The D Train

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Release: Friday, May 8, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Directed by: Andrew Mogel; Jarrad Paul

Ah, the time-honored ‘Act Like a Jackass at Your High School Reunion’ plot.

Even though it’s a far cry from consistent entertainment, The D Train presents a valid argument for staying away from said social function if you’re not in the right mindset. Although I admit I would be more inclined to attend mine (happening within a matter of weeks) if I could get either of these movie stars to come and crash the party. . .

Head of reunion committee Dan Landsman (Jack Black) wants to compensate for his status back in high school by convincing Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the most popular guy in school, to attend the humble little get-together after seeing him in a national commercial for Banana Boat sunscreen. “Hell-to-the-yay-yeah,” Dan says, in thinking that what he has seen is Oliver truly making a name for himself post-grade school.

Dan’s presumption gets him on a flight out to California to visit Oliver in a desperate attempt to pitch the idea. But it’s not quite that simple. In excusing himself from his job for an extended weekend, Dan inadvertently involves his boss Bill (Jeffrey Tambor) by selling the trip as an effort to expand their business. In one of many examples of writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s rather contrived script, Dan passes Oliver off as the business contact. This is only possible after the pair. . . e-hem. . . establish a repartee the night prior. Talk about an awkward scene.

The D Train chugs along with little consideration for tonal or logical consistency. It toots its horn for being a comedy but in truth it’s closer to black comedy, and not just because of who stars in it. Black’s character is something of a jerk whose ostracism from most social circles doesn’t come as much of a surprise. It is odd, though, how quickly Marsden’s slick and suave Oliver takes to him when he arrives, especially given the disinterest he advertises when the two first speak on the phone.

The poster may advertise this as a buddy-comedy, but in truth the spotlight falls on Dan and his desperation for redemption. He’ll all but ignore his family, even refusing to give relationship advice to his son Zach (Russell Posner) who is this close to getting into a threesome at the ripe age of 14. (“Dad, you should be proud of me.”) Empathetic, Dan is not; though we may at times feel sympathy towards him when he’s fully backed into a dark corner. This is largely due to Black’s strong presence, juggling comedy and drama often in the same scene.

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge him — nor Marsden for that matter — too harshly in the context of a story that favors humiliation, melancholy and selfishness. Kathryn Hahn’s Stacey as the under-appreciated wife is an oasis of kindness, but she’s undervalued both by her husband (apparently she’s known Dan since high school) and questionable characterization.

Contrivances extend beyond the little stunt Dan manages to pull over his boss and they include Stacey’s willingness to let Oliver crash with them at the drop of a hat, not even blinking an eye when he brings his Hollywood partying lifestyle home with him; Dan’s plan for financially reinstating Bill’s company following Dan’s essential bankrupting of it because of that one little lie he told. In fact the entire plot is one long shot in the dark that even fellow members on the reunion committee acknowledge as such.

The fates of some of the characters in The D Train are almost too good for them. Almost. However, this is the stuff of farcical modern comedy. More often than not what Mogel and Paul come up with is pretty damn amusing. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m closer to calling this a B-grade movie experience, it’s not totally deserving of the D-grade.

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2-0Recommendation: You are likely to find far worse films in Jack Black’s rather inconsistent comedic backlog. On the other hand, he has been better elsewhere. But the pairing of him with James Marsden is very interesting and these two together make up for some of the film’s many shortcomings. Come for the jokes and the high school drama, but maybe not for the story.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “It’s like one of those charity events. They bring out the celebrities; if Dave Schwimmer goes, everyone goes.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Release: Wednesday, December 18, 2013

[RPX Theater]

Baxter! Bark twice if you’re in this movie!

“Woof-woof!”

. . .and, oh how he is! Baxter and the entire Channel Four News team assemble for the much-anticipated follow-up to Adam McKay’s 2004 smash hit. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. . .is, to put it completely unbiased-like and everything, well. . .it’s exactly the product you were expecting, but quite possibly funnier.

While the decades may have changed — the likes of Ron, Brian, Champ and Brick are now gone from Channel 4 News, doing their own thing, finding themselves slightly displaced with the 70s behind them — the characters that made the first movie so hilarious sure haven’t.

Sure, originality has faded a little since the prospect of seeing the guys “again” by definition means we are already accustomed to the antics and shenanigans that are likely to come our way. McKay does not take his audiences for fools, despite what some may think of the quality of his work. That we are already acclimated to this feverish silliness coming into the second film is really an advantage, since that leaves him with one option: making sure that we get to know the characters on a deeper level. That might not be something to necessarily expect from a sequel to a slapstick comedy like Anchorman, but that’s just what we get out of our second time around the block with four of Hollywood’s funniest forty-somethings. Well written, familiarly yet painfully hilarious, and perhaps even a touch more sincere than its predecessor, Anchorman 2 delivers the good news, and quickly.

The sequel can only be described as the natural succession in Will Ferrell’s most successful comedy outing. Mr. Burgundy and his former colleagues find themselves struggling to make ends meet in the new decade; that is, until Ron gets hired by a major 24-hour news station, GNN (Global News Network). He wants to reunite his team and deliver New York, and the world, the best damned news one mustache could provide.

Of course that means pitting his San Diego resume against that of the slick, professional and comically un-intimidating Jack Lime (hehe. . .Jack Lame). Ron soon finds that its going to take some serious news anchoring to get his name out, especially when he learns that his team is given the worst time slot to be on air (from 2 to 5 in the morning). Ron quickly discovers that no matter what time they’re getting to report the news, wouldn’t it be better to give the people greater quantity of “what they want” (like high-speed car chases and celebrity gossip) instead of what “they need” (high-profile interviews and clearly more quality stories like the ones Veronica Corningstone is trying to nail)? What is Ron going to sacrifice to get to that prime-time spot on GNN?

Fortunately none of the guys sacrifice their comedic wit in this second outing. McKay and company, much to their credit, bring back a lot of the jokes that helped make its predecessor so outrageous, and while that sounds like potentially lazy filmmaking, in this case it was a good idea. Familiarity can breed contempt, but rare are the dull moments when you’re around Ron and his dim-witted colleagues. Their antics are met with greater opposition at this station, as the four of them are overseen by a particularly no-nonsense station manager by the name of Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). . .and in comparison to others, the four seem to be the station’s least successful contributors.

That is, yes, until Ron discovers the secret of news reporting. Though set in the 80s, the heart and soul of this cackle-inducing comedy very much riffs on the state of more contemporary news outlets and the way they present information to the masses. It’s the soft news being spewed out by the likes of TMZ, MTV and even to some extent more reputable sources like NBC that get targeted by Ferrell and McKay’s still sharp and witty script. For the most part, it is as successful a formula as the one they came up with roughly a decade ago.

The only thing this film will likely not do is compete with the first’s quotability factor. While there are some epic moments here to remember, there are no glass cases of emotion to be found, nor one liners of pure gold such as “where did you get those clothes, at the toilet store?” Much to its credit though, this film’s sight gags are far more plentiful and these alone are worth paying for a ticket. One particular side-story is responsible for one of Ferrell’s most bizarre yet hilarious running visual jokes (that’s a pun, actually), a sequence which culminates in the most satisfying of comic climaxes. If you thought the scale of the last news team battle (and the list of big-name extras) was impressive in the first movie, just you wait.

The Legend does indeed continue. This is everything that a sequel to a comedy should be, and thanks to the reuniting of McKay with the same guys who helped make him a success in the early 2000s, the line between remaining reliably funny and becoming pretentious about what it’s trying to achieve is carefully avoided. It’s not a film that has a great amount of purpose, but it’s a deliciously entertaining film that shows a progression of the relationships between the guys from the Channel 4 News desk. It also makes some great use of supporting roles in Meagan Good and Greg Kinnear, bearing witness to some of the most brazenly racist and childish behavior any news team member has ever seen at GNN. You almost feel sorry for these two. Almost.

Long live the mustache, and most importantly, long live Baxter — the coolest dog any movie has ever seen.

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3-5Recommendation: This section is remarkably easy for this one. If you were a fan of the first, this will more than satisfy. If you weren’t, here’s one this December you can probably skip out on. The silliness is back in fine form here and although we had to wait nearly a decade to see a sequel, it’s more than great news that what awaited was not simply a ship waiting to sink.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Suicide makes you hungry, I don’t care what anybody says.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.screencrush.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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Release: Thursday, August 15, 2013

[Theater]

I think the real question here is, “Is it pretentious for the director to include his name in the title of the movie?” Or is it just pretentious to think about this being pretentious? Perhaps I’ll address that later Nick addresses this down below in comments, but in the meantime — the answer to the first is a resounding “Heck no.” Daniels’ film, featuring Forest Whitaker in a possible career-defining role, is both a heartwarming and tragic epic that unfolds similarly to Robert Zemeckis’ multiple-Oscar-winning Forrest Gump in that we visit several crucial periods in American history and see how they impact the life of a strong central character who undergoes both external and internal changes throughout.

The resultant timeline is full of emotional highs and lows. As one might imagine, there’s likely to be a lot of lows, since the material incorporates the violence from the civil rights movement along with the Vietnam conflict, just as two major examples. Despite the horrors on display however, there is a substantial amount of pleasantness to the proceedings. A lot of it stems from Cecil Gaines’ family life and the general essence of Whitaker in this role. He is absolutely fantastic — it’s clear he’s fully embraced the importance of what his character meant (his Cecil Gaines is actually based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen). Nominations should be awaiting with this one.

Even despite the movie being a rather loose adaptation, his life story is miraculous, to say the least. Growing up on the Westfall plantation, Cecil bears witness to gut-wrenching violence of the worst (most personal) kind. After it happens, the elderly Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) tells Cecil he is to start working inside the house from now on. Though the job was offered out of pity, his general treatment doesn’t exactly improve much as the notion of being an invisible servant in whatever room was impressed upon him rigorously. As gloomy as his situation initially seems, and Cecil doesn’t know it yet, this is finally a job with transformative powers.

Similarly to Forrest Gump, The Butler is a lengthy journey and takes its time to unfold. Patience may be required, but also it is with great ease that most people should be able to adhere. Daniels’ vision may wander around a bit, but the transitions made from scene to scene are often subtle yet very powerful. From the plantation house Cecil moves on for the city life in search of his next job. The woman he used to work for is nearing her death and he sees no future staying around the plantation anymore. He soon comes across a man named Maynard (Clarence Williams III) under dire circumstances and asks him for a job doing anything at all. Maynard reluctantly agrees to temporarily help out a malnourished Cecil. However, Maynard quickly learns just how good Cecil’s skills are and he suggests the boy move on to still bigger things. He informs him of a job opening at a ritzy hotel in Washington, D.C. and that he should consider applying. From the hotel, Cecil’s gainful employment continues as he moves up to the White House after discovering an open position for a butler there.

Daniels allows each scene to speak for themselves. As each one unfolds, Gaines’ worldview widens steadily and our respect for him grows accordingly. There’s a wonderful flow to the way small villages give way to the rush of the bigger city. The audio narration, read by Mr. Gaines, explains circumstances to us so even though we don’t have many “images” of these places, the time and places are anchored efficiently with what he has to say about them. Eventually we will meet a fantastic crew of other butlers who staff the busy American landmark: some who stand out the most are Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s upbeat Carter and Lenny Kravitz’ more reserved, but respectable James.

And of course, once we’re inside the White House we also will be getting to see the current leaders of the nation at the time. One of the most effective elements in Daniels’ film is his rotating door of great actors filling in significant roles, specifically the eight different presidents under which Cecil serves throughout his 34-year career. When Cecil first enters the Oval Office, we see a very thinly-haired Robin Williams as President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He’s discussing something with members of his Cabinet while Cecil politely serves tea. The moment is just enough to give us the impression that a significant wind of change is about to start blowing  given the discussions ongoing. All those who fill in the presidential roles are terrific and similarly contribute to the scale of this story. Other famous personalities in the White House that we get to revisit include John F. Kennedy (James Marsden); Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber); Richard Nixon (John Cusack); and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). Each actor really makes their mark on each of their respective presidential roles and it’s quite a bit of fun seeing how the attitudes and atmospheres change with each new leader.

While these sweeping changes are being examined at the top tier of the political ladder, Cecil must always mind his business and be sure to strictly stick to his job. . . . . . that old nasty adage of being seen, but not heard really applies here. By doing just that, the mild-mannered Cecil becomes one of the most entrusted employees within the building which is by no means an accidental occurrence. As he has attempted to be all his life, Cecil is simply a patient and humbled man who retains every ounce of his dignity even though things at home aren’t exactly perfect. His eldest son, Louis, isn’t particularly proud of his father and often overlooks the fact that he’s had to work extremely hard to get to where he’s at now. Louis leaves for college in Tennessee, where Cecil knows trouble is likely to find him, but Louis isn’t listening. His wife, Gloria (a beautiful and heartwarming performance from Oprah Winfrey was a terrific surprise for me) is more supportive of her husband but also more supportive of her son making up his own mind. A nail is driven between Louis and Cecil’s point of view on the issue of segregation that’s currently ravaging the nation and this becomes a major focal point of the latter half of the film.

With that said, it becomes increasingly obvious as the years pass and the story amasses more and more historical significance that Daniels’ has essentially created two movies in one. One is the story of Cecil and his evolution from the terrible cotton fields to the dignified role he plays in serving the many presidents. This is arguably the overriding narrative. The second is clearly the idealogical struggle between Cecil and his eldest son, who both obviously want policies and social status to change for blacks. Whereas Cecil is content to fight the good fight that he always has by maintaining his calm and working hard, Louis feels drawn more to the revolutionary points of view shared by the Black Panthers — and I needn’t say much more about that. We can see where that story may or may not go.

Because of the heavy emphasis on the struggle between father and son, the movie seems to take on a bit too much, perhaps more than it rightfully should have to handle in this limited run time. Had the movie lasted in excess of three hours the cumulative effect might have been more profound. Instead, the story moves back and forth between Cecil and Louis for about an hour and it can get a little confusing. Who should we have to care about more? There are definite answers to that question, but Lee Daniels doesn’t really know what to say. It’s not the worst complaint you can have for a movie with this much history tied into it, but it’s difficult to ignore the obvious transitions between the three major acts.

These moments are marked by Cecil’s entrance into the White House for the first time (thus identifying Act Two), and the start of the Vietnam War (Act Three). Although the fact that the two stories — that of Cecil and that of the relationship between him and his oldest son — don’t mesh as smoothly as they could have, this seems to be a relatively small issue with a movie carrying this much weight. Not to mention, every member in the Gaines household are represented with brilliant performances by young actors David Oyelowo (who plays Louis) and Isaac White (who plays the younger sibling, Charlie). It may be obvious when we’ve shifted gears a little, but their screen times are both equally captivating and White is absolutely hilarious as Charlie.

I really can’t say enough about the cast. Everyone involved turns in stellar performances and considering that, this movie is far better than it maybe should have been. It’s hardly a groundbreaking story that we learn of here, even despite the incredible truth behind it and when one considers the horrible political culture in America at the time. One man comes from behind to get ahead of most everyone else and of course, things go all but smoothly for him along the way. Gaines suffers terrible personal losses, as well as he experiences the pain of a nation suffering from prejudice, hatred and division. Even though we’ve journeyed through the filth and grime with other public figures in movies before, Whitaker’s performance truly makes Eugene Allen iconic — a label which he perhaps earned himself; but the actor confirms it.

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4-0Recommendation: Although it’s not perfect and at times darts between historical and familial themes of devotion, betrayal, respect and dignity, the direction by Lee Daniels affords the film a beautiful aura, a respectful tone and a richly detailed culture from start to finish. It’s both funny and extremely serious; simultaneously poetic and dispassionate. Juggling these extremes cannot have been an easy task, and if you’re willing to see how it’s handled, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Rated: PG-13 (hard)

Running Time: 126 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.comhttp://www.imdb.com

2 Guns

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Release: Thursday, August 1, 2013

[Theater]

Gleefully tongue-in-cheek, 2 Guns is a mostly-successful buddy-cop action film that delves into the heart of a Mexican drug cartel while revealing surprising truths about the clientele it conducts business with. One could sense the lack of seriousness a mile away with this film. Fortunately, though, one gets exactly what one expects (and pays for) in this humorous account of two crooked trigger fingers, played by Marky-Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington as they get caught between the cartel and several nefarious American government officials, including those within the Navy and the CIA.

Wahlberg’s Marcus “Stig” Stigman is a former Naval employee who went AWOL awhile back, and now finds himself “partnered” up alongside the smooth-talking, shady DEA agent Bobby Trench (Washington). The two make a satisfyingly comedic pair, and even when the events surrounding their story include plot holes and cliches galore, one cannot deny that the pairing of Wahlberg with Washington is the main reason you go to see this film from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur.

The film, set ostensibly near the Mexican border, opens with the duo planning a bank heist in which they stand to gain something like $3 million in cash. The bank they plan to rob — Tres Cruces Savings & Loan — is situated across from a diner with apparently some of the best donuts you’ll ever eat. Or so Bobby thinks, anyway. However, when the act goes down after some editorial backtracking to bring us all up to speed on what has occurred over the week prior, the two walk away with a hell of a lot more than the $3 mil they were expecting. It turns out they become $43 million richer, but a hot-tempered, rough-and-tumble CIA agent named Earl (Bill Paxton) quickly catches on to the scent of these pseudo-expert bank robbers and soon starts blazing a trail to find them and, presumably, kill them.

One of the main issues with this film is the lack of seriousness in any and all aspects of it. Well, excluding the violence. There are certainly a few moments that are shocking and which don’t seem to fit the bill of a movie that tries to be more light-hearted than dramatic. It is a little difficult to buy into the fact that Stig and Bobby are this good when they shoot their mouths off at each other, as well as several more serious-looking Mexican drug dealers. Aside from Stig’s demonstration of his accuracy (by shooting the heads off of several partially-buried chickens in a backyard — all the while eating a plate of fried chicken, no less), and the same applying to Washington’s character in other contexts, this is a film that insists you wholeheartedly accept these characters based on the actors’ reputations alone. That’s all well and good, except for the final scene where they manage to avoid a torrential downpour of bullets. It’s perhaps one of the most egregious scenes of Hollywood magic, and would make Keanu Reeves in The Matrix look like a newbie in his bullet-dodging scene. Still, it’s best to accept things at face value here and leave it at that.

An appealing aspect of 2 Guns, which may be misconstrued by more bitter critics as being dumb or confusing, is the fact that identities are never really clear virtually until the very end. We are not even sure for half of the time whether Bobby and Stig are working together or working against each other. Their relationship is certainly one of love-hate — perhaps more of the former than of the latter — and is a real treat to watch unfold. The two prove here that they could carry at least another movie together — not a sequel as such, but I’d love to see them pair up again as the leads of a similarly toned movie. They are simply too much fun to watch, and again, this is in spite of the fact that their backdrop is extremely familiar and steeped in cliche.

Paxton makes for a suitably villainous and corrupt CIA agent whose only intent is to reclaim what’s his. Edward James Olmos plays the despicable drug lord Papi Greco; James Marsden as Naval Officer Quince as well as Fred Ward, as Admiral Tuwey, prove that not even the Navy is free of corruption. Unfortunately, by the time you get around to meeting the latter character, the whole business of literally everyone on screen being a crook has become old news and any credibility that was barely established at the beginning is more or less evaporated by the desert heat (and somewhat abecedarian writing). Even the enticing Deb (Paula Patton), the would-be girlfriend of Bobby, turns out to be nothing more than femme fatale. The double-crossing gets to be a little too much, admittedly, but it’s not quite enough to turn the movie from a ‘two guns up’, to ‘two guns down.’

An explosive finish predictably pits mob boss, American government officials (represented of course by Paxton, Marsden and a few others), and the two rogues in Bobby and Stig all together in the ultimate showdown where bullets fly, bodies drop, bulls run rampant and $43 million in cash erupts in one of the funniest “makin’ it rain” sequences I’ve seen in a while. As cliche as it is going to sound, Bobby and Stig indeed stumble off into the desert sunset together, and, well. . . that’s that.

On the whole, this movie is nothing special. It is boosted exponentially by the fun interplay between well-matched leads in Washington and Wahlberg, and although it may sound repetitive saying that, I honestly couldn’t get enough of it. To me, seeing them together was well worth the price of admission. The story line needs little to no explanation (other than a warning notice about all the confusing betrayals and such) since it’s so well-worn and not entirely thought out well. But it’s just enough to justify 2 Guns‘ existence. It may be surprising to think of the fact that this film will be far from anyone’s mind when it comes Oscar season when you consider the star talent on display, but it proves that you need more than just great actors elevating an average script to make a great movie. This one is purely for entertainment purposes only, and I’m quite alright with that.

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3-0Recommendation: Come in with low expectations and you’re sure to have a good time. It’s capably acted, decently paced although it plods around a bit in the middle, and the conclusion can be seen coming a mile away, but if all you’re looking for in a movie is a great escape from your real-life drama, be sure to check in on these guys’ movie life drama. I’m sure it’ll be worth it in the end. And honestly, who DOESN’T like Mark Wahlberg. . . ?

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com