The Upside

Whoops, wrong poster. That’s my fault. Here we go:

Release: Friday, January 11, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Jon Hartmere 

Directed by: Neil Burger

I am an unapologetic fan of Kevin Hart. He’s the reason I stood in the line that never was for The Upside, an update of a hugely successful French film from 2011 that goes by several names: The Intouchables/Intouchables and Untouchable. Of course, the added bonus was Bryan Cranston starring opposite him and in the role that François Cluzet played in the original. I have to cop to my own ignorance here: I wasn’t even aware this was an American remake until I started seeing the vitriolic comments bemoaning Hollywood’s lack of imagination.

Well, in this case ignorance seems to be bliss with a capital B because while I laughed on a few occasions and generally enjoyed myself, in my heart of hearts I knew what I had just seen wasn’t very good. Yet since I have no reference here I really don’t know the scale of terribleness we are dealing with. (It should be noted that I have heard the name The Intouchables before, I just didn’t realize this film was a remake of that. Nor that the story was quite so universal — with Indian and Argentinian versions both released in 2016.) As a dramatic comedy based on true events, the American update neither packs a comedic nor dramatic punch — it’s a bowling lane with the safety barriers up, with the adapted screenplay by Jon Hartmere just reeking of unoriginality. Amiable, but safe.

Still, the upside here is I was right to use Kevin Hart as my motivation. He’s actually quite good, toning down his typically spasmodic antics to fit the part of Dell Scott (Omar Sy’s Driss Bassari in the French version), an ex-con who strikes up a most unlikely friendship with a wealthy aristocrat named Phillip Lecasse (Cranston), who has been left a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. This is a genuine performance from Hart, who begins the film needing three signatures from prospective employers to prove to his parole officer he is making efforts to turn his life around.

Two are easily acquired with Dell making no attempt to conceal his lack of interest in actually getting hired, despite the fact his relationships with his son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and ex-girlfriend Latrice (Aja Naomi King) are in shambles. The third finds him “applying” for what he assumes is a janitorial position, albeit in the penthouse of a high rise deep in the heart of the city. Growing impatient while waiting to be seen by Phillip’s executive assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) — he’s supposed to pick up his son from school, you see — Dell jumps the line of interviewees and forces an awkward introduction, to which a wheelchair-bound Phillip responds positively, amused by his brashness. Dell’s got the job, if he wants it — this to the dismay of Yvonne who knows categorically this presently homeless man isn’t cut out for it.

The Upside is, presumably like its forebears, about breaking through those racial/economic barriers, crossing the street to see life from a different perspective. If the French film was criticized for handling such themes and ideas with kid gloves, The Upside is getting excoriated for bashing us over the head with them: THEMES! RECOGNIZE THEM! For Dell it is also a fight-or-flight situation as he soon learns that the position he’s ambivalent about accepting is about as far removed from the custodial arts (shout-out to Dave Chapelle!) as one can get. He’s to become a “life auxiliary,” a responsibility that will require round-the-clock care of Phillip, including daily catheterizing and other private matters. Initially he chafes against the strict rules governing his new role. Yet, the movie must continue on, in spite of Yvonne’s Three Strike rule.

Billed as the first true feel-good film of the New Year, The Upside is content with strolling down the most obvious, predictable avenues in all of Manhattan. There is nary a scene or character arc that surprises. Some of the writing is Razzie-worthy (Golshifteh Farahani being saddled with one of the worst lines of dialogue I’ve heard in this young year). Hart and Cranston are indeed the bright spots, while Kidman manages a level of empathy as the third-wheel who eventually warms up to Dell — his, shall we say untraditional approach to being a live-in caretaker proving to be more liberating to Phillip’s state of mind than could have ever been expected.

The Upside imparts wisdom that’s forgotten as soon as the credits roll, though I can’t quite bring myself to say I regret seeing this. Sometimes it’s the company we keep in these ultra-generic movies that can make a difference. And Hart and Cranston, who clearly enjoy one another’s company on set, make that difference here.

Recommendation: 88% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. There is no getting around how disposable Neil Burger’s The Upside is, but I really liked how predictably good its leading men are. Needless to say, if you’ve seen the original version you probably will leave this thing rather exasperated. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “I’m sorry you gotta have a surprise party in your huge mansion. Some of us have real problems. I’m fighting to see my son.”

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

Kevin Hart: What Now?

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Release: Friday, October 14, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Kevin Hart; Joey Wells; Harry Ratchford; Brian Buccellato

Directed by: Leslie Small; Tim Story

Kevin Hart: What Now? isn’t quite as groundbreaking as the marketing may have you believe, but if you’re a fan of his stand-up it remains a must-see event. While the venue itself suggests the next phase in the evolution of this hyperkinetic ball of energy — imagine, just for a second, this guy on a world stage (LaughAid?) — What Now? is actually the third such concert film, following up Let Me Explain (2013) and Laugh at My Pain (2011), and it is the fifth instance in which a camera crew has accompanied him on stage, fixated upon his every spastic move.

In Leslie Small’s film Kevin Hart finds himself stepping out onto the biggest stage of the biggest tour of his career at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, where he’s set to perform in front of a crowd 53,000 strong. Ordinarily this cavernous space is reserved for the rituals of diehard Eagles fans — not of the band but rather of the city’s NFL franchise. But on one night in August, this sacred ground would belong to a comedian. The What Now? film that audiences get to see in theaters represents the culmination of a historic tour, not just for this performer but for any comedian who has ever aspired to promoting their brand in the arena setting.

Hart was born and bred in the city of brotherly love. He struggled in the early part of his career to earn the laughs, frequently being booed off stage and enduring endless ridicule. At one show he had a piece of chicken hurled at him. For awhile he scrounged around in Philly under the alias Lil Kev, attempting to duplicate the brilliance of those who had come before him, like Chris Tucker. His humble beginnings in some ways make his homecoming magical. It’s as if he had never gone Hollywood in the first place. Though he’s never projected the image of someone who’d rather sacrifice their soul for the allure of Tinseltown than stay true to themselves, he’s certainly found success there. He has starred in a number of action-comedy vehicles and his performances in front of thousands of live audiences from the sun-kissed beaches of California to the more distant provinces of Europe and even Cape Town, South Africa has earned him a global reputation.

In the hour-and-some-change that we get to spend with Hart on stage — the show is prefaced by an amusing sketch that implicates Hart’s swaggering shortie as James Bond negotiating the poker table in Montenegro — we learn a few things about the guy, but not as much as one might expect out of someone who never seems to hide who he is. Not that his set is intentionally distant or impersonal — he throws members of his family under the bus on a number of occasions, which is pretty funny in and of itself — but there’s a certain genericness about the material he runs with here. Nevertheless, Hart is seemingly able to pull wildly entertaining anecdotes out of his pocket at random and the bulk of his act is spent regaling us over ultimately harmless familial tensions, his insecurities over being vertically challenged, and his experiences as a black male in modern America.

Have you ever gone to a movie — perhaps something just like What Now?  where you start off chuckling at a few things but then there’s that person behind you who finds everything so amusing that some of their energy starts rubbing off on you? Laughter is contagious and the people with whom I was sharing this small theater were having a riot. I found myself committed to what can only reasonably be described as a cackling contest with this unidentified patron, laughing far harder at stuff I should not be. After the movie I wanted to scold myself for allowing external forces to influence me. I didn’t want to go back and write a review of an experience that was largely amplified by what I was experiencing in person. Manufactured, even.

I have to say, other than the running raccoon-as-gangster gag and his trademark manic energy that constantly threatens to break into full-blown Tasmanian devil mode at any moment, I don’t remember much of this set. But I will always remember the first time I was in a movie where it sounded like the guy behind me seriously soiled his jockeys.

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Recommendation: Fans of Kevin Hart’s stand-up need apply. For obvious reasons. I will always maintain that there is a major distinction between his live performance and his film roles, and take them or leave them as you so please, but I find his on-screen performances entertaining as well. So I’m an apologist. And don’t ask me whether or not you should see this if you are anything close to sitting on the fence. You already know the answer. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 96 mins.

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

Central Intelligence

'Central Intelligence' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 17, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber; David Stassen; Ike Barinholtz

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber

I guess it’s pretty difficult making an action-comedy work. Just because A Big Johnson and A Little Hart can save the world doesn’t mean they can save this movie from becoming a centrally unintelligent, uninspired, unfunny mess.

Prior to seeing what Rawson Marshall Thurber actually came up with, I would have put money down on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin “I’m Determined to Blow Out My Vocal Chords by Screaming” Hart becoming the next big buddy-cop duo. And then the asinine but paradoxically laugh-free story happened to me and I’m not sure I want to make that bet anymore. I could put that money to good use somewhere else, like the laundromat I desperately need to visit.

Central Intelligence does have at least one thing working in its favor: the anti-bullying sentiment driving everything forward. We start the film at some high school pep rally in 1996 where we’re introduced to Calvin Joyner (Hart) and Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson). While Calvin faces a serenade of a thousand cooing high schoolers who view him as Mr. Most Likely to Succeed, Robbie, a fairly obese kid, faces humiliation as he gets punk’d in front of the entire student body thanks to a couple of goons who find him singing and dancing in the shower in the men’s locker room.

Flash-forward to the present and Calvin, whose life looked promising post-high school graduation, is jaded by the way things have turned out. He’s now a mid-level accountant at some firm, has a gorgeous wife named Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) who’s happy in her job and they’re both still child-less. So I was kind of confused by what exactly his complaint was, other than that he’s going to feel awkward at the 20-year high school reunion coming up when he has nothing interesting to say about himself. (Isn’t that everyone’s fear when it comes to these things?)

Speaking of, whatever happened to that Robbie Weirdicht? The day before the reunion Calvin receives a friend request from someone named Bob Stone through Facebook and, as people do these days, decides to invite the stranger into his life a little by accepting the request. (Speaking of life, I love the way it works today because not only are social practices like sending virtual friend requests and ‘Poking’ being integrated into our movies but they’re serving as crucial plot points.)

Soon enough the two are meeting for beers in real life — thus moving up a notch in the social hierarchy — and, oh, what do you know, ‘Bob Stone’ is actually the one-time-tormented Weirdicht, sans the flab and afro; now Rock-ing the physique of someone who has just turned a career in pro-wrestling. After getting to know ‘Bob’ by watching him handle four punks on his own in the very bar they’ve been hanging at, Calvin can’t believe how much different Weirdicht is. Believe it, Calvin. Robbie Weirdicht is now Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Central Intelligence is a melting pot of action-comedy clichés. It smothers Hart and Johnson’s on-and-off-again chemistry under an avalanche of ludicrous plot developments that implicate ‘Bob’ as a wanted fugitive responsible for the death of his former partner (Aaron Paul). As amiable as Johnson is, he just can’t make us believe any of this post-high school stuff is real. Amy Ryan, playing a CIA agent named Pamela Harris isn’t very effective in convincing us that ‘Bob’ is a real threat. Of course, that’s a really huge Johnson so who knows what’s actually going on.

I’d get over the poor story if I was being compensated in laughter, mind you. Surprisingly and despite all the imaginative bullshit that goes on as far as “saving the world” is concerned, the film lacks creativity in providing the humor. Any concern over that one time Robbie got bullied gets lost in the dust of silly action sequences that detract from what could have been a potent message about maturity. Instead, Central Intelligence kind of just fails the mission on all fronts.

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Recommendation: Uninspired, lazy, ultra-disposable. Pretty much the three qualities you don’t want in your action-comedy offerings. Central Intelligence promises much with its inspired casting but does aggravatingly little with it. A good one to check out as a rental if you’re one of those who simply have to see Kevin Hart in everything (like, I guess, me).

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Trivia (because it’s more interesting): Central Intelligence marks the first joint-venture between Warner Bros. and Universal Studios in 20 years, the first since Twister

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

Ride Along 2

Ride Along 2 movie poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Phil Hay; Matt Manfredi

Directed by: Tim Story

Kevin Hart and Ice Cube are black in action in Ride Along 2, the sequel that very few people asked for but ended up getting anyway.

The fact that Tim Story (the guy behind the Fantastic Four movies — no, not the re- re- re- re- re-make that pissed everyone off) bothered to follow-up from his 2014 buddy-cop comedy doesn’t exactly advertise him as the most original of directors we have at our disposal right now. Considering how many of the trailers — I’d say at least half of them — that preceded the feature tonight were about Kevin Hart shopping for a new comedic partner (Dwayne Johnson is probably the most compelling), Ride Along 2 seems even more superfluous.

The film finds wannabe cop Ben Barber (Hart) begging to travel to Miami with his “partner” James to prove himself worthy of becoming a detective, despite the fact everyone on the Atlanta police force assumes he just got lucky last time cracking the case. Ben is soon going to be marrying James’ sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) and he believes putting himself once more in harm’s way will be the key to impressing his future in-law.

Ride Along 2‘s premise is as generic as generic gets. Seriously. I’ve seen store-brand boxes of Corn Flakes that were more inspiring. And the formula hasn’t changed from the last time we saw the pair galavanting around on screen. It almost doesn’t require any breaking down, but if I must: James has been trying to penetrate a notorious drug-ring based out of Miami, one headed up by a man named Antonio Pope (Benjamin Bratt) who maintains a good relationship with the public making all kinds of gracious donations to causes not worth mentioning here.

James needs to put together a team in order to track him down and bring him to justice. That’s when they come across a no-nonsense homicide investigator named Maya (Olivia Munn). They also acquire a valuable asset in the form of Ken Jeong’s computer hacker A.J., who was witness to a nasty little murder Pope committed in Miami over a dispute about some misplaced cash. Despite having extra help this time, it’s still going to take significant lobbying on James’ part to convince his higher-ups they should stay on the case, even after they partly botch the mission.

Ride Along 2 is a real underachiever, making no effort to provide a compelling crime story or one that’s even vaguely believable. It’s a problem solved far too easily and the only real thing that’s ever at stake is Ben’s impending nuptials. And yet, for everything that it is and everything that it’s not this is an entertaining escape. Ice Cube and Hart still have great chemistry, and Munn and Jeong are welcomed additions. Especially effective is Munn, who isn’t just eye candy; she employs a wry sense of humor to counter Hart’s spastic energy. Jeong dials back the inanity of his schtick and the movie is all the better for it.

Recycled material, overly familiar antics and excessive silliness aside, Ride Along 2 is a predictable experience but it’s not a product totally devoid of value. Bring the pizza and the beer, maybe even to the theater.

. . .as if I wasn't going to use this photo. (and hey, I'm being consistent, too)

. . .as if I wasn’t going to use this photo. (and hey, I’m being consistent, too)

Recommendation: As far as comedy sequels go, Ride Along 2 is in good company: it’s uninspired and unoriginal but for those who latched onto the comedic duo in the first installment, this will get the job done well enough. I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but I wouldn’t balk if and when Ride Along 3 is announced.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “My nerves is bad, man! OOOOOOH my God! Here, zombie!”

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.dailymotion.com

Get Hard

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Release: Friday, March 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Etan Cohen; Jay Martel; Ian Roberts

Directed by: Etan Cohen

It speaks to the talents of Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart that Get Hard gets funny at all. This is easily one of the most racist and homophobic movies I’ve ever had the displeasure of reviewing.

I’d like to clear the air right away: I have a fairly high tolerance for low-brow humor and I’ve been a loyal fan of Ferrell’s for sometime, and despite the motor-mouth on Hart he occasionally has my sides splitting open from laughter. But this is a difficult one to enjoy, especially because while it begs for the mind to be shut off completely, it ironically opens the mind up to all kinds of disturbing thoughts — such as: how insecure is this Etan Cohen guy? And where did the ‘h’ in Etan go, anyway? If he enjoys poking fun at this many different subsects of society I feel it is well within my rights to go out of my way to be petty about the spelling of his name.

I doubt very much Mr. Cohen is reading this review but if he is, I invite him to enjoy the rest of this rant. I’d like your job. I’ve never directed so much as a short film before but your ineptitude at guiding what might have been — and this is being probably too generous here — a clever concept through to the end is some kind of fail I’d be comfortable with putting a hashtag in front of. #failhard.

So, before I blow a gasket, let’s talk plot, shall we? This film has potential in Will Ferrell playing James King, a wealthy and privileged white dude who’s made it big pocketing money from various American investors as a hedge fund manager at Wealthrop Fund Corporation — a legitimate businessman in several senses of the word. What he is not, however, is prepared to get raped in the San Quentin penitentiary after being arrested on embezzlement charges that come out of nowhere. First of all, let’s just assume that the act of forcible penetration by a man unto another man is the worst case scenario when one goes to the slammer. There may, in fact, be things to fear more but I don’t want to go there. The film establishes that where King is going is nothing less than a hell hole, so we accept that, yeah he’s going to need some prepping. He enlists at random the help of his car washer, humble little Darnell (Hart), whom King presumes has done time and has some wisdom to impart.

Get Hard, when not endeavoring to be as offensive as possible, sets up some pretty amusing sequences — one of the better ones being a running visual gag as Darnell converts King’s mansion into a makeshift prison wherein he’ll toughen King’s candy-ass up by overhauling his social, physical and psychological prowess. His wine room is made into a jail cell, his live-in staff (all of which are Mexican) become his prison inmates and there’s even a prison riot simulation. There are moments away from the mansion where Ferrell and Hart manage to serve up some laughs before the script (penned by no fewer than three writers) slaps the smile right off your face thanks to the temptation to push crudeness three steps too far.

Hart and Ferrell with little effort form a dynamic that’s simultaneously mildly entertaining and painful to endure. Get Hard relies on the oh-so-clever countdown clock (30 days before prison, 25 days, etc.) as a lazy excuse to establish time frames, a way to express the bond that forms between what were once strangers distanced by socioeconomic status. Oh, and skin color. As the first day of prison rapidly approaches the duo goes from James and Darnell to ‘Mayo and Chocolate.’

If you think my greatest annoyance with all of this is Cohen’s fascination with segregating people rather than unifying them — I won’t deny films have been doing this for as long as the industry has been around but few actually make use of racism/homophobia as a plot device — then let’s turn the spotlight on the quality of the acting. Ferrell and Hart aren’t worth mentioning as both are playing versions of themselves. Ferrell may need to find a new gig soon, though as it’s clear he is reaching for characters with a kind of maturity to them that just feels awkward. But to find Craig T. Nelson trying to make his character work, King’s father-in-law-to-be and higher-up in the firm is disheartening. He’s terrible. So is Alison Brie, the whiny, gold-digging prissy fiancée of James King. Paul Ben-Victor miscalculates his role as the one who does the trigger-pulling and actual threat-making as something that will help his career last.

While there are moments that are genuinely funny Get Hard is offensive on so many levels it’s difficult to comprehend. I didn’t even tap into the brutality of the gay jokes but that’s a segment that really doesn’t need addressing. Come to think of it, I’ve already spent too much time talking about this one as it is.

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1-0Recommendation: For the most part unfunny and downright offensive for the sake of seeing where the boundaries may be pushed in 2015, Get Hard may not be the lowest point in either Will Ferrell or Kevin Hart’s careers, but it’d be a crime to call the movie worth your time.

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “One, two, three, December, Christmas, baked potato. . .”

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 

Ride Along

Ride-Along-Movie-Posters

Release: Friday, January 17, 2014

[Theater]

It’s official. Kevin Hart is the black Chris Farley. Er, well. . .he’s certainly trying.

His new comedy vehicle sees him performing at a spasmodic level not seen since cocaine was readily available in the 80s. I mean, damn dude, someone give this guy a beta blocker before he strokes out! Bless his little fast-beating heart, he is more than welcome to try and imitate the great SNL star, just as long as he makes a promise to not go out in the same way as Farley. . .

The jokester, standing all of five-foot-four, is a storm of energy and quick wit in Ride Along, and while the laughs he extracts from audiences may not quite approach the painful levels of his Philadelphian peers like Dave Chapelle or Eddie Murphy, he turns this incredibly bland buddy-cop adventure into an enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment. There’s not much to chatter about excitedly afterwards, yet for the lack of creativity on display there’s no harm done in the process. Unless, of course, you take exception to the mental images of Kevin Hart and his black hammer. Ew.

Ben (Hart) is waiting for the right moment to ask James (Ice Cube) for his blessing in taking his sister’s hand in marriage. The two haven’t exactly been getting along ever since Ben apparently damn near barbecued his potential brother-in-law alive at a family gathering awhile back. But because he failed to melt Ice Cube’s cold heart over a charcoal grill, Ben sets out on a mission to prove himself worthy of James’ respect. So he enrolls in the Atlanta police academy, with the goal of becoming a lieutenant on his horizon.

Oh man, can you imagine?

One thing that actually isn’t difficult to imagine is the fact that the camera gravitates toward Hart for most of the duration, despite some other big names present as well, such as Laurence Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill and, yes, the aforementioned Barbershop star. Because James reluctantly agrees to take this obnoxious motor-mouth on a “ride along” with him, Ben finds all sorts of ways to become an obstacle more than a useful partner, and more importantly, a man worthy of Angela (Tika Sumpter)’s love. James is attempting to track down the whereabouts of a notorious criminal named Omar (Fishburne), much to the annoyance of his superior, Lt. Brooks (McGill), who doesn’t approve of this hot-shot officer’s renegade tactics. Wherever these two go, the camera can’t help but get stuck on Hart’s frenetic energy and perpetually rubberized facial expressions.

However, when it moves away from Hart and reveals other bits and pieces of this loosely-assembled plot, the problems stack up quicker than Hart’s feathery frame getting blown sideways against a wall at the firing range.

Ride Along simply insists on being a very brainless exercise as director Tim Story seems comfortable with his usual formula (you need not know much more than the fact he directed Fantastic Four and Think Like a Man to realize he’s a pretty uninspired filmmaker). In this case, he maps out the Atlanta area in a simplistic blueprint, leading us by the hand from point A to point B, tossing in jokes wherever and whenever possible. As it so happens, this is arguably the only fault in Hart’s presence: at times he gets a bit irritating with the sheer number of his faux-Farley freakouts. The supporting roles barely are worth mentioning, although it is quite chuckle-worthy to see Morpheus talking all gangsta-like in his role as the big baddie.

Despite the film’s underachieving status, extra points are still going to be awarded here because Ride Along makes the best of the chemistry between Ice Cube and the world’s funniest short man. If that’s not enough for you to call shotgun on this joy ride, then. . .well, you can just ride in the backseat. Party pooper.

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Legit gamer.

2-5Recommendation: Ride Along fails and it doesn’t. The audience it plays up to should be perfectly satisfied with the results — as evidenced by the drastic difference between critical and audience reviews on the big aggregate sites like RT and IMDb. Feel free to select this one if you’re keen on shutting down your brain, stuffing some popcorn down the hatch and laughing like a hyena at a few scenes featuring Hart doing his thing. Oh yeah, and there’s just a killer hot girl in it. The damsel in distress thing should really draw in a crowd. Boom.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Thank you, ass-face.”

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