Movie Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

March 19, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The original Anchorman, released 10 years ago, is remembered as a classic of random laughs and weirdness, hilarious political incorrectness, memorable characters and masterful improvised dialogue. It’s not actually as funny or as good as you remember it to be, but that’s the way it goes sometimes with movies that end up developing its own legend.

In all likelihood, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, will not be as revered as its predecessor, but the truth is that it’s probably just as funny and irreverent. If you enjoyed the zaniness of the original and developed an affection for the characters, then there’s a good chance you’ll have a great time with this one too.

The “legend” picks up several years after the end of the first film, with Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) sharing anchor duties with his now-wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). Their boss, played by Harrison Ford, drops a bombshell on Ron and his ego is too fragile to take the hit. Just when he’s down in the dumps, he gets a visit from an exec played by Dylan Baker (I’ll always remember him as the deranged dad from Happiness), who offers him a job on a new 24-hour news network that no one in the industry thinks will succeed. The story really begins from here, as Ron starts to track down his own team of misfits including Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carrell), and together they head to New York to challenge the big boys of national TV.

The bizarre absurdity of Anchorman 2 is no doubt an acquired taste. If you get it, however, chances are you’ll love it. Without giving too much away, there are some brilliant sequences that will either have you clutching your gut in laughter or shaking your head at the stupidity of it all. There are also some skits that pay homage to some of the classic moments in the original, including a really epic climax that keeps rolling in one huge surprise after another (best to avoid spoilers). You have to give props to Ferrell and his crew for not sticking to conventions and really going for the weirdest, most non-nonsensical shit they could come up with. While it’s still often hit and miss, the hits are usually big hits, and the misses can be swept aside rather quickly because the gags keep coming at a furious pace.

Even if you take all the randomness aside, Anchorman 2 still has some clever satire and witty social commentary weaved into its narrative tapestry. Again, I don’t want to play spoiler, but let’s just say it takes a fairly sharp stab at the state of Western media networks today and makes intelligent use of information we know in the present but won’t be known to the characters for a decade or two.

For me, Anchorman 2 is still never quite as funny as it should be or thinks it is. I kept feeling like the actors were having a better time than I was, and I sense the reason they even made the sequel in the first place is because they all loved hanging out with each other so much. The chemistry between the characters is definitely there, but if you’re not in the right mood then some of the gags will come across as lame and unfunny. Steve Carrell’s mentally challenged Brick, for example, is more creepily insane than ever, and this time they’ve paired him up with a female version of his character, Chani, played by Kristen Wiig. It was one of those things where you’re thinking, “This should be really hilarious,” but in the end turns out to be “meh”.

That said, Anchorman 2 still probably has one of the highest laughs per minute ratios of any film released in 2013. Part of the reason is that there are so many strong characters that you’ll likely find at least a couple of them funny. My personal favourites were Paul Rudd’s sex-obsessed Brian Fantana and, surprisingly, Ron Burgundy himself, who seems somehow both wiser and dumber than he was the last time around. James Marsden, who plays the new network’s douchebag poster child, and Greg Kinnear, who plays Christina Applegate’s lover/psychologist, are the highlights from the supporting cast. And if you like seeing a lot of A-list stars doing things you wouldn’t expect of them, you’ll love all the great cameos in this too.

Ultimately, despite its flaws — including the excessive running time of 119 minutes — I think there is enough quality stuff packed into Anchorman 2 to call it a worthy sequel. It’s never easy living up to expectations following a cult classic original, but even after 10 years the story and the characters’ goofy charm have not waned. Not everything works, but when things occasionally fall into place the result is comedy magic.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Pretty awesome gag reel, but I’d recommend watching the movie first.

Movie Review: Last Vegas (2013)

February 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The idea’s not too bad: a bunch of old friends (emphasis on “old”) catch up for one final hurrah in Las Vegas. Throw in four huge stars — Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Klein — as the leads, toss in a few old jokes (again, emphasis on “old”), and that’s Last Vegas in a nutshell.

I didn’t have a huge problem with Last Vegas, but there was really nothing to like about it either. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, National Treasure 1 & 2, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), it’s a very safe, mildly amusing comedy driven by the star power of its four leads. On the other hand, there’s not much to sustain the film apart from the gimmicky old jokes, and the result is a frequently lame, utterly forgettable experience that you’ll likely erase from your memory in a hurry. It’s a film that wouldn’t have been contemplated without its stars, and is in any case probably best reserved for the straight-to-DVD rack.

Douglas, De Niro, Freeman and Klein are childhood friends who grew up on the tough streets of Brooklyn and remain in touch today as seniors dealing with their own separate problems. De Niro’s character is still mourning the loss of his wife, Freeman’s character is battling an array of physical ailments and his overbearing family, and Klein seems to have lost interest in life. In comes Douglas’s character, seemingly the most charismatic of the group, who is about to get married to a woman less than half his age, and decides to throw a bachelor party in Vegas with his three oldest friends.

So as you might have guessed, the whole fish-out-of-water scenario is designed to put four old guys in a place they’re not expected to be comfortable with, and having us watch them have fun drinking, dancing, splurging and having the time of their lives. The Hangover for Geriatrics is essentially the idea, and it’s not a bad idea, except that it doesn’t work for very long. The running joke throughout the film is that old people are clueless and not cool, a schtick that just keeps getting rehashed again and again. But given that they are the protagonists, the film then tries very hard to convince us that they are, after all, very cool indeed, and young punks who disrespect them will come to regret it. And of course, all four of our heroes will learn important life lessons when it’s all said and done.

I’ll have to be brutally honest here. After a nice setup, the film devolves into cliches and becomes painful to sit through. The jokes are obvious and repetitive, and despite the best efforts of its stars (including the adorable Mary Steenburgen as the love interest), the film is inescapably bland and predictable until its merciful conclusion. It’s not horrible, it’s just…meh.

I am probably making Last Vegas sound a lot worse than it actually is. If you are in the mood for a streamlined plot, obvious jokes and 105 minutes of stereotypical icky Hollywood feel-goodness, then Last Vegas is borderline enjoyable. If you expect more than that from a film with four screen legends, like I did, then chances are you’ll end up bitterly disappointed.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

January 27, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I had no idea The Wolf of Wall Street was a comedy until it won the Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category at the recent Golden Globes. Leo DiCaprio plus Martin Scorcese usually equal serious, violent, gritty flicks like The Departed or Gangs of New York, but this time, they’ve teamed up to give us one of the funniest movies of the year, an epic black comedy with a bite that goes right down to the bone. Oh, and it’s a supposed true story based on a memoir of the same name.

It’s 1987. Leo plays Jordan Belfort, a handsome, charismatic and ambitious young man with a natural gift for sales. Give him anything and he will sell it. After taking a few life lessons on Wall Street from his boss, played by Matthew McConaughey (in a small but hilarious and memorable role), Belfort grabs a few mates and branches out to start his own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which is more or less a scam — but one that will make them loads and loads and loads of money.

The Wolf of Wall Street is without a doubt a polarizing film. It has earned the dubious distinction of the motion picture with the most “F bombs” in cinematic history, topping the list with 569 times (or 3.18 times per minute!). It is also full of debauchery and morally corrupt behaviour, including but not limited to fraud, alcohol abuse, drug-taking, extra-marital relations, mass orgies, beating off in public and tossing midgets around for office amusement. I can understand why a lot of people have been turned off this film and accuse it of glamourising the excess it depicts and painting douchebags like Belfort as heroes while completely ignoring the pain and suffering of his victims. On the other hand, the cast and crew of the film will argue otherwise, saying that it is a cautionary tale about excess. It’s a valid debate, and at the end of the day, it is up to the individual viewer to decide what the message of the movie is — for them.

For me, the underlying message is not a big deal. The Wolf of Wall Street is just a really really funny movie that I enjoyed immensely. The film’s comedic tone is pitch black; seeped in satire. The pace is frenetic and the dialogue is edgy and razor sharp — and more often than not incredibly and unapologetically politically incorrect. I’m sure some critics have already labelled it misogynistic. But importantly, it does not come across as mean-spirited. It’s just a bunch of smug, self-righteous dickheads who think they are smarter than everyone else boasting about their success through excess. They’re certainly not likable but they’re also not so unlikable that you find their antics unfunny. It comes as no surprise why so many people back in the late 80s and early 90s wanted to work for them and be like them.

Much of the credit goes to Scorsese’s masterful direction and the witty screenplay adaptation from Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos). Excess in itself is not funny. Debauchery in itself is not funny. F bombs in themselves are not funny. Doing stupid things after getting drunk and getting high in itself is not funny. That’s why I thought Project X was one of the worst movies ever made, Get Him to the Greek was really bad, and The Hangover was overrated. But put it in the hands of Scorsese and Winter and get talented actors like Leo to act it out, and all of a sudden it becomes freaking hilarious.  They key, I think, is that the characters are not in on the jokes. They are dead serious about the stupid things they do and do it with such bravado and conviction — which is why we, the audience, can find the humour in it.

Granted, you probably need to be in the right mood for a lot of the jokes (the scene where the discuss hiring midgets for office amusement is a prime example), though if you are, you might get stomach cramps from laughing so hard. That sequence where Leo and Jonah Hill take these precious banned prescription drugs to get high is, in my opinion, an all-time classic.

Leo won Best Actor — Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes and is one of the favourites to capture his first Oscar next month. I’m not sure if he will win with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance in 12 Years a Slave blowing everyone’s socks off, including mine, but if he does it will be a deserving victory. Leo has had some wonderful performances in the past, though I don’t think anyone ever expected his comedic chops to be this strong. Here he was utterly convincing as the Wolf of Wall Street, a narcissistic smooth talker and salesman, a little naive when he had to be at the beginning, electrifying when giving motivational speeches to excited crowds, and downright pitiful when he hit rock bottom — and he did it all with a stoic straight face. I was particularly impressed with the passion, energy and extent to which he was willing to go to embarrass himself, which is completely at odds with the heartthrob Leo we’ve become accustomed to over the years.

The supporting cast was also excellent. I’ve said many times that I don’t care much for Jonah Hill or Matthew McConaughey, but even I can’t deny that both guys were awesome in this. The rest of Leo’s founding partners in his scam, including The Walking Dead alumnus Jon Bernthal, were also solid, as was Kyle Chandler as the smuggish FBI agent determined to bring the Wolf down. Like everyone else, my eyebrows were raised when the smoking Margot Robbie came on screen as Leo’s future second wife — little did I know she’s yet another Aussie from Neighbours! Anyway, she’s got a great future ahead of her. And I haven’t even mentioned a bunch of other big names, such as Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau and Jean Dujardin.

The Wolf of Wall Street is an acquired taste. At 3 hours it is of course too long, but not by as much as you might think. There’s too much golden material for this to be a  2-hour film, but I think a 15-20 trim could have been beneficial as the film becomes more serious and less funny as it nears its conclusion. There were times when I almost felt like I should dislike the film on principle because of all the nasty people doing nasty things in it. The story is messy (though I think by design), dirty and just plain wrong on so many levels, and it makes you guilty for laughing at some of the jokes. But in the end, I loved it. I think it’s one of the best movies of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

January 13, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I love Ben Stiller’s best work, but his resume has been a little mixed in recent years. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a loose modern adaptation of the 1939 short story by James Thurber, is very much a Ben Stiller project (he directs, produces and stars), and it’s definitely some of his best work.

Stiller plays the titular character, a negative assets manager who manages photographs for Life magazine. He’s a meek and mild mannered introvert, a bit of a loner, someone who escapes the banality and drudgery of his existence by “zoning out” into one of his elaborate and vivid daydreams. Without giving too much away, Walter finds himself on an adventure which requires him to track down legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (wonderfully performed by Sean Penn) through a series of clues. Helping him out is his secret crush (Kristin Wiig), whom Walter has joined an online dating service for despite working together in the same office.

As his journey gets crazier and crazier, Walter’s fantasies diminish in frequency, and the film’s simple message become apparent. But getting to that point is a lot of fun because you never really know what to expect next, and Walter is such a likable character that he infuses the film with plenty of warmth (despite the freezing conditions) and heart.

Walter Mitty is a grand adventure, a big, epic physical and spiritual journey that takes Walter to several isolated and extremely beautiful places around the world. The film is filled with amazing special effects, not only during Walter’s fantasies but also throughout his travels. Conversely, it’s also an odd, quirky little film that is only loosely attached to reality, with plenty of serendipitous occurrences and strange coincidences, and a slightly surreal feel that brings up memories of The Truman Show (incidentally, they originally wanted Jim Carrey for the lead role).

The result is an ambitious film doesn’t always work, but enough of it worked for me to make Walter Mitty a special experience. And make no mistake, the film is very funny. There are moments of comic brilliance scattered throughout the 114-minute running time, with a few generating some real belly laughs, though arguably it could have been a more consistently hilarious movie had they focused more on the comedy rather than the poignancy of the drama.

The performances are really strong. Ben Stiller plays the kind of character we’re used to from him (by that I mean closer to There’s Something About Mary than Dodgeball or Tropic Thunder), and he’s very affable here, while Kristen Wiig provides an attractive love interest who is believable because she’s borderline in Walter’s league. A bearded Adam Scott is also very good as the office dickhead, and he seems to relish the opportunity to play such a role. Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn have small but important roles as Walter’s mother and daughter, while Sean Penn is brilliant as the enigmatic O’Connell. There are some very interesting minor characters, such as an online dating services rep (Patton Oswalt) who strikes up an unusual phone friendship with Walter, and the nutty Greenlandic helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who provides some of the best lines of the movie.

The ending of Walter Mitty was perhaps a little too neat and predictable for my liking, but apart from that I found myself captured by Walter’s imagination and his struggle for a more fulfilling life. The film has received mixed to polarising reviews, and I can understand that because it’s the type of movie where you either get caught up in the adventure and its characters or you don’t. I certainly did, which is why I think it’s one of the most likable and memorable movies of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: This is the End (2013)

September 29, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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While I’m not the biggest fan of Seth Rogen, I was really looking forward to This is the End,  an apocalypse movie featuring a bunch of comedic actors as parodied versions of themselves. The list of celebrities in the film is long — the leads include Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, with cameos from the likes of Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Krumholtz, Channing Tatum and Aziz Ansari. The film has received mixed reviews, and I can see why. It’s undoubtedly a good time and funny, albeit a little too hit-and-miss, and could have and probably should have been a lot funnier.

The central character of the whole thing is actually Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and How to Train Your Dragon), who arrives in LA to catch up with his buddy Seth Rogen as they head off to a house party at James Franco’s house attended by all the above stars. Midway through the party the biblical End of Days (as depicted in the Arnie movie of the same name) descends upon them and the surviving celebs must find a way to deal with the terrifying aftermath, one that involves demonic monsters and possession.

It’s such an obvious idea, but as you can imagine, it’s also brimming with potential for laughs. I imagine the writers, Rogen and buddy Evan Goldberg, were likely stoned when they wrote this loose script, and it shows. There isn’t much of a plot, and the majority of the movie involves moronic, childish and sexually explicit banter and one-liners from the cast that serve to lampoon themselves.

Each of the actors plays a version of their real-life persona, one that corresponds with the public perception of them. Rogen, for example, is the same goofball you see in all his films, while McBride is the obnoxious slacker he portrayed in Your Highness. James Franco is interesting as a pretentious, sexually ambiguous nerd, though the funniest (and also most obvious) one is Michael Cera, whose has played this over-the-top douchebag version of himself so many times now that it has to make you wonder…

With so many comedians given free rein to show what they can do, you can expect at least some laughs, though how funny you find This is the End will likely depend on how much you like the particular brand of comedy of the six lead characters — ie, loud, profane, occasionally sharp, random, politically incorrect stoner comedy. I’ve always found this type of comedy a bit of a mixed bag. For instance, I really enjoyed Pineapple Express but hated Your Highness and thought films like Superbad and Knocked Up were overrated. I would place this film near the higher end the spectrum, mainly because no particular actor dominates and it was fun watching them play off each other. A couple of clever ideas had me laughing out loud pretty hard.

That said, I think it could have been funnier — perhaps with more scripted jokes, or less, or more editing to refine the material down to just the best parts. There were just too many jokes wasted for missing the mark or being too obvious.

Still, This is the End has enough quality stuff packed into it to make it one of the more memorable comedies of the year. Strangely, even though the story becomes more farcical as it progressed, it did not feel as though there was a mismatch with the “reality” TV style of comedy they were trying to make. That probably says more about reality TV than it does about this film.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: Excellent ending sequence, so stick around for the surprise.

 
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