inner workings of her personality by creating personifications for her emotions including fear, sadness, anger, disgust and joy. The rest of the stellar voice cast for the personified emotions includes Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Lewis Black. “Inside Out” opens June 19th.
With a screenplay from “Lost” co-creator and head scribe Damon Lindelof that has been intently kept under wraps and direction from Brad Bird, who has done nothing but prove himself time and time again, I am extremely eager to dig into their collaboration. Described as being about a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius who are bound by destiny and embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space I can't help but feel I should be filled with wonder. That the writer and director have also described the film as one of pure discovery I'm hopeful that means it will present an interesting world to actually explore rather than letting itself become wrapped up in a standard plot. Fingers are officially crossed as I'm really rooting for this one to be a break-out. George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Judy Greer and Keegan-Michael Key star. “Tomorrowland” opens May 22nd.
8. ‘Straight Outta Compton’
From the moment the first red-band trailer for this film premiered back in February I was hooked. I'm a huge fan of old school rap in general (not to mention corny ‘90s R&B as well as awesome ‘70s funk) and so to see NWA get their due in what looks to be a rather exhilarating film is something to be excited for. NWA emerged from the streets of Compton, Calif. in the mid-1980s and basically revolutionized pop culture by introducing their lifestyle and the trials of their upbringing through their music to an entire audience that likely wasn't aware of the truths of their reality. I imagine the film will chronicle the rise and eventual tragedy that struck the group as well as the significance of their cultural impact, but hopefully will do good not to fall into too many music biopic conventions. Directed by F. Gary Gray and featuring a solid cast of up and comers including Ice Cube's real-life son O'Shea Jackson Jr. “Straight Outta Compton” opens August 14th.
No matter what others say I will always be an advocate for Judd Apatow and his directorial efforts that attempt to make something prestigious out of dick jokes. While “Trainwreck” will be the director’s first feature that he didn't also write his critical success this time around hinged on branching out and trying something different so it's good he's at least trying. Written and starring stand-up comedian Amy Schumer the film deals with a woman (Schumer) who was raised to think monogamy was never possible and has become a commitment-phobic career woman because of it. Of course, there is a film about her because she may finally be forced to face her fears when she meets a good guy in Bill Hader. I'm not overly familiar with Schumer's comedy, but the film received mostly positive reviews out of its SXSW screenings last month and, if nothing else, I'm excited to finally see Hader in something of a leading role. Also starring Vanessa Bayer, Tilda Swinton, Marisa Tomei and LeBron James “Trainwreck” opens July 17th.
As of late, Jake Gyllenhaal has been on something of a hot streak. Re-defining his place in the public eye and universe of film as one of the most reliable actors working today. Whether it be in small-scale pictures such as “Source Code” and “Enemy” or in sweeping dramas such as “End of Watch” or “Prisoners,” not to mention last year’s career-defining performance in “Nightcrawler”; the guy has consistently been hitting it out of the park for almost half a decade now. I can only imagine this way of thinking concerning his career will continue into the projects he's chosen next which is highlighted by director Antoine Fuqua's latest. Centered around a boxer who fights his way to the top, only to find his life falling apart around him Gyllenhaal looks to have made another ridiculous transformation. While I initially expected the film to be something of an Oscar-contender I won't complain about getting to see it earlier than expected as it will no doubt be solid counter-programming this summer. “Southpaw” also stars Forest Whitaker, 50 Cent and Rachel McAdams and opens July 31st.
5. ‘Pitch Perfect 2’
The first “Pitch Perfect” was something of a lightning in a bottle experience. For this reason, the fact they made a sequel at all makes me nervous. That said, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I really enjoyed that first film and have seen it more times than I care to admit. Having a certain affection for these characters and basically seeing them do what they do best on a bigger scale surely will be enjoyable if not completely warranted. The real kicker for me here though is the fact Elizabeth Banks will be making her directorial debut with this sequel. Even if I hadn't loved the first film and could care less about collegiate a cappella groups I think I'd be interested in seeing what Banks has to offer from behind the camera as she is always more than appealing in front of it. With the majority of the Barden Bellas returning and Rebel Wilson reportedly already signed on for a third film Universal must either want to milk this cow for all it's worth or actually have a fair amount of faith in this second installment. Let's hope it's the latter. “Pitch Perfect 2” opens May 15th.
4. ‘Fantastic Four’
The dark horse comic book movie of the summer, I can't help but feel this one will be something of a surprise for most. I've been championing this one since last December and for the life of me can't figure out why so many people on the Internet feel so negatively towards it. While the teaser trailer that debuted in January certainly had an ‘Interstellar’-vibe to it concerning discovery and pushing the human race further it looks to truly be a film that is going for something very specific with a clear idea of what it is. With so many super hero films these days conforming to a very strict set of guidelines I can't help but applaud director Josh Trank for seemingly thinking outside the box - I just hope my optimism pays off. The brief synopsis that describes our four young scientists achieving superhuman abilities through a teleportation experiment gone haywire who then use those abilities to save the world from an uprising tyrant doesn't exactly reveal much, but I like the mystery surrounding this marketing campaign and can only see it as a good sign and not one of how bad the film is trying to be hidden from the public. Starring Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell “Fantastic Four” opens August 7th.
I'm going purely on faith with this one. While “Straight Outta Compton” will chronicle the actual events that made up the culture of the early ‘90s “Dope” seems to be a take on why, in this age of consistent technological advancements, we tend to revert to so much nostalgia. It really is fascinating to see our current culture revel in the past to such an extent. Maybe we always have, but with social media this fact really comes to light and the people behind TV who now have access to that heartbeat of pop culture are certainly taking advantage of it. In short, “Dope” is about a self-proclaimed ‘90s nerd named Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) who get caught up in a drug deal and must figure out how to recoup the money and stay alive. Unlike “Tomorrowland,” that last bit sounds a little too plot-heavy, but I'm hoping for good things as the tone of this one is hitting a sweet spot. “Dope” opens June 19th.
2. ‘Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation’
When the latest ‘Mission Impossible’ was pushed up from its original December release to late July I could not have been more excited. Not only would we get to see the film almost six months early, but that Paramount/Universal thought the film was good enough to move up rather than delay showed real promise. When the trailer then debuted a few weeks later I only became more excited as writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's take on the ‘Mission Impossible’ franchise looks to be as exhilarating and action-packed as any other entry while completely capitalizing on the good will built by ‘Ghost Protocol.’ This time around, Ethan (Tom Cruise) and team (including a returning Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner and introducing Rebecca Ferguson) take on their most impossible mission yet as they attempt to eradicate the Syndicate - an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are and who are bent on destroying the IMF. “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” opens July 31st.
1. ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’
There's really no way around it, no way to even escape it. Marvel is a power house and while I may not feel as excited for the next installment of this ongoing series in the lag between each of them, every time it gets close to the release of the next one I remember how much I enjoy going to the movies to see them and the connection they all have with one another. It's like waiting for the next season of a show you really enjoy that you tend to forget some of the details for in the interim. Now being on the cusp of the second ‘Avengers’ I am really beginning to feel the excitement. While the first film didn't hold up as well for me on repeat viewings the early reviews for ‘Ultron’ are nothing but high praise with many commenting on how different it is from the first film. This time around Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, but naturally things go awry and it is up to Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans. Starring Robert Downey Jr.,Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Paul Bettany, Don Cheadle, Andy Serkis, Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smulders “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opens May 1.
by Preston Tolliver
Earlier this weekend, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige announced that Peter Parker will again be behind the mask of Spider-Man, silencing a Twitter movement that pushed for the next film's producers to branch out and bring Miles Morales -- an African American Spider-Man in the Marvel Ultimate Universe -- to the big screen. However, with the announcement, writers also didn't dispel the possibility of a nonwhite Spider-Man, and, as people on the Internet are wont to do, they made their voices heard, some showing disappointment at the thought of another Spider-Man portrayed by a white man, while others reveled in glee over the thought of Spider-Man continuing to look similar to how he's been drawn for 50-plus years. While some gave sincere reasons for their wishes for the next film, others used the opportunity to highlight not only their own discrimination, but the limitations that discrimination has placed on filmmakers.
Film adaptations of comic book characters have always come with a little bit of a handicap. When a book goes to the big screen, the casting directors are afforded some creative leeway. Books oftentimes give vivid descriptions of their characters, but what those characters actually look like are up to the reader. Comic books don't allow that. Artists imagine those characters so we don't have to, and any change to those depictions are sometimes met with cooperation, trust and anticipation; however, too often those changes are met with a resistance, treated as sacrilege. We saw it when Thor was written as female, when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm, and many have taken to their keyboards to slam any notion that the next Spider-Man could be anything but nonwhite (although, for every person who's taken arms against the idea of a black Spider-Man, there's been at least one person to stand for it).
Oddly, we didn't see this sort of revolt to change with previous reproductions -- I remember when Michael Clarke Duncan was cast as the Kingpin in 2003's Daredevil, and although Clarke Duncan's appearance varied drastically from the comic book's stout Caucasian, it wasn't met by an army of fans mistaking inclusion in casting for an overreach of political correctness (though to be fair, the Kingpin was only a supporting character in what is easily one of the top three worst comic book movies of all time), nor was there much uproar when the Marvel Ultimate Universe re-imagined Nick Fury as a black man (probably because no one liked the thought of living with Samuel L. Jackson's foot permanently inside them had they actually said anything). Marvel, if you actually look at it, has a history of shaking things up and has throughout the years become increasingly inclusionary. It's only recently they've begun to rewrite lead characters to be different genders or races rather than just creating new characters altogether (such as Morales, for example).
Obviously, social media plays a large part in backlash Marvel has seen the last few months: everyone has a voice, and no matter how irrelevant or thoughtless what they're saying may be, they're still able to say it as loud and as much as they want. The Internet is a very loud place, and as history will tell you, those who are angriest always have the most to say. Still, it's hard to believe changes made even five years ago would be met with the hostility they are today. In reality, we've become spoiled by the comic book films we've looked forward to every summer for the last decade. The movies have consistently given us onscreen adaptations that look almost just like the characters in the comic books -- Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are almost spitting images of the characters they portray -- and it's not an experience many are willing to give up soon.
Side note: For hundreds of years, Jesus Christ has been portrayed as a white man, despite having a Middle Eastern background. Surely Michael B. Jordan can be the Human Torch for one movie. I digress.
All that out of the way, the saddest part of the hateful tweets and Facebook posts isn't the level intolerance that floods Twitter and Facebook any time someone is rumored to be considered for a role that doesn't fit the exact portrayal in the books, it's that after decades -- some as far back as half a century -- so many characters are defined by their physical attributes rather than what they represent. As Amazing Spider-Man and Silver Surfer writer Dan Slott said on Twitter the other day:
Spider-Man is for everyone.
Spidey is for any kid who ever felt like an outsider.
No matter your race, creed, color, or religion.
Spider-Man isn't about a white man swinging from lamppost to lamppost fighting guys with eight arms or goblin masks, but a teenager fighting for a purpose, just like the Incredible Hulk isn't so much about a giant green man tearing through buildings and yelling simple rhetoric as it is a man whose uncontrollable emotions lead to destructive behavior. Sure, sometimes cultural identity is part of the fabric of a superhero. Take the Black Panther, for example, a Wakandan chief in Africa -- it wouldn't geographically make sense to make him anything but African. But for other characters, particularly American ones, a door is swung wide open -- just as the country is a melting pot, so should be the heroes we revere. So many of Marvel's heroes are -- and should be -- about character traits, relatable to readers of all races, genders and creed, and not limited to the color of their skin or what hangs between their legs. What's most important about so many of these characters isn't who the person is beneath the mask, but who they are beneath their skin.
by Philip Price
I don’t know that I’ve ever reviewed a Nicholas Sparks film on this site before. There often seems no point due to the fact that if you’re seeing these movies you know exactly what you want and what you’re getting and while that is probably the case here as well, there was something unquestionably intriguing about the tone set by the trailers for “The Longest Ride.” The musical choices that included Banks “Waiting Game” signaled something of a forbidden, almost haunting love story that might be worth tuning into due to the team behind translating the Sparks story to the screen felt uncommon. It’s not out of the question given love stories depend more on the way they’re told and the chemistry of the actors involved to be successful than that of the actual story and with director George Tillman Jr. there certainly seemed potential for something interesting. Love is such an intangible thing it’s always difficult to capture the essence of what makes it so special without resorting to clichés and typically that is what Sparks ends up doing. “The Longest Ride” fortunately doesn’t fall prey to the trap of some of the more recent Sparks adaptations in that it doesn’t go completely bonkers in the end and make all kinds of convoluted twists with the only significance being to shock the audience. I haven’t seen “Safe Haven,” but heard it was quite a doozy while I actually caught “The Best of Me” a few weeks ago and despite the set-up hinting at nothing down the road it became fairly evident where things were heading the moment a couple instances took place one after another. With that in mind, what there is to appreciate about ‘Ride’ is that it is little more than a basic human story about figuring out priorities and becoming satisfied with a routine that only has a few contrivances forced on it in order to create conflict, but none so outlandish it makes the viewer realize the ridiculousness of it all. It at least feels like an earnest attempt to portray love whereas the majority of the recent Sparks films feel more like cash-grabs capitalizing on manufactured emotions.
We are first introduced to Sophia (Britt Robertson), a senior at Wake Forest who is really into the arts and even has an internship lined up for the summer in New York that will have her working in galleries alongside top industry folks that will inevitably lead to a prosperous career, but before all goes too well for the pretty young upstart she will be forced to go to a rodeo with her sorority sisters. Appearing to be nothing more than a carefree night on the town, Sophia looks at it as something of a reward for not letting herself have any fun the first three years of her college experience. Of course, the night she does decide to go out she meets handsome professional bull rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood) and things will never be the same. The two have something of an instant connection (of course, in Sparks world introductions graduate to full blown affection over the course of a first date), but they soon realize they are on two very different paths and with only a month left before Sophia leaves for New York it would be best to go no further with their relationship. As Luke drives Sophia home from their first date though they see a car on fire on the side of the road. Inside is an elderly Ira Levinson (Alan Alda who is especially strong in most of his scenes) whom Luke rescues while Sophia grabs a wicker basket full of letters from his front seat. After dropping Ira off at the emergency room Luke leaves, but Sophia decides to hang back for a little while. In doing this she begins snooping through Ira’s letters which then opens up the film for a two for the price of one scenario as we see the parallel stories of Sophia and Luke and Ira and Ruth (Oona Chaplin) unfold while teaching us all a lesson or two about what it takes to truly make love work. Spanning generations these two intertwining love stories help “The Longest Ride” deliver all you could want from a film like this if you’re paying today’s ticket prices to see it, but maybe even a little more since the film runs at an unnecessary two hours and ten minutes.
There are, of course, many issues one could take with the film given the whole plot device of the letters that Sophia discovers and ends up reading to Ira as he can no longer read them for himself (even with his glasses) are all simply descriptions of events that both a young Ira and Ruth experienced together despite the letters supposedly being for Ruth. I mean, I’m sure it’s sweet to Ruth (who also happens to love the arts) that her husband makes an attempt to capture their love by recounting it through his writing, but it would have been easier had Sparks made this a diary or even if screenwriter Craig Bolotin would have changed this detail from the book. Besides the source of the flashbacks, another problem the film runs into is that hearing Ira and Ruth’s story requires Sophia visit the elder Ira every time they want to return to the past and while it is somewhat necessary to establish a relationship between Ira and Sophia that is critical to the third act, it also draws out earlier portions of the film that could be tightened. Making the film feel all the more generic is the look of it. While the music and editing of the trailer made this out to be somewhat enchanting in a way most melodramatic love stories of the Sparks variety are not, the film still ends up with the same aesthetic as every other movie in the genre that makes it feel as broad as possible with no distinctive touch to separate it from the pack. I hoped with Tillman behind the camera and cinematographer David Tattersall (“The Green Mile,” the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy and a large collection of others, but no prior Sparks adaptations) that we might get something a little more in tune with the emotions at stake. Instead, it all feels more small scale while the multi-generational story covering decades of emotions should be met with something more intimate while being able to encapsulate the gravity of the cause and effect themes the story is playing with. There is a single war scene meant to signify the determination of young Ira (Jack Huston) to get back to Ruth, but it is shot in such a way it feels like the cheapest thing in the film and is unable to conjure up the necessary tension because the scale is so obvious.
On the plus side, the performances are charming enough. While it will always be argued they are pulled down by the sappy, hokey and generally manipulative stories that Sparks spews at this point (he’s 17 books in and still working with the same archetypes) all the main players here are at least trying and come off more credible than I thought possible. I knew Robertson was rather good as her stand-out performance in “Dan in Real Life” at the age of seventeen is the thing I will always relate to her, but whether or not Eastwood junior could carry a leading role was yet to be seen. In short, he does what is required of him here which is largely to be the southern gentleman and take his shirt off numerous times so as to justify that aforementioned ticket money the ladies seeing this spent on good faith this is what they’d be receiving. While Robertson and Eastwood are fine enough together their love story hardly merits a film as their “conflict” could easily be resolved were they two level-headed human beings (which Sophia is, for the most part). The more interesting story is so obviously that of Ira and Ruth so it hurts that this is seen by the filmmakers as the secondary tale. Rather than just questioning whether or not they will end up together (which is the sole dramatic leg Sophia and Luke’s story stands on) we get some genuinely moving moments between Ira and Ruth as we clearly see how much they love one another despite the compromises they must make to be with one another. It is more the tests that life throws at them that make us question if their relationship will be able to remain strong. The chemistry between Huston and Chaplin is also all the more palpable as Oona is especially charming and exudes a charisma that is effortless and helps us understand why Ira found so much to adore about her. Had the film just been the story of Ira and Ruth it might have proved more honest, but in tying in a present story so as to display that most love requires sacrifice for the greater good makes it feel just the right amount of hackneyed so that Sparks can pack some kind of third act revelation into the narrative rather than delivering a simple yet relatable human tale.
by Philip Price
Despite the fact “’71” was put together by newcomers to the world of feature films you wouldn’t know it from the hard-boiled style and breathless pacing that enables it to become an intriguing tale of a single soldier. Led by Jack O’Connell this is not the movie you might expect given the promotional material or even the synopsis. Instead, this is a veritable history lesson that breaks an event down to its most human element. To give you a sense of just how basic the film gets is to know that within the first twenty minutes our main character is holding bits of one of his comrades brains in his hand. There is a close-up of this. It quickly reiterates to O’Connell’s Gary Hook how close he is to death; that separating him from the unknown is simply how fast he can run from those who have killed his mate. It is his immediate reaction to flee the scene that sets him on a course for a night of unexpected challenges and consistent life-threatening experiences that test his will to live and his faith in mankind. These larger themes are hinted at, sure, but only if you choose to take them away from the film. The beauty of this rather simple tale though is that, if you wish, you can take it as it is and for what it offers in its most basic of senses with that being a historical action film that just so happens to genuinely strike a chord. While there isn’t much to it other than atmosphere and performances, director Yann Demange has managed to pull out the details of this ongoing divide in Northern Ireland to create a compelling study of humanity that speaks volumes about the larger situations at hand. While O’Connell does fine work as a British soldier cut off from his unit and left to survive alone on the streets of Belfast it is the film’s ability to manage multiple storylines within the different mindsets and allegiances that really stands out. And while I enjoyed “’71” more than enough to recommend it I still can’t say it struck me as something exceptionally substantial, but more as something of note due to its attention to The Troubles, an issue I didn’t have much knowledge of prior to seeing the film and something I imagine many others on this side of the pond will have in common with me.
In essence, “’71” is something of a chase film, a throwback to films of the era in which it takes its title where the cinematography feels as brutal as the actions taking place on screen. The aesthetic of it all screams a grimy reality and it is within this world that we are introduced to Hook as a new recruit in the British Army. Under the leadership of the inexperienced Lt. Armitage (Sam Reid), the squad Hook is designated to is assigned to a hostile area of Belfast where Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists are living side by side. The unit provides support for the Royal Ulster Constabulary or the police of the area as they inspect homes for firearms. It is shocking both to the audience and Hook the extent of which these civilians, including women and children, are treated. Having seen the cavalry come rolling in the Catholic neighborhood begins to gather in protest and provoke the British troops who are only able to respond by trying to hold the crowd back and not with any type of excessive force. As the crowds become more infuriated and tempted by the solidarity of the British soldiers a young child crosses the line and pulls a gun from the grasp of one of the soldiers. In another gut reaction, Hook and a fellow officer follow the child as the growing crowd’s protests begin to escalate towards throwing rocks and other physical acts that break the barrier of simply yelling in the soldiers faces. So as not to incite the riots any further the soldiers and police pull out, leaving Hook and his comrade behind. When they are quickly discovered on the literal wrong side of town they are descended upon by the locals and beat within an inch of their lives: Hook narrowly escaping with his fellow soldier on the receiving end of the scenario I described earlier. From here, it becomes a game of survival as Hook sneaks through Belfast at night in hopes of finding enough compassion to make it out alive.
As the lead, O’Connell is able to do here what he was stripped of in his most high profile role to date. While we never really got to know the Louie Zamperini as portrayed by O’Connell in “Unbroken,” but more went on a journey with him as the surrogate rather than getting any inclination of why his character’s spirit supposedly took after the title, it is refreshing to see a performance from the young actor that justifies the early praise he’s been receiving given I still haven’t seen “Starred Up.” As Hook though, what O’Connell actually brings to the role that is tougher than making it stand out is downplaying any distinctive feature and being rather bland for the sake of making a point. While we get to know little bits of Hook’s life; mainly concerning how much of a willing and able fighter he is and that he is a caring older brother while revealing the sensitivity a man of his position when the film breaks his situation down to those most human of elements it is mainly understood that this guy is a soldier first and is conditioned to do as he is told and will do so despite consciously knowing the lines between right and wrong rarely exist in such a conflict as the one he’s involved in. To this comes an interesting take in that the film not only focuses on the covert intelligence agency chasing after our main character or the conflict of interests at play between this covert group and the official military forces on the scene, but that it digs into bigger themes of war in just how much this single man’s life is worth. Is it him individually or more what he stands for that causes the ruthless opposition to seek his blood despite the fact his death would signify little more than the most minimal of victories? On the other end of the spectrum is the question of how much a single life is worth during a time of war? This question has been asked time and time again on film. Here, it resonates due to the fact Hook is so clearly a small piece of a larger puzzle and yet we desperately care about his well-being. The substance is there if you choose to look into it, otherwise “’71” could simply serve as a gripping and solidly directed action thriller because it is most definitely that.
by Philip Price
In his feature directorial debut Ryan Gosling shows us first and foremost just how stylish he can be. Very much concerned with the framing and cinematography of his piece, “Lost River” relies on both of these camera elements accompanied by the Johnny Jewel soundtrack to set the very specific tone that Gosling wants to elicit. Specific is the key word here because without this preference to create a distinct style that evokes a certain time period (or more specifically the photography of that time period) then Gosling's directorial debut would be almost void of anything else. And yet, the way in which everything has been composed and the way the subtle and sly story is brought to the surface is strangely fascinating. Not necessarily good, but certainly fascinating. We never really feel (or at least I didn't) that there is a solid grasp on anything that is happening. It is understood that there seems to be a super natural element to all that is going on, but compared to something like “American Horror Story” which tends to finely balance its style with its content while fully embracing its genre, “Lost River” is unable to give us a compelling story while delivering some rather interesting visual choices. Even in the climax of the film where our assumed protagonist fights to end a curse that has been put on his town and Ben Mendelsohn dances his little heart out the cinematography delves into dark shades so that we can hardly tell what is going on. It's as if Gosling has something very specific (there's that word again) that he wants to say, but is afraid to state it too explicitly. What is it exactly that Gosling's film is trying to accomplish? I don't know that I could tell you. It's too easy to say that it's all style and no substance because while the style of the piece is front and center there is clearly something attempting to be said here; a statement trying to be made-I'm just not completely clear on what that is.
There are clear circumstances set-up at the beginning of the film for each of the characters, but it is the mood of the piece that is more important than the story. Much of this has to deal with the oldest son of Billy (Christina Hendricks), Bones (Iain De Caestecker), who encounters a mystic-enticed young woman who goes by the name of Rat (Saoirse Ronan) that convinces him something evil, something of a dark magic is the culprit in turning their once beloved childhood homes into what they call a lost river (which all feels a bit dramatic to say someone bought out some land and is putting in a reservoir). The town is dying anyway as is evident from the shape of the buildings and their decrepit nature, but Billy is resistant to take her sons from the home they grew up in; striking a deal with Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), the man brought in by the bank to buy out the folks still living in this out of commission town. While Bones is initially keen on keeping his mother’s dream alive by stripping abandoned houses for copper and selling it, he is threatened by a local thug appropriately called Bully (Matt Smith). Bones isn't the only one trying to make some cash on the side though as Billy takes the hint from Dave that if she wants to stay she'll have to play. By this, he doesn't mean exactly what you might think, but instead alludes to a strange, underworld-like club he has opened. He plays it off as if it's for the benefit of the desperate townspeople so that they might escape the impending threat of their lifestyle forever changing. It is in this dark underworld of sorts that Billy and Bones worlds collide. As do their enemies. With more strange turns from Eva Mendes as a big personality in the underground shows that happen in Dave's club to Smith perfecting his lurking technique every turn of the scene suggests something is seriously off about this old town and the secrets it's hiding.
In essence, this is an experimental piece from a first-time director who seems to feel more like playing around with a number of ideas rather than creating something solid and concrete from one. This is perfectly fine as a film doesn't necessarily have to say or mean anything and it's sometimes to the advantage of a film to ask more questions than it answers (Damon Lindelof would agree with me on that, I'm sure). The power Gosling's reputation has earned him the ability to do whatever he likes and if “Lost River” is the fruit of those efforts-all the more power to him. More than a film concentrated on a single idea with a driving plot, Gosling has seemingly created a piece of what he would no doubt like to be referred to as art in that it is more soulful than it is physical. He simply wants to stimulate and not necessarily touch. This is clear even in the construction of each of the characters. On the page Gosling must have written paragraphs of description around these characters and their mentalities rather than writing the dialogue. As you might have guessed, the dialogue is minimal and the personality of each character that walks on screen is transparent more for their presence and performance than anything they actually say. It is clear Gosling has taken cues from his frequent collaborators in Nicolas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance as both of these directors visual stylings are imbued in “Lost River.” Mendelsohn's character says at one point that, "There are basic human needs. We can't cater to all of them." This is true of Gosling's film as well as it's clear from the beginning the cinematography and soundtrack are going to be highlights of the film (get a sense here) and yet it is almost certain that the story will be so vague any number of interpretations could be correct. For me, it feels like some kind of commentary on the decline of the American dream, but that isn't what's important and Gosling likely doesn't care if you understand it as much as he wants it to hit you square in the chest. Unfortunately, though it's fascinating to take in, the end result didn't hit me as hard as it should.
by Philip Price
At this point, if you're into what the ‘Fast & Furious’ films are doing then you're completely into it. There is no way out if you've come this far and I can't imagine anyone having a problem with that if you indeed have. At this point, it also seems the films feel the same way. Up to a certain point, one could have taken in the individual films as such, but the mythology has grown, the cast continues to expand and if you're not caught up with the going-ons between Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his gang in correlation with the Shaw brothers (Luke Evans and Jason Statham) as well as with Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and how it all ties in with ‘Tokyo Drift’ then you may as well start from the beginning. For, as much as it is the insane action sequences and over the top fight scenes that keep the masses hungry for more it is the history of this now 15 year-old franchise that keeps the heart pumping as healthily as it is. People will come for the action, but stay for the characters. It's really as simple as that and there essentially isn't much more to say, but the seventh entry in what was originally a street racing franchise has way too much going on to relegate it to little more than a footnote in a bigger universe. More than another chapter in an ongoing saga, “Furious 7” will always be significant for the real world circumstances surrounding Paul Walker's untimely death and how that plays into this film. It was also always going to be rather significant, if not a turning point for the franchise at large, because it was the first time we'd be moving past ‘Tokyo Drift’ chronologically. When Han (Sung Kang) showed up in “Fast & Furious” to hint that these events, five years after the original film, came even before the events of the third film (which technically, would actually be the sixth film) there has been a building towards a certain point and by the end of “Fast & Furious 6” that point had been reached. What happens next? “Furious 7” is the answer to that and while this latest film is certainly more poignant for reasons beyond its control it never forgets its main mission and continues to thrive on its self-awareness of just how outlandish it has become.
In what may be one of the most badass openings ever (that I won't spoil here) we are introduced to Deckard Shaw (Statham), the big bad brother of Owen (Evans) from the previous film. Deckard doesn't like that his younger brother has been placed on life support and is rotting away in a hospital bed and so he intends to seek revenge by making a hit list of the team that put him there. In order to grab this information he goes first to the official source of all that has guided Toretto and his team over the last two installments in Johnson's Hobbs. Elena (Elsa Pataky) has returned to work with Hobbs and barely escapes the wrath of Statham's Shaw as he goes head to head with the behemoth piece of granite that is The Rock. If you stayed for the post credits scene in “Fast & Furious 6” then you know where Shaw heads next and from here it becomes a game of picking Dom's crew off one by one, that is, until the intervention of a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell). Mr. Nobody maintains his mystique throughout while being played with exceptional cool by Russell who makes his presence valuable by striking a deal with Dom and his team. This deal includes them tracking down and freeing a genius hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and taking possession of a program she invented known as "God's Eye". This tool grants the holder the ability to be able to locate anyone on the planet within a matter of hours as it taps into anything with a camera or microphone. If Dom and his crew can successfully retrieve Ramsey and her invention from the bad man who's kidnapped her, Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), they can in turn use it to track down Shaw and exact their own revenge. With Han and Gisele (Gal Gadot) gone and Hobbs laid up for most of the action this time it certainly feels like the team is slimming, but the addition of Emmanuel is a welcome one and the subplots of Dom attempting to help Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) retrieve her memory and Brian (Walker) transitioning to full-on domestication with Mia (Jordana Brewster) and their toddler son Jack more than suffice in terms of balancing the heart and the brawn.
While I wasn't initially a fan of these films with the first three in the series being fun enough, but hardly necessary I imagined it all going the way of the ‘American Pie’ series after ‘Tokyo Drift’ already seemed like a direct-to-video release that somehow snuck into theaters. Instead, with director Justin Lin given the go ahead after ‘Tokyo’ he began building the interconnected universe we have come to love today and from that point on, I was hooked. While “Furious 7” is the first film since ‘Tokyo’ to not be directed by Lin it was left in the more than capable hands of James Wan. Wan, who is primarily known for his small-scale horror films was certainly something of an interesting choice, but with all he had to take on and all he and his crew went through during the production of this film it is something of a miracle it came out as solid as it has. There are certainly a few issues here and there, don't get me wrong. Like “Fast & Furious” there is a lot of ground to cover in the first twenty or so minutes. Putting all the pieces in place and doling them out in the necessary order so that everything fits together nicely, you can feel the slightly patched together nature of what is essentially the epilogue before the film finds its footing with the first Dom and Deckard showdown. Once we reach this point, once the cards are on the table and the plans begin to be put into action you can feel the ease of the scenes begin to gel together more congruently. It is within this core section of the film that it excels in both action and moving the story along. Book-ended on the front by the necessary exposition and on the end with the ever-looming question of what the film will do with Walker's Brian O'Conner we relish the joyous meat of the film where it delivers exactly what we've come to expect from these films. Without giving anything away, just know that the film handles O'Conner's send-off with grace while strangely, but effectively acknowledging the real-world events that no doubt altered the original ending, but shaped what is certainly the most emotional moment in any Fast film so far. We can feel Diesel's Toretto breaking down yet trying to reassure us and while I hate to harp on Walker's death and its impact on the film it is unavoidable and Wan, Diesel and company have all handled it in as best a way as anyone can imagine.
Oddly enough, it is this sentimentality that piques here that has somewhat become a staple of why those who love the ‘Fast’ franchise do in fact feel that way. One of the bigger issues with this overall chapter though, despite the fate of Walker's character looming in a way that we know will likely hit us hard, is the realization these emotions feel somewhat deflated by the reality the large ensemble has begun to dwindle. As most have likely guessed, Lucas Black is back from Tokyo Drift, but only for a brief cameo that feels like it could have become so much more. With O'Conner making his inevitable exit and the "family" virtually narrowed down to Dom, Letty, Tej (Ludacris) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson) it would seemingly only make sense to add Black to the mix in a larger way. One has to hand it to both Tyrese and Ludacris though as you can feel more weight being shifted to their characters shoulders. Tyrese is especially endearing as the comic relief stealing no less than two major scenes where he isn't the biggest player in the room. Ludacris is given the female version of himself in Ramsey, but the two really have little more to do than stare at screens, type furiously and bark orders at others. What almost makes this problem worse is the amount of talent this film has at its disposal that it doesn't fully utilize. Both Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa, two more than superior athletes, show up for what are essentially glorified cameos to serve as excuses for Walker and Rodriguez to get in fist fights within the midst of bigger action set pieces. Honsou's name may as well have been McGuffin as his character is little more than a trigger for the plot and worse it excludes Statham from being the main baddie. These few reservations aside, Wan and writer Chris Morgan (who has penned every script since ‘Tokyo’) have put together some unprecedented action sequences that are as grand in scale as they are expertly captured. What I was looking for with a new director taking over was something of a different aesthetic and visual approach. While it is more than commendable that Wan successfully transitioned from his niche to this kind of large scale filmmaking as well as he did he is also able to put his own spin on things giving the sleekness of Abu Dhabi and the brusque mentality of the mountainside chase the right textures to where we feel we've actually been dropped into the middle of the scenario.
I'd like to think of “Furious 7” as something of a transitional piece in that the ensemble in whatever the inevitable eighth film will be called might grow back to what we came to embrace in the fifth and sixth installments of the most unlikely franchise ever. While “Furious 7” is certainly the end to a very special phase of the ‘Fast’ universe it is hardly over and with that we can only look ahead to what direction these films might go without the oil and water chemistry of Diesel and Walker. We can only hope that they continue to deliver not only action sequences that up the ante from the previous film, but ground these characters in the strange reality where these films exist that make us continuously care about their plights and the well-being of the family. Near the end of the film Tyrese's Roman Pearce states that, "Things will be different now." They certainly will, but with the kind of loving tribute to Walker this film ultimately feels like I can only imagine it will also drive Diesel and his crew to continue to make solid, gleefully fun action movies that keep the desires of its audience front and center and continue to deliver more of what we want until Diesel can no longer hit the gas.
by Philip Price
This could have gone rather bad were director David Robert Mitchell not completely sure of how he'd be able to pull it off. Because, let's face it: the idea of someone walking after you isn't exactly frightening at first thought and could easily be interpreted as comical were it not presented in the right way. Presentation is key and Mitchell has this down to a science in “It Follows” as everything from the framing to the movement of the camera and into the accompanying score is drilled down to precision so as to evoke the most effective reactions. In that the film feels so specific in its making allows for the final product to feel assured in its execution and thus its ability to play on the minds of those taking it in for the first time. As much as people like to imagine we are smarter than the characters on a screen, especially in scary movies, “It Follows” makes one question that confidence by building up the mystery of the circumstances and pitting both the characters and everyone watching them in a race against time whether they realize it or not. While things could have gone one of two ways really easily with this simple yet somewhat profound little horror flick, the quality of the production and the keen sense of being able to capture exactly what he wanted has seemingly allowed for Mitchell to create a horror film that isn't necessarily as scary as it is intimidating and eerie. One could easily read the synopsis and laugh, one could easily read the synopsis and find it trashy given the certain set of rules with which the film’s central conceit operates, but in understanding why it all works as well as it does and why it makes sense, why certain elements are more than critical, is to see it play out with your own eyes and try to deny the cool yet disturbing feeling that washes over you and takes you in. That is what “It Follows” does best, that is why it deserves the praise it has received so far; because it takes you into its world and doesn't let you go. Even as you leave the theater it raises the hair on the back of your neck making you turn your head to check if anyone's there.
Much like last years “The Guest,” but with better consistent utilization of its soundtrack, “It Follows” plays off the nostalgia of films from the ‘80s. The John Carpenter references and visual cues run rampant as the film is set in the eternal autumn where neighborhood lawns are always covered in multi-colored leaves and the clouds hang over the rooftops as if ready to release a deluge of bad weather at any time. The sense of a new school year, hanging out with friends on couches after the long school days and eating Cheetos while watching old movies is fresh in the film’s aesthetic. The setting isn't really as important as the feeling though and the feeling, the atmosphere, the tone is where “It Follows” finds its strength. Also like “The Guest,” we understand that nothing necessarily new or fresh is being told to us here, but it is the way in which it is conveyed that feels fresh and exciting. Even the way things are being done are nothing new, but that we are able to recognize them, that we are able to quickly understand the headspace of Mitchell and what his intentions were is somewhat exhilarating and we applaud him because we realize how well he ultimately pulls it off. From the opening shot that sets the camera up in the middle of a quiet, suburban neighborhood and spins itself around in a complete 360 (a technique used several times throughout the film to great effect) as a single point of focus makes her way across the canvas to entrance us I was hooked. It was all there in a way that simply made sense and as the film continued building on its story and adding layers it only upped the amount of tension and sense of looming danger that becomes inescapable for our main character and her group of friends. As with many a solid film, “It Follows” does begin to lose its way as it closes in on its climax. Resorting to not so much a resolution, but one last, big final plan that really has no grounds to stand on and that we don't necessarily see the point in wasting the effort on.
We are first introduced to Jay (Maika Monroe) as she takes a dip in her backyard, above ground swimming pool. She is pretty, but not overly confident in herself. She seems level headed and articulate, but is not beyond being seduced by her childhood ideals of dating and riding in cars with boys being brought to life. So, when Hugh (Jake Weary), a new guy she's dating, takes her out to the beach and romantically begins to kiss her she is not opposed to going all the way with him in the back of his car. At first, there seems no reason to think anything more of the fornication, but then Hugh drugs her and knocks her out and ties her to a chair in order to make sure she sees a mysterious force that has been following him that he has now passed on to her. The rules are explained hastily in that Jay has to have sex with someone else to pass the curse on to them, but that it still stays with her because if the person she passes it on to is killed it reverts back to her and on down the line. It is a vicious circle, but it can't run after you or hop in a car or anything super ridiculous – it simply walks. It walks until it reaches you. It can take any form, that of a complete stranger or someone you know and love. Jay is hard-pressed to believe Hugh at first, but instead is shaken by the trauma of being drugged and tied down and forced to witness what she likely thinks of as a hallucination. At her side are her younger sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and their friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi). As Jay comes to realize the curse might actually be real and continues to see strange, zombie-like figures trailing her that no one else seems to notice she begins to go further and further down the rabbit hole. Fellow neighbor, Greg (Daniel Zovatto), joins the group in order to help Jay and her friends figure out what to do next, but there is hardly anything they can do except remain on the run. It is in this predicament that Mitchell finds himself with a movie that could easily feel laborious from one location to the next, but instead he eases from one scene to the next with pacing that escalates rather than remains stagnant.
While wholly stylistic, “It Follows” hinges on the credibility of its performances and what this young cast is able to bring to the understanding of this period in their lives. The core group that make up the film’s heroes all exist in that transitional stage of being full-fledged teenagers to that of functioning adults. It is a telling time, that strange time right after high school when anything seems possible yet going to community college makes it feel as if you've simply graduated to another grade with the ability to come and go as you please. The freedom is more readily available, but you're not exactly sure what do with it. It is the placing of the characters in this stage of life that only adds to the rather off-kilter, leaning toward creepy vibe that the film contains throughout. Each of these kids live at home with their parents, but the actual adult presence here figures little into the lives of our characters as they don't rely on them to solve their problems, but instead understand the circumstances they've created are fully their own to deal with. This not only gives the audience a slight hint of unreliability in these pre-adults in wondering if they'll actually be able to handle themselves, but it makes for a genuinely moving experience where we wish for a resolve that we know will likely never come even after the final shot fades to black. The performances are earnest and honest in that we root for Jay and her co-horts to somehow outsmart a force beyond their understanding while the camera work and sound design only warn us to be hesitant of how close we get to them. It is a tricky line to walk, an interesting side to take in that Mitchell has essentially created a large metaphorical drama with horror elements that we become invested in due to the characters yet unabashadly fear because we understand these peoples sentencing right off the bat. That this tale is told with so much style and cool is what allows for us to actually enjoy it and relish in the fact that anything old can be made into something new with the right approach.
by Philip Price
The question I kept repeating to myself as “Get Hard” continued on and on was how could such a supposedly intelligent man be so stupid? There is a hint of something interesting in the beginning though so let's begin there. It is suggested in the opening credits sequence as the striking comparisons between the morning routines of the wealthy and the working class are displayed, much of the time in split screen, that the balance is more than off. It is imagery that much of who I imagine the audience to be will both recognize from both their real-life experiences and the dreams they have of one day hitting it rich. It demonstrates the reality of our routines and the fantasy that feels just out of reach. The most appealing thing about this choice though is not only that it establishes the worlds of our two leading characters, but also because it evokes a reaction. It is a moment of recognition, one that forces thinking audience members to contemplate not who each of these men are today, but the roads they traveled to arrive at their current destination. Even as the film continues through to after the title card it further demonstrates the reasons these two mean have landed in their current situations are due as much to opportunity and association as they are hard work. This begs the question of how much of a clean slate do we all start out with and if hard work is truly all it takes to get to where you want to be or does having the right people in the right places help significantly. The answer is, of course, pretty clear and it's obvious “Get Hard” knows that, but beyond this observation and the ability to display it provocatively one would think the film might delve into what it thinks of this predicament, an unavoidable one, really and use that fuel to create satire from the actual downfalls of our society. Instead, writer Etan Cohen's directorial debut, offers little more than a few inspired moments. There are some solid ideas that are glimpsed by the jokes that really land, but much of the time the film skates by on its over-reliance on vulgarity and close-ups of Ferrell doing his schtick with nothing but the hope you'll laugh at anything Ferrell does supporting it.
We are first introduced to James King (Will Ferrell) who is an extremely rich hedge fund manager. He works for Martin (Craig T. Nelson) who decides to make his future son-in-law a partner at his firm and seemingly sets James on an unbridled path to riches beyond imagination with the love of Martin's daughter, Alissa (Alison Brie), as something of a bonus. On the other side of things is Darnell (Kevin Hart) who runs his own car washing company in the garage connected to James' building. Darnell was born into the lower end of the economic spectrum and has seemingly been fighting to get out ever since. He has a modest home with his wife Rita (Edwina Findley Dickerson) and daughter Makayla (Ariana Neal), but he wants more than anything to get his family into a safer neighborhood and Makayla into a safer school that requires him getting a $30,000 loan his credit won't allow for. James is quickly accused of fraud and embezzlement after his promotion and despite maintaining his innocence and not taking a plea bargain the judge still finds him guilty and decides to make an example of his "kind" by sentencing him to 10 years at San Quentin, with only 30 days to get his affairs in order. In this interim James hires Darnell on the false assumption he's been to prison to prepare him for what he is set to encounter. The hook, and maybe the most impressive thing the film does, is that it doesn't fall prey to its own play of sending-up stereotypes by casting Hart as an actual gangster and former inmate that can properly train James. Instead, Hart's Darnell is more in line with a Huxtable than that of the racial cliché James has assigned him. This conflict of interest is intended to be the heart of the comedy and some of the best moments do in fact come from it, but the rest of the time we are relegated to watching how unprepared Ferrell is for prison through a rush of rape jokes.
My biggest problem with “Get Hard” though is not that it doesn't completely utilize the story it's put in place to convey a commentary on equal opportunity, but that it doesn't do anything really funny with an inherently humorous and pretty clever premise. More to the point is that it doesn't do anything funny when it has the likes of both Ferrell and Hart at its disposal. More than the hook of the story is the hook of the team-up between these two giants of comedy. Ferrell is the veteran funnyman who has been consistently reliable and has a loyal stable of fans even when he goes outside of his collaborations with Adam McKay into the world of broad comedies. Hart is the hottest comic on the planet right now and has been pumping out features and stand-up specials so often it is impossible to avoid his influence. Putting these two together is a genius idea and a match made in comedy heaven, at least conceptually. While Coen and his stars were granted an R-rating and the free reign to basically do whatever they pleased there has been an air of hesitation around the film since the first trailer debuted due simply to the fact it seems to be trying way too hard. As the film continues to play out and we see where things are going (which, admittedly, one could guess from the beginning) we can see the solid chemistry between the two leads really develop. This is cause for some greater laughs in the latter half of the film, especially in scenes dealing with Darnell's cousin Russell as played by T.I. For much of the film though there is no organic sense of funny coming from anywhere. Don't get me wrong, both Hart and Ferrell are going for it, but more times than not the jokes fall flat and worse, amount to little in the end. Whether what is presented might offend or not comedies can get away with anything and typically, even with the most straight-laced of viewers, win over anyone as long as it is actually funny and “Get Hard” is just not consistently funny enough to satisfy or even justify the lengths it goes to in order to get its laughs.
If you think the double entendre of the title is obvious the comedy of the actual film gets no better as the over-reliance on the F-bomb and Ferrell's ability to improv ridiculous phrases in moments of stress are abundant. While much of what Ferrell is given to do is asinine and more than sophomoric at least he has something to play with. Hart, unfortunately, is strapped with playing the straight man and has been stripped of all that typically makes him appealing. I largely enjoy what Hart has to offer and was pleasantly surprised by The Wedding Ringer earlier this year when he took the opportunity to work with a largely white cast in the realm of an R-rating and completely drove that film and the comedy that burgeoned from each scene while finding a fine foil in Josh Gad. I had hopes that “Get Hard” would only push this kind of pairing further and to greater heights as matching Hart with someone such as Ferrell could presumably only create fireworks. Rather than have the two play off one another to the degree that the comfortability and the chemistry is felt the film instead is so intent on making something of its intended satire that it sacrifices both the intelligence of its content and its comedy in the process. There is no doubt much of this is largely due to the leadership of first-time director Coen who is quick to lean on Ferrell for laughs and goes all-out in the search for those guaranteed laughs, but keeps the substance behind them on the back burner and the forcefulness of the jokes front and center so that we more times than not wince rather than laugh. The under-utilized Hart is only given one stand-out scene to really show what happens when you mix his brand of comedy with Ferrell's and even then the opportunity to create something special in capturing a display of sheer comic force in a single take is spoiled by the constant changing of angles. There is simply no artistic merit to the film, there is no weight to the issues that are being discussed and no relevant ideas being brought to the topics the film is discussing, but a film like this didn't even have to have all those things; it simply had to be funny and it can't even do that often enough to keep us distracted from everything else that is wrong with the film.
by Philip Price
“The Gunman,” which takes Sean Penn and does the only thing Hollywood now knows to do with aging male actors by turning them into would-be action stars, has some rather interesting elements to it. There is a clear issue to be addressed here that a news reporter even states while looking directly into the camera at one point which is that of large corporations seeking control of the development of resources in poor and impoverished countries. Where our titular gunman comes into the fold is when America's corporate and government contractors hire mercenaries to knock off Third World socialists in order to protect their profits. The issue here is that the film presenting these issues is neither as compelling nor as important feeling as it would like us to think it is. As directed by Pierre Morel (“Taken”) the film clearly knows it is a genre film, but even with this approach one would be hard pressed to find anything fun or interesting that it brings to the mix of this current crop of action flicks. As fun is clearly not the game this film wants to play one has to ask what unique or original element it brings to the table and in that regard there isn't much to discuss. Much like “Get the Gringo,” “The November Man” or even “After the Sunset,” “The Gunman” deals with the standard tale of an aged assassin somehow gone awry after his supposed last job who is looking for redemption as he comes to terms with mortality that also happens to feature exotic locations. Morel can always be counted on for highly-stylized and rather beautifully rendered action sequences especially considering his backdrops, but unfortunately here they end up being more riveting that the story or the characters they serve. As mentioned near the top, there are certainly some interesting elements at play including the overall mission statement of the film as well as the largely metaphorical, but extremely literal medical condition that Penn's character suffers from. It also cannot be argued that “The Gunman” features an impressive cast with a great mix of acting styles that fuse for some interesting moments, but there still remains a hollowness to the production that is inescapable and ultimately renders the film as unaffecting.
Beginning in 2006 we are introduced to Jim Terrier (Penn), a former sniper now working as part of a mercenary assassination team. Again, as I said earlier, the clients are all unknown, but the team members, including long-time friend and comrade Cox (Mark Rylance), are trusted. Terrier then moves forward with the mission of taking out the minister of mines in the Congo. There has been some political upheavel around the minister that has clearly cut into the clients pocketbooks and therefore they can't have him stomping on their lifestyle. As overseen by Felix (Javier Bardem) who makes it way too obvious early on that he's into Jim's girl, Annie (Jasmine Trinca), Terrier is set-up in a room to execute the perfect kill shot that, if successful, will force him off continent and into hiding to protect himself and his team members from any retribution. Through all of this Annie has no idea what the guys in her love triangle are up to, but the moment Terrier asks Felix to take care of her for him we can guess why things are going the way they are, not to mention where they'll likely end up. The assassination provokes wide spread chaos and death in an already tumultuous environment leading to Terrier returning to the Congo eight years later in hopes of somehow atoning for his sins. This return eventually catches up to him, placing him as the target of a hit squad undoubtedly connected to the minister’s assassination. Forced to go on the run while trying to discover who's out to get him Terrier enlists the help of old friend Stanley (Ray Winstone) and begins reconnecting with Cox, Felix and of course, Annie, in order to help him put the pieces together. There is also the involvement of the mysterious DuPont (Idris Elba) who may or may not be Terrier's ally as well as the ever-deteriorating physical brain damage that plagues the twisted game he somehow got caught up in again after trying to forget it for so many years.
What is most interesting to me about films like “The Gunman” is not necessarily the content that makes up the actual film, but more the reasons actors pick certain projects at certain stages of their lives. Surely, as hinted at earlier, there is something to the fact Penn decided to make a seeming action flick with the director of Taken after four years of only taking bit supporting parts, but was it the drive to be relevant, was it the drive to say something close to his heart in a popular manner or was it simply because he missed the idea of making movies and saw the opportunity this current trend in Hollywood afforded him? It is, of course, likely a mixture of each and no doubt other factors we aren't privy to, but for an actor who has largely made heady, rather dour projects since his breakout comedic role in 1982 it is at least an interesting choice he would swing towards a trend rather than remaining on his own path. Of course, we aren't here to dissect the career choices of our leading man in “The Gunman,” but more to focus on what he brings to that film and the fact there seems to be a deeper passion connected to this film that is more than just attempting to imitate the likes of Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, Pierce Brosnan, Keanu Reeves or even Guy Pearce. As both a producer and integral part of adapting Jean-Patrick Manchette's novel for the big screen Penn allows his dedication to the work his character is doing in building wells in the Congo and understanding that he is the bad guy in the scenario to infiltrate his solid performance. For, if there is a certain engaging aspect to the film besides its quality action aesthetic it is the caliber of performers at play here. Penn, who will turn fifty-five this fall, is as grizzled as ever and in lean muscular mode as he surfs the waves that line the Democratic Republic of the Congo with ease. His face, which has always seemed as if it were made of a thick, quality leather is worn as there is little left in his character. Penn plays it accordingly and yet it was hard to not constantly ask why I should care about this guy.
This brings us around to one of the major flaws of the film in that most of the time, audiences root for whoever the director decides to put the camera on, but in “The Gunman” we realize pretty easily how much of a bad guy Terrier is. Sure, he goes on to try and redeem himself, but ultimately he is getting what was coming to him for getting in on the kind of business he dealt with in the first place. The downside to this, despite the fact that we can't really harvest any sympathy for the character, is that supporting characters that we do actually like are turned into little more than leverage and used to teach our protagonist a lesson. While this is true of Winstone's Stanley it is more evident through the portrayal of Annie. As Annie, Trinca has little more to do than wait around to be rescued by Terrier as she is constantly in the cross hairs of those looking to kill her man. While I understand that this is a film about Terrier and not Annie, the story deals in a life-changing event not only for the male lead, but his female supporter and instead of dealing with the ramifications of this while still showing how she dealt with it Annie's life is reduced to being little more than a plot device to further Terrier's story. If we were to care for our intended hero more the story might have given us more humanity in his efforts to try to right the wrongs he knew he'd made not only in his life, but in the woman he supposedly loves as well. The argument would be there is hardly time for such development with everything else that is going on between Bardem's slightly sick and twisted Felix that the actor is more than down to flaunt, but the rebuttal no one wants to hear would be to cut much of the extraneous action sequences and focus more on the character dynamics to make a more interesting film. That said, Morel does include some rather brutal action scenes that are truly intense and one scene in particular where Terrier unhooks and reconnects an explosive device in order to dupe his trackers is a perfect example of the directors skill for using quiet imagery to display an exciting moment while developing an intriguing character quality. It is a shame the movie doesn't have more of this type of storytelling.