Crown Heights (2017)


Lakeith Stanfield shows off his intensity.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Amazon/IFC) Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Adriane Lenox, Luke Forbes, Zach Grenier, Josh Pais, Nestor Carbonell, Joel van Liew, Bill Camp, Amari Cheatom, Skylan Brooks, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Carlos Hendricks, Ron Canada, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Shana A. Solomon, Brian Tyree Henry, Sarah Goldberg. Directed by Matt Ruskin

 

Justice is portrayed as a blindfolded woman holding a balanced set of scales. This is meant to convey the impartiality of justice. In modern America, experience has taught us that justice sometimes peeks behind the blindfolds and the scales are weighted against the poor and those of color.

Colin Warner (Stanfield) is an immigrant from Trinidad living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is no saint – one of the first things we see him do is steal a car – but he’s not the devil incarnate either. He’s just a guy trying to make it in a world that isn’t well-disposed towards people with his skin color or economic station. He hopes for a better life and along with his best friend Carl “KC” King (Asomugha) is attending a school to become a certified auto mechanic. He also has an eye on Antoinette (Paul), a neighborhood girl who has unfortunately put him in the friend zone.

One night as he walks home with his mother’s television set which he picked up from the repair shop, he is arrested by a pair of New York’s finest. When he learns that the charge is murder, he is almost incredulous. The more he discovers about the crime, the more confident he is that he’ll soon be freed; for one thing, he didn’t do the crime. He didn’t know anyone involved. He had no motive and no record of violence. Surely the police will see that and let him go.

To his horror, they don’t. Even after they find the man who actually pulled the trigger (Forbes), they refuse to let him go. An eyewitness puts him on the scene; never mind that the 15-year-old boy (Brooks) has a criminal history of his own, or that his story is wildly inconsistent with other eyewitnesses. Even the presiding judge (Canada) admits the evidence is flimsy. Nevertheless, an all-white jury convicts the shocked Colin and he is sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Colin’s family and particularly KC are livid and on a mission to get Colin home where he belongs. The appeals process turns into a nightmare as the lawyer that is hired is so woefully unprepared that it is clear that he’s all about getting the cash up front and after that, he doesn’t really much care. KC’s determination leads him to take the process server’s exam so that he can circulate among lawyers and perhaps find a good one to take Colin’s case. Eventually it leads him to William Robedee (Camp) who together with his Irish wife Shirley (Goldberg) run a tiny practice. The lawyer agrees to take the case after looking at the transcripts and discovering what a shockingly inadequate defense Colin received. Still, the system is grinding Colin down and although Antoinette has thawed on the whole romance thing, it looks like Colin might just rot in prison.

This is based on true events which should be enough to make your blood boil. These things really happened and Colin Warner really spent a ridiculous amount of time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Ruskin uses contemporary clips of various presidents talking tough on crime to illustrate the tone of the times and reminds us that crime is the political equivalent of a slam dunk – everybody wants to be perceived as tough on crime. The results of the rhetoric was largely cosmetic; the effects on the poor and those unable to afford good representation, devastating.

Stanfield has been turning heads over the past few years with performance after performance, always delivering something special. This might be his best work yet, showing us a man who is pretty laid back and soft-spoken most of the time but frustrated by the injustice of his situation, driven to despair (he wakes up each morning murmuring to himself “Please don’t let it be a cell”) and eventually rage, lashing out at brutal guards and equally brutal inmates. Only his love for Antoinette, his mother and grandmother back in Trinidad and the support of KC keeps him going. Stanfield captures the full range of Colin’s emotions.

I’m not sure where this was filmed but I suspect it was either in a working prison or a decommissioned one. It looks a little too authentic to be a set. I could be wrong on that count of course and if I am, the production designer Kaet McAnneny is to be doubly commended. Ruskin also gives a very stark look at life inside. It isn’t as brutal as, say, Oz but it does capture the feeling of simmering anger and violence that exists in a prison and especially the hopelessness.

The movie suffers from an inconsistent pace. Certain parts of the movie seem to move very quickly (the arrest and initial trial, for example) and others seem to drag. Ruskin utilizes graphics to tell us how long Colin has been incarcerated. There are some jumps in time and quite honestly there is a lack of consistent flow here. I didn’t get a good sense of time passing; other than the graphics, all of the action could have taken place within the same year with the viewer being none the wiser.

Stanfield is impressive here and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line he became one of the very best in Hollywood, the sort of actor who is a threat to win an Oscar every time he signs up for a movie. He elevates this movie and he is supported by a thoroughly professional cast. The acting is uniformly good and other than what I discussed earlier there aren’t really any serious faults to really distract from what is a very good film. It tells a story that will outrage but sadly isn’t uncommon as graphics near the end of the film show. Definitely this is one if you’re looking for a serious movie to see that may have some outside Oscar implications later on.

REASONS TO GO: Stanfield delivers a performance that just sizzles. A cathartic ending enhances the gritty portrayal of the brutality of everyday prison life.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is inconsistent..
FAMILY VALUES: There’s lots of profanity, some violence and sexuality as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Asomugha is a pro football player who is a two-time All-Pro defensive back for the Oakland Raiders.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Man in Red Bandana

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With Prisoners


Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

Catch 22: Based on the Unwritten Story by Seanie Sugrue


A party with macho guys, lots of booze and drugs and a mouthy hooker? What could possibly go wrong?!

A party with macho guys, lots of booze and drugs and a mouthy hooker? What could possibly go wrong?!

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) Brock Harris, Al Thompson, Dónall Ó Héalai, Michael Rabe, Jayce Bartok, Charmane Star, An Nguyen, Phil  Burke, Cameron McIntosh, Gerard Assante, Zachary Clarence, Charles Kennedy, Melissa Crisafulli, Seanie Sugrue, Donald Paul, Malik Uhuru, Josh Folan, Olivia Howell, Zack Auron, Dana Eckley, Gloria Kim, Emma Lieberman. Directed by Josh Folan

 

Sometimes a movie tells you right off the bat what kind of movie it’s going to be. In the case of this one, the opening scene starts with a toilet in which the water is stained with what appears to be urine. In comes one of the characters and throws up into the commode. Eventually he notices that there’s a dead Asian girl (Star) in the bathtub.

There are five guys who have passed out in the living room; Smoke (Harris), Bird (Thompson), Vince (Bartok), Seanie (Rabe) and Mikey (Ó Héalai). Most of them have criminal records; one of them is headed to prison for dealing shortly; in fact, the party is a farewell party to their buddy. And now this happens.

What transpires over the next several hours is an attempt to figure out what happened to the girl. As one of the men says to the others, “We’re not gonna f*** each other.” And that’s just what they proceed to do. It’s a bit like a Bizarro World Hangover in which nobody can remember what happened over the past 24 hours until bits and pieces begin to return to memory in segments that are preceded by a static sound like a old television being tuned on UHF.

This is definitely a micro-budgeted indie and while there’s nothing wrong with that, someone needed to spend a little more of the budget on lighting; much of the film is dimly lit to the point where at times it is hard to tell the difference between some of the actors who with the exception of Thompson all have similar looks.

The relationship between the guys feels genuine to be fair. They talk like guys who have been friends from womb to tomb. They dress similarly in the way that guys who have bonded tend to dress the same. They act like they’ve been friends forever. I don’t know if there was any pre-existing relationship between the actors but it sure feels like they’ve known each other forever. If they haven’t, then all the more kudos to them.

I would have liked to have seen a bit more character development; all five of the guys tended to blend together somewhat to the point that at times I couldn’t remember who it was that was talking. Still, the story is mildly compelling and there is enough here to make me think that the filmmakers have a future, but there’s not enough here that lends itself to an unhesitant recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: The dialogue and male relationships are authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: The lighting is perpetually dim. The flashbacks are annoying. There’s a whole lot of man-posturing and not enough character development.
FAMILY VALUES:  The theme here is plenty adult; there are also graphic nudity, sexual content, a surfeit of drug use, some violence and a whole lot of profanity including racial slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The real Seanie Sugrue appears in a cameo as a vagrant.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Very Bad Things 
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Ivory Game

Mechanic: Resurrection


Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

Jason Statham raises stubble to an art form.

(2016) Action (Summit) Jason Statham, Jessica Alba, Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Hazeldine, Michelle Yeoh, John Cenatiempo, Toby Eddington, Femi Elufowoju Jr., Anteo Quintavalle, Rhatha Phongam, Bonnie Zellerbach, Francis Tonkala Tamouya, Tais Rodrigues Dias, Allan Poppleton, Soji Ikai, Vithaya Pansringam, Lynnette Emond. Directed by Dennis Gansel

 

Jason Statham is my favorite action hero at the moment. He’s smart, he’s tough and he’s talented. He has his own unique voice and has the chops to hang with the legendary action stars of the 80s and 90s; Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis, van Damme…Statham if nothing else can proudly put his name in that pantheon, even if most of the films he makes in the genre are more of the B variety.

So he’s back, now in his 50s, in a sequel to his 2011 hit. Arthur Bishop (Statham) is a world class assassin who specializes in making his hits look like accidents but after faking his own death has been living under the radar in Brazil. However, in this day and age nobody can slip notice for long and he is found by Crain (Hazeldine), an old “friend” of his who needs his special talents. In order to obtain them, Crain needs to have some leverage on his old buddy and what better way than to set him up to fall in love with the altruistic and somewhat naïve Gina (Alba) who happens to fall into his radar.

He takes refuge at the Thai resort run by his friend Mei (Yeoh) but Crain finds him there and kidnaps Gina. Now Bishop must perform three nearly impossible assassinations of three very dangerous, evil gentlemen in a short amount of time or Gina is going to get dead, which Bishop is anxious to prevent. He knows that Crain will likely kill them both anyway so he needs to have a plan. Here’s your word of wisdom for the day; never force a world class assassin to work for you unless you intend to die yourself.

The film this is a sequel to was itself a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson flick which was darker in tone than this. There is more of a 90s action vibe, a cross between the Mission: Impossible series and the action films of Schwarzenegger. One of my issues of the 2011 film was that Bishop was almost too good; there was never a sense that he was in any jeopardy. They’ve rectified that here, but there are other issues unfortunately.

The main one is that it doesn’t really add anything to the franchise. Bishop was, as Statham put it, a “thinking man’s killer” who has the ability to plan three or four steps ahead and improvising on the fly when he needs to. It’s mostly the latter here and we lose some of the more thoughtful aspects of Bishop which is what made him unique. Worse though, this is pretty much action film making 101; it is interchangeable with all sorts of recent action films (many of which were made for the Lionsgate/Summit banner) and we can pretty much predict what happens next – and it does.

Statham is the main reason to see this. He has settled into being one of the premiere action heroes of the 21st century and while he could use a shave pretty much throughout the movie, he continues to be one of the most impressive hand-to-hand fighters in action films ever. He’s capable of being over-the-top in the Crank films or more subtle as he is here. The man can actually act, as he showed in his Guy Ritchie films as well as The Bank Job, still to date his best performance.

The movie is at its best when the dialogue stops i.e. the action and stunt sequences. The trailer hinted at a stunt in which Statham climbs up the side of a glass building and sets a charge in the glass bottom of a pool hanging over the side, waving goodbye to the victim as the glass shatters and he plummets to his doom below. It is as good a sequence as you’ll find in any action movie this year and fortunately, the trailer omits some of the best parts of the sequence. There are others that are also in the elite class as far as stunt and fight sequences in 2016 are concerned.

But the movie’s main sin is that it simply isn’t interesting. The stunt sequences are great but the romance between Gina and Bishop is not and Yeoh, one of the greatest action heroines ever is held to a largely lifeless cameo. If you’re going to go to the trouble of casting someone the caliber of Michelle Yeoh, the least you can do is give her something to do. It’s a shame that she never got Hollywood’s interest in her prime; she’s not only an extraordinary action star but an extraordinary actress as well, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved and its sequel reiterated earlier this year.

Jones fares better as a jocular arms dealer but he really is the only one who looks like he’s having a good time here. Unfortunately, the audience for the most part will side with the rest of the cast and not have much of a good time either. This is a blah entry into what could have been an interesting action franchise.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really nifty action sequences and stunts. Statham has become a dependable lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film is predictable and dull. They took an interesting character and converted him into just another action figure.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the American film debut of Gansel, who has directed a number of films in his native Germany.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: John Wick
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Kubo and the Two Strings

Get Hard


The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

The IRS pays a visit to Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell.

(2015) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Kevin Hart, Will Ferrell, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, Edwina Findley Dickerson, Ariana Neal, Erick Chavarria, T.I., Paul Ben-Victor, John Mayer, Jon Eyez, Nito Larioza, Dan Bakkerdahl, Greg Germann, Ron Funches, Joshua Joseph Gillum, Chris Marroy, Katia Gomez, Elliott Grey, Raeden Greer, Melanie Hebert. Directed by Etan Cohen

For most of us, the thought of going to prison and doing hard time is not even something that’s on our radar. After all, we keep our indiscretions minor; speeding a little down the freeway, or entering an intersection just as the light turns red; maybe we fudge our taxes a little bit. Most of us aren’t ever going to be in a situation that might lead us to the hoosegow.

Certainly James King (Ferrell) didn’t think so. A wealthy fund manager on his way to marrying the boss’s daughter (Brie), he has essential the ultimate 1% life – a Harvard education, a high-profile position – a partnership in fact, something of a wedding gift from soon-to-be dad Martin (Nelson) – at a major financial corporation, a beautiful home and high end possessions, and expensive cars. He even has John Mayer (himself) playing his engagement party. He has it all, right?

Not for long. He’s arrested at his engagement party for embezzling funds, something he vehemently denies doing. However, the evidence is damning as the paper trail leads directly to James. A populist judge (Grey) instead of sentencing James to a country club minimum security facility instead sends him to San Quentin for ten years. James is given 30 days to get his affairs in order.

James knows that he has absolutely no chance to survive in prison. He needs to be prepared for what he’s going to encounter there, learn to defend himself. There aren’t many who can adequately get him ready for the big house, but maybe there is someone…why, the guy who washes his car at work, Darnell (Hart) – why, he’s a black man. Statistically speaking, there’s a good chance Darnell has been incarcerated.

In fact, Darnell has not – he’s a family man with a small business trying to make things better for his family by putting a down payment for a house in a better neighborhood with better schools for his daughter Makayla (Neal). He needs the money, so he agrees to get James ready, much to the bemusement of his wife Rita (Dickerson) who is fully aware that Darnell has a better chance of dunking on Dwight Howard than he does of being a true thug.

But Darnell has a plan and that’s to turn James’ home into a simulation of prison life, which suits James’ domestic staff just fine. James is confident that the investigators that Martin has put on the case will soon exonerate him but as the days tick closer to the day James has to report to San Quentin, Darnell begins to realize that not only is James as innocent as he says he is but that nothing that Darnell can do will EVER help James survive in prison – nothing can. The only chance James has to survive is to prove his innocence, but that seems next to impossible.

Hart and Ferrell are two of the biggest comic actors in Hollywood, with Hart dominating over the past few years and Ferrell making some of the most iconic comedy classics of the past decade. Their styles are completely different; Ferrell is a lot more over-the-top and often plays clueless boobs (as he does here) while Hart is more of a street-smart hustler sort who writes checks with his mouth that he can’t cash with his body or his skills. You wouldn’t think that the two would mesh all that well but there is in fact some chemistry between them – a lot more than I expected in fact. Cohen, the writer of Tropic Thunder making his debut as a director, wisely does a kind of back and forth type of presentation allowing both comics to shine individually and together as well. Considering that most people paying to see this are looking to see two of the best comedians working today together, I think it’s a wise course of action.

Also wise was getting Key and Peele writers Ian Roberts and Jay Martel to do the script, but somewhat surprisingly the two didn’t come through as well. Much of the plot is ultimately predictable and cliche, which considering the edgy material they’ve done for the popular Comedy Central show, is an unexpected bummer.

The movie means to examine through the lens of comedy racial discord and attitudes, homophobia and stereotypes. There are quite a few critics who have accused the movie of being racist and homophobic, but honestly, only the most politically correct nimrods are going to find it that way. There’s a vast difference between laughing at racial stereotypes and holding them up to ridicule and being racist. Part of the comedy comes from James’ abysmal ignorance of African-Americans and their culture; as a sheltered 1% sort he’s only hung around other 1% sorts which have, if you’ll excuse the expression, colored his perceptions. In white society, people often say “But I have black friends” when called out for racial insensitivity and that’s exactly how James undoubtedly would react.

There’s probably more of a case for homophobia when James is told to learn how to perform oral sex on other men as a means of survival but is unable to do it. However, there is a gay character who befriends Darnell who comes off as pretty normal and reasonable rather than a stereotype which I found refreshing. There was precious little mincing by the gay characters in the movie.

After having heard almost nothing but negative reviews for the movie I was pleasantly surprised to find it a lot funnier than I expected with an unexpected strong comedic timing throughout. The jokes flow nicely and the plot, while predictable, at least keeps moving along. The material is fairly crude – although if the movie were bigger at the box office “keistering” might become a thing – but I’ve seen cruder.

This is one of those movies that should be the poster child for not letting critics make up your mind for you. I found it to be positively entertaining and while it doesn’t break new ground, it does at least what it’s meant to do – keep the audience laughing and showcasing two superior talents in Hart and Ferrell who hopefully will team up again after this. Maybe in a movie where their roles are reversed, where Hart is the privileged snob and Ferrell is the street-wise hustler. That’s something I’d pay to see.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Hart and Ferrell. Some outrageously funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-sensitive and too politically correct sorts may find this racist/homophobic. Plot is fairly predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: Crude and sexual humor, graphic nudity, some violence, plenty of foul language and sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Will Ferrell is 11 inches taller than Kevin Hart which led to some fairly interesting camera angles in order to make the differential less severe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Let’s Go to Jail
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Furious 7

Horrible Bosses 2


The cast of Horrible Bosses 2, sneakin' around,

The cast of Horrible Bosses 2, sneakin’ around,

(2014) Comedy (New Line) Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Chris Pine, Jennifer Aniston, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Christoph Waltz, Jonathan Banks, Lindsay Sloane, Keegan-Michael Key, Kelly Stables, Jerry Lambert, Sam Richardson, Brianne Howey, Lidia Porto, Jaye Razor, Lennon Parham, Alyssa Preston, Suzy Nakamura, Keeley Hazell. Directed by Sean Anders

I have to admit that I have a fondness for movies set in the workplace. We can all relate to those – the tedious drudgery, the office politics and of course the horrible bosses.

The makers of this film brought that to sharp focus with Horrible Bosses, a 2011 movie that I found seriously funny as three Joe Schmoes with psychotic employers plot to get out of the situation the only way they know how – by killing their bosses. Of course, they know nothing about how to do this so they ask an expert.

Two years later they are going into business for themselves. Nick (Bateman), Kurt (Sudeikis) and Dale (Day) have come up with a new product that is sure to be a big hit – the Shower Buddy, a kind of car wash for people that automatically sprays shampoo and conditioner into your hair and then rinses. I know there are people out there thinking right now “Say, that’s a good idea…” It plays to the laziness of the American consumer which is never a bad idea.

They bring it to Rex Hanson (Pine), the son of billionaire marketer Bert Hanson (Waltz). What they don’t realize that they are a trio of guppies swimming among sharks. It doesn’t take them long to take their best-laid plans and see them ground into the dust. With bankruptcy and scandal looming, they come up with another loony tunes idea – to kidnap Rex and use the ransom to save their company. Their old buddy Mofo Jones (Foxx) thinks it’s a sweet deal.

That’s all well and good but they haven’t taken a few things into account; one, Rex is basically psychotic. Second, they’re still swimming around in a pool full of sharks. Lastly, they’re essentially morons. Predictably they end up going from the frying pan into the proverbial fire.

And predictable is the word of the moment here. Many of the jokes are rehashes of things that went on in the first movie. That’s never a good sign, especially when the first movie was more successful when it was edgy while this one seems more geared to play it safe. I’ve read elsewhere that the original intent for the sequel was to have Nick, Kurt and Dale finally move into managerial positions and all three of them have employees who get fed up with their antics and plot to off them. The studio chickened out on that concept but I think it would have made for a much better movie.

The chemistry between Sudeikis, Bateman and Day isn’t marvelous but it’s workable. While a lot of critics are enamored of Day and his style, I find his voice to be whiny and irritating. Sometimes people just get on your nerves for no particular reason. Looking as objectively as I can, I can’t fault his performance and I wouldn’t be surprised if he pushed through to bigger and better things. Bateman, the master of comic exasperation, plays to his strengths and Sudeikis, who co-starred with Aniston last year in We’re the Millers, continues to build up to being one of the leading comic actors in Hollywood.

The support crew is pretty good, and Pine comes in like a bull in a china shop which in this case is a good thing. Pine, who has primarily done more action-oriented roles, has decent comic timing and I think that roles like this will mark him as a more versatile actor, opening up more doors for him than were previously available. Sadly, Waltz – one of my favorite actors over the past five years or so – is completely wasted in a part that he really looks uncomfortable in. Pity, that.

The movie isn’t nearly as manic or as well-paced as its predecessor. It just feels more leaden, less like the actors are having a good time and more that they’re punching a clock. It’s not that Horrible Bosses 2 is that bad – it really isn’t – it’s just that it’s not that good either. I don’t really advise you to go see it. If you do, chances are it will be forgotten ten minutes after you leave the theater and if that’s what you’re going for, then get yourself a ticket. If you want something a little more memorable, move along.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent individual performances. A few really funny bits.
REASONS TO STAY:
Lacks the energy of the first film. Recycles too many jokes from Horrible Bosses.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots of overt and suggestive sexual material, a whole lot of profanity and a couple of scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In a scene in the Nick & Kurt & Dale office, one can see a schematic of the Shower Buddy which is shaped like the U.S.S. Enterprise; that was done to honor Chris Pine who plays Captain Kirk in the reboot of Star Trek.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Teacher
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Babadook