Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

August 24, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

grand-budapest-hotel

Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. I respected and appreciated his previous efforts, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums back in 2001 and the animated Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009, but I have not been able to enjoy them as much as some others, who think his flicks are the best thing since the invention of air conditioning. Anderson’s films are just so tightly-wound and choreographed — to the extent that they come across almost like animations or stage productions — that the surreal air about them often make it difficult for me to engage with the narrative for the entirety of the running time.

Anderson’s latest entry, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has been lauded as a masterpiece, and I went into it thinking that this might finally be Anderson film that I can truly enjoy. And while I did enjoy it a lot, I still don’t consider myself a convert. It’s a finely crafted motion picture full of imagination, confidence, and a ridiculous A-list cast that spews out witty lines at a frenetic pace, and yet it is so whimsical and farcical that its deeper undertones and poignancy tend to be overwhelmed, resulting in one of those fun but ultimately forgettable experiences.

The fictional eponymous hotel, located in the mountains of a fictional European Alpine state, is the setting of this wild madcap caper about the adventures of a concierge, Mr Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and a lowly lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori, and later F Murray Abraham). Mr Gustave is a smooth, fast-talking sleazebag who makes a habit of courting wealthy, elderly women, and when one of them (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances, all fingers are suddenly pointed in his direction — and it is up to Zero to help prove his boss’s innocence. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of twists and turns, most of which are completely unexpected because it runs so fast and furiously that all your attention is spent simply trying to keep up. If you’ve seen any of Anderson’s past films you’ll have an idea of what you are in for, though this one, with cute miniatures and hand-made art, is arguably his most stylish and visually-impressive effort. It’s decidedly meta; there are delicate layers upon layers, stories within stories, the narrative moving from character to character and through different times and eras.

The cast is outrageous — apart from the aforementioned Fiennes, Abraham and Swinton, there’s Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Tom Wilkinson. Thanks to Fiennes’ superb performance and comedic timing, however, it did not feel jarring to have so many superstars in the one film, often for just a scene or even a second or two. Who knew Voldemort was so funny?

And that’s the biggest strength of The Grand Bupadest Hotel — it’s probably Anderson’s funniest film ever. The wisecracks are razor sharp, and, unlike much of the humour we tend to get in comedies these days, actually witty. The use of well-timed profanity is spot on. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I giggled often and hard.

The first half is funnier than the second half, where my difficulties with the film start to seep through as the story begins to take a slightly more melancholic turn. As often can be the case with Anderson’s movies, the tone can come across as unmistakenly smug. You just get the feeling that it’s getting too smart and witty for its own good — to the point where you react to the jokes with “that’s funny”, but without actually laughing. It wasn’t so much of a problem in the first half of the film because everything was so fresh and frantic and fun, though later, when you can tell the film’s also trying to be poignant and send a deeper, more emotional message, it becomes much easier to see through the contrivances. And once you lose your focus it becomes very difficult to get back on track.

Consequently, the overall package is a mixed bag, albeit one that is weighed heavily towards the positive. I loved the look of the film and the brilliant cast. It was undoubtedly funny and clever; stylish and precision-crafted. And yet its irreverent, artificial feel made the film difficult to sustain an emotional connection for its 99-minute running time.  I like to think of the experience as sampling a series of beautifully designed, tightly controlled set pieces, each of which stands up well on its own, though together the pieces don’t quite deliver something greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an easy film to appreciate and enjoy, and so far it’s my favourite Wes Anderson film to date.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I have yet to see Moonrise Kingdom and I cannot recall much of Rushmore.

Movie Review: 22 Jump Street (2014)

August 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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21 Jump Street, the big screen adaptation of the late-80s TV series that made Johnny Depp famous, is somewhat of a minor miracle. Everybody expected it to suck, and suck badly,  and yet it somehow became one of the surprise hits of 2012, featuring irreverent and self referential humor fueled by the seamless chemistry between the two leads, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.

The film’s unexpected fortune is a fact that the inevitable and obligatory sequel, 22 Jump Street, makes fun of very early on, and it goes even further than that by dishing out pessimistic predictions for what will happen the second time around.

It’s the type of humor and wit that made the first film so enjoyable, but at the same time, it also serves as a self fulfilling prophecy — because admittedly, 22 Jump Street genuinely isn’t as good as its predecessor. That’s not to say that the film is not still significantly better than most comedies that get turned out these days. In fact, there’s a good chance it will end up as one of the better comedies of the year. 

Hill and Tatum return has the ultimate odd couple — one physically challenged and the other mentally — who are thrust back into the undercover business because it’s the only thing they haven’t yet screwed up. And so their superior, Ice Cube, sends them to college to figure out who has been selling a dangerous new drug to students.

The central premise is almost exactly the same except it is set in college, and the writers know only too well the pitfalls of such a by-the-numbers sequel. But instead of trying something drastically different, the film embraces its destiny.

In 21 Jump Street, the film made fun of how high schoolers these days are different to what they were back in the 80s, and it also flipped what we had expected to happen to the characters, making Hill popular and Tatum miserable. Of course, in 22 Jump Street, the roles are predictably reversed once again, with Tatum becoming a football star and Hill failing to catch up because of his physical shortcomings. It’s the old “we know that you know that we know what should happen” joke, if that makes any sense.

Apart from this one big in-joke, the strengths of the sequel are almost identical to that of its predecessor. Hill and Tatum have a legitimate bromance; their chemistry and the weight they feed off each other come across as effortless and genuine. I’m guessing that some of the biggest laughs in the film were probably improvised. There’s also some solid slapstick, farcical action, and of course a lot of trippy craziness. Those who understand Hill’s brand of awkward, outrageous and random humour will likely get the most out of it.

The supporting cast is also very solid, with Ice Cube seemingly (I say seemingly because I can’t remember) given a bigger role this time around, and newcomers such as Peter Stromare, Amber Stevens and Nick Offerman, with cameos from Queen Latifah, Dave Franco and Rob Riggle. The standout, though, has to be Jillian Bell, basically a psychotic anti-version of Jonah Hill. Former pro hockey player Wyatt Russell, who has been in This is 40 and Arrested Development, also does a great job channeling his inner Owen Wilson as Tatum’s new BFF.

There are no major problems with 22 Jump Street except that some of the jokes don’t work or come across as a little repetitive, and the unfortunate thing with having such a great introduction (which this film did) is that there is inevitable disappointment when the rest of the movie fails to live up to it. 22 Jump Street opened with a bang, but there was a lengthy portion in the middle — primarily college life — that sagged, though luckily shifting the scene to Spring Break in Mexico towards the end breathed some much-needed fresh life back into its system.

The verdict? It may not be as witty as it thinks it is and the edges may be somewhat rough and coarse, but 22 Jump Street is definitely still funny and enjoyable enough to warrant a viewing. Considering how badly it could have gone, the end result also passes as a minor miracle.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Other Woman (2014)

August 5, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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There are bad movies. There are horrible movies. And then there’s The Other Woman, the latest romcom “effort” from director Nick Cassavetes starring Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton and Game of Thrones sisterf*&%er Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

The story is more or less an adult version of the atrocious 2006 flick John Tucker Must Die. In the most predictable of predictable plots, a wronged wife (Mann), a wronged mistress (Diaz) and the new mistress (Upton) must work together to give their philandering man (Coster-Waldau) his comeuppance. And of course, in the process, they all become BFFs. Girl power!

I won’t say that there are zero laughs in the entire movie — I giggled maybe once or twice at some of the cheap slapstick jokes — but the vast majority of the gags are obvious and contrived. And those are the better jokes because at least they are not offensive, which could very well be the opinion of many movie-goers. The three women in this film don’t start off that way, but by the end of it all I just found them so moronic, annoying and unlikable, and I actually don’t mind any of them in real life. It’s strange that a film that’s supposed to be empowering for women is being accused of being misogynistic.

I’m sorry, but Cameron Diaz looked nasty in this film. I’ve never found her attractive anyway, so let’s just say her appearance in this was…bad. She does have some comedic chops, though the fact that she plays a high-powered lawyer saps out any semblance of realism this film might have had.

Leslie Mann, aka Mrs Judd Apatow, is the strongest of the trio. And even though she’s supposed to be at the bottom of the pecking order in terms of attractiveness the three women, I actually thought she was by far the most attractive. Unfortunately, she just rambled on too much and went crossed the line from endearing to insufferable.

As for Kate Upton, I’m not going to be too harsh on her because she’s not an actress and the only reason she was cast was so men forced to watch the movie with their partners could ogle at her bouncing jugs on the beach. In any case, the deer-in-the-headlights look she embraces for all her time on screen was actually perfect for her bimbo character.

The King Slayer, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, does his best as the cheating douche, though he was arguably not “hatable” enough for the final comeuppance scenes to feel as rewarding as they should be. And I actually thought Don Johnson, who plays Diaz’s dad, comes across as the bigger creep.

I don’t know what it could be apart from money that enticed Cassavetes to take on this movie. The dude is a solid director, having previously punched out hits such as The Notebook and Alpha Dog, and I shudder at the thought of a lesser director taking on this hopeless project.

The only thing The Other Woman really has going for it is super-low expectations. No one expected it to be any good, so I guess it is possible that some might come out of it pleasantly surprised. I was not one of those people, though I think I could be overstating its awfulness. It is what it is: a predictable, run-of-the-mill girl power romcom with a strong cast but is not particularly funny, adds nothing new to the genre, and is best forgotten, ASAP.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Walk of Shame (2014)

July 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The nicest thing I can say about Walk of Shame, the new Steven Brill comedy starring Elizabeth Banks, is that there’s nothing about it that makes me loath the film with a vengeance. The same can’t be said about Brill’s last directorial effort, which is the appallingly toxic iBabe segment in the venom-inducing Movie 43 from last year. The worst crime Walk of Shame is guilty of is being criminally unfunny, and I suppose that’s an improvement.

Elizabeth Banks, who got into great shape to fit into the snug yellow outfit she dons for the majority of the film, is Meghan Miles, a news anchor and a “good girl”, the safe option in a safe relationship. A series of unfortunate events befall her, and a dispirited Meghan goes out on a wild night with her girlfriends, only to wake up in the bed of sexy stranger Gordon (James Marsden). The rest of the film is all about Meghan running into one outrageous situation after another as she tries to make her way to the news station so she can cash in on a new job opportunity. 

It’s a fairly typical comedy premise where nothing seems to go right for the protagonist, and all efforts to resolve the situation only lead to more misunderstanding and mayhem.

In this case, the central gag is that Meghan is repeatedly mistaken for a prostitute, which gets her involved with both the police and gangster drug dealers. It doesn’t sound like a hopeless idea, but I kid you not when I say there was not a single laugh to be found in the entire 95-minute film. Not a tee-hee, not a chuckle, and nary a smile. (OK, so the introductory sequence with real-life news blooper footage WAS funny, but that’s just collected from YouTube, so you can’t give the movie credit for that.)

The jokes are either obvious, typical or stereotypical. I don’t want to say misogynistic because that is a term that gets thrown around too liberally these days, but much of the humour in Walk of Shame is definitely sexist and racist. That’s something I don’t usually mind if the film is actually funny. When it’s not witty or funny, however, it’s just pathetic, and that’s what this movie ultimately is.

And I haven’t even mentioned how incoherent the plot is and how little sense any of it makes. It’s really hard to get into a film — any film — when its central premise is that flimsy. There were about a million ways Meghan could have resolved the situation, but of course she keeps choosing the most moronic, implausible option just so she could extend her misery, and ostensibly, ours.

Elizabeth Banks tries her hardest but can’t even come close to salvaging this disaster. I doubt even Meryl Streep could have. Is Banks a likable protagonist? I dunno. She certainly is a stupid one and not really worthy of our sympathy. 

As for James Marsden, the poor guy still can’t catch a break. I don’t get it. He’s a good-looking guy and not without charisma or acting ability, and yet he seems to always get the worst roles. He was the guy Rachel McAdams ditched without reservation in The Notebook. He was the guy who turned Cyclops, the leader of the X-Men, into an afterthought. Even when he gets a leading role, such as in the remake of Straw Dogs, the film never gets any traction. And the romantic comedy roles he gets appear to be those Paul Rudd would not touch with a 10-foot pole. I last saw him in The Butler as JFK, and we all know what happened to him. Poor bastard.

As bad as it is, Walk of Shame is at least not one of those films that left me spewing vitriolic profanities by the end if it. It’s just one of those really unfunny romantic comedies you wonder what possessed the studio to make and will forget a couple of days after watching it. In this case, that’s a good thing.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blended (2014)

June 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It has become almost customary to trash every Adam Sandler film that comes out these days. And let’s be honest: he has no one to blame but himself. Once one my my favourite farce-comedy hit makers with classics like Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy (notwithstanding all the panning from critics), Sandler has somehow devolved into the ultimate dud maker. His last five live-action feature films before Blended  in which he has a major role are Grown Ups 2, That’s My Boy, Jack and Jill and Just Go With It. All five have undoubtedly featured on annual “worst of” lists for critics and movie-goes alike.

Which is why I am almost excited to proclaim that Blended will NOT be on my worst of list for 2014. Now that is not to say that it is in anyway a good film, but it does represent a step in the right direction for Sandler, who returns to the idiotic roots that made some of his earlier films so memorable.

Unfortunately Blended only takes us half way. Despite doing an excellent job in the first half of the film with some nostalgic stupidity, Sandler could not help himself, eventually resorting back to the trite, predictable and corny drivel he tries to pass off as meaningful “drama.”

In other words the film’s title is apt — it’s a “blend” of Sandler’s earlier, more effective comedy, and his later, insufferable crap. Having said that I am still very happy overall that there is finally one Sandler film in recent years that does not make me want to stick my thumbs in my eyes and keep pressing until my entire head explodes.

The film begins with a blind date at the fine establishment known as Hooters between our two protagonists, a father of three girls, played by Sandler, and the mother of two boys, played by Drew Barrymore. Needless to say, it does not go well, but by chance the two families end up on a safari together in Africa. And so it begins.

The strength of Sandler’s humor has never been witty observations or sharp dialogue. This is a man who rules when it comes to saying and doing things so moronic that you cannot help but laugh — and for the vast majority of the first half of this movie, Sandler is in blistering form.

Achunk of the credit has to go to Drew Barrymore (now starring in her’s third film with Sandler after The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates), who is very difficult to dislike and has solid chemistry with Sandler. Kudos also have to go to the director, Frank Coraci, for once again  giving us the best of both actors after having guided them so well in The Wedding Singer back in 1998.

Their five kids in the film also play a major role in bringing the laughs. On Sandler’s side there’s the obviously pretty teenage girl being brought up as a boy (Bella Thorne), her weird younger sister who keeps interacting with their dead mother (Emma Fuhrman), and the youngest sister, who is all cuteness (Alyvia Alyn Lind). On Barrymore’s side there is the sexually awkward geek son (Braxton Beckham), and the younger brother with serious anger management issues and considerable gymnastic prowess (Kyle Red Silverstein).

The one major downfall of Sandler’s films in recent years is that they come across as mean spirited. In Blended, however, it doesn’t feel that way even though he is clearly making fun of these children’s quirks, and I think that has a lot to do with him knowing where to draw the line with children and being aware that ultimately he needs to place the emphasis on how innocent and adorable they are rather than what a dick he is.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty solid too. There is the legendary white chicks actor Terry Crews as a raunchy resort performer, Kevin Nealon from TVs weeds, and even a cameo from Shaquille O’Neal that has nothing to do with basketball!

Sadly, after doing so much good in the first half of the film, Blended makes the fateful decision to go full steam ahead in turning into another typical, predictable, sappy family drama down the stretch. It’s bad enough that we already know exactly how it’s all going to end; what makes it worse is that the film starts becoming less and less funny the more conventional it tries to be. I don’t remember exactly when I lost interest and started to get bored — I just know there was still too much of the 117-minute running time left for me to be feeling that way.

Having said all that I understand I might not be the target market for the film, which was clearly aiming for more family-oriented audience. I’m not going to say it achieves what it’s aiming for because there is plenty to pick on in such a politically incorrect film (it has been accused of everything from racism to misogyny) — I’m just saying I don’t really care. In any case, I just can’t help but be disappointed after experiencing, in the first half of the film at least, the closest thing to a vintage Adam Sandler I’ve seen in more than a decade, only to watch it all fall apart before the end.

3 stars out of 5

 
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