Movie Review ~ The Upside


The Facts
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Synopsis: A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Genevieve Angelson, Aja Naomi King, Julianna Margulies

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m going to level with you and let you know that for the most part remakes are just not my cup of tea.  I just don’t see the point of the exercise so unless you are going to go your own way (hello, Suspiria), then I’d rather filmmakers spend their time on creating new work.  Don’t even get me started on American remakes of foreign films, just another way Hollywood plays into the notion that audiences won’t sit for two hours reading subtitles.  Box office notwithstanding, there are but a few examples where an English film has surpassed its international counterpart but there are times when a movie makes the leap over the ocean to our shores without tarnishing our good memories of the original.

Thankfully, The Upside is an example of the happy path a film can take when translated and it has arrived in theaters by the skin of its teeth, nearly lost indefinitely due to a controversy within its production house that delayed its release for nearly a year.  Originally set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, when the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein sent waves through Hollywood their slate of films set for release were canned and sold off to other studios.  It’s unfortunate The Upside suffered under this melee because, while imperfect, it’s largely an audience pleasing dramedy that feels like the kind of critic-proof feel-gooder that could be a sleeper hit if audiences bite.

Based on Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables from 2011, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original work with some modifications that I felt were improvements…but more on that later.  The set-up is still the same: mega-millionaire Phillip (Bryan Cranston, Trumbo) is a quadriplegic looking for a new care-giver who chooses recent parolee Dell (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer) against the advice of his executive (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased) because he’s the least qualified for the job.  The two are a mismatched pair with Aretha Franklin loving Dell clashing with opera-fan Phillip in fairly benign ways.  As Dell learns more about responsibility after largely being absent from his own son’s life and Phillip gets a new lease on living via Dell’s tough love methods, the two form exactly the bond you expect but don’t arrive there in quite the way you’d think.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere have tinkered with the story, removing some of the more white savior-esque moments from the original which just wouldn’t have gone over well in this age where everything is under a different microscope.  Dell is more of a fleshed out character than his French counterpart was, there’s less imposed upon him but rather he is the driving force in many of the key developments of the movie.  There’s also an interesting splitting of one character into two (kinda) and the insertion of a tense scene between Phillip and woman played by Julianna Margulies (Ghost Ship).  With movies like Green Book running afoul of the PC police, I feel The Upside slides by largely without incident.  In the end I guess you could unfairly boil it down to it being about a rich white guy somewhat educating, and by proxy being educated by, a poor black man but the movie rises above that antiquated trope largely on the strength of its casting.

We talk a lot about chemistry in the movies and how hard it is to come by and it’s clear at this point that Hart can create chemistry with just about any costar you put him with.  Cranston has his moments as well but Hart is what really fuels the film even when it teeters into preachy schmaltz or cornball familiar territory.  He’s dialed his routine down a few notches but that hasn’t diminished his delivery or screen energy.  It’s not hard to see why there was early buzz on his performance being a bit of a revelation.  Confined to a wheelchair and not able to move his extremities, Cranston can only use his face to sell the scenes and it turns out that restraint works wonders for coming across less earnest.  Though saddled with a wig that always seems like it needed to be brushed, Kidman’s tightly wound exec gets to cut loose a few times, though some developments later in the film feel a tad underdeveloped (if not wholly underwritten).

It’s surprising to me how popular The Intouchables remains seven years after its release.  It was the second biggest film in France that year and last time I checked it was #40 on IMDb’s list of Top 250 films…ahead of Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I quite liked the film that inspired The Upside and was surprised at how easy this remake went over with not just me but the audience I screened it with.  The laughs were where they should be and, as expected, when the credits rolled it was met with enthusiastic applause.  This says to me that audiences won’t be swayed by critics thumbing their nose at this decently entertaining buddy film.  I’d still suggest watching the original but if you’ve given that one a spin then there’s no downside to seeking out The Upside.

Movie Review ~ A Simple Favor


The Facts
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Synopsis: A mommy blogger seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Bouncing back nicely from the unfortunate misfire of the Ghostbusters reboot, director Paul Feig wisely cleared his stable of familiar players and cast Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 3) and Blake Lively (The Shallows) in this supremely fun adaptation of Darcey Bell’s mystery novel.  It’s a darker, edgier film for Feig and one that doesn’t rely on silly humor for its amusement.

Kendrick is a do-it-all divorced single parent befriended by Lively’s chic married professional.  The two become fast friends over afternoon drinks during their kids playdates and while Kendrick’s character is a bit of a wet blanket at first, Lively gives her some good advice on how to get what you want by speaking  up.  When Lively disappears and doesn’t seem likely to return, a national search is enacted by her husband (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) and Kendrick who grow closer the longer she is away.  There are twists aplenty as dead bodies are found and skeletons in closets are uncovered, leading to a solution to the mystery that’s intriguing and competently executed by Feig and company.

Apart from keeping the movie floating along with ease, Feig has filled the film with a great color palate and wonderful supporting characters (Jean Smart is a riot in a small but pivotal role), not to mention snazzy costumes for all.  Kendrick leans into the complexities her character is given but it’s Lively who has the most interesting material to work with.  To say more might tip you off as to what transpires in the second half of the movie but just when you think you’ve figured out what’s happening a new wrinkle is tossed in to throw you off balance.  This was one of the most fun movies I saw in 2018 – a highlight to be sure.

Movie Review ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Following a ghost invasion of Manhattan, paranormal enthusiasts Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann, and subway worker Patty Tolan band together to stop an otherworldly threat.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, , Chris Hemsworth, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3.5/10)

Review: I feel like every review of this female-led reboot of Ghostbusters should start out with a few honest admissions just to make sure we’re all on a level playing field.  To admit a bias or pre-conceived notion is not only helpful in understanding where someone is coming from but it allows readers to trust that their friendly neighborhood movie critic is a straight-shooter.  So…here we go.

  1. I’m not a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters from 1985 and even less so of its goofy 1989 sequel. Watching the film again last year for its 30th anniversary, I was struck by how slow the it was.  Enlivened by, ahem, spirited performances from Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl) and Rick Moranis (Parenthood), it just didn’t have the same effect on me it did when I first saw it as a five-year old.
  2. I am a huge fan of Kristen Wiig (The Martian) and have even almost forgiven her for that dreadful 2013 entry Girl Most Likely, which happened to land on the top of my Worst of the Year List.
  3. Though she almost lost me for life with Tammy, I’m converting back to being pretty fond of Melissa McCarthy thanks to her stellar turn in Spy and holding back just enough in The Boss.
  4. In my book, Leslie Jones (Trainwreck) can do no wrong and I’m waiting for her to headline of movie of her own.
  5. Kate McKinnon (Sisters) is the unquestionable VIP of the current cast of Saturday Night Live and I perk up every time she appears on that show.
  6. I had zero qualms about this film, its cast, its trailers, or its marketing.  I was looking forward to it.
  7. I went in rooting for it, choosing to brush aside the early bad buzz as the slime fueled so-called “Ghost Bros” jumped to tear it down at every turn.

And the most honest admission of all…

  1. This is not a great film or even, sad to say, a very good film. Is it watchable?  Yeah, for the most part.  Is it funny? Sporadically but it flops more than it flies. It’s not the worst reboot we’ve seen but it may be the most disappointing because the potential was there for something great.  How the extremely talented roster of Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon wound up teaming on something so flat, awkward, and stupid is the biggest mystery of the summer.

While a pre-credit opening feels like a nice nod to the original film, it’s saddled with a heap of clunker jokes that don’t inspire any laughter, much less any kind of confidence in what’s to come. Wiig is back to playing her favorite character…Awkward Lady in Heels but this time she’s added a stylishly bad haircut with bangs to cap off the look.  Her tenure-seeking professor is reluctantly brought back into the paranormal antics of her former colleague played by McCarthy.  McCarthy is eerily restrained here, like she’s been given a tranquilizer that renders her potty mouth squeaky clean and her boisterous comedic timing nonexistent.  While she does manage to fit in a few funny bits of physical comedy, this is McCarthy is full pod-person mode.  When she stares down a ghost and says “Aw, shoot!” my heart broke a little for the actress I’m positive had a profanity-rific alternate take for the same scene.

McCarthy’s character has teamed up with an eccentric nuclear engineer (McKinnon) to continue her study of the supernatural and drags Wiig back into the mix when they discover a crop of ghost sightings that may be brought on by a sinister force.  McKinnon is full-on Looney Tunes and what she’s doing may be just odd enough to distract you from the larger problems of the script from The Heat collaborators Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, it winds up being a performance extracted from another movie all together.  It’s a shame because for her first stab at mainstream popularity Feig has allowed McKinnon too much room to play and the movie suffers greatly from it.

By the time Jones shows up as a subway worker with a knack for NYC history, it just seemed too little too late. Even though Jones gets the best moments of the movie (most of which you’ve already seen in the trailer) she, like McCarthy, feels held back by an invisible force field.  Perhaps these magnetic ladies just repelled when they were brought together because while the film had some impressively rendered special effects, there’s little magic or chemistry to be had.

Evidently scared of alienating its male ticket-buyers, Sony decided to plop Chris Hemsworth (Vacation) on the poster with the four leads and that’s a bit of a puzzlement.  While Hemsworth has a substantial role as the dumber than mud bit of receptionist eye candy, he’s barely required to do more than struggle through a series of painfully unfunny scenes and lead a host of extras to a badly cut dance sequence that plays over the end credits.  Hemsworth, bless his Australian heart, has absolutely no comic timing and it left me wondering if the role wasn’t written with Channing Tatum in mind.

It’s no spoiler to say that most of the cast from the ’85 film pop up at some point playing different roles, even the late Harold Ramis makes a blink and you’ll miss it appearance.  While these appearances trigger some nostalgia, the actors are plopped into roles that don’t seem respectfully tailored for them in the least.  It’s like they told director Feig when they could show up and just took whatever part was available that day.  Surprisingly, Annie Potts gets one of the biggest audience reactions while Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson) makes a frightfully terrible presence in his two scenes.

Ghostbusters has taken a lot of early heat for what is perceived as male bashing.  True, every male in the film (living or dead) is portrayed as a combination of dumb and misogynistic, morally reprehensible slugs that just get in the way of these female Ghostbusters.  Hemsworth is seen as such a piece of meat it’s amazing he wasn’t covered in steak sauce.  So yeah, the men aren’t shown in the best of light but who cares?  Women are treated far worse in film and I guess some credit should go to Feig for making a career out of putting actresses in the power positions of his movies.

I can only imagine what this could have been had it not been so stripped of the kind of slam-dunk laughs that all parties involved could probably find in their sleep.  It was never going to be a profanity laced R-rated wonderment, not when there were kids to pander to and adults to not offend.  So instead of Feig and company truly rebooting the franchise and doing something new, this female Ghostbusters has just as many fart jokes, bad humor, and, for those that stay until the very end, a “God I hope they greenlight a sequel” desperation as any other male-driven studio film that gets released.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.

Release Date: July 15, 2016

Thoughts: When 1989’s Ghostbusters II failed to materialize big bucks like its 1984 predecessor, plans for future Ghostbusters installments were put on hold.  An animated series or two and almost two decades later, Ghostbusters is revved up and ready to be rebooted.  Though I wasn’t too enamored with The Heat, the last time director Paul Feig, screenwriter Katie Dippold, and star Melissa McCarthy (Spy) teamed up, our first look at the all-female team of Ghostbusters looks fairly fun and quite promising.  Enlisting the stellar talents of Kristen Wiig (The Martian), Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones was a smart move so the comedy doesn’t rely solely on McCarthy’s pratfalls.  If all goes as planned, rumor has it that a second set of Ghostbusters will be involved in another series of films that run parallel and overlap with the gals…but let’s take one thing at a time, shall we?

Movie Review ~ Spy (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A desk-bound CIA analyst volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent diabolical global disaster.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Peter Serafinowicz, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I hated Tammy…like REALLY hated Tammy.  I considered what Melissa McCarthy did with that film to be akin to a criminal act and felt she deserved some sort of cinematic punishment…like being the only person in a Nancy Meyers flick denied the privilege of wearing a cream colored tunic over beige capris.  I wasn’t sure that the relationship McCarthy and I were forming after her dynamic, Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids would survive a string of beneath-her stinkeroos like Identity Thief, The Heat, and some audience favorite but comically inert hosting gigs  on Saturday Night Life.  Then along came a dramedic (yep, I’m using it) role in St. Vincent where we saw beneath the yuk-yuk exterior and we were reminded that she’s a dang good actress.

That good will continues in Spy, McCarthy’s third go ‘round with director Paul Feig and it’s not only the funniest film I’ve seen in theaters in ages but it showcases the actress in her best role to date.  What McCarthy and Feig’s script finally embraces is that the jokes needn’t be at her expense, but rather she could be at the center of the hilarity and really drive a picture home.  McCarthy has had leading roles before but in Spy she breaks a kind of barrier down, a barrier that welcomes her to true A-List star status, signaling more than ever that she’s a bankable leading lady.

Though I was really looking forward to Spy, being a fan of the James Bond movies and high-tech, big laugh adventures I was worried that the proceedings would be overrun by McCarthy’s frantic take no prisoners improv that only was funny 1/10 of the time.  I was so battered and bruised from Tammy’s whopper of a lame knockout that I had some PTSD I wasn’t sure I’d be able to overcome.

It helps that the first laugh of Spy is a doozy, an unexpected moment that sets the tone for the rest of the picture.  As Susan Cooper, McCarthy is the desk bound eyes and ears of a dashing Bond-esque CIA operative (an alarmingly pink lipped Jude Law, Side Effects).  Pining for the spy who doesn’t love her, Cooper gets his dry cleaning and even attempts to fire his gardener…before ending up mowing the lawn herself because she’s too nice to let the man go.

When the hunt for a black market nuclear bomb calls for Cooper to jump into the field, it’s one strong comedic sequence after another as she becomes the globe-trotting operative she’s only seen from the comfort of secure life.  Whether having drinks with a co-worker (the hysterical Miranda Hart), battling fellow spies (a remarkably funny and very ready to play Jason Statham, Furious 7), or infiltrating a dangerous villainess’ inner circle, Cooper seems to be ready for anything that comes her way.

What’s so wonderful about Spy as opposed to other McCarthy projects is that the only thing standing in Cooper’s way is her own insecurities.  No one is holding her back, putting her down, or instilling a “less-than” mantra into her brain…any road less traveled is because she’s been afraid to make that first step.  That sets McCarthy (and us) up to cheer on Cooper though every tight situation she gets herself into…and she gets into a lot of them in the course of two hours.

As it typical of Feig films, he’s surrounded his star with a troupe of supporting players that are funny in their own right.  In addition to Law, Statham, and Frost we have Allison Janney (The Way Way Back) as Cooper’s short fused boss and Rose Byrne (This is Where I Leave You) as the bored bad girl that seems to feel that international espionage isn’t half as interesting as making it to the next level of Candy Crush.  Byrne and McCarthy have several good exchanges, even though they are so foul-mouthed that it became overkill at points.

Feig has taken a page from the Bond films and other secret agent parodies and smoothed out the edges.  Spy isn’t a spoof of famous spy films but a loving send up of them.  There’s a great opening credit sequence with a brassy belting chanteuse, a bevy of deadly gadgets for Cooper to use, each one more hilariously inappropriate than the last, and a plot of world domination that’s 2/3 Dr. Evil and 1/3 Goldfinger.  It’s all lovingly wrapped up in a package by Feig and company and presented at our feet.

The film’s pace could have been tightened up a bit and the profanity been taken down a notch (boy, I’m getting old!) but even with its R rating and several graphic genitalia shots this is a film the whole family could get some mileage out of.  I’m dying to see the gag reel that will surely accompany the Blu-Ray release because there’s a tiny hint in the end credits that this cast had a great time together.  Spy is an unexpected delight, chock-a-block full of fast laughs that, if you’re like me, will have you in tears and stitches of laughter.  Worth at least one trip to the theater…and I bet you’ll want to go again.

Movie Review ~ The Heat

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Uptight FBI special agent Sarah Ashburn is paired with testy Boston cop Shannon Mullins in order to take down a ruthless drug lord. The hitch: neither woman has ever had a partner — or a friend for that matter

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demián Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I recall the first time I saw the trailer for The Heat and marveled at how two and a half minutes could go back without a single laugh for a film that was supposedly a comedy.  Then positive early buzz had Twentieth Century Fox move it from an early spring opening to a prime June release date, so I was curious to see if the buddy cop film with two proven comedic stars (albeit adept at very different styles of comedy) partnering with the director of the wildly successful Bridesmaids may have just made a bad first impression.

Turns out it pays to trust your gut because The Heat is a barely lukewarm summer bummer, a movie that probably started out with potential but is unfortunately sacked by copious amounts of overstuffing an ungainly turkey of a film.  Don’t be fooled by the cleverly cut TV spots and trailers that suggest a laugh a minute comedy awaits all those that shell out their dough because the film itself is a chore to get through.

Perhaps knowing that the movie was rushed into production to accommodate Melissa McCarthy’s other commitments provides some context to why the film feels only half thought out.  I’m wondering if the script from television writer Kate Dippold (Parks and Recreation) didn’t start out as something more interesting because the movie seems to have been tailored to cater to McCarthy’s gruff comedic instincts and tweaked to make room for Bullock’s star wattage.

The film wants to have it both ways – it so desperately wants to be a hilarious genre re-defining buddy/cop picture while retaining a gritty edge with bloody violence.  The trouble is that it’s not funny enough to stand on its own and not gritty enough to be salvageable as a hybrid comedy-thriller.  Instead it’s a middle of the road affair with Bullock and McCarthy lost among the chaos.  All the cinematic chefs in the world couldn’t make this oil and water concoction palatable even though the recipe is right in front of them.

Though McCarthy has shown up in several movies where her improv skills have been a highlight, (The Hangover Part III, This is 40) in The Heat she lets her ad-libs get the better of her and the result is akin to the feeling of being at a bad sketch comedy show where the performer can’t right her sinking, laughless ship.  Her early scenes are so achingly bad and long that I half wondered if Judd Apatow didn’t direct the film instead of Paul Feig.

Worse is Bullock, so out of her element that she’d need a map to find her way into a joke and a compass to get herself out of it.  I like Bullock and probably appreciate her dramatic turns more than anything lately (I’m very much looking forward to Gravity, arriving later this year) but she does herself no favors here, resisting the wise idea to simply play her Special Agent as the straight (wo)man to McCarthy’s foul-mouthed Boston cop.

That’s another thing that bothered me about the film and only goes to show you how many opportunities were missed in the quick shooting schedule.  Though McCarthy is supposedly a dyed-in-the-wool Bostonian with a comically stereotypically family, there’s not a hint of an accent on her.  So at a dinner scene where her family (including the woefully underused Jane Curtain) is laying the accent on thick, when McCarthy chimes in she sounds like a visitor from Idaho.

The less said about the supporting cast, the better with not one person coming close to anything resembling a committed performance.  That’s largely due to the bi-polar script that feels as if it was either entirely made up or written scene-by-scene by different local comedians.  Did no one read, really read, this script?  It’s so formulaic and obvious that you could watch the first five minutes of the film and probably write verbatim the denouement of the bad guy and also the final scene between McCarthy and Bullock.

The few bright spots in the movie come from McCarthy…because even firing blanks she occasionally hits her target when the movie allows her to infuse the character with a little sensitivity and heart.  That’s where McCarthy really gets to shine and come alive…when she’s shown as vulnerable and layered.  Bridesmaids was smart in that it allowed this element to come out naturally but in The Heat it’s forced out in a way that’s no lasting fun for anyone.

There’s talk of The Heat 2 being fast tracked by the studio and if that’s the case, I fear what may await us.  I can only hope that any further adventures involving McCarthy and Bullock are better crafted than the cheap looking mess masquerading as a summer blockbuster.  Both actresses are better than this…you know it, I know it, and (worst of all) they know it.