Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

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Passengers (2016)


passengers

There’s nothing quite like a swim by starlight.

(2016) Science Fiction (Columbia) Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster, Kara Flowers, Conor Brophy, Julee Cerda, Aurora Perrineau, Lauren Farmer, Emerald Mayne, Kristin Brock, Tom Ferrari, Quansae Rutledge, Desmond Reid, Emma Clarke (voice), Fred Melamed (voice), Chris Edgerly (voice), Curtis Grecco, Joy Spears. Directed by Morten Tyldum

Loneliness can drive us to do terrible things. But contemplate this; you are completely alone on a starship full of sleeping human beings on their way to a distant interstellar colony. You have been awakened 90 years too early and are likely to be dead, or at least enfeebled, by the time the ship arrives. How do you cope? What do you do with absolutely no human contact for the rest of your life?

That is the prospect facing Jim (Pratt), an engineer and passenger aboard the Avalon, a colony ship headed to a distant world. His hibernation pod has malfunctioned and awakened him almost a century too early. The only conversation comes from Arthur (Sheen), a robotic bartender who dispenses whiskey and advice in equal measures.

Then Aurora (Lawrence), a fellow passenger also awakens. She’s a writer who had purchased a Gold level ticket, entitling her to more perks on the luxury liner than Jim gets (think of it as first class vs. steerage – Titanic much?) who is equally mystified even as the two enjoy the many amenities on the Aurora – in complete and utter silence and solitude.

But they have much bigger problems. The ship has begun to show a series of worsening malfunctions, from elevators that won’t work to failures of more critical systems. They don’t have access to the vital crew areas where the malfunctions can be dealt with. And while Jim and Aurora are falling deeply in love, there is a secret that may destroy the fragile relationship that is beginning to blossom – if they survive long enough for the relationship to develop.

Pratt and Lawrence are two of the biggest stars in Hollywood and star power is just what a movie like this needs. The bulk of the movie rests on their capable shoulders with little interaction with anyone else other than the aforementioned Arthur and a crew member (Fishburne) who also awakens early. Pratt often plays characters who are generally not very serious. Jim is super serious and the twinkle that Pratt normally has in his eye is not really present here. This is Serious Guy Chris Pratt and while some may prefer the Not So Serious Guy, he is displaying more range than he’s shown to date, which augers well for a long run as an A-lister.

I’ve always known Lawrence is a tremendously gifted actress with extraordinary range but I never thought of her as a sex symbol before this film. There is a scene where Aurora goes on a date with Jim (some of this is shown in the trailer) where she wears a stunning Little Black Dress and has the nightclub walk down. It is as sexy a scene as you’re likely to see and yet no clothes are shed and no skin is viewed. It’s just an actress showing that sexuality doesn’t have to be simulated humping; the most sexual organ is indeed the mind.

Also playing a huge role is the production design. The Avalon is a cruise ship as reimagined by the designers of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s sleek and in some cases sterile, but it looks like the way we thought the future would be back in the 60s before movies like the first Star Wars and Alien showed us a future that was more lived in and industrial. This future is, as Walt Disney might have put it, a great big beautiful tomorrow.

The movie begins to break down in the third act as the love story begins to unravel and turn into a straight-out disaster movie which I think is a tactical error. While Titanic used the love story to give the disaster humanity, here because there is no interaction essentially with anyone else, it becomes less of a disaster than a “Oh no, the ship is sinking!” kind of thing. More like the S.S. Minnow, if you get my drift.

The movie has all the ingredients to be a science fiction classic, but it unfortunately doesn’t pull it all together to make it so. The storytelling could have been tighter and there could have been more emphasis on the people than on the environment. The antiseptic corridors of the Avalon, devoid of human life, become an echo chamber for the two protagonists and that seems a bit cold and empty. The movie is the definition of eye candy; pretty to look at but ultimately nothing substantial once you’ve seen the images.

REASONS TO GO: Pratt and Lawrence make a beautiful couple. The effects are pretty special.
REASONS TO STAY: The story meanders a little bit. The ending is extraordinarily weak.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and nudity as well as some sci-fi action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The starship is named the Avalon after the mythical location connected with the legend of Camelot. Not coincidentally, the bartender’s name is Arthur.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sing

The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

In a World…


Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

Fred Marino offers a skeptical Lake Bell the world.

(2013) Comedy (Roadside Attractions) Lake Bell, Rob Corddry, Alexandra Holden, Eva Longoria, Ken Marino, Demetri Martin, Fred Melamed, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, Michaela Watkins, Geena Davis, Stephanie Allynne, Melissa Disney, Olya Milova, Corsica Wilson, Yelena Protsenko, Charly Chaikin, Janicza Bravo, Jason O’Mara, Talulah Riley, Don La Fontaine, Jeff Garlin, Amy Vorpahl. Directed by Lake Bell

If you’re reading this, chances are you like movies enough to pay attention to the trailers. One of the most notable phrases in a trailer is “In a world…” which actually was the trademark of a single man – Don La Fontaine, who essentially for 20 years was the voice of movie trailers. Although there were certainly other voice over artists who worked major studio releases, La Fontaine was The Man pretty much up to his death in 2008.

However, it is true that nearly all the voices you hear shilling movies in their trailers are men – the lone exception being Melissa Disney (who in a nice bit of gracia is given a small role here by Bell) whose voice was once heard extolling the virtues of Gone in 60 Seconds. Carol Solomon (Bell) would like to be the next Big Voice. She is pretty talented too, able to switch to just about any sort of vocal style you can name. In order to better emulate them she likes to record people, sometimes surreptitiously sometimes not to the point where she has been barred from the high end hotel where her sister Dani (Watkins) works as a concierge. However, it’s a nearly impossible field to break in to for a woman so Carol makes due with gigs as a vocal coach helping celebrities like Eva Longoria speak with a believable accent.

What makes it doubly hard is that her father, Sam Sotto (Melamed) is one of the bigwigs in the industry and due to receive a lifetime achievement award. He’s not a candidate for father of the year by any stretch of the imagination – his voice may be sonorous but his soul is not. Carol has been sleeping in his spare room for awhile but Sam kicks her out so that his girlfriend Jamie (Holden) – whom Carol and Dani deride as a groupie – can move in. Carol moves in with Dani and her husband Moe (Corddry).

The “In a world” trailer line is going to be brought back for Hollywood’s hottest property – a quadrilogy called The Amazon Games and while the producers want Sam to do it, Sam magnanimously steps aside so that his good friend and protégé Gustav Warner (Marino) can get the gig but Gustav – whose ego may be even greater than Sam’s – contracts laryngitis and is unable to make the recording session for a temporary track to show the executive producer. Carol is helping Longoria re-record her dialogue in a nearby studio and the engineer, Louis (Martin) suggests that Carol do the temp track.

It turns out that the executive producer is so taken by Carol’s performance that she wants to use Carol for the final track and based on that Carol begins to get work on other trailers as well. Gustav is throwing a party for Sam and his impending award so Carol kind of has to go. Louis is eager to go with her as her date but is too shy to ask her. At the party Gustav hooks up with Carol, not realizing who she is.

Will Carol end up with the selfish Gustav or the shy Louis? Will Moe and Dani be able to overcome their marital problems? And who will be the one to warble the immortal words “In a world”?

This is one of those movies that earns the laughs that it gets. This isn’t one of those “throw everything and the kitchen sink at the screen and see what sticks.” The humor is carefully crafted and a collaboration between Bell, the writer and director of the film and her actors, taking advantage of their strengths as comic actors as well as of their physical appearances.

Bell’s ability with accents and mimicry is part of what stands out about her performance on the surface but if you look a little deeper you’ll find that this is a very layered character who can be selfish and oblivious to the needs of others – obviously the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – and also there’s a great deal of insecurity there as well. She desperately wants to be part of the elite of the industry whose voice is instantly recognizable even if her face isn’t. Somehow, I think the ladies of 20 Feet from Stardom might understand her pretty well.

Bell also shows some skills behind the camera as well, shooting this more in the style of a drama rather than a comedy – Woody Allen is a master of this and Bell delivers a movie that Allen would likely be proud of. However, I think that as a writer she might be most talented of all – this is a smart script that allows each character enough time and space to develop a real personality. They’re not perfect and they’re just flawed enough to be realistic without being annoying. She doesn’t fall into the indie “quirkier-than-thou” trap which a lot of independents tend to do, mistaking neuroses for personality.

Melamed is perfectly cast as the unctuous Sam, full of fake bonhomie and ego but even so there is love in him. Even Gustav, the erstwhile villain, has some redeeming and interesting features. Corddry gets a somewhat different kind of role to play – Moe is less sure of himself and much nicer than what we usually see out of Corddry.

This is really a very good movie, worth seeking out. Bell has always been one of those actresses who does solid but not really noticeable work mainly in second banana roles. Here she is front and center and shows that she is worthy of consideration for higher profile parts – like this one. In a world where the worthy are rewarded for their toil, it would be sure to happen. Seeing as this is planet Hollywood, that is far from a sure thing.

REASONS TO GO: Deceptively funny. Bell is magnificent in front of and behind the camera.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too Hollywood of an ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of foul language including some sexual references and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was the winner of the award for Best Screenplay at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: All the Light in the Sky

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

The Innkeepers


The Innkeepers

Too much Visene can be a bad thing.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (Magnet) Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis, Alison Bartlett, Jake Ryan, George Riddle, Lena Dunham, Brenda Cooney, John Speredakos, Sean Reid, Kurt Venghaus, Thomas Maloney, Michael Martin, Michael P. Castelli. Directed by Ti West

 

All good things come to an end and so it was with the Yankee Pedlar Hotel. A more than 100-year-ld inn in bucolic New England,  it is down to once last weekend. Two staff members are left to oversee the grand dame who has  a reputation of being haunted. Claire (Paxton) and Luke (Healy) are there to take care of the few guests that are left.

The third floor has already been stripped, closed to guests as the work to gut the hotel to make room for a parking lot is preparing to get under way. Luke mostly watches Internet porn, when he isn’t working on a ghost website, regaling the impressionable Claire with stories about the hotel’s checkered past and his own supernatural encounters and ignoring the guests’ demands for towels.

Claire befriends one of the guests, a former television actress turned psychic healer Leanne Rease-Jones (McGillis) who at first seems somewhat, for lack of a better term, bitchy. However as she begins to find the supremely naive but extremely likable Claire to be harmless, Leanne decides to delve into the Yankee Pedlar, only to find something very sinister that has Claire firmly in its sights – involving a bride who committed suicide years before and a cover-up by the innkeepers of the day that would only serve to make the bride’s ghost very, very angry – and you sure don’t want to be in the sights of an angry bride now do you?

West has developed a good reputation in the independent horror community with films like House of the Devil and The Roost to his credit. He has a reputation of movies that develop slowly, chock full of quirky but realistic (read: non-cookie cutter) characters who are brought out of their comfort zone and face to face with something terrible.

He follows much the same formula here too. There is the first half of the movie which belongs mostly to Paxton and Healy, who work very well together. Although theirs is a non-romantic relationship (no sex in this movie guys – move along if that’s what you’re looking for) there is chemistry nonetheless between them. They banter like co-workers who have a bit of a forced friendship due to the circumstances i.e. pending unemployment. There is a certain gallows camaraderie between them.

McGillis also figures into the first half significantly. The star of such films as The Witness and The Accused has been long absent from multiplex screens and it is a welcome return indeed. Even though she gets what I affectionately call “the Zelda Rubinstein part” (so-named for the diminutive actress who played the psychic in Poltergeist) she carries it off with grace and professionalism.

West is good at delivering the goods in the scare department and he does so here. The last fifteen minutes of the movie are a real wild ride, with some legitimate spooky scares. It’s just the getting there that may put some people off. Those who love a shock-o-rama from start to finish are going to get antsy sitting through the first portion of this movie.

I had a different reaction. I liked the first part of the movie, a lot. Horror movies that take the time to develop characters who are not clichés are increasingly rare these days as mostly the actors exist to be launched into a meat grinder. Taking the time to develop characters we can actually care about is almost unheard of, so many kudos to West for that.

The writers also take the time to develop a nice mythology which is crucial in any kind of supernatural horror. The background of the tale is at least as important as the scares and the writers pay close attention to that.

The trouble here is that the first part and the last part of the movie are so night and day. Some may find it jolting to go from a kind of almost sitcom-y feel into a balls-to-the-wall frightfest.  I actually thought the two parts reconciled well but admit it was a little bumpy in places. There really isn’t much of a transition.

This is a strong independent horror movie, something that I’m happy to say we’re starting to see more of and that’s a trend I strongly hope is going to continue. There is some inventiveness to it but not a lot and that’s okay – it just takes a little. In other words, this isn’t a game changer for the genre but it is a strong example of how good a well done ghost story can be.

REASONS TO GO: Paxton and Healy work well together. Well-written with a nice mythology behind it.

REASONS TO STAY: Real scares come late and when the horror aspect gets going is almost schizophrenic, at odds with the lighter tone earlier in the film.  

FAMILY VALUES: There are some terrifying images and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paxton is distantly related to actor Bill Paxton; she mulled over a career in music (she has sung on several soundtracks to her movies) although that appears to be on hold at the moment.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghostbusters

NEW ENGLAND INN LOVERS: The filmmakers shot this primarily at the actual Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, CT. which is supposedly haunted. The lobby is gorgeous filled with antique furniture. I wouldn’t mind staying a night or two here – if Madeline permits.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Holy Rollers

Tower Heist


Tower Heist

Ben Stiller brings up the Nutty Professor movies even though it's in Eddie Murphy's contract that nobody mentions them.

(2011) Caper Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Tea Leoni, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, Judd Hirsch, Michael Pena, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Van Wagner. Directed by Brett Ratner

It goes without saying that the new villains in the movies, reflecting our perilous economic times, are financiers. Most of us hold them responsible to a large degree for the woes we find ourselves in. Wall street is the new mad scientist.

Josh Kovacs (Stiller) works as the building manager for one of the most exclusive residences in Manhattan and thus one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. It is the home of the hoi polloi, the high and mighty – the movers and shakers of New York. He heads a staff that is renowned for their attentiveness and attention to detail.

Among the residents in the building one of the most famous is Arthur Shaw (Alda), a man who has managed the portfolios of nations. He is one of the world’s most respected financial minds, someone who understands the markets better than anyone alive. When doorman Lester (Henderson) opens the door for him, there’s just a little bit more deferential treatment for Mr. Shaw who is as down to earth as they come – playing online chess with Josh, who went to the same public school in Astoria that Shaw did.

A sharp-eyed Josh notices, while in security chief Manuel’s (Hernandez) office what appears to be a kidnap attempt on Mr. Shaw. He makes a heroic effort to rescue him only to be clotheslined by an attractive woman, who turns out to be FBI agent Claire Denham (Leoni). It also turns out that the kidnapping is actually Shaw trying to escape arrest. It turns out that Shaw has swindled all of his clients out of the money they gave him to invest and that money is all gone. It turns out that Josh had given the employees of the Tower’s pension fund over to Shaw to manage and that money is all gone too.

This is devastating for some. Charlie (Affleck) the concierge is about to have a baby. Miss Iovenko (Arianda) is studying to pass the bar. Enrique (Pena) just started working there. But it is most devastating for Lester, who was about ready to retire and also had given his life savings – about $70K – to Mr. Shaw to invest and was left with nothing, meaning retirement wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Disconsolate, he attempts to walk out in front of a train and is saved by off-duty police officers.

Josh doesn’t want to believe that his friend Mr. Shaw is a crook, but when he visits him to tell the house-arrested Shaw what has befallen Lester, it becomes clear that Shaw’s friendly man-of-the-people front was a facade. It also becomes just as clear that the money that the employees of the Tower have all been counting on is gone forever. However, Agent Denham lets slip that guys like Shaw always have a cash safety net available for emergencies and that they haven’t found Shaw’s yet. Maybe Josh can steal back what was stolen from he and his associates.

However, Josh isn’t a thief, as Charlie correctly points out. However, Josh knows someone who is – streetwise Slide (Murphy), a career criminal who lives down the street from Josh. Add the recently evicted Mr. Fitzhugh (Broderick) and Jamaican maid (and daughter of a safecracker) Odessa (Sidibe) and you’ve got yourself a gang. However can these amateurs make their way past the most sophisticated security system in New York and the ever-watchful eye of the FBI to get themselves a little payback?

It will probably not surprise anyone who sees this movie to know that it shares a writer with the Oceans 11 series. It has that element of camaraderie among thieves, the same kind of snappy dialogue. It does have some star power but after Stiller and Murphy it falls off somewhat, although there are some pretty good performances here.

The main one is Murphy, who after decades of doing forgettable family comedies finally goes back to the kind of role that made him a star, one that channels Axel Foley, Billy Ray Valentine and Reggie Hammond. This is not quite up to those standards, but it is his best role in years. He nails it as well, giving it that fast-talking con-artist veneer as well as that kind of bad boy ladies man that Murphy perfected 20 years ago and that comedians like Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker have all been channeling since then.

Alda, who was playing Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH” at about the same time plays maybe the nastiest villain of his career. Shaw is an arrogant, smug bastard who while obviously modeled on Bernie Madoff has a little bit of Leona Helmsley thrown in for good measure. It’s a delicious role and should go down as one of the most memorable movie villains of 2011.

Stiller is a bit of a cipher. He is likable enough but I think that the part would have been better with someone for whom larcenous behavior might have been more easily acceptable. Stiller seems better suited for characters who need less charisma.

Ratner excels in making mindless entertainment pieces and he does so here. There’s nothing much to think about and veteran moviegoers are for sure going to be able to figure out important plot twists (such as where Shaw’s money is actually hidden) well before the reveals. However, the cast is enormously appealing (the sight of Broderick reaching out of an open window to pull in their loot but afraid to move is one of the better moments in the movie) and the plot easy enough to follow. Don’t try to think too much about some of the plot holes and you’ll find this a pleasant enough movie, not a game changer by any means but a solidly entertaining diversion. Some critics will make it seem like that’s a failure but for my money that’s a big win for the audience.

REASONS TO GO: Fine entertainment. Eddie Murphy returns to form and Alda is a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too predictable in the plot points. Nothing really new here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and a smidge of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Trump Tower in Manhattan was used as the stand-in for the Tower in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The New York City vistas and the parade segment should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Due Date