Our Brand Is Crisis

Despite its awful title, Our Brand Is Crisis has a few things going for it—mainly, its two stars.

Sandra Bullock is Jane Bodine, a political consultant who is lured to work for losing presidential candidate Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) in Bolivia. Billy Bob Thornton is her rival consultant, Pat Candy, working with the front-running candidate Riviera (Louis Arcella). The consultants have a history between them, going back to a long ago mayoral election in the U.S.

Working with a team from the U.S. (Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy and Zoe Kazan), Bodine decides that Castillo’s message to voters will focus on all the urgent crises the Bolivia faces. She works to make him appear less arrogant, more a “man of the people.”

(The film’s title comes from a 2005 documentary of the same name, which told the story of a real-life Bolivian election consulted by James Carville. Thornton, with a shaved head in OBIC, closely resembles Carville. The screenplay for this new film, by Peter Straughan, was inspired by the decade-ago doc.)

Candy flirts with Bodine but she resists all advances. The sexual tension that might have made the story more interesting is one-sided. Along with verbal jousting between the two, there are dirty tricks that are marginally amusing. A race between two campaign busses down a narrow jungle road provides thrills and a memorable moment of silliness.

Our Brand Is Crisis is a film with a decent setup but a lackluster payoff. The mix of drama and light comedy could’ve been dialed a bit more to the funny side. Also, a couple of elements on the serious side rang completely inauthentic.

To director David Gordon Green (who directed stoner films Pineapple Express and Your Highness), I say, “Nice try. Do better next time.”

Minions

Minions is more cute than funny. Despite its quick-moving story and a handful of memorable human characters, Minions is tailor-made for the younger crowd. Little kids should love it. For adult filmgoers, it’s a definite maybe.

In the two Despicable Me movies, the minions were amusing support players; here the capsule-shaped yellow creatures are the film’s centerpiece. When a TV sitcom sidekick gets a show of his/her own, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Are the minions strong enough to carry the movie? I say yes, but it’s borderline.

The film opens with the evolution of their species. The minions seek their life’s mission: to serve the worst villains they can find. The list includes a T-Rex, Dracula, Napoleon, etc. When minion life becomes boring, three minions (Kevin, Stewart and Bob) set out to find new villains to serve.

They come ashore in 1968 New York City where a billboard touts one of America’s real life political villains. But the yellow trio hitches a ride to Villain Con in Orlando with Walter and Madge Nelson (Michael Keaton and Allison Janney) and their kids. At the con, they meet up with Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock), touted as the first female super villain, and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm).

When she drafts them to do her bidding, they join her in England where she conspires to take the crown from Elizabeth. After a series of wacky activities, the Queen gets her crown back and (with an assist from the other minions who’ve joined them in London) the trio emerge as heroes.

Because of its 60s setting, the soundtrack includes classic tunes from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, The Kinks and The Who. An appropriate salute to the minions’ pigmentation is Donovan’s Mellow Yellow. (The minions hum the opening Universal fanfare… which would’ve seemed clever if the Barden Bellas hadn’t just done it better in Pitch Perfect 2.)

Minions ranks a notch below the two Despicable Me movies, but should draw huge audiences because of the love for the predecessors. AND because of heavy marketing—(get your Minions Happy Meal!)—aimed at that youthful target. Sometimes an animated film has just as much adult appeal as kid appeal, if not more. That’s not the case with Minions.

Get Hard

 

Get Hard is a crude, rude equal opportunity offender: Blacks, Whites, Gays, Latinos, etc. Not for the thin-skinned.

Get Hard is a funny movie that gives Kevin Hart almost as high a profile as Will Ferrell. Obviously, the film’s producers are trying to hit the urban market as well as the general market and I’m guessing they’ll have some success.

James King (Ferrell) is an L.A. money trader who is beaucoup rich. He’s engaged to his boss’s smokin’ hot daughter (Alison Brie). Darnell (Kevin Hart) is the hard-working owner of a luxury carwash whose customers include James.

When James is busted for fraud and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, he hires Darnell to get him hard enough to survive his time behind bars. James has mistakenly presumed that Darnell has been in jail. Since he offers Darnell money he needs, Darnell lets James believe what he wants.

Darnell turns James’s mansion into a fake prison. The tennis court becomes the prison yard, the setting for a memorable scene in which Hart portrays black, Latino and gay prison types. Bravo, Kevin!

This cross-culture journey takes James and Darnell to a gay restaurant, a “crib” in the ‘hood and a white power motorcycle club’s hangout. There are moments that are uncomfortable for James, Darnell or both, as well as for the audience. But, again, there are laughs to be had.

Ferrell’s character is a Harvard grad who knows his way around the world of investments. Still, he is buffoonish in a Burgundyesque sort of way—enough so that he’s the goofy Ferrell we know and love.

As big star Sandra Bullock did with the lesser-known Melissa McCarthy in 2013’s The Heat, so does big star Ferrell allow Hart plenty of room to showcase his strong talents in Get Hard.

If you can handle the offensive nature of much of the Get Hard’s script, you’ll find some funny stuff here.

Also in the cast is Craig T. Nelson and singer John Mayer. This film was directed by Etan Cohen, not to be confused with Ethan Cohen of the Cohen brothers directing team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstellar

 

“Time is a flat circle,” said Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle in TV’s True Detective last winter. In Interstellar, McConaughey’s character Cooper is concerned with time, space, gravity, wormholes, black holes, extra dimensions as well as family and love. It’s a sci-fi fantasy filled with suspenseful adventure, memorable spectacular effects and heartfelt philosophizing about the fate of our species.

Director Christopher Nolan’s newest movie is big, loud and ambitious. In an IMAX theater, with speakers aplenty, you almost feel the G forces of Interstellar‘s space travel scenes. Hans Zimmer’s score is not shy about bringing emotion and volume. The composer is a certain Oscar nominee.

Cooper is a widower with 2 kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murphy (Mackenzie Foy). Their welfare is his #1 concern. He’s a former astronaut, now working as a farmer in a Kansas-looking flatland. (Plains scenes were shot in Alberta.) Dust storms—not unlike dustbowl storms of the 1930s—have ruined all crops on earth, save corn. The planet is in big trouble.

When mystical happenings occur, young Murphy suspects ghosts. Her dad suspects something more physical. Magnetism, gravitation anomalies or other forces lead him to a hidden fortress in the mountains where he finds… NASA!

The population has become so disenchanted with the U.S. space program that history books have been revised to tell of moon landings that were staged in an effort to bankrupt the Russians. So, NASA has gone underground, literally.

In short order, Cooper’s former boss Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) recruits him to fly a mission to Saturn where a wormhole appeared a few decades back. Earlier brave astronauts made it to the other side of the wormhole; Cooper and crew are charged with bursting through, checking on the prior travelers and determining if three particular worlds in that new dimension are suitable for sustaining human existence. Is their mission to save their own families or to save the species?

Cooper’s crew includes Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Dr. Brand’s daughter, Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). After 2 years of travel, they touch down in shallow water on a new planet. Shortly after exploration begins, an enormous wave approaches, leading to a harrowing escape. They go off to a new, very cold planet where they find Dr. Mann (Matt Damon in an uncredited role) in suspended animation. Events there lead to another hasty exit.

Interstellar’s final act involves many back-and-forth cuts between events in space and those on earth. Our heroes have not aged significantly during their time in space, but back home, Cooper’s kids have become adults (Jessica Chastain and Casey Affleck). The earth continues to be ravaged by dust storms. Meanwhile, beyond the wormhole, Cooper and crew work to define and to achieve satisfactory results.

Nolan’s Interstellar (co-written by the director and his brother Jonathon AKA Jonah Nolan) is a gigantic movie, clocking in at 2:45. It is efficiently made. Scenes that don’t necessarily advance the story help delineate the characters and the settings.

Some notes about Interstellar: The underground bunker where NASA is based reminds me of a Bond villain’s lair. The excessive exposition about time and math and gravitational anomalies quickly becomes tedious—I wonder if Steven Hawking will pause the DVD to see if their blackboard formulas are correct.

The little girl who plays the child version of Murph looks like a young Anne Hathaway. A few of the film’s effects recall similar bits in Nolan’s Inception. I loved the cool robots TARS (voiced by Bill Erwin) and CASE—loyal servants and deftly mobile. The cast also includes Topher Grace as adult Murph’s doctor friend and John Lithgow as Cooper’s father-in-law.

Interstellar is not the best movie I’ve seen in 2014 but it has enough going for it to merit an Oscar nomination. Nolan should receive a best director nomination. McConaughey is a possible contender for best actor. Effects, makeup and sound production crews could be taking home awards as well.

I think audiences will enjoy Interstellar because it infuses science with humanity. Last year in Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone talked about her earthly concerns; in Interstellar Cooper’s family is onscreen and is a major part of the film. Interstellar plays on our survival instinct. Several times in the film, Caine’s Dr. Brand quotes Dylan Thomas’s poem about fighting off death, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Interstellar does not go gentle. It rages against the dying of the light.

 

 

 

 

 

Gravity

And you thought George Clooney was up in the air in 2009!

How good is Gravity? It’s pretty darn good, but it falls way short of greatness. Still, it’s a movie to see because (1) it’s a complete, competent movie with only two onscreen actors and (2) it has some spectacular images.

Is every special effect awesome? No, a few are fakey, obviously done with miniatures. But many do look terrific.

The title has two meanings here. Gravity is the force that pulls us to the earth. And gravity describes a tense, serious life situation.

George Clooney, as astronaut Matt Kowalski, defies gravity—both kinds. As a veteran of the space program, he has escaped earth’s gravity numerous times. And in a time of looming danger, he wants to tell stories of a trip to Mardi Gras in the 80’s and flirt with space chum Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).

Astronauts (especially those from the Right Stuff era) are a different breed but Kowalski seems more like a typical earthbound Clooney charmer than a NASA space cowboy. His almost flip attitude is balanced by his deep fascination with the views he sees, even after many trips to the sky.

Stone, on the other hand, is all business. She’s an engineer and has a stoic, let’s-stick-to-the-task disposition.

Their spacewalk is interrupted by orbiting space debris. The flying flotsam wreaks significant havoc on its first go-around. The experienced Kowalski points out that the next orbit of space junk could be worse.

Interestingly, when Stone takes refuge inside a space station, the first thing she does is strip down to her shorts and t-shirt. Sure, it’s less bulky than a spacesuit, but it also serves to add a bit of sex appeal when she “swims” weightlessly through the facility. This setting renders a memorable shot when the camera backfocuses on a floating tear.

Gravity is essentially a story of survival, one where human instincts merge with technical knowledge and skill. To be sure, we haven’t seen this many narrow escapes since Indy Jones hung up his fedora. But the intensity starts early and keeps going to the end. Enjoy the ride!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Heat

Congratulations to Melissa McCarthy for making a hilarious movie! Congratulations to Sandra Bullock for giving McCarthy all the room she needs to do her funny business in The Heat.

Bullock follows in the tradition of TV’s Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and Andy Griffith, all of who were title stars of their sitcoms, but depended on zany sidemen and women to bring the biggest laughs. Bullock brings her considerable charm and infinite likeability to the screen, but Melissa McCarthy as Boston cop Shannon Mullen is the reason to see The Heat.

McCarthy, whose other lead role this year in Identity Thief led to a healthy gross of $135 million, will sell lots of tickets to The Heat with her raunchy, f-bomb-laced riffs and shameless physical humor.

Melissa McCarthy’s agility for a woman of her size is amazing. And her delivery of scriptwriter Katie Dippold’s lines is natural and organic—I’d guess she was given freedom to ad-lib by director Paul Fieg. He also directed Bridesmaids.

By the way, I was told that Bullock claims there are 196 f-bombs in the film.

Bullock as FBI special agent Ashburn is a smug, tightly-wound type A detail person. McCarthy as Mullen is loose, spontaneous and wild. There’s instant animosity between the two. Both are territorial and neither wants to relinquish control.

Bonding takes a while. They share a mutual dislike for not only drug dealers, but also for a pair of DEA agents. As they learn each other’s personal backstories, there’s a bit of sympathy to be shared.

This action/comedy has some grit: people get tied up, shot, stabbed, etc. There’s a pretty good chase scene. It’s rated R and rightly so.

The opening title sequence has a 70’s graphic look and features the song Fight The Power by the Isley Brothers.

The studio (and, presumably, test audiences) liked this movie so much that its release was pushed back from April to late June—a more lucrative, but also more competitive time of year for film box office success. Also, it’s rumored that a sequel is already in the works.

The Heat will make you laugh. And if laughter is what you want and need, don’t miss it.

 

 

“Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close” [And Slightly Manipulative]

ELADC engages in trickery. First off, we are tricked into expecting a Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock movie—wrong! Yes, they are in the movie, but just a bit. It’s not really their movie; ELADC is really about the kid.

The kid is Oskar, played by the precocious Thomas Horn. Horn is one of the best kid actors since Haley Joel Osment amazed us in “The Sixth Sense.” His character is charming, articulate, intelligent, sweet and likeable. He’d better have all those qualities, because he’s in practically every scene.

The movie is manipulative in that Oskar’s dad (Tom Hanks) is killed in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. We hear his voicemail messages. We see images of the burning WTC buildings. Having seen replays of the event—and revisited some of the emotions of that fateful day—on the recent 10th anniversary of the attacks, we are primed to have a stronger emotional empathy for Oskar and his quest. I blame the novelist (on whose book the script is based) for tying this story to 9/11.

Oskar finds a key that had been apparently hidden away by his late father. He then begins a quest to find out who the key belongs to and its significance. The story of the quest would’ve been just as compelling without the 9/11 connection. (But maybe not so marketable. I call “cheap manipulation.”)

When the story is finally resolved, cue the tear ducts.

Oskar is a kid you want to hug and maybe even tousle his hair. Thomas Horn’s performance is excellent. But the story, to my sensibilities, falls short. (My wife, on the other hand, loved this movie.)

Also in the movie are Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s mom, Max Van Sydow as his “grandfather” and John Goodman as his building’s doorman.