Ride Along 2


Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

Kevin Hart begs the critics to stop writing mean things about his movies.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Kevin Hart, Ice Cube, Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt, Tika Sumpter, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd, Arturo del Puerto, Eric Goins, Carlos Gomez, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Glen Powell, Nadine Velazquez, Bresha Webb, Jessica Blalick, Michelle Pieroway, Shelby Courtney, James Martin Kelly, Robert Pralgo, Tyrese Gibson, Liz Godwin. Directed by Tim Story

There are times as a critic that you simply have to understand that there are movies that aren’t meant for you. Their success is completely independent of what you think and quite frankly, you’re a pretty superfluous cog in the process. You also have to understand that just because you don’t find something funny doesn’t mean that others don’t as well.

Kevin Hart is a comedic actor who laughs all the way to the bank. His movies are essentially critic-proof; while he’s never gotten reviews above the lukewarm level, his movies time after time are hits. Does that say something about America’s sense of humor? Probably. It just as likely says something about critics’ understanding of filmgoers.

In this buddy cop sequel, Hart plays Ben Bishop, now a rookie cop having graduated from the academy he hadn’t entered yet two years ago for the first Ride Along. During a stake out, despite having been told by his soon-to-be brother-in-law James Payton (Cube) who is an accomplished and let’s just say badass detective, to stay in the van, he almost ruins a drug bust by coming in and interfering at exactly the wrong moment, ending up getting Payton’s partner (Gibson) shot.

However the incident unearths facts that lead James to Miami where a prominent businessman (Bratt) turns out to be a vicious drug lord looking to set up a superhighway of illegal material through the Southeast. Even though he’s marrying James’ sister (Sumpter) in a week, Ben begs James to let him tag along – which finally and inexplicably James allows him to.

Along with a cute Miami detective (Munn) and a greedy womanizing hacker (Jeong), the two misfit cops make their way through Miami like bulls in a china shop. Ben causes havoc wherever he goes until accidentally stumbling onto clues that lead the more serious James closer to getting his man, if the man doesn’t get them first.

One thing that can be said about Ride Along 2 is that it has already made history; it will forever be remembered as the movie that stopped Star Wars: The Force Awakens box office run as weekend champion. Pretty much though, that’s all the history it’s going to make. Kevin Hart has tons and tons of screen presence. He can also be a really funny guy when given the right material to work with. Most of the jokes here are fairly tired although there were a few good laughs in and among the bunch.

He has some pretty decent support. Ice Cube has become a solid actor and while he hasn’t displayed a ton of range yet, he does what he does really well. Munn has a huge amount of talent; she’s been impressive in virtually everything I’ve seen her in. However, she’s awaiting – and still awaits – that right role that will put her over the top.

So why doesn’t this movie work as well as it might? Well, the writing is the big culprit. The plot doesn’t seem to have been given a whole lot of thought and that would be okay if there were the jokes to cover for it but that is simply not the case. I will grant you that my sense of humor may be a lot different than most people’s but at the crowded screening I attended, I didn’t hear a ton of laughter. The action sequences are pretty rote, and there’s a touch too much mugging and not enough acting. The appeal of Hart is undeniable but sometimes a little Hart goes a long way.

At the end of the day, this falls under the “pleasant but not memorable” category. It’s entertaining enough that you can pass the time with it nicely, but it isn’t a showstopper that you’ll come back to again and again. The critics have been unduly harsh for the most part; it’s way too inoffensive to be worth the vitriol. Think of this as a sitcom that has a decent run for a couple of seasons but after that is canceled and is essentially forgotten; people don’t even binge watch it afterwards except if they’d never seen it before. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s viewing.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin Hart leads a solid cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: Not funny often enough. Ludicrous plot.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of police action violence, a bit of rough language, some sexuality and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The second film starring Ice Cube to be set in Miami; the first was All about the Benjamins.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Revenant

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Avengers: Age of Ultron


Hawkeye takes the heat.

Hawkeye takes the heat.

(2015) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Linda Cardellini, Stellan Skarsgard, Claudia Kim, Thomas Kretschmann, Julie Delpy. Directed by Joss Whedon

As Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man series was wont to say, with great power comes great responsibility. It also makes sense that with great power comes great ego. When you have god-like powers (or are an actual god), the tendency would be to think that your powers make you right. When you get a roomful of such beings who may disagree on certain things, how possible is it for them to work together?

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up from the pieces of HYDRA’s infiltration of SHIELD as shown in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and continued in the television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD as the Avengers are mopping up certain HYDRA bases trying to find Loki’s scepter which Thor (Hemsworth) is eager to restore back to its place in Asgard.

Despite heavy resistance from HYDRA and their leader Baron von Strucker (Kretschmann), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) leads the Avengers to their goal and retrieves the scepter as well as capturing von Strucker. Von Strucker has been using the scepter to experiment on humans, bestowing on twins Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) superpowers; in Quicksilver’s case super speed, in the Witch’s case the ability to enter minds and to shoot red hex blasts from her hands. She implants a suggestion in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey) to sow discord among the Avengers, somewhat successfully. After all, the conflict was essentially already there.

Stark uses the scepter to kick start an artificial intelligence he calls Ultron which is meant to be a program that protects the planet from alien invaders, an event from Marvel’s The Avengers that so traumatized Stark that it has literally become his greatest fear that the next time invaders come he won’t be able to stop them. However, Ultron (Spader) decides to make himself a body and after quick consideration comes to the conclusion that the best way to protect planet Earth is to remove the human beings from it and to start anew, preferably with metal constructs as the dominant species. That Stark doesn’t tell his fellow Avengers what he’s up to (although The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) assists him reluctantly) further stirs the pot.

As you might guess, this doesn’t sit too well with the Avengers who go out to stop Ultron, who has recruited the twins to his side. They get wind that Ultron is visiting Ulysses Klaw (Serkis), an arms dealer in the African nation of Wakanda to retrieve as much vibranium as he can get his metal hands on and each are given a kind of dream courtesy of the Scarlet Witch that stops them in their tracks and further makes the team wonder if they can function properly. Afterwards, with their gaudy New York headquarters compromised, they retreat to a farm owned by Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Renner) and his wife (Cardellini) to lick their wounds. Thor heads off to find out the meaning of his dream, enlisting old friend Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) to help him.

In the meantime romance begins to blossom between Banner and the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Johansson), and Nick Fury (Jackson) arrives to give the team a pep talk. Thus they head out to stop Ultron, even though it might cost them their lives. And Ultron plans an extinction level event to take out the entire planet. Can the Avengers stop a being that may be smarter and stronger than they are collectively?

Believe it or not, that’s just the bare bones outline of what’s going on in this movie; there are tons of subplots going on as well. Along the way we get more insight into the characters of Hawkeye and the Black Widow (which are welcome) and extended battle sequences which after awhile, truthfully, begins to feel repetitive.

Whedon was able to weave all the different characters together in the first Avengers movie in a way that brought disparate elements into a congenial whole. He is less successful at it this time, which I think has more to do with an attempt to tell a story with so many moving parts, meant to not only influence events in Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but also lead directly into the next Phase. In many ways, this is the worst review I’ve ever written; there’s so much Marvel-centric jargon here that it’s nearly impossible to really sum up the movie without going into detailed background, so much so that to really do it justice the review would end up being novel-length. Therein lies the rub for the movie; whereas Marvel’s The Avengers didn’t require a lot of explanation, this one does.

Still, the battle sequences are plenty amazing and while there are so much of them that after awhile there may be some overload particularly among audiences who aren’t young and male, they are all impressive enough to make for wonderful summer entertainment. I’m also liking Whedon’s attempts to illustrate the team’s dysfunction, their self-doubts and the realization that even if they succeed the collateral damage may be unfathomable. Whedon goes well out of his way to depict these warriors as human beings chock full of frailty; it doesn’t always work but at least it makes the movie more interesting than just a mere smashfest.

This sounds very much like a negative review and maybe it is; after all, Marvel has been setting the bar high with their cinematic universe and the last two films in the series have been absolutely outstanding, year-end top 10-worthy features. This doesn’t quite reach that bar but maybe it doesn’t have to. For those looking for ideal summer blockbuster entertainment, this more than fits the bill. It’s the kind of movie made for hot days, cool theaters and freshly popped popcorn. It’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to see with friends and go out for pizza afterwards. And yeah, it may not be the best Marvel film ever but it isn’t the worst either and it more than gets the job done.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of superhero goodness. Looks at the inherent dysfunction of a team of powerful beings.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels less focused than the previous Avengers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of comic book violence and mayhem, and a couple of suggestive comments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juggling all the characters in this film was so grueling and exhausting that Whedon elected not to direct the next Avengers movie, scheduled for 2018. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s The Russo Brothers will take on the next two-part Avengers: Infinity Wars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: My Life in China

Safe House


Safe House

Denzel Washington is having a Morgan Freeman moment.

(2012) Action (Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Fares Fares, Liam Cunningham, Nora Arnezeder, Joel Kinnaman, Ruben Blades, Jenna Dover, Stephen Rider, Tracie Thoms, Sara Arrington. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Some people are just naturally badasses. Take Chuck Norris for example. He’d kick you in the tush just as soon as look at you. Or how about Jet Li. Not only can he out-fight you, he can out-think you as well.

Tobin Frost (Washington) is a lot like that. He’s a legend in the CIA – a master manipulator, a world-class assassin and one of the guys you’re thankful is on our side. Except he isn’t on our side anymore. He left the Company and has spent the past 15 years selling our secrets to anyone who’ll buy them.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) wants to go places in the CIA but he’s stuck staring at four walls all day as the housekeeper for a CIA safe house in Cape Town. He spends most of his days making love to his girlfriend (Arnezeder) and lying to her about what he really does for a living, and nagging his handler David Barlow (Gleeson) about getting a field position which is what he really wants to do.

So when a team led by the gravelly Daniel Kiefer (Patrick) comes in bearing Frost, one of the most wanted men in the world, Weston is understandably surprised. He is even more surprised when a well-armed hit team led by the ruthless Vargas (Fares) blows in their doors and proceeds to execute everyone in the House – with the exception of Weston and Frost who have fled.

On the run with nowhere safe to go, Weston calls his superiors back at the CIA. Barlow knows that Weston is above reproach but Analyst Catherine Linklater (Farmiga) has her suspicions. Deputy Chief Harlan Whitford (Shepard) isn’t sure who to trust but seems to be giving Weston the benefit of the doubt.

Alone with one of the most dangerous men on Earth, chased by unknown assassins who want him dead and unable to trust the CIA since there had to be a leak that gave the Safe House away, Weston must figure out what’s going on, what secrets Frost is carrying with him that so many people want him dead and how to get out of this cluster fu…um, mess alive.

Frost is a part tailor-made for Denzel. He’s smart, he’s super-cool as well as super-bad, and enigmatic. He’s not the most likable guy you’ll ever meet but he is also disillusioned by some of the horrible things he has to do. To my mind, this is his best work since American Gangster – and not coincidentally, the most fleshed-out part he’s had since then.

Reynolds, known for being a touch on the light side, actually holds his own here which is a bit of surprise. This is really his first all-dramatic role (even his action hero roles have a comedic element to them) and he holds his own with one of the best actors of his generation. That’s a pretty impressive feat and watching this movie I really am re-assessing my opinion of Reynolds’ range and consequently the potential longevity of his career. This is not a star-making role for him so much as a star-potential declaration role. He is one role away from becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Espinosa, despite his Latin name, is actually Swedish and he has been one of those directors that is much better-known by studio people than by the American moviegoing public (although he is well-acclaimed in Sweden where he has a couple of highly regarded action films under his belt). He pulls off the action sequences very nicely, particularly a thrilling car chase through Cape Town and a rooftop chase through one of the ghettos of Cape Town.

With all this going for it, this should have been a big summer blockbuster but the reason that it’s sitting here in February is simply because the story isn’t anything to write home about. It’s all about deception and lies in the CIA with double and triple-crosses galore, every one of them telegraphed a mile off. It doesn’t keep you on your toes with its twists and turns so much as keep you on a familiar mountain road.

This isn’t a bad movie, don’t get me wrong – it’s just fairly predictable. It does what it does nicely without really taxing too much of your grey matter and there are some visceral thrills not to mention the opportunity to see one of the very best doing what he does best. For the record, I think this is an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours at the movies – which may sound damned by faint praise but to my mind is a pretty decent compliment.

REASONS TO GO: Washington is at the top of his game and Reynolds surprisingly keeps up. Some nicely done action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is pretty rote and doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally set in Rio de Janeiro but was switched to South Africa for security concerns.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are as bad as they get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Bourne Identity

CHAMELEON DENZEL LOVERS: The actor adopts a Spike Lee look for some of the film and a clean-shaven look harkening back to “St. Elsewhere” for other parts of the movie, and even a bit of American Gangster thrown in.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Green Mile

New Releases for the Week of February 10, 2012


February 10, 2012

SAFE HOUSE

(Universal) Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard, Fares Fares, Robert Patrick, Liam Cunningham, Ruben Blades. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

One of the most decorated agents in the history of the CIA is Tobin Frost. He is also one of the most reviled, having turned traitor and is now selling his services to the highest bidder. He has cost untold millions of dollars and dozens of lives, directly and otherwise. Then one day he walks into a U.S. consulate. He is taken from there to a CIA Safe House where the House sitter is to take charge of him until he is picked up – and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for strong violence throughout and some language)

Journey 2: Mysterious Island

(New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens. In this sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth, .the annoying nephew now has a new stepdad who reluctantly accompanies him to an island where there shouldn’t be one to find the annoying nephew’s explorer grandfather who had been presumed lost. Yes that’s right – another lost relative in the family. Someone should get this family a cell phone plan.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard, 3D and IMAX

Genre: Family Adventure/Fantasy

Rating: PG (for some adventure action and brief mild language)

Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ray Park.  Because George Lucas needs the cash since he’s retiring.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and violence/disturbing images)

The Vow

(Screen Gems) Rachel McAdams, Channing Tatum, Sam Neill, Scott Speedman. A newlywed couple seem to have everything going for them, a perfect life together and a bright future but it all comes to a screeching halt on a rainy night when the car they are in is plowed into by a truck. At least they both survive but the groom discovers that his new wife has lost all of her memory of the past five years – including every memory of him. She believes she is still engaged to the man she was seeing before he came along. Determined to win her back, he pulls out all the stops to get her to fall in love with her all over again. Sound too good to be true? It really happened.

See the trailer and an interview here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romance

Rating: PG-13 (for an accident scene, sexual content, partial nudity and some language)

Body of Lies


Body of Lies

Russell Crowe and Leonardo di Caprio share a Starbucks moment.

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Simon McBurney, Ali Suliman, Alon Aboutboul. Directed by Ridley Scott

Living on the front lines of the War on Terror is like sleeping with a time bomb. You never know when, or if, it is going to go off.

Roger Ferris (di Caprio) is an American field operative of the CIA assigned to the Middle East division. He is fluent in Arabic, whip-smart and streetwise. He has been assigned by his boss, Ed Hoffman (Crowe) to apprehend one of the major players in Jihadist terrorism, Al-Saleem (Aboutboul) and he has a golden opportunity to take a step closer to that goal – a suicide bomber wants to defect. The fact that he’s even met with Americans is a death sentence for him and he knows it. The nervous terrorist wants asylum in exchange for his information which concerns a training facility the jihadists use. Ferris offers it to him but Hoffman vetoes it; the information they’d receive from following his inevitable murderers would be far more valuable than the intelligence the man has given them. Thoroughly upset, Ferris turns the man loose and heads up a surveillance team on the man. Predictably, their contact is killed and the terrorists are able to get away.

Angry at the waste of a potential informant, Ferris decides to attack the training facility to see if there’s information he can glean to salvage the debacle. He and his partner get in there and manage to retrieve some documents that the terrorists are in the process of burning, knowing that the Americans likely knew about the training camp and might soon be there. Ferris escapes after a running gun battle with the terrorists chasing his SUV, but his partner dies in the process and Ferris is badly injured.

Recovering from his injuries, Ferris learns that the seized documents yielded the location of a safe house for the terrorist organization in Amman, Jordan. Knowing that Ferris is his best man, Hoffman sends him to the American embassy where the CIA station chief is a bumbling idiot who takes umbrage at being shuffled off to the side in lieu of Ferris. The Jordan station doesn’t have the manpower to keep the safe house under constant surveillance so Ferris knows he’ll have to go to the Jordanian Head of State Security, Hani Salaam (Strong), an urbane and sophisticated man who understands the realities of espionage in the 21st century and senses a kindred spirit in Ferris.

The first day things go straight to hell. On the orders of Hoffman, one of the CIA flunkies spooks one of the terrorist informants, leading to a chase down the back alleys of Amman. The informant gets away and Ferris is bitten by a rabid dog. He is taken to a Jordanian clinic where he is ministered to by a comely nurse named Aisha (Farahani), who strikes up a friendship with Ferris that leads to deeper feelings.

In the meantime, the relationship with Hani is deteriorating as Ferris is constantly having the legs cut out from under him on operations by Hoffman, who is under political pressure to get results. Eventually, things get so bad that the safe house is abandoned and burned and Hani orders Ferris out of the country.

Back in the states, Ferris concocts a plan to set up a fictitious terrorist cell in order to flush out Al-Saleem, using an innocent architect (Suliman) as bait. The trap is set, but will the terrorist take the bait? And can Ferris trust his own superiors not to stab him in the back?

Ridley Scott is an A-list director with Oscar winners and classics to his credit. Here he’s more or less attempting a John Le Carre-style spy thriller modernized and set in the War on Terror. Unfortunately, the spy game has changed a great deal since the Cold War and while Ferris gets beat up an awful lot, we never get a sense that he’s in constant jeopardy. Just about everything comes at him head-on rather from left field.

Di Caprio is also an A-lister and has shown that he has the acting chops to handle anything, but I got a strange sense of detatchment from watching his performance here. He does a lot of yelling and a lot of swearing but he doesn’t seem emotionally involved, at least to me. Crowe – who gained 50 pounds for his role – has less to do but makes his bureaucratic spook more harrowing, someone who is playing a game in which human lives are collateral damage. He is charming, which makes the role all the more chilling.

Surprisingly, Mark Strong gives the most memorable performance for my money. Well-dressed, impeccably mannered and polite, he could have stepped out of a James Bond movie, but rather than making him a caricature, Strong instead imbues him with a certain street smarts that gives him the air of a cobra, biding its time before striking with terrifying speed and ferocity.

The romance between Aisha and Ferris is essentially a vehicle to give Ferris a personal stake in the denouement, but Farahani manages to give her character charm and likability, enough that we want to spend more time with her. Some of the best scenes in the movie explore the cultural difficulties in carrying on a romance with a Westerner for someone in her character’s position in life, but unfortunately those scenes are rare here.

Some of this is standard spy 101, but overall the acting is good enough, the actors charming enough to make this worth seeing, particularly as it’s on cable pretty regularly at the moment. I get the feeling that Scott wanted to illustrate the difficulties of doing fieldwork in the War on Terror when there are political concerns that keep the front line personnel from carrying out their tasks. This isn’t a bad movie, but I think there was a better one in the subtexts.

WHY RENT THIS: Scott is one of the finest directors at setting tension on film today. Di Caprio is solid in the lead and he gets able support from Crowe, Strong and Farahani.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are some missed opportunities here as the film often takes the easy way out in terms of plot by using standard Hollywood devices.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and bad language, also a fairly graphic scene of torture; add it all up and it means put the kids to bed before putting this on the DVD player.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set in Manchester and Munich was actually filmed in the United States. The only location filming done on this movie which was set in places throughout the world were the United States and Morocco.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes an interactive track that allows viewers to see behind-the-scenes features concurrently with watching the movie by pressing a button on their remotes; it is much like the New Line Infinifilm feature that used to be on DVDs back when they actually had special features.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Gladiator