Hot Pursuit

 

Hot Pursuit is a disappointment. It’s not funny. Just minutes into the show, it becomes obvious that the film, which is essentially one extended chase scene, is going nowhere.

Policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) and drug lord wife Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara) are travel mates in this would-be madcap comedy. Like last year’s Tammy, the set up is okay, the stars are likable, but the movie, ultimately, is a failure.

Cooper is assigned to escort Riva to Dallas where her drug lord husband is set to testify against a former partner. But the pickup is botched when gangs burst in with guns blazing. Cooper and Riva escape and take to the road in a classic Cadillac convertible, the first of several vehicles they’ll use to get to their destination.

Witherspoon, despite being raised in Nashville, speaks with a southern accent that sounds inauthentic. Vergara, brings little beyond her Modern Family TV persona to her role. Neither excels at physical comedy. Hot Pursuit is a mess.

Who gets the blame? Director Anne Fletcher delivered another bad road trip movie The Guilt Trip (with Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand) in 2012. The writers David Feeney and John Quaintance are veterans of (mostly failed) TV sitcoms. With the exceptions of comedians Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia in small roles, the supporting cast has no real charm.

Witherspoon and Vergara have producer and executive producer credits, so they are among the culprits.

I’ll concede there are a handful of chuckles, but if you want big laughs you won’t find them here. (Even the outtakes that are shown during closing credits are not funny.) Do not pursue.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a ton of fun! It’s action-packed and full of surprises. It moves at a frantic pace and never slows down until its final postscript. Like last year’s Lego Movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a better movie than we usually get in February.

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) aka Galahad is the dapper, well-dressed ops director of the secret spy organization that works out of a men’s clothing store in London. The versatile Firth is, as the British say, “spot on” in this role.

Following the death of a colleague in a 1997 mission, he gives a medallion and contact information to the man’s young son Eggy. Years later, now in his early 20s, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) needs help getting out of a jam and calls Galahad who takes care of the situation. When Kingsman agent Lancelot (Jack Davenport) is killed in action, Galahad recruits Eggsy to try out for a position. The competition is tough and Eggsy works hard to succeed.

When the film’s villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is introduced, he is apparently a good guy, an environmental warrior. But his method for saving the planet involves eliminating much of the world’s human population. He scores good will by giving the entire world free wi-fi and internet—but there’s an evil motive to his generosity.

Galahad consults with Kingsman chief Arthur (Michael Caine) who suggests Galahad learn more about Valentine. At their first meeting, the dinner scene is a classic. (I’m tempted to share more, but… alas, no spoiler from me.)

K:TSS recalls early James Bond films, but in a more appreciative fashion than the Austin Powers movies did. As Q does in the Bond films, Galahad introduces Eggsy to amazing spy devices. Villain Valentine has an impressive mountaintop lair, complete with an airplane landing strip in a cave. And there’s the promise of a sexual payoff for the story’s hero, a la 007.

Kingsman: The Secret Service contains numerous memorable and bloody fight scenes. They are cartoonish and, in many case, quite funny. Director Matthew Vaughn (who also directed X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass and Stardust) has created a film that looks good and has plenty of clever bits. Like the woman with the lethal Oscar Pistorius prosthetic feet, the exploding opening credits and the high-speed chase scene where the car being chased travels in reverse.

Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers the goods. I like it a lot.

 

 

The Drop

 

Bob Saganowski (Tom Hardy) is one of my favorite movie characters of 2014. He’s a bartender at Cousin Marv’s in the new film The Drop, a crime drama set in an Archie Bunker sort of neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marv, the bar’s former owner who still runs the place, is played by James Gandofini in his final film performance.

The bar is a place for money drops of ill-gotten gains. Various criminals throughout an evening hand over envelopes filled with cash. The cash is dropped into a safe. The story is kick started with an armed robbery of the bar.

Bob is a seemingly simple man. His life consists of tending bar, accepting the cash drops and going each day to mass, where he never takes communion. Bob’s rescue of an abused dog from a garbage can leads to his friendship with and attraction to Nadia (Noomi Rapace).

Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a small-time local hood who tells Bob the dog is his and makes threats against Bob and the dog. Deeds is in cahoots with Marv to pull an inside job and take all the money to be dropped at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday—a huge day for bookies.

Another key player is police detective Torres (John Ortiz) who investigates the first robbery and recognizes Bob from the daily mass. Torres appears to know what is going on with each of the characters, but chooses to let things happen.

The Drop is filled with strong performances from the actors playing each of the main characters. But it is Tom Hardy as Bob who soars. With his odd version of a Brooklyn accent and his slow, deliberate manner, Bob is revealed to have more going on than is initially obvious. Expect Hardy to be mentioned during awards season for his work here.

The script is by Dennis Lehane who wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Belgian Michael Roskam directed. The story here is good, but it’s the characters—and the actors filling those roles—who provide the best reason to see and appreciate The Drop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captain Phillips

I agree with the blurb on the TV spots—Captain Phillips IS one of 2013’s best films. Tom Hanks turns in his usual strong portrayal, but it’s the guys who play the Somali pirates who help give the film its realism.

Captain Phillips has the three elements that make a good movie: a compelling story, compelling characters and an interesting way of telling of that story.

Captain Phillips is based on a true story, though some of the actual crew members claim that they didn’t get the love they deserved and blame the real-life Captain Phillips. Also: a movie, even one based on real events, takes liberties with characters, timelines and minor details in its storytelling.

Having issued those disclaimers, I can assure you that Captain Phillips sometimes feels like TV news coverage. (Although, unlike many films based on recent real-life occurrences, we do not see clips of TV news reports of the incident.) With many handheld camera shots, plus scenes filmed in close quarters, Captain Phillips has an air of reality that many similar films do not have.

Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a regular guy from Vermont who happens to have a job as a sea captain. As the film opens, we see him riding to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener) who sends him off to his next trip. He runs a cargo vessel that has to sail in open waters near Somalia. Hanks has great range as an actor, but playing everyman is his sweet spot.

Admirably, director Paul Greengrass also shares the Somali pirates’ backstory. He shows them gathering on the beach, choosing a team and constructing a longer ladder to enable them to board large vessels. During their takeover of the ship and all that follows, the audience comes to know these guys and their motivations. They are not sympathetic characters, but they are not just a bunch of faceless thugs.

Native Somali Barkhad Abdi (now a U.S. resident) plays Muse, the rail-thin leader of the pirate takeover. His machine gun allows him to display some swagger, but his cool helps him calm dissension within his gang of four. Could this unknown be 2013’s version of Quvenzhané Wallis, last year’s awards season darling?

Although you as a moviegoer know in advance that Phillips made it out alive, as with Titanic and Apollo 13, discovering the outcome is not the reason to see Captain Phillips. It’s the journey that each of the characters takes that keeps the tension building right up to the film’s climax. Also, it’s rather cool to see the way U.S. military involvement in the event is depicted.

Sometimes a big star promotes a movie with maximum gusto to generate a decent opening weekend, before ticket buyers figure out that it is not a very good movie. Hanks has been flogging Captain Phillips like crazy in recent weeks. In this case, it is not to salvage a mediocre film but to generate long-term box office. The guess here is that Captain Phillips will have “legs” and that Tom Hanks is in line to get a large percentage of those ticket sales.

In mid-summer, I had only a couple of films on my 2013 “must see” list. Happily, the list has grown in recent weeks. My latest “must see” movie is Captain Phillips.

 

 

Jobs

Was Ashton Kutcher cast as Steve Jobs because he resembled SJ? Possibly, because director Joshua Michael Stern ends the movie by showing us how much the actors looked like the real life folk they were portraying. (Honestly, who cares?) Nonetheless, Kutcher delivers a respectable performance as the megalomaniac visionary.

Jobs may disappoint the Apple fan who cherishes his/her iPhone, iPad, iPod, Macbook Air etc. because the story ends in 2001. Millennials familiar with the delight he communicated at Macworld presentations in the new century may not appreciate the portrayal of Jobs as, well, an asshole (as he is so identified in the film by his boss at Atari).

The upside of focusing on the 20th century portion of SJ’s life is that we are spared his illness, a sappy deathbed scene and final goodbyes. We are not spared a too long sequence depicting a 70’s acid trip which may have colored Jobs’ vision of life and computers.

Jobs’ relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Josh Gad) is examined. They needed each other. Woz was the geeky tech genius. Jobs was the articulate guy who could deal and lead. An early scene shows Wozniak working to develop an Atari game, for which Jobs paid Woz just $350 (after SJ was promised $5K from Atari when the job was done).

When Apple is getting up and running with help from investor Mike Markkula (Durmot Mulroney), more of Jobs’ selfishness is revealed. He is stingy when doling out shares in the new endeavor, parks in handicap spaces with impunity, fires people spontaneously and has little tact in his dealings.

Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons—with hair!) also invests and uses his power on the board to have some of Jobs’ power stripped away. Jobs suggests Pepsi’s John Scully (Matthew Modine) take over leadership of Apple. Jobs is put in charge of a new project called the MacIntosh. The Mac is a critical hit but a sales dud (oh, yes, it was), leading to Jobs’ departure from the company.

When he returns to a crippled Apple in the 90’s, he’s still a maverick (although he no longer drives a Maverick as he did in earlier scenes). The new Jobs, however, treats employees better, promoting creativity. A young man who visualizes the iMac with the colorful translucent shell is encouraged and motivated by Jobs’ guidance.

I had anticipated Jobs’ relationship with Bill Gates might’ve received a bit more play in the film. After Jobs looks at the new Microsoft Windows OS that’s a rip-off of the MacIntosh OS, Jobs is shown on the phone angrily berating Gates.

Kutcher brings the distinctive Jobs lope to the role. And his acting chops are okay. But his baby face belies his being the uncaring (about people, not product) jerk he depicts. He simply lacks the proper gravitas.

Jobs is the sort of movie you expect to see on a cable channel, not in a movie house. But hardcore fans of Jobs and Apple will appreciate Jobs and, while they aren’t likely to line up as if a new Apple product were about to be released, they should be curious enough to check out this decent biopic.

2 Guns

2 Guns is good, but could’ve been better. It’s an action/comedy. That combination requires a delicate hand to keep both elements in balance. Sadly, as its title suggests, 2 Guns leans more heavily to the action side.

Moviegoers will buy tickets to 2 Guns for its stars, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. Their interaction onscreen is fun and highly entertaining, but the film does not have enough of them together.

The hook is that Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) are a DEA agent and a US Navy operative, respectively, but neither knows that the other is working for the government. After an unconsummated drug deal in Mexico and a lucrative bank robbery in Texas, they figure a few things out. But there are big twists and surprises to come.

The story gets complicated, but don’t be too concerned about the plot and things that don’t get explained. All scores get settled in the end.

Bobby and Stig pursue, and are pursued. Main players are drug lord Papi (Edward James Olmos), interested third party Earl (Bill Paxton) and Navy agent Quince (James Marsden). Fellow DEA agent Deb (Paula Patton) is Bobby’s sometime squeeze, but their relationship has had its ups and downs.

2 Guns is directed by Iceland native Baltasar Kormakur, who also directed Wahlberg in last year’s Contraband.

While Wahlberg and Washington don’t have Newman/Redford type chemistry, they are fun to watch together. When two of our most talented and likeable stars are in an action/comedy movie together, they should be in the movie—together. The sum of the parts is greater when Bobby and Stig are in the same frame.

2 Guns is far from a “must-see,” but if you like Washington and Wahlberg, you’ll have fun with this one. Rated R. Violence, language, slight boobage.

The Wolverine

The Wolverine has everything a summer blockbuster needs to have: Epic battles! Cool effects! Menacing villains! Triumphant (despite flaws) heroes! Asian characters! Robots! 3-D!

Bonus points to The Wolverine for also having arrow-wielding Ninja warriors!

The Wolverine has a relatively complex plot involving a Japanese family’s internal rivalries. Logan, the Wolverine himself (Hugh Jackman, in a non-singing role), meanwhile, is fraught with haunting memories of past horrors and of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), fellow mutant and former squeeze.

The film opens with the Nagasaki A-bomb explosion in 1945. As the bomb’s fireball approaches, prisoner Logan takes Japanese soldier Yashida into the hole where he has been confined. In so doing, he saves the soldier’s life.

Decades later, as Yashida, now a wealthy industrialist, lies on his deathbed, he summons Logan to Tokyo to thank him for saving his life. (The elder Yashida is played by Hal Yamanouchi.) Logan is delivered there by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a feisty woman with unnaturally bright red hair, who seems to pop up at opportune times throughout the movie.

Yashida has willed his empire not to his son but to his granddaughter Makiro (Tao Okamoto). Yashida asks Logan to protect Makiro from her father and his henchmen.

Among Yashida’s employees is another mutant, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) whose intentions are not always clear. Hers is not the only character whose motives and allegiances seem to shift during the course of the movie.

The Wolverine has one of its epic battles atop a bullet train. Train top face-offs are nothing new, but this one is memorable, in part because of the train’s apparent high speed.

The ultimate epic showdown happens within a multi-story mountainside lair, where a shiny metal creature jumps into the fray. Is it a robot or is this a spectacular suit of knightly armor?

The Wolverine meets all the requirements listed above. It features (according to many) the most popular of the X-Men. Hugh Jackman is excellent in the role, as usual.

But the movie has some pacing issues. It gets a bit bogged down in the middle, only to provide an awesome payoff with first, the Ninjas, and then, the finale. In a summer full of action blockbusters, The Wolverine ranks near the top of the heap.

The To Do List

There has never been a movie with as many totally non-erotic sex scenes as The To Do List. The sex is sometimes quite funny, but it’s doubtful that anyone could be turned on by what happens.

The To Do List reverses the normal pattern of teen sex movies: this time it’s a girl, not a guy, who’s anxious to become sexually active. Writer/director Maggie Carey brings many teen sex comedy staples to The To Do List, but delivers them from a different point of view.

Recent high school grad and virgin Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza from Parks and Recreation) is told by her older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) that she, Brandy, needs to learn everything about sex before she gets to college.

The To Do List is hardly wholesome, but it’s not sleazy. Brandy’s list of sex acts (some of which end with “job”) is composed not with an attitude of unrestrained lust, but with an almost innocent curiosity. The To Do List is, appropriately, rated R, but there are no bare boobs to be seen here.

Bill Hader of SNL-fame has become, for me, one of those actors whose mere presence onscreen makes me primed for laughter. He plays Willy, the manager of the pool where Brandy works as a lifeguard. Also in a lifeguard perch at the pool is Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who Brandy has targeted to be her deflowerer.

As with most teen sex comedies, there’s that person who’s always been a friend but has kept unrequited love for the main character hidden. In The To Do List it’s Cameron (Johnny Simmons). He is the beneficiary of a certain sexual favor on the list, the conclusion of which prompts him to shout out to Brandy, “I love you!”

Brandy’s mom and dad also weigh in on their daughters’ sexual exploits. Mom (Connie Britton) is realistic and helpful. Dad (Clark Gregg) is a straight-laced judge who wants to know as little as possible. Also vital to the story are Brandy’s gal pals, Fiona (Alia Shakwat) and Wendy (Sara Steele), who offer feedback, but are impressed by Brandy’s exploits. Donald Glover and Andy Samberg each have minor roles in the film.

The To Do List is set in Boise in 1993. Brandy, Fiona and Wendy are anxious to watch chick flick Beaches together. Email is referred to as “electronic mail.” And Brandy’s first “all the way” time is to the accompaniment of “Dreams” by the Cranberries.

Aubrey Plaza is a funny woman. As anchor of a strong ensemble, her talent and charm shine through. The To Do List should help her move up a notch or two on the comedy casting pecking order.

The To Do List is not for those who are offended by sexual terminology. It’s probably not a good first date film. But it is pretty dang funny!

Girl Most Likely

Kristen Wiig is terrific. She is funny. She’s a pretty woman who’s not vain. This is obvious from her work on SNL and in films. In Girl Most Likely, she brings her charm and goofiness to a quirky, disjointed movie. Does it work? Well, sort of.

Girl Most Likely stars Wiig as Imogene Duncan. She has talent as a playwright, gets a fellowship, but her dysfunctional upbringing sabotages her big opportunity in New York. When a boyfriend dumps her, she fakes a suicide to get his attention. Because she writes such a convincing suicide note, she is detained in a psych ward before being released to the custody of her mother.

Mom, Zelda (Annette Bening), is a mess: an OCD gambling addict who has hooked up at her Ocean City, New Jersey, home with the mysterious George (Matt Dillon). Also in the home are Imogene’s dorky brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald) and a boarder, Lee (Darrin Criss).

The homecoming has mixed results. Imogene takes mom’s car and heads back to NYC but doesn’t get very far before wrecking it. Her initial disdain for the boarder Lee melts away when she sees him perform in his Backstreet Boys impersonation group and he takes her out with friends for drinks and dancing.

Lee takes Imogene and Ralph into NYC on a special mission (not to be revealed here), which yields big disappointment. The return to the shore leads to the film’s climactic scene and a resolution of sorts.

Girl Most Likely is a movie that I’d guess certain individuals might warmly embrace, because of its cast of weird, zany characters and an offbeat, unlikely plot. Some may appreciate the fact that Imogene’s quest has parallels to the Wizard of Oz story. In fact, it begins with a childhood version of Imogene reciting the words “There’s no place like home.”

A big problem with Girl Most Likely is that some of its humor is not quite as funny as it should be. When you shoot for guffaws but only elicit snickers, you’ve missed your mark. But despite this shortcoming, it’s great to have Wiig, who knocked it out of the park in 2011’s Bridesmaids (and was tremendous in the less-seen 2011 film Paul), back on the big screen.

(Yes, I know, she’s been back for a couple of weeks in Despicable Me 2, but voice acting is different.)

 

 

 

Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 is sweet and funny. It’s perfect for all ages. In fact, the new one might even be better for the little kids than its predecessor. It’s rated PG, but I think the only guidance necessary from parents should come at the concession stand. (My suggestion: go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)

Steve Carrell does a wonderful job as lead voice talent. His voicing of Gru, in an Eastern European accent that’s not exactly Russian, delivers a character who’s lovable, but still has a sinister side. Kristen Wiig demonstrates notable voice acting skill as Lucy.

Two notable differences exist between DM2 and the first DM. Gru was an evil villain who crossed over from the dark side and became a loving adoptive father in the first film. In the new one, he’s already a good guy (though one with a tempestuous streak). Also, DM2 has a greater quotient of inspired silliness.

Providing a large amount of the silliness are the minions, those small yellow capsule-like creatures who mumble mostly double talk and do the bidding of whichever leaders they have allegiance to. The minions, who seem to have multiplied like wet Gremlins since DM1, bounce and giggle like Teletubbies—good news for the four-year-old demographic. (The next movie in the series is actually titled Minions, due at Christmas, 2014.)

Also in the silly mode is the goofy fun the filmmakers have with 3-D effects, especially during the closing credits. As with DM1, you’ll want to hang around for a few minutes instead of dashing for the exits.

The movie’s plot involves Gru being recruited by the AVL (Anti-Villain League) to find out who’s doing some treacherous deeds. His AVL liaison is Lucy who points him toward the Paradise Mall. She also becomes his romantic interest! (Despite his success as a villain, Gru is revealed to have been a flop with chicks.)

Gru’s inklings suggest that a former villain colleague El Macho, now a respectable restaurant owner named Eduardo (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), may be the perp. (Web gossip tells of Javier Bardem and Al Pacino as having been earlier choices for the role, but Bratt does an okay job.)

Adding to the cute factor in Despicable Me 2 are Gru’s daughters who bring on the charm here just as they did in DM1.

The first Despicable Me movie made a quarter billion at the box office, finishing ahead of 2010 animated rivals Shrek Forever After and Tangled. DM2 should equal, if not exceed, that figure, based on good will carryover from DM1 and strong word of mouth likely to follow the release of this new one

Note that the 3-D business at the end doesn’t work quite as well on the home screen—an additional reason to see Despicable Me 2 in a real movie house. (But, remember, go easy on the high fructose corn syrup.)